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Philosophy Then

A Passage to India

Peter Adamson crosses continents, cultures and concepts.

You may be familiar with the contrast between ‘lumpers’ and ‘splitters’. Lumpers like to put many different things under one heading, emphasising the similarity between them. Splitters instead focus on the differences, and delight in making distinctions. Well, in mid-seventeenth century India, one of history’s most adventurous lumpers met one of its most notorious splitters.

The scene was the Mughal court during the period of Muslim political domination of the subcontinent. The splitter was a visitor from France, an intrepid traveler and philosopher named François Bernier; the lumper, his host, Prince Dārā Shikūh. Bernier served as his court physician, until his services sadly became superfluous when Dārā was put to death in 1659 as the outcome of a succession crisis.

A Westerner like Bernier could hardly have chosen a better place to learn from the East. Dārā encouraged scholarship at his court and was no mean scholar himself. He produced Persian translations of the ancient Indian philosophical texts known as the Upanishads, calling the result Sirr-i akbar, or The Great Secret.

Dārā was a Muslim, of course, but his interest in these works was not a matter of detached curiosity. He was convinced that there was a fundamental agreement between the teachings of Islam and Hindu Vedic philosophy. As Jonardon Ganeri has written, for Dārā, “it was not the case that the Upanishads provide access to new truths; rather they provide a more detailed description of truths already sketched but less than fully explained in the Qurʾān” (The Lost Age of Reason: Philosophy in Early Modern India 1450-1700, 2011). In fact, Dārā even thought that the Upanishads were mentioned in the Qurʾān, seeing a reference to them in verses that refer to a mysterious ‘hidden book’ of revelation.

Rather than merely providing these translations and hoping his Persian readership would get the point, Dārā also penned a treatise calling attention to the resonances between Hindu thought and the mystical Islamic traditional known as Sufism. The two traditions had reached the same conclusions, Dārā thought, and differed only in the language used to express what was in fact a single set of ideas. He called his treatise The Confluence of the Two Oceans, the title conjuring a meeting and mingling of two great cultures. It was even translated into Sanskrit – a task that may have been undertaken (it seems in bad taste to say ‘executed’) by Dārā himself. Dārā focused especially on the currents of Indian philosophy that accepted a single divine principle, notably Vedānta, since this school best matched the Islamic commitment to the oneness of God. But the confluence went beyond monotheism. Such famous Indian ideas as the cyclical theory of time were presented as agreeing with Islamic teachings, while the Sufi concept of passionate love for God was compared to similar themes in Sanskrit sources.

Clearly then, Dārā’s guest, Dr Bernier, was uniquely well-placed to complement his own Western philosophical training with a study of Eastern thought. But he only half rose to the occasion. He was duly impressed by the Islamic intellectual tradition, and even learned fluent Persian in order to converse with an unnamed ‘pandit’ at the court (who may have been the scholar Kavīndra Sarasvatī). Speaking in Persian, Bernier told his colleague about the ideas of Descartes and Pierre Gassendi, with whom he had studied. In return he learned about ancient Indian ideas.

To some extent Bernier was, like Dārā, persuaded that different cultures had independently reached the same fundamental ideas. For instance, he was struck by the echo between the Indian idea that the divine stretches its influence forth into the universe like a spider letting forth the strands of its web, and the ancient Greek idea that there is a life-giving principle within the cosmos – Plato’s ‘world soul’. Yet he saw this as mythic story more than philosophical insight. Justin H. Smith has written that Bernier “saw local or indigenous knowledge as useless in the pursuit of truth, since he did not believe that this knowledge, having developed beyond the pale of philosophy, is underlain or driven by reason” (Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy, 2015). Worse still, Bernier achieved a more lasting fame by writing a classification of the races of the world – the work of a born splitter, and a source for later pseudoscientific racism.

I suppose you’ll join me in admiring Dārā Shikūh, the enthusiastic philosophical martyr, more than François Bernier, who seems so blinkered in retrospect. Of course it is wrong to reject the philosophical ideas of another culture as ‘irrational’ simply because they don’t look similar enough to the ideas of your own culture. But I’d suggest that Dārā too was making a mistake. It is also wrong to investigate the philosophy of another culture solely in order to discover its deep agreement with your own. This sort of lumping is not infrequently found in the study of comparative philosophy today, and it tends to leave me cold. After all, if the ancient Indians really thought the same things as the ancient Greeks, then one of the two cultures can safely be ignored as superfluous. More interesting to me are cases where philosophers of more than one culture arrive at ideas that are similar, yet different. Śaṅkara, Parmenides, and Spinoza were all monists, believing that there is ultimately only one substance, but in different ways and for different reasons. Also fruitful is the case where the same problem is confronted, but with different solutions. There is nothing quite like the Buddhist doctrine of ‘no self’ in Greek philosophy, but it does address a problem of selfhood that was raised by Plato, at about the same time as it happens.

When West meets East, the most interesting result is neither mutual incomprehension nor total agreement. It is a conversation in which both sides find that they have something to learn.

© Prof. Peter Adamson 2019

Peter Adamson is the author of A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vols 1, 2 & 3, available from OUP. They’re based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast.

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