"Indian Philosophy in Religious Context:
Hindus & Buddhists Envisioning the Ultimate in South Asia"

(Religion 387)


Overview & Objectives

Ever since translations of India's ancient texts began to reach Europe and America in the nineteenth century, European & American investigators have been fascinated with their philosophical and visionary content.  Many scholars were attracted to those works for their concern with ultimate truths and ethical questions that paralleled those considered by Western philosophers.  Most also became interested in the detailed descriptions of mystical awareness that the composers of those works claimed to possess.  Yet such philosophical & visionary concerns always occur in the wider context of uniquely Indian religious rituals, customs, and ideas, without understanding which the philosophical discussions inspired by them make only partial sense.  It is only by taking note of the diverse forms of daily religious life that have informed philosophical thought in India for the past several millennia that one can fully grasp the sophistication and intricacy of Indian philosophy.  Certainly this is true of Greek and European philosophers as well; but the sheer density and complexity of religious life in India requires special effort to understand.

In this course I invite students to survey, in light of the religious backgrounds of Indian philosophical thinkers, the major darshanas--literally “visions” or “glimpses,” with the same sense as the English word “perspectives”--that were developed, expounded, and transmitted throughout the Indian subcontinent over the course of nearly three thousand years of its history.  The primary focus for the course will be the pivotal eighth-century thinker Shankara Bhagavatpaada, considered by many the single most important upholder and systematizer of the Hindu tradition known today as Vedaanta; his influence is roughly parallel to that of Thomas Aquinas in the Christian theological tradition.  I will begin the term by painting a picture of the specialized rituals and customs engaged in by Hindu & Buddhist thinkers since ancient time, drawing on my own observations of the Hindu practice of Shankara's lineage as it survives in contemporary South India.  I then ask students examine the writings and ideas of key figures and schools in light of that religious context; we will focus on the way those other writings and ideas lead up to, overlap with, oppose, and develop Shankara's own teachings.  One of the primary sources for this investigation will be my own written account of these teachings in light of Shankara's own religious background, as presented in my dissertation and would-be book.  Viewing all of Indian philosophy in relationship to a single thinker’s approach will allow students to see how the intricate systems of thought we study impact the individual thinker and religious practitioner.

[A Note About Pronunciation: Since reading words of South Asian origin will be easier if you know what they sound like, I will take a little time in class to explain their pronunciation.  Actually it is easier to pronounce South Asian terms than English ones, because in South Asian scripts each letter has only one possible sound, and this practice is followed also when writing South Asian languages in roman (English language) script.  The trick, of course, is to learn which sounds go with which letters, and also to interpret diacritical markings (little lines and symbols above or below letters--not easily rendered on a web browser!) or alternative arrangements (such as "aa" & "ee") that provide clues about those sounds.  Since such information is best imparted orally, we will review and practice it together as a group.]

The class meetings will consist in large part of group conversations based on presentations of student writing.  Each student will take turns assessing in writing the assigned material for each week, and also responding--again in writing--to others' assessments.  The final paper will provide a more extended opportunity for each student to work closely with one or two related primary texts, assessing its religious subtext(s) and overall significance.

Important Disclaimer:  As you will learn from all the systems we consider--if you didn't know it already!--the nature of worldly life is change.  In creating this syllabus I have tried to be as careful as possible to get all the details right.  However in certain situations, whenever I deem that a change would significantly further the objectives of the course, I will need to make alterations in what is posted here. I reserve the right to make such changes, though I will always strive to give you at least three day’s notice, both in class and by posting changes on the course web site; your understanding is much appreciated. In any case, keep checking the web site during the course of the term, since additional links--internal as well as to relevant external sites--will be added as the class progresses.


My intention in designing and offering this course is to get you to:

1.     gain familiarity with the breadth of Indian philosophical thought as it flourished during its classical (medieval) period.

2.   examine in-depth at a few of the specific topics and/or issues encountered in Indian philosophical texts, and consider the ways in which awareness of religious context sheds light on those topics and/or issues.

3.   refine your application of the following general skills--which are broadly applicable to a wide range of both academic and work situations--to your thinking, speaking and writing:

(a) systematic reflection: continually clarifying and restating what exactly you intend to claim about the texts we read, and about the philosophical ideas and religious practices in question; and using diagrams to clarify such claims.

(b) accurate representation: presenting clearly and concisely the content of a particular text in its own terms, using both quotation and paraphrase; and making a clear distinction between that presentation and your own evaluation of and reflections about it.

(c) basic word use: regular use of a dictionary to explore unknown terms; attention to the mechanics of your speech (most obviously by proofreading written work, but also being aware of words used in discussion); and consistent referencing of specific sources in your discussions (most obviously via citations in your writing, but also by calling attention to specific passages in discussion settings).

4.   experience some of the fascination that has attracted thinkers to these ideas and religious practices for thousands of years, up to the present day.

Overviews & Objectives

Attendance Policy

Required Texts

Schedule of Topics & Readings

Assignments & Evaluation

Notes on Written Work