, , , , , , , , ,

On the Indian Philosophy Blog, commenter Anthony S asked an important and difficult question: what are good resources for thinking through Indian political philosophy?

. I’m interested not so much in comparative philosophy as comparative political thought/theory, specifically in terms of Indian and “Western” thought regarding the international/global. While I am happy comparative philosophy seems to be taking off in recent years, I wish the intensity was the same in political science/theory. If anyone has some good thoughts/resources regarding any of this, I’d be very appreciative.

I started replying in my own comments, but I think the topic deserves a post of its own. I have in the past found myself frustrated looking for ideas on political theory or political philosophy in India, and I don’t think I’m alone in this.

I thought of this point while reading Fred Dallmayr‘s anthology/textbook on comparative political theory. “Comparative” in this book effectively means “non-Western”, specifically referring to those traditions that have sophisticated traditions of logical questioning and reflection (i.e. philosophy) – and counting Islam as a non-Western tradition.

So the book has sections on East Asia, South Asia and Islam, each one dealing with both classical sources and modern reformulations. The East Asia section is by far the strongest, examining the classical debate between Confucianism and Legalism and recent attempts to apply Confucianism to the modern state. The Islam section deals well with the classical work of al-Farābī, though it struggles a bit more in modern application; the modern thinker who shows up most prominently is Sayyid Qutb, and the application of his ideas would probably mean the destruction of most of our ways of life.

The South Asia section, however, is weak on both the classical and the modern. The classical sections refer pretty much entirely to the Arthaśāstra, a text whose origins remain obscure – and which, more importantly, might not ever have been applied or put into practice. The modern sections offer reflections on Rammohun Roy and Jawaharlal Nehru. Both of these thinkers’ political ideas are interesting and valuable in their own right, but the sources of the political ideas are more or less entirely Western. They could have been written by English colonial subjects in Africa, Malaysia or the Caribbean. (Rammohun’s ideas on mysticism and other topics have more strongly Indian sources, but they didn’t seem to have a strong impact on his politics.) If one is looking for a distinctly Indian approach to political thought, one will need to look elsewhere. (One might well question the project of looking for a “distinctly Indian” political theory in the first place – if Western-derived ideas were good enough for Roy and Nehru, why shouldn’t they be good enough for us now? – but I will hold off on that topic here, for the moment at least.)

A reader with familiarity on this topic will likely have thought of the most important and prominent exception to it: namely Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi. The Western influences on Gandhi go deep as well, of course – one can certainly argue he drew more from Tolstoy and Ruskin than anything Indian – but the Indian influences are definitely there, from the Bhagavad Gītā and especially from his Jain gurus who taught him ahiṃsā. The writing on Gandhi in the Dallmayr book is pretty bad in that it tries, bizarrely, to tie Gandhi’s work back somehow to the Arthaśāstra, without providing evidence that he read it or was even aware of it. But leaving that book aside, one will still find in Gandhi’s politics of non-violence something that looks much more like a distinctly Indian political philosophy. One can find something similar in Aurobindo, and perhaps in the more militant Hindu thinkers comparable to Qutb (Tilak, Savarkar, Golwalkar). One way or another, there is very much such a thing as modern Indian political philosophy, even when we take the “Indian” in a strong sense.

But what about the premodern world? Was there indigenous Indian political thought before Indians reacted to the British – or to the Turks and Mughals? The frequent recourse to the Arthaśāstra often seems a bit desperate, an attempt to reach for the best text available because we can’t find anything better, even without knowing whether in the tradition anyone ever read it. What else is there? The dharmaśāstra and dharmasūtra texts certainly provide advice on how to run a state, but it also seems reaching to call them political philosophy or political theory, for in them there is precious little reasoning, only injunctions (do this, don’t do that) expected to be accepted.

In many ways I think the most interesting premodern Indian political theory is the anti-political theory found in Śāntideva and, I would argue, most of the renouncer (especially Jain and Buddhist) traditions. Śāntideva tells us that kings should give their kingdoms away; even in texts like the Cakkavatī-Sīhanāda Sutta that give advice on how to run a kingdom, this advice is subordinated to instructions on how to be a monk. And Indian philosophy in a strict sense – the use of logic and argument to reach conclusions about wisdom – was conducted primarily by monks; they were the ones with the time and resources to do it. So the institutional conditions of Indian philosophy were such that it developed very much in anti-political traditions. (The contrast could not be sharper with early Chinese philosophy, developed by advisors to rulers!)

But is there no Indian political philosophy before the arrival of the English, or even of the Mughals? Nothing that actually talks about running a state, without subordinating statecraft to monkhood? That would be taking matters too far. The Mīmāṃsā school, advocating the orthoprax performance of Vedic rituals, surely was arguing for a politics in which those rituals could take place – though a politics which is hard to love, in which caste (varṇa) distinctions are of paramount importance. But I think we would find more fruitful forms of Indian political philosophy if we did not define philosophy so strictly – that is, if we looked beyond argumentative texts to stories. The epics, the Rāmāyana and the Mahābhārata, have a lot to say about how one should run a state – and not only in their didactic portions, like the Gītā and the Śāntiparvan (Book of Peace). (The latter contains hundreds of pages’ worth of advice on how to run a state, but like the dharmaśāstra, there is little argument for it.) Rather, I suspect it is the stories themselves, the narrative portions, that attempt to illustrate what good statecraft looks like – they show and don’t tell. More explicitly the animal stories of the Pañcatantra and Hitopadeśa, full of cunning tricks and their results, offer their own sort of reasoning, by illustration and example rather than stated argument. If we want to find premodern Indian political philosophy, I suspect the stories are a more promising place to look than any attempt to squeeze political philosophy out of the Arthaśāstra or dharmaśāstra.