Lecture 1, Part 3: Difficulties in Approaching Indian Thought by Bharati

To the reader…

This is part of a series of posts on Indian Political Thought. They are transcripts of lectures delivered recently by Bharati. Each lecture will be divided into a number of parts and published separately. Bharati has not only endorsed their publication but also checked and improved the transcripts; for which, the blog renders its gratitude. However, yours truly and their good friend are responsible for tracing, checking, and arranging the references. These references are neither authoritative nor exhaustive; treat them simply as the attempts of two cluelesss students at helping themselves and other clueless students understand the lectures just a little better. Often they are pointers to material that might interest the slightly more advanced reader. Some are simply interesting (we hope) pieces of trivia.

Some things before you proceed:

  1. Sanskrit (and other non-English) terms are transliterated following the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (IAST) standard. Though it not strictly necessary or even recommended, I try to transliterate most terms. Familiarity with Devanagri sounds is recommended.
  2. Please use the footnote markers ([1], [2], etc.) to jump to footnotes and back to the text.


Difficulties in approaching Indian thought

21. How often members of those societies actually followed the rules prescribed for each varna, we do not know. And the reason we don’t know is because we know ancient India mainly through normative and literary texts, (besides of course through archaeological remains) and these texts are mostly of one particular kind, which is to say that they are in Sanskrit in most cases and you can say that they are Brahmanical. They are Brahmanical in the specific sense that — this is actually a complicated thing even though we use words like Brahmanical and Brahmanism very easily — they were authored by Brahmins. And those who author or propose a particular scheme are always going to make sure that they will have an advantageous position within that classificatory scheme, and that is what must have happened. (Obviously, we are not saying that a class of very clever and cunning people wrote something up and everyone else bought into what they said. It’s never as simple as that!) However, ancient India, or medieval India, or later India, and therefore Indian way of thinking, is not restricted to Sanskrit and Brahmanical texts.

22. And this is where our first difficulty of understanding Indian thought comes. There has been an overidentification of Sanskrit and Indian thinking. But Indian thinking is far more than what Sanskrit texts tell us. There were not only Sanskrit texts, but also Tamil texts, as well as Buddhist texts written in Pali. For the medieval period, you have to look at not only Sanskrit and Tamil but also Arabic and Persian. (And, from the second millennium onwards, at texts written in the regional languages.) Some very important texts of the 16th and 17th centuries are in Arabic and Persian. Not many people know that. And this is a tragedy of modern India. I mean since the 18th century, or at least since the 19th century, educated Indians have been obsessed with what they believe to be authentically Indian. They have been obsessed with Indian past. They have been obsessed with what they call ancient India. But the average knowledge about that India and its history, barring a few exceptions, is very poor. We don’t know for example that in the 16th and 17th century, there was a lot of translation activity going on between Persian and Sanskrit. Some of the Mughal Emperors actually patronised this activity. And that is how you get translations of the Mahābhārata into Persian.[11] We don’t know that one particular kind of style of singing within Hindustani Classical music which is called dhrupad would not have probably survived had it not received royal patronage from the Mughal Emperors.[12] Medieval India was a world which we, who are not professional historians, still don’t understand very well.

23. Even historians are dependent on whatever manuscripts and court records there are. (Both are elite activities, by the way.) Unfortunately not all manuscripts have survived. It is likely that a very large number of manuscripts have been lost. They may have simply fallen into neglect. So when a particular five hundred year old Sanskrit text from a particular era and a particular region is discovered, we have no way of knowing what the contemporaries of that text or that author thought about it. We look upon anything that is in Sanskrit reverentially. But it is possible that the contemporaries of the author of that text did not think much of it. A particular play which has been translated recently and probably belongs to the 14th and 15th century is such an isolated text.[13] Maybe there were several such plays written during that period. On the other hand, it’s equally possible that the particular genre had been abandoned by authors who hoped to get royal patronage. What did the contemporaries think of it? How often was it staged? We don’t know. Appreciating a text historically requires you to know the context. And that context, even if it is not a social or historical context, has to be an intellectual context. So for me to appreciate a particular play from the 14th century I need to know similar texts of the 14th century and references to this text in other texts. If all that has gone away, how do I come to an infromed judgment about this isolated text which has miraculously survived?

24. I say this about texts whose manuscripts have disappeared. What about those which exist but which are not accessible to scholars? There was a king called Maharaja Anūpa Siṃha who lived during the later part of the 17th century. He ruled in parts of Rajasthan.[14] He was a very scholarly king, and that’s another interesting thing about kings in India. Like some of these Mughal Emperors,[15] some of the so-called Hindu kings were great lovers and patrons of learning. Maharaja Anūpa Siṃha knew a lot of scholars from Varanasi or Benaras. Through his contact with them, he acquired a lot of manuscripts. We are talking about 17th century, and therefore the pre-print era (in India); and for that era manuscripts were extremely valuable because that’s the only way you got to know works being composed.

25. Mansucripts used to circulate throughout India. The circulation of manuscripts itself is a fascinating story which tells us how little we know of the world which not only has irrevocably disappeared but has been so badly misunderstood. A huge amount of manuscripts were circulating throughout India. Kashmir was an important center of learning and Indian philosophy. Some of the most important so-called Hindu philosophers actually come from Kashmir.[16] And what is interesting is that everytime a new text appeared in Kashmir, it immediately got copied and started circulating in the rest of India. That is the kind of contact that intellectuals or scholars or whatever you call them from different parts of the country had with each other. So this Anūpa Siṃha fraternises some of these scholars in Varanasi and through them acquires manuscripts. He goes on acquiring manuscripts. Like the king in Tanjore. Tanjore’s (Thanjavur Maharaja Serfoji’s) Saraswathi Mahal Library is in large part the collection of the king, one of the last kings before the British took over.[17] Similarly here is this 17th century king who acquires a huge collection.

