Published On: Fri, Feb 10th, 2017

Indian Thought Is Not Understood In America

I was quite shocked when I discovered that Indian philosophy is not being addressed properly in American universities. In fact, only two American universities offer a doctorate in Indian philosophy. In general, Indian thought is not considered philosophy but is being taught by the departments of religion, and badly at that, or by the departments of anthropology. This results in a complete misappreciation if not misunderstanding of Indian thought and consequently, the values of India.

One reason is that Western scholars have been shaped by Greco-Semitic concepts (concepts arising from the Grecian civilization and Semitic religions), and often cannot grasp the richer complexity of Indian philosophical thought. Hinduism, for instance, is usually perceived as being polytheistic; in reality it is both monotheistic and polytheistic — believing in one God taking different forms of manifestation.

It was another shock when I discovered that quite a number of Western scholars appropriate Indian philosophical concepts without quoting the sources, as if they were the results of their own original thinking. And I learned that the situation at American high schools is no better: there is inadequate understanding of India and Indian thought, and the Hinduism portrayed is dominated by negative stereotypes.

There is one exception to this, namely Buddhism. The Buddhists have good scholars, themselves practicing Buddhists, who teach the Buddhist religion. This also has to do with the fact that the Dalai Lama told his followers to go out and teach the traditions to keep it alive. So Tibetans went out and got their degrees in Western universities, and now they are teaching all over the world. But Hinduism, Sikhism or Jainism are often being taught by Americans, who themselves believe in other religious systems!

This is even considered desirable in the name of ‘objectivity’, while the same arms-length rule does not apply to Christianity for instance, which is taught by Christians and even preachers.

Educational Council on Indic Traditions

To address these problems, the Educational Council on Indic Traditions was created. One of its first aims is to fund a survey by some nationally recognized opinion polling firms to find out what the prevalent American attitudes, opinions and beliefs are about Indic traditions. They will, for example, poll schoolteachers, college students, very committed churchgoers, etc., to find out what these different demographic segments of Americans think about Indian traditions. Such a survey has never been held before and its importance is immense.

For, based on the information gathered by this survey, the Council will identify the most common stereotypes about Indic traditions, and then challenge them. There are various ways to do so. One is to fund the creation of a library of materials on India and Indic thought. The slide show, The Genius of India, which was recently produced by Auroville Press, is an excellent example of the type of materials needed. Other such slide-shows or films are needed, in order, for example, to challenge certain in-baked assumptions that poverty in India is a result of its Hindu religion.

I would also like to see a whole series of works on The History of Ideas. This would show that many of the ideas that have come out of India (such as language, mathematics and logic) are not attributed as such. This process of non-attribution continues today, often quite accidentally. For instance, Carl Jung scrupulously documented his Indic sources; but his students tend to attribute the ideas about consciousness and the human psyche and so forth, to Jung himself.

Lastly, the results of the public survey will be used to show to the school boards and universities in America that there is an absolute need for them to change the way in which they portray Indic traditions. It is important to address these issues through the academia for the majority of Americans form their values and their beliefs in an academic setting.

Lack of Scholars in India

The Council’s work will only begin once the survey is finished. For, there is a severe lack of good scholars, with proper academic credentials, to teach Indic thought. I found that even Indian universities do not specialize in Indian philosophy but concentrate instead on Western philosophy! So even when I succeed in convincing American universities to endow a chair or program in a particular branch of Indian thought, there are no suitable candidates available to fill that post. That is a distressing state of affairs, and it needs to be addressed.

The Council will also have to put energy in to the Indian academic institutions. It is necessary that India produce scholars of international standing that can teach Indic thought in all its aspects. For example, Sri Aurobindo represents in its most modern form and concept, Indian philosophical thought as it has developed over thousands of years. Yet I cannot find a single university in India that can supply me with scholars having doctorate degrees in Sri Aurobindo’s thought.

If we could create a ‘Chair of Sri Aurobindo Studies’ in the philosophy or psychology departments of the main Indian universities, those who get a degree there would be able to fill academic positions elsewhere, e.g. in the US, and Indic thought would get recognition. The Council intends to fund such chairs, as well as the research and dissemination of Indic thought, so that a body of scholars in different Indic traditions with strong academic credentials will be created.

Another way is to bring academic people from America to India and let them see for themselves. I have two high school teachers with me on this trip. And this is an area in which Auroville could play a most important role. Auroville is unique: you have people here, steeped in Indian thought and of great sincerity and commitment, which can bridge the cultural gap. We need to make maximum use of the resources you have built. We could also collaborate on the production of educational materials.

More generally, I think Auroville needs to have a global outreach program. I don’t know if you are ready yet — maybe it’s too early. You are unknown to most of the world. But Auroville should be part of the movement in US variously called Consciousness Studies, Human Potential, post-Christian spirituality, etc. You should attend important conferences and have a presence there — as Auroville. You should present your story.


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