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Ethics in Times of Transition in South Asia

Ethical Life in South Asia edited by Anand Pandian and Daud Ali (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2011; pp viii + 290, Rs 695.


Ethics in Times of Transition in South Asia

Rudolf C Heredia

he encounter between tradition and modernity in the multicultural, pluri-religious Indic societies of south Asia produces multiple m odernities that differ across geographies, histories and specifi c sociocultural contexts. In the transition to multiple modernities, the transmission of traditional ethical practices and established moral relations is reoriented. Traditional ethics has not been static. There have been historical moments and movements of d evelopment and displacement, which can become models for an adaptive discourse in times of change.

Often change brings alienation and anomie, troubling cultural exclusion and religious taboos. In an insecure and fl uid situation, these easily spill over into endemic intolerance and horrifi c violence. Rising standards of living were thought to contain and release these tensions and contradictions, but have often resulted in the opposite outcome. Understanding and addressing such anomalies can push us to the limits of ethical language and moral practice, bringing us back to the ancient question articulated by Paul Ricoeur (1994): “how ought one to live?”

This involves one’s relation to others as also to the self. Thus for Foucault, ethics is premised on a reflective “Practice of Freedom” (Foucault 1997) and concerns “technologies of the self” in the moral life. In situations of rapid and radical change, new and enabling ways of closing the gap between the “ought” and the “is” must be found. If ethics is the practice of remaking oneself freely as a moral being, it cannot, must not be enforced by policing. Thus all the diverse, ethical discourses in south Asia attempt to motivate and discipline for a more d esirable way of being.

Philosophers like Immanuel Kant have proposed an interiorised universal, altruistic ethic (1964, first published in 1785): the moral imperative of freely choosing what is right solely because it is

Ethical Life in South Asia edited by Anand Pandian and Daud Ali (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2011; pp viii + 290, Rs 695.

right. Otherwise the act is not truly moral because it would be extrinsically m otivated and not intrinsically free. But this remains a formalistic ethic and its content remains problematic, for what is “right” must refer to a specific context in a particular society. Even Kant’s universal norms begin to strain in cross-cultural appli cation. Treating every person as an end, never a means, or universalising the norms for action becomes tenuous when ascribed status rigidly stratifies and compartmentalises society, and assigns some to subhuman domains, i e, castes, slaves, women. In other societies, equality is a fundamental value; in some, animal rights are privileged. Hence anthropologists and other social scientists have stressed that the development of the ethical happens in a concrete sociocultural context. Moral arguments must be embodied or rather embedded in these contexts.

Origin of ‘Ethics’

The word “ethics” is derived from the Greek “ethos” or character; “morality” derives from the Latin “mores” or customs. Based on this, a further distinction is useful (Williams 1985) between ethics as concerning the “ought” of how we ought to live, and morality as concerning the “is” or decisions we take with regard to right and wrong. Though both are necessarily contextual, the fi rst is more general and value-premised, and the second more specific and normruled. In other words, basic human ethical values are more universal, whereas tradition-specific norms are contextual. Normative horizons emerge under given historical social conditions, but fundamental values can transcend these.

Ranging across large spans of time and space within the subcontinent, this

march 10, 2012

volume has three related aims. First, to “recast history of ethics in South Asia” from moral rules and laws “to changing practice of self-fashioning and collective conduct” (p 9);1 second, to view these “ethical traditions in their historical and contextual specifi city” (p 11);2 third, to

call “attention to the complex and multiple ties that bind moral and ethical challenges in South Asia to the legacies, b urdens and expectations of the past” (p 12). The editors’ introduction to the collection promises a rewarding engagement with the chapters of this book, which is divided into three parts. The brief overview here is meant as an invitation to the reader to get to them.

The first part focuses on ethical “Traditions in Transmission”. In the fi rst chapter, Daud Ali starts with a study of “The Subhashita as an Artefact of Ethical Life in Medieval India” (p 21). These “wellspoken” (p 23) or “beautifully said” (p 28) collections of Sanskrit verses fl oat around in oral traditions and get modifi ed, improvised, expanded and so survive to become a lived moral knowledge, collectively articulated and highly dialogical. The Tamil Tinnai (or verandah) school, studied by Bhavani Raman in the second chapter, emphasises “Disciplining the Senses and Schooling the Mind” through memorised poems and a complex pedagogy (p 43). According to James Ladislaw, in the third chapter, the encounter of “Diaspora Jainism” with “Environmental and Animal Rights Movements” has led to an eco-Jainism that is reinterpreting Jain customs, for instance veganism and its taboo on milk and milk products (p 61).

