Transcript: 62. Kit Patrick on Philosophy and Indian History

The host of the History of India podcast joins us for the final episode on India.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: Well, so you're a historian of Indian culture, at least you are in your role as a podcaster. And so I thought what we could talk about in this conversation is basically the relationship between Indian history, especially in the ancient world, which is what you've been covering in your podcast as well, and philosophy in ancient India. And maybe the first thing we could think about here is the cultural or institutional context in which ancient Indian philosophy was actually pursued. So sometimes you have this image of sages withdrawing into the forest. So there is no institutional context at all. But on the other hand, something you've mentioned in your podcast and described a bit is that there were something like universities founded in ancient India. So could you tell us something about that, and more generally about the institutional possibilities for doing philosophy in ancient India? 

Kit Patrick: Yeah, sure. So even the sage in the forest, especially if they're tied up to a hermitage, they have an institution, but thinking of people closer to the main end of society, you have large institutions dealing with what you might cautiously think of as postgraduate education. After people have finished understanding the Vedas and the basic texts, they'll go to one of these large institutions. Probably the oldest is Taxila. Taxila is a city in northwest India, modern-day Pakistan. And it's not one university in any sense. Instead, you have a number of different teachers. Each teacher might be specializing in different things. You might have a teacher specializing in medicine, another one specializing in knitting, in statesmanship, many of them specializing on various religious texts. And students would come from all across India, certainly all across the Indo-Gangetic Plain, all across northern India, but even from the south. And they would come after having completed their basic education, go to Taxila, find the house of one of the teachers who's teaching what they want, and try to gain admission, try to become one of their students. And if they become one of the students, they enter the house and they live with the teacher. Some of these teachers had moderate-sized houses and would only have a dozen or so students living with them in the house, doing the house chores and getting the food and the firewood and so forth. But some of these teachers ended up having hundreds of students, and they would hire old students, the sort of postgraduate teaching assistants, if you like, and have a great number of students working under them. So it'd be much less of a house and more of an institution as we think of it now. That relationship with your teacher was still supposed to be a sort of father-son relationship, even in the big institutions. 

Peter Adamson: And the incoming students would actually have to talk the teacher into taking them on, isn't that right? 

Kit Patrick: Yeah. Although a lot of the incoming students were the sons of kings or the sons of ministers – often together, the king would send his son along with a bunch of friends of the same age who were the sons of ministers. And they're paying a decent fee and they're going to get accepted. Some of the people who go there need to have no fee or need some support. And they would have to probably argue a bit more that they're worth taking on. It's not entirely clear. I can't think of any evidence off the top of my head of that happening. 

Peter Adamson: Would you say then that there's even a sense in which there's a possibility of social mobility here? So you could have intelligent lower class people coming into the universities and becoming trained as scholars. 

Kit Patrick: Speaking only of Taxila at the moment, yeah, I think that does seem to have happened if you're thinking about Varna, if you're thinking about caste – the four major castes, Brahmin at the top, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. And the top three, the twice-born castes, all have a duty to be educated, to complete what I was just referring to as the basic education. So they're all educated and some of them will be wanting to take that further. And many of the guys who want to take that further and go to Taxila to do that will be Kshatriya or even Vaishya. Even some of the teachers would have been Kshatriya or Vaishya. The Brahmin caste is the one that has the responsibility of teaching. But even the very strict rule books say that under extreme circumstances, you can be taught by a Kshatriya or Vaishya, someone down from the top caste. So in terms of caste, it's not exactly social mobility because you're not moving up a caste but you're from a Vaishya caste, not towards the top of society, but you're able to get more kudos, more social authority by going and getting a deeper education in the Vedas or what have you, and even become a teacher. In terms of economic moving through society, well, I don't think there's much evidence of that actually. The houses in Taxila that we know of, which specialize in things are people who specialize in taking on the sons of kings or things like that, people who are anyway very well to do. A different story though for the Buddhist further education institutions. So the most famous is Nalanda, which is in central northern India in Bihar, the state it's in now. And a bit after that, there was one in Valabhi, which is in the modern state of Gujarat. And these are very different in terms of your entry. So we have a very graphic description of these because of the Chinese scholars who come in, and they tell us all the everyday things that people who lived amongst that day-in, day-out don't notice. So we know that you come to the gates of Nalanda, and you're stopped at the very gate, and someone asks you a bunch of questions testing if you've done your basic education really well, testing you've read the Hindu Brahminical orthodox texts, and read the basic Buddhist texts and the basic texts from other sects too, making sure you've got a good grounding, and only then you're allowed in. But if you're allowed in, if you pass the test, it seems like you've got a place there. And because it's Buddhist, there's this idea that it doesn't matter what your caste was or your social background. So you could imagine these institutions would be a little bit more places of social mobility. 

