Derrida and Indian Philosophy

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Derrida and Indian Philosophy
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This Book establishes a constructive and mutually stimulating dialogue between Jac- ques Derrida and Eastern thought. Surprising parallels are found with some traditional In- dian philosophies of language, especially with the Hindu Philosopher, and with the Chinese Taoists. Conversely, the views of Sankara and Nagarjuna on language definite- ly differ from those of Derrida.

Derrida and Indian Philosophy builds a bridge by which traditional Eastern views on language can engage the latest in modern Western thought. It also shows that our un- derstanding of Derrida can be enhanced when his thought is approached from an Eastern perspective on language.

The book includes seven chapters. They are Ch. 1. Philosophy East and West, Ch. 2. Derrida and Bhartrhari's Vakyapadiya on the Origin of Language, Ch. 3. Derrida and Bhartrhari on Speech and Writing, Ch. 4. Der- rida and Sankara, Ch. 5. Derrida and Aurobindo. Ch. 6. Derrida and Nagarjunna and Ch. 7. Conclusion. The book contains detailed notes and an Index.


About the Author

Harold Coward is Director of Calgary In- stitute for the Humanities and Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary. He is author of Jung and Eastern Thought and Modern Indian Response to Religious Pluralism.



Very early in life, as early as I can remember, my mother told me bible stories. These oral words had a deep and transforming effect upon my consciousness. For me as a young child the experience of hearing the word of Scripture provided the basis of my religious experience, and they remain the fundamental grounding of my life to this day. Later in church school, university, and seminary I studied the scriptural word as a written text. I learned to approach the Bible as literature, to examine its historical context, its literary sources, its structural forms, its canonization and interpretation. All of this naturally led on to a study of theology, philosophy, and psychology - always with language as the point of focus.

How is it that we experience the word? Although intellectually stimulating and enlightening, this analysis of the Bible and the philosophical and psychological function of language sometimes led to a dimming of the transforming power of God’s word in my life. When I began to study Indian religion and philosophy, and its experience of Hindu scripture in particular, I became resensitized to the spiritual power of the Christian Scripture. The Hindu emphasis on the Veda as oral, and its downplaying of the written text made me think back to my early experience of hearing the parables of Jesus at my mother's knee. For the Hindu, the spoken sacred word reveals divine truth and has power to trans- form one’s consciousness. In Indian thought writing is often devalued and seen only as a teaching or academic study aid. The end goal, however, aimed at actualizing the oral experience of language. Par1ini’s Sanskrit grammar, for example, is based on the oral experience of language and was taught and passed on from teacher to student in techniques of learning and memory that were fully oral in nature. All of this is developed into a full blown philosophy of language by Patanjali and Bhartrhari.

This study of Hindu scripture with its emphasis on the oral experience of the word and the philosophy of language it engendered led me to reflect on our modern Western way of thinking. Today most of us in the West simply take for granted that scripture means ”holy writ, " ”holy writing, or "sacred book." Our focus both as lay people and religious studies scholars is on the written or printed character of a holy text. Little attention is given to its function as spoken and heard sacred word. This is also true for modern Western philosophy. Whereas Rhetoric once played a major role in Western philosophy, it has now fallen into disrepute in favor of analysis of written texts. The reasons for this emphasis upon the written rather than the oral word are not hard to find. In the recent past, at least, the West has emphasized the study and importance of the written text for both scholarly and devotional purposes? Indeed the very words scripture (from the Latin scripture, "a writing") and bible (from the Latin biblia, “a collection of writings" or book") have led us to think of divine revelation as a written or printed object. This conception of scripture as written word is bolstered in our culture by the great importance that we attach to the written or printed word. Indeed one modern scholar has gone so far as to term writing the humiliation of the w0rd3—a characterization that, as Derrida makes clear, is far too one-sided. Yet it is true that in many areas of life today we say that unless you have something in writing, it is not to be trusted. This valuation of the written over the oral-aural experience of language, although characteristic of the most recent period of Western cultural history, is, as Derrida shows us, part of a polarization that has been present in Western thought from the time of the Greeks.

These reflections led me to examine the respective roles played by oral and written language in the major world religions. The results of my study demonstrated that whereas in all cases religious traditions began with the experience of an oral (and usually poetic) word, written language also played an important function in the preservation and intellectual study of the text. By the end of the book, however, I found myself privileging the oral over the written to the point of concluding that of the two it is the oral word in its relational context that has the greater power to transform lives} I became aware that I was polarized in favor of the oral over against the written. This sense of intellectual imbalance led me, immediately, to a reading of Jacques Derrida. Here, I thought, I might find a balancing corrective—or at least a serious challenge- for Derrida constantly speaks of the importance of ”writing." What I found in Derrida, however, was something much deeper. Derrida does of course effectively challenge any privileging of the oral over the written—the error that he thinks Western philosophy and theology have fallen into. But to see him as arguing for “writing" (and this is exactly the way john Searle and other analytic philosophers typically respond to Derrida°) is to misread Derrida and miss the depth of his position. Recognizing Derrida’s rereading of the whole oral-written debate as shifting the analysis to a deeper level in an attempt to find a "middle way" I began to see many resonances to Indian philosophy—to the Buddhist critique of Nagarjuna first, and later to Bhartrhari's Hindu philosophy of language. In this way I came to write Derrida and Indian Philosophy. But before I beginning our comparison of Derrida and Indian philosophy, let us briefly examine the traditional nature of Indian philosophy and its recent attempts to relate itself to Western philosophy.

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