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A curious phenomenon in the study of South Asian and especially Buddhist traditions is the number of Catholic scholars named Paul who have approached these traditions – and especially what Skholiast has called their ātmanism – with a critical eye. The two thinkers I have primarily in mind are the late Paul Hacker (whom I discussed last time, and the living Paul Williams. (The thought of Paul J. Griffiths, who moved in his writings from Buddhology to Catholic theology, bears a strong resemblances to these other Pauls, though I have less to say about him today.) That these men are all named Paul can only be a coincidence. That they are all Catholic is less so; for there are striking affinities in the ways that they (in many respects independently of one another) approach South Asian and Buddhist tradition, affinities that are far less coincidental.

Hacker, as I noted last time, attacked the key figures of modern Hinduism, which he called “neo-Hinduism” and which I think the term “Hinduism” should probably be reserved for. For Hacker, men like Swami Vivekānanda made a mockery of Indian tradition, by creating something new that claimed itself to be old. The general historical question here parallels questions about Yavanayāna Buddhism: much of what we take now as authentic Asian tradition is new and at least partially Western, but that does not necessarily make it illegitimate.

So far, it’s pretty much the usual story of 19th-century reform. But Hacker takes his critique much further than the basic historical point, and this is where it gets interesting to me. Hacker’s special ire, beyond his general disdain for modern Hinduism, is reserved for the tat tvam asi ethic”, the idea that because we are all ultimately one infinite spirit (“you are that,” as the Chāndogya Upaniṣad supposedly claims), we should help each other because we are really helping ourselves. For Hacker, it is not merely the case that classical Advaita Vedānta thinkers never adopted an altruistic or activistic ethics based on the tat tvam asi of the Chāndogya Upaniṣad, but that they could not have. For, Hacker claims, “From the philosophical point of view, to base the tat tvam asi ethic on the foundation of the Vedāntic monism of consciousness is a logical impossibility.” (“Schopenhauer and Hindu ethics,” p. 305) On the next page he goes on to describe the tat tvam asi ethic not merely as a “logical impossibility” but as a “logical monstrosity.” (p. 305, my emphasis) Hacker wants to show the tat tvam asi ethic is a modern invention because, in his mind, the great Vedāntic sages of old were way too wise to ever have fallen for such a load of garbage.

What is it about Vivekānanda’s tat tvam asi ethic, in Hacker’s mind, that makes it logically impossible and even monstrous? For Hacker, genuinely ethical behaviour – by which he means altruistic behaviour – depends on the existence of separate persons, whose differences are irreducible:

Ethical behavior presupposes an interpersonal relationship, which loses its metaphysical justification if individual personhood has no ultimate reality…. Neither the monism of will nor the monism of consciousness or spirit has a real place for the concept of person. But when this concept is not taken seriously, ethics remains on a naturalistic level; that is, there is no true ethics, good and evil have no truly metaphysical relevance, and ultimately there are only ways of realizing or veiling the impersonal universal One…. There is no sense in which an identification of a “that” with a “thou,” such as we have in tat tvam asi, can explain why good and bad behavior exist. Interpersonal relationship is not identity, and it is certainly not identity of a person with an impersonal being.

As philosophical argument I do not think this goes very far, not by itself anyway. Much of it depends on the semi-tautological identification of “ethics” with altruism. If one acknowledges that an ethics can be based on self-interest and that other-interest can be grounded in self-interest, then there seems little logical problem here: the tat tvam asi ethic might not really or ultimately be altruistic, but so what? Even in historical terms, Hacker seems to be on poor ground in believing that such a monistic ethic is purely modern. Hugh van Skyhawk, replying to Hacker in the 74th (1993) volume of the Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, argued that a similar view was found in the sixteenth-century Marathi poet-saint Eknath (also spelled Ekanāth or Ekanātha). Eknath told his listeners (in Skyhawk’s translation) that the true yogī “immediately gives up his own interests and ventures into difficulties for the sake of others”; and argues for such altruism on strongly nondualist grounds:

He, for whom there is no more “I” and “mine” and “thee” and “thine” by virtue of the contact with the worship of the divine non-duality and the Self is called the highest bhakta. If he gives his fortune (nijavitta) to another, no misgivings arise in his citta. He does not even sense a trace of alienation. No feelings of doubt arise. The object in the right hand is given to the left hand. Who is the giver here? Who is the receiver?

Overall, then, Hacker’s arguments against monist ethics aren’t particularly persuasive. What excites me about Hacker’s arguments is his reasons for making them. Wilhelm Halbfass’s introduction to his collection of Hacker’s writings stresses the increasing importance in Hacker’s work of his conversion to Roman Catholicism. And Catholicism, it seems to me, stresses encounter over ātmanism: it is all about one’s relationship to a God with whom one is not identical.

The point is highlighted in the much more powerful arguments of another Catholic Paul, Paul Williams. Williams, to my knowledge, says nothing about Hacker in his work; since Williams is a Buddhologist, he may well be entirely unaware of Hacker. And yet Williams’s criticism of Śāntideva (in the final chapters of his Altruism and Reality parallels Hacker’s criticism of Vivekānanda in remarkable ways. Among Śāntideva’s most famous passages (now even excerpted in an introductory ethics text) is his “equalization of self and other” in verses VIII.90-119 of the Bodhicaryāvatāra, in which he argues that, since the self is an illusion (a standard Buddhist view), egoistic action does not make logical sense and we should be altruistic (an innovation of his). Śāntideva is not a monist like Vivekānanda; he is strongly opposed to the Vedāntic idea of a universal cosmic self. Nevertheless, there is a close parallel in that both Śāntideva and Vivekānanda try to deconstruct our ideas of self in order to deconstruct ethical egoism and urge altruistic action. And so Williams’s criticisms of Śāntideva turn out on similar lines to Hacker’s criticisms of Vivekānanda.

Unlike Hacker, Williams makes no attempt at historical criticism; Williams has no doubt that Śāntideva actually believed all this. He simply thinks that Śāntideva is dead wrong. In thinking and arguing this, he has provoked a strong reaction among Buddhologists, no less than five of whom (Barbra Clayton, John Pettit, Jon Wetlesen, Mark Siderits and José Cabezón) have tried to refute him in print. I’m not going to examine today whether Williams is right or wrong (it is a complex question); but I want to explore important points in his arguments.

What Williams claims, against Śāntideva, is that there can be no compassion unless there are persons feeling the compassion for other persons. Compassion requires the existence of persons feeling suffering; without sufferers, there is no suffering and no compassion. (T.R. (Thill) Raghunath made a similar argument in a recent comment.) If the self is deconstructed, so too is suffering, and indeed perhaps all reasons for action.

Both Paul Hacker and Paul Williams, then, are trying to tell us: you cannot have it both ways. Either you can have a nondual view (monist or otherwise) that deconstructs our everyday selves, or you can have the commitment to altruistic alleviation of others’ suffering. The two don’t make sense together; and the first certainly isn’t an argument for the second.

Such a view seems to me to have profound roots in the Abrahamic monotheisms; while the Pauls in question are Catholic, one could surely also imagine it being made by a Jew. For indeed the criticism reminds me strongly of Emmanuel Lévinas and his insistence on the irreducible otherness of other people – with God as the ultimate other. (For breaking down the distinction between himself and God, al-Hallāj was tortured and killed.) The ethical deconstruction of self seems important to a nondual view of the world; but to refute such nonduality seems central to theism. (But not only Abrahamic theism: the nineteenth-century Bengali devotional poet Ramprasad Sen criticized nondualism by saying “I want to taste sugar, not to become sugar.”)