26. What is the state of that collection (now called Anup Sanskrit Library, Bikaner, Rajasthan) today? Probably the manuscripts are all still there. Probably they are all still intact. Those who are looking after the library, probably the descendents of the King and his family, they do not allow any scholars to copy these manuscripts. Not only has there been no digitization as far as I know but even mechanical copying of manuscripts is not allowed. Now the problem is that you can’t possibly sit there and go on reading these manuscripts till you become old (as the American scholar Sheldon Pollock said) and feel proud of having read eight or ten manuscripts out of the hundreds that are there in the library. The modern scholars operate differently. Academics from within India and elsewhere take leave, arrange money from some foundation, visit libraries, photocopy the material they need, and read it leisurely later. That is how academic activity works. So you have a huge collection of manuscripts, still not fully explored by the scholarly world because it is inaccessible.

But both western and Indian scholars have been denied permission to reproduce the manuscripts [from the Anup Sanskrit Library in Bikaner] in any way, and have thus been effectively barred from using them unless they are prepared to read them in situ — and grow old in the desert of Rajasthan.

Sheldon Pollock, “Is There an Indian Intellectual History?”, p. 539.

27. Do you know that there is no definitive exhaustive catalogue of ALL the manuscripts in India anywhere? There are scattered catalogues which cater to specific areas and specific regions. So apart from the problem of language, there is also the problem of access to manuscripts. And then there is the problem of the nation-state and its boundaries. Most of us identify ourselves as Indians and there is a geopolitical reality called the Indian nation state with its boundaries. But take a look at the older maps with trade routes marked on them. Wherever there is trade, there is a movement of people, and wherever there is a movement of people, there is also likely to be a movement of texts. If the hypothesis is correct, and if it is true that trade routes were extensive in pre-modern India, then it simply means that looking at old Indian texts and thinking through the frame of modern Indian nation-state is deceptive. [For more on this, as well as the maps, see Lecture 2, Part 1 (to be uploaded soon)]

28. Let me give you an example. Suppose you talk to Bengali intellectuals from a small town in Bengal. You will notice that they read Bangla, speak Bangla, and the people they know are Bengalis. Which means that their world is the Bengali intellectual world. It is possible that in the 18th century coastal Andhra Pradesh, the world of Telugu intellectuals was the Telugu world. But, from the trade routes and the old maps that have been collected, it seems that the world of pre-modern Indian intellectuals was far more extensive than what the modern Indian nation-state and the administrative boundaries of its regional units represent. It went all the way on both the Eastern and Western side to areas which are now part of different nation states. It went to South-East Asia on the eastern side. Some of the older texts were being translated into Chinese.[18] On the Western side, it went through the gulf all the way up to the Mediterranean sea. At one point it went all the way up to Tashkent. Assuming that these trade routes represent the interaction that Indians had, then it was not restricted to today’s India but it was far more extensive than that. So when we say Indian thinking, are we talking about Indian thinking as it is represented by whatever figures within the confines of the modern nation state called India, or are we talking of Indian thinking as part of a larger South Asian region? Depending on the answer to this question our study and the object of our study will be very different.

29. The reality of the modern Indian nation state and its present boundaries have influenced our perceptions. Everyone who pretends to know anything about Indian history talks about invasions. We believe that there was ancient India, which was mostly good and Hindu, medieval India, which was full of invasions and barbarism, and then modern India, which is partly colonial or British, before its independence is restored.[19] This conception of Indian history as falling into three time periods actually comes to us from the colonial administrator cum historian James Mill, father of John Stuart Mill. Because of the conscious or subconscious influence of this tripartite scheme of Indian history, whenever we talk about invasions, we actually talk about invasions which started happening in the medieval period. But if you look at the early Indian history, you will see that it too was full of invasions. In fact, some of the most important texts, the epics and the Puranas, were composed around the time when invasions from the north-west were taking place pouring various people into the Gangetic belt. That is when some of the law books were codified or were in the process of being composed. This may be very significant because the idea of an outsider (mlechcha) and the idea of demons (asuras) that you find in some of the law books and some of the Puranas may actually have been a kind of legal or poetic representation of these new people who were coming in waves around the time these smritis and puranas were being composed.[20]

30. Look at the period between three or four centuries before the common era and two or three centuries after the common era. A whole lot of people, or groups, which were ethnically different poured into India and they were not migrants who came in search of jobs or livelihoods like in modern times. They came and ruled different parts of the country. Some of the very famous empires in early Indian history were empires of people who came through the North-Western route into the Gangetic belt, settled there and started ruling. I am not sure if we should use the word “invasion” because it is used with an implicit frame of reference which is derived from the modern Indian nation-state. When we say invasions into India, we implicitly look at the modern Indian nation-state’s international borders and say, they came from outside these borders. But these boundaries are a modern creation. Suppose we ignore this and still want to call them invasions because they were ethnically, linguistically different from those who were already settled there. Why do we focus on some invasions and not others? The whole history of India is a history of invasions. All sorts of people have been pouring in into India and eventually becoming part of the Indian society. They have had all kinds of relations with those who had settled here or were living here earlier. Those relations include conflict also. (How many of us can say confidently that they are pure descendents of the original inhabitants of India?)

31. So modern nationalism and the modern self-understanding of Indians as belonging to a well-defined geopolitical entity has been a great stimulus and also a great impediment in understanding Indian history well. Nationalism is why we got interested in our past and that is how the discipline of history took roots here. But nationalism also provides a modern frame of reference which complicates the way we look at our past.

32. Even without nationalism, it is not easy to bridge the great distance that separates us from the past. Let me draw your attention to something I was talking about earlier. I was talking about classificatory schemes and this whole idea of correspondence between being a Brahmin, a particular part of the day, a particular metre of poetry, and I said that they were supposed to have a certain connection with each other. That idea must have appeared to some of you at least very strange and difficult to understand. But let me read out to you something from a very old text and you are going to find it even stranger.

