In articulating his philosophy, George Santayana drew on spiritual and philosophical traditions of Europe, Asia, and the United States. It is relatively easy to begin looking into the influence of his teachers William James and Josiah Royce since he corresponded with them, wrote essays about them, and remembered them in his autobiography. His discussions of Modern Philosophy also are sustained and obvious in chapters and essays. The Christian tradition lent concepts, vocabulary, and imagery to his thought; and the influence of ancient Greek culture is beyond question. Many readers, I suspect, would find it reasonable enough to assert that Santayana’s thought has some connection to Indian philosophy, yet mentions of it in his work—while not invisible—are not as prominent as references to other traditions. And so, I think it worth remarking Santayana’s comments on Indian philosophy to begin to get a more definite sense of its influence on his thinking.

Santayana regarded Indian philosophy equal in richness and significance to other traditions, writing that he had “long thought that the earlier Greeks had virtually the same wisdom as the Indians, and that it was only an accident of race and rhetoric that they seemed physiologers rather than religious mystics.”1 Indian philosophy, on his view, is elemental to recorded philosophical tradition as evidenced by his description of his never-completed “critical history of philosophy [to be composed] on the plan that there is a thread of normal opinion, not unbroken yet traceable, from the Hindus on, and that a great number of heresies have branched off at this or that point, of which it will be interesting to analyse the nature and the plausibility” (LGS 2:94). And he included Indian along with Greek and Catholic traditions as ones “which, however false their cosmology, seem to me morally sound” (LGS 6:151). This is consistent with his recognition in “A General Confession” of “spiritual truth in the Neo-Platonic and Indian Tradtions, without admitting their fabulous side”.2  However, for his purposes Santayana saw no need to distinguish philosophies within Indian traditions. In a letter, he wrote “I make no distinction between [Buddhism] and Brahmanism, between Vendanta and Samkya philosophies. This is not wholly an effect of ignorance, but because the differences touch mythology or metaphysics only, and not the wisdom which is all I care for in these (or any other) philosophers” (LGS 3:68). And Indian wisdom he acknowledged to be of greater perceptiveness than European traditions in at least one respect. In Reason in Science (1906) he remarked the “Indian sages [who] long ago” observed “that all victors perish in their turn and everything . . . falls back into the inexorable vortex” (56). This sort of insight, wrote Santayana, “is what renders [Indian] philosophy, for all its practical impotence, such an irrefragable record of experience, such a superior, definitive perception of the flux. Beside it, our progresses of two centuries and our philosophies of history, embracing one-quarter of the earth for three thousand years, seem puerile vistas indeed” (56–7).

Indian philosophy served Santayana as both a source of inspiration and of contrast. He wrote “[m]y philosophy is normal human orthodox philosophy, such as has come down from the Indians through the Greeks, to Spinoza” (LGS 3:219), and “I follow the Indians in their notion of Brahman, Spirit, in its essence, but of course not in its absolute status as the root of all things. It is the root, in an animal psyche, of the universe of appearances; but the real universe . . . must first have produced the psyche with its interests and powers” (LGS 8:142). Furthermore, he could be critical as he was with any philosophy he engaged seriously, and he did not avoid indicating a “sophism of Indian preachers” when he observed it (Reason in Science, 92).

Particular works illustrate Santayana’s engagement with Indian philosophy. In “War Shrines,” from Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies (1922), Santayana compared Christian and Indian responses to the insight that “[l]ife is an illusion if we trust it, but it is a truth if we do not trust it” (93). He preferred what the Christian cross symbolizes over the Indian doctrine of illusion, and rejected the idea that not to exist would be better: “so long as we exist, however precariously or ‘unreally,’ I think it the part of wisdom to find a way of living well, rather than merely to deprecate living” (93). He acknowledged the violence of the cross and the appeal of “the serene Buddha, lifting the finger of meditation and profound counsel,” but he believed that “the soul cannot be really freed except by ceasing to live; and it is whilst we still exist, not after we are dead to existence, that we need counsel. It is therefore the crucified spirit, not the liberated spirit, that is our true master” (94). In another essay from the same book, “The Progress of Philosophy,” he praised Indian ontological speculation: “They saw that substance is infinite, out of scale with our sensuous images and (except in the little vortex that makes us up) out of sympathy with our endeavours; and that spirit in us nevertheless can hold its own, because salvation lies in finding joy in the truth, not in rendering fortune propitious, by some miracle, to our animal interests” (210), though he acknowledged that “[t]he Indians did not study the movement and mechanism of nature: they had no science” (210).

