Hinduism is considered to be a religion, most of the times. But if you dig deep, then there are philosophies embedded in the religious Hindu books, and these philosophies, as well as the teachings, have influenced philosophers in the west too.
Here are some of the renowned western philosophers who have found some homage in Hinduism:
1. Aldous Huxley
English writer, novelist, and philosopher, Aldous Huxley was a prominent member of the Huxley family. He was the one who took Vedanta and Upanishads to Huxley family, as well as implemented the principle of ‘ahimsa’ in the family. He was also a Vedantist in the circle of Hindu Swami Prabhavananda and is known for his philosophical book ‘The Perennial Philosophy’, which talks about the mystics of Hinduism.
Here are some of the instances:
- “The Bhagavad-Gita is the most systematic statement of spiritual evolution of endowing value to mankind. It is one of the clearest and comprehensive summaries of perennial philosophy ever revealed; hence its enduring value is subject not only to India but to all of the humanity.” [“Sacred Jewels of Yoga: Wisdom from India’s Beloved Scriptures, Teachers, Masters, and Monk”]
- “The Bhagavad-Gita is perhaps the most systematic scriptural statement of the Perennial Philosophy. To the world at war, a world that, because it lacks the intellectual and spiritual prerequisites to peace, can only hope to patch up some kind of precarious armed truce, it stands to point, clearly and unmistakably, to the only road of escape from the self-imposed necessity of self-destruction.” [Aldous Huxley, “Bhagavad-Gita:: The Song of God”: Translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, With an Introduction by Aldous Huxley, Signet Classics, 2002, Introduction]
- Beginning in 1939 and continuing until his death in 1963, Huxley had an extensive association with the Vedanta Society of Southern California, founded and headed by Swami Prabhavananda. Together with Gerald Heard, Christopher Isherwood, and other followers he was initiated by the Swami and was taught meditation and spiritual practices [Roy, Sumita (2003), Aldous Huxley And Indian Thought, Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd]
- The Perennial Philosophy is expressed most succinctly in the Sanskrit formula, tat tvam asi (‘That thou art’); the Atman, or immanent eternal Self, is one with Brahman, the Absolute Principle of all existence; and the last end of every human being, is to discover the fact for himself, to find out who he really is. [The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Hinduism – By Linda Johnsen p. 363]
- “The religions whose theology is least preoccupied with events in time and most concerned with eternity, have been consistently less violent and more humane in political practice. Unlike early Judaism, Christianity and Mohammedanism (all obsessed with time) Hinduism and Buddhism have never been persecuting faiths, have preached almost no holy wars and have refrained from that proselytizing religious imperialism which has gone hand in hand with political and economic oppression of colored people.” [The Perennial philosophy – By Aldous Huxley p. 194 – 204]
2. Alfred North Whitehead
Known for the philosophical school of process philosophy (which has today found application in many disciplines such as ecology, theology, education, physics, biology, economics, and psychology), Alfred North Whitehead is an influential philosopher and mathematician in the west. His book ‘Principia Mathematica’ is said to be an important contribution to the world of mathematical logic. It was only later when he turned to metaphysics and developed a comprehensive metaphysical system which seems to have taken its roots in Hinduism:
- “The vastest knowledge of today cannot transcend the buddhi of the Rishis in ancient India, and science in its most advanced stage now is closer to Vedanta than ever before.”
3. Arnold J. Toynbee
Arnold Joseph Toynbee was a renowned British historian, philosopher of history and research professor. He was one of the widely-read historian and philosophers by scholars and is famous for his 12-volume ‘A study of history’. He also seems to have taken some inspiration from Hinduism. Here are some of his quotes:
- “It is already becoming clear that a chapter which had a Western beginning will have to have an Indian ending if it is not to end in self-destruction of the human race. At this supremely dangerous moment in human history, the only way of salvation is the ancient Hindu way. Here we have the attitude and spirit that can make it possible for the human race to grow together into a single family.”
- “So now we turn to India. This spiritual gift, that makes a man human, is still alive in Indian souls. Go on giving the world Indian examples of it. Nothing else can do so much to help mankind to save itself from destruction.”
- “There may or may not be only one single absolute truth and only one single ultimate way of salvation. We do not know. But we do know that there are more approaches to the truth than one and more means of salvation than one.’’
- ‘‘This is a hard saying for adherents of the higher religions of the Judaic family (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), but it is a truism for Hindus. The spirit of mutual good-will, esteem, and veritable love … is the traditional spirit of the religions of the Indian family. This is one of India’s gifts to the world.”
4. Arthur Schopenhauer
Perhaps the most famous philosopher on this list. Schopenhauer was a German Philosopher who is said to have taken transcendental idealism of Immanuel Kant to an atheistic metaphysical ethical system. He was one of the first thinkers in Western philosophy to incorporate Eastern philosophy:
- He was so impressed by the philosophy of Upanishads, that he called them “the production of the highest human wisdom.”
- “Upanishads are the most satisfying and elevating reading (with the exception of the original text) which is possible in the world; it has been the solace of my life and will be the solace of my death.” [Clarke, John James (1997). Oriental enlightenment. Routledge. p. 68. ISBN 978-0-415-13376-0]
- Throughout his work “The World as Will and Representation” and “Tat Tvam Asi” (I am that), a Mahavakya from Chandogya Upanishad appears frequently.