Peter Adamson: So you mentioned the integration of the Kshatriya class with these educational enterprises, and that's actually something else I wanted to ask you about. So the Kshatriya class is the so-called warrior class or caste from which the rulers are traditionally drawn, although there are exceptions to that. And something that I've really been struck by, listening to your podcast, is the way that rulers in ancient India showed great devotion to scholarship. So they would sometimes prostrate themselves or humble themselves in front of Brahmin scholars. So you talked about the Emperor Harsha and how he spent a lot of effort trying to attract this Chinese traveling scholar to his court, even risked having a fallout with one of his allies to make that happen. And I'm wondering what you make of all that. I mean, is that just using scholars as a kind of luxury item, like a sports car, like look at my fancy new scholar? Or are they actually sincerely trying to somehow draw on the learning of these other men in a way that would enhance their rulership? 

Kit Patrick: Yeah, it's almost a stereotype in ancient India, the king prostrating themselves or abasing themselves in some ostentatious way before a wise man of some religious order. At least sometimes it seems as if the devotion is absolutely sincere. There are cases, for example, where you have a dynasty of kings, and basically everyone in that dynasty is a Shaivite, they worship Shiva. But then one of them is a Buddhist, and they spend a special amount of time devoting themselves to Buddhism. Or we have texts from the other side where one of the holy men has met with the king and then written about it. And they seem at least to believe that it's utterly sincere, that this king's very much devoted to their cause and very much interested in it. Although, of course, they might be lying too. I think that I'm not entirely sure whether it's sincere, but you can see how the rulers are getting something out of this, this relationship with the religious sects, which goes beyond just devotion to learning and understanding. Especially when they're associating themselves with an institution. Lots of these institutions, the royal dynasties are pouring loads of their money into. And often they're pouring money into institutions who follow a sect that they don't follow themselves. Take for example, the Maitrakas, the guys who funded that university I talked about in modern-day Gujarat. They all worship Shiva pretty much. One of them doesn't, but all of the rest of them do. But they're pouring more of their money, much more of their money into the Buddhist institutions, into the Buddhist university there than they are into Shiva worship. There's only one grant to a Shiva temple, there's 20 or 30 to Buddhist institutions. So what's going on here, I think, isn't a sincere devotion to Buddhist doctrine – they're getting things out of it. They're getting two major things out of this interaction with these Buddhist scholars, these Buddhist institutions. Firstly, they're getting advisors, very highly-educated advisors. People have passed through Valabhi, the university there. They've studied the sects, they study the texts of all the different sects. They've studied the texts which talk about warfare, about how to run a country. They're as highly educated as you're going to get. And they often go and work in the local court for the local king. The other thing they're getting is this deep connection to the merchant class in their kingdom. Because especially Buddhist universities, but also other institutions, they have this intimate tie with the rich men, the setis or the rich traders in that area. And the devotion to Buddhism. So if I'm a king, and there's this organization which all loads of the merchants donate their money to and spend their time at and have a close place in their heart for, and if I go and become the patron of that institution, then I'm in with the rich guys in my kingdom. I've won their hearts a little bit. So there are definitely things other than pure philosophical insight that the kings are getting out of this. Whether they're sincerely looking for this philosophical insight, probably depends person by person, I guess. I don't know. 

