Monthly Archives: July 2006

Gandhi on Violence in the Bhagavad Gita

I’ve recently been collecting notes and reading some commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita. One interesting commentary that I started reading last month is Gandhi’s interpretation. Before I opened this book, my first pressing question was what he would say about what seemed to me to be a central theme of the Gita–that it was Arjuna’s sacred duty as a ksatriya to engage in violence. Given Gandhi’s doctrine of non-violence, I wondered how he would reconcile the violence advocated in the Gita (where Krishna recommends that Arjuna fight his relatives in war, because it is his sacred duty) with his own non-violent position.

What Gandhi says is that the Gita is largely symbolic, and the central battle which the dialogue centers around is one of the most potent of the symbols of the Gita. He says that the war of Arjuna against his relatives is meant to symbolize the war within each of us against those elements of our characters or minds that we are very attached to, but are ultimately detrimental to the performance of our sacred duty, or somehow impede our understanding of the truth about all action (that inaction within action, or “discipline” is the key to realizing the “infinite spirit”, brahman).

Is this right? Are we to read the Gita (or at least the part of it dealing with violence) as only a symbol for struggles within? The distinction of four castes is definitely not meant only as symbolic, as the society within which the Gita was written adhered to this scheme, containing these four castes. One of those castes was (and still is, though this does not mean as much today as it did in the time of the Gita) the kshatriya class, of which Arjuna was a member. It is supposed to be the duty of this class to serve as rulers and warriors. So, even if the war situation in the Gita (and I suppose in the Mahabharata as a whole) was meant to be symbolic, the adherents of the religious and philosophical system represented by the Gita would have to admit that there are times when violence is religiously justified–namely, those times when kshatriyas are called to exert force to defend society. If it were the case that such force were never justified (as Gandhi seemed to think, though I’m not sure on his exact position), then why would there exist a divinely sanctioned class of people whose task it is to exert such force, unless something morally wrong was divinely sanctioned? I guess in this way Gandhi’s problem turns into the problem of evil.

This leaves me to wonder, is Gandhi’s position consistent with the Gita?

Compassion and the End of Suffering

It’s been a long time since I posted here last–I’m way overdue. However, I’m glad to say that I haven’t been away so long because of laziness. My son Siddhartha was born on July 8, and Tara and I have been dealing with long, sleepless nights with a screaming infant. Lots of fun. Now I’m staying up late nights, though, to let Tara get some sleep, so I finally have some time to get back into things.

I’ve also launched into a couple of new projects, that I’m working on along with my preparations to teach non-western philosophy in the fall. I’ve begun a fictional work after a long absence, which is closely enough related to the subject matter of this blog to mention here. I have started a semi-fictional account of the story of the Buddha, from his late youth as prince of the Sakyans to the first of his teachings as the Buddha. This story has always been one that has interested me (as it has many others through the centuries), and I think I may finally have enough skill (though perhaps only barely) as a writer to give it a shot.

Along with this project, and to an extent informing it, is a reading of the Theravada suttas, some of which I plan to make some comments on (that I might post here). Of course, the Analects project is still going (also to be posted here), but I figure that including the suttas is a good way to mix things up. One difference between the sutta commentaries I will give and my Analects commentary is my grasp of the original languages. My classical Chinese knowledge is many times better than my knowledge of Pali, which is pretty weak, so I’ll be depending mainly on English translation for the sutta commentaries (with perhaps a little sprinkling of the original Pali text, where I can understand it or it’s important enough to consult Warder and/or the PTS Dictionary).

So, I have no commentary right now–but I would like to post this sutta, the Karaniya Metta Sutta (Bhikkhu Thanissaro’s translation), from the Sutta Nipata. This sutta is the essence of compassion. Reflecting on it, maybe we can cultivate the compassion (metta, often translated “loving kindness”) to live the good life. (Although karuna rather than metta is more often translated as compassion, I think that metta is an important element of our notion of compassion. Our word compassion probably contains what are three separate concepts in Pali Buddhism, karuna, metta, and mudita [“sympathetic joy”])

This is to be done by one skilled in aims
who wants to break through to the state of peace:
Be capable, upright, & straightforward,
easy to instruct, gentle, & not conceited,
content & easy to support,
with few duties, living lightly,
with peaceful faculties, masterful,
modest, & no greed for supporters.

Do not do the slightest thing
that the wise would later censure.

Think: Happy, at rest,
may all beings be happy at heart.
Whatever beings there may be,
weak or strong, without exception,
long, large,
middling, short,
subtle, blatant,
seen & unseen,
near & far,
born & seeking birth:
May all beings be happy at heart.

Let no one deceive another
or despise anyone anywhere,
or through anger or irritation
wish for another to suffer.

As a mother would risk her life
to protect her child, her only child,
even so should one cultivate a limitless heart
with regard to all beings.
With good will for the entire cosmos,
cultivate a limitless heart:
Above, below, & all around,
unobstructed, without enmity or hate.
Whether standing, walking,
sitting, or lying down,
as long as one is alert,
one should be resolved on this mindfulness.
This is called a sublime abiding
here & now.

Not taken with views,
but virtuous & consummate in vision,
having subdued desire for sensual pleasures,
one never again
will lie in the womb.

