Friday, 15 April 2011

Why Coomaraswamy needs Revival in Philosophy Departments?


There is a need for creating larger space for A.K. Coomaraswamy in philosophy departments in India  (and elsewhere as well by implication) in graduation,  post-graduation and post-Masters degree courses. Arguments are listed point wise.
·         Because he is arguably the most learned interpreters of arts as enshrining metaphysics in Indian tradition and thus connecting culture to philosophy.
·         His social philosophy is provocative challenge of the paradigm with which modern Indian social theory operates and meets at many places with Gandhian social philosophy.
·         He has developed an interpretation of Vedanta that rereads and puts in a new framework Platonic tradition in philosophy, challenging much of sterotype thinking on the issue of Orientalist vs. Occidental (especially traditional Christian Occidental) debate in philosophy.
·         His conception of metaphysics and philosophy seems to appropriate standard critiques of deconstructionists and many other postmodernist and provide a basis for meaningfully doing philosophy in the age when many would suppose philosophy to be dead, irrelevant or meaningless or a species of rhetoric only. He has one of the most compelling cases for continued existence and growth of philosophy departments.
·         He is far more important – seeing his vast scholarly original and insightful output that has been listed under 1000 entries in two volume bibliography on him covering almost every dimension of social, ethical, aesthetical and metaphysical thought  as enshrined in scriptures or arts or other cultural products – than either Vivekanada or Aurobindo in understanding traditional metaphysics, aesthetics, symbolism, comparative religion and philosophy and perhaps also the question of nationalism and yet he remains by and large ignored compared to later two thinkers.
·         Perennialist school has of late been making increasingly significant impact on intellectual elite of the world and this necessitates more serious engagement with Coomarswamy back home. Amongst the important names influenced by perennialist school are T. S. Eliot, Yeats, Aldous Huxley, Thomas Merton, Lord Nourbourne, Martin Lings, Syed Hussain Nasr, Titus Burchardt, Huston Smith, Evola, and back home Sarin and  M. H. Askari,
·         His works provide an important crotical lens for understanding and evaluating now influential and fashionable brand of Spirituality which bases itself supoposedly on readings of Vedanta/Buddhism etc. called New Age Spirituality.
·         In the “post-metaphysical” and “post-theological world” where it has become difficult to speak meaningfully or without embarrassment  about metaphysics or theology  after taking cognizance of antifoundationist arguments from a variety of sources Coomaraswamy provides a vantage point from where to approach and critique (post)modern misosophical and antimetaphysical thinkers.
·         If understanding the common basis of world traditions or comparative religion is the most important task of modern philosophy as Coomarswamy believed he is one of the most important thinkers for doing philosophy and comparative philosophy. His magisterial synthesis of central  philosophical concepts of Hinduism and Buddhism, brilliant study of the problem of time and eternity across traditions, convincing arguments for ending the controversy on soul/spirit debate or conflicting views on the place of self in world traditions are all seminal contributions of which little notice has been taken.
·         Coomaraswamy provides a fresh entry into the debate on postcolonialism and gives us an alternative framework not complicit with Western Modernity (of which imperialism becomes a logical and “legitimate” extension) for critiquing Colonialist intellectual construction. It is not only interesting to compare him with Bhaba, Said and Spivak but he could be approached to formulate a new critical paradigm that subsumes and proceeds beyond these and other postcolonial thinkers. On the question of identity of the marginalized or devoiced other in imperialist history Coomarawamy is a reference point allowing us to develop models of identity that need not borrow from poststructuralist or similar ideological currents that have a questionable relationship with the forms of thought that seek to problematize.
·         Coomarawsamy’s critique of Enlightenment Project and Secular Modernity needs to be seriously taken after we see a host of critics of Enlightenment in the West appropriating similar ideas in their analyses and critiques which he used to foreground in his works. His critique of the problem of authorship and birth of the individual in modern discourse, his analysis of public/private dichotomy and the notion of the rights of the individual and modern democracy, his charges that Enlightenment philosophers misread religion on key points and then misapplied secularized ideas, his studies on the idea of the sacred and violence/sacrifice all make him an important thinker to be read along with major critics of Modern Episteme.
·         His analyses of almost forgotten metaphysical roots of language needs to be kept in background while analyzing key thinkers on the question of metaphysics and language debate from Heidegger to Derrida, Ricouer and Gadamer. He questions standard notions current regarding the powers and limitations of language in relation to transcendence.
·         His exposition of the key concepts of  Being and Nothingness with the help of a host of cultural manifestations of these ideas needs to be considered in any analyses of these concepts in  modern thinkers of phenomenology, existentialism, deconstruction and other antiessentialists  support.
·         Recent interest in Catholic philosophy in the West as evidenced by an increasing number of journals and studies devoted to them also necessitates reviving Coomaraswamy studies as he considered himself an expositor of scholastic tradition. Reading Coomaraswamy gives us an impression how little modern academician understand ancient and medieval philosophies.
·         Recent interest in environmentalist approach to philosophies and religions and ecocentric appraisal of industrialist modernity calls for revival of Coomaraswamy studies as he has been a great critic of the logic of industrialism and myths of progress.
·         There is increasingly felt need to study alternative models of governance, community organization, traditional political institutions as current models are criticized on various accounts. Coomarswamy’s studies of ancient civilizations in this connection need to be discussed. Coomaraswamy put forward with great force and intellectual resources at his command by virtue of knowing so many languages, art traditions, scriptures, ancient and medieval literatures some provocative theses that question the whole edifice of modern culture. He said that perhaps the most important thing he had learned was not to think for himself, that vogue for original ideas is typically modern absurdity, that there can be no progress in metaphysics, that there is no reason for exhibiting, selling  and signing the works of art, that there is little beauty or understanding of it anywhere in modern aestheticism, that Western man’s intellectual, psychological and practical life  is largely bereft of knowledge and living presence of the First Principles – the sacred, the true and the beautiful, that all knowledge is reminiscence and modern epistemologies are missing vital things, that secular humanism is sinister and infrahuman ideology, that almost all the works of Orientalists on Eastern traditional thought are grossly wrong and ignorant of the most fundamental spirit of metaphysical foundations of the whole civilization, that there is no such thing as rebirth or pantheism in the foundational texts of  Indian tradition and much of popular interpretation of Hinduism or Buddhism is simply unacceptable on traditional grounds, that universal literacy is neither needed nor useful, that technological culture has little space for the real culture and that he only seeks to remind the West of its own forgotten treasures and that that he is reminding the West of First Principles “in a way that may be ignored but cannot be refuted.”  As an expositor of lived metaphysics – showing how metaphysical doctrines are embodied in the themes and images of works of art, myths, folklore, traditional sciences  and cultural institutions – he has great value  in taking Indian philosophy/metaphysics to the masses and in the  central arena of culture  and can be corrective to much of superficial scholarship flooding the market.
It is not surprising that considering all the above points there should recently have been surge in Coomaraswamy studies in some foreign universities and a few great thinkers in the perennialist school continuing to carry forward his ideas. As philosophy diversifies its traditional courses and has opened up for social and political philosophies and increasingly taking up environmentalism and other modern movements into its fold there is a great need for rediscovering and studying Coomaraswamy and the school of thought on philosophy he championed. We need Coomaraswamy chairs in key universities and philosophy departments need to give him greater space in sylaabi at undergraduate and post graduate levels.

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