Friday, October 19, 2007

50 dates of world history

The 50 key dates of world history
Richard Overy
2082 words
19 October 2007
The Times
Times2 4
(c) 2007 Times Newspapers Limited. All rights reserved

The eminent historian RICHARD OVERY, editor of The Times Complete History of the World, chooses the dates that he believes have most influenced humanity

Choosing 50 key dates from world history is a daunting task. No two people are likely to choose the same 50. Any list will prompt the response "why did you leave that out? Or put that in?"

Important dates are not the same as well-known dates. Every schoolchild used to know 1066, 1588 and 1815 but only the last appears in my list, and not just for the sake of the Battle of Waterloo. Any list of just 50 dates has to take account of some obvious limitations. No date appears before the start of human civilisations about 5,500 years ago and the beginning of a written or pictorial history. Some dates are very fuzzy, partly because there is no particular year in which it is possible to say "the wheel was invented then", despite its clear importance; partly because the accounts we have, even of quite recent events, can be misdated; partly because primarily oral cultures produce either no chronology or one that is wholly speculative.

The question of geography means leaving out many key dates from the history of Europe to make room for dates from Ancient China, or the Middle East, or the Americas. World history is global, even if it much of it has been dominated by Europe.

Why, then, these dates and not 50 others? Human history is a vast and complex story, but human society has worked over the past 5,000 years only because of some key inventions and discoveries. That is why the wheel, the plough, the sail and the watch are there.

Human societies have been held together by religion, which is why the major religious founders are here. Religion links the modern world with the past 2,000 or 3,000 years. Every day millions of people read the Bible, a document of an entirely lost world, but a book, like the Koran, of enormous power.

Political events are seldom as important, but at times they shape the future in fundamental ways. That is why the unification of Ancient China is there. China is still a large, unified state occupying roughly the same area that it did 2,000 years ago. If the Persians had blotted out Ancient Greece, or the Carthaginians had destroyed Rome, the classical world would have been very different. The rise and fall of Communism in the 20th century affected the lives of millions.

Lastly, human intelligence and creativity shaped the way we think about the world.

Newton-ian physics, Einstein's relativity theory, Darwin's biology and the works of Shakespeare have all made the world a different place. If there were room, Copernicus or Goethe or Nietzsche, or a dozen non-European thinkers, might all have as good a claim.

These are dates that arguably changed the way human society developed for better or worse over the past five millennia.

The Times Complete History of the World, edited by Richard Overy, is published by Collins and available now, price Pounds 75. It is available from Times BooksFirst for Pounds 67.50, free p&p. 0870 1608080,


1 c.3500 BC Invention of the wheel and plough in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq); invention of the sail in Egypt: three fundamental inventions for trade, agriculture and exploration.

2 c.3200 BC Invention of writing in Mesopotamia: the means to record and understand human history.

3 c.3000 BC Founding of the first cities in Sumeria (present-day Iraq): origin of modern social and administrative structures.

4 c.1600 BC Modern alphabet invented: the essential means of communication of complex concepts and culture.

5 c.1600 BC Beginning of Greek civilisation: essential to Western heritage and the root of mathematics, philosophy, political thinking and medicine.

6 753 BC Foundation of Rome: the Roman Empire is a pillar of the modern age, producing ideas on justice, law, engineering and warfare.

7 c.670 BC Invention of iron-working: metallurgy is the key to further technical, economic and military developments.

8 c.551 BC Birth of Confucius, the founder of one of the world's major philosophical systems.

9 490 BC Battle of Marathon: the Greeks repel a Persian invasion, securing the survival of Greek culture and science.

10 486 BC Birth of Buddha, founder of one of the world's major religions.

11 327 BC Empire of Alexander the Great reaches into India: the first example of a long-term and often violent interrelationship between Europe and Asia.

12 202 BC Hannibal is defeated by Rome: the victory is essential to secure the survival and expansion of Roman civilisation.

13 27 BC Founding of the Roman Empire: this is the start of the classic period of Roman domination in Europe and the Mediterranean.

14 c.5 BC Birth of Jesus Christ, founder of the many branches of Christianity. The exact date is disputed.

15 AD 105 First use of modern paper: this replaced stone, slate, papyrus and vellum as a cheap and convenient medium.

16 AD 280 Unification of China under the Western Chin dynasty creates the political shape of modern China.

17 AD 312 Roman Emperor Constantine converts to Christianity: this made it possible for Christianity to spread across Europe.

18 AD 476 Fall of the Roman Empire in the West ends 800 years of Roman hegemony.

The creation of moderen Europe begins.

19 c.AD 570 Birth of Muhammad, founder of one of the world's great religions.

20 c.AD 730 Printing invented in China: an essential step in mass communication/ administration/cultural dissemination.

21 AD 800 Charlemagne crowned Emperor of the new Western Empire. This marked the point at which Europe began to reintegrate. The Holy Roman Empire lasts for 1,000 years.

22 1054 Schism of Greek and Latin Christian Churches divides Christianity permanently into two geographical and denominational halves.

