Is there Indian political philosophy?

On the Indian Philosophy Blog, commenter Anthony S asked an important and difficult question: what are good resources for thinking through Indian political philosophy?

. I’m interested not so much in comparative philosophy as comparative political thought/theory, specifically in terms of Indian and “Western” thought regarding the international/global. While I am happy comparative philosophy seems to be taking off in recent years, I wish the intensity was the same in political science/theory. If anyone has some good thoughts/resources regarding any of this, I’d be very appreciative.

I started replying in my own comments, but I think the topic deserves a post of its own. I have in the past found myself frustrated looking for ideas on political theory or political philosophy in India, and I don’t think I’m alone in this.

I thought of this point while reading Fred Dallmayr‘s anthology/textbook on comparative political theory. “Comparative” in this book effectively means “non-Western”, specifically referring to those traditions that have sophisticated traditions of logical questioning and reflection (i.e. philosophy) – and counting Islam as a non-Western tradition.

So the book has sections on East Asia, South Asia and Islam, each one dealing with both classical sources and modern reformulations. The East Asia section is by far the strongest, examining the classical debate between Confucianism and Legalism and recent attempts to apply Confucianism to the modern state. The Islam section deals well with the classical work of al-Farābī, though it struggles a bit more in modern application; the modern thinker who shows up most prominently is Sayyid Qutb, and the application of his ideas would probably mean the destruction of most of our ways of life.

The South Asia section, however, is weak on both the classical and the modern. The classical sections refer pretty much entirely to the Arthaśāstra, a text whose origins remain obscure – and which, more importantly, might not ever have been applied or put into practice. The modern sections offer reflections on Rammohun Roy and Jawaharlal Nehru. Both of these thinkers’ political ideas are interesting and valuable in their own right, but the sources of the political ideas are more or less entirely Western. They could have been written by English colonial subjects in Africa, Malaysia or the Caribbean. (Rammohun’s ideas on mysticism and other topics have more strongly Indian sources, but they didn’t seem to have a strong impact on his politics.) If one is looking for a distinctly Indian approach to political thought, one will need to look elsewhere. (One might well question the project of looking for a “distinctly Indian” political theory in the first place – if Western-derived ideas were good enough for Roy and Nehru, why shouldn’t they be good enough for us now? – but I will hold off on that topic here, for the moment at least.)

A reader with familiarity on this topic will likely have thought of the most important and prominent exception to it: namely Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi. The Western influences on Gandhi go deep as well, of course – one can certainly argue he drew more from Tolstoy and Ruskin than anything Indian – but the Indian influences are definitely there, from the Bhagavad Gītā and especially from his Jain gurus who taught him ahiṃsā. The writing on Gandhi in the Dallmayr book is pretty bad in that it tries, bizarrely, to tie Gandhi’s work back somehow to the Arthaśāstra, without providing evidence that he read it or was even aware of it. But leaving that book aside, one will still find in Gandhi’s politics of non-violence something that looks much more like a distinctly Indian political philosophy. One can find something similar in Aurobindo, and perhaps in the more militant Hindu thinkers comparable to Qutb (Tilak, Savarkar, Golwalkar). One way or another, there is very much such a thing as modern Indian political philosophy, even when we take the “Indian” in a strong sense.

But what about the premodern world? Was there indigenous Indian political thought before Indians reacted to the British – or to the Turks and Mughals? The frequent recourse to the Arthaśāstra often seems a bit desperate, an attempt to reach for the best text available because we can’t find anything better, even without knowing whether in the tradition anyone ever read it. What else is there? The dharmaśāstra and dharmasūtra texts certainly provide advice on how to run a state, but it also seems reaching to call them political philosophy or political theory, for in them there is precious little reasoning, only injunctions (do this, don’t do that) expected to be accepted.

