Ethics in Classical Indian Philosophy

In light of Stephen Harris’ review of Christopher Framarin’s book, Hinduism and Environmental Ethics and Elisa Freschi’s discussion of Amod Lele’s article about Śāntideva’s metaphysical and ethical thought, I’d like to pose a question. This question has been posed here in the context of political philosophy but not, as far as I can tell, for ethics. The question is, in two parts:

(1) Is there Indian ethical philosophy (normative ethics and/or meta-ethics) and (2) which primary texts would you use to introduce it to students?

As most readers of this blog will know, the first part of the question is answered in the negative by B.K. Matilal (among others). Matilal argues that while Indian texts are concerned with moral issues in a practical sense, “…morality as such was never discussed in these texts.” (See his “Moral Dilemmas: Insights from Indian Ethics.”) Now, plenty of secondary literature like the aforementioned Hinduism and Environmental Ethics has taken up the challenge to elucidate the ethical arguments more or less implicit in Indian philosophy. However, what primary texts (in good translation) does one set alongside of the usual figures–Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Foot–in philosophy courses? Does selecting texts like the Mahābhārata and Bhagavad Gītā send the message that Indian philosophy has no systematic ethical reflection? Or does it put pressure on the notion that ethical philosophy must look a certain way? And how do you think about “ethics” in classical Indian philosophy?

Finally, another solicitation for syllabi. If you are teaching a course which addresses (even in part) ethical inquiry in Indian philosophy and you’d like to share your syllabus, send it to mdasti (AT) bridgew (DOT) edu so we can put it on the blog.

(Cross-posted at my personal blog.)

About Malcolm Keating

Malcolm Keating is Assistant Professor of Humanities (Philosophy) at Yale-NUS College, Singapore.

5 thoughts on “Ethics in Classical Indian Philosophy

  1. Thanks for the question Malcolm, and I’ll be interested to see what others think about this.

    One of the first questions to answer is whether by systematic ethical reflection we mean something that closes on what we find published in academic philosophical journals, with explicitly stated premises and conclusions, consideration of objections and so on. The most explicit extended argument I know of in the Buddhist tradition is Śāntideva’s argument that rejecting a self entails a commitment to impartial benevolence, which is found in the 8th chapter of his Introduction to the Practice of Awakening (starting around verse 90 or so). Amod Lele draws attention to some of Śāntideva’s less noticed arguments in this new Journal of Buddhist Ethics article here. Nevertheless, there is relatively little systematic ethical and metaethical reflection in Indian Buddhist ethics, as compared to Buddhist epistemology, metaphysics etc (and this seems to hold true for Indian philosophy broadly—although I’ll let others speak for that.)

    So one answer (maybe the most obvious one) to your question about which books to assign would be Śāntideva’s extraordinary text.

    One of the guiding question I’ve asked in my own writing on Buddhist ethics is how Buddhist ethical texts function, that is to what extent they provide support for sometimes extraordinary controversial premises, and how this support looks. One of the claims I’ve focused on is that the life of a monk or nun or bodhisattva is far superior to ordinary lives. One of the philosophical connections to pursue here (done most prominently by Damien Keown) is considering Buddhism as a eudaimonism, broadly construed to mean that development of the virtues, here the skillful/virtuous mental qualities, is conducive to personal flourishing/well-being. So I think that a relatively obvious contribution that many Indian Buddhist texts make to the history of ethics is their careful explication of the qualities that liberate from suffering and constitute enlightenment.

    The question then becomes what do we assign in an introductory course to work with Buddhist virtue theory. This is difficult because of translation issues (far out of date technical translations) and also the technical and dense style of Abhidharma texts. In the past, I’ve used Śāntideva’s text for this as well and I think it works really well. I’m curious to hear if others have other ideas about this.

    Other points of intersection between Buddhist and contemporary ethics include (IMO) well-being, moral epistemology and phenomenology, weakness of will (akrasia) and moral demandingness. I’ll leave these for a separate post that I’ve been meaning to make (for some time!)

    I do think there’s some value though in assigning passages in Buddhist ethical texts that do philosophical work in very different ways than is found in contemporary philosophy. Working with meditation as ethical activity, as George Dreyfus did here is a good example of this.

    (And I think much of this post would generalize to Indian philosophy more broadly, but I’ll leave others to comment on that).

  2. Thanks for this post, Malcolm. Yes, there is definitely Indian ethics. I’m obviously partial to Stephen’s answer above; I would also note Candrakīrti’s commentary on Āryadeva (available in Karen Lang’s very nice translation _Four Illusions_) as a text making similar connections between metaphysics and ethics.

    Those Buddhists, at least, are pretty obviously doing ethics. And non-Buddhists? Well, for one thing I’d say Mīmāṃsā is indisputably ethical: it is a set of systematic reflections about the best ways for humans to act. The kind of ethics it proposes is very alien to us – although perhaps less alien to a Mississippi evangelical. And then there’s the Gītā… and while it is not itself so systematic, you can’t say that about Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja, both of whom have full commentaries on it. I assigned their commentaries to an intro class in Indian philosophy for just this reason, and completely regret it – not because the texts aren’t ethics, but because they’re way too hard!

    Śāntideva and Candrakīrti would fit marvelously in an intro course on Indian ethics; I think they would go along just fine beside Plato or Mill. (Indeed, there’s an anthology of intro readings in ethics – David Cooper I think? – that does just that, throwing Śāntideva into the mix.) Stuff like Śaṅkara or Rāmānuja or Kumārila could be great in an upper-year or graduate course with significant prerequisites, but for intros and survey courses you’re way better off assigning secondary works – stuff like John Taber’s “The significance of Kumārila’s philosophy” is good in this regard.

  3. Thanks to both Stephan and Amod for your replies. It sounds like it is perhaps easier to give primary texts from Buddhist philosophers like Śāntideva than Hindu philosophers?

    Students here at Yale-NUS will be reading the Gītā and a short section of both Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja’s commentaries in a few weeks–we will see how that goes. I am hoping that a small selection will make the task more feasible. I would have liked to also have included some Mīmāṃsā but the problem Stephen points out about translations is acute. Yet another reason for those who can to translate these works in an accessible manner (at least as much as difficult philosophy can be made so so).

    • Sounds like good choices to me Malcolm. Actually Vedānta and the ethics of non-liberated experience is something I hope to look at sometime. I’ve just been hanging out with Buddhists texts mainly lately. I agree with Matthew that the Gita is a rich source for work on ethics as well.

  4. Malcolm, I don’t want to tip my hand too early on this, but I’ve been musing over the ethics of sacrifice in the Gita, and why it is that karmayoga is analogized as an internalization of sacrificial practice in the crucial chapters 3-5, with an eye to writing about it. Some excavation/interpretive work must be done, but I think that that section is rich for some important ethical themes. Happy to talk offline some more if you want.

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