What about the other three puruṣārthas?

Friends, I am looking for your thoughts on the following question.

I teach a course on Indian philosophy as part of my own course rotation, and as a rule, I frame most of the major subdivisions of the course according to major philosophical categories: epistemology, metaphysics, ethics. Under the ethics heading, I tend to focus on yogic ways of life, mindfulness, and the ways that contemplative practices speak to the good life (part of the reason for this focus is that many students are interested in the course because of some background connection to yoga). But I start by talking about the 4 goals of life, and thinking about how each of them speak to the question of ethics.

So, we all know the old saw about Indian philosophy proper being more focused on M&E and language than ethics. Has anyone found work on, say, the dharma-śāstras that is philosophical and can be easily incorporated into the undergraduate philosophy classroom? Or artha or kāma? Or sacrifice? I find that when I discuss them, I am doing a lot of talking and framing, and proposing discussion ideas, but I am not tying them to readings the way I do for the other topics in the course.

Any suggestions on how we can avoid ignoring the other aspects of Indian ethics in the undergraduate classroom?

(Associated reading: Joel Kupperman has persuasively argued that part of Confucius’ contribution to world philosophy is to show that personal style is not divorced from ethics. Maybe we need to think more broadly as we reflect on ethics in India).

About Matthew Dasti

Matthew R. Dasti is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Bridgewater State University.

9 Replies to “What about the other three puruṣārthas?”

  1. You might try Radhakrishnans “Hindu view of life.” There I believe in the second chapter he argues briefly but persuasively.

  2. Hi Matthew

    I have a short paper on Mimamsa ethics (part of the first year course on Indian Ethics I did for the Indian government’s e-graduate education initiative) that covers these topics, from Sabara’s and Kumarila’s point of view.


    I’ve uploaded it to philpapers (the government website is not easy to use).

    Best wishes,

    • Shyam, I often (yesterday, for instance, in a talk about altruism) refer to your work, which is always worth engaging with. Nonetheless, I think this paper should be taken with a little bit of caution by unexperienced readers. For instance, you start with your four theories about ethics, which is really interesting, but students risk to think that it is the only accepted paradigm to look at bhakti. Another troublesome assumption comes right after that, when you write:

      “The classical Pūrva Mīmāṃsā authors are hence atheists. This is surprising, for Pūrva Mīmāṃsā is often depicted as the most orthodox of Hindu schools.”

      In fact, the PM atheism is only surprising if one thinks that “orthodox” implies being “theist”, but why should this be the case? Because of our unreflected assumptions about orthodoxy in Europe? And why using at all such a concept, without any explanation, in the Indian context?

      The same applies with your discussion of the topic of PMS (“The guiding theme of this sutra is action (karma)—not in the extended sense of consequences of actions (though this too is relevant) but in terms of the more basic question of appropriate behaviour.”), your translation of śabda (“word”), of nitya (“eternal”), artha in PMS 1.1.2 (“benefit”), śruti (“context independent truth”) and so on. I am intrigued by some of these proposals and they are certainly worth discussing, but would not suggest that they are uncontroversially true.

      Long story short, I find the article more stimulating for experienced readers than introductory for unexperienced ones. But perhaps this has to do with my general idea that it is better to convey doubts than half-baked truths.

    • Another Mīmāṃsaka resource might be Jonardon Ganeri’s contribution to Thinking Through Rituals, “The Ritual Roots of Moral Reason: Lessons from Mīmāṃsā,” which is more meta-ethics, but could be incorporated into a bigger discussion of some of the source texts he cites. I used this in a course on analogical reasoning & metaphor, to good effect, conjoined with some other materials on ritual and analogy from the Chinese “Confucian” tradition, in particular Mengzi (but Xunzi is a nice interlocutor to Mīmāṃsā, as Alexus McLeod has shown).

  3. Dear prof,
    I give an off-beat suggestion. In Indian philosophy/ethics we have ignored the 2000 years old Tamil classic Thirukkural. I have written a book in English , a commentary on part one of Thirukkural.( thirukkural consists of 3 parts).The book available in amazon, both print and kindle versions.

    I suggest/ request you to read the sample version of the kindle book. I feel that it will be a good extension on Indian thinking beyond Sanskrit,

  4. For my Indian ethics undergraduate seminar this semester we’ve used these two texts on artha:

    Patrick Olivelle and Mark McClish, The Arthaśāstra: Selections from the Classic Indian Work on Statecraft (London: Hackett, 2012).

    Ācārya Nāgārjuna, The Precious Garland: An Epistle to a King, tr. J. Dunne and S. McClintock (Boston: Wisdom, 1997).

    Among the topics we’ve discussed is how these two texts relate to virtue ethics, the idea that an effective king is someone whose “senses are restrained,” etc. The 2013 complete Olivelle translation of the Artha Śāstra is a bit overwhelming, but I’ve put it on reserve for students who will be writing a paper on the text.

  5. If you’re okay with incorporating modern Indian material, Sri Aurobindo has some interesting reflections on meta-ethical issues such as ethical realism, and related issues in philosophy of religion. ‘The Life Divine’ has at least one chapter dedicated to the problem of evil, including reflections on the objectivity of ethical judgements.

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