In many ways I think the most interesting premodern Indian political theory is the anti-political theory found in Śāntideva and, I would argue, most of the renouncer (especially Jain and Buddhist) traditions. Śāntideva tells us that kings should give their kingdoms away; even in texts like the Cakkavatī-Sīhanāda Sutta that give advice on how to run a kingdom, this advice is subordinated to instructions on how to be a monk. And Indian philosophy in a strict sense – the use of logic and argument to reach conclusions about wisdom – was conducted primarily by monks; they were the ones with the time and resources to do it. So the institutional conditions of Indian philosophy were such that it developed very much in anti-political traditions. (The contrast could not be sharper with early Chinese philosophy, developed by advisors to rulers!)

But is there no Indian political philosophy before the arrival of the English, or even of the Mughals? Nothing that actually talks about running a state, without subordinating statecraft to monkhood? That would be taking matters too far. The Mīmāṃsā school, advocating the orthoprax performance of Vedic rituals, surely was arguing for a politics in which those rituals could take place – though a politics which is hard to love, in which caste (varṇa) distinctions are of paramount importance. But I think we would find more fruitful forms of Indian political philosophy if we did not define philosophy so strictly – that is, if we looked beyond argumentative texts to stories. The epics, the Rāmāyana and the Mahābhārata, have a lot to say about how one should run a state – and not only in their didactic portions, like the Gītā and the Śāntiparvan (Book of Peace). (The latter contains hundreds of pages’ worth of advice on how to run a state, but like the dharmaśāstra, there is little argument for it.) Rather, I suspect it is the stories themselves, the narrative portions, that attempt to illustrate what good statecraft looks like – they show and don’t tell. More explicitly the animal stories of the Pañcatantra and Hitopadeśa, full of cunning tricks and their results, offer their own sort of reasoning, by illustration and example rather than stated argument. If we want to find premodern Indian political philosophy, I suspect the stories are a more promising place to look than any attempt to squeeze political philosophy out of the Arthaśāstra or dharmaśāstra.

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

24 thoughts on “Is there Indian political philosophy?

  1. There is a sprawling literature loosely headed by the term nīti, and that might be one place to start. This would include various nītiśāstras as well as, for example, verse anthologies (Bhartṛhati’s nītiśataka) and passages in mahākāvyas (I’m thinking of the beginning of the Kirātārjunīya). It’s not exclusively political, since nīti or “right conduct” covered interpersonal and social relations as well, but that is what makes it interesting. Van den Bossche and Mortier wrote an article about “Indian Virtue Theory” in Asian Philosophy in 1997 that focuses on a Prakrit anthology. Although it’s not related to governance or the state per se, this kind of virtue theory has a certain relevance to politics: it is situational and observational, it considers short-term and long-term outcomes, it relates action (or lack thereof) to cultivated personal qualities (guṇas), etc.

    • Great ideas, Andrew. Question, if you’re familiar with that literature: how much of it would you classify as reasoning? That is my worry about dharmaśāstra or the Śāntiparvan: so much of it seems to be pure injunction, not something that can convince.

  2. Thanks for the extended discussion of this topic Amod, I found it quite helpful. And I strongly second your take on Dallmayr’s analysis of Gandhi’s views. Although given his avowed “severe condemnation of modern civilization,” perhaps we should take care to qualify the extent to which it is “modern,” even if, of course, it’s in large measure in response to what he views as modern evils and injustices (e.g., colonialism and contemporary bourgeois society and industrialization). We might also note that Gandhi was hardly a typical (‘public’) intellectual, however deserving of the appellation, “moral and political thinker,” and did not pen “any systematic treatise on morals and politics” along the lines of those typically thought to possess a “political philosophy” worthy of discussion. Indeed, insofar as we discern the lineaments of a distinctively Indian political philosophy, we should bear in mind Gandhi was first and foremost a man of “action” (in his words, ‘Action is my domain’), thus any such political philosophy is second to, or merely a by-product or spillover effect of, what he came to call his karma yoga.

