What would Sri Krishna do? – Gary Gutting

Krishna & Arjuna

• The interviewee for this article is Prof Jonardon Ganeri, currently a visiting professor of philosophy at the non-sectarian New York University in Abu Dhabi and the author of “The Lost Age of Reason: Philosophy in Early Modern India 1450–1700.”

• The interviewer for this article is Prof Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the sectarian University of Notre Dame near South Bend, Indiana, and an editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. He is the author of, most recently, “Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy Since 1960″ and writes regularly for The New York Times. This interview was conducted by email and edited. 

Gary Gutting: How might looking at Hinduism alter philosophical approaches to religion that take Christianity as their primary example?

Jonardon Ganeri: Taking Christianity as the exemplar of religion skews philosophical discussion towards attempts to solve, resolve or dissolve difficult philosophical puzzles inherent in monotheism: problems about God’s powers, goodness and knowledge; attempts to provide rational arguments for God’s existence; the problem of evil; and so on. Hindu philosophers have traditionally been far more interested in a quite different array of problems, especially questions about the nature of religious knowledge and religious language, initially arising from their concerns with the Veda as a sacred eternal text and as a source of ritual and moral law.

GG: Does this mean that Hinduism is a religion without God?

JG: Many Hindus believe in God, but not all in the same God: For some it is Vishnu, for others Shiva, for others again it is rather the Goddess. Some of the more important Hindu philosophers are atheists, arguing that no sacred religious text such as the Veda could be the word of God, since authorship, even divine authorship, implies the logical possibility of error. Whether believed in or not, a personal God does not figure prominently as the source of the idea of the divine, and instead non-theistic concepts of the divine prevail.

GG: What do you mean by “non-theistic” concepts of the divine?

JG: One such concept sees the text of the Veda as itself divine. Its language, on this view, has a structure that is prior to and isomorphic with the structure of the world and its grammar is complete (although parts may have been lost over the centuries). The divinity of the text inverts the order of priority between text and author: Now, at best, assignment of authorship is a cataloging device not the identification of origin. Recitation of the text is itself a religious act.

Another Hindu conception of the divine is that it is the essential reality in comparison to which all else is only concealing appearance. This is the concept one finds in the Upanishads. Philosophically the most important claim the Upanishads make is that the essence of each person is also the essence of all things; the human Self and Brahman—the essential reality—are the same.

This identity claim leads to a third conception of the divine: that inwardness or interiority or subjectivity is itself a kind of divinity. On this view, religious practice is contemplative, taking time to turn one’s gaze inwards to find one’s real self; but—and this point is often missed—there is something strongly anti-individualistic in this practice of inwardness, since the deep Self one discovers is the same Self for all.

GG: Could you say something about the Hindu view of life after death? In particular, are Hindu philosophers able to make sense of the notion of reincarnation?

JG: Every religion has something to say about death and the afterlife, and hence engages with philosophical questions about the metaphysics of the Self. While Christian philosophy of Self tends to be limited to a single conception of Self as immortal soul, Hindu philosophers have experimented with an astonishing range of accounts of Self, some of which are at the cutting edge in contemporary philosophy of mind.

GG: Could you give an example?

JG: The Self as an immaterial, immortal soul is consistent with the Hindu idea of survival through reincarnation. But some Hindu philosophers have concluded that mind and the mental must be embodied. If so, reincarnation requires that mental states must be able to be “multiply realized” in different physical states. This led to the idea, much later popular among analytic philosophers of mind, that the mental is a set of functions that operate through the body. Such an approach supports the idea that there is a place for the Self within nature, that a Self—even one that exists over time in different bodies—need be not a supernatural phenomenon.

GG: What sort of ethical guidance does Hinduism provide?

JG: One of the most important texts in the religious life of many Hindus is the Bhagavad Gita, the Song of the Lord. The Gita is deeply philosophical, addressing in poetic, inspirational language a fundamental conundrum of human existence: What to do when one is pulled in different directions by different sorts of obligation, how to make hard choices. The hard choice faced by the protagonist Arjuna is whether to go to war against members of his own family, in violation of a universal duty not to kill; or to abstain, letting a wrong go unrighted and breaking a duty that is uniquely his. Lord Krishna counsels Arjuna with the philosophical advice that the moral motivation for action should never consist in expected outcomes, that one should act but not base one’s path of action on one’s wants or needs.

GG: This sounds rather like the Kantian view that morality means doing what’s right regardless of the consequences.

JG: There are ongoing debates about what sort of moral philosophy Krishna is proposing—Amartya Sen has claimed that he’s a quasi-Kantian but others disagree. More important than this scholarly debate, though, is what the text tells us about how to live: that living is hard, and doing the right thing is difficult; that leading a moral life is at best an enigmatic and ambiguous project. No escape route from moral conflict by imitating the actions of a morally perfect individual is on offer here. Krishna, unlike Christ, the Buddha or Mohammed is not portrayed as morally perfect, and indeed the philosopher Bimal Matilal very aptly describes him as the “devious divinity.” We can but try our best in treacherous circumstances.

GG: How does the notion of “karma” fit into the picture?

JG: Let me be clear. The idea of karma is that every human action has consequences, but it is not at all the claim that every human action is itself a consequence. So the idea of karma does not imply a fatalistic outlook on life, according to which one’s past deeds predetermine all one’s actions. The essence of the theory is simply that one’s life will be better if one acts in ways that are ethical, and it will be worse if one acts in ways that are unethical.

A claim like that can be justified in many different ways. Buddhism, for example, tends to give it a strictly causal interpretation—bad actions make bad things happen. But I think that within Hinduism, karma is more like what Kant called a postulate of practical reason, something one does well to believe in and act according to—for Kant, belief in God was a practical postulate of this sort.

