4 Ways Indian Philosophy Shows up in Western Culture
For those of us living in Western societies, it’s easy to sometimes feel physically and emotionally distant from our cultural heritage and that South Asian philosophies are disconnected from our day-to-day lives.
But what if they’re not?
What if they’re a lot closer to us than we thought?
Due to colonialism, Eastern philosophies were shared across Europe and the Americas, and this is how Indian philosophy found its way into mainstream Western thought.
Here are four ways Indian philosophy has been adopted into mainstream Western culture and how it shows up in our daily lives.
1. Let’s start with Karma.
Karma as a concept isn’t new. In fact, it’s ancient. If you grew up with South Asian cultural influences, you may recognise it as one of the most central concepts of the rebirth cycle (according to some schools of thought). If not, you might’ve come across it in the form of ‘instant karma” the idea of karma most prevalent in pop culture — where bad actions quickly result in negative consequences.
You might’ve seen this ‘Karma’s a bitch’ Challenge that made the rounds on TikTok a few years ago inspired by a soundbite from CW’s Riverdale, which is a pretty accurate representation of how karma is often referenced in contemporary media. You can watch compilation videos of this trend here.
Historically, this term can be traced back to the Upanishads (late Vedic texts) and be developed into what is recognised as karma today: the accumulation of good and bad deeds which eventually affects individuals, either now or in their next life.
Credit: CW Riverdale
2. So, what about Moksha?
How many times have you heard someone say, “In my next life, I want to be a [insert animal here]?” Did you also inwardly cringe, or did you find yourself relating to them? Growing up in a very Hindu home, I found myself cringing that an important principle of my faith was being used as a cheap prop to achieve social capital. To my family and many others around the world, the goal was never to be reborn, the point was to escape the cycle entirely.
While reincarnation itself is not uniquely South Asian, the idea of ‘moksha’ (alternatively known as ‘vimoksha’, ‘vimukti’ or ‘mukti’) can also be traced back to the Upanishads. You may recognise it as another term for enlightenment or liberation. This idea of freedom from the physical world being the ultimate goal of existence has found its place in mainstream culture, especially with the recent resurgence of New Age spirituality and antidisestablishmentarian counter-culture that rejects materialism.
3. I’m sure you saw this one coming: Yoga
Yoga has experienced a boom in popular culture in the past few decades. It’s not uncommon to drive past a yoga studio or know someone who practices it primarily for fitness and relaxation, but its current form is quite different from traditional yoga’s focus: meditation and release from worldly attachments. While its exact origins are still debated today, it’s been posited that yoga likely originated from the Indian subcontinent around 1000-500 BCE.
4. Have you heard about Dharma?
In the Mahabharata (one of two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India), the hero, Arjuna, is faced with a dreaded scene, the opposing army is comprised of his relatives and teachers, and cannot bring himself to fight them. The god, Krishna, reminds him that he must fight because it’s his duty or ‘dharma’ as a warrior. Arjuna is told that though he will have to fight this battle, he won’t accumulate negative karma from fighting this army because it is his dharma.
Prioritising one’s personal duty over morals isn’t new. It’s a topic explored in both Eastern and Western thought and is becoming increasingly relevant in today’s political and technological climate. When is the life of the individual worth less than the group? Do the benefits of creating new but dangerous technologies outweigh the dangers that it poses to society if its perceived benefits can also help society? At what point does material gain outweigh the human cost? To live in accordance with the ‘right way of living’ is a constant battle that we all continue to navigate.
It’s clear to see that over time Indian philosophy has found itself absorbed into Western thought and culture. Just as the words of the Ancient Greek philosophers have been credited with forming the foundations of Western philosophical thought, Eastern philosophy has similarly made great contributions to how we as humans see and interact with the world.
These were just a few examples of how Indian philosophy is integrated in our daily lives, if you would like to share other examples, we’d love to hear them over on our Instagram!