23 1088 First university founded in Bologna, Italy: the start of a modern conception of higher learning and universal knowledge.

24 1206 Genghis Khan begins his conquest of Asia. This has a major impact on Asian development and the movement of peoples.

25 1215 Magna Carta signed by King John at Runnymede: this is the origin of the modern concept of constitutional rule.

26 1453 Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks: Almost 500 years of Turkish domination of the Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East begins.

27 1455 First book printed with moveable type: Johannes Gutenberg's revolution in printing technology makes mass-market reading possible.

28 1492 Christopher Columbus discovers the New World, bringing the Americas into a global trading/cultural system.

29 1509 Invention of the watch: essential to a modern economy and administration, this introduces the concept of regular timekeeping.

30 1517 Martin Luther launches the Reformation. It is the start of Protestant Christianity and the idea of religious individualism.

31 1519 Cortes begins his conquest of South America, which becomes part of the wider world economic and political system.

32 1564 William Shakespeare is born: his plays make fundamental statements about the human condition.

33 1651 Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan is published: this is the origin of the modern idea of civil society, equality before the law and egoistic individualism) 34 1687 Isaac Newton publishes Principia Mathematica, the foundation of modern physics.

35 1776 American Declaration of Independence determines the political evolution of the New World and the rise of American power.

36 1789 French Revolution marks a fundamental break with the tradition of monarchy; the "rights of man" are enshrined.

37 1815 Battle of Waterloo: the Napoleonic Empire ends, and with it Napoleon's ambition to rule and reform all of Europe.

38 1825 Rocket steam locomotive built, marking the start of the railway age of cheap, fast land transport.

39 1859 Publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species. His theory of evolution transforms the view of Man and his environment, and belief in God.

40 1885 Benz develops first petrol-driven car, starting the most profound technical and social revolution of the modern age.

41 1893 New Zealand introduces unrestricted women's suffrage. At this point women win the principle of full political equality.

42 1905 Einstein's theory of special relativity published. It transforms the nature of modern physical knowledge.

43 1917 Russian Revolution creates the first successful, long-term revolutionary state.

44 1918 End of the First World War. The Habsburg and Ottoman empires collapse; maps of Europe and the Middle East are redrawn.

45 1939 Outbreak of Second Worldd War: 50 million die worldwide from 1939-45 in the world's largest and most deadly conflict, which ends the long age of imperialisms.

46 1945 End of Second World War; when the first nuclear bomb is detonated, mankind develops the means to destroy itself.

47 1949 Communist China founded: China is created as a single territorial unit with a common administration and a modernising economy.

48 1959 Invention of the silicon chip is the major technical invention of the past century, making possible the computer age.

49 1960 First contraceptive pill made available for women, who can now make their own biological choices about reproduction.

50 1989-90 Collapse of Communist regimes in Europe: marks the end of the long communist experiment; Asian communism is also transformed.


Sir Ranulph Fiennes, adventurer

AD0000 Birth of Christ

1415 Battle of Agincourt: always nice to keep the French in their place

1066 My family arrived at Hastings and we've been here ever since

1990 Berlin Wall knocked down: victory over Marxism

1945 VE Day: victory over Fascism

Amanda Foreman, biographer; author of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

753BC Foundation of Rome: the spread of civic virtue

1564 Birth of Shakespeare: the apotheosis of the English language

1767 Invention of the Spinning Jenny: the subjugation of man to machine

1945 Detonation of the A-bomb: the perfection of war

2001 9/11 attacks: the triumph of terrorism

Orlando Figes, historian; author of A People's Tragedy

c. 1438 Johannes Gutenberg's printing press

1685 Birth of J.S. Bach, father of modern music

1789 The first modern revolution (French Revolution)

1796 Edward Jenner's smallpox vaccination: the first real breakthrough in combating infectious diseases

1833 Abolition of slavery by the UK Parliament

Baroness Neuberger, rabbi; Liberal Democrat peer

2737BC The discovery of tea by the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung

1847 Ignaz Semmelweis demonstrates that thorough handwashing by doctors and midwives dramatically reduces death in childbirth

1849 Henry Layard discovers the library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh and the standard version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which contains the earliest version of the flood story

