|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.