Dissecting Contextual Morality : Part 1


In an interesting article on Narendra Modi, TCA Srinivasa-Raghavan (link courtesy Nitin) concludes that contextual morality is the one magic explanation for all ills that have plagued India for more than 100 years. He says

…Narendra Modi is our own creation, of liberals, conservatives, fascists, communists and every other man jack of us. He is not the problem, we all are.

By this token, we can source every problem to our collective selves and call–like TCA–for introspection. However, he derives this conclusion from what he calls the Ramanujam Test derived from A.K. Ramanujam’s paper entitled Is there an Indian Way of Thinking? An Informal Essay. (Ed: I have a personal copy of this essay. Since it’s not in the public domain, I cannot make it available.)

Ramanujam put forth a simple proposition. He said that unlike the West, which functions on the basis of moral absolutes, Indians function on the basis of contextual morality.

Thus, most often, for the majority of Indians, an action is right or wrong depending on the context in which that action is situated. So in some contexts it is perfectly all right even to kill your brother. Even the Gita tells you so.

He applies this test to hundred-plus years of Indian history (starting roughly at the end of the 19th Century) and finds that all major events during this period pass this test.

In about two or three installments, I endeavour to show how contextual morality as elucidated by Ramanujam is itself flawed.


A.K Ramanujam’s (AKR) paper is obvious for selecting the West as its target audience, which is perfectly fine. What is objectionable is its subtle import that Western philosophy is somehow superior to its Indian counterpart based on a twisted rendering of Indian philosophy. The twist is shocking because AKR seems to have correctly grasped Indian philosophical concepts. More importantly, AKR applies this distortion to even non-philosophical topics. Describing his father,

He was a mathematician, an astronomer. But he was also a Sanskrit scholar, an expert astrologer… I had just
been converted by Russell to the ‘scientific attitude’. I (and my generation) was troubled by his holding together in one brain both astronomy and astrology; I looked for consistency in him, a consistency he didn’t seem to care about, or even think about. When I asked him what the discovery of Pluto and Neptune did to his archaic nine-planet astrology, he said, ‘You make the necessary corrections, that’s all.’ Or, in answer to how he could read the Gita religiously having bathed and painted on his forehead the red and white feet of Visnu, and later talk appreciatively about Bertrand Russell and even Ingersoll, he said, ‘The Gita is part of one’s hygiene.

This passage sets the tone for the rest of the essay. It is necessary to examine this at some length because it is typical of much of what follows.

Hindu Astrology has always come to stand for prediction, and therefore unscientific. However, the original texts clearly distinguish between Jyautishya and Phala Jyautishya. Jyautishya means astronomy while the latter term literally means “astronomy with a result/fruit,” which approximates in meaning to astrology. By his own account, AKR’s father was a phala jyautishi. Secondly, in calling the Gita a religious text, which always means a Hindu equivalent text to the Koran or Bible , AKR displays the first instance of either ignorance or deliberate mischaracterization. The paper provides numerous instances to lead me to believe that the latter is true.

AKR’s essay, which is typical of others in the same vein, cannot escape the standard yardstick of a perpetual war between philosophy and materialism to explore Indian philosophy. As I have pointed out earlier , philosophy in India was never an idle intellectual quest but was fully and actively applied to practical life.


It is interesting that a paper that explores the Indian way of thinking has an overwhelming population of Western source material. More than 90% of AKR’s source material stems from Western authors writing about India, who have an erroneous–if not dubious–record of scholarship. Where he quotes Indian scholars, we find that these scholars have molded their thought framework entirely on the West. The point is not to dismiss the West but the history of Western scholarship in Indology reinforces the said erroneous record.

When AKR uses Indian sources, he comes to some amazing conclusions based on improbable logical feats.

Recently I attended a conference on karma, a notion that is almost synonymous in some circles with whatever is Indian or Hindu. Brahminical texts had it, the Buddhists had it, the Jainas had it. But when I looked at hundreds of Kannada tales, 1 couldn’t find a single tale that used karma as a motif or motive. Yet when their children made a mess, their repertoire of abuse included, ‘You are my karmaV When Harper A959) and others after him reported that many Indian villagers didn’t know much about reincarnation, such a discrepancy was attributed to caste, education, etc. But the 2,000 Kannada tales, collected by me and others over the past twenty years, were told by Brahmins, Jainas (both of whom use karma in their explanations elsewhere quite readily), and by other communities as well. What is worse, Sheryl Daniel A983) independently found that her Tamil village alternately used karma and talaividi (‘headwriting’) as explanations for the events around them. The two notions are inconsistent with each other. Karma implies the self s past determining the present, an iron chain of cause and consequence, an ethic of responsibility. Talaividi is one’s fate inscribed arbitrarily at one’s birth on one’s forehead; the inscription has no relation to one’s prior actions; usually in such explanations (and folktales about them) past lives are not even part of the scheme…

Based solely on a large number of tales, AKR tries to prove that “ordinary Indians” or villagers had no knowledge of the concept of Karma! Why doesn’t it occur to AKR that villagers/people had other means of educating themselves–apart from these tales–with this concept? However, the point he tries to underscore here is the subtle introduction of caste as the blame factor. Also, the explanation for Talaividi or Hane baraha (in Kannada) is incorrect. The common, rustic notion of Talaividi is that the Creator (Lord Brahma) writes your fate on your forehead based on your actions in your past life. Nothing is arbitrary about it. Equally, there’s nothing inconsistent about it because AKR and the other scholars are looking for the wrong thing in the wrong place. For example, you can’t read the Panchatantra and conclude that the concept of Samadhi does not exist in it, and therefore, princes who grew up reading it had no knowledge of the concept of Samadhi, when they were crowned as Kings later.