Peter Adamson: And I guess maybe the rulers are also living up to some kind of norm or standard of how rulers conceive themselves or are expected to behave. If they look back to a figure like Ashoka, for example, who was, I would say, pretty obviously quite sincere in his commitment to Buddhism or philosophical ideas more generally, we find them in his inscriptions and so on. And if that's the model you're trying to imitate, then I think that should encourage us to think that it's part of an ideology that the rulers themselves are signed up to, that they should genuinely value scholarship and know something about it, right? 

Kit Patrick: Yeah, absolutely. And it's a much older tradition than Ashoka too. It's a core part of the idea of Indian kingship that doesn't change that much over time. And it's supposed to have practical consequences. If I'm understanding, say, the four varnas and the Varna-Dharma, the virtues which follow from that, then that will make my people happy. It's part of my responsibility as king to be in touch with philosophy, at least to some extent, so that I can rule effectively. 

Peter Adamson: Something you mentioned just a minute ago is ideas about warfare. And there are texts from ancient India about the correct or strategically best way to prosecute a war. And that makes me really curious because actually it was one of the most interesting things that I think you've talked about in your podcast recently, that there are kind of changing ideas about how to fight wars. And one of the ideas that you get is that you should fight wars in a way that minimizes death and violence. And I'm wondering whether that has something to do with these philosophical ideas of nonviolence that you see most famously in Jainism and Buddhism, but also on the Vedic side, the Brahminical side, of the equation. Do you think that that's actually an influence from philosophy on everyday political life? 

Kit Patrick: It's hard to say, isn't it? The timing would suggest no, I think. So when you have this move away from sacrifice, for example, that's happening many hundreds of years before this move away from warfare – Ashoka doesn't really engage in ahimsa, but not as we understand it today. But during Ashoka's time, you have the Arthashastra, which you talked about on your podcast. And that's full-out crooked war. That's full-out trick your opponents, punish them when they're down, crush them completely. So the ideas, the ethics of warfare aren't in lockstep with the broader ethics of violence. And the idea that you should engage in warfare only as a very last resort, and engage in such a way that you're trying to spare as many people's lives as possible, that comes much later. Having said that, we have these elements in the ethics of war from the very beginning, which do seem to be in the direction of ahimsa. So for example, Megasthenes, who's a Greek ambassador at the Mauryan court way back here, midst of Ashoka's dynasty, he talks about there being a rule that you're not allowed to harm or kill any worker on the fields. So he says there'll be a battle, and just a mile away, you'd find people working in the fields, feeling like they were perfectly safe. We had the idea stretching back quite far into Indian history that when you conquer a king, preferably you haven't killed him on the battlefield because you want to reinstate him, and going around and killing kings and taking all of their territory and ransacking it, that's a bad form of war really. And also there are these ideas about not killing those people who are running away and so forth. So there was some element throughout Indian history in the ethics of war of trying not to cause excessive damage. But the really thoughtful way of thinking about the ethics of war, which said hold back as much as you can, and when you go for it, make sure you do it in a way which kills as few as possible, even if that means lowering your own honor, that's a bit too late, I think. That's my guess anyway. 

Peter Adamson: So that idea that you're trying to minimize destruction and death, so they even license basically trickery, right? So you can do that even by lowering your own honor. So you're allowed to be sneaky or maybe use spies or ambushes or whatever. And the rationale for that is that fewer people will get killed in the process?

Kit Patrick: Absolutely. And that would be completely unacceptable during Ashoka's time according to the ethics of war in the Arthashastra written about then. But it became acceptable just because people started to value life more than looking good, I suppose. Gosh, that was a very pointed way of putting it. 

