A RESPONSE TO SHYAM RANGANATHAM

By Nicholas F. Gier, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, University of Idaho

 

            Shyam Ranganathan's review of my book The Virtue of Non-Violence: from Gautama to Gandhi (PEW 57:1) exceeds all the expectations that an author might have for a fair and constructive appraisal, and I thank him for it.  He offers accurate summaries of each chapter, praises the strong points, graciously indicates some weaknesses, and offers viable options for alternative interpretations. Before I tender more specific remarks, I would like to offer an anecdote.

 

            While on sabbatical in India in 1992, I attended a meeting of the Indian Association of Christian Philosophers held at Dharmaram College in Bangalore.  The topic of the conference was akara and Christian theology.  As I sat and listened in quiet amazement to talks about how well these two suited one another, I was moved to make a comment.  I stood and declared that Rmnuja would be a much more promising partner for Christian theology.  The audience went deathly still, as if I had uttered some sort of rude remark. Looking back at this incident, I imagined it must be the equivalent of someone standing up and promoting Duns Scotus, my favorite medieval philosopher, in a group of confirmed Thomists.

 

            In my 30 years of teaching Indian philosophy, I thoroughly documented the references to personal theism in the Upaniads, and I informed my students that many of them have invocations to Viu or iva.  I also reminded them that the word advaita is found only once in all the Upaniads and that there are over a dozen schools of Vednta.  My students were amazed to learn that many Indian philosophy professors, after lecturing on Advaita Vednta, go home and make offerings to Ganea.  Just as no European ever worshipped Aristotle's unmoved mover, no Hindu has ever bowed before nirgua Brahman.  I have always been a devoted champion of the "neglected" Vednta.

 

Professor Ranganathan's main critique of my book is that I did not consider theistic Vednta as a way to read Gandhi.  He grants that I briefly compare Rmnuja and Gandhi favorably, but he fails to note that I refer frequently to Gandhi's devotion to Rma and his Vainava background.  Furthermore, I also reference Glyn Richard's article relating Gandhi, quite successfully in my mind, to neo-Vednta,[1] thus refuting Ranganathan's charge that I conflate Vednta with Advaita.  My statement that "Vedntist metaphysics cannot possibly serve . . ." is made in the context of a discussion of the Advaita school. Finally, in my chapter "Rules, Vows, and Virtues," I concede that making vows to a personal deity is a viable Gandhian alternative to my preference of virtues supplanting vows.  Gandhi's several references to nonviolence as a virtue, however, led me to press on with my thesis.

 

            The main reason for my focus on Advaita Vednta is that, with very few exceptions, it is the Vedntist school with which Gandhi is associated.  Although I stand firm in my belief that Gandhi is not an Advaitin, I definitely do not exclude a Jain or Hindu theistic interpretation.  I propose a Pli Buddhism framework, not because I think Gandhi would have chosen it, but because I believe that is the best way to develop a philosophically coherent Gandhian ethics of nonviolence.  If he had actually allied himself with Buddhism, his Vedntist tendencies would have drawn him to Mhyana.

 

I am most troubled by Ranganathan's attempt to make Jainism, Skhya-Yoga, and the Vedntist schools into process philosophies.  First, I object to his phrasing that Buddhism "makes room for a process conception."  It is not a problem of accommodating Buddhism to process philosophy, because Gautama's explicit rejection of an impermanent tman and affirmation of the flux of existence makes his view the standard for ancient process philosophy. Second, Skhya-Yoga has process only on the material prakti side, not in the spiritual purua where ahis is an intrinsic not a developed virtue. Even though Jain commentators have attempted to give their philosophy a process interpretation, I believe that they have failed.[2] Ranganathan admits that only Rmnuja's lower self is impermanent while the higher self remains permanent, so this is a substance metaphysics and not the process philosophy I learned from John Cobb and David Griffin as a graduate student at Claremont. Third, the isolated individual selves of Jainism and Skhya-Yoga, that Ranganathan contrasts favorably with akara's absolute monism, does not support the relational self that is implied in Gandhi's organic holism and required for nonviolent activism.