Here now is the praise of the personal recitation of the Veda [that is, what are the benefits you derive from reciting the Vedas]. The one who does it regularly [recites the Vedas] acquires presence of mind, becomes independent, acquires wealth, sleeps well, he becomes his own physician, to him belongs the mastery of the senses, to him belongs the development of his intelligence, glory, and cooking the world. [“Cooking” is the literal translation of the Sanskrit word.][21]

33. The reference to cooking is not an aberration. The same word is used once again in the text: “As his intelligence grows, certain duties become incumbent upon the Brahmin. A Brahmanic origin, behaviour consonant with his Brahmanical status, glory, and cooking the world.”[22] What is this whole business of cooking the world? As you explore this and go into greater detail, you realise that in this idea of cooking the world, “world” is a translation of the Sanskrit word loka [not “people” as in some translations]— and cooking is a translation of the Sankrit word pakti from which the modern Indian word pakānā is derived. Lokapakti is the original Sanskrit word which is translated here literally as cooking the world.[23] I doubt if anyone here would have ever heard of an idea as strange as this and would have thought that this is actually an important idea in ancient Indian thinking. If the classification of different elements and things of the world into Brahmanical, Kṣatriya, or Vaiśya elements was strange enough for our modern ears, this is beyond strange and forces you to leave aside all your preconceived notions about ancient India and approach that world with openness and humility.

34. Why is it that I have brought this up? Not because I am going to talk about cooking the world or cooking in general. But because I want you to know that the world that we are talking about, the world that we are trying to think about and understand, is a world which is stranger than you can imagine. It’s a bizzare world. It’s a world which sometimes perplexes you, sometime amuses you, sometimes shocks you. It has become very common to refer to the Upanṣads and everyone who is a great admirer of Hindu philosophy talks about Upanṣadic philosophy. Some of the descriptions in this Upanṣads, and if anybody is interested I can privately give the actual reference, are so explicitly erotic that even in an Indian philosophy class, I wouldn’t have possibly been able to discuss them.[24]

35. Again there is a correspodence, you may say metaphor, between erotic acts and sacrifice. Because the ancient Indians saw the correspondence between the two, one became the metaphor of the other, and in discussing sacrifice, the particular Upanṣad is describing the sacrifice through the imagery of erotic activities.[25] This will shock people. This will shock even those who swear by Indian philosophy or the so-called Hindutva because our tastes and sensibilities, what we regard as appropriate and not appropriate has so completely changed from what it was in the ancient or in the medieval period that we can’t possibly read these extracts or passages without getting disturbed at least in the beginning. As you read more, it of course becomes familiar to you and then it stops shocking you, you might even start enjoying it. You can try.

36. The point I am trying to make is that between us and them — whether this us is Indian or Western, men or women, upper caste or lower caste, Hindu or non-Hindu, secular or communal, whatever or whoever we are ­— there is a huge gulf. There are many barriers between us and them. And unless we suspend all our prior prejudices and our politically charged emotions, we will not understand them. Somebody said that the past is a foreign country.[26] And it is actually very true in the Indian context. The Indian past for the modern Indians is actually a foreign country. What has happened is that very few half-understood elements of pre-modern India have been brought together in a quick easy-to-understand and very-pleasing-to-one’s-mind kind of way, and has been dished out as Indian history, Indian religion, Indian philosophy, etc. But we need to not only set aside our prejudices but also be brave. Setting aside prejudices requires bravery. Because a prejudice is that which protects you from something which will disturb you. Something which will unsettle you. And you don’t want to be disturbed, and you don’t want to be unsettled, and therefore, that prejudice is there protecting you. And therefore, setting aside that prejudice requires enormous amount of courage.

37. I may be a secular person and I may be disturbed by communal conflict in modern India, and therefore I may be constantly believing that communal conflict started happening only because of the British and after the British came and their divide-and-rule policy. That before the British, there were no communal conflicts. But the day I actually start looking at historical evidence which has survived and which is available from pre-modern period, this very easy formulation that in the pre-British period, Hindus and Muslims were not fighting with each other has to be modified, and has to be modified drastically. Doesn’t mean that I cease to be or stop being a secular person. But it simply means that my very comfortable, my very easy formulations about Indian history which in a way reinforce my secular, or communal, or religious position, has to go. I’ll have to reformulate my secularism. If I am a Hindutva person, I will reformulate my Hindutva position. If I am a liberal person, I will reformulate my liberal position.

38. So going through a study of pre-modern thinking is an experience by itself. For those of you who come from outside India, that is one set of challenges. But I imagine that if you overcome those challenges, your access to pre-modern Indian thinking will be actually easier than our access because we are so steeped in the politics of the 19th and 20th century. And it is that 19th and 20th century politics which makes attracts us to Indian thinking but also obscures that Indian thinking from us. So it plays a dual role. It is going to be a difficult and challenging course. And it is going to be difficult and challenging for many reasons.


[11] The translation activity got underway with the patronage of Akbar who sponsored the translation of numerous Sanskrit texts (but also the Tuzuk-i-Baburi of his grandfather Babur) into Persian. The Sanskrit texts translated included, but were not limited to, Rāmāyaṇa, Atharvaveda, Līlāvatī (a mathematical treatise written by Bhāskarāchārya in the 12th century), and Rājataraṅgiṇī (written by Kalhaṇa in the 12th century). It was carried on by by Jahangir. The most important of the translations of course was that of the Mahābhārata commissioned by Akbar in 1582. The translation produced was called Razmnamah.

See Audrey Truschke, Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court, South Asia across the Disciplines (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).[^]

[12] Especially Akbar. Dhrupad is closely and famously associated with the composer and singer Tansen who one of the nine jewels (Navaratnas) at Akbar’s court. See Ritwik Sanyal and Richard Widdess, Dhrupad: Tradition and Performance in Indian Music, SOAS Musicology Series (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 45–59.[^]

[13] Jyotirmaya Sharma’s The Ocean of Mirth: Reading Hāsyārṇava-Prahasanaṁ of Jagadẽśvara Bhaṭṭāchārya, A Political Satire for All Times (London: Routledge, 2019)[^]

[14] See Sheldon Pollock, “Is There an Indian Intellectual History? Introduction to ‘Theory and Method in Indian Intellectual History,’” Journal of Indian Philosophy 36, no. 5–6 (October 2008), p. 539, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10781-008-9051-y.[^]

[15] Babur wrote a memoir called Tuzuk-i-Baburi in Turkish (later translated into Persian as Baburnamah at the instance of Akbar); Humayun built a great library; Akbar gathered a great number of scholars at the palace, started patronised translation activity which contiued under Jahangir and to an extent under Shah Jahan; Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Shah Jahan, was a great scholar himself and arranged the translation of many of the Upanṣads, etc.[^]

