ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Perennial Philosophy

Ethics for Our Times: Essays in Gandhian Perspective by M V Nadkarni (New Delhi: OUP), 2011; pp 262, Rs 650.

BOOK REVIEW

-

-

-

-

Perennial Philosophy

Maithreyi Krishnaraj

T
he book has three parts: part I presents “ethics for a globalising world”; part II deals with “philosophical aspects”; and part III uncovers the “ethical foundations of Hinduism”. The book bears the imprint of the author’s extensive knowledge of ancient philosophical texts like the Upanishads further enriched by his knowledge of Sanskrit. Every page is witness to his enormous erudition. His citations number a hundred, drawn from multiple sources – the west and east, from the Greek to Indian, from Aristotle, Scruton, Russell and Kant to Thirukural (Tamil). The book is almost a condensed encyclopedia on several themes with the result that where perhaps one wanted more elaboration of seminal ideas, one is taken quickly to other domains. It is a very eclectic enterprise drawing from a wide variety of sources and perspectives – epistemology, epics, scriptures, political philosophy, philosophical debates, ecology, and feminism and so on. It is several books rolled into one – a veritable library. There is no logical structure and nor is it necessary. When one draws from diverse sources to buttress one’s argument, there is danger in selecting only those sources

Ethics for Our Times: Essays in Gandhian Perspective by M V Nadkarni (New Delhi: OUP), 2011; pp 262, Rs 650.

which favour one’s argument. Countervailing texts get ignored. There is much in our tradition which is worth preserving and drawing from and this in fact belongs to the genre of “perennial philosophy”.

Advaita to Materialism

Nadkarni bases his exposition staunchly on “Hinduism”. Unfortunately the word Hinduism is an aberration thrust on us by Semitic religions which are “isms”. Hindus were people who lived around the river Sindhu so named by the Greek invaders in our hoary past. Hinduism does not have the trademarks of religion. It has no church, no prophet, no congregation and no one Book. It is the repository of speculative thinking over the centuries and has no unifying dogma and as such provides a wide variety of ideas from Advaita at one end to materialism at the other. What unifies Hindu society is the caste system in its day-to-day life and the life cycle rituals and forms of worship.

Nadkarni reads from Gandhi’s ideas and actions to illustrate how his adherence to

december 31, 2011

truth and non-violence was employed in his personal life and in his a pproach to social problems. The most successful period of Gandhi’s experiment with truth and non-violence was in South Africa

and during India’s freedom struggle. The tragic denouement when his satyagraha movement failed to stop violence brought him immense agony and a sense of failure. Thinkers who are ahead of their times as Gandhi was, are not understood, and his warnings went unheeded especially those about mindless industrialisation. Decades after him, we are confronted by precisely the environmental crisis and continuing poverty amidst consumerism and profit-oriented development that he had foreseen. Nadkarni’s exposition of Gandhi’s prescience, his emphasis on ethics as a fundamental to guide human action is very well written. This is the best part of the book. In many ways there is a resurgent interest in Gandhi’s ideas today. His advocacy of village selfsufficiency and revival of crafts to create employment makes sense today but one can accept this as an approach and not as a literal plan because a lot more is needed if we wish to reinvigorate crafts in terms of alternate technology, markets and skill development. Within a globalised world and in an open economy these are difficult to implement unless we eschew international trade and revert to autarky.

vol xlvi no 53

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

BOOK REVIEW

To my mind, while the principle behind such an approach cannot be faulted, practice in the present context is not easy. How do we turn back the clock? Personally I am sympathetic to crafts as India has one of the richest craft traditions in the world. Some attempts have been made but not with vigour. The author agrees that while moral principles per se or taken in isolation are independent of facts or situations, in implementation and actual situation conflicts arise and trade-offs become necessary. Here the author could have given some examples from real life. As for the prevailing inequality, levelling up and building capabilities is one way to give an equal starting point – like Gandhi’s “antyodaya”. Gandhi advocated freedom to earn wealth but this wealth has to be held in trust for society and benefit the less privileged. It is not clear whether this would not be “patronage” rather than upholding the rights of the poor.

Economics and Ethics

Nadkarni provides an interesting link b etween economics and ethics. Both deal with choice. In issues related to human development he points out how ethics and economics overlap because both are subject to ethical evaluation. He argues that ethics is meaningful only in the context of choice – not just between what is good and bad but between different moral principles. What kind of development will promote overall human welfare? How do we subject it to ethical evaluation? The answer is mutual obligation so as to ensure that our choice is conducive to all sections of society. What is conducive should not be in utilitarian terms of the individual’s freedom to choose to maximise his or her satisfaction. Here the relevance of what Nadkarni drives home is well illustrated according to me by the feminist demand of the right to “reproductive choice” which was articulated at a time when a coercive population control programme was unleashed. However, how can it be an individual choice when the consequences of one’s actions impinge on society – the number of children one has in turn affects the number of schools, doctors, and social provisions that would be needed. If e conomics holds self-interest as the motivating factor in human decisions, it misconstrues the plurality of motivations. Moral dilemmas arise when we follow a single moral principle irrespective of consequences. Why be ethical? It is related to the consideration of consequences. We are faced with the controversy of whether to lift the ban on sex determination tests which are responsible for our skewed sex ratio. The Gita stresses duty for its own sake but how can we avoid concern for consequences? Gandhi emphasised individual responsibility tempered by ethics. I recall Arthur Koestler’s disparaging epithet of Indians as lotus eaters and the Japanese as robots. Nadkarni is at pains to rebut this prejudice by quoting many statements and aphorisms in the Indian tradition which give importance to action.

