Interesting and worthwhile Q&A is up at the New York Times — I’m guessing only online, although that matters less and less all the time.
Two reasons to highlight it: Good content for us as well as wanting to see what mainstream people (at least those checking the NYT’s religion forum) are reading about Hinduism. The series is run by Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at my alma mater, the University of Notre Dame. This time he interviews Jonardon Ganeri, a visiting professor of philosophy at New York University Abu Dhabi. He also is the author of “The Lost Age of Reason: Philosophy in Early Modern India 1450–1700.”A few highlights:
G.G.: What do you mean by “non-theistic” concepts of the divine?
J.G.: One such concept sees the text of the Veda as itself divine. Its language, on this view, has a structure that is prior to and isomorphic with the structure of the world and its grammar is complete (although parts may have been lost over the centuries). The divinity of the text inverts the order of priority between text and author: Now, at best, assignment of authorship is a cataloging device not the identification of origin. Recitation of the text is itself a religious act.
Another Hindu conception of the divine is that it is the essential reality in comparison to which all else is only concealing appearance. This is the concept of one finds in the Upanishads. Philosophically the most important claim the Upanishads make is that the essence of each person is also the essence of all things’; the human self and brahman (the essential reality) are the same.
This identity claim leads to a third conception of the divine: that inwardness or interiority or subjectivity is itself a kind of divinity. On this view, religious practice is contemplative, taking time to turn one’s gaze inwards to find one’s real self; but — and this point is often missed — there is something strongly anti-individualistic in this practice of inwardness, since the deep self one discovers is the same self for all.
G.G.: What sort of ethical guidance does Hinduism provide?
J.G.: One of the most important texts in the religious life of many Hindus is the Bhagavadgita, the Song of the Lord. The Gita is deeply philosophical, addressing in poetic, inspirational language a fundamental conundrum of human existence: What to do when one is pulled in different directions by different sorts of obligation, how to make hard choices. The hard choice faced by the protagonist Arjuna is whether to go to war against members of his own family, in violation of a universal duty not to kill; or to abstain, letting a wrong go unrighted and breaking a duty that is uniquely his. Lord Krishna counsels Arjuna with the philosophical advice that the moral motivation for action should never consist in expected outcomes, that one should act but not base one’s path of action on one’s wants or needs.
G.G.: This sounds rather like the Kantian view that morality means doing what’s right regardless of the consequences.
J.G.: There are ongoing debates about what sort of moral philosophy Krishna is proposing — Amartya Sen has claimed that he’s a quasi-Kantian but others disagree. More important than this scholarly debate, though, is what the text tells us about how to live: that living is hard, and doing the right thing is difficult; that leading a moral life is at best an enigmatic and ambiguous project. No escape route from moral conflict by imitating the actions of a morally perfect individual is on offer here. Krishna, unlike Christ, the Buddha or Mohammed is not portrayed as morally perfect, and indeed the philosopher Bimal Matilal very aptly describes him as the “devious divinity.” We can but try our best in treacherous circumstances.
There is plenty more. Big hat tip to Robert Moses for sending the link along to me. It is good timing as we try to synthesis all our experiences from our Yatra — challenging and easy alike. There is another in the series on Buddhism, and you can find them all under a search for Gutting’s name (or just click here).