[16] To mention three of the most prominent: Ānandavardhana (9th century; author of Dhvanyāloka), Abhinavagupta (10th century; author of, among others, Locana [a commentary on Dhvanyāloka], Abhinavabhāratī [a commentary on the Nāṭyaśāstra], Tantrāloka), and Kalhaṇa (12th century; author of Rājataraṅgiṇī).[^]

[17] The reference is to the Thanjavur king Serfoji II Bhonsle (1777–1832). See I. Arokiaswamy et al., “The Sarasvati Mahal Library and Contribution of Rajah Serfoji II,” Gerteria Journal 33, no. 11 (2020): 47–55.[^]

[18] Three prolific translators of Buddhist texts were Kumārajīva (4th century CE), Paramārtha (6th century) and Xuanzang (7th century CE).[^]

[19] James Mill’s three-volume work titled The History of British India comprising six books, first published in 1817 and published later with more volumes, divided the history of India into three: that of the “the Hindus” (Vol 1, Book 2), “the Mahomedans” (Vol 1, Book 3), and the British (Vol 1, Book 1; Vol 2, Books 4–5; Vol 3, Book 6).[^]

[20] See Sanjay Palshikar, “Asuras Through the Ages,” in Critical Studies in Politics: Exploring Sites, Selves, Power, eds. Nivedita Menon, Aditya Nigam, Sanjay Palshikar (Noida: Orient Blackswan, 2014), 21–44.[^]

[21] Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa Jules Eggeling’s (vol. 5, p. 99) translation goes as follows:

Now, then, the praise of the study (of the scriptures). The study and teaching (of the Veda) are a source of pleasure to him, he becomes readyminded, and independent of others, and day by day he acquires wealth. He sleeps peacefully; he is the best physician for himself; and (peculiar) to him are restraint of the senses, delight in the one thing , growth of intelligence, fame, and the (task of) perfecting the people [or lit: cooking the world].[^]

[22] Ibid. (trans. Jules Eggeling, vol 5, pp. 99–100)

The grwoing intelligence gives rise to four duties attaching to the Brāhmaṇa—Brāhmaṇical descent, a befitting deportment, fame, and the perfecting of the people [lit: cooking the world].[^]

[23] The term lokapakti gives the title of Charles Malamoud’s Cooking the World: Ritual and Thought in Ancient India (1996).[^]

[24] Two references: Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 6.4.6–11; Chāndogya Upaniṣad 5.8.1–2.[^]

[25] Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 6.2.13 (trans. Patrick Olivelle, p. 149):

A fire — that’s what a woman is, Gautama. Her firewood is the vulva; her smoke is the pubic hair; her flame is the vagina; when one penetrates her, that is her embers; and her sparks are the climax. In that very fire gods offer semen, and from that offering springs a man.[^]

[26] “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” is the opening line of L. P. Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between.[^]


Arokiaswamy, I., D. Arumugam, Kumar P. Satheesh, and M. Jeganathan. 2020. “The Sarasvati Mahal Library and Contribution of Rajah Serfoji II.” Gerteria Journal 33 (11): 47–55.

Eggeling, Julius, trans. 1882–1900. The Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa: According to the Text of the Madhyāndina School. 5 vols. The Sacred Books of the East. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Malamoud, Charles. 1996. Cooking the World: Ritual and Thought in Ancient India. Translated by David White. French Studies in South Asian Culture and Society. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Mill, James. 1817. The History of British India. 3 vols. London: Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy.

Palshikar, Sanjay. 2014. “Asuras Through the Ages.” In Critical Studies in Politics: Exploring Sites, Selves, Power, edited by Nivedita Menon, Aditya Nigam, and Sanjay Palshikar. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan.

Pollock, Sheldon. 2008. “Is There an Indian Intellectual History? Introduction to ‘Theory and Method in Indian Intellectual History.’” Journal of Indian Philosophy 36 (5–6): 533–42.

Patrick Olivelle, trans., The Early Upaniṣads: Annotated Text and Translation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Sanyal, Ritwik, and Richard Widdess. 2004. Dhrupad: Tradition and Performance in Indian Music. SOAS Musicology Series. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Sharma, Jyotirmaya. 2019. The Ocean of Mirth: Reading Hāsyārṇava-Prahasanaṁ of Jagadēśvara Bhaṭṭāchārya, A Political Satire for All Times. London: Routledge.

Truschke, Audrey. 2016. Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court. South Asia across the Disciplines. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lecture 1, Part 2: The Indian Obsession With Classification by Bharati

To the reader…

This is part of a series of posts on Indian Political Thought. They are transcripts of lectures delivered recently by Bharati. Each lecture will be divided into a number of parts and published separately. Bharati has not only endorsed their publication but also checked and improved the transcripts; for which, the blog renders its gratitude. However, yours truly and their good friend are responsible for tracing, checking, and arranging the references. These references are neither authoritative nor exhaustive; treat them simply as the attempts of two cluelesss students at helping themselves and other clueless students understand the lectures just a little better. Often they are pointers to material that might interest the slightly more advanced reader. Sometimes are pieces of trivia that might interest some readers.

Some things before you proceed:

  1. Sanskrit (and other non-English) terms are transliterated following the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (IAST) standard. Though it not strictly necessary or even recommended, I try to transliterate most terms. Familiarity with Devanagri sounds is recommended.
  2. Please use the footnote markers ([1], [2], etc.) to jump to footnotes and back to the text.


The Indian Obsession With Classification

11. Everything in Indian thinking seems to be context-bound, by which I mean that you cannot ask whether a particular season, colour, food item, part of your body, person, dress, etc., is good or bad and hope to have a clear universal answer.[6] Is this person someone I can eat with? What is his status? What are his duties? In the Indian scheme, I cannot get a clear answer unless I place him or her within a general classification of varnas. The same goes for seasons, colours, directions, and so on. Colours are subject to a cultural evaluation but why is that evaluation context-bound? You know probably that which particular colour pleases which particular deity is already fixed. I mean if you didn’t know that and if you were to offer a white flower to a particular deity to whom a red flower is supposed to be offered, then some elderly person in your family will correct you and say that that is not the flower that you offer to Lord Ganesha (or Lord Vishnu or whoever). Now this rule is not a random thing but part of a very large scheme. And I somehow want you to read Ramanujan and then go into this other thing about classification that I am trying to introduce now.