    That said, should one want to take seriously the proposition that we find in Gandhi a “distinctly Indian political philosophy,” and apart from reading through the enormous number of volumes of Gandhi’s writings, I’ll be so bold as to suggest the following works would be essential to any attempt to characterize, let alone assess, Gandhi’s political philosophy:

    • Ghosh, B.N. Gandhian Political Economy: Principles, Practices, and Policy. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007.
    • Ghosh, B.N. Beyond Gandhian Economics: Towards a Creative Deconstruction. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2012.
    • Iyer, Raghavan. The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi. Santa Barbara, CA: Concord Grove Press, 1983 ed. (1st ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).
    • Parekh, Bhikhu. Colonialism, Tradition and Reform: An Analysis of Gandhi’s Political Discourse. New Delhi: Sage, 1989.
    • Parekh, Bhikhu. Gandhi’s Political Philosophy: A Critical Examination. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989.

    • Thanks, Patrick. I woul d say nearly all anti-modern views are modern; they just aren’t modernist. One might even argue that they are modern by necessity – genuinely non-modern views don’t see modernity well enough to be against it. I developed the modern/modernist distinction on Love of All Wisdom a little while ago. I suppose one doesn’t have to put the distinction in those terms, but one needs something like this distinction (i.e. to be able to identify a view as something like “modern but not modernist”, “modern and anti-modern” – not even a “but” on the latter) or one gets in all sorts of trouble.

  3. Wow – i’m happy others are interested in this topic as well. Thanks, Amod, for posting.

    The problem of course is translation – not the basic, word-to-word process, but that of translating epistemologies/ontologies/concepts. So when outsiders term something non-political, I assume it’s because it doesn’t fit their concept of what “political” is (a la subaltern studies). I think the two areas where Indian (political) thought will have a lot of potential impact in political theory is in political ecological thinking and the place of nature in political thought, as well as the contemporary thought done on post-secularism.

    If anyone is interested in talking more about this, please contact me: anthos9@vt.edu. I’m a second-year in the ASPECT program at Virginia Tech.

    • I’d be happy to talk more, Anthony, and have emailed you.

      Regarding your comments here: it’s probably worth making explicit that I don’t think I’ve ever said Indian thought it is “non-political”. I think a great deal of it is anti-political, which is a very different thing – and I think something that could and probably should have a significant impact on Western political philosophy, or at least on ethics. (As in, it does not ignore politics, but rejects politics.)

      I suppose my comments could be taken as implying that, say, Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika thought is more or less non-political. There I would probably want to qualify your statement that “when outsiders term something non-political, I assume it’s because it doesn’t fit their concept of what ‘political’ is”: this is true, but conversely, when outsiders term something political, that’s because it does fit their concept of what “political” is. Each of these ways of applying the concept of “political” is probably both necessary and dangerous. I don’t think one is necessarily more problematic than the other.

      Applying Indian thought to post-secularism could be very interesting, I think. On ecology… I could see that, but only if we get beyond the usual wildly inaccurate clichés about embracing our interdependence with nature, which I think accurately characterize much Chinese thought but are a gross misrepresentation of India. (I’ve written about this point here, here and here.)

  4. Despite various strands of intervening intellectual revolutions, Sri Aurobindo remains eminently relevant, readable, and as fresh as ever, a century later. Many educated Indians know not much about Sri Aurobindo’s writings barring a couple of quotations from India’s Rebirth http://t.co/oV43vxsZ1Q
    Sri Aurobindo intended to dislodge stereotypical scholarship and inform discourse with sound Ontological moorings but has been stoutly resisted. Sri Aurobindo fights a political battle on the Knowledge front and is loath on compromises. Evolution to higher levels is his firm assurance. The very fact that Sri Aurobindo is not read or quoted widely is itself a political issue & constitutes the core of his Political Philosophy. [TNM55]

    • Tusar, a critic might take what you say here as a strike against Aurobindo. If the issue that he is not widely read or quoted constitutes the core of his political philosophy, doesn’t that philosophy then strike one as rather narcissistically devoted to self-promotion?