1907 James Murray Spangler invents the vacuum cleaner that becomes the Hoover

1967 Dame Cicely Saunders founds St Christopher's Hospice in London, the first modern hospice

Richard Morrison, columnist and critic

1066 Last invasion of Britain (Battle of Hastings)

1685 Birth of three great composers: Bach, Handel and Rameau

1807 Abolition of the slave trade

1876 Wagner completes The Ring, the most stupendous artwork ever created

1926 John Logie Baird gives the first public demonstration of television

Hugo Rifkind, Times diarist

456BC Birth of Aristophanes, father of comedy

1789 Most famous misquote, when Marie Antoinette almost certainly does not say "let them eat cake"

1875 Henry Nestle and Daniel Peter invent milk chocolate

1912 Opening of the world's first fast-food outlet, Automat, in New York City

1957 Panorama shows the world's greatest hoax, of Swiss spaghetti farmers preparing for harvest


1 How old was Alexander the Great when he died?

2 When did Julius Caesar cross the Rubicon?

3 In which city was the prophet Muhammad born?

4 Which island group did Christopher Columbus arrive at first in 1492?

5 Where did Luther launch the Reformation?

6 When were the United States formed?

7 Who was the author of The Rights of Man?

8 Where was Napoleon exiled after Waterloo?

9 What was signed on June 28, 1919?

10 In which year was the Chinese "Gang of Four" overthrown?

History Quiz Answers

1. 32 2. 49BC 3. Mecca 4. The Bahamas 5. Wittenberg 6. 1783 7. Thomas Paine 8. St Helena 9. The Treaty of Versailles 10. 1976

Friday, October 5, 2007

A Response to Shyam Ranganathan's Review of The Virtue of Non-Violence: From Gautama to Gandhi/Reply to Nicholas Gier

A Response to Shyam Ranganathan's Review of The Virtue of Non-Violence: From Gautama to Gandhi/Reply to Nicholas Gier
Gier, Nicholas F; Ranganathan, Shyam
2650 words
1 October 2007
Philosophy East & West
Volume 57; Issue 4; ISSN: 00318221
© 2007 Philosophy East & West. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All Rights Reserved.

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 (Philosophy East and West, vol. 57, no. 1) exceeds all the expectations that an author might have for a fair and constructive appraisal, and I thank him for it. Ranganathan 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 Sankara 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 Ramanuja 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 have imagined that 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 thirty years of teaching Indian philosophy, I thoroughly documented the references to personal theism in the Upanisads, and I informed my students that many of them have invocations to Visnu or Siva. I also reminded them that the word advaita is found only once in all the Upanisads and that there are over a dozen schools of Vedanta. My students were amazed to learn that many Indian philosophy professors, after lecturing on Advaita Vedanta, go home and make offerings to Ganesa. Just as no European ever worshipped Aristotle's unmoved mover, no Hindu has ever bowed before nirguna Brahman. I do not think it is too much to say that I have been a devoted champion for the "neglected" Vedanta.

Professor Ranganathan's main critique of my book is that I did not consider theistic Vedanta as a way to read Gandhi. He grants that I briefly compare Ramanuja and Gandhi favorably, but he fails to note that I refer frequently to Gandhi's devotion to Rama and his Vaisnava background. Furthermore, I also reference Glyn Richard's article relating Gandhi, quite successfully in my mind, to neo-Vedanta,1 thus refuting Ranganathan's charge that I conflate Vedanta with Advaita. My statement that "Vedantist 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 led me to press on with my thesis.

The main reason for my focus on Advaita Vedanta is that, with very few exceptions, it is the Vedantist 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 Pali 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 Vedantist tendencies would have drawn him to Mahayana.

I am most troubled by Ranganathan's attempt to make Jainism, Samkhya-Yoga, and the Vedantist 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 Atman and affirmation of the flux of existence makes his view the standard for ancient process philosophy. Second, Samkhya-Yoga has process only on the material prakrti side, not in the spiritual purusa where ahimsa is an intrinsic and 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 Ramanuja'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 self of Jainism and Samkhya-Yoga, which Ranganathan contrasts favorably with Sankara'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 that essay because of Bimal Krsna Matilal's book Ethics and Epics, but his view of Krsna's virtue aesthetics gave me pause, and I returned to Confucianism or Buddhism as the preferred Asian virtue ethics.

I am not convinced, without much more discussion, that theistic Vedanta, 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 Vedanta, 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 prohibition against killing is suspended)." The sacrifice of a goat to Durga 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 tone ("this works for me") without reference to the hedonic calculus. In my book I discovered the same pragmatism in the Buddha's eightfold path being interpreted as, for example, suitable livelihood and appropriate speech.5 Arjuna was exempt from ahimsa because of his caste and Krsna'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. (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 view, which of course includes theistic Vedanta. Ranganathan 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 Ramanuja.


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

2 - See my Spiritual Titanism: Indian, Chinese, and Western Perspectives (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000), pp. 92-97.

3 - P. Bilimoria, J. Prabhu, and 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, ed. 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, but you can read it in full at hindve.htm. More revisions are forthcoming.

5 - The Virtue of Non-Violence (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004), pp. 76-80.

Reply to Nicholas Gier

Shyam Ranganathan

Philosophy Department, York University

I must thank Professor Gier both for his kindness toward me in his response and his invitation for me to write a full-fledged essay on the topics that our exchange has raised. While I have not written on Gandhi's thought as such, much of what I have to say on Gier's book is influenced by the research and arguments I put forward in my Ethics and the History of Indian Philosophy (Motilal Banarsidass, 2007) and my forthcoming translation and commentary, originally titled The Moral Philosophy of Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, to be published as Patanjali's Yoga Sutra (Penguin). Gier's closing comment not only serves as an invitation-and challenge-to me to systematically defend my views on these topics but also encapsulates what might be the locus of disagreement between Gier and myself. He suggests that it is I who have foisted a syllogistic argument onto the task of interpreting Gandhi's thought, whereas my original complaint was that I thought that this was the only way to make sense of Gier's arguments. If Gier were not offering such a disjunctive syllogism, the extended and recurrent criticisms of Jain and Advaita interpretations do nothing to positively make the case for a Buddhist interpretation of Gandhi and are gratuitous within the structure of his presentation.