12. The point is that ancient Indians were incorrigible classifiers. By ancient Indians, I mean of course the elites within ancient India and when elites do something, or say something, it becomes dominant within a society. And therefore in an indirect sense, it becomes a scheme of classification of the whole society, something which the whole society subscribes to even if it is working to their disadvantage. Everyone knows about the classification of society into what is called varṇa and caste, its hierarchical nature, and the challenges to that scheme, especially in the modern period. But very few people realise that this classification applies not just to human beings but to everything from sounds and colours and seasons to directions and even to metres.[7] There are certain metres in which traditionally poetry was composed. In the general scheme of classification, unique to early Indian culture, you get a classification of meters also and a hierarchy within them.

13. So, you have (a) a classification of all things (and not just caste or varṇa), which are (b) placed in a hierarchical order, and (c) these various hierarchies are related to each other by a certain relationship of correspondence or connection. What I mean is this. Let’s take the three classes or Varnas. (Although the word varṇa literally means “colour”, it is better translated as class. Because the moment you translate it as colour, it immediately implies that people belonging to different varṇa have different complexions and that is because they are racially different and that the story of the coming into existence of the varṇa society have got to do with the fair-complexioned people (outsiders who came from the North-West) having subjugated and perhaps enslaved, in some cases, the dark-complexioned people (from the South?). This entire story of the origin of the varna system is somewhat suspect, and controversial. We don’t want to commit ourselves without any enquiry to this explanation of how the varna system historically came into being. Therefore, to avoid any such precommitment, I am using the word varṇa in the sense of class or category rather than colour or complexion.

14. So everyone in the society was supposed to be classified into one of the three varnas. What about the fourth category or class which we are familiar with from anti-Brahmin or non-Brahmin politics? It does get mentioned in the old texts, but the funny thing about the very old texts is that they are fixated with the number three.[8] And it is only gradually that the number three becomes number four. Originally they used to classify everything into three and therefore the classification of the earliest variety was Brahmin,[9] Kṣatriya, Vaiśya. And some of the descriptions of the Shudras that we see later were originally part of the description of the Vaiśyas who were considered in the tripartite classification as the commoners, the common people. And their putative status and function underwent a change as the Indian society made a transition from a lineage society.

15. Remember we are talking about how things were supposed to be, and not necessarily how things actually were; we are not studying history in the sense of social history, we are studying the history of ideas, and therefore we are looking at the classificatory scheme of society as it was supposed to be. This is true of the earliest classificatory scheme of three varnas. Similarly with the aims of human life. Everyone knows about the aims and stages of human life. Everyone knows about artha, kāma, dharma. What about mokṣa? Again the interesting thing is that mokṣa gets added only later. Some of the earliest texts mention only three aims of life. That is why I am saying that the Indian texts start with tripartite division of everything in it. While for us, for our contemporary social and political purposes, the classification of human beings and their hierarchical ordering is indeed irrelevant, it is important to remember that it was originally part of a huge classificatory scheme which tried to be as comprehensive as possible so that everything in this world could be classified under that scheme, making the classification of human beings seem natural.

16. This classification was hierarchical. The division of society into Brahmins, Kṣatriyas, and Vaiśyas was not a horizontal division but a vertical division. You classify not only human beings but everything; and you not only classify everything but do so hierarchically. Up to this point, there is nothing very new. What might be new to you is the relationship of correspondence between a class of human beings and all those other things that we would not normally connect them with. Let me explain. What is the essential quality that Brahmin as a social class is supposed to represent? That is supposed to be brahman, (just as the Kṣatriyas are supposed to represent kṣatra). From this onwards, all the following are placed in the same category: Brahmin; splendour; agni; earth; morning (among the parts of the day); speech (among the faculties of human beings); Ṛgveda (among the Vedic texts); gāyatrī (among the various metres): all these come under the category of brahman. Which means, and this is an idea difficult to grasp because we think so differently from the way ancient Indians used to think, that there is some sort of a connection, a correspondence, between Brahmin, speech, Ṛgveda, morning, and the gāyatrī metre. There is a correspondence or homology between them. Similarly with Kṣatriya. You have a correspondence between Kṣatriya as a class and the idea of greatness (while for Brahmins it was splendour); a deity called Indra; the natural element, wind; the part of the day called midday; the bodily function called breath; the Vedic text called Yajurveda; and a particular metre called triṣṭubha. (S o we can say that the gāyatrī metre is a Brahmin metre whereas triṣṭubha is a Kṣatriya metre! (See Note [7])

17. You can think of this in terms of three columns each headed by a varṇa: Brahmins, Kṣatriyas, and Vaiśyas. Below or within each column, you list all those things like the meter, bodily functions, parts of the day, seasons, deities, and the Vedas to which they correspond. Within each column there is a correspondence between elements and across columns there is a hierarchy. This can be expressed by saying that gāyatrī has the quality of the Brahmin; that morning has the quality of the Brahmin, while midday has the quality of the Kṣatriya; that splendour is typical of and unique to Brahmins just as greatness is typical of and unique to Kṣatriyas, just as fame is typical of and is unique to Vaiśyas. So this whole business of connection or correspondence gives you a huge scheme of classification. Though it can be put in the form of a table, the ancient texts don’t present it as a table. It comes as part of several verses from which a modern scholar has constructed a table. And depending on which particular texts one is looking at, or even which particular part of the text one is looking at, you will get a more or less elaborate table. If someone were to go through the entire corpus of ancient texts, then he or she will be able to prepare a huge table fragments of which can be traced back to the old texts.

18. If you look at the columns [see below] laterally — Brahmin, Kṣatriya, Vaiśya — there is a hierarchy, while within each column, there is a homology. When we say correspondence, it is rough equivalence between elements. What are these elements? Practically anything in the world, as you can see from the examples that I gave earlier. Yet another way of expressing this is to say that the ancients seem to have taken bodily functions and classified them as typical of Brahmin, Kṣatriya, and Vaiśya. They seem to have taken metres of poetry and similarly classified them according to social classes. Same with parts of the day. And so on. In the end, you have a scheme of classification where you have not only a hierarchical relationship across columns, but within each column, corresponding to each class, you have a whole list of heterogenous elements all of which are supposed to have some correspondence with each other.

