- Ethics in the Mahabharata: A Philosophical Inquiry for Today
Perhaps academe has grown too used to reading interpretations of traditional Indian texts (Hindu and other) offered in terms of the so-called historical-critical method, with its misleading promise of an "objective" reading of such texts, divorced from personal prejudice or preconceptions. As we advance ever further in the study of hermeneutics, we realize that this can hardly be the case. The secret lies in unearthing and taming prejudice, in converting it into acceptable bias, rather than in pretending that it isn't there. There is a further lapse in those who apply the so-called objective method, namely their failure, on too many occasions, to appreciate what [End Page 557] such texts mean to those who appropriate them as resources for personal belief and practice. Sitansu Chakravarti makes no secret of the fact, in Ethics in the Mahabharata: A Philosophical Inquiry for Today, a studied reflection on the ethics of the Mahābhārata, with special reference to the Bhagavadgītā, that he approaches the text(s) from a fundamentally Advaitic point of view:
[W]e would like to reiterate that it is the phenomenological state of unconditional joy [referred to earlier as ānanda] that is the end and the motive of the spiritual thrust according to the Hindu. Such a state is taken to be innate, waiting to be bared from the covering of the opacity of ignorance, innate in its own turn, which veils its manifestation.(p. 111)
Though there is a tendency in this book to assimilate the stance of "the Hindu" in general to that of the author (e.g., in the extract above), Chakravarti shows a deep knowledge of his source text and of a number of positions taken up by modern thinkers (both Western and Indian), which he uses to good effect in expounding his views. His critiques of Amartya Sen's rather inadequate reading of the Gītā's kind of consequentialist ethics and of Freud's reductive psychoanalytic thesis are cases in point (see chapters 3 and 4). Krishna's teaching of niṣkāma-karma or selfless action in the Gītā represents, for Chakravarti, the "new value system," which universalized the dictates of dharma for the well-being of all, in contrast to the old value system, which particularized dharma's directives for various groups in terms of caste and other duties. In the Mahābhārata, the old value system is represented by various statements made by Bhīṣma, the venerable adviser to the court of Dhṛtarāṣṭra.
Though Chakravarti refers to his source-texts on a regular basis, one could have wished for further reference to the Sanskrit to check the fidelity of the translations. On occasion, certain Sanskrit terms, for example ṛta, sāttvika, and tāmasika, are given free translations seemingly to suit the argument. In Chakravarti's hands, however, the Mahābhārata emerges with great plausibility as the living repository of a profound, positive, and relevant ethic for modern living, which makes a refreshing change from the studied and somewhat unconvincing indifference of so much contemporary Indological scholarship to ethical texts. [End Page 558]