      • Can’t reply so precisely being a non-specialist as my job is to just like a sign-post. There are adequate works on the subject which can satisfy such queries and concerns. However, may I add what I just tweeted:
        What man must know & think and how he should act are dominant concerns for Sri Aurobindo and not merely his material needs and possessions.
        Thus, the notion of political is perhaps a little wider when we evaluate Sri Aurobindo. Thanks. [TNM55]

  5. Tonnes of Indian Political philosophy: it’s everywhere in formal Indian philosophy. First, I’m operating with a pretty standard account of political philosophy: questions pertaining to the legitimate use of force. Political philosophy so understood is different from (but related to) ethics. Certainly you find these issues discussed in literature outside of formal philosophy. It has been noted that there seems to be at least two schools in India: the real politik school of the Arthashastra, and the Moral Realist schools (e.g. the Mahabharata) that ties the legitimate use of power to ethical (dharma) considerations.

    In formal schools of Indian philosophy these issues can be found addressed in texts in the Buddhist, Jain, Purva Mimamsa and Yoga traditions. These schools tend to be of the moral realist persuasion.

    The Yoga Sutra in its discussions of the Yama rules is especially colorful in its depiction of political issues.

    I put a bug in Bindu Puri’s ear when we were at a workshop for a volume on India and Human Rights in Ottawa. I told her and the other attendees that Gandhi’s idea of Satya Graha can be found in the Yoga Sutra. She recently published: The Tagore-Gandhi Debate on Matters of Truth and Untruth:

    http://www.springer.com/philosophy/book/978-81-322-2115-9

    One of the themes of the book is the extensive reference and use Gandhi made of the Yoga Sutra in his own politics — a matter overlooked until this publication

    • How broadly are you defining “legitimate use of force”? Does “if someone hits me, I should [/should not] hit them back” count as political philosophy?

      • Hi Amod

        I’m not defining “legitimate use of force”— if I where, I would be have my political philosopher hat on. I’m just describing what I see: Indian philosophers have philosophical views on this question. That’s enough for those their contributions to count as political philosophy.

        • I don’t accept that move. If you won’t define “legitimate use of force”, you can’t then reasonably claim either that a) it is the subject matter of political philosophy or that b) Indian thinkers talk about it. Both claims hinge entirely on the definition, and to the extent that you make either one you are necessarily wearing your political-philosopher hat.

          • Hi Amod

            As a political philosopher I have views about what counts as the legitimate use of force. I can tell you about them. As a historian of philosophy, I take time to teach and describe what others think about this. These are two differing activities. Your demand involves confusing the two activities.

            By the way, the question of the legitimate use of force is a standard way that political philosophy is presented. When I teach the subject drawing on Western sources (Hobbes, Marx, Hegel etc.,) that’s the guiding question. Each theorist has their own view about what this amounts to.

            One of the problems about setting limits on what can count as an acceptable answer to this question is that you close your ears off to dissenting positions. Feminists for instance have long argued that politics extends past the state, and can include issues of child rearing and discipline in the home. They have a point, but as a historian of philosophy I do my job when I get out of their way and let them speak for themselves.

            You would rather me speak for them.