Santayana characterized his book Platonism and the Spiritual Life as “very Indian” (LGS 3:299), and he wrote of Dialogues in Limbo that it contained “an assimilation in spirit, though not in language, between Greek and Indian philosophy [which he long thought] had virtually the same wisdom” (LGS 3:256). And in The Realm of Spirit, Indian philosophy is a significant touchstone in Santayana’s discussion of spiritual liberation (Chapter VIII). There are mentions of Indian philosophy also in The Realm of Matter and The Realm of Truth, and The Realm of Essence begins with a quotation from Surendranath Dasgupta’s A History of Indian Philosophy (1922).

In his Santayana the Philosopher: Philosophy as a Form of Life (Bucknell University Press, 2015), recently translated by Charles Padrón, Daniel Moreno remarked that Schopenhauer and the American Transcendentalists “led [Santayana] to the profound thought of ancient India (24; 39, n. 32). Santayana himself also credited his Harvard friend poet Joseph Trumbull Stickney (1874–1904) with “helping to quicken in me the immense sympathy that he felt for the philosophy of India” (Persons and Places, Volume I of The Works of George Santayana [1986], 387). He wrote that when Stickney “died, his friend very kindly asked me if there were any book of his that I should like as a memento. . . . I asked for his copy—which he had once lent me—of Gade’s Die Sankyaphilosophie” (Persons and Places, 387). The reference is to Richard Garbe, Die Sâmkhya-Philosophie: Eine Darstellung des indischen Rationalismus nach den Quellen [Samkhya-Philosophy: A Representation of Indian Rationalism According to the Sources] (Leipzig, 1894). In addition to the books already mentioned, Santayana’s library included a second copy of Garbe and the following works:

Dhrenda Mohan Datta, The Chief Currents of Contemporary Philosophy (1950)

René Guénon, L’Homme et son devenir selon le Vêdânta [Man and His Becoming According to the Vedanta] (1925)

René Guénon, Introduction générale à l’étude des doctrines hindoues [Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines] (1921)

Arthur Berriedale Keith, The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanishads (1925)

Kewal Motwani, India: A Synthesis of Cultures (1947)

Sankaracarya, Self-knowledge (Atmabodha) (1946)

This last book was translated by Swami Nikhilananda (1895–1973), a monk and disciple of Sri Sarada Devi, who founded the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York in 1933. Santayana wrote in a 1949 letter that Swami Nikhilananda had visited him and sent him two books of Indian philosophy (LGS 8:142). The books by Guénon, Keith, and Motwani all have marginalia in Santayana’s hand. The Keith book in particular demonstrates how Santayana could find a “[s]plendid insight” while also criticizing a false step in “Indian logic [which] starts from an intrinsic view of spirit” rather than seeing “spirit [as] a product of matter” (George Santayana’s Marginalia: A Critical Selection, Book One, Volume VI of The Works of George Santayana [2011], 433–34).

The textual and biographical evidence shows a long-standing and serious engagement with Indian philosophy in Santayana’s work, and his relation to Indian philosophy has been acknowledged before;3 but the richness of both Santayana’s thought and the Indian tradition suggest that their relationship could furnish yet more insight into both philosophies.


1 The Letters of George Santayana, Book 3, Volume V of The Works of George Santayana (Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press, 2002), 256; hereafter LGS followed by book and page numbers.

2 Schilpp, P. A., ed., The Philosophy of George Santayana (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1940), 19.

3 Goodwin, W. F., “Santayana’s Naturalistic Reading of Indian Ontology and Axiology,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 18:2, Dec. 1957, 147–68; Riepe, Dale M., “Santayana and Indian Philosophy 1900–1950” in The Philosophy of India and Its Impact on American Thought (Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas, 1970), 103–19; Kuntz, Paul Grimley, “The Thread of Salvation in This Labyrinth of Folly: Santayana’s Philosophy Expressed in the Indian Concepts of Karma and Brahma,” in Philosophy in the Life of a Nation: Papers Contributed to the Bicentennial Symposium of Philosophy (New York: Bicentennial Symposium of Philosophy, 1976), 140–44.