But let us take some of Gier's responses to me in order. Gier appears to believe that the fact that he notes Gandhi's devotion to Rama and his Vaisnava background (which I did not mention in my review) shows that he was sensitive to theistic Vedanta in his analysis. My complaint was that he did not fully consider reading Gandhi in terms of Visistadvaita-a very specific school of Vedanta, and not synonymous with theistic Vedanta as such. Moreover, that Gier noted Gandhi's devotionalism is hardly evidence that he considered theistic Vedanta seriously. Even Sankara in his commentary on the Brahma Sutra betrays a devotion to Rama and an affinity for Vaisnava religious practices (see his Brahma Sutra Bhasya, I.ii.7), but this hardly means that Sankara advanced theistic Vedanta. Gier claims that his reference to an article that recognizes the Neo-Vedanta leanings of Gandhi refutes my claim that he conflates Vedanta with Advaita Vedanta. My claim was not that Gier never makes a distinction between different types of Vedanta, but that he is not careful in his talk of "Vedanta" given that the only form that he seriously considers is Advaita Vedanta and that he refers to it simply as "Vedanta."1

Gier defends his neglect of theistic interpretations of Gandhi on the grounds that Advaita Vedanta "is the Vedantist school with which Gandhi is associated." This is a remarkable admission, for it suggests that Gier thought reading Gandhi in light of Jainism or Advaita Vedanta was more plausible than reading him in light of Visistadvaita-this despite the fact that he does so much in his book to show the plausibility of interpreting Gandhi in this light, as I make clear in my review. Given Gandhi's cultural proximity to Visistadvaita, the omission is glaring.

The question thus presents itself: why did Gier not take this route of interpretation seriously enough to treat it systematically? Gier's honorable candor in his response gives us one explanation: he is out of his depth when it comes to theistic Vedanta and thus failed to appreciate its salience. If this is the reason for his omission (and I suspect it is part of the explanation), this is a serious deficiency in a study of Gandhi's thought for obvious historical reasons.

There is also another possibility, namely that Gier thought that he could exclude several historical options (including all Vedanta, theistic or otherwise) because they are a species of a type of view that he believes is incompatible with Gandhian process thought. Gier's response confirms this. He states that Jainism, Yoga (which he incorrectly conflates with Samkhya), and Ramanuja's Vedanta cannot be process philosophies. He argues: (1) in Yoga, ahimsa is an intrinsic virtue of the purusa and not a developed virtue, and (2) Ramanuja's philosophy is not a version of Cobb's and Griffin's process philosophy. With respect to the latter claim, it is particularly odd that we should be looking to Cobb and Griffin to set the conditions of interpretation, when Gandhi was an Indian thinker, emerging from an Indian and Gujarati philosophical milieu that is indisputably influenced by Visistadvaita.

But the first argument Gier raises is very telling of the error of his approach that I initially raised in my review. Gier wishes to draw a dichotomy at the conceptual level between substantialist and process philosophies that does not translate into the Indian philosophical views on the ground. For instance, in the case of Yoga, ahimsa is both an intrinsic virtue of the purusa and a developed virtue. How is this possible? Because the purusa qua embodied being has a double aspect: one aspect transcends prakrti, and the other is deeply enmeshed in a pedagogical union with prakrti that Patanjali calls "samyoga"-an enmeshment that is so profound that the purusa misunderstands itself and acts contrary to its transcendent nature. So understood, the purusa must develop and perfect the practice of yoga so that it can understand its own essence and reach kaivalya. The practice of yoga takes the yogi qua purusa from a very rudimentary commitment to the yama rules such as ahimsato dharmameghasamadh, or the absorption in the "Rain-Cloud of Morality." To fail to appreciate the process and developmental aspects of Patanjali's philosophy of Yoga as it pertains to the purusa is a major error of translation and interpretation that is characteristic of a failure to distinguish Patanjali's Yoga from Isvarakrsna Samkhya.2

But how can ahimsa be both a developed and an intrinsic virtue, both a process and a substantial quality? Is this not a contradiction? In response to this question, I ask whether a thinker could logically advance both Advaita and Dvaita, as Gandhi had apparently done? An answer to both of these questions could be had by a careful elaboration of Ramanuja's philosophy, which, unfortunately, Gier's provocative book at once invites and neglects.


1 - Nicholas F. Gier, The Virtue of Nonviolence, ed. D. R. Griffin, SUNY Series in Constructive Postmodern Thought (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004), p. 44.

