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Advaita Vedanta.

Advaita Vedanta. Edited by R. BALASUBRAMANIAN. History of Science, Philosophy, and Culture in Indian Civilization, vol. II, part 2. New Delhi: PROJECT OF HISTORY OF INDIAN SCIENCE, PHILOSOPHY, AND CULTURE, 2000. Pp. 696.

This volume consists of twenty-one articles by various Indian scholars, each treating a particular aspect of the tradition of Advaita Vedanta. It is part of a much larger (38 vols.) project, a comprehensive study of Indian civilization that includes India's scientific, economic, political, cultural, and religious history. In its treatment of the Advaita tradition the present volume shares with the series as a whole a concern with comprehensiveness. It aims at a comprehensive treatment of Advaita both historically--from pre-Sankara Advaita to the "Hindu Renaissance" of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries--and linguistically/regionally--from the classic Advaita texts in Sanskrit to the works of Advaitically inspired saints and philosophers in the various Indian vernaculars.

The volume is divided into three sections. The first, consisting of ten chapters, covers classical Vedanta. The first of these chapters treats pre-Sankara Advaita and includes, in addition to discussions of Badarayana's Brahmasutra and Gaudapada's Mandukya-karika, a brief mention of Bhartrhari and a somewhat fuller treatment of Mandanamisra, who represents a form of pre-Sankara Advaita despite being (probably) Sankara's contemporary. Two chapters cover the presence of Advaitic ideas in the epics and the puranas, respectively. Three full chapters are appropriately devoted to the towering figure of Sankara, whose conception of Vedanta not only determined the direction and shape of the subsequent tradition, but also determined the way in which the "pre-Sankara" tradition has been received, as evidenced by the authors' tendency--following the tradition--to retroject the concept of Advaita onto the Veda and the epics. Another chapter examines the ambiguous and disputed relationship between the works of Suresvara and Mandanamisra. The comparison between the two brings to light certain differences--in particular, the issue of the locus of avidya--that will form the basis of the later split between the Vivarana and Bhamati schools of Advaita. Separate chapters cover the subsequent course of Advaita thought in each of these schools, focusing on Prakasatman's Vivarana and Vacaspatimisra's Bhamati, respectively.

A single chapter tracing the course of "Neo-Hinduism" from Ram Mohan Roy to Sarvapelli Radhakrishnan constitutes the second section on "Advaita and Contemporary Philosophy." The ten chapters comprising the third and final section survey the Advaita tradition in each of the major Indian vernaculars.

What immediately strikes the reader of this volume is the authors' tendency to distance themselves from Western scholarship. References to the works of Western scholars are rare, and when the authors do have occasion to refer to the results of Western scholarship these are generally handled with a degree of reluctance and suspicion. Considered from the perspective of Paul Hacker's distinction between "Neo-Hinduism" and "surviving traditional Hinduism" as the two basic attitudes Indian scholars adopt towards the West, this volume indicates a preference for the latter. The structure of the volume reflects this "traditionalist" orientation, with over two hundred pages devoted to a survey of the traditionalist material written in the vernaculars and only a single chapter of sixty pages covering the great names of the "Hindu Renaissance"--Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Gandhi, Radhakrishnan, et al.--more familiar to Western audiences. A traditionalist attitude is also evident in the occasional expressions of extravagant praise directed at Sankara (one can find in R. Balasubramanian's chapter on Sankara statements like the following: "Look at his [Sankara's] writings from any perspective, theological, philosophical, or mystical; there is nothing which is wanting in them" [p. 119]), as well as in a tendency to regard Advaita as a set of timeless, historically unconditioned truths ("The basic teachings of Advaita remain the same right from the beginning of time" [p. xlv]). Not all the contributors share such an uncritical attitude towards Sankara and his tradition, however; N. S. Dravid's chapter, in particular, can be quite critical of the arguments Sankara uses to refute rival schools.

The traditionalist perspective is evident, although in a more subtle way, in the style of exposition employed in presenting classical Vedanta texts. Generally speaking, there is a reluctance to engage these texts with questions arising out of the contemporary hermeneutical situation. The expositions of classical Sanskrit texts in the first section contain little in the way of interpretation beyond the unavoidable interpretive decisions involved in translating Sanskrit concepts into English. When in the course of the exposition one comes across a phrase such as "To this argument it could be objected that ...," what appears to be a critical engagement with the text is all too often simply a paraphrase of the purvapaksa. Given that the questions that arise for the contemporary reader rarely coincide with the stylized objections of the purvapaksin, the tendency to exclude contemporary questions and critical analysis from the exposition lends a certain predictability to these chapters. An exception to this general tendency is the chapter by Ramakant Sinari, which not only covers "Neo-Hinduism" but is itself an example of the Neo Hindu approach, freely drawing from Western existentialist philosophy and Christianity in its presentation of Advaita.

