Dissecting Contextual Morality: Part 2

I had concluded the previous post with a note on AKR’s understanding of Hindu ethics and traditional expositions on Dharma. He notes that

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.

This is completely the opposite interpretation of what the primary sources say about the subject.

AKR mentions about Rta (or the Cosmic Order) elsewhere in his essay but fails to make the connection here. There’s absolutely no addition or any other mathematical calculation if you understand the essence of Rta. Rta is what preserves harmony in the world. One of the ways in which Rta strives to preserve this harmony is by way of change. Accordingly, the only universal law is Rta, and the additions and subtractions that AKR speaks of are merely methods Indian thinkers chose to adapt their lives in the spacio-temporal sphere, which by definition is ever-changing. Dharma therefore, can be defined as human attempts to remain attuned to Rta, the Cosmic Order. As AKR himself notes, while writing about Baudhayana who “enumerates aberrant practices peculiar to the Brahmins of the north and those of the south”

…[Baudhayana] notes that all these practices are contrary to the precepts of sruti or smrti, but these sistas (learned men) know the traditions and cannot be blamed for following the customs of their district.

This clearly reinforces the ready acceptance, nay, embrace of change, or the flexible nature of Dharma that I’ve outlined above. However, AKR reduces everything to the familiar watertight compartments of (caste), svabhava (temprament), etc while he ignores the “big picture.” This enables him to make (unfair) apple-orange comparisons as

I know of no Hindu discussion of values which reads like Plato on Beauty in his Symposium—which asks the initiate not to rest content with beauty in one embodiment but to be drawn onward from physical to moral beauty, to the beauty of laws and mores, and to all science and learning, and thus to escape ‘the mean slavery of the particular case’. (I am reserving counter-instances for later.)

Again, AKR tugs at our curiosity because he does briefly mention the concept of Rasa (vaguely, art experience) later in the essay rather here because it eminently fits the context here. It is perhaps only in India that Beauty/Art has been elevated to pure philosophy starting right with Bharata (who called his work the Fifth Veda) and refined over the centuries in the hands of masters like Anandavardhana, Abhinavagupta, Bhamaha, Vaamana, and Kalidasa (refer the dance master’s words in Malavikagnimitra). Herein also lies Plato’s limitation (as explained here by AKR) where the final goal of Beauty is to culminate in refinement in morality, knowledge, etc. M. Hiriyanna’s words on Indian conception of beauty/art will suffice to end this rather lengthy digression.

This view of art for art’s sake…is however, not the final verdict of the Indian mind on it, for we find it profoundly transformed by another…school of thinkers who represent it as the means . of experiencing rasa or aesthetic ecstasy, comparing it…to the ineffable peace of Moksha…there is also the old saying that it is only the fortunate that can taste rasa, for it is so much like yogic experience…it justifies the claim put forward by Bharata and .. others that no subject is beyond the reach of art… art by virtue of its form as art can be of use to spiritual aspirant… Art also, like nishkama karma [unselfish action], may by purging our emotions, help what I have described as the inner assimilation of the ultimate truth, for devotion to the beautiful is not less unselfish than devotion to the good. [The Indian Conception of Values in The Quest After Perfection]

As a passing mention, I would also like AKR to refer Ananda Coomaraswamy’s classic, Transformation of Nature in Art for an in depth treatment of the subject.

Hiriyanna also answers AKR’s self-professed ignorance of Hindu discussion of values by distilling the entire essence of Indian philosophy as

. we may define philosophy, as conceived in India, as a criticism of values. [The Indian Conception of Values in The Quest After Perfection]

Which is perfectly in line with Yama’s famous discourse to Nachiketa in the Kathopanishad where Yama tells Nachiketa to always choose the good/right over the pleasing. This in my view, is an amazing opening to a discussion on universal (yes!) values.

However, AKR is on the subject of forcing everything down the throat of context sensitivity. He takes a few liberties with truth in this quest.

Or take Indian literary texts. No Indian text comes without a context, a frame, till the 19th century. Works are framed by phalasruti verses—these verses tell the reader, reciter or listener all the good that will result from his act of reading, reciting or listening. They relate the text, of whatever antiquity, to the present reader—that is, they contextualise it. An extreme case is that of the Nadisastra, which offers you your personal history. A friend of mine consulted the Experts about himself and his past and future. After enough rupees had been exchanged, the Experts brought out an old palm-leaf manuscript which, in archaic verses, mentioned his full name, age, birthplace, etc., and said suddenly, ‘At this point, the listener is crossing his legs—he should uncross them.’

This is both a factual lie and a ridiculous, practical impossibility. Show me one non-Indian text–even a work of non-fiction–that is completely devoid of context. As for phalasruti, these were later interpolations, imposed upon the original work. The original can be savoured with no loss of enjoyment minus the phalasruti. These works are not “framed by phalasruti,” rather it is the opposite. Phalasruti verses were introduced as attempts to attract lay people to read and appreciate these works. Anybody can read, appreciate, and imbibe the values of the Gita without the phalasruti. Phalasruti as exposited by AKR has nothing at all to do with contextualisation. In a way, the work itself is the context. The insertion of Nadisastra is merely a mischievous attempt by AKR to throw in the “superstitious Indians” bit. I cannot detect any link between Nadisastra and context-sensitivity.

AKR elaborates on context-sensitivity with regard to the Indian epics, poems, ballads, songs, and lapses into barely-comprehensible academic jargon like metastory, self, other, alter self, metonyms, agents, scene, etc. I challenge a lay reader to make sense of this passage.

The poem does not use a metaphor. The human agents are simply placed in the scene. Both parts of the comparison (the man and shark) are part of one scene, one syntagm; they exist separately, yet simulate each other. The Tamils call such a figure ullurai ‘inward speaking’; it is an ‘inset’, an ‘inscape’. In such a metonymic view of man in nature—man in context—he is continuous with the context he is in. In Peircean semiotic terms, these are not symbolic devices, but indexical signs—the signifier and the signified belong in the same context (Peirce 1931-58).

However that maybe, I find AKR’s use of Indian epics and literary texts to prove that the contextual morality Indians as flawed. Nothing in this world is completely context-free. These are wholly inappropriate examples to prove the context-sensitivity of a specific culture. Besides, I don’t see how this lengthy exposition has anything to do with his original theme of Is there an Indian way of thinking?

Continued in the next part.

3 comments for “Dissecting Contextual Morality: Part 2

  1. kaangeya
    June 18, 2008 at 6:30 PM

    AKR wreaked havoc on threee traditions, the Sanksrit, the Kannada, and the Tamizh. Here he mangles the idea of uLLurai by a simple cut and paste. Munnurai (munn as in before or advance + urai as in account or narration) is used in Tamizh books of today to mean Foreword or preface. AKR instead of bothering to read up on some of the older Saiva texts – where the term uLLurai finds resonance has superposed the Christian idea of the soul (which is what god breathes into humans) into the inner space. AKR I am certain had no idea what he was talking about. This is straight out of the Universtiy of Chicago playbook. Doesn’t deserve even a failing grade.

Leave a Comment