The second part examines “Ethics and Modernity”. Here Ritu Birla looks at “Vernacular Capitalists”, where duty and community seem to be at the heart of the business ethic, while the “Modern Subject in India” is formed by “Law, C ulture, and Market Ethics” with new ethico-political discourses emerging there (p 83). The consequent proliferating tensions must be accommodated with an extensive negotiability between the norms of bazaar commerce, on the one hand, and colonial jurisprudence and contemporary business practices, on the other. In a chapter on “The Ethics of Textuality”, Bernard Bate analyses “The

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Protestant Sermon in the Tamil Public Square” (p 101). And concluding this section is Dipesh Chakrabarty’s “Empire, Ethics and the Calling of History”, which he understands as “the struggle to remain open to someone else’s reasoned scepticism” (p 133).

“Practices of the Self” in their diverse modes of cultivating moral selfhood, is the topic of part three. In the distinction “Between Intuition and Judgment”, Charles Hallisey discovers the “Moral Creativity in Theravada Buddhist Ethics” (p 141). “Young Manliness” is explored by Emma Flatt in the “Ethical Cultures in the Gymnasiums of the Medieval Deccan” (p 153), where wrestling as character training was privileged by medieval texts of the Persianate world. Leela Prasad’s study of “Ethical Subjects” in terms of “Time, Telling and Tellability” examines the relationship between past and present (p 174). Memory provides the context for interpreting the “text” of present narration. The lived contradictions between ethical concerns and material interests can bring “Demoralising

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Developments”. Craig Jeffrey shows how the need for ethical congruence is met by compartmentalising two different forms of ethico-political action to accommodate the demands of each in separate ethical lifestyles (p 192).

The concluding section broadens the field by showcasing the “Ethical Lives of Others”. The Gandhian satyagrahi’s fearlessness in the face of death is for Ajay Skaria the paradox of “Living by Dying” (p 211). This of course is but Gandhi’s rearticulation of the ancient spirituality of renunciation, of unselfi ng the self to attain moksha, of total detachment for nirvana, of dying for the self to be raised to eternal life. The “Moral and Spiritual Striving in Everyday Life” in order “To be a Muslim in Contemporary India” is sensitively illustrated by Veena Das with her ethnographic description of life in a mixed neighbourhood in Old Delhi (p 232). Finally, Lawrence Cohen’s essay on “Ethical Publicity” deals with our capacity to recognise the wounds of the other as the precondition for the imperative to act (p 253).

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  • (2012); Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography (Volume Two – 1947-1956) (New Delhi: Oxford University Press); pp 346, Rs 2,250 for three volume set.
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    This book is a competent and credible illustration of the richness of south Asian ethical traditions and the resources to be found there for a reorientation and renewal of our ethical sensitivity in changing times. It will be valuable book for anyone studying ethics in the south Asian context, and especially for historians and moral philosophers.

    Rudolf C Heredia ( is an independent researcher based in Mumbai.


    1 Unless otherwise noted, all page numbers are from the 2010 Indiana University Press edition, available on Google Scholar.

    2 From the Oxford University Press edition under review.


    Foucault, Michel (1997): “Ethics of the Concern for the Self as a Practice of Freedom” in P Rabinow (ed.), Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth (New York: New Press), pp 32-50.

    Kant, Immanuel (1964): Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Paton, H J (trans) (New York: Harper Torchbooks).

    Ricoeur, Paul (1994): Oneself as Another (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

    Williams, Bernard (1985): Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press).

    (New Delhi: IDFC and Oxford University Press); pp xxxix + 396, Rs 695.

    Ingham, Geoffrey (2011); Capitalism (Cambridge: Polity Press); pp 331, £ 60 (hb).

    Jaffrelot, Christophe, ed. (2012); India since 1950: Society, Politics, Economy and Culture (New Delhi: Yatra Books and Foundation Books); pp xix + 911, Rs 995.

    Jalan, Bimal (2012); Emerging India: Economics, Politics & Reforms (New Delhi: Penguin Books); pp xxviii + 305, Rs 599.

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    Kaushik, Kshama V and Kaushik Dutta (2012); India Means Business, How the Elephant Earned Its Stripes (New Delhi: Oxford University Press); pp xviii + 366, Rs 695.

    Lo, Dic (2012); Alternatives to Neoliberal Globalisation: Studies in the Political Economy of Institutions and Late Development (England and New York: Palgrave Macmillan); pp ix + 197, price not indicated.

    Locke, John L (2012); Duels and Duets: Why Men and Women Talk So Differently (New Delhi: Cambridge University Press); pp x + 241, Rs 295.

    Mallampalli, Chandra (2012); Race, Religion and Law in Colonial India: Trials of an Interracial Family (New Delhi: Cambridge University Press); pp xviii + 268, Rs 895.

    Mehra, Parshotam (2012); Tibet: Writings on History and Politics (New Delhi: Oxford University Press); pp xii + 382, Rs 795.

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