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Indian Philosophy and Ethics: Dialogical Method as a Fresh Possibility

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This paper discusses the positions held by two opposing camps—the traditionalists and the positivists (to use Pradeep Gokhale’s typology) regarding the presence or absence of ethics in Indian philosophy. It subsequently offers a way ahead of the impasse where I consider some inputs inherent in the method of dialogue in pre-modern Indian philosophy for imagining an ethics of and ethics for plurality. Such an ethics, I argue, cannot be imagined without involving the category of ‘Other,’ which has otherwise remained elusive in the Indian philosophical debates. The diverse nature of Indian societies demands Other-centric ethics to assess and evaluate the enduring moral crisis pervading contemporary times.

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  1. Apart from philosophers like Prasad and Sarukkai, public intellectuals have also meditated on the moral morass of contemporary Indian society. Sarim Naved considers today’s times as ‘times of fear and insecurity’ and looks forward to a ‘politics of morality’ based on Gandhian assumptions as an alternative (Naved 2017). Kamal M. Morarka, a former union minister in the Indian government, underscores that the lack of morals in politics is the real crisis that India faces today (Morarka 2012). In a newspaper column earlier this year, I reflected on the challenge of our neglecting moral responsibility as if it was disposable. I argued that Indian philosophers need to take up the ‘challenge of moral deliberation on the most pressing issues of our difficult times. We have to revoke the suspension of ethics and morality from our lives by initiating a dialogue on it.’ (Ali 2017).

  2. Quite contrary to the position advocated by McKenzie, Kedar Nath Tiwari argues that in Indian philosophy, morality has both a personal as well as a social import. The latter has been given more emphasis, as morality has not been recognized as a social enterprise which can guide individuals to organize their conduct in society. The social import of morality has to be and is necessarily dependent on the eternal moral order of Ŗta which encompasses the universe. Morality in the social sense does not have its origin from a kind of social contract or from any such contingent agency. (…) It has in a sense a divine origin (Tiwari 2007, pp. 3–4).

  3. Shyam Ranganathan offers an additional reference for Raju’s charge of Indian philosophies’ lack of interest in ethics. Apart from Matilal, Devaraja, and Raju, he adds Eliot Deutsch and Albert Schweitzer to the list of scholars who share the charge that ‘Indian philosophy neglects ethics altogether’ (Ranganathan 2007, pp. 4–5).

  4. Since the traditionalistic position already holds that Indian philosophy has an ethics to offer, although in its own way, I do not think the proponents of this position offer a challenge to my argument. The only difference between their position and mine is that while they adhere to the extraction of ethical discourses from the mixed moral and non-moral contexts of ancient Indian literature, I stick to the fundamental methodology of Indian philosophy to search for inputs and hints so that a ‘moral philosophy of Indian origin’ can be envisaged. The two positions also differ because I do not claim that the dialogical method offers an ethics. I limit my position to offer a perspective towards an ethics which is yet to be! They, on the ‘Other’ hand, extract Indian ethics directly from various resources of ancient Indian literature.

  5. Beef has remained a thorny political and social issue in India after 2014. At times, the issue has taken a moral-religious turn with advocates citing scriptures to support or oppose beef eating. In a similar way, the issue of Hindi as a national language has also been contentious. Since India as a country constitutes a multi-linguistic community of communities, people belonging to the southern states have usually protested any such move. The linguistic framework of Southern India is entirely exclusive of the Northern part of India. Suppressing one’s ‘Other’ in-language or even coercing her to follow the mainland has serious moral bearings.

  6. A google search for the phrase ‘concept of “self” in Indian philosophy’ throws 8,86,000 results with the words ‘self,’ ‘atman,’ ‘soul,’ ‘mind,’ occurring in almost every title offered on the first search page. A similar search for ‘concept of “Other” in Indian philosophy’ throws 4,47,000 results with only the first title corresponding directly to the phrase searched. Successive search results deal with words such a ‘mokṣa,’ ‘emotion,’ and ‘self’ even on the first result page. The lack of philosophical resources on the concept of ‘Other’ in Indian scholarship compels Sarukkai to invoke Levinas and Derrida as main anchors for understanding the concept of ‘Other’ from a philosophical perspective (Sarukkai 1997).

  7. N. S. Dravid in a short essay on the concept of tolerance in Indian philosophy indirectly hints that a viable relation between diverse factions of a society is necessary to inculcate positive tolerance. He argues that ‘the category of relation’ within diversity is pivotal for espousing positive perspective of tolerance towards the ‘Other.’ Tolerance based on such a relation intends ‘to promote and encourage all kinds of individual diversity that is at the back of creativity.’ (Dravid 1992, p. 24).


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I am indebted to the organizers and participants of the international seminar held at the University of Vienna where the initial presentation, ‘Indian Philosophy Refunded on Ethics’, was thoroughly discussed. Some critical inputs, suggestions, and even deadly khaṇḍans from participants (especially Nalini Bhushan, Sharad Deshpande, Jay Garfield, Bhagat Oinam, and Daniel Raveh—to name a few) helped shape this paper. The essay is dedicated to the memory of my teacher Prof. Satya P. Gautam.

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Ali, M. Indian Philosophy and Ethics: Dialogical Method as a Fresh Possibility. SOPHIA 57, 443–455 (2018).

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