Thursday, February 28, 2013

Oriental licentiousness

First an excerpt from Balu.  He examines the question of whether Hindus are moral cretins, as so many Western analyses seem to show.  He dodges one bullet, and then continues:

Too soon to feel relieved, I think. At least that is how it appears, if we follow Van Den Bossche and Mortier (1997), in their exposé of a Jain text. (The Vajjalaggam, VL for short.) Composed anywhere between 750 and 1337 CE, the author of this text is a Jain poet – a certain Jayavallabha by name. The text itself, Van Den Bossche and Mortier tell us, belongs to the Subhashita literature and thus could be called an ‘ethical text’ and is a challenge of sorts:

“One problem with the study of Indian ethics is that the ancient Indians themselves did not make a clear-cut distinction between the ‘moral’ and other spheres. They did not have a word for our term ‘ethics’ at all.” (p. 85).

It is important to note that Ancient Greek, for example, introduced not only the word ‘ethica’. The same culture also gave us many substantial treatises on that subject, the most well-known of which is Aristotle’s Ethica Nicomachea. If the Indian text, composed around 650- 1200 years ago, does not even have a word for that phenomenon called ‘ethics’, how could it be an ethical tract at all? It cannot. Hence the reason why the authors discover that the
“text does not contain one single general rule stated in the prescriptive mode. General rule of conduct may easily be derived from various statements, but it is significant that the rules are not formulated as such. … The statements are written in the evaluative rather than the normative mode” (p.95).
That is to say, in this particular text there are no normative rules to be found. This cannot be construed as a deficiency of this text alone, because, as noted already, the Sanskrit language in which this text is written does not have a word even for the domain, namely, the ethical. Consequently, they study it ‘as a socio-ethical document’, which gives a “mosaic-like picture of feelings, attitudes and thoughts of different authors of ancient India.” (p. 87, my italics.)

How can one speak about ‘ancient’ India, when one is talking about a text composed during the ‘middle ages’? Here, ‘antiquity’ does not have a particular time-frame as its reference. Instead, it is civilizational: compared to the ‘ancient Greeks’ (of about 2500 years ago), the Indian civilization of about 700 years ago is more ‘ancient’ (i.e. more primitive). Of course, this is not made explicit but it is the only possible interpretation, especially in light of their conclusions.

6.1. Here is their eloquent conclusion about the state of affairs:

“Although VL exemplifies reflective ethical thinking, it contains no explicit propositions that argue for or against one type of virtue theory or another and it even sometimes lacks the terms necessary to formulate them. In this respect, the writings of the Greek and Roman virtue theorists are undoubtedly more reflective than what is found in the VL. Yet, this is a difference of degree, not of kind. The writings of the Greeks and the Romans in turn contain little reasoning about ethical language when compared to modern and contemporary moral philosophy.” (Pp.96-97)

6.2. At the risk of emphasizing the obvious, some remarks are in order here. 

Firstly, even though VL embodies ethical thinking, it does not argue for any kind of ethical theory. In fact, it lacks the words necessary to conduct an ethical discussion. This absence of the terminology to talk about ethics differentiates the Indian traditions from the Greek culture. That is to say, there is a difference in kind between the Greek ethics and the Indian ethics: one had the words to talk about it, whereas the other does not. 

Secondly, this difference has some significance regarding the ‘reflective’ thinking that VL is supposed to exemplify. How is it possible to reason and think about ethics, when you do not even have the words in which to do so? Obviously, you cannot. That is, there is a second kind of difference too, a consequence of the first: the Indian culture did not have the ability to reason and think about ethics. (That is why VL provides “a mosaic-like picture of feelings, attitudes and thoughts”.) 

Thirdly, if this is the difference that separates Indians from their Greek (or Roman) counterparts, even though coming after the Greeks by almost by a thousand years, the Indian thinkers are at the lower rung of the moral ladder: the Indians (of about a thousand years ago), followed by the Greeks (more than two thousand five hundred years ago), and then the contemporary moral philosophy. There is, however, a degree of difference between the Greeks and the contemporary moral philosophy: the latter is ‘more’ reflective than the former. The Indians had little ideas about how to think about ethics and how to develop theories and arguments about them. How could they? Not only did the Indian culture not have the terms in which to think about ethics but their intellectuals did not also feel the need to create such terms (as late as the thirteenth or fourteenth century).

