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.

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