Where Western and Indian philosophy meet

Comparing Western and Indian philosophy

We find similar ideas of a transcendent ego in both Kant and the Upanishads. We find a rejection of free will in Schopenhauer and Ramana Maharshi. What should we make of this overlap between Western and Indian philosophy? Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad argues both became gripped by the same question.


Ricky Williamson: What do you think are the key differences and similarities between Western and Indian philosophy?

Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad: I don’t think that there is actually a global answer to the question of differences between what are, broadly speaking, historically constructed traditions. While we might intuitively think we recognise what Western philosophy is or what Indian philosophy is, in practice it’s more complicated.

A particularly potent example of the difficulty is the question of whether Arabic philosophy counts as Western philosophy. We know that the whole Aristotelian tradition was lost to the Latin-writing European philosophical tradition and was preserved by the Arabs and in Arabic. It only returned to the European tradition in the Renaissance, which launched a whole series of rediscoveries of Greek materials. Some people have therefore argued that Arabic philosophy is part of Western philosophy. But others would point out that within Islamic thought, as it was articulated in Arabic, Persian or Turkish, there was such a thing as Falsafah, which was a particular branch of philosophy and which was integrated into questions that were doctrinally based on Islamic revelation. So, they would conclude, of course what we might call Arabic philosophy is nothing like Western philosophy.


Schopenhauer is not a reliable guide to the Upanishads.


So we end up having these kinds of issues. I would suggest, then, that we should think instead about the different particular ways in which ideas arose in different places and periods. For example, the same sorts of ideas arose with the Greeks, were articulated by the Romans, and then were rediscovered after the Christian medieval period in Europe, and persisted into the contemporary divergence between Anglophone and European philosophy. When you look at this welter of ideas, you’ll find places in which there are similarities and overlaps with the classical Indian traditions, which we might see as beginning with the early Sanskritic Vedic materials in the Upanishads, and then continuing through the Buddha, Jainism, the creation of the different Buddhist schools of thought, right up to the premodern period and the rupture with the coming of colonialism.

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There are some specific issues where the so-called Western and Indian traditions come quite close to each other. This is the case, for example, with respect to problems of perception and questions about the relationship of causation and knowledge. Indeed, Western and Indian philosophers who address these questions are often closer to each other than they are to their colleagues who address different issues, such as the transformation of consciousness or the relationship between God and human. So it just depends. I would rather consider questions about particular areas of convergence and divergence than give global answers about the relation between the so-called Western and the so-called Indian tradition.

RW: That’s fascinating, and we will come on to such questions. Firstly though, out of interest, were Indian and Western philosophical traditions communicating with each other at their foundations, or were they completely separate at that time? If they had separate origins, when was the first communication between the two? Obviously, Schopenhauer was influenced by Indian philosophy. I wonder about other crossovers, and when they first happened.

CRP: Well, there are different answers to what might have happened in the ancient world. Alexander’s campaigns in Persia and beyond may have carried ideas back and forth between India and Europe. Trade routes may also have played a role. Undoubtedly, we can see the influence of Indian mathematics on Greek thought and the influence of Greek geometry and astronomy on Indian thought, so, one might think, surely philosophical ideas must have circulated too. But we lack clinching evidence for this plausible hypothesis.

The early modern period is a different story. At this time, the British, French and Dutch all began to establish themselves as traders and then as rulers on the Indian subcontinent. They began to take up some of the translations that the Moguls had already been doing from Sanskrit into Persian. When the Persian texts reached Europe, they were sometimes translated into French and German. This is a much more clearly attested kind of influence, which took place from the seventeenth through to the nineteenth century.

But when we look at this period, it’s much harder to step out of the historical density of the reception of Indian materials in Europe. For example, Schopenhauer is not a reliable guide to the Upanishads. And Hegel holding forth on Indian philosophy was much more profoundly ignorant than Schopenhauer, but nevertheless it’s all part of the same historical process and it's very difficult to disentangle the pure conceptual issues from that historical specificity.


Some philosophers in both Indian and Western traditions set out on a metaphysical enterprise which asks two very tough questions at the same time: ‘What is the reality I see?’ and ‘Who am I?’



RW: Now I want to ask about some specific philosophical issues. As I see it, Western and Indian philosophy arguably both reached similar conclusions, for example that the reality that we perceive is not true reality, that there is a transcendent ego, that free will is an illusion, and so on. What should we make of this? Does it make these conclusions more likely to be true?

CRP: Right. Well, obviously the traditions that are in some sense more irreducibly metaphysically realist would deny that reading.

RW: They would, I’m sure.

