On The Question of What It Means to be a Hindu Philosopher

In early December, I sat down with a member of my PhD cohort and had a conversation over coffee about what it means (to me) to be a Hindu. This is something that’s been at the back of my mind for quite a while now, especially as the only Bharatiya-American woman in my entire department.

I attend Fordham University, which is a Jesuit school. My interactions with questions in the philosophy of religion have all been through a Christian lens. My entryway into philosophy was through the work of Alvin Plantinga. The very first academic conference I attended as a philosophy major was the Society of Christian Philosophers meeting at Rutgers University in October of 2016.

Certainly, engaging with the big questions in Christian philosophy of religion has been fascinating, but at times it has led me to wonder—what does it mean to be a Hindu philosopher?

The Christians I’ve encountered in my studies seem to have a comparatively easy time not only defining what it is that makes them Christian, but also working through the kinds of metaphysical, epistemological, or ethical commitments they should have as Christians. For instance, no matter what kind of Christian philosopher someone is, they can at least agree that they all believe in the triune nature of God: they see and feel God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit working in and through the world.

When it comes to Hindu Dharma, there is no such consensus about what a modern-day Hindu should reasonably maintain. There is, I would argue, a huge gap to fill as I consider many of the same questions that Christian philosophers have about their own status as Christians: what is it that makes someone a Hindu? What beliefs are central to this religious position? Are there any beliefs central to Hindu Dharma? Should I, as a Hindu, have certain philosophical or ethical commitments?

Bharatiya philosophy and Hindu Dharma are so often sidelined within the larger profession of academic philosophy, or relegated to the massive category that is ‘comparative philosophy.’ Seeing this pattern, one naturally begins to wonder if the reason Hindu Dharma just isn’t brought up in mainstream philosophy of religion is because it doesn’t raise the same complex issues that have been debated by philosophers for ages.

This can’t be true—Hindu Dharma is most definitely a rich and nuanced religious tradition that explores a lot of the questions that concern us as philosophers today.

Nevertheless, it still comes as a shock to me when I see themes from the philosophy I do as a graduate student reflected back to me in Hindu Dharma. Case in point—this past summer, I ended up in the hospital with a bad case of dehydration while traveling in Delhi. When I wasn’t sleeping or having various blood tests done, I was reading a book called The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Divakaruni. The Palace of Illusions (re)opened my eyes to exactly how philosophical Hindu Dharma can really be—it is a piece of literary fiction that attempts to re-tell the famous Bharatiya epic, the Mahabharata, through the eyes of the epic’s main female character, Draupadi.

For those who are not aware, the Mahabharata is one of two great Bharatiya religious epics (the other being the Ramayana), and it is about five princely brothers collectively called the Pandavas (Arjuna, Yudhishthira, Bhima, Nakul, and Sahadev), and their shared wife, Draupadi. The Pandavas must fight their own cousin, Duryodhana, for control of the kingdom they both claim rights to, and they do so with the help of Krishna. The section of the Mahabharata that is most well-known in popular consciousness is the Bhagavad Gita–which focuses on the dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna concerning the righteousness of war with one’s own relatives.

However, it wasn’t Draupadi’s second-hand description of the Bhagavad Gita that struck me as I was reading The Palace of Illusions, but rather, the issues of free will and determinism that I’ve often been enthralled by, reading authors like Peter van Inwagen and Tom Flint in a Christian context.

In the Mahabharata, the eldest of the Pandavas, Yudhishthira, is challenged to a game of dice and loses not just his brothers, but his kingdom, and Draupadi. After being emasculated in this fashion, Yudhishthira and the rest of the Pandavas have no choice but to watch as Draupadi is dragged by her hair into the middle of the court, and as Duryodhana’s brother, Dushasana, attempts to disrobe her. Thankfully, Dushasana is unsuccessful, because Draupadi mentally calls upon Krishna to help her, and he comes to her aid in her moment of need by making the train of her sari infinitely long. Dushasana becomes exhausted and gives up.