It is, of course, difficult to evaluate the traditionalist character of this volume without appealing to precisely those conventions and standards the non-acceptance of which defines traditionalism. One respects the desire of Indian scholars to lay claim to the Advaita tradition and to liberate it from the representations of "orientalist" scholarship. A more traditional mode of presentation can also provide a salutary reminder of the idiosyncratic nature of the preoccupations that characterize modern Western scholarship (e.g., the often obsessive concern with dates, the bracketing of religious commitments, etc.). Unfortunately, however, the irrevocable presence of Western thought in Indian self-understanding--especially evident in a book written in English--means that the decision to distance oneself from Western approaches becomes, in effect, a self-conscious political statement. This political dimension is unobtrusive throughout most of the book, but occasionally it surfaces. For example, R. Balasubramanian's declaration that "with regard to Indian philosophical systems tradition is generally a surer guide than historical research" (p. 180) carries a tone of defiance that borders on disingenuousness. The political aspect is also evident in the attempt on a couple of occasions to accord equal weight to tradition and modern historical scholarship. The result is an unhappy compromise on dates that reminds one of the scene in Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It where the minister father attempts to reconcile geology and biblical fundamentalism by declaring the rocks along the riverbank to be only "a half a billion years old." Thus R. Balasubramanian--admittedly the most assertive of the contributors, but also the most prominent voice, with three chapters, as well as the editorial role, to his name--arrives at 2500 B.C. for the final formation of the Veda (p. xxix) and the highly unlikely early first century B.C. as the probable date of Sankara (p. 68).

The difference between this volume and a typical Western study is particularly evident in its conception of Advaita Vedanta. Generally speaking, the contributors to the volume regard Advaita as more than simply a particular school of Vedantic theology, much less of Indian philosophy. Most of the contributors seem to share the view expressed by S. R. Talghatti (referring specifically to the prevalent attitude in Maharashtra) that "Indian philosophy means Vedanta and Vedanta philosophy means Kevaladvaita of Sankara" (p. 566). That Advaita Vedanta is regarded not as simply another "positive" religion but rather as the highest expression of religion itself signifies that the concept of non-duality has taken on a normative character as much for the scholar as for the teachers in the tradition. Only when we acknowledge that the Advaita concept is functioning not so much as a term of objective classification as a normative concept with a universal scope can we make sense of the characterization of established classics like Badarayana's Brahmasutra (p. 17), the Gita (p. 9), and ultimately even the epics and puranas (p. xlv, though see p. 31) as Advaita works. The dubious characterization of such works as Advaitic signifies that the Advaita concept functions here more as an expression of recognition and praise than as a term of objective description, thus assuming one of the defining characteristics of political speech. This "political" aspect of the Advaita concept highlights its importance in contemporary Hindu self-understanding.

It is chiefly with respect to this issue of the role of Advaita in various forms of Hindu self-representation, especially since the eighteenth century, that the Advaita Vedanta volume is most interesting. This information is found mostly in the third section on the vernaculars, which describes, for example, the way in which the theoretical knowledge of Advaita combined with the practical knowledge of yoga in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Telugu works; how Advaita provided the theoretical underpinnings for devotionalism in the Marathi philosopher-saint Jnanesvara; or the way in which Narayana Guru in Kerala reconciled Sankara's Advaita with a concern for social reform. The section on Advaita in the vernaculars is probably the volume's chief selling point, if for no other reason than that it brings to the attention of English-speaking audiences a vast body of literature that has generally received insufficient attention in modern surveys of Indian philosophy and literature. Unfortunately, however, most of these chapters provide little more than brief synopses of the noted works in the various vernaculars. At times reading like an annotated bibliography, the third section is of value chiefly as a reference source. Depending on the reader's interests, then, the third section may not redeem the volume as a whole, for the first section's 376 pages on Classical Advaita contain little that one cannot already find in a good survey of Indian philosophy like Dasgupta's A History of Indian Philosophy. The Advaita Vedanta volume thus is of interest mostly for what it reveals about how contemporary Indian scholars understand the place of Advaita Vedanta in India's religious history, rather than for any new information or fresh perspective that it might provide.


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Title Annotation:Advaita Vedanta: History of Science, Philosophy, and Culture in Indian Civilization, vol. 2
Author:Nicholson, Hugh
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 2004
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