Friday, May 19, 2017

What Counts as a Tradition in Indian Philosophy?: The Case of Skepticism

Devanagari version of the Hymn of Creation in the Ṛg Veda

Scholars of all types of philosophy are fond of referring to philosophical traditions. But what does this mean? What counts as a tradition?

In the Indian context one way to discuss a tradition is with the word darśana, which literally means view or viewpoint from the root “dṛś” – “to see.” It can also be translated as “school.”

We might also look to the etymology of the English word “tradition,” which derives from the Latin “traditio” (a handing down, delivery). Must a tradition be handed down through interpersonal transmission from teacher to student in the traditional Indian model? Or could it be a matter of later philosophers being inspired by reading particular texts, or perhaps some combination of interpersonal transmission and textual inspiration?

Let’s look at this issue with a topic near and dear to my heart (or, in any case, to my current research agenda): skepticism in Indian philosophy.

While I think there may be something like skepticism about the external world or about other minds in Indian philosophy, here I’m talking about a kind of skepticism about philosophy itself, an attitude I see most explicitly present in Nāgārjuna, Jayarāśi, and Śrī Harṣa. (If you don’t accept my somewhat controversial premise, that’s fine; I hope my discussion of the concept of a tradition will still be interesting).

Lately I’ve been reading early Indian philosophy: the Ṛg Veda, some Upaniṣads, and some early Buddhist texts. I’ve noticed ways in which these texts contain the roots of the types of skepticism about philosophy later exemplified by Nāgārjuna, Jayarāśi, and Śrī Harṣa (although I should note that I am in no way claiming that the early texts are essentially skeptical texts -- they're all far too complicated to be reduced to any one of their elements). These later philosophers were making novel contributions, but they were starting with previously existing material. Does this mean there was a tradition of skepticism about philosophy in classical India?

There can’t be a skeptical tradition in the sense of a darśana. One might suggest that the Cārvāka darśana is a tradition of skepticism. While all Cārvākas doubt many of the knowledge-claims of their religious counterparts, most Cārvākas seem to have accepted a kind of commonsense, everyday knowledge as philosophically established. While Jayarāśi should be seen as cultivating seeds of Cārvāka skepticism that were planted earlier in the Indian tradition, these and other skeptical seeds were also cultivated outside the grounds of the Cārvāka darśana.

Furthermore, the etymology of darśana implies a specific, articulated set of views about philosophical matters. Skepticism about philosophy is not a particular view about philosophical matters, but rather an attitude about engaging in such philosophical pursuits. If anything, skepticism about philosophy is an “anti-darśana” rather than a darśana itself.

Nonetheless, skepticism about philosophy seems to have been handed down from the earliest beginnings of Indian philosophy. The seeds of skepticism were planted in the Ṛg Veda, Upaniṣads, and early Buddhist texts. These seeds were later cultivated by philosophers in at least three different eras coming out of what are usually considered to be three different traditions: Jayarāśi from Cārvāka, Nāgārjuna from Buddhism, and Śrī Harṣa from Advaita Vedānta.

This represents an alternative way of conceptualizing traditions in Indian philosophy. Traditions within Indian philosophy might be distinguished by methods and goals rather than explicitly articulated beliefs, religious affiliation, or placement within traditional doxographies.

There are three elements in particular that formed the key methods of skepticism about philosophy: vitaṇḍā, prasaṅga, and prasajya. Vitaṇḍā is discussed in the Nyāya Sūtra as a type of debate in which one seeks to destroy an opponent’s view without putting forward a view of one’s own. Prasaṅga is a form of argument in which several possible interpretations of an opponent’s philosophical thesis are put forward, each being rejected in turn as either internally inconsistent or as incompatible with the opponent’s other commitments. This was the standard form of argument for Nāgārjuna and Jayarāśi. Prasajya negation is a “commitmentless denial” (as B. K. Matilal called it) that allows skeptics to deny their opponents’ theses without thereby committing themselves to any alternative philosophical thesis.

Nāgārjuna, Jayarāśi, and Śrī Harṣa employed these methods toward similar - albeit not identical – goals. They all sought to destroy the bases of philosophical conceptualization, Nāgārjuna for the Buddhist quietist goal of relinquishing all views, Jayarāśi for the Cārvāka purpose of enjoying life more fully, and Śrī Harṣa in line with Advaita goal of becoming open to experience of non-dual brahman.

Does it make sense to identify a skeptical tradition (or cluster of traditions) within Indian philosophy even if doing so cuts across the usual ways of identifying Indian philosophical traditions? Might we likewise identify other traditions in Indian philosophy: pramāṇavāda, realism, idealism, rasa, alaṅkāra, etc.? While I’m not denying that the darśana model has its uses, might it be helpful to think of other ways of carving up Indian philosophical traditions?