  6. Hi Amod
    Thanks for raising this fascinating issue! So far my understanding about our tradition is concerned , this Question calls for a revisit of some of the turning points of the history of developments of Indian Thought – some salient features of development of Indian Knowledge dynamics .
    Indeed, a significant bulk of pre-Buddhist Indian knowledge system can be identified to have been substantiated in the earliest Upanishads , Brahma-Sutra and Bhagavad–Gita (the so called Prasthana –Traya – all referred to Vyasa .. !) . We need not get here into the debate of authorship …, or uniqueness of the earliest Textual core. … etc. This is always a never-ending debate in Indian context.. The concept of ‘authored Text’ is understandably a much later one..! But some kind of massive Editorial substantiation of preexisting knowledge was conducted by Vyasa ( or group of Vyasas under the leadership of Badrayana or KrishnaDwaipayan ?) not much before Historic Buddha ( 5th Century B. C) . Prasthana-Traya as outcome of this editorial classification and division surely marked a provisional End ( as well as beginning ) of a long-standing debate mainly between the Thinkers who had access to the Royal court of Kuru –Panchal (today’s North India centering around Delhi , Haryana ) and Mithila ( almost the whole North Bihar extended from Begusarai today to Janakpur near Nepal Border).. Nyaya was then no more than a formative manual of Debate. Emergence of Buddhism and Jainism ( both from ancient Mithila ) can be better understood in perspective of the contemporary knowledge politics under the control of the Mithila republicans . This is important to take note that, both the Buddha and Mahavira belonged to royal dynasty .. They added their royally powerful voices to the contemporary debate on Ritualistic means to acquire Knowledge of Brahman..
    So there is perhaps no doubt to accept Prasthana-Traya as not only the primordial source of the subsequent Vedantic systems.. , but also for a significant bulk of the later (so-called mainstream) Philosophical systems of India..
    And in that way , the complicated growth of a large portion of Indian Philosophical system during the last 3000 years or so until British colonial rule was set up , can be considered , in one way or another , as different layers of meta-discourses of Prasthana-Traya ! We should take note that , Prasthana-Traya outlined the debated hard–core of the contemporary notions of relation between Jiva , Jagat and JAGATKARANA ( Iswar ) …and , as a consequence , the concept of Ultimate knowledge ( Brahman ) Jiva CAN attain and its ritualistic means . It seems that, much of the later Indian considerations about practical, socio-political …. had their root within this holistic framework of transcendence or ontological extension of Jiva .,. (I don’t find any other better term!)
    So, to put the above argument in brief…, it is not maximally informative to locate one particular Book or another as significant source for Indian political philosophy …. , but the Question is rather how the Indian Knowledge dynamics has been politically used.. The long multilayered growth of Indian Tradition rendered it really difficult to have an unambiguous notion of this ‘process of using ‘ … But you can always find a significant bulk of early Indian metaphysics to have been engaged more or less , in Two modes – one is Transcendental and the other is ‘strategically’ social .. In its transcendental mode, Indian Philosophy tried to promise Answers to the perennial Questions about Human Existence (as is common to all philosophies in any culture). .. and in its ‘socially engaged’ mode it was largely about ‘How a social (including political ) life can be conducted within the framework of ‘ accepted answers’ to the Transcendental Question’ . Mahakavyas.. , Puranas are the copybook manuals for ‘socially engaged counterparts’ of Transcendental Philosophy ..
    Dharmashastra (itself within the framework of authority of Puranas ) seems to have continued to serve the role of Bridge or different ‘Tokens of Negotiation’ between the Two levels .!
    Admittedly the task of social engineering, called for, keeping this ‘Negotiation’ in view, is far from easy, if not impossible.. But this was definitely a part of the Earliest Agendas which must have undergone prolific ramification during a long time until COLONIAL Period. Many of the inner contradictions, suppressed hypocrisy and other social–psychological features of Indian society can be traced back to this process of social engineering.. If, by any chance, you follow Hindi movies of 70s and even 80s of the last century.. you will find there leading characters larger than life – kind of celluloid versions of Mahakavyik Heroes ..
    However, this Blog is not a place to get into any further details of these issues But your Question fascinates me always , and I have tried to discuss these points at length in my forthcoming Book ( In search of Lost Dialog ; in Bengali )…
    Finally about Rammohun Roy! I can’t see him as a mystic from any angel …at least, compared with someone like the 16th century reformer Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Roy’s sole unfinished agenda was to remove idol-worship as well as all the ‘worst possible social residues’ of Smriti from the then Hindu society. Upanisadic metaphysics (again a portion of the Prasthana Traya !) appeared to him as the best possible option to bolster as an alternative supportive metaphysics…!, But Vedanta in any of its traditional variants were hardly taught in the Tols (traditional teaching Hubs for Hindus ) of pre-colonial Bengal. Rammohun Roy is popularly known to have ‘rediscovered’ Vedanta for the Hindu Bengali audience.
    Subsequent to Rummohun’s choice/ rediscovery, the different colonial scripts of reconstructing and ‘using’ Vedanta politically were a significant part of Hindu Bengali response / theological defense to West. But that is a long story to narrate even in brief here.

    • Thank you, Debajyoti. I should clarify that the question isn’t whether there were politics in premodern India (I don’t know of anyone, not even the most contemptuous colonialists, who denied that) but whether there was political philosophy – the extent to which people reflected and questioned political ideas. I’ve suggested above that such reflection is mostly found in stories, so identifying the Purāṇas and Mahākāvyas as sources makes good sense to me.