2 - See Ian Whicher, The Integrity of the Yoga Darsana (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998); Shyam Ranganathan, "Samkhya and Yoga: One Darsana or Two?" Namaru pa: Categories of Indian Thought (Winter 2004): 29-33.

Karma, Rebirth, and the Problem of Evil: A Reply to Critics

Karma, Rebirth, and the Problem of Evil: A Reply to Critics
Kaufman, Whitley
2027 words
1 October 2007
Philosophy East & West
Volume 57; Issue 4; ISSN: 00318221
© 2007 Philosophy East & West. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All Rights Reserved.

My goal in "Karma, Rebirth, and the Problem of Evil" was to stimulate discussion about karma and rebirth as a solution to the problem of innocent suffering in the world. As such, I welcome the chance to hear from critics such as Chadha and Trakakis and am happy to attempt a response.1 In their critique, they attempt to portray me as ignorant of the many precise subtleties and refinements of the karmic philosophy, and thus incapable of judging it. However, as I stated in my original article, my purpose is not to present a historically based synthesis of the karma-rebirth doctrine, but rather to attempt, using the most charitable interpretation possible and not being rigidly bound to doctrinal traditions or texts, an active reconstruction of the best case for a systematic theodicy based on karma, in order to see whether it can successfully explain the origin of evil.

But I would also suggest that there is often a certain advantage in having a detached perspective on a subject, since one who is too closely involved in the subject matter may fail to attain objectivity about it, and be prone to dogmatic acceptance of doctrines even when they defy common sense. But let the reader decide: I will briefly present my reactions to their criticism of my six principal objections to karma and rebirth.

The Memory Problem

It is, I argued, a basic principle of justice that one should in general be apprised of what one is being punished for and why; indeed, this knowledge would seem essential to the process of moral education. But the karmic system does not provide us this knowledge. The critics' responses are disappointing.

First, they distort the objection into an "unreasonable demand for precise correlations between bad acts in the past and consequent sufferings in the future." In fact, the problem is not merely the lack of precise correlations, but of any correlation at all. I am unaware of a single verified historical example of anyone having a memory of one's deeds in a past life presented as explanation for present suffering. Anyway, why is demand for a precise correlation unreasonable? Isn't that exactly what we demand when parents punish children, or when society punishes criminals?

Their second reply is simply the dogmatic insistence that one should simply have faith: karma tells us that our present sufferings are correlated with past deeds, and that's the end of the discussion. It should suffice that one knows one is being punished for an unspecified wrong committed at an unspecified past time and place, because that is what karma says. This, of course, is simply to ignore the objection and to refuse to countenance the possibility that karma might not be an ideal explanation of human suffering.

The Proportionality Problem

The widely-accepted proportionality principle holds that the punishment should be proportional to the crime. But it seems implausible that people have committed such horrendous crimes in past lives to deserve the kinds of horrible suffering that is all too common in human life. Thus, karma seems to violate the proportionality principle.

In response, first, they try to evade the question by a misdirection, quibbling about theism versus an impersonal cosmic mechanism. But justice requires proportionality no matter whether there is a personal God or an impersonal mechanism behind human suffering.

Next, they acknowledge the Proportionality rule, but insist that it follows that it is in fact satisfied by karma. People who suffer terribly really must have been horribly sadistic, brutal, and Nazi-like in past lives. But this is just my point: such a claim is highly dubious. Even a superficial knowledge of history and of human nature makes it simply implausible that so many people could have been so evil.2 Again, it seems a case where an a priori conviction that karma is true can lead one into a distorted conception of reality.

The Infinite Regress Problem

There is no doubt that belief in radical free will would manage to avoid a regress in explaining the origin of evil. However, this is no better an explanation of evil than that of Christianity and the doctrine of the Fall. Thus, the concerns raised about the Fall doctrine apply equally to karma. John Hick, for instance, has questioned the coherence of the idea of humans creating evil ex nihilo. Recall, my goal is not to show that karma is any worse an explanation than Christianity, but only that it is not demonstrably better.

The Death Problem

The critics simply assert that, according to the karma doctrine, death is not an evil, so therefore "we do not need to account for it." I leave it to the reader to decide if this is a satisfying explanation of why living beings have to die, and why death is so often difficult and painful. There is, by the way, another problem raised here: if death is unequivocally not an evil, then why should killing be considered a moral wrong? The Hindu scholar Franklin Edgerton points out a disturbing oddity of the Gita: it is forced to downplay the moral ideal of ahimsa or nonviolence in order to justify killing in war.3

A related claim made by the critics is that I have failed to "appreciate" the Hindu/Buddhist view that life is nothing but "suffering and misery." But I submit that to any reasonable person this claim is patently false. As anyone can attest, life is not merely suffering and pain, but full of happiness and pleasure as well (are they denying that pleasure and joy even exist?). A successful theodicy must account for the world as it is, and not paint a distorted picture of the world in order to make it fit the theory.

