South Asia Center


Interview with 2011 Padma Shri Honoree Professor Emeritus Karl Potter

by Natasha Sarkar

Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Karl Potter was recently honored with the Government of India’s highest civilian award, the Padma Shri. Karl’s long and deep interest in India spans nearly seven decades. What started as a project in graduate school to gather a bibliography of Indian philosophy turned into a lifelong academic venture culminating into the Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, currently 13 volumes strong. This is an ongoing work in progress to assemble and summarize information on the various systems, darsana of Indian philosophy. Initiated forty years ago, the entire series is planned to consist of some 28 volumes: 26 dealing with particular philosophical systems, an introductory Bibliography, and a concluding Glossary/Index. Motilal Banarasidass has published all the volumes, some have been co-published with Princeton. The first volume, the Bibliography, is publically available off a web site hosted by the University of Washington

The Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award in the Republic of India is usually awarded to citizens of India to recognize their distinguished contribution in various spheres of activity including the arts, education, industry, literature, science, sports, medicine, social service, and public life. It is occasionally awarded non-citizens like Potter, who have contributed in various ways to India.

Karl Potter graduated in 1955 from Harvard University. He was a Fulbright scholar, taught at the University of Minnesota until 1970 at which point he came to the University of Washington. He is also served as Chair of the South Asia Center at the Jackson School of International Studies until his retirement.

In early May I sat down with the distinguished professor to discuss his passionate and lifelong commitment to Indian philosophy as an academic discipline. He presented photographs of his March 2011 trip to Delhi to receive his prestigious award and medal from the President of India, Smt. Pratibha Devisingh Patil. Also in attendance were Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh and President of the Indian National Congress, Ms. Sonia Gandhi, the granddaughter-in-law of the Late Jawaharlal Nehru. Potter had an audience with the-then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1955, during his first trip to India on the second Fulbright Scholars Program.

We started from the beginning.

Natasha: Please take us back to the beginnings of your interest in the field of Indian philosophy and how you came about to pursue it academically.

Karl: I had read a book called Peaks and Lamas and became interested in the philosophies of India. Nobody else was seemingly interested in Indian philosophy at that time. This was in the 1950’s. It was not yet considered an academic discipline separate from religious studies and some would argue is not yet even today.

Natasha: When did you first visit India?

Karl: I was part of the second Fulbright crew, in 1952-53. We had an audience with Jawaharlal Nehru, then Prime Minister of India. We all went over on a ship that left Great Britain and sailed all the way through Suez Canal on to India. I played the piano in those days. They got me playing the piano for all these businessmen going out to India to make their piles of money. I was there for nine months, I was in Andhra

Natasha: How would you say that the academic study of Indian philosophy has evolved as you witnessed it?

Karl: When I began at Harvard, there were no scholars or philosophers interested in this subject. Mostly they were interested in religion and not philosophy when I started to gain particular interest in Indian philosophy. Later when I started to put together a bibliography after graduating, it turned out that there was a vast literature which has now evolved into the Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies which I publish and still keep up to date. The Harvard people were trying to figure out how I could get a degree in philosophy, and not religion, from their department. At the time, they found it very complicated how to process this.

Natasha: How did you come about to establish the separation of Indian religion from Indian philosophy?

Karl: In my mind, in Indian philosophy the term ‘religion’ just doesn’t apply. Everything is dominated by religion in one sense but there is a traditional distinction between the aims of life. These include the ordinary getting along in life, working, going about one’s business; kama, characterized by desire, sexual relations and family and interpersonal relationships; dharma, the ethics and morality; and moksha, the pursuit of liberation. Indian philosophy has come to address how to deal with that fourth aim of life. How to get liberation and establishing that there is such a thing. That is what Indian philosophy is. It doesn’t really add up to what philosophy is in the West. It is all dealt with in moksha.

Natasha: Can you elaborate on the distinction between Western philosophy and religion and what constitutes Indian philosophy and religion?

Karl: Religion means something very different in the West and in India. There are lots of ‘Gods’ in India. However, Indian philosophy and philosophical systems deal with moksha, liberation and how to get it. The Gods that one sees in India, many of them, the basic ones, are not theistic at all; they have nothing to do with God. If religion involves a deity, then Indian philosophy is not essentially religious. One of my early triumphs, was to question the legitimacy or appropriateness of the traditional ways used to classify the systems of Indian philosophy. There is a tradition that there is supposed to be six, but in fact there are many more.

Natasha: How would you say the principle of moskha applies in modern-day India?