AKR completely omits quoting Ananda Coomaraswamy in this rustic/folklore/tale context. Coomaraswamy has written copiously on how Hindu philosophical concepts are ingrained in the rural/illiterate folk in India and Sri Lanka. Interestingly, Coomaraswamy has also used research from Western Indology scholars to buttress his argument. However, unlike AKR, Coomaraswamy’s research encompasses the entire gamut and is not restricted to specific items like random collections of tales.

Contextual Morality

AKR’s run-up to contextual morality as a cultural/civilizational trait of Indians is interesting to read at some length before examining it for what it is worth.

A third trait should be added to ‘inconsistency’, and to the apparent inability to distinguish self and non-self. One has only to read Manu after a bit of Kant to be struck by the former’s extraordinary lack of universality. He seems to have no clear notion of a universal human nature from which one can deduce ethical decrees like ‘Man shall not kill’, or ‘Man shall not tell an untruth’. One is aware of no notion of a ‘state’, no unitary law of all men. Manu VIII.267 (quoted by Muller 1883) has the following: A Kshatriya, having defamed a Brahmana, shall be fined one hundred (panas); a Vaisya one hundred and fifty or two hundred; a Sudra shall suffer corporal punishment. Even truth-telling is not an unconditional imperative, as Muller’s correspondents discovered. An untruth spoken by people under the influence of anger, excessive joy, fear, pain, or grief, by infants, by very old men, by persons labouring under a delusion, being under the influence of drink, or by mad men, does not cause the speaker to fall, or as we should say, is a venial not a’ mortal sin (Gautama, paraphrased by Muller [1883: 70] )

Contrast this with Kant’s well-known formulation of his imperative: ‘Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a
Universal Law of Nature’ (Copleston 1946: 116). ‘Moral judgements are universalizable’, says Mackie A977: 83). Universalisation means putting oneself in another’s place—it is the golden rule of the New Testament, Hobbes’ ‘law of all men': do not do unto others what you do not want done unto you. The main tradition of Judeo/Christian ethics is based on such a premise of universalisation—Manu will not understand such a premise. To be moral, for Manu, is to particularise—to ask who did what, to whom and when. Shaw’s comment, ‘Do not do unto others as you would have they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same’ (Mackie 1977: 89) will be closer to Manu’s view, except he would substitute ‘natures or classes’ for ‘tastes’. Each class (jati) of man has his own laws, his own proper ethic, not to be universalised. Hegel shrewdly noted this Indian slant: ‘While we say, “Bravery is a virtue,” the Hindoos say, on the contrary, “Bravery is a virtue of the Cshatriyas” ‘ (Hegel ca.1827: First part, Sect. 2, ‘India’). Is there any system to this particularism? Indian philosophers do not add to this view of right and wrong behaviour, the ethical views of the asramadharma (the conduct that is right for one’s stage of life), svadharma (the conduct that is right for one’s station, jati or class, or svabhava or given nature), and apaddharma (conduct that is necessary in times of distress or emergency, e.g., one may even eat the flesh of dogs to save oneself from death by starvation, as sage Visvamitra did). Each addition is really a subtraction from any universal law. There is not much left of an absolute or common (sadharana) dharma which the texts speak of, if at all, as a last and not as a first resort. They seem to say, if you fit no contexts or conditions, which is unlikely, fall back on the universal.

Of the millions of Hindu treatises on ethics, morality and the like, AKR quotes about three or four verses from Manu to conclude that Manu lacked a sense of universality! He compares Manu with Kant and Hegel and declares the latter as superior using universality as the sole goalpost. Taking Manu as a standard and assenting with AKR, it is curious why AKR fails to mention chapters 3 through almost 11 where he lays down rules for all castes in great detail. These include the selfsame universal maxims like truth, chastity, conduct in public places (for example, he lists tens of public places where one is prohibited from urinating or defacating. The fact merits mention because of the level of detail Manu has gone into in something as natural and basic as excretion.), etc.

An important reason why Manu laid down specific rules for specific castes makes sense when you place them in the context of the highly ordered nature of Hindu society in Manu’s time. In a society where caste was derived from occupation, this was highly desirable, akin to not eating in a five-star lavatory because the lavatory is so splendid. To use a less crude example, you can vaguely compare this to the a place for each thing and vice versa proverb, or like a huge corporation where roles, and chains of authority and clearly defined and demarcated. On the subject of placing oneself in another’s shoes, AKR omits mentioning the highly-compassionate worldview of Hindus, which treated all living beings as sacred, several notches higher. Contrast this to the Judeo/Christian ethic that says that animals as meant for man’s pleasure. AKR’s quoting of Hegel borders on ridiculousness given Hegel’s record of understanding Indian philosophy.