The Free Will Problem

The problem here is simple: is one free to perform genuine evil, that is, to harm the innocent, producing undeserved suffering? If one is, then there really is undeserved suffering in the world, in contradiction to the claims of karma philosophy. If one is not, then that would seem to be a severe restriction on free will, indeed a denial of the possibility of any sin at all. The critics attempt to respond with a dubious argument about who has the proper role and responsibility to dole out suffering. They seem to endorse the view that the worst possible sin that one can commit is to improperly take upon oneself the role of administering a justified punishment for a wrongdoer, rather than leaving it to karma to administer. If so, this is a very strange view. It entails that what was wrong about the 9/11 attack-or any crime-was not that innocent people were killed (everyone who died, those in the buildings and in the planes, deserved, according to karma, exactly what they got) but that the wrong people did the dirty work. The only thing wrong about what Al Qaeda did, it follows, was that it was "not [their] role to carry out the punishment." Indeed, they claim that harm is supposed to be administered not by wrongdoers but by an "impersonal process." But what exactly does this mean? That the destruction of the planes and the buildings on 9/11 was supposed to have been accomplished by a lightning strike or some other natural force? Were the six million Jews in Nazi Germany supposed to have been gassed to death by some impersonal, natural process, rather than by the Nazis?

Moreover, this is an oddly constricted view of free will, in which we are prevented from ever harming innocent people and yet not prevented from inappropriately providing justified punishment to guilty people. It also would appear to contradict the stronger claim about free will that they endorse elsewhere in the article. The dilemma stands.

The Verifiability Problem

As I said in my original article, religion ought not to be held to the same level of verifiability as claims of science. Nonetheless, religious claims that are wholly and completely unverifiable in this life, and yet which have serious practical consequences for this life, can be subject to dangerous abuse. Prime evidence of this is the use of karma to justify the oppressive caste system in India. Reportedly, the untouchables in India originally resisted Mother Theresa's attempts to improve their plight, as these might interfere with their karmic progress.

The critics' response is to insist that karma is indeed verifiable and falsifiable, but only after death-not very helpful to us here and now! It is also, they claim, verifiable in principle, since it is logically possible in that any one of us might suddenly be "miraculously transported to a higher level of consciousness" where we see karma verified. True enough, but of course also entirely unhelpful. Moreover, by that standard any theory, no matter of what kind, would be verifiable, making the very idea of verifiability meaningless. Finally, as to the question of predictive power of the theory, their analogy with the relation between smoking and lung cancer is quite ill chosen. The causal connection between the two was merely a hypothesis until it was in fact verified by epidemiological studies. I am unaware, however, of any such similar studies testing the predictive power of karma. Once again, what these critics are saying is simply that, if the karma doctrine claims to have predictive power, that's all the evidence they need. There is, of course, not a single verified example in recorded history of a successful prediction being made on the basis of karmic causation.

Let me summarize my main concern about the karma/rebirth system this way. The great attraction of the karma system is its reassurance that we are completely in control of our own fate, that whatever happens to us is a predictable consequence of our own choices. While it means we are prisoners of our past, it also means that the future is entirely within our control. No doubt, this feature of karma is a source of its great appeal. But this promise comes at a great price. It entails that there is no such thing as innocent suffering, that everyone gets just what he deserves. But then there can be no moral obligation to help others in distress, to protect, to rescue, perform acts of charity, or even to feel compassion for a sufferer. Most other theodicies begin with the acceptance that there is such a thing as innocent suffering, that as humans we do not have godlike control of our destiny, but are fragile, vulnerable beings, often in need of help from others. The implication is a deep moral obligation to help those in need, to feel compassion and pity for those in pain. In contrast, karma elevates the "blame the victim" idea into a systematic principle. The question at stake is which account is more plausible, the idea that everyone is getting just what he deserves, and so we should not interfere with the cosmic punitive scheme, or the idea that there is genuine, undeserved suffering in the world, and that it is thus our duty to help reduce the misery and pain in the world?

Copyright University Press of Hawaii Oct 2007 | Notes | 1 - Let me, however, express a wish that the debate not descend into petty meanspiritedness. These critics correctly point out an error in the original article: at one point within a parenthetical remark I had inadvertently placed the terms "moral evil" and "natural evil" in the wrong order. They declare this an "inexcusable blunder." I hope that the karmic system, if it exists, is not so unforgiving! My apologies for the error. | 2 - Or that particular groups are so much worse than others: were all the Africans who were enslaved really so evil in past lives that they deserved enslavement more than other races? Were the Jews in Nazi Germany so much worse in past lives than everyone else? | 3 - Franklin Edgerton, The Bhagavad Gita (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 185. | Whitley Kaufman | Department of Philosophy, University of Massachusetts, Lowell

Mahatma Gandhi and other great souls - successful failures?

Gandhi, fighter without a sword
882 words
1 October 2007
Indo-Asian News Service
© Copyright 2007. HT Media Limited. All rights reserved.

Indo-Asian News Service Mumbai, oct. 1 -- Gandhi, the Mahatma, truly considered himself a citizen of the world though he worked for the freedom of the Indian nation from foreign yoke. "My religion has no geographical boundaries," he explained to Kakasaheb Kalekar. "If I have a living faith in it, it will transcend my love for India herself." It was that brand of religion that taught him to believe in the soul and rely solely on soul force to fight all the ills in human hearts.