Peter Adamson: So it's actually maybe an admirable development within Indian political life. So you just mentioned the workers out in the fields, which calls to mind something else I wanted to ask you actually, which is whether you think that these philosophical ideas that we've been looking at our podcast in any way kind of penetrated out into the wider populace? I tend to think about philosophy in European history as a very elite enterprise. So I don't imagine that medieval peasants knew very much about what the scholastics were doing at the University of Paris. Maybe if you think about literature like Chaucer, you can see that people sometimes laughed at the so-called clerks. But I don't think that they necessarily knew very much about what the clerks at the universities were getting up to. But that doesn't sit very well with our ideas about Indian culture, because we tend to assume that, for example, the population would be widely very acquainted with Buddhist ideas, even if they weren't Buddhists, right? And so I'm wondering whether if you just walked into a marketplace in ancient India and started talking to people,, whether you'd find that they were reasonably well informed about philosophical debates of any kind? 

Kit Patrick: Yeah, good question. I'd love to give a straight answer, but I'm not going to give one again. Sorry.

Peter Adamson: Good story. It's terrible. 

Kit Patrick: You philosophers. So the thought that it's just the upper-class elites who are doing philosophy, I think that by the late Gupta era, so towards 400, 500, 600 AD, that's not uniquely true anymore. We have small societies growing up called gosthi, where you have completely disparate parts of society coming together. So you'd have 12, 24 people coming together in a house, sometimes in the house of a prostitute, often in the house of one of the members. And they'd be engaging in intellectual pursuits – maybe they'd have music playing and they'd do some music theory, or maybe they just have philosophical debate. And we know a little bit, just a small window into these, because of a writer, the first biographer in Sanskrit who talks about his own life a bit, Bana. And he says that he basically joined one of these institutions and he talks about all of his friends that he met there. One by one, there are 44 of them. And we have this fantastic mix. So one of them is a Jain monk, for example. One of them is a female toilet attendant. One of them is a dancer. We have a snake charmer. We have a Shivayat monk. We have a bunch of people from all walks of society meeting together and engaging in philosophical discussion. So it's not that it's just the official top rung of society that's engaging in this. This is something that lots of different people could get involved with, at least by the late Gupta period. If they were, probably they'd have to be in a large city. But it's not just up at the top. But then you put the question in a more pointed way. If I went just to the market and I spoke to someone, and imagine that there's someone who's not involved in this goshti about Buddhism, would they know what it was? And this is my guess. And it's just a guess, and I'm not a professional historian. I'm an amateur historian with twinges of professional history of science. My guess is that there really were two parts of Buddhism, the high-minded, more official version that you get in most of the texts. And there was this other version of Buddhism, part of the same institution, but with a very different flavor, very different feel. So if you go and you see the Stupa at Sanchi, you'll see these things which you would never have expected if you all you had read was the Buddhist texts, you will see erotic scenes, you will see trees and life and dancing and lots of engagement with the world, lots of attachment, exactly the sort of things you're not really supposed to be involved with if you just read monkish texts. So it seems like there were these two parts. And in between the two parts, you have the Jataka tales. Maybe actually the Jataka tales is really the way to think about this – these Buddhist tales about Buddha’s former life. But if you look closely at the Jataka tales, you'll notice that exactly the same stories are used elsewhere in Indian literature. For example, quite a few of them are in the Mahabharata, Brahminical Hindu orthodox epic, or they're in other other texts, collections of stories. And if you track down the stories, you'll notice that they're quite different in the different sources, or at least they have the same story, but a different moral. So for example, you might find one of the Jatakas is about a father who goes off and leaves his son and his son gets bitten by a snake. And in the Jataka, because it's Buddhist, the upshot of the story is how the father is completely unmoved because he doesn't have any sort of bad attachment to his son. He doesn't grieve at all. But if you find the same story in the Mahabharata, it becomes a legal worry. It's a debate about who's at fault. Is it the snake who bit the boy? Is it the boy for messing with – he gets bitten because he burns some rubbish – is it the boy for burning the rubbish, or is it the father for leaving him? So what's going on here seems to be this common store of stories and themes and ideas. So if you go into the marketplace and you start talking about some of that part of Buddhism, people will recognize that story, even if they've never heard it from a Buddhist before. And you might give a slightly new spin on it, but it's basically from a common storehouse. You'll be, if you read the Buddhist text, sharing the common themes, the common ideas there. And part of that common storehouse is philosophical. If you go into the marketplace, everyone's going to know about karma and samsara and so forth – and moksha even. So there you go. That's my not straight answer to your question. 