 

            I found it disappointing that a recent book on Indian ethics had no chapter on virtue ethics.[3] The fact that virtue ethics does not appear in this volume does not mean, however, that one cannot find it in the Indian tradition.  In my essay "Toward a Hindu Virtue Ethics,"[4] I have sketched what this option might look like.  I was inspired to write this paper because of Bimal Krishna Matilal's book Ethics and Epics, but his view of KŪa's virtue aesthetics gave me pause, and I returned to Confucianism or Buddhism as the preferred Asian virtue ethics.

 

            I am not convinced that, without much more discussion, that theistic Vednta, as Ranganathan suggests, would give us the developmental model of virtue that I find in early Buddhism and Confucianism.  I suspect that one would find a "recovery" model of virtue that is found in Plato and the Stoics.  Because of my limited knowledge of theistic Vednta, I will not foreclose the possibility of the developmental view.  Nevertheless, I very much doubt that one would find there the ethical pluralism that is definitely implied in Gandhian experiments in truth, especially Gandhi's controversial attempts to remain spiritually pure while sleeping with young women.

 

            It appears that Ranganathan has confused a relativized Hindu nonviolence with Buddhist/Gandhian pragmatic nonviolence.  Ranganathan describes the former better than I did in my book: "Its nature and scope is defined relative to ritual and social contexts and self-interest (e.g., ritual slaughter is the general occasion when the general probation against killing is suspended)." The sacrifice of a goat to Durg and eating its flesh, which a priest declares is not killing or meat eating in this ritual context, is very different from Gandhi's decision to euthanize a calf at the Sabarmati Ashram in 1927. 

 

Gandhi's 1927 decision sounds utilitarian in that he is principally concerned about the calf's suffering, but Gandhi's experiments in truth have a strong personal and pragmatic ("this works for me") tone without reference to the hedonic calculus.  In my book I discovered the same pragmatism in the Buddha's 8-fold path interpreted as, for example, suitable livelihood and appropriate speech.[5]  Arjuna was exempt from ahis because of his caste and KŪa's assurance that no negative karma could affect his inviolable soul, but Buddhists have no such soul, and because they are never excused from any intentional act, Buddhist farmers, for example, must perform penance for killing insects with pesticides.

 

Finally, considering the fact that Gandhi was not a systematic thinker and warned us against unitary views of his thought, I find Ranganathan's attempt to eliminate legitimate Gandhi interpretations by syllogistic reasoning the most un-Gandhian hermeneutic imaginable.  This is, after all, a thinker who declared that he was an Advaitin and a Dvaitin at the same time.[6] (Gandhi was not trained in philosophy, so we must take this as an affirmation of the identity-in-difference that describes his organic holism.) With the exception of an Advaita interpretation, I made it clear that I would not foreclose the possibility of a Jain or Hindu views, which of course includes theistic Vednta.  Ranganthan demonstrates that he has solid grounding in these schools, and I urge him to write a full-fledged essay on this topic.  This would be a welcomed contribution to Gandhi scholarship, and perhaps it would also convince some Indian Christian philosophers to take a second look at Rmnuja.

 

ENDNOTES


 

[1]Glyn Richards, "Gandhi's Concept of Truth and the Advaita Tradition," Religious Studies 22:1 (March, 1986), pp. 1-14.

 

[2]See my Spiritual Titanism: Indian, Chinese, and Western Perspectives (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2000), pp. 92-97.

 

[3]P. Bilimoria, J. Prabhu, R. Sharma, eds., Indian Ethics: Classical Traditions and Contemporary Challenges, an Anthology (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishers, 2007).

 

[4]"Toward a Hindu Virtue Ethics" in  Contemporary Issues in Constructive Dharma,
eds. R. D. Sherma and A. Deepak (Hampton, VA: Deepak Heritage Books, 2005), vol. 2, pp. 151-162. The editors went to press without my revisions to the piece, so you can read it in full at www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/hindve.htm.  More revisions are forthcoming.

 

[5]The Virtue of Non-Violence (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2004), pp. 76-80.

 

[6]Gandhi, Young India 8 (January 21, 1926), p. 30.