- “There is no religion or philosophy so sublime and elevating as Vedanta.” [Kumbha Mela – By Jack Hebner and David Osborn p. preface – By Thomas Beaudry]
- “According to me, the influence of Sanskrit literature on our time will not be lesser than what was in the 16th century Greece’s influence on Renaissance. One day, India’s wisdom will flow again on Europe and will totally transform our knowledge and thought.” [The Soul of India – By Amaury de Riencourt p 274-275]
- “From every sentence (of the Upanishads) deep, original and sublime thoughts arise, and the whole is pervaded by a high and holy and earnest spirit….”In the whole world, there is no study so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Upanishads. They are destined sooner or later to become the faith of the people.”
- “If the reader has also received the benefit of the Vedas, the access to which by means of the Upanishads is in my eyes the greatest privilege which this still young century (1818) may claim before all previous centuries, if then the reader, I say, has received his initiation in primeval Indian wisdom, and received it with an open heart, he will be prepared in the very best way for hearing what I have to tell him. It will not sound to him strange, as too many others, much less disagreeable; for I might, if it did not sound conceited, contend that every one of the detached statements which constitute the Upanishads, may be deduced as a necessary result from the fundamental thoughts which I have to enunciate, though those deductions themselves are by no means to be found there” [The World as Will and Representation Preface to the first edition, p. xiii]
- “… how early this basic truth was recognized by the sages of India, since it appears as the fundamental tenet of the Vedânta philosophy ascribed to Vyasa, is proved by Sir William Jones in the last of his essays: ‘On the Philosophy of the Asiatics’ (Asiatic Researches, vol. IV, p. 164): “The fundamental tenet of the Vedânta school consisted not in denying the existence of matter, that is solidity, impenetrability, and extended figure (to deny which would be lunacy), but in correcting the popular notion of it, and in contending that it has no essence independent of mental perception; that existence and perceptibility are convertible terms.”” [Text in italics is from William Jones]
5. Francois Voltaire
Having produced more than 20,000 letters and more than 2,000 books and pamphlets, Voltaire was a versatile writer, rationalist, and philosopher. Victor Hugo says, “To name Voltaire is to characterize the entire eighteenth century”. As such, he is considered as one of the greatest literary figures of the eighteenth century, and he was also influenced by Vedas:
- “The Vedas was the most precious gift for which the West had ever been indebted to the East.” [“A Critical Study of the Contribution of the Arya Samaj to Indian Education”, p. 68]
- “I am convinced that everything has come down to us from the banks of the Ganges, – astronomy, astrology, metempsychosis, etc… It is very important to note that some 2,500 years ago at the least Pythagoras went from Samos to the Ganges to learn geometry…But he would certainly not have undertaken such a strange journey had the reputation of the Brahmins’ science not been long established in Europe” [Voltaire, Lettres sur l’origine des sciences et sur celle des peuples de l’Asie (first published Paris, 1777), letter of 15 December 1775.]
- Believed reincarnation is a plausible idea.
- He believed that Christianity derived from Hinduism. He wrote to and assured Fredrick the Great of Prussia that “our holy Christian religion is solely based upon the ancient religion of Brahma.” [On Hinduism Reviews and Reflections – By Ram Swarup p. 101-102]
6. Rudolf Steiner
The Australian philosopher is known for his philosophical work ‘The Philosophy of Freedom’ and is associated with the school of Monism, Holism in science, Goethean science and Anthroposophy. He attempted at finding the synergy between science and spirituality, which he termed it as “spiritual science” that applied clarity of Western thinking to answer spiritual questions in the world of mysticism. He too has drawn some influence from Hinduism in doing so:
- “In order to approach a creation as sublime as the Bhagavad-Gita with full understanding, it is necessary to attune our soul to it.”
- Steiner proposed that an understanding of reincarnation and karma was necessary to understand psychology. In an extensive series of lectures from February to September 1924, Steiner presented further research on successive reincarnations of various individualities and described the techniques he used for karma research [Rudolf Steiner, Reincarnation, and Karma: Concepts Compelled by the Modern Scientific Point of view, in Lucifer Gnosis 1903]
7. Wilhelm von Humboldt
Wilhelm von Humboldt was a Prussian philosopher and is recognized for his Humboldtian education ideal which was the educational model during the 19th century Prussia. His philosophical work however can be found in “The Limits of State Action” which was written in 1791-1792 (though only published in 1850) where he defends the liberties of ‘the Enlightenment’.
Here’s one quote that shows his relationship with Hinduism:
- On Bhagavad Gita: “The most beautiful, perhaps the only true philosophical song existing in any known tongue … perhaps the deepest and loftiest thing the world has to show.” [George Anastaplo (2002). But Not Philosophy: Seven Introductions to Non-Western Thought. Lexington. p. 85.]
8. Will Durant
Willian James Durant is known for his philosophical work ‘The Story of Philosophy’ (1926) which he wrote with his wife, Ariel Durant and is said to be a “groundbreaking work that helped to popularize philosophy”. He was also awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1968 and Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977.
One quote that shows what we are discussing since the beginning:
- Perhaps in return for conquest, arrogance, and spoliation, India will teach us the tolerance and gentleness of the mature mind, the quiet content of the unacquisitive soul, the calm of the understanding spirit, and a unifying, a pacifying love for all living things.
(References: wiki.com, aumamen.com)