  7. Shyam, you are setting limits on what counts as a reasonable answer to the question. You just aren’t specifying what they are.

    Far as I can tell, there are only two alternatives open here from what you’ve specified so far:
    1) There exist some texts in the world which do not talk about the legitimate use of force, and are therefore not political philosophy. They are beyond your limits to what counts as a reasonable answer to the question; by your own standards you are not “getting out of the way and letting them speak for themselves”. And only a definition will tell us what’s within these limits and what’s not; otherwise you’re just asking us to trust you.
    2) Any and every text that has ever existed, whether it claims to be about the care of elephants or the examination of jewelry, talks about the legitimate use of force, and is therefore political philosophy. In this case you are indeed “getting out of the way and letting them speak for themselves” and you are not setting limits as to what counts as a reasonable answer to the question. But I don’t think this is what you intend, since the approach seems to be utterly useless. It also doesn’t seem particularly respectful to the texts’ own voices, which say that they’re about something completely different.

    • Hi Amod,

      I provided a criteria of political philosophy: necessary but insufficient condition. A definition requires necessary and sufficient conditions. The philosophical tradition since G.E. Moore (widely regarded as the father of analytic ethics) and continuing through such figures as Wittgenstein and Quine have given plenty of good reasons to reject the usefulness of definitions. If you think I am being unreasonable for not providing or thinking that definitions are important, I’m in illustrious company.

      As for being respectful of text voices, I don’t see how having a definition of anything is going to get us there. We should be open to what a text has to say on any issue to be respectful of it, and we are open when we don’t close off the possibilities for what it can argue. So by deferring to a necessary but insufficient criteria of what politics is about, we let the texts fill in what they think is enough to be said on the topic. There might be many texts that have nothing to say on the topic. Texts on physics and biology probably have nothing to say on the topic. But at any rate, I thought we were talking about philosophy and I made reference to specific traditions and texts that do have things to say on the legitimate use of force. You don’t have to trust me. You can read the texts themselves with this criteria in view.

      I think that the reality is that if we adopt criteria (as opposed to definitions), Indian philosophy is filled with all the things that it is rumored to lack: ethics, politics etc., The only thing that stops us from find such rumored absences is the reliance on definitions, which as Moore pointed out are always substantive, biased and controversial.

      • Moore is definitely not company I would want to be in, nor would I consider him illustrious. I was going to say that’s not really the issue, but as I think about it I realize that it isn’t; I think his work on ethics is obscurantist and perhaps even juvenile, and that probably is in the background of what we’re talking about here. I think Moore’s ideas about “good” really do come down to “trust me”, and indeed that is what eyewitness accounts of Moore’s behaviour indicate: the man was an intellectual bully who stifled dissent in a way that he could not have done if he had been willing to specify what he meant. (I have somewhat more respect for Wittgenstein but also think he was wrong far more often than right. No big surprise – for most positions one can name, one can find an illustrious philosopher who believed it; being in their company is not that hard.)

        Substantively, my point is that you really don’t have a criterion, or for that matter a necessary condition. Without a definition of “legitimate use of force”, it seems to me that you have no way of saying that a text speaks about the legitimate force or not. Is the Yoga Sūtra talking about the legitimate use of force when it mentions ahiṃsā? That depends on your definitions of both “legitimate” and “force”.

        I suppose that in lieu of a defintion you could try to provide a meta-criterion for what counts as speaking about the a legitimate use of force, but I suspect that that will just defer the problem further.

        • I wasn’t invoking Moore’s positive arguments. No one thinks those are successful, but his criticisms of definitions is not so far off from what we find in Wittgenstein in Quine: they don’t do work because they are empirically biased. The idea that they are purely conceptual (analytic) is a myth. What this means is that even if I gave you a definition and you were to use it, you would not avoid the problem of taking my word for it: that’s exactly what you would be doing by taking my definition seriously. If you employed it in research, you would be organizing your data around a skewed view of the world. It would be far from objective.