19. And that is why a Brahmin who is trying to pursue fame was to be looked down upon, according to this theory. Because fame is typical of and unique to Vaiśyas. There is a correspondence between Vaiśyas and fame. Or there is a correspondence between Kṣatriyas and greatness. A Kṣatriya who shuns war and glory is not a true Kṣatriya. And so on. From this classification emerges the rule — and remember, this is just an example of context-bound rules — that a Brahmin should pursue splendour; that a Kṣatriya should pursue greatness; that a Vaiśya should pursue fame. And hence any one of these trying to pursue anything which does not correspond to their class is supposed to be doing something that is wrong, something prohibited by the law books. Law books of course come later. The classification comes first. But the law books are in fact an elaboration and codification of this classification.

20. I hope that you are at least vaguely beginning to see the connection between what Ramanujan calls context-bound and what this scheme of classification is saying. This kind of research does not seem to have been available to Ramanujan when he wrote the essay. But you can see that he had intuitively grasped something central to the early Indian thinking. The reason why all the ancient Indian rules are context specific is because the law books emerge out of or are based on a huge classificatory scheme which goes back to those texts which come immediately after the Vedic texts. And on the basis of this classificatory scheme, the law books codify various rules that society must follow.

Brian Smith, Classifying the Universe, p. 67.


[6] Consider Max Weber’s remarks in the famous “Politics as a Vocation” lecture (Max Weber, The Vocation Lectures, trans. Rodney Livingstone [Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004], pp. 87–88):

Hinduism [] elaborate[d] the dharma of each individual caste in accordance with the intrinsic laws governing each profession, from the ascetics and the Brahmans down to the villains and whores. … This specialized approach to ethics made it possible for Indian philosophy to develop an internally consistent treatment of the royal art of politics, focusing entirely on its own particular laws and indeed intensifying them radically. A genuinely radical “Machiavellianism,” in the popular sense of the word, received its classic formulation in Indian literature as early as Kautilya’s Arthashastra (long before the Christian era, allegedly from the time of Chandragupta). Machiavelli’s The Prince is harmless in comparison.[^]

[7] Consider the gāyatrī , which is the shortest and most sacred chanda or meter, and comprises 3 feet of 8 syllables each. An example of a verse that uses the gāyatrī metre is, of course, the famous gāyatrī mantra (named after the meter!) of the Ṛgveda 3.62.10 (trans. Jamison and Brereton, vol 1, p. 554).

bhargo devasya dhīmahi
dhiyo yo naḥ pracodayāt

Might we make our own
that desirable effulgence of god Savitar,
who will rouse forth our insights.

Another metre called the triṣṭubha, the most prevalent in the gveda, comprises of four feet of 11 syllables each. An example from gveda 6.17.1. (trans. Jamison and Brereton, vol 2, p. 795).

pibā somamabhi yamugra tarda
ūrvaṃ gavyaṃ mahi gṛṇāna indra
vi yo dhṛṣṇo vadhiṣo vajrahasta
viśvā vṛtramamitriyā śavobhiḥ

Drink the soma! The cattle enclosure that
you will drill through to, mighty Indra,
when you are greatly sung— you bold mace-bearer,
who will hew apart Vrtra with your powers—

(See below for references to these two meters. The are many varieties of each. For an easy introduction, see Madhavi R. Narsalay, Chandas as Vedanga, Ancient Indian Culture Series [Tirupati: Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams, 2019]).[^]

[8] To give three examples: the triple or TrayīṚg, Sāma, Yajur (Arthaśāstra, 1.3.1); the three sources of dharma — vedas, tradition, practice (Gautama Dharmasūtra 1.2.1–2); the three aims of human life or trivarga — dharma, artha, kama (Kamasūtra 1.1.5).[^]

[9] Brahmin is the Anglicised form of brāhmaṇa. It is one of the few words that I will not transliterate.[^]


Jamison, Stephanie W., and Joel P. Brereton, trans. 2014. The Rigveda: The Earliest Religious Poetry of India. 3 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Narsalay, Madhavi R. 2019. Chandas as Vedanga. Ancient Indian Culture Series. Tirupati: Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams.

Olivelle, Patrick, trans. 2000. Dharmasūtras: The Law Codes of Āpastamba, Gautama, Baudhāyana, and Vasiṣṭha. Sources on Ancient Hindu Law. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Smith, Brian K. 1994. Classifying the Universe: The Ancient Indian Varna System and the Origins of Caste. New York: Oxford University Press.

Weber, Max. 2004. The Vocation Lectures. Edited and with an Introduction by David Owen and Tracy B. Strong. Translated by Rodney Livingstone. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Lecture 1, Part 1: Indian Way of Thinking? by Bharati

To the reader…

This is the first of a series of posts that will be published weekly over the course of the following few months. They are transcripts of lectures on Indian Political Thought delivered recently by Bharati. Each lecture will be divided into a number of parts and published separately. Bharati has not only endorsed their publication but also checked and improved the transcripts; for which, the blog renders its gratitude. However, yours truly and their good friend are responsible for tracing, checking, and arranging the references. These references are neither authoritative nor exhaustive; treat them simply as the attempts of two cluelesss students at helping themselves and other clueless students understand the lectures just a little better.

Some things before you proceed:

  1. Sanskrit (and other non-English) terms are transliterated following the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (IAST) standard. I try to transliterate most terms.
  2. Please use the footnote markers ([1], [2], etc.) to jump to footnotes and back to the text.
  3. It is highly recommended that you read A. K. Ramanujan’s 1989 essay “Is There an Indian Way of Thinking? An Informal Essay” [Google Drive Link] before reading this particular part.

Indian Way of Thinking?