This brought a whole host of questions to my mind: did Krishna know all along that Draupadi was going to be disrobed in this fashion? If so, why allow the preceding events to occur and to escalate as they do? If Krishna intervenes here to save Draupadi, but does not intervene at other crucial points throughout the epic, what does this mean for the freeness of our actions and when we can count on God? Is this a #MeToo moment for Draupadi if we think about it in a modern context, or should we see it as a moment of great faith in the protectiveness of God?

It is clear from my consideration of these questions (and more) that Hindu Dharma does in fact broach many of the same questions that concern Christian philosophers. So then, what accounts for my own discounting of my religion as a legitimate philosophical tradition and one deserving of more attention when it comes to analytic theology?

I tend to think an unflattering perception of Hindu Dharma is brought about by those who have cheapened its philosophical value by turning its gods and practices into one big aesthetic acid trip of a bohemian music festival. Hindu Dharma cannot be regarded as an intellectual garden bearing real fruit if it is continually associated with millennials (and others) who do yoga, want to open their “third eye,” and who burn incense sticks in front of a pantheon of “hipster-friendly” gods and goddesses.

Hypothetically getting past such prejudices (internalized or otherwise), I wonder: is what it means to be a Hindu philosopher just to consider classically Christian issues like that of omniscience and the problem of evil through a Hindu lens? Furthermore, is it even coherent to think of oneself as being a Hindu philosopher when there is no unified definition of ‘Hindu?’

Here is one rough attempt at an answer: I think what it means to be a Hindu philosopher is to confront the unique challenges that being Hindu poses when doing philosophy. One such challenge might be discerning whether Hindu Dharma is indeed polytheistic or monotheistic in essence—while at the same time grappling with the colonial assumption that monotheism is a theological step above polytheism, and that it constitutes progress. 

I think another tangible way in which someone can class themselves as a Hindu philosopher is a sustained commitment to the concept of “Ahimsa” as they best see fit. Ahimsa is generally translated from the Sanskrit to mean non-violence. In the Mahabharata, Ahimsa is evoked in relation to theories of just war and inter-familial disputes.

Another way in which I’ve interpreted the term is an ethical obligation to vegetarianism (and hopefully veganism, at some point). This is, of course, controversial—there are countless people who identify as Hindu who do eat meat. I’m often asked myself if the reason for my vegetarianism stems from my Hindu Dharma. There is no central scripture in Hindu Dharma that tells me or any Hindu explicitly not to eat meat. Nevertheless, I think it is imperative that a Hindu philosopher thinks about pressing questions of ecology and environmental impact. Ours is a religion that says God is in all things, and so we even apologize to Mother Earth when we dance. It would make sense for a Hindu philosopher to ponder what it means for God to be everywhere, and what this means about how we should treat not just other human beings, but animals, and the planet we live on.

It seems to me that “Ahimsa” is one side of a coin, and “Seva” is the other—and both of these concepts are central to fulfilling one’s dharma as a human person (duty or obligation). “Seva” is translated as ‘selfless service.’ A Hindu philosopher in the academy must be committed to progressive service work that benefits the profession. We must tirelessly dedicate ourselves to aligning ourselves with the cause of justice: if at the very least out of a respect for knowledge.

Hindu Dharma is a religion that deeply values learning, education, and knowledge. Hindus cannot even touch our feet to a book or other instruments of learning without asking the Goddess Saraswathi for forgiveness. As such, it is imperative for a Hindu philosopher to actively help to make academic philosophy an open, safe, and respectful environment most conducive to the highest level of teaching and learning. Whether we are junior scholars or tenured professors, we must lead by example and display serious intellectual humility and respect.

These are just some of the ways in which I think a philosopher can be a Hindu philosopher, and not just a philosopher who is incidentally Hindu. As Hindus, we must work from Hindu Dharma for the betterment of the discipline, even if this is difficult given the lack of diversity within the discipline. It is important we start to claim our identities as Hindus, and begin to examine what this identity can or should mean in our endeavors as champions of the examined life.

-by SANJANA RAJAGOPAL (first year Ph.D. student at Fordham University)

(This article first appeared at blog.apaonline.org and has been reproduced here with author’s consent.)

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