This is being written in 1997 in a journal on Asian Philosophy. Any further commentary, I take it, is superfluous.

Let us look at the work itself.

Jayavallabha's Vajjalaggam available there is a PDF scan of Jayavallabha's Vajjalaggam, Prakrit
Text Society #14, Ahmedabad, 1969, translated by Prof. M.V. Patwardhan, Poona.

Here are some sketchy excerpts and notes:

From the Notes, on the purpose of the book:

1) The compiler of the present anthology was a Jaina and so he pays homage to ...Jina and to Srutadavi, the presiding deity of Jaina canonical literature.  The author explains the scope of the subhasitas collected in the present anthology as "dharmaditrivargyuta", connected with righteousness, worldly
success and the enjoyment of worldly happiness, three [out of four] of the goals of human life. {dharma, artha, kama, moksha}

We know of the problems with a translation of "dharma" (today so often rendered as religion). What is a Subhasita?

Here is one meaning:

"Subhasitas are Sanskrit sayings that generally make a moral point."

Here is another:

"Subhashita means good speech. They are wise sayings, instructions and stories, either in poetry or in prose composed in Sanskrit language.....Subhasitas act as teacher in formulating the sense of morality and character, which sums up the total of a person's virtues including dispositions, behaviors, habits, likes, dislikes, capacities, traits, ideals, ideas, values, feelings, and intuitions."


So, with that framework in mind, consider an example of the moral points or wise sayings that VL has:

50. The Section on Unchaste Women

472) There is an arbor in the neighborhood and also a hidden temple crowded with many youths. Oh daughter (damsel), do not weep because your husband is an old man. You have been given in marriage (you have been married) into a nice village!

473) Do not weep with face cast down because the paddy-fields are whitening (with maturation of the grains)(and will shortly be harvested, so you will have no secret place to carry on your illicit love with your paramour). Here are the hemp-gardens..... (474) To the west there are Asoka groves, to the south there is a cluster of banyan trees. Oh, daughter, such a village is not secured without special merit (or good luck)!....

476) The village abounds in youthful fellows; the spring season is on; youthful age is in full swing (she is in the prime of youthful age); her husband is an old man; old(highly intoxicating) wine is at her disposal. If (in the midst of these excitants of passion) she does not turn an unchaste woman, should she die?

477) Oh daughter, by the grace of the Gods and the Brahmanas, there has never been in our family, up till now, the stigma of having a single, virtuous, chaste woman (the stigma of chastity)!

478) A woman is regarded as subhaga (lucky, blessed, popular) if she has had sixty lovers; she rises to the position of Rambha (one of the Apsaras) if she has had a hundred; on attainment of the one-thousand-mark (i.e., if she has had a thousand lovers), Indra (king of the devas) himself honors her by sharing his seat with her.
481) The unchaste woman said to the chaste woman secretly, drawing close to her ear, "Oh miscreant, you will go to hell if you die ignorant of the experience of the love of a paramour!"


Let us look at a few more, e.g., after warning that the harlot is simply after money:

574) Crookedness of mind, craftiness in speech, deceptiveness untruthfulness - all these are regarded as serious faults in the case of other (ordinary) persons, but in the care of harlots, they are ornaments (that are highly esteemed).

or from the Virtuous Woman:

464) Though dwelling in a house standing on the fringe of a public square, though lovely in her looks, though young in age, though having her husband gone abroad (on a journey), though having a woman of bad character as her next-door neighbor, and though herself plunged in poverty, still she has maintained her virtue (moral character) inviolate. (the word used for moral character is sheelam.)


The translator, tells us, by the way, that "Out of the 88 sections and 752 stanzas in the proper corpus of the VL, seven sections (63 stanzas) are concerned with Dharma,... forty seven sections (347 stanzas) are concerned with Artha,... and thirty four sections (342 stanzas) are concerned with Kama.

In terms of percentages, the translator says 8.38% for Dharma, 46.14% for Artha and 45.48% for Kama.

PS: The excerpts I hope illustrate why people of a Christian European background might think "Hindus have no morality".