Humanity was his religion. He believed that for victory, war was the most blunt weapon, and the sharpest one was obviously non-violence. He abhorred the concept of might being the right.

Gandhi's saying - "Most religious men I have met are politicians in disguise. I, however, who wear the guise of a politician, am at heart, a religious man!" - remains the key to the value system of the political philosophy he adhered to. Gandhi entered politics to fight irreligion. He also accepted the fact that he might not be absolutely accurate as regards his words used. This is the hallmark of a truly great person.

Truth for him was god. And non-violence, or soul force, was his only means of fighting the ills of life. He was not a nationalist in the narrow parochial sense. Gandhi was at pains to explain to American writer Jeanette Eaton that his nationalism in reality is intense internationalism.

"Our nationalism can be no peril to other nations in as much as we will

exploit none, just as we allow none to exploit us." In her book, "Gandhi: Fighter Without A Sword", Eaton narrates that the greatest influence of Gandhi on her was Gandhi's notions on oneness of the world.

Gandhi told C.R. Das: "How heartening it is to imagine that when there is One World and no militarised boundaries and all the natural and human resources, all the sciences and technology which are today marshalled and arrayed for destructive purposes, will be used for the elimination of poverty, ill-health and ignorance. They shall be used for promoting goodwill and for creating better conditions of life for the whole humanity. Though this rosy picture is today the privilege only of the poets and the utopian dream of idealists, there is no doubt that this is the cherished hope of everyone who strives for harmony."

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad in his "India Wins Freedom" states that Gandhiji is universally acknowledged as the greatest man of his age because despite affecting the destiny of the whole sub-continent, he held no high office nor did he rule countries. By sacrificing political gains, he bought peace like all true thinkers and philosophers.

He was above all the frivolities of political life, drawing strength from what he termed "soul force", an inner strength that comes only when one believes in non-violence and truth and has abiding faith in the innate goodness of fellow beings. It was this quality that made Gandhi a leader of the world leaders.

Maulana Abdul Waheed Siddiqui, a noted Islamic theologian and founder editor of Nai Duniya Urdu weekly, writes in Gandhi Number issue of Oct 2, 1953, on the importance that Gandhi laid on Hindu-Muslim unity. Gandhi told Siddiqui that India could never reach her goal if she were hit by Hindu-Muslim hostility.

He threw himself in the struggle to heal the breach between the two communities. He supported Muslims in the Khilafat campaign and agitated for the release from the prison of the Ali brothers. It was at this time too that the Khadi movement was inaugurated.

Because he possessed such an enlightened and secular world view, Gandhi unhesitatingly advocated the causes of Hindu-Muslim unity, social progress, religious tolerance, spread of modern knowledge, individual liberty and above all educational reforms. He had the courage of a statesman for initiating reforms. However, he did not live long enough to see his ideas implemented as the life of this saint who advocated non-violence was cut short by a most heinous act of violence.

Duty to Gandhi was of paramount importance. He said: "Duties to self, to the family, to the country and to the world are not independent of one another. One cannot do good to the country by injuring the world at large."

Tagore had feared that Gandhi would fail. Wrote Tagore: "Perhaps he will not succeed. Perhaps he will fail as the Buddha failed, as Christ failed and as Lord Mahavira failed to wean men from their inequities, but he will be remembered as one who made his life an example for all ages to come."

Will Durant, in an article in The Manchester Guardian, said: "Perhaps Gandhi failed as saints are likely to fail in this very hostile, selfish and Darwinian world. But these very failures are the eternal successes attained by saintly people as they can never stoop to the detestable levels of this materialistic world in which each one is running after god of Mammon."

Monks as advocates of change in a political system

The Burmese monks' spiritual strength proves religion has a role in politics: Buddhism and its values have inspired a tradition of non-violent protest more powerful than secularists understand
Pankaj Mishra
1215 words
1 October 2007
The Guardian
© Copyright 2007. The Guardian. All rights reserved.

In recent months, militant atheists have tried to convince us religion ought to be expelled from public as well as private life. It is not hard to imagine how their salon wisdom would have fared last week in the streets of Rangoon, where ordinary Burmese protesting against a military dictatorship rallied behind Buddhist monks - the "highly revered moral core", as the New York Times put it, of Burmese society.

If the images of saffron-robed mendicants braving police brutality seem oddly familiar, it is because Buddhist monks left their monasteries and led protests against political repression frequently in the 20th century. So great and prolonged was the suffering of war in Indochina that the Buddhist attempt to alleviate it may seem a distant memory. But it was the self-immolation of a monk in Saigon in June 1963 - rather, pictures of him serenely meditating as flames devoured his body - that first troubled America's conscience about what was then an obscure war.