AKR’s omission of other Hindu treatises is as misleading as it serves its purpose of proving his point about contextual morality. The Sikshavalli of the Taittirya Upanishad clearly urges adolescent students to always speak the truth, follow righteousness, treat parents as God, respect elders, behave with dignity and courtesy in public…all qualities of the “universality” AKR regards so highly. What does this say about a society where childhood/adolescent education imparted this kind of foundation? Hundreds of Rg Vedic verses repeatedly stress on right conduct, morality, universal (yes!) prosperity, honouring only the good, harmony with all beings, and peace upon the entire universe. I can quote numerous such instances from several other sources but that’ll only be superfluous.

The Manu Smriti is primarily a work that lays down the rules for the society as it was conceptualized back then. The distance between Manu and the New Testament and Kant and Hegel is a few thousand years and stemmed from entirely different roots. AKR’s mention of the one-size-fits-all system of viewing things is therefore, juvenile at best.

When AKR talks about svadharma, etc, he conveniently omits mentioning the more fundamental concept of Saamanya Dharma and Vishesha Dharma. Universal items like truth, etc fall under Saamanya Dharma, or conduct in times of peace and prosperity. Vishesha Dharma (or as AKR says, Apaddharma) deals with rules in times of calamity, war, etc. The svadharma is really a subset of Saamanya dharma in that it applies to one’s caste and station in life and other variables. However, this doesn’t automatically mean that one is exempt from honourable conduct under the pretext that it is beyond one’s svadharma. AKR’s exposition of this concept leads us precisely to this conclusion. His quote from Hegel on bravery is an interesting study of how he ties himself up in logical knots. Let’s use Saamanya Dharma and Vishesha Dharma to examine Hegel’s quote of

‘While we say, “Bravery is a virtue,” the Hindoos say, on the contrary, “Bravery is a virtue of the Cshatriyas” ‘

An inevitable attribute of the Saamanya Dharma of a Kshatriya is bravery, fearlessness, courage, and valour. Let’s also assume that none of these are applicable to other castes. Now, a war breaks out. According to AKR’s reasoning, Vishesha Dharma should now necessitate that other castes need to miraculously develop these attributes overnight because of the war exigency. Drona’s character in the Mahabharata illustrates this well. He was one of the most feared generals in the Kaurava army. And this was before he actually became a generalissimo in the final battle.

What does this say about AKR’s understanding of Hindu ethics? And neither is my rhetorical question only about Hindu ethics as we shall see in the next part.

Continued in Part 2

10 comments for “Dissecting Contextual Morality : Part 1

  1. cricfan
    October 24, 2011 at 4:13 AM

    Googled a pdf link to AKR’s essay that Sandeep could not provide a copy of (in 2008). Hope this the one that is being referred to.


  2. Sandeep
    June 18, 2008 at 12:35 PM


    Thanks for commenting.

    My point is not so much about the fact that AKR calls Indians as contextually moral people but the way he builds his case. And that is a bluff we need to call.

    Two, the fact that people like TCA Raghavan still think it is some kind of magic explanation for most phenomena in India shows that AKR’s flawed postulate has some (minimal) currency.

    I’m not sure what gave you the impression that I wrote it out of angst.

    >>I’m not sure if AKR said either directly or indirectly that absolute moralities are superior,
    Yes he did, directly, in so many words. :-)

  3. kaangeya
    June 18, 2008 at 6:59 AM


    Excellent. AKR sadly is no longer, or it would be fun to take his fluff apart, as we must with another ignoramus extraordinaire from the past – T. G. Vaidyanathan. AKR’s puerile tracts must be collectively titled An Idiot’s Guide to Indian Culture – Written by an Idiot. I await the rest of your post.

  4. Srikanth
    June 16, 2008 at 11:05 PM

    Hi Sandeep,

    I understand your deep feelings here.. But you can observe that the “contextual morality” is actually the more sophisticated than absolute. In fact, civilization evolves away from moral absolutes – and this is something we see happening around us. I’m not sure if AKR said either directly or indirectly that absolute moralities are superior, but if he did, you’ll be glad to note that he and this school of thought have been irrelevant even before he wrote it. Sure, ‘scholars’ from the Commitee on Social Thought may not think so, but the rest of humanity does and that’s who matters ultimately.

    Let me give you an example. If morality is practiced as an absolute then killing another human being should always be punished alike. Right?

    Well, look at all the gradations even within any country with “Hegelian” laws.. I can think of at least 5 distinct examples.
    – “Accidental death”
    – “Involuntary manslaughter”
    – “Death due to negligence”
    – “Murder in a moment of anger/passion”
    – “Pre-meditated murder”

    Each of these is prosecuted, judged and punished differently ! So, whether it’s the east or the west, context defines everything. And irrespective of what ‘coconut’ philosophers write or say, their opinions are not relevant even within their lifetimes in their adopted homelands.

    Do analyze their writings, but why feel angst about them?

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