Postscript: I've cross-posted this at the Indian Philosophy Blog.

Post-Postscript:  Just for fun, here's the song "Tradition" from Fiddler on the Roof.


  1. Nāgārjuna does not count as "early Buddhism", at least not in the way that we normally use that term. He's about 2 or 3 centuries too late for that. He does of course look backwards towards early Buddhism, but really the intervening centuries have cut him off from that worldview and his assumptions about what his task is are very different to those of the early Buddhists. Early Buddhism is, generally speaking, an epistemological critique aimed at undermining the first-person perspective. Specifically early Buddhists deny that terms like existence (astitā) and non-existence (nāstitā) apply to the world of experience. Nāgārjuna's ontological critique references this same idea, but he sets it aside for a view in which things appear to exist but really don't - in other words in which both astitā and nāstitā apply (the opposite of early Buddhism). From the early Buddhist point of view, Nāgārjuna has simply mistaken the domain of application for the methods of Buddhism and gone astray as a result.

    I'd also dispute the idea that Ṛgveda is philosophy. It's mythology. Of course the mythology of any culture does embody their ideas about the universe, but we would usually make a distinction between the unconscious assertions about the world we find in myth and the more conscious speculations of philosophers. If we don't, then "philosophy" ceases to have any meaning and we might as well drop the term.

    Nāgārjuna is a kind of proto-philosopher. He accepts certain religious axioms unquestioningly, and then tries to work out the implications that flow from them. A true philosopher would have questioned those axioms. So, to say he wanted to "relinquish all views" ignores the fact that there are certain religious views that he never questioned or justified holding, without which his discourse is incomprehensible. In a sense we could just call him an ideologue.

    In the terms you are discussing it comes down to having an explicit method for approaching questions. This is clearly lacking from Ṛgveda but present in nascent form in Nāgārjuna. I'm not familiar enough with the others to comment on how they fit this pattern.

    A "tradition" it seems to me is united by more than methodology surely? A tradition puts those methods to use towards different aims - they hold, express, and uphold different *values*.

    Nāgārjuna spawned at least three distinct traditions: two mādhyamikā traditions which endorsed his ideas in divergent ways; and one that assimilated them and subordinated them into Yogācāra. And yet, Yogācāra is not the *same* tradition as Madhyamaka just because it employs Nāgārjuna's methods and some of his conclusions.

  2. Thanks, Jayarava.

    I didn't mean to give the impression that Nāgārjuna is part of early Buddhism. This post is adapted from a longer piece in which I explain that more clearly. My point is precisely as you say that Nāgārjuna was inspired by certain elements within early Buddhism, which of course almost all Indian Buddhists were to various extents.

    I'm also not claiming that everything in the Ṛg Veda is philosophy. It's an extremely complex text that includes mythology, spells, hymns, poetry, etc., but also some proto-philosophical inquiry. The Hymn of Creation, for instance, looks like mythology, but also includes some serious philosophical questioning, or at least proto-philosophical (in particular it starts with a picture of creation and shows how this picture makes itself unknowable - a typical skeptical trick!).

    In general part of my own method is not to assume that large, complex textual sources like "early Buddhism" or the Ṛg Veda refer to a single, unified worldview. While this has been standard for many scholars within and without the Indian and Buddhist traditions, I personally don't think a careful reading of these texts supports such a view. Instead, I see a variety of tendencies and elements woven together.

    I don't agree that Nāgārjuna is merely a proto-philosoher. I think that's taking "philosophy" to be far too narrow. If someone like Sextus Empiricus is a philosopher, so is Nāgārjuna. I can't fully explain my reading of Nāgārjuna here, but basically I think he takes various philosophical views and shows how emptiness undermines them and then shows how emptiness also undermines itself. I try to develop a reading that takes seriously the last verse of the MMK in which he explicitly says the purpose of Buddhism is the relinquishment of all views. There is a minority tradition of interpretation within Buddhism that takes this seriously (most explicitly with the Tibetan Patsab Nyimadrak, but I would also argue with Candrakīrti). I'm also not saying that my reading of Nāgārjuna is what all Madhyamaka is really about. Nāgārjuna has always been interpreted differently by different people even within the Madhyamaka tradition.

    I find your last couple points most interesting. I like the idea that values might be an important part of a tradition. I'm not sure if that would uniquely identify a tradition, since all Buddhists would share the value of ending suffering, for example. In that sense, Yogācāra and Madhyamaka are the same tradition.

    So really I wonder if identifying a tradition is more a sense of saying something like, "these people share these features, whether they be methods, goals, values, attitudes, etc. and that's what I mean by tradition X." It would also help if they explicitly identify themselves as part of tradition X, but often this won't happen. I don't know if there's any sort of a priori method of identifying traditions. But maybe that just makes the job of historians of philosophy more interesting!