Peter Adamson: And it sounds even like it might be – I think that's very plausible, what you said, that there's kind of two levels as it were. Obviously one thing going on might be that there's the literate class and the non-literate class, right? But it might even be that it's more continuous than that. And that's something that might be true in a European context too. I was talking about how scholasticism was this literally cloistered world that most medieval people wouldn't have known anything about. But on the other hand, it's obviously continuous with Christian belief and theology. So they're worrying about the Trinity or the Eucharist, and medieval peasants know about the Trinity and the Eucharist. So maybe it's more a matter of how technical and how deeply they're thinking about these same topics like say moksha – so liberation, it's a kind of common idea in the culture. And the question is, are you the sort of person who just has some basic ideas about how moksha works, and what the goal is and how it can be achieved? Or are you the kind of person who writes and reads many, many pages of technical philosophy to that idea? 

Kit Patrick: Maybe there's a slight difference in the Indian context, because starting with the Buddhists, and then the Jains and those in Brahminical orthodoxy, try and form these middle categories where you're a lay devotee – and these are partly middle categories because they need people to fund the monastery, but monks don't have any money and don't make any money, so you need rich merchants to be committed to the monastery in some way. But also you might find this kind of middle category where they have to listen to some of the doctrines because they're sort of officially part of the sangha, the community. So I don't know if you find that in Europe, you find that there's people in the middle who are forced to listen to some of the stuff perhaps and learn some of the philosophy, but they really got one foot in the world still. 

Peter Adamson: Oh, I think so. A lot of the students ,who went to the universities and learned the liberal arts, they actually just wanted to go off and work in the chanceries or court or whatever. So they learned their logic, like eating their vegetables. And then they went off and did whatever they really wanted to do back in the world. Just like our students today. Actually, can I ask you to say a bit more about the stories and legends? That's a really prominent feature of your own podcast that you often recount myths, legends, stories from the ancient Indian literature. And we've done that a bit in our series as well. We talked about the Mahabharata quite a bit, the Bhagavad Gita, which is part of the Mahabharata. But we didn't delve into literature very broadly. But I wonder whether you think that actually that's something that a historian of Indian philosophy should do. So they should look at all of these stories about talking animals and things like that and think about their philosophical implications. 

Kit Patrick: It's a little bit tricky because of the thing that I just said, that these stories are really, especially the animal stories, just common stories which are used for different philosophical ends. So I suppose if you're a historian and philosopher, you only need to look at the moral, not the story. To make that concrete, there's a famous story, at least famous in India, of a bunch of crows. And in the Buddhist scriptures, the Jataka tales, Buddha is one of the crows, this is Buddha in an earlier life. And this guy goes out to go and catch the crows. He throws a net over them. And Buddha, who's the king crow, says, everyone flap your wings at once and we'll escape. And the bird-catcher goes home, and his wife kind of has a go at him. What are you seeing someone else on the side? What are you doing? He said, no, no, no, the birds have just got really cunning. So he goes out again, and he tries to catch them with his net again. And this time, there's a fight. The crows start pecking at each other. One crow treads on the other crow's head by accident, and there's a fight, and Buddha leaves. So that's the Buddhist version. But then you can find a version in the Mahabharata, which is quite different. There are only two crows and the guy who catches them only has a noose, which puts the two crows together, and they fly off together, and he doesn't go home. He just follows them until they fight, and then he catches them. And then there's another version, and yet another Brahminical orthodox text, where the hunter doesn't win, the birds win in the end. So it's one and the same story with slightly different morals. But importantly, actually, if you think about the morals, they're not very closely tied into the main thrust of the different doctrines where they're coming from. There's nothing about the Bhagavad Gita that you'll find in that story of the two crows. There's nothing about Moksha, or attaining enlightenment, in the Buddhist version of the story. Instead, what you've got in and throughout the Buddhist folk tales, you've got this focus on being virtuous. The way that you get good karma is just to do virtuous things, don't bother sacrificing animals, just be a good person. But that's a long way from many of the core ideas of Buddhism. So I think what we've got here again is common stories that are being used for various different philosophical ideas. But those philosophical ideas are from the sort of everyday version of Buddhism rather than the high-minded version of Buddhism, the everyday version of Brahminical orthodoxy rather than some high-minded theoretical stuff. That's my guess. 