Karl: Liberation is turning away from the world. What we, in the West think of the world. It isn’t really the “world” from the Indian point of view, but from the outside, it’s the world as commonly defined. By that definition, you aren’t going to find deep insights in the philosophical literature and it’s certainly not going to deal with economics which is predominantly in the minds of modern day Indians, not liberation. There was a period in India before anybody had heard about liberation and karma, and then there is the period, I have been studying and describing. Then about a thousand years ago, a bit before, there emerges the Bhakti movement. Indian religion started to develop its own literature, it became more popular, people sang songs, sang their literature. You find even the philosophical literature pre-millennium says one thing but means another. People send messages what others seriously said but now they say it with a different purpose. That’s a literary genre. As an active belief, I think the power of economic and political progress…signals a shift in values. Now less and less people are excited by it. In America, yoga and vedanta are touted as Indian spirituality and I tend to think that kind of paints an incorrect picture. They are trying to sell something that they claim to be foreign without realizing from where it actually originates. All these ideas come out of the notion of liberation; the connection between the philosophy and the practice of yoga goes back to the discussion of the Bhakti movement. Modern schools of vedanta teach that liberation is no longer the aim but rather tp become one with god is to become at peace with yourself. They’ve lost the idea of liberation from the world. In my observation this is the result of the Bhakti movement.

Natasha: Does politics figure in the production of philosophy in India?

Karl: Philosophy, in my opinion, is not inherently political. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the second President of India though, was a great figure in the dissemination and development of Indian philosophy in modern times. In India, great scholars are celebrated as political figures by tradition. There is very little however, in politics that has to do with philosophy, except in the sense that everything is relevant to liberation. You have to live a thousand lives and live them well. And it is important to remember that one is liberating oneself from ones karma. The whole theory of Karma has to be understood. The West doesn’t necessarily want to believe that Karma is a serious driving force behind Indian philosophy. The root of the word Karma is ker, meaning to do things, to make things. The idea is that when you do something, you also make something. That karma is attached to you until it is worked off sometime later, if necessary after your death in the next life. Rebirth comes in as part of that theory. Mind you, there are, or at least were, Indians who vociferously objected to my account. Professor Daya Krishna, wrote a number of books detailing how Indian philosophy should be seen as philosophy, in the Western definition and not something dissimilar to it. My account of what Indian philosophy is about, doesn’t exclude the Western ideas, it broadens the traditional definition to include more of what is contained in Indian philosophy as in, the aids to liberate oneself.

Natasha: Can you take us through the journey that led to the Encyclopedia project?

Karl: I first thought of the idea in 1955 I suppose, I started work on a bibliography. Nobody knew what Indian philosophy was or that it was a field of study. I tried to do it. In 1960 I assembled a few people with similar interests, specialists who didn’t have any money at that time. Eventually, in the mid 1960’s the State Department started to fund my trips to India to conduct research. My team collected summaries throughout India and later the Smithsonian Institution and the Fulbright organization made contributions. I was also able to get support while at the University of Minnesota where I taught from 1957-1970.

Natasha: What was the ultimate goal of the project, what do you hope it will be used for?

Karl: The award reflects that in India it has been well received. For me, it is a scholarly venture. I’m still working on it. I don’t think I was ever a great teacher. The academic pursuit for me was largely research and publication. This gave me an outlet. I was surprised at winning the award. The lady who was really instrumental in me getting the award, in the same ceremony, got awarded in the third level (Padma Bhushan), mine is the fourth level award. My publisher was also instrumental. After Volume 4, the University of Pennsylvania Press handed over the publishing to the Indian publisher so it is now essentially an Indian publication. I think it is to be used as an academic resource that was previously not in existence.

Natasha: Absolutely. The set will eventually total 28. This is probably keeping you very busy in your retirement.

Karl: This is what I am preoccupied with now. I spend all my time producing these novels. It’s hard to predict the size of the literature. Some hardly make a novel, in which case we may publish a combined volume. For example, for Jainism, I thought we would be able to complete with one more, but it turns out to be two more. I have always wanted to have a reputable person to be the editor of the volumes and for this one, I found an excellent person, he teaches in Poland. The press is in India, and I am here. My computer is not compatible with the on at the publishing house. Therefore, I produce camera ready copies, send them by email to them. Upon receiving it, they edit it. My Sanskrit was never all that great, and as I get older, my Sanskrit takes longer to write. And then finally, we go back and forth until its ready. This can take up to a year or longer.

Natasha: You have had a career that spans almost seven decades studying India and its philosophies. What are your thoughts on India as you’ve observed it and the evolution of your study?

Karl: I am very fond of my visits to India. Not all scholars enjoy it like I do. I love it. I always find it hard to stay very long however as it gets wearing in various ways. As far as the idea of liberation goes, I’d say, it’s good to have an ideal, something to live and die for. From that perspective, Indian philosophy provides rather a unique notion and it’s worth celebrating by preparing this volume which is in the service of it. Indian philosophy may not be solely to do with liberation, my story, however, is that it does circulate around that. That is what ultimately I hope ties all those volumes together.



Karl Potter Awarded the Padma Shri from Jackson School Staff on Vimeo.


The first volume of the Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophy, the Bibliography, is publically available off a web site hosted by the University of Washington.  


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