February 12, 2015

I Don't Know ...

I am an Indian-American. I have brown skin. I think I speak with an Indian accent, though I am not sure. Some people have told me my accent is pretty thick (in spite my growing up in America since I was 11), and others have told me I don't have an accent. I am also someone who thinks that academic philosophy at the schools I went to in America is too Eurocentric. My being Indian-American and making the criticism of Eurocentrism might make one wonder what exactly I know and don't know.
So let me clarify what I don't know.
I don't know Sanskrit, Pali, or any other ancient Indian language. Regarding contemporary languages, I know enough Telugu (the language of my family) to speak with my family, and enough Hindi to watch Bollywood movies. That's it.
I don't know much Indian scholarly philosophy. When I come across names like Shankara or Nagarjuna I have a fuzzy warm feeling of identification, which is then immediately overshadowed by my awareness of how little I know about these authors' philosophical views. When I see titles of philosophical treatises like Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā (Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way) or Pratītyasamutpādahṝdayakārika (Constituents of Dependent Arising), which I just lifted from the Wikipedia page on Nagarjuna, I feel a bit dizzy and out of sorts, like I am looking at something familiar and alien at the same time. It is similar to how I felt in high school when extended family members at a party would speak to me in Telugu, assuming that I could understand them perfectly, since after all I am one of them, and was in India till I was 11. What they didn't pick on was that I was struggling to understand them, and what I did understand was for me without many of the rich cultural resonances which they had for the adults in my family. Regarding Indian philosophy, it is obvious that many Indians and non-Indians know way more about Indian philosophy than I do, a fact which does not bother me, other than when I reflect on the fact that my education in America failed to provide me with even an inkling of such knowledge. When I think of contemporary Indian philosophy, I realize I know nothing of it.
I don't know Yoga or meditation. I don't know how to cook much Indian food (or American food for that matter). I don't know many Indian holidays or festivals, though I have some recollections from when I was in India and know some things from my family in America.

I used to be ashamed of this kind of lack of knowledge on my part. I felt I was a rotten Indian, a turncoat, a brown Oreo. I tried my best to hide this lack of knowledge, both from Indians and non-Indians. The main way I tried to hide it was by avoiding any topic that would even remotely get near these issues.
One reason I didn't press more these issues of diversity when I was in academia was that I felt like a failure regarding Indian philosophy, and I was intent on not having that failure become public. The few times I asked my professors about Indian philosophy, and they gave a look of incomprehension or ignorance, it was hard for me to say anything back to them because I had the worry that, minus my brown skin and my family, my knowledge and my situation is not that different from them. Could I hold them responsible for something which I myself didn't know? That seemed hypocritical on my part.
I assumed back then that before I could say anything about diversity or expanding the curriculum, I had to master Indian philosophy myself. That until I do that, I am myself only a Western philosopher. I had the world neatly divided into the West and the East, and given that I knew Western philosophy and not Eastern philosophy, I assumed I was more Western than Eastern myself. And if I am basically Western, then surely the education I am receiving is the right one for me. That, at any rate, is what I told myself. It passed unnoticed by me back then how convenient this argument was for keeping the status quo just as it was.
What I also failed to see back then was that I didn't need to know Indian philosophy to speak up. The fact that I want to know it is enough to speak up. The fact that I should have the option to know it is enough to speak up. The fact that I was feeling confused about where I belonged, and that I was unnecessarily blaming myself for my lack of knowledge, as if I was a bad Indian-American, was enough to speak up.
I also failed to see that bridging philosophical traditions is not only about having knowledge in multiple traditions and making the connections. There is a whole other way of engaging the topic, which is to simply think through what it means to bridge traditions at all. Or what it means for something to be a tradition. Or what it means to develop anything like a global philosophical tradition, or traditions. I failed to see that I could just think through from where I am and what I know, and if I just did that philosophically, and with care and wit and confidence, that also can be a way of contributing to the dialogue.
I am an Indian-American, among many other identities. That means if I just think through my life philosophically, then that also is a kind of bridging of traditions.


  1. Bharath, what's to prevent you from picking up material by the Indian thinkers you mention and simply studying them on your own? We don't really need professors to teach us, do we? They can help, of course, but as you sometimes seem to be suggesting, they can also hinder. I've been out of philosophy (institutional academic philosophy that is) for forty years but I'm always finding and reading new material dealing with the aspects of philosophy that interest me. In my youth, indeed, I read parts of the Vedas and the Mahabharata (as well as Tao Te Ching and the Analects of Confucius). Nothing prevents us from forging ahead, does it?

    1. Stuart, Absolutely. Nothing is to prevent me from learning on my own outside academia, and I am looking forward to doing that in the rest of my life. That said, this is what I believe. There are some forms of philosophy which can only be done in academia. And there are some forms of philosophy which can only be done outside academia. And then there is a huge middle realm of philosophy which overlaps both academic and non-academic philosophy.

