Review by Steven F. Walker
Broadview Press, Peterborough, Ontario
Paperback US $24.95 170 pp. 2013
Here is certainly a useful and inspirational book for anyone who is looking for an introduction to the spiritual dimension of Indian philosophy—and that is probably what most people are seeking in Indian philosophy: a reasoned and reasonable approach to spiritual life and the means to attain it. The text of Ram Murty’s book has been tested many times in the classroom, for the author, who is a distinguished mathematician, has also taught as a labor of love an introductory course in Indian philosophy at his home university in Canada, and his book shows the results of being developed first as a teaching tool: clarity, organization, an easy and almost conversational tone, and, finally, and most importantly, an insistence on the relevance of Indian philosophy to modern
concerns, especially the search for spiritual meaning.
In an introductory chapter “Why Study Indian Philosophy?” the author makes clear from the very start that philosophical debates and logic chopping will not be his primary concerns, but rather the extraordinary freshness of Indian spiritual thought as manifested in its origins in texts that go back many hundreds of years:
It is clear that when we meet the world and experience it, not all of it makes sense. Hence it is natural to inquire into the meaning of things. . . . When we look at Indian philosophy, particularly the thought embodied in the ancient writings in the Upanishads, we can only marvel at the boldness of this questioning in that remote and early period of human history. (1)
Murty guides the student methodically through the various manifestations of the investigation of truth and meaning throughout Indian history partly through his own insights and vivid observations, which stay focused on the spiritual heart of Indian thought, and partly through judiciously chosen quotations from modern thinkers such as Vivekananda, Aurobindo and Tagore. Readers who might feel a bit daunted at the seemingly endless variety and richness of several thousand years of intense philosophical investigation are reassured by the warm and friendly tone of the author, who in the course of his book clarifies matters without oversimplification, and leads them by the hand from one inspiring vista to another, slowly and surely.
But the author’s comprehensive presentation of the perennial freshness of Indian spiritual thought does have a bias, since it is from the perspective of neo-vedantic non-dualism that Murty surveys the field of classical Indian philosophy that stretches before him and the reader until they reach the examples he has chosen to exemplify the richness of this tradition in modern times: Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Tagore, Gandhi, Krishnamurti and Radhakrishnan (with the curious omission, for someone espousing the non-dualist perspective, of Ramana Maharshi). But the author’s non-dualist perspective does not create a problem—certainly not for some of us New York Vedantists who are wont to shout “I’m a non-dualist and proud of it! You got a problem with that?”. And Murty later writes tactfully about Badarayana’s Vedanta Sutras that “whether the non-dualistic view, the qualified non-dualistic view, or the dualistic view, each commentator interpreted the original sutras to suit their view. So which one is right? Can this even be answered?” (145) and follows this with a nice quote from Vivekananda, who wrote that “It is foolish to attempt to prove that the whole of the Vedas is dualistic. It is equally foolish to attempt to prove [it] . . . is non-dualistic. They are dualistic and non-dualistic both. We understand them better today in the light of newer ideas. These are but different conceptions leading to the final conclusion that both dualistic and monistic conceptions are necessary for the evolution of the mind” (145-6).
This is a book that, because of its great value as a teaching text, will surely go into a second edition, and when it does I recommend that the author spend (let’s hear it for the subjunctive!) a bit more time on the topic of Indian Buddhism, which was an absolutely fundamental dimension of ancient Indian thought. Buddhism was furthermore India’s chief religious and philosophical contribution to the world outside of its own cultural borders before the rise of the modern Vedanta movement in the late nineteenth century.
It is perhaps a bit uncomfortable for the modern Hindu mind to admit that the religion founded by the Buddha saw no need to validate itself via reference to “the Vedas.” Furthermore, modern Indians have largely forgotten the fact that for centuries so many of their distant ancestors, and among them some of the most intellectually and artistically distinguished, were ardent Buddhists; that Buddhism is just as much a part of their ancestral spiritual inheritance as anything else; that for a thousand years and more ancient India was just as Buddhist as it was Hindu; and that there was arguably a rich interaction between the two closely related traditions.
Murty does give a wonderful presentation of the teachings of the Buddha at the opening of Chapter 8; I just wish he had not claimed that the Upanishads and the Gita were the inspirations or at least the forgotten forerunners of Buddhist teachings (99), and that some of the Buddha’s ideas “echo the teaching of the Bhagavadgita” (101) or that “Buddha had re-discovered the teaching of the Bhagavadgita,” although he adds “not intellectually, but as a matter of personal experience” (103). But the chronology generally accepted by modern scholars does not back up this assertion. The Buddha lived c. 563-483 BCE, and the Gita was probably composed at least several centuries later (Barbara Stoler Miller, for example, in the introduction to her translation of the Gita dates it to about the first century CE).
There is no reason to hesitate to celebrate the astoundingly original genius of the Buddha, and no reason to subtly subordinate this originality to Vedic sources and authorities, by claiming to hear “echoes” of the Gita in his teachings. And what if it were the other way around? Furthermore, a case can be made—and I think Murty should consider this possibility in the next edition—that, as regards at least one of its origins, classical Vedanta can be seen as a later response to the magnificent development of philosophical Mahayana Buddhism centuries before, as is argued by Chandradhar Sharma in his classic A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2013 , pp. 239-241, and especially in his chapter “Buddhism and Vedanta” pp. 318-334).
Murty does give an insightful glimpse into the Diamond Sutra (pp. 111-112; for greater detail listen to his fine lecture on the topic archived on the Providence Vedanta Center’s website), but in my opinion this relative neglect of the centuries-long development of Buddhist philosophy in India needs to be corrected in the next edition. Finally, I would make a small suggestion for the second edition that might help readers come to grips with the term “maya,” with which many readers probably are already somewhat familiar. Murty only mentions it once, by my count, and the term does not appear in the index. Since “maya” is a well-known term associated with a layman’s knowledge of Vedanta, it deserves more than a brief mention. It is not enough to simply affirm—correctly—that “Shankara’s advaita has often been misunderstood and dismissed as the theory of maya or illusion” (140). Maya is a fascinating topic, and I look forward to Murty’s grappling with that snake (or is it a rope?) in the next edition of his wonderful and inspiring book!
STEVEN F. WALKER has been associated with Vedanta centers in Boston and New York for nearly forty years. He teaches comparative literature at Rutgers University. Email: WALKERSTEVEN@HOTMAIL.COM