Peter Adamson: Okay, so before we end, I just want to mention one other thing, which I think you've never actually admitted on your podcast, which is – you always say you're an amateur historian. And so people might wonder what you do in your day job. And it turns out the answer is you're a philosopher. And you used to teach philosophy in the UK, and now you've moved to India and you're a philosopher there. And so I was just wondering, can you tell us something about what it's like to be a philosophy teacher in modern India? 

Kit Patrick: Quite different. Number one, people ask you things like, why would anyone want to do philosophy? That's not something you get asked that much in the UK anymore. Employers like philosophy, and people do philosophy to get a good job. And here the attitude is quite different. And what people see of philosophy is quite different. They think of it more as we would think of the history of ideas, by and large. And that in fact is the way it's often taught here I think, both Indian philosophy and analytic philosophy or Western philosophy in general. It's taught more as a history of ideas than here's an idea, now you the student go and engage with it, come up with a response to that idea, which is more the way that I'm used to teaching it in the West. So that's one major difference. Although, I'm often encouraged by the fact that students here get just as quickly into the same philosophical problems as students in the UK, and are just as imaginative and just as brilliant, just as surprising in how they come up with answers. I don't think there's any difference in how people do the sort of philosophy that I like when they're doing it. There's just a different attitude to philosophy. 

Peter Adamson: Is there a lot of interest on the part of the students that you've met in ancient Indian philosophy as well? 

Kit Patrick: There's been a mixture. So I've done classes in a bunch of different institutions in India before I joined this current university. Sometimes the people there were like, this is brilliant, this is wonderful, I haven't heard about this end of Indian philosophy before. Other times they've been quite lukewarm. There's a feeling amongst a certain section, I think, of the students across India that they've just heard all of it before. Not that they have necessarily, but they feel like they've heard it all before. There's these great comic book series that are released and very popular in India, and they cover some of the same ideas. At least they cover the stories of some of these thinkers. You can read it in comic book form when you're a kid. And when you get to college, you're like, that's old hat. 

Peter Adamson: Okay. So Indian philosophy available as comic books as well as podcasts. 

Kit Patrick: I should say there's very little of the ideas in those comic books. If you want the ideas, you have to go for the podcasts. If you want a very coarse outline of the history, the comic books are there somewhere.


Tarun G on 5 July 2023

Comic books

I think the comic books Kit Patrick is referring to are Amar Chitra Katha. I've definitely read some of those growing up, and they don't cover much philosophy actually. The focus is on characters and stories, and the comics range over figures from (Hindu) mythology and Indian history, and folktales and parables.

Kautilya, Ashoka, Buddha, Mahavira, Mahabharata, Bhagavad-Gita, select tales from Upanishads, Dara Shikoh, Vivekananda, Tagore, Gandhi, Ambedkar, Nehru, and even Einstein all have appeared in the ACK comics.

ACK comics aren't without controversy, though, and much has been written about how problematic their representation (narrative and especially visual) of India sometimes is. (See, for instance, here) For a Western audience, I'll say this is much like critiques of Rudyard Kipling, Roald Dahl, or Enid Blyton.

A more recent philosophy-for-children work in India is Sundar Sarukkai's book Philosophy for Children. The book is aimed at a schoolgoing audience, and is available in multiple Indian language translations besides English.

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