1. I want to talk to you about A. K. Ramnujan’s essay titled “Is there an Indian way of thinking?”[1] The essay is remarkable. Do read it if you haven’t. It is not very long, and it is free of jargon. It is in fact written in a fairly conversational style. It is not your typical journal article. It is engaging and entertaining. (AKR calls it “an informal essay”!) Basically, it is centered around one question which can be asked in four different ways, and when you ask the same question in four different ways, it actually becomes four different questions, and for each question, Ramanujan suggests various answers which can be broadly classified into two opposite possibilities for each question. So you have one question asked in four different ways yielding eight different answers and that more or less covers the entire span of the article.

2. The idea that the same question can be asked in four different ways is itself something. But what makes the essay more interesting is that there are autobiographical elements in it. Right in the second section of the article, the author goes into an autobiographical recollection about his father. This reminiscence doesn’t appear there merely for the sake of making the article entertaining. It has got some relevance within the scheme of the article. Then there are poems in it. How often do you see poetry in a sociological journal? One of the poems is written by Ramanujan himself. I don’t know whether he wrote it initially in English or in some other language and then translated into English, but there is this poem which is supposedly about his father. And there are also other poems which he has translated from (mostly) Tamil. That’s another interesting thing about the article: it uses both Tamil and Sanskrit sources. A lot of scholars have familiarity with Sanskrit, but the south Indian world remains completely inaccessible to them. In fact a well-known scholar who has written a very fine book on the concept of evil in Indian mythology says in her book that her analysis applies only to the North but not the South because the South Indian mythology is very different.[2] Ramanujan uses both Tamil and Sanskrit sources, that is, from two of the most ancient languages in the subcontinent.

3. The article has citations from high texts. By high texts, I mean the supposedly central Brahmanical texts like Manusmṛti. And it also has references to Kannada folk tales. In fact, AKR says that he has made a collection of Kannada stories (he is making a point about whether the concept of karma is there in those stories or not). That’s again something very interesting. This shows the versatility of the scholar. There are scholars who are very good but they tend to be limited. Someone may be very good in Sanskrit texts like Manusmṛti or Arthaśāstra or what have you, but he/she may not know much about actual folk tales or stories which are circulating among the so-called ordinary people. Here is someone who is trying to draw on both kind of sources, and that makes his account more interesting. Another feature of the article is its gentle wit. For example the author mentions Bernard Shaw’s take on the golden rule, the rule that asks you to do to others what you would have others do to you.[3]

4. Someone pointed out to me the other day that Indian thinking doesn’t simply mean Manusmṛti and that we have Buddhist thinking also. Sure enough, and there are references to Buddhist thinking in this article. For example there is this statement attributed to the Buddha that when someone is struck by an arrow, don’t ask what the caste or varṇa of the person struck by the arrow is.[4] Because the point is to remove the arrow and to reduce or mitigate the suffering of the person hit by the arrow. If someone is suffering, what you must do is reduce and mitigate that suffering without worrying about who that person is, whether man or woman, young or old, upper caste or lower caste. This is, to use Ramanujan’s vocabulary, a context-free rule. It’s a general principle or rule guiding my conduct. (Incidentally, we should make a distinction between a rule and a principle and not use the two terms synonymously.) The rule that whenever I come across a person who is suffering, I ought to help him/her reduce his/her suffering regardless who the person is, is a context-free rule, distinct from a context-bound rule. I am not using Ramanujan’s term context-sensitive. When we say that someone is very sensitive to others’ problems, we are actually saying something good or approving about that person. But here, in Ramanujan’s use, nothing positive (or negative) is intended. To avoid misunderstanding, let’s use the neutral expression, ‘context-bound’ or ‘context-specific’. So there are context-free rules and context-bound rules. If a Kṣatriya is guilty of defaming a Brahmin, then this is the punishment that the Kṣatriya will be given. This is a context-bound rule. Why is it context-bound? Because it is specific about who has done what and to whom.

5. Suppose there is a person who is guilty of defamation. Who is the offender? Let’s say he is a Kṣatriya. Whom has he defamed? If he has defamed a Brahmin, then the punishment will be higher. If he has defamed a Śūdra, there will be a lesser punishment.[5] If this is the rule that you actually find in one of the law books of ancient India, then it is a context-bound rule. Which means that you are taking into account the status of the persons involved before deciding the case. Modern law also looks into the circumstances of the case. For example, if someone is guilty of murder and if that murder is a “crime of passion”, meaning that the person killed the other person out of rage or because he was labouring under some misunderstanding, then the guilt is supposed to be lesser than if he were to do it in a cold-blooded way having plotted the murder for some personal gain. So even the modern law attends to specificities of a case but that is very different from what the ancient Indian law books do. And that is why we say, it’s a context-bound rule. Ramanujan’s article gives you examples from Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and other sources. In fact it goes into Western sources as well. There is a poem by T. S. Eliot (The Wasteland) which is reproduced there. And that’s another interesting thing about the article.

6. Let’s go back to the autobiographical reference. That in a way is a theme which runs through all the sections. Though in Section V Ramanujan says that the essay is concerned with context-bound and context-free schemes of morality, it is more than that. If you look at the autobiographical reminiscences in it, they have a certain function, which is, to distinguish between (and set up an opposition between) the traditional and the modern, Western and Indian, and scientific and extra-scientific. Remember that Ramanujan’s father was not only a mathematician but he was also an astrologer. Astrology is supposed to be something unscientific. If you still believe in it, you might perhaps call it extra-scientific but it is not something scientific in the modern sense. So there is this person who embodies within himself both something which is Western and something which is Indian, something which is modern and something which is traditional, something which is scientific and something which is not scientific. And it is because his father embodied these oppositions within the same person, the same body, and the same life, that Ramanujan is recalling him.