Thich Nhat Hanh, another Vietnamese monk, was a prominent figure in the anti-war movement in the US who eventually persuaded Martin Luther King to pit his voice against the destruction of Vietnam. In Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge killed almost all the 60,000 monks, the Buddhist monk Maha Ghosananda became a major figure in the reconstruction of his country.

In September 1987 Buddhist monks and nuns began the first major political demonstration in Tibet in years by unfurling the Tibetan flag in central Lhasa. They were arrested and severely beaten, sparking off clashes between Tibetans and police that provoked Hu Jintao, now China's president and then the Chinese administrator in Tibet, to declare martial law.

How did a supposedly meditative tradition produce political protesters? If "religion is a poison", as Mao Zedong informed the Dalai Lama - a sentiment echoed by the secularists of our time - why then has Buddhism proved such an effective means of mass mobilisation against tyranny?

The Buddha himself was no political theorist or activist. He preferred to address the question of what constitutes the ruler's right to rule. Unlike the theorists of ancient India who claimed divine sanction for kingship, the Buddha did not find the ruler's legitimacy in some transcendent realm. As the many stories about ideal kings in the Jataka Tales - a compendium of Buddhist stories - attest, righteousness is the only proper basis for the ruler's authority.

The Buddha preferred small political communities in which all members shared the power of decision-making. In his lifetime, however, he witnessed the emergence of large states. Aware that these impersonal regimes exposed many people to a sense of powerlessness and insecurity, he hoped that the Buddhist sangha , or monastic order, would base itself near urban centres and help give newly uprooted people a sense of spiritual community and tradition.

Thus Buddhist monks, living not in forests but in retreats close to populated settlements, are traditionally bound to laymen by an ethic of social responsibility. Not surprisingly, in Tibet and Burma, where a modern, militarised state tyrannises a largely pre-modern and unorgan ised population, monasteries have been exalted as alternative centres of moral and political authority, and monks and nuns have come to spearhead resistance to unrighteous regimes.

Certainly, Buddhists are not immune to ideological delusions. In early 20th-century Japan, and in Sri Lanka in the 1980s and 90s, many Buddhist monks succumbed to the lure of nationalism and militarism. Nevertheless, with its absence of dogma and emphasis on intellectual and spiritual vigilance, Buddhism has proved to be less vulnerable to fanatical zeal than not only other major religions, but also such modern ideologies as nationalism and secularism. As Nhat Hanh exhorts, echoing a major theme of the Buddha: "Do not be idolatrous about, or bound to, any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. All systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth."

It helps, too, that Buddhist political methods aim, relatively modestly, at dialogue and moral conversion rather than total revolution. Writing to Martin Luther King in 1965, after another Buddhist self-immolation in Vietnam, Nhat Hanh explained that "the monks who burned themselves did not aim at the death of the oppressors, but only at a change in their policy. Their enemies are not man. They are intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred and discrimination which lie within the heart of man."

Maha Ghosananda, who lost his entire family in the Cambodian killing fields, insisted on including the Khmer Rouge at UN-sponsored talks on the future of Cambodia, claiming that he wanted an end to antagonism, not to antagonists. (Such practical wisdom traditionally preserved peace in Afghanistan's tribal society, and the country's current president, Hamid Karzai, appears to have embraced it by offering a seat in his cabinet to the Taliban.) Similarly, Samdhong Rinpoche, the monk prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile in India, claims he opposes the injustice and violence of Chinese rule rather than the Chinese people or state. Calling for a Gandhian-style campaign of satyagraha , or non-violent resistance, Samdhong Rinpoche asks Tibetans to actively reject Chinese rule through non-cooperation and disobedience, without hating or harming any Chinese. Both he and the Dalai Lama have reservations about even an economic boycott, which they believe hurts ordinary people more than it damages governments.

Living through a worldwide upsurge of violence, most of us may find it hard to conceive of Buddhist principles as politically efficacious. Nevertheless, the history of the modern world furnishes many examples of political victories achieved through moral persuasion and spiritual strength: national self-determination in colonised countries, the civil rights movement in the US, the velvet revolutions in Russia and eastern Europe, the end of apartheid in South Africa, and the gradual spread of parliamentary democracy around the world.

Today the Burmese generals confront the "authentic, enduring power" of people, before which, as Hannah Arendt presciently wrote in her analysis of the Prague Spring of 1968, a repressive regime eventually surrenders. The Buddhist monks chanting on the streets of Rangoon may look naive and defenceless when you consider the power of the political-military institutions of the modern, secular era that they are up against: heavily armed nation-states with hyper-competitive capitalist economies. Certainly, the Burmese generals know the way the world works. Apparently isolated, they play shrewdly the game of international realpolitik, buying the silence of their two rising and needy neighbours, democratic India as well as authoritarian China, with oil, gas and timber. However, to such a ruthlessly amoral politics, based on purely rational self-interest, the moral and spiritual values of religion can and often do pose a challenge.

No doubt devotees of science and rationality will continue to call for a religion-free politics. But what the Burmese demonstrators prove is that, as Gandhi said, "those who think religion has nothing to do with politics understand neither religion nor politics".