New from SAGE!

A quote from Reinhold Niebuhr (1960) would be apt here:

Moral life has a double focus. One focus is

the inner life of the individual and the other,

in the necessities of a human being’s social

life. From the perspective of society, the

highest moral ideal is justice. From the pers

pective of the individual, the highest ideal is

unselfishness, that is altruism. The indivi

dual must strive to realise his life by losing

DEVELOPMENT

CORPORATE AND PUBLIC FINANCE

GOVERNANCE IN INDIA

Essays in Honour of Raja J Chelliah

-D\DWL6DUNDU and 6XEUDWD6DUNDU Edited by '.6ULYDVWDYD
RUSRUDWH *RYHUQDQFH LQ ,QGLD LV DQ and 86DQNDU

DXWKRULWDWLYH GLVFRXUVH RQ WKH FXUUHQW VWDWH RIFRUSRUDWHJRYHUQDQFHLQ,QGLD%HJLQQLQJ

'HYHORSPHQW DQG 3XEOLF )LQDQFH LV D

ZLWKDQDQDO\VLVRILWVHYROXWLRQWKHDXWKRUV FRPPHPRUDWLYH YROXPH RQ ODWH 'U 5DMD GLVFXVV WKH HIIHFWLYHQHVV DQG DSSOLFDELOLW\ - KHOOLDK RQH RI WKH IRUHPRVW 3XEOLF RIFRUSRUDWHJRYHUQDQFHPHFKDQLVPVLQWKH )LQDQFH H[SHUWV RI ,QGLD ,W LV GHVLJQHG DV FRQWH[W RI WKH LQVWLWXWLRQDO VWUXFWXUH ZLWKLQ D FRPSHQGLXP RI HVVD\V RQ FRQWHPSRUDU\ ZKLFK,QGLDQFRPSDQLHVRSHUDWH

LVVXHV RI 3XEOLF )LQDQFH DQG 'HYHORSPHQW IRFXVLQJ RQ WKH UDSLGO\ JOREDOL]LQJ ,QGLDQ

,QWKLVYROXPHWKHDXWKRUVWDNHWKHUHDGHUV HFRQRP\ :HOONQRZQ VFKRODUV DQG H[SHUWV WKURXJKDQLQGHSWKFRYHUDJHRIVL[LPSRUWDQW KDYHFRQWULEXWHGLQVLJKWIXODUWLFOHVWRWKLVFROOHFWLRQ FRUSRUDWHJRYHUQDQFHPHFKDQLVPV 2ZQHUVKLSVWUXFWXUH

$OO FRQWULEXWLRQV KDYH EHHQ H[FOXVLYHO\ LQYLWHG IRU WKLV SXEOLFDWLRQ 7KH\ %RDUGRIGLUHFWRUVUHSUHVHQWDZHDYLQJRILQWHUGHSHQGHQWWKHPHVRI'HYHORSPHQWDQG3XEOLF ([HFXWLYHFRPSHQVDWLRQ)LQDQFH DQG DUH VHTXHQWLDOO\ DUUDQJHG WR UHpHFW WKHLU LQWHUUHODWLRQVKLSV $XGLWRUDQGWKHDXGLWFRPPLWWHH6RPHRIWKHLPSRUWDQWWRSLFVDQDO\]HGE\WKHDUWLFOHVDUHGLYHVWPHQWDQG 0DUNHWIRUFRUSRUDWHFRQWUROSULYDWL]DWLRQoQDQFLDO WUDQVDFWLRQ WD[ FDUERQ WD[oVFDOIHGHUDOLVP JRRGV 'LVFORVXUHDQGHQIRUFHPHQW

DQGVHUYLFHWD[GHFHQWUDOL]DWLRQVRFLDOSROLF\DQGFOLPDWHFKDQJH HDUVRIH[WHQVLYHUHVHDUFKFRPELQHGZLWKFRQWHPSRUDU\GDWDFROOHFWHGIURP