      I didn't mean to say in my post that I don't know anything about Eastern philosophy. I have read the texts you mention, as well as other things. What I meant in the post is that I don't know much at all about the scholastic tradition in Indian philosophy, which is very vast and intricate, just as in the West. The difference is that between reading Plato's Apology and engaging in scholarly discussion about how the Apology fits into Plato's corpus and so forth. I do think the latter kind of knowledge is beneficial, and it is good that some people in society do that kind of stuff and keep that kind of debate alive. As someone trained in Western professional philosopher, I can do many moves of this kind of academic discourse. Even if I learn Indian philosophy on my own, I think it is pretty hard to engage with Indian philosophy in this academic way on my own. In the big picture this is fine. Because I think there is plenty of stuff to do outside philosophy, and I personally am not interested in getting bogged down in the scholastic debates, either of the Western or Eastern traditions. But yes, nonetheless, even much of the Indian scholastic stuff I can learn from outside academia.

  2. Yes, Bharath, there is something to be said for community, as in a group of like minded individuals interested in a shared discourse. I suppose I miss that most myself when it comes to philosophy. For 30 plus years I had stepped away and only in the past ten have I returned to philosophical concerns via various online discussions. But the Internet, great as it is, sometimes and in some cases just isn't enough. It provides opportunities for discourse with a wide range of people you might otherwise have never had any contact with and yet it also limits the dimensions of the discussions.

    Still, in the end and in the history of philosophy, the thinkers we recall (because they contributed something to the exchanges in the field that people have found worth pondering and arguing about across the generations) have not been limited to those who worked within particular institutions, academic or otherwise. Kung Fu-tze was, of course, a government official though Lao Tzu wasn't. Others have been religious teachers or founded schools (like Plato and Aristotle and some of the Indian philosophers if my memory serves) or were scientists or mathematicians, or lived off some prince or other (e.g., Leibniz). Spinoza, excommunicated from his own ethnic community, made his living as a lense grinder and wrote his great works in between filling orders.

    How we make our living, I think, is much less important than what we add to the body of thought which captures our attention. Most of us, of course, can't hope to leave anything of generational worth. Most of our contributions will wither away and be forgotten in a generation or perhaps in our own lifetimes. But if the point is to do some good work, then there isn't much that limits our trying, at least, except our underlying capacities and initiative and potential for original thought. I look forward to seeing some of your thinking on the Indian philosophers who attract you so much. Perhaps you can post something on some of them here?

    1. I agree very much, especially with the idea that "How we make our living ... is much less important than what we add to the body of thought which captures our attention." Yes, definitely.

      Re Indian philosophers who I admire, I would like to write about them here for sure. I am working up to it in my own way, and I ask for your, or any other reader's, patience. The main thing I am working towards is a synthesis of the Western and Eastern influences on my thought and life, and for that before long I have to be open about and confront my Indian side. As I say in this post, I have spent most of my life hiding this part of me from public spaces in America, especially in the context of philosophy, and it will take some time for it to come into the open.

      I really enjoy and benefit from your comments. If I may, I have a request: please don't press me to forget thinking about academic structures, and to instead talk about my Indian influences. This is exactly what I want to do, but it will have to happen in its own way. In fact, for me being critical of the academic structures is a way of getting myself to see that I can open up my Indian, philosophical side in public in America. One of the main things I internalized through my education was that I shouldn't open up in that way, and that whatever Indian influences I have are best left in the private space of my home. This enculturation went on for 20 years, and it is not going to be overcome overnight. I need to find my own way out. I completely agree with you about what can happen on this blog: to get beyond the downsides of academia and move on to my own positive, integrative philosophy. But I am willing to give myself time for this journey and to let things unfold as my mind and psyche need.

  3. Have you read much Schopenhauer? As a boy he was exposed to some of the classic Indian writings and they had a permanent influence on his philosophical work. He eventually developed a metaphysical picture of reality much akin to the Indian approach only he traced the underlying cause of all appearances to what he thought of as pure will, as the underlying principle of all existence. He held, like many in Indian philosophical history, that the world we find ourselves in is one of illusion and that beneath it all, the real reality, lies the will to be which drives all manifestations and which is as destructive as it is constructive. His was ultimately a very pessimistic picture though he did allow that, insofar as individuals can shake off the bonds of illusion they can come to feel at one with everything else, every other manifestation of the will in the universe that occurs as some particular phenomenon or entity and so achieve a transcendent compassion which he thought must underlie all true morality.

    Perhaps his work, in its connections with the ideas and belief systems of your family's culture, would be a good place to start?

    1. I have read Schopenhaur, Emerson, Thoreau, and others who have been influenced by Indian philosophy, and people like Spinoza whose ideas have some similarities. And there is plenty of writing out there about the similarities between such Western and Eastern thinkers, and it is good work. Not what I want to do, however.

      This is part of what I am saying in the above post. The kind of synthesis of the East and the West I am interested in is not that of taking texts from both traditions and comparing and contrasting them. Rather, like with Descartes, I want to begin with where I am, and think through my life, almost as if from scratch in a certain sense. This is a different way of merging traditions, and as far as I aware, much less pursued. If I had wanted to connect Schopenhauer with Advaita Vedanta, or some such, I would have stayed in academia, since I am pretty sure that kind of stuff is going to be quite popular in the coming decades, and is already starting to be popular.