5 Questions with Sonam Kachru

December 1, 2022

Sonam Kachru, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, joined Yale at the beginning of the 2022–23 academic year.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Until recently I was an Indian citizen. I was born in Nairobi, Kenya and moved around a lot because my parents moved around a lot. I went to college at IIT Bombay. Various circumstances led me to leave engineering to seek out an education in the US. I gravitated towards philosophy. Then I realized you could study Indian philosophy and Buddhist philosophy, albeit in religious studies. Since then I’ve been trying to find a way to—on the one hand—study the history of Indian philosophy and the history of Buddhist philosophy and—on the other hand—find a place for it in the humanities. This stuff exists, it should be studied, and it should be studied as part of the general humanities curriculum if possible. My work is about getting the facts right about this subject and trying to think about ways in which to bring it into the curriculum as a more central, necessary part of anyone’s education.

Can you talk about your research and what you think is missing in understandings of Indian philosophy and Buddhist philosophy?

If I’m speaking to people who are not specialists in the field of Indian philosophy, my first goal is to establish that there is such a thing. Here you have to be very careful. One of the most dangerous things that can happen is you get false allies, allies who will say, “European philosophy is not the only philosophy there is. There are other kinds of ways of thinking.” By which they mean ways of thinking that do not privilege exchange of reason or argumentation or which embrace contradiction or think in parables. And this can come from a good place. It can come from wanting to make room for non-European philosophy. But for the student of Indian philosophy, this is the wrong way. In India you don’t need to say that argumentation or exchange of reason or analysis have no place. In India there have been professionalized disciplinary forms invested in the study of certain kinds of subjects and certain kinds of methodologies that we would have no problem recognizing as philosophy. You can see the ways in which Indian philosophers themselves start characterizing one genre in a way that foregrounds the analysis of reason. Philosophers tend to talk in arguments and then they tend to spend a long time worrying about whether particular arguments are good or not. That’s a very particular preoccupation.

Now, if I’m talking to specialists of Indian philosophy, we’ve all agreed that there is philosophy in India, and rationality is valued. I’m interested in the history of this. When did these disciplines come to be? What are their limitations, if there were any? Was this a total identity—could one be a philosopher by day and a poet by night? When did philosophy become independent of a particular scriptural tradition? When did Buddhists and Jains and Shaiva authors begin to create this language in which they could reason with one another in a secular way, without any reference to scripture? That I’m very interested in, and it turns out it’s not obvious. There’s not just philosophy in India, there’s a history of philosophy and a history of secularization and desecularization. A fascinating history.

[My book] Other Lives is a small little footnote in that history. Buddhist philosophy was instrumental in creating a secular, professionalized language of philosophy as a transgenerational enterprise in which different thinkers from different traditions contribute arguments and meet and refine claims over time. That starts at the end of the 5th century, and I’m interested in writers who are writing on the cusp of that. I’m interested in [one] guy, Vasubandhu, because he was instrumental in the creation of these vocabularies. But he also wrote this work which looks in the opposite direction: it’s written in a very cosmological way, and it’s like he’s writing to Buddhists. The claim of Other Lives is that he’s reminding Buddhists that there’s a reason they think in their own vocabularies and scripturally rich terms. The question is “Why?” What would that give you? Would it just give you something that’s irrational or something that you can’t express in any rational terms? I think not. The claim of the book is that cosmology for Vasubandhu is functioning a little bit like natural history functioned for Darwin. The central claim of the book is that the central claim of Vasubandhu’s great essay is that you do not understand the mind or life unless you place it in a space [in which it is contextualized]. Human minds need to think about the context, and cosmology is what gives them the conceptual apparatus to do that.

In terms of this bigger story, I feel myself torn between saying, on the one hand, that there’s something very powerful when Indian philosophers say, “Let’s reason with each other and across these scriptural boundaries.” You get a dialogue across these closed insulated spaces. The most important thing I can do for you, even if you belong to a different community, is ask you, “Is that true, what you believe?” And we’ll give you the credit of saying it could be true, and if it’s true then I ought to believe it and you have to prove it to me. And so we work together to create these canons of reasoning with which we can persuade each other. That’s very powerful. At the same time, I believe that we lose something when we cannot think in imaginative, texturally rich ways with these vocabularies that may not be translatable immediately to other people in different conditions. That’s the big drama: should we think only in terms of what can be translated or are there reasons to be suspicious of this, to slow down and look at things in their specificity?

Typically, my answer is going to be that we need all of these things. So that’s what I am hoping to contribute. Eventually, people should have access to this stuff as part of their basic history.

On the topic of bringing these subjects into the curriculum, could you talk a little bit about how you do that in your own teaching?

How to bring it into the curriculum… I think the way to do it is not to wring one’s hands too much and just to do it. Just teach it, the way one would teach Dante or we teach The Republic as a work of enduring significance that has constituted communities and been challenged by them and which should challenge us.

There is one thing I like to tell my students, which is that we’re not the first people to do this. People have been doing it for centuries and generations. I mean, the Indian thinkers are already cosmopolitan, the Chinese thinkers are already cosmopolitan. You read al-Biruni’s work on Indian thought and he’s already bringing the Greeks into conversation with Indian philosophy, with Islamic theology. You get these beautiful cosmopolitan spaces. We should learn from these spaces and teach and emulate them as well.

How do you make sure that people who don’t have an affective pull to South Asia see the value of studying these philosophical traditions and might want to take a course on the Gita or Buddhist philosophy?

One way is to trust the work. I think that introduced and contextualized, these works are powerful enough to be transformative. It is very hard to encounter Kalidasa or the Gita or Nagarjuna and not be moved or transformed. I think certain kinds of works were made to have very personal or transformative connections with individuals. The Gita talks about itself that way and there are other works of philosophy that talk about themselves that way. They enter into you and become part of you, transform you. Some works need a simpatico reader, but some works can transcend that too.

Failing that, there are two kinds of ways I think these works can speak to people. One is by speaking to problems that students or professors are invested in. Let’s say you’ve got some sort of theorization of the relationship between consciousness and mind and you’re interested in how these things work. Put this before a professor of mind and say there’s a thousand years of debate on this topic and this immediately becomes relevant. That’s one way.

Another way is to motivate new problems, and that’s a little harder because it’s always difficult to convince an intellectual community that they should consider other problems. But that work should also be done, otherwise what happens is we link up the worth and value of an entire people and tradition to providing answers for other people’s questions. That seems like bad epistemic politics. So hopefully there are problems that we share already, and hopefully we’ll see that there’s also value to the problems others grapple with.

The best works of philosophy—whether Chinese or Indian or African or European—at some level put us as people into question: what we believe; not just as abstract thinkers but as individuals: what should we feel, what should we believe, who are we? That’s where maybe Indian philosophy can provide new ways of posing and resolving these questions.

Why Yale?

It feels like there is a value given to the humanities and to humanistic conversation across disciplines. And the students are amazing. I think that matters. You have to have the right kind of students who are not just voraciously smart, but venturesome and eager for these kinds of conversations.

Byline: Daevan Mangalmurti