August 07, 2015

One associates ‘mysticism’ rather than ‘skepticism’ with Aurobindo

Indian Ethics — Classical Traditions and Contemporary Challenges
Eds Purushottama Bilimoria, Joseph Prabhu and Renuka Sharma.
Oxford. Pages 431. Rs 795.
Moral reflections
Vijay Tankha
LIKE many disciplines thought absent in the classical traditions of Indian thought, ethics, along with politics, science and even some would say, philosophy, has slowly found its way into academic curricula. The need to create a discipline, which resembles those for whom books are readily available, becomes necessary. Hence, in the recent past, a whole range of books attempt to systematise and so explain not the absence, but the presence of not only an outlook but a body of work that can stand with all the classics of thought that we are familiar with.

This recent interest in Indian ethical and philosophical theories is not without a past. Since the first arrival of Western and Eastern travellers, the texts of the subcontinent have been the subject of translation and appraisal. The responses too have passed through various stages of incomprehension and rejection, whether Indian thought is concerned with morality at all or is essentially immoral, or really about religion, or really comparable to the best of Western-style ethics, to assertion and adulation. The post-Independence turn contrasted the materialist West with the spiritual East, overvaluing what had been undervalued. In the present post-modern times and with the increasing socio-economic rise of India and other Asian countries, there is a greater sensitivity to positively assess the contribution of this great civilisation to the moral literature of mankind.

This book is a collection of learned essays divided broadly into three parts—the first dealing with the early period, from the Vedas to the Gita, discussing mainly the notion of Dharma. Of the eight papers in this section, none is devoted to the Gita, which seems odd. Laurie Patton’s reading of Vedic ethics through the categories of "being in the presence of another" developed by Levinas, is suggestive. The demand that the ‘other’ makes is used to read into Vedic texts the infinite demands of morality in the person and presence of the guest. She seems to forget that the guest in question is invariably a Brahmin (in the Kathopinsad, a text she quotes, Nachiketa’s three unfed nights in the house of Yama, get him three boons because he is a brahmanathithi).

Crossing from Levinas’s thought, shaped by the world wars and the Jewish experience, to the Vedic India, requires an enormous leap of the imagination. We may not endorse Arthur Danto’s claim that we cannot at all enter into the conceptual scheme of that world, but we need some reason to engage with it. Modern revivals of Vedic sacrifices need, for instance, to investigate more critically the notion of ritual. More to the point then is Maria Heim’s Dana as a Moral Category, which sketches the enormous range of dana literature, Buddhist, Hindu and Jain in medieval texts, noting the difference between the theory and practice of giving in India and the West. The difference she feels is marked by lack of reciprocity: the giver is ennobled by giving to a superior rather than an inferior, and the superior (monk, renunciant or Brahmin) gives nothing in return, not even a word of thanks! She does not notice that there is an exchange, albeit muted: the Brahmin gives knowledge in exchange; the renunciant shows the path.

Moral reflections Chandigarh Tribune - Stephen Phillips’s Skepticism in Aurobindo brings the volume to the late 19th century interpretation of the Indian tradition. One associates ‘mysticism’ rather than ‘skepticism’ with Aurobindo.

Modern Oriya Literature and Translation Practices 
Modern Oriya literature is a complex phenomenon. It coincided with many crucial events relating to the separate statehood of Orissa and their impact on the territorial, linguistic and literary aspects and aspirations of the state. The British occupation of Orissa in 1803 signified an important shift in its history, but the two hundred years that preceded this event, when Orissa was ruled successively by the Moguls, the Afghans and the Marathas, were more anarchical and corrosive. During the rule of the Moguls, Orissa’s territorial identity was beset with doubts and uncertainties and its geographical boundaries were redefined many times. Areas were attached and detached as different dispensations were interested in the extortion of its resources.

Battles and rebellions were regular features. These might be the reasons why the British were welcomed warmly. As the poet and critic Mayadhar Mansinha writes: “The priests of the temple of Jagannath could welcome their victorious generals in sonorous, adulatory Sanskrit, because the two hundred years under the rule of the Moguls, the Afghans and the Marathas had created completely anarchical conditions in the country” (156-157). But British ruled Orissa with iron hands and the hope of the people that they would succour the wounds inflicted by the previous rulers was disappointed. In the revolt against the British occupation, Orissa lost brave sons like Jayakrishna Raiguru, Bakshi Jagabandhu, the Paikas and countless others. The British disarmed the Paikas and grabbed their hereditary lands. Moreover the new tenancy laws including the notorious ‘Sunset Law’1 that “practically uprooted the Orissa nobility from the entire coastal area of the district Balasore, Puri and Cuttack, turned the Oriya peasantry into a race of coolies” (Mansinha: 157). The intermediaries from outside Orissa working with East India Company were the most treacherous. Historian R.D. Banerjee admits that “Bengalis of a low type ruled Orissa for nearly half a century after the conquest. Having control over judicial and executive work, the Bengalis found Orissa an easy means to get rich quick…Hundreds of old Oriya noblemen were ruined and their ancient heritage passed into the hands of Bengali Zamidars” (Mansinha: 279-81). Not content with the economic ruin, they even propagated that Oriya was not a ‘language’. For instance in 1867 Deputy Magistrate Rangalal Bandopadhyaya spoke of the primacy of Bengali over Oriya. Likewise, a well-known Bengali scholar Rajendralal Mitra who came to study the schools of Cuttack declared that there was no need to have a separate language for a mere 20 lakh Oriya population. Mitra argued that Orissa would remain backward if it used a separate language (Sachidananda Mohanty: 6) and Pandit Kanti Chandra Bhattacharya of Balasore Zilla School published a pamphlet titled “Oriya is not a separate Language”. 

But the dismal cultural condition ended with the dedicated works of Fakirmohan Senapati (1847-1918), referred fondly as the father of modern Oriya literature. His brilliance and erudition was highly regarded and he was on friendly terms with John Beams, the British Civil Servant and linguist, (then the District Magistrate of Balasore, Fakirmohan’s birth place) and T.E.Ravenshaw (then commissioner of the Orissa Division after whom the Ravenshaw College, now Ravenshaw University is named). Ironically, it was the English scholar-administrator John Beams, who defended the need for Oriya language at a special meeting of the Royal Asiatic Society in Calcutta in his paper “The Relationship of Oriya to Other Aryan Languages”. He refuting the arguments of Rajendralal Mitra and Kanti Chandra Bhattacharya, Beams maintained that Oriya was in fact older than Bengali and extended up to Medinapur in the north, Nagpur in the west and Telengana in the south (Mohanty: 7). Finally in 1936 a separate province of Orissa was identified. 

A major factor that promoted Oriya language and culture was the setting up of the Orissa Mission Press at Cuttack on 1 March 1838 by Reverend C. Lacey. Although the Mission Press was used primarily for the printing of Christian religious tracts, it soon took up the production of books for government vernacular schools. Sachidananda Mohanty offers the following statistics: 

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