At a workshop in the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, the author wonders why philosophy isn’t part of public conversation anymore.

Tagore and Gandhi had different philosophical understandings of swadeshi and labour. They often argued this out using the idiom of Advaita through letters and essays that were followed eagerly by the reading public. Tagore felt that Gandhi’s insistence on the charkha reduced labour to repetition. This reduction was, for Tagore, not a symptom of creative swadeshi, and was at odds with the spirit of “realising the Advaita of humanity.” Gandhi replied using Advaita differently — for him, labour was advaitic in its fundamental sameness, the sameness that makes us a common humanity.

Much of the freedom movement was explicitly inspired by a sense of pride in the achievements of ancient Indian philosophies and traditions. Influential public thinkers like Coomaraswamy argued the case of the unity of Indian philosophy and aesthetics. And few countries can boast of having an eminent philosopher as President — India had S. Radhakrishnan.

However, at a concrete level, the status of philosophy as a serious academic discipline is nowhere near what might be suggested by its role in the freedom movement. In the years since Independence, it has disappeared from the public and cultural imagination and this has, in turn, led to it become something of a backwater even in academia. It no more captures the imagination of political figures, or new generations of students.

Within this context, a two-day workshop on “Philosophy and India” (the title of a book by A. Raghuramaraju, published by Oxford University Press this year) was organised last month at the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, to revitalise the debate. It was attended by students from diverse fields, as well as laypersons from the larger community. Thankfully, the word “philosophy” still has a certain mystique but it is also too easily associated, in India, with spiritualism. This particular workshop, like academic philosophy more generally, took a more agnostic approach to spiritualism.

The eminent philosopher Sundar Sarukkai asked, for example, why everyone knows the name of a Shankara or a Ramanuja but not that of other giants of philosophy like Sriharsha, an advaitin of the 12th century, or a Gangesha, the great Nyaya philosopher who responded passionately to Sriharsha. These ideas of the latter should be more available to people today, as they argue from reason rather than theology. Yet they were almost completely unknown to most of the participants in the workshop.

This led to a larger discussion of how it is harder for us to relate to philosophers who do not become the subject of hagiography — those who do not have institutions (mathas) that propagate their work. Not that hagiography helps. What little people do know about Shankara or Ramanuja is often just legends that are clearly accretions from a much later time period, as well as a few simple signposts of their thought (such as “all is one”). In contrast, with regard to other equally great philosophers like Gangesa or Sriharsha, almost nothing is known of their lives. There isn’t the charming legend of Shankara leaving his mother, for example. The lives of these Indian philosophers seem to leave no resonance in our modern memory. Compare this to the life of Plato or Rousseau.

Some scholars and students wondered if the same spiritualism that obscures us from seeing many great philosophers of the past also does not let us generate any interesting, contrarian, colourful philosophers in the present. Philosophy has become too spiritual and remote, too far away from the clamour of our intimate neighbourhoods, our families, our friendships and lifestyles; from our sense of our country.

Much debate has occurred in the media recently about the gaffes over historical figures by a prominent political leader. But history at the level of knowledge of dates and biographies is not in itself indicative of a grasp of political or philosophical issues. There has so far been a debilitating inability of the Indian polity to come up with an elevated debate on what a meaningful Indian liberal might be, as opposed to an Indian (non-fundamentalist) conservative.

As Raghuramaraju stressed, the fact that Gandhi could rightly argue and lay claim to both these categories is to the credit of his philosophical underpinning of politics. This is more than the entire class of Indian politicians can manage to lay claim to today, despite the encyclopaedia of knowledge and guidance that the freedom movement was for us.

The revitalisation of philosophy in India — as a space to resolve polarising contemporary issues such as caste inequality and gender violence — then depends on it moving away from purely academic debates, and becoming once again part of the very fabric of public conversation, the way it was in the days of Gandhi and Tagore.