Confucian Legalism, Part 2

Here’s a fun site where you can take a small quiz and it tells you which “Chinese philosophy” you are most in agreement with. It’s kind of silly, as the questions it asks are fairly cariacturish, but it’s neat to predict what your results will show. The reason I bring this up is because my results showed that I am most sympathetic with Confucianism, second most with legalism, and least with daoism (there are only three systems represented). Of course, I already knew that I favor Confucianism and Legalism, and I am continuing to search texts and interpreters to see to what extent these overlap. What interested me, and continues to interest me, is the moral side-effects of legalist thinking. Adam Smith argued that the profit motive in capitalism indirectly benefits all the members of society. Likewise, I think something similar may be said for legalist methods of running the state. A tempered legalism, one in which the main goal of the ruler is wealth and power, may defy some of the lack of concern Han Feizi seemed to have with morality. Confucius seemed to hold that the most powerful state was the most moral state–the ruler who ruled benevolently, through dao (“right action”), which must be involved with ren (“humanity”, for lack of a better term), would thereby become the ruler with the most powerful state. At least in terms of motivation, there seems to clearly be some overlap between thinkers like Confucius and Han Feizi.

Analects 1.5–Morality as a Political Expedient

(1.5) 子曰: 「道千乘之國,敬事而信,節用而愛人,使民以時。」 

TRANSLATION: The master said: “The right way (dao) to run a thousand chariot state is: to conduct(the state’s) business with respect and trustworthiness; be reserved in use of the people and care for them; cause the people to use their time well.

COMMENTARY: This is, I think, the first really difficult passage of the Analects. The difficulty of this passage is not philosophical, however–most of the problem here comes in the grammar and the translation. In fact, as far as philosophical content, I find this passage to be less robust than many of Confucius’s (although there are certainly some interesting issues raised which I’ll touch on below, especially with respect to political expediency).

The first difficulty encountered in this passage is just how to translate the two er fragments in the center of the sentence. The first is jing shi er xin, which I’ve translated as “to conduct business with respect and trustworthiness”, and the second is jie yong er ai ren, which I’ve translated as “be reserved in the use of people and care for them”. These can be translated another way as well, depending on what role we take the er to be playing here. One might read it as I have, or read it so the translation is “to conduct business with respect and be trustworthy” for the first, which is not so different from my translation other than that trustworthiness (xin) is an adverbial modifier of “conducting business” in my translation, and not in this version. In the second, the translation of er as a conjunction of two complete clauses makes it read “use (things or resources) reservedly and care for the people.” This makes a great difference from my reading of the er as a conjunction of two verbs. There is one main reason that I translate the passage the way I do. If the conjunction of complete clauses is what the two er in this passage are doing, I think we should expect them not to be there. Instead of using er, it seems the style of the writing in the Analects to extract an er when unnecessary, so that the passage would read: jing shi, xin, jie yong, ai ren instead of jing shi er xin, jie yong er ai ren.

As I intimate in the title of this post, I think 1.5 is meant as a lesson that political expediency is served by actions which are for the most part those of a junzi, a good person. A thriving and powerful state can be brought about through following actions which are for the benefit of the people of the state, rather than directly for the benefit of the ruler. Part of the hint here is that the ruler will gain indirectly through the welfare of the people. The correct way to run and keep a large and powerful state (hence the introductory “state of a thousand chariots”, which would have been a wealthy state in Confucius’s time) is to rule in such a way that things follow the correct moral order, in such a way that the people of the state thrive. If one cares for the people, one will not break the backs of the people for frivolous things (such as the later Qin emperor’s building of the Great Wall or the inordinate taxing and working of the people on state projects). Although this, Confucius would contend, is the right way to act, part of the reason it is the right way to act is because it is politically expedient–that is, it is conducive to building and retaining a powerful state. The legalists will take political expediency as the number one priority, and they will have some different things to say about it than what Confucius says, but I see this as leading in the direction of the legalists. One key difference here is that actions we would for the most part consider as “good” actions serve as a political expedient for Confucius. Does Confucius think that this is the reason they are good? I contend that Confucius holds that these actions are good for a number of reasons, one of which is their expediency. As I have said elsewhere, I believe that for Confucius, the thriving society is the ground of morality, and as such, anything that leads to the thriving society is a good action. Part of a thriving society is surely wealth and power (though Confucius would disagree with Han Feizi that wealth and power are enough). Thus, it is not only an action’s conduciveness to the wealth and power of society that makes an action good, but it is a necessary condition for the goodness of an action. Note that the action doesn’t have to be foolproof–that is, it doesn’t inevitably have to bring about a wealthy and powerful state, it only needs to be conducive to bringing about such a state, in much the same way that we claim that eating fruits and vegetables are conducive to health, even though one may eat them and still be unhealthy. The component of success is unnecessary, even though it is the goal of the project. This is partly because one cannot control external forces. Despite one’s best efforts, the tide is often against one, and the most junzi-like of their actions will fail to bring about positive change. Thus it is necessary to morality for Confucius that we not worry about results so much, as this will damage our moral motivation, our willingness to try to bring about the thriving society.