CRP: Some philosophers in both Indian and Western traditions set out on a metaphysical enterprise which asks two very tough questions at the same time: ‘What is the reality I see?’ and ‘Who am I?’ Once you have attended to the very possibility of asking these two questions, you enter this very complex dialectic. The world that I experience, which allows me to ask the question ‘What is this?’, seems to be at a distance from me, because the structure of experience stubbornly presents a world that is a world without regard to me, the asker of the question.

At the same time, if I am also asking the question, ‘Who am I and how do I locate myself in that world?’ then it seems that I must either subordinate this question to the first question, by simply locating myself as another entity in the world that’s presented to me in experience, or I must give this second question priority. If I take the latter path, then it seems to me that the very possibility of asking the first question, about what reality is, depends on being able to ask the question about who I am. This can lead to the feeling that the world and I are enfolded in a way that two things in the world cannot be enfolded with each other. There is a specificity to my presence in the world which means that I am not just another entity in it.

Now, there are two different ways of going which swerve this dialectic altogether. First, we might follow Chinese traditions, which ask about the metaphysics of the world in which we act. Given a robust sense of my presence as a social human being, then my conduct and my path through that world is what I’m really searching for when I’m asking about the structure of the world. In that case, the problematic dialectic doesn’t get going and doesn’t throw up subtly different answers along the spectrum of “Do I prioritise the question of the world or the question of myself?”

Alternatively, one might swerve that dialectic by subordinating both of the philosophical questions that lie at its root to the idea of a givenness of truth which transcends both questions. For example, one might have a commitment to a God, which by definition is not another entity in this world, and by definition is not in any way collapsible into me. Regardless of how I think of this God, the two metaphysical questions about the world and myself are subordinate to God’s givenness, and I stop asking them, stop agonising about trying to locate myself in the world. This is a different way in which theistic traditions (and also traditions like Kashmir Shaivism , which is both theistic and panpsychic) make the dialectic between ‘what is the world?’ and ‘who am I?’ broadly redundant.

Arguably, this middle space was occupied in the pre-Christian Western philosophical space and is occupied again in the post-Christian secular Western tradition. It is also arguably occupied in the welter of Indian traditions which have differing relations to theism, including outright rejection of it.

But there will always be people who are more comfortable with saying: ‘Without the world structure being what it is, it would not even be possible for me to exist to ask any question, so any question I ask creates an illusion of subjectivity. Just because I’m asking the question doesn’t overcome the fact that there is a world in which I am so as to ask the question.’ Once you feel this tug of the world, then you are broadly what might be called a metaphysical realist, and this figure is present in both the West and in Indian traditions. As I said, people who sit most comfortably here would very much resist any assumption that non-realism is a natural resting place of enquiry.


Once you are gripped by that thought, then it doesn’t matter if you’re a Buddhist or a Berkeleyian or a panpsychist, an Indian or a Western philosopher – you’re going to say that the irreducible lies not in the world which consciousness has somehow miraculously fallen into, but rather in the consciousness that generates that world.


Many analytic philosophers take this stance. For them, accepting the givenness of the world is the only scientific way of being in the world, the only way we can be consistent with contemporary science. If philosophy is an analysis of the world that science presents us with, then being a metaphysical realist is not a matter of argument, but is indeed simply given.

On the other hand, there are those who continue to see the world primarily in terms of the consciousness asking metaphysical questions. This stance continues to have traction because of a stubborn self-awareness. It seems abundantly clear to non-realists that joy and sorrow, triumph and disasters, relationships and loneliness – the whole gamut of existence – as well as the world in which it happens, can never remove the sense that consciousness and subjectivity are present and predate everything else. This subjectivity is inviolable: even if memory goes it’s still there, so it’s not psychological, not a bodily function. Once you are gripped by that thought, then it doesn’t matter if you’re a Buddhist or a Berkeleyian or a panpsychist, an Indian or a Western philosopher – you’re going to say that the irreducible lies not in the world which consciousness has somehow miraculously fallen into, but rather in the consciousness that generates that world. This line of thought pervades in the phenomenological tradition, from Husserl to Merleau-Ponty.

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I do not think that this non-realism can be seen as coming from a universal structuring of human life. For, as I said, one might instead avoid the whole dialectic (which might be seen as a sort of tangle) by following the path of the Chinese traditions or by holding to the givenness of a revelation. Both the Chinese world-acting philosophy and the religious realism find this dialectic simply beside the point. But once you’re in the dialectic – and different traditions clearly get into it, including even some Sufis within the Islamic tradition – then you have not necessarily a compelling argument, but rather a compelling intuition that the explanatory dependence of the world on the subject is the only resting point for a feasible way of being metaphysical.

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