Celebrating the Publication of The Philosophy of the Brahma-sutra by Aleksandar Uskokov, Sanskrit Lector

March 21, 2023

            A colleague had recently stormed into his office and told him, “This is the most important book on Indian philosophy ever written,” Gary Tubb told an audience of 30 people, referring to the copy of Aleksandar Uskokov’s The Philosophy of the Brahma-sutra in his hand. Uskokov, the Sanskrit lector at South Asian Studies Council (SASC) at Yale University, published Philosophy of the Brahma-sutra in September 2022. SASC was delighted to host a panel on Monday, March 6, celebrating the release of the book. The panel featured Uskokov in conversation with Tubb, Anupama and Guru Ramakrishnan Professor at the University of Chicago; Noreen Khawaja, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University; and John Pittard, Associate Professor of Philosophy of Religion at Yale Divinity School. It was moderated by Supriya Gandhi, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies.

            The Brahma-sutra is a 5th century Sanskrit treatise attributed to Badarayana. It “is the canonical book of Vedanta, the philosophical tradition which became the doctrinal backbone of modern Hinduism. As an explanation of the Upanishads, it is principally concerned with the ideas of Brahman, the great ground of Being, and of the highest good.” Uskokov’s book discusses the text, the concepts therein, its doctrine of meditation, the religious context of its writing, and the commentarial traditions on it.

            Tubb, who served as Uskokov’s doctoral advisor at the University of Chicago, opened the panel with an anecdote about the impact of Philosophy of the Brahma-sutra and its importance. “At Chicago, it’s quite common to see faculty and students walking the hallways with a finger stuck in the pages in the hope that whatever task they’re completing will not distract them from the enjoyment of the book.” Tubb praised Uskokov’s correction of misunderstandings in the book, the presentation of evidence supporting popular beliefs around the Brahma-sutra, and the volume of new scholarship in the book, including study questions that Tubb said he was not confident he could answer himself.

            Tubb was followed by Khawaja and Pittard. Khawaja discussed the role of “play” and bliss in the Brahma-sutra, including a passage that refers to play as the purpose of creation. She drew links to Baudelaire and Kierkegaard, and posed the question of what it means to hold the idea of creation as play. Pittard was similarly interested in play and questioned why an independent and omnipotent existence would pursue play or games. He also asked how the problem of whether Brahman is discoverable only through scripture is addressed in the commentarial tradition on the Brahma-sutra.

            After thanking Tubb, who Uskokov described as his “great teacher in life,” Uskokov took some time to address the questions raised by Tubb, Khawaja, and Pittard. In particular, Uskokov elaborated that the concept of play for the divine is teleological and causal, and separate from play on the human level. He then took questions from Gandhi and the audience on topics such as the relationship of the Bhagavata Purana to the Brahma-sutra, the beginning of the Brahma-sutra, and the differences in commentarial tradition on the treatise.

            Uskokov thanked Sonam Kachru, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Gandhi, and SASC staff for making the event happen.

Byline: Daevan Mangalmurti