ōSDJHVōC+DUGEDFN

YDULRXVFRUSRUDWHJRYHUQDQFHUHSRUWVIURPDFURVV,QGLDPDNHVWKLVYROXPH DSULFHOHVVUHDG\UHFNRQHU

ōSDJHVōC+DUGEDFN

ZZZVDJHSXELQLos Angeles „ London „ New Delhi „ Singapore „Washington DC

Economic Political Weekly

EPW
december 31, 2011 vol xlvi no 53

BOOK REVIEW

himself in something greater than himself. These two moral perspectives are mutually exclusive and the contradiction between them is not absolute but neither are they easily harmonised... From an internal perspective, the most moral act is one actuated by disinterested motives (pp 257-58). The third part of the book deals with

philosophical issues and reading it

brought a quote from Leszek Kolakowski

(2009) to mind:

The cultural role of philosophy is not to deliver truth but to build the spirit of truth and this means, never to let the inquis tive state of mind go to sleep, never to stop questioning what appears to be obvious and d efinitive, always defy the seemingly intact resources of common sense, always to suspect that there might be another side in what we take for granted and never allow us to forget that there are questions that lie b eyond the legitimate horizon of science and are none the less crucially important to the survival of humanity.

According to Nadkarni,

Hinduism is supportive of humanist valuesfaith in reasoning, freedom of thought, even in emphasising the need for human beings to take up their responsibility to society and the world. God for the Hindu is immanent and not out there somewhere. The convocation address in Indian universities is from Taitreya Upanishad which exhorts pupils to speak the truth, practice virtue, not deviate from study, not deviate from truth, not deviate from duty to parents.

Ethic of Responsibility

The Rig Veda has several verses about the need to safeguard the environment. The problem is that there is a wide gap between precepts and practice. All religions advocate virtues. There have been innumerable saints who have fought against the rigidity of our caste system but they have not been successful. I wish Nadkarni had paid some attention to this aspect. What prevents this from closing the gap? To blame it on colonialism is not to admit our own complicity. Zakaria (2003) a rgues that in order to make democratic decision-making effective those with immense power in our societies must set standards that are not only legal but moral. So we come back to the importance of the ethic of responsibility.

As for environmental concerns, bio logist Edward Wilson (2003) put the matter succinctly when he said:

A sense of genetic unity, a kinship and deep history are among the values that bond us to the living environment. They are survival strategies for ourselves and our species. To invest in biological diversity is an investment in immortality.

To conclude, Nadkarni has made a passionate attempt to rescue Hinduism from its moribund present to its original inspirations. For this he deserves our praise.

Maithreyi Krishnaraj (krishnaraj.maithreyi@ gmail.com) is an honorary visiting professor at the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore.

References

Kolakowski, Leszek (2009): Resisting the Arrogance of Intellect. Cited in Indian Express, 21 July, by Bhanu Pratap Mehta.

Niebuhr, Reinhold (1960): Moral Man and Immoral S ociety: A Study in Ethics and Politics (New York: Charles Scribner and Sons).

Wilson, Edward (2003): The Future of Life (UK: Abacus Times Warner Books).

Zakaria, Fareed (2003): The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (India: Viking/ Penguin).

SAMEEKSHA TRUST BOOKS

China after 1978: Craters on the Moon

The breathtakingly rapid economic growth in China since 1978 has attracted world-wide attention. But the condition of more than 350 million workers is abysmal, especially that of the migrants among them. Why do the migrants put up with so much hardship in the urban factories? Has post-reform China forsaken the earlier goal of “socialist equality”? What has been the contribution of rural industries to regional development, alleviation of poverty and spatial inequality, and in relieving the grim employment situation? How has the meltdown in the global economy in the second half of 2008 affected the domestic economy? What of the current leadership’s call for a “harmonious society”? Does it signal an important “course correction”? A collection of essays from the Economic Political Weekly seeks to find tentative answers to these questions, and more.

Pp viii + 318 ISBN 978-81-250-3953-2 2010 Rs 350

Windows of Opportunity

By K S KRISHNASWAMY

A ruminative memoir by one who saw much happen, and not happen, at a time when everything seemed possible and promising in India. K S Krishnaswamy was a leading light in the Reserve Bank of India and the Planning Commission between the 1950s and 1970s. He offers a ringside view of the pulls and pressures within the administration and outside it, the hopes that sustained a majority in the bureaucracy and the lasting ties he formed with the many he came in contact with. Even more relevant is what he has to say about political agendas eroding the Reserve Bank’s autonomy and degrading the numerous democratic institutions since the late 1960s.

Pp xii + 190 ISBN 978-81-250-3964-8 2010 Rs 440 Available from

Orient Blackswan Pvt Ltd

www.orientblackswan.com Mumbai Chennai New Delhi Kolkata Bangalore Bhubaneshwar Ernakulam Guwahati Jaipur Lucknow Patna Chandigarh Hyderabad Contact: info@orientblackswan.com

december 31, 2011 vol xlvi no 53

EPW
Economic Political Weekly

To read the full text Login

Get instant access

New 3 Month Subscription
to Digital Archives at

₹826for India

$50for overseas users

Comments

(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top