GG: How does Hinduism regard other religions—for example, as teaching falsehoods, as worthy alternative ways, as partial insights into its fuller truth?

JG: The essence of Hinduism is that it has no essence. What defines Hinduism and sets it apart from other major religions is its polycentricity, its admission of multiple centers of belief and practice, with a consequent absence of any single structure of theological or liturgical power. Unlike Christianity, Buddhism or Islam, there is no one single canonical text—the Bible, the Dialogues of the Buddha, the Quran—that serves as a fundamental axis of hermeneutical or doctrinal endeavor, recording the words of a foundational religious teacher. (The Veda is only the earliest in a diverse corpus of Hindu texts.) Hinduism is a banyan tree, in the shade of whose canopy, supported by not one but many trunks, a great diversity of thought and action is sustained.

GG: Would Hinduism require rejecting the existence of the God worshiped by Christians, Jews or Muslims?

JG: No, it wouldn’t. To the extent that Hindus worship one God, they tend to be henotheists, that is, worshiping their God but not denying the existence of others—“every individual worships some God,” not “some God is worshipped by every individual.” The henotheistic attitude can accept the worship of the Abrahamic God as another practice of the same kind as the worship of Vishnu or Shiva—and Vaishnavism and Shaivism are practically different religions under the catchall rubric “Hinduism.”

Without a center, there can be no periphery either, and so Hinduism’s approach to other religions tends to be incorporationist. In practice this can imply a disrespect for the otherness of non-Hindu religious traditions, and in particular of their ability to challenge or call into question Hindu beliefs and practices. The positive side is that there is in Hinduism a long heritage of tolerance of dissent and difference.

One explanation of this tolerance of difference is that religious texts are often not viewed as making truth claims, which might then easily contradict one another. Instead, they are seen as devices through which one achieves self transformation. Reading a religious text, taking it to heart, appreciating it, is a transformative experience, and in the transformed state one might well become aware that the claims of the text would, were they taken literally, be false. So religious texts are seen in Hinduism as “Trojan texts”—like the Trojan horse, but breaking through mental walls in disguise. Such texts enter the mind of the reader and help constitute the self.

The Hindu attitude to the Bible or the Quran is the same, meaning that the sorts of disagreements that arise from literalist readings of the texts tend not to arise.

GG: What ultimate good does Hinduism promise those who follow it, and what is the path to attaining this good?

JG: The claim is that there are three pathways, of equal merit, leading in their own way to liberation. Hindu philosophers have employed a good deal of logical skill in their definitions of liberation. To cut a long story short, for some it is a state defined as the endless but not beginingless absence of pain; others characterize it as a state of bliss. The three pathways are the path of knowledge, the path of religious performance and the path of devotion. The path of knowledge requires philosophical reflection, that of religious performances various rituals and good deeds, and that of devotion worship and service, often of a particular deity such as Krishna.

GG: Could you say a bit more about the path of knowledge and its relation to philosophy?

JG: Knowledge can liberate because epistemic error is the primary source of anguish, and knowledge is an antidote to error. I might err, for example, if I believe that I only need to satisfy my current desires in order to be happy. The antidote is the knowledge that the satisfaction of one desire serves only to generate another.

According to the Nyaya philosopher Vatsyayana, this is why philosophy is important. Doing philosophy is the way we cultivate our epistemic skills, learning to tell sound doxastic practices from bogus ones, and the cultivation of epistemic skills is what stops the merry-go-round between cognitive error and mental distress. So it isn’t that philosophy and religion are not distinct, but that there is a meta-theory about their relationship.

GG: The liberation you’ve described seems to be a matter of escaping from the cares of this world. Doesn’t this lead to a lack of interest in social and political action to make this world better?

JG: The great narrative texts of Hinduism are the two epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. These epics are drawn on as resources in thinking about ethical conduct; forms of just society; and the possibility of various kinds of political and social agency. They are vast polycentric texts, and are read as such by Hindus. One of the important virtues of these epics is that they give voice to a range of participants within Hinduism that tend to go unheard: women, the disenfranchised, the outsider, the migrant. They provide these groups with important models for social and political intervention. That’s one reason they have always been very popular works within the Hindu diaspora.

The mirror image of the idea that liberation consists in the absence of distress is that a free society consists in the absence of injustice; thus the removal of injustice, rather than the creation of a perfect or ideal society, is the target of political action. Just as the absence of distress is a minimal condition compatible with many different kinds of human well-being—we are back to the theme of polycentricism—so the absence of injustice is compatible with many different types of well-ordered community or society.

GG: How do you respond to the charge that Hinduism has supported the injustices of the caste system in India?

JG: I think it is important to see that Hinduism contains within itself the philosophical resources to sustain an internal critique of reprehensible and unjust social practices that have sometimes emerged in Hindu societies. The Upanishadic idea that all selves are equal, and one with Brahman, for example, can be drawn on to challenge the system of caste. There are thus forms of rational self-criticism that the diverse riches of Hindu philosophy enable, and an individual’s social identity as a Hindu is something to be actively fashioned rather than merely inherited. – The New York Times, 3 August 2014

2 Responses

  1. Stop this Eurocentric narrative on India and its civilizational identity and ethos. It is worthless without sadhana foundation.

    • Prof Ganeri has done quite well holding the Hindu front line against a rather stupid Catholic inquisitor (Gutting).

      His last line—“…an individual’s social identity as a Hindu is something to be actively fashioned rather than merely inherited”—tells us a lot about his lack of Eurocentrism.

      Perhaps with a little more sadhana under your belt Sadda, you might better appreciate his patient replies to Gutting.

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