          I find this idea that definitions are needed for research a common approach in Indology, and it also why so much of the work is disappointingly biased.

          But your criticism has another problem. The disagreements between liberals, libertarians, anarchists, Marxists and feminists revolves around what would count as the legitimate use of force. Those who argue for a state, believe that it alone has some degree of legitimacy in wielding power. Those who argue for limited government or against the state deny that it has very much legitimacy in its use of force. Those who argue that the personal is political (the famous feminist slogan) argue that this question of acceptable employment of force pertains even to our intimate relations. If you deny the relevance of the question “what counts as the legitimate use of force” to Indian political philosophy, you deny its relevance to standard presentations of Western political philosophy. This is implausible.

          • I’ve never said that the question of the legitimate use of force is irrelevant. I’m saying that the process of employing it is inseparable from the question of what it means.

            I think your discussion of Marxists et al. may confuse meaning and referent: it is not necessarily a disagreement about what the expression “legitimate use of force” means, but about what phenomena are to be counted as to be held under it. (One could say “legitimate use of force means threats of physical violence made in a morally justified way”, and then disagree as to whether state protection of property counts under this rubric.)

            Even if we were to grant that the meaning and not merely the referent of the term is at issue, the term is still useless without at least a provisional definition. Is “Human beings are made out of cells” a statement about the legitimate use of force? So far, given the absence of a definition (or even a meta-criterion), I don’t see what grounds you can have to claim the contrary.

  8. Amod, how helpful is it to make /reasoning/ the requirement for something to count? Is The Prince any less directive, instructional and injunctive than what you would find in the various genres in which the king, law and government are treated in classical and medieval India? (But who would deny that Machiavelli was a political thinker.) If we look at how political thought in pre-modern Europe is grounded in Paul and Augustine, we can legitimately ask what is different about India. Indeed, if we look at the stream of commentaries on the Arthaśāstra, as well as the didactic elements of such literary forms as political chronicles like Rajatarangini and Kongu Desa Rajjakalin Caritai, and the sophisticated narratives of kingly duties in Cola epigraphs and the like, there is no shortage of what we would see as political thought in similar pre-modern Western material. So it may be that the requirement for reasoning is characteristic of European modernity, but not of what we look for in pre-modern Western political thought.

    Of course, the European writing is thematized by virtue of the influence of Aristotle’s Politics (and compare the problems we have had similarly with other areas of philosophy because of other of his books – Ethics, Metaphysics). In India, by contrast to both Europe and China, the narrower sense of the political as royal governmentality is located within larger questions of human social ordering and power. As Olivelle argues, there is an early layer to the Artha Sastra that seems to be more strictly on the political considerations of the king, while a later part is made consistent with Dharma sastric concerns. But, in fact, we should see this in a thoroughly post-modern way – just as feminists have argued about the personal being the political, and Foucault saw the political in the inscription of power more generally – and think of political thought in India within a much wider context of texts on power of any sort.

    So, what I am suggesting is both that the West itself in medieval times has political thought presented in much the same way as you would find in India, through instruction and narrative rather than reasoning; and that the complex and fluid presence of the governmental notion of the political in wider contexts in India should make us not so much query the presence of political thought there as to extend our understanding of political thought – in fact, in much the way various post-modern thinkers have it.

    • Ram, I am thinking I may have spoken in a misleading way, especially in my closing sentence. I do think the Arthaśāstra is a work of political philosophy, just as I think The Prince is. On my (cursory) reading of both texts, there is reasoning in both, quite enough to count as philosophy. By “reasoning” I do not require the kind of systematic argument found in Nyāya or Aquinas. That’s why I counted the Pañcatantra or the narrative portions of the Mahābhārata as political philosophy.

      My exclusion of the Arthaśāstra has more to do with its isolated status, the fact that its historical status is something of a curiosity. It is a work of Indian political philosophy, but I don’t think it merits more than a few paragraphs in an introduction to such – if we are going to ask “what Indian political philosophy is”, it can play a role, but it should be a small one.

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