Indian epics vs. Western philosophy

Published - August 14, 2012 03:43 am IST

The overwhelming question for which man seeks an answer is what constitutes Enlightenment in life. What are the pursuits that can offer him lasting peace? Apart from those which are in the nature of dispersed meditations and counsels on truth, justice, etc., born of worldly wisdom and pragmatism, we do have a lineage of thinkers, both Western and Oriental, who have spent their whole lives in pursuit of eternal wisdom. Ethics, derived from the Greek root ‘ethikos’ has its basis on moral character. It is a philosophic discipline that primarily seeks to distinguish between what is morally good and bad, right and wrong. It refers to the way in which society expects people to behave in accordance with accepted norms. While Plato is held the father of Western philosphic system, Thirukkural and the Bhagavad Gita are among the earliest systems of Indian epistemology and metaphysics. They lay down a code of conduct for mankind as a whole.

K.C. Pandey’s Ethics and Epics is a collection of 20 essays presented at a seminar organised by the Indian Council of Philosophic Research in 2008. The papers in this volume are meant to dispel the Western bias that Indian philosophy is not analytical enough; it equates philosophy with religion; there is nothing much to philosophise in Indian texts which are nothing more than religious texts.

Moral dilemmas

The objective of this book, therefore, is “to demolish the unfounded myth about Indian philosophy and Indian philosopher.” The two epics The Ramayana and The Mahabharata are taken for extensive discussion, since a significant portion of these epics deal with moral dilemmas, and not surprisingly the accent falls heavily on Bhagavad Gita which raises the fundamental question in ethics. The concepts which are deliberated in almost every essay are: sthithaprajna, jivanmukthi, nishkama karma and, of course, the purusharthas, artha, kama, dharma and moksha. “Subaltern Morality in Post- Ramayana Ramkathai ” takes up the problem of morality by resisting grand narratives and rereading the episodes of Guha, Sabari, Nisad, Manthara and other underprivileged characters who are full of devotion and hence more distinguished than the major characters.

The paper “Doctrine of Karma and moral dilemmas” maintains that the Karma theory (the corner stone of Indian philosophy) as propounded by the Indian tradition rejects moral relativism by taking cognisance of the fact that moral dilemmas do exist, “but the course of destiny is already chartered out for the individual. Even if he chooses the other alternative, he would be met with similar consequences in the long run.” The basic tenet of the law of Karma is ‘as you sow so shall you reap.’ Everyone has to bear the fruits of his actions. The purpose of life is to unburden or atleast lessen the weight of our karmic load. The Gita does not preach the philosophy of inaction; rather it advises us to perform actions without the desire for rewards. Such a person who performs his task, going through all the worldly duties in a disinterested way is verily a Stithaprajna. The theory of Karma is closely allied to the concept of dharma which is a ‘principle of giving unity, coherence and cohesiveness to reality.’ Karma-Yoganishkama karmaGitanishkama karmajivanmukta

The epics have captivated the minds and the imagination of Indians for centuries with their soul-searching questions, problems, doubts and dilemmas. Should Arjuna fight the war at Kurukshetra? Did Yudhishtra have the moral right to gamble with Draupadi as the stake? The essays Epics and Ethics use episodes in Indian epics as factors to stimulate wide-ranging epistemological and metaphysical discussions that satisfy the enquiring mind which seeks answers to these perennial issues.

EPICS AND ETHICS — Reflections on Indian Ethos: Edited by K. C. Pandey; Readworthy Publications Pvt. Ltd., B-65, Mansa Ram Park, New Delhi-110059. Rs. 995.

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