Moral reflections
Vijay Tankha

Indian Ethics — Classical Traditions and Contemporary Challenges
Eds Purushottama Bilimoria, Joseph Prabhu and Renuka Sharma.
Pages 431. Rs 795.

LIKE many disciplines thought absent in the classical traditions of Indian thought, ethics, along with politics, science and even some would say, philosophy, has slowly found its way into academic curricula. The need to create a discipline, which resembles those for whom books are readily available, becomes necessary. Hence, in the recent past, a whole range of books attempt to systematise and so explain not the absence, but the presence of not only an outlook but a body of work that can stand with all the classics of thought that we are familiar with.

This recent interest in Indian ethical and philosophical theories is not without a past. Since the first arrival of Western and Eastern travellers, the texts of the subcontinent have been the subject of translation and appraisal. The responses too have passed through various stages of incomprehension and rejection, whether Indian thought is concerned with morality at all or is essentially immoral, or really about religion, or really comparable to the best of Western-style ethics, to assertion and adulation. The post-Independence turn contrasted the materialist West with the spiritual East, overvaluing what had been undervalued. In the present post-modern times and with the increasing socio-economic rise of India and other Asian countries, there is a greater sensitivity to positively assess the contribution of this great civilisation to the moral literature of mankind.

This book is a collection of learned essays divided broadly into three parts—the first dealing with the early period, from the Vedas to the Gita, discussing mainly the notion of Dharma. Of the eight papers in this section, none is devoted to the Gita, which seems odd. Laurie Patton’s reading of Vedic ethics through the categories of "being in the presence of another" developed by Levinas, is suggestive. The demand that the ‘other’ makes is used to read into Vedic texts the infinite demands of morality in the person and presence of the guest. She seems to forget that the guest in question is invariably a Brahmin (in the Kathopinsad, a text she quotes, Nachiketa’s three unfed nights in the house of Yama, get him three boons because he is a brahmanathithi).

Crossing from Levinas’s thought, shaped by the world wars and the Jewish experience, to the Vedic India, requires an enormous leap of the imagination. We may not endorse Arthur Danto’s claim that we cannot at all enter into the conceptual scheme of that world, but we need some reason to engage with it. Modern revivals of Vedic sacrifices need, for instance, to investigate more critically the notion of ritual. More to the point then is Maria Heim’s Dana as a Moral Category, which sketches the enormous range of dana literature, Buddhist, Hindu and Jain in medieval texts, noting the difference between the theory and practice of giving in India and the West. The difference she feels is marked by lack of reciprocity: the giver is ennobled by giving to a superior rather than an inferior, and the superior (monk, renunciant or Brahmin) gives nothing in return, not even a word of thanks! She does not notice that there is an exchange, albeit muted: the Brahmin gives knowledge in exchange; the renunciant shows the path.

The second section is devoted to Buddhist and Jain traditions where the general attempt seems to be to show, anachronistically but with great enthusiasm, the relevance of Buddhist and Jain thinking for contemporary problems of the environment, human rights, democracy and animal ethics. The newly coined term: engaged Buddhism shows how flexible Buddhist doctrine can be, for it was Buddhism that introduced pessimism about and renunciation of the world. That Buddhism can so renew itself is a sign not of contradiction but of energy and growth.

Like many books on Indian thought, this collection also jumps a millennium avoiding Islam, the Sufis, and other medieval movements to land in familiar and tractable territory of Gandhi and questions of modernity. The subtitle of the volume provides as it were antecedent justification.

Pratap Mehta, looks at an old problem through the writings of Max Weber, the conflict between dharma as caste ordered ritual and the ethics of liberation. A problem probably first mooted in the later Vedic period. The essay sees Hindu ethics as wonderfully post-modern, deeply if not conflictingly pluralistic. "Both Indian ethics and Weber are axiologically committed to value pluralism that leaves our fundamental ethical conflicts unresolved." Thus, theoretical vices in time become theoretical virtues. What is problematic is the way ‘Karma Theodicy’ is assumed as a given of the Hindu (and Buddhist) ethical tradition. Alas, studies of this important concept are few, but Karma as a theoretical strategy is rarely fore grounded, permitting all kinds of claims on its behalf. Karma is more a problem for an acquisitive morality than an answer to deep eschatological questions.

Stephen Phillips’s Skepticism in Aurobindo brings the volume to the late 19th century interpretation of the Indian tradition. One associates ‘mysticism’ rather than ‘skepticism’ with Aurobindo. Phillips suggests that his mysticism is a skeptical one (I would have thought the idea of a supramental consciousness was embedded in dogmatic metaphysics rather than skepticism which in Aurobindo is no more than a mildly superficial suspicion of others as authoritative).

Bhikhu Parekh’s magisterial Hindu Theory of Tolerance affirms that although there are really no Hindus, they have had a surprisingly sophisticated practical, moral, individualistic and pluralistic tradition, elastic in matters of faith, extraordinarily tolerant regarding others. Granting that in its hierarchical conception of society the Hindu theory is deficient, it still does better than its monotheistic neighbors. This new and wonderful ‘relativised pluralism’ seems to be held up as a model to struggling moral systems. Parekh’s essay moves effortlessly, without the impediment of any references, from the Vedic to the modern period. As problematic as proselytising missionaries are reifying visionaries.

The book thus brings together a collection of distinct viewpoints ranging over a long period. It adds to the growing body of writing reflecting on the tradition’s own handling of questions of morality. The book in general also has the merit of not trying to explain so-called Indian theories on the model of Western theories. From this perspective, the development of moral theory in India has in a sense begun and this book contributes to the creation of a debate within it.