7. This is a remarkable way of introducing certain large questions or dilemmas. Mind you this is not about one Ramanujan and his father. In a way, this is a dilemma which is shared by many of Ramanujan’s contemporaries and by Indians even today. We have been struggling all the time to reconcile the traditional with the modern, Western with Indian. We have been struggling to reconcile science with faith which sometimes come together in an extremely complicated and surprising way. Some of the controversies which have become political in Indian politics in the last two or three decades are marked by the complex interaction of questions of science and questions of faith. 20th and 21st century Indians are not very different from Ramanujan’s father. You have examples of people who are computer operators but on one particular day during the year, what is called ayudhapuja — the day before Vijayadashami — they actually perform puja of the computer. How do you understand this? It is a computer, a machine, which is going to work regardless of whether or not you perform that ritual. The world over, not everyone who uses computers observes that ritual, and yet computers work everywhere. But here is the faith of a person who is otherwise a technician — he may even a scientist who uses the computer for his theoretical calculations — who sets all that aside and performs puja, a kind of ritualistic prayer and offering. Because the computer is his weapon in a way! (It’s not as strange as I am making it sound. Afterall, artisans in parts of India did traditionally worship their implements on this day!) One of the ideas behind ayudhapuja was that arms that were used in war were to be ritualistically offered something on a particular day of the year. (The idea of sacrifice to propitiate a god or a goddess is also a part of some folktales and it is practised in parts of south India.) Some episodes from the Mahābhārata connect us to that practice. But here is a modern Indian who is observing the ritual with respect to something which is not an ayudha, or a weapon of war — well, maybe one day it will become a weapon of war; in some ways, it has already – between Russia and the US. But for our technician, it is not a weapon of war. He is a technician, he may be a scientist, but on that particular day he will still follow a custom which is in tension with his modern role.

8. Have you noticed how our dress is a combination of Western and Indian elements? In fact, some of the Indian elements of our dress have themselves been undergoing a change. You can have a person who is wearing jeans and wearing a kurta which, with some modifications, can be said to be an Indian dress. Or you can wear a shirt and on it you can have a so-called indigenous jacket, except that wearing a sleeveless jacket has now become a very political thing! Ramanujan’s father in a way represents dilemmas — well, his father himself didn’t seem to think they were dilemmas, he seemed to be at peace with the presence of opposite elements within him. When we start puzzling over why these opposite elements are there and how to justify their simultaneous presence, then those opposite elements become dilemmas. Do I take this or that? Do I sacrifice this or that?

9. Later in the article, Ramanujan makes a rather bold (but promising) claim that in some cultures, like the Indian culture, context-specific way of thinking predominates, while in other cultures, like the modern western culture, the context-free way of thinking is dominant. What lifts this claim to a very interesting hypothesis is the reversal that AKR points to: the Indian borrowings from the modern west have been of context-free ideas and practices, (universal adult franchise?) whereas it is the context-specific ways of ‘traditional’ India, which have found their way into various sub-cultures in the contemporary west. My impression is that this is true of not only the western transactions with India, but with other non-western societies too. If Yoga from India has travelled to India (preceded by spiritual gurus!), so has the tea ceremony from Japan!

10. “Is There an Indian Way of Thinking?” is a remarkable article because it covers a wide span in such an easy and playful manner. But I hope you are not misled by its apparent light heartedness. I wonder how I would have reacted to the article had I read it at your age. I didn’t know about that article then. I read the article much later and loved it. But I would like to believe that if I were given this article as the first reading for a course on Indian Political Thought, I would have been thrilled because it is such a lovely article. So I urge you to read the article if you haven’t done that already. Weekend is a nice time to catch up on a lot of things, like laundry, but also on reading! Make some room for Ramanujan on Saturday or Sunday. Do it soon because I will try to connect some of Ramanujan’s arguments with a few things I am going to say in my next discussion.


[1] Contributions to Indian Sociology 23, no. 1 (1989): 41–58.[^]

[2] Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1976), p. 12.

South Indian Tamil texts are a world unto themselves, encompassing theological tracts and local myths that treat the problem of evil in a manner directly at variance with the attitudes prevailing in the texts on which my work is based, Sanskrit texts predominantly from the North Indian tradition. I have included a few Tamil myths when they were so apt that I could not resist them; but one could write another long book on the Hindu mythology of evil, using only the Tamil texts that I have not consulted. I am deeply indebted to David Shulman for discovering and translating the Tamil myths that I have cited; until he writes that other book let the reader be warned: not in the South.[^]

[3] George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman: A Comedy and a Philosophy (Westminster: Archibald Constable, 1903), p. 227.

Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same. 

The golden rule is laid down in the New Testament: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12, NRSV, p. 1394)[^]

[4] Majjhima Nikāya, 63 (trans. I. B. Horner, vol 2., p. 99). (This is the second nikāya of five that comprise the Sutta Piṭaka, which in turn is the first of three piṭaka (“basket”) that comrpise the Pali canon of Buddhism.)

In this story, Māluṅkyāputta comes to the Buddha [Lord, Tathāgata] seeking answers to “those (speculative) views that are not explained, set aside, ignored by the Lord: The world is eternal… or that the Tathāgata neither is nor is not after dying…”. The Buddha replies:

Whoever, Māluṅkyāputta, should speak thus: “I will not fare the Brahma-faring under the Lord until the Lord explains to me whether the world is eternal or whether the world is not eternal… or whether the Tathāgata neither is nor is not after dying” — this man might pass away, Māluṅkyāputta, or ever this was explained to him by the Tathāgata. Māluṅkyāputta, it is as if a man were pierced by an arrow that was thickly smeared with poison and his friends and relations, his kith and kin, were to procure a physician and surgeon. He might speak thus: ‘I will not draw out this arrow until I know of the man who pierced me whether he is a noble or brahman or merchant or worker.’ He might speak thus: ‘ I will not draw out this arrow until I know the name and clan of the man who pierced me.’ He might speak thus: ‘ I will not draw out this arrow until I know of the man who pierced me whether he is tall or short or middling in height.’ …[^]

[5] Consider the Manusmṛti [Mānava-Dharmaśastra] 8.267–269 (trans. Patrick Olivelle, pp. 181–82):

For assailing a Brahmin, a Kṣatriya ought to be fined 100, and a Vaiśya 150 or 200; but a Śūdra ought to suffer corporal punishment. A Brahmin should be fined 50 for abusing a Kṣatriya, 25 for abusing a Vaiśya, and 12 for abusing a Śūdra. For a violation by a twice-born against a person of the same social class, the fine is 12; the fine is doubled when extremely foul language is used.[^]


Coogan, Michael D., Marc Zvi Brettler, Carol A Newsom, and Pheme Perkins, eds. 2018. The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 5th ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Horner, I. B., trans. 1957. The Collection of the Middle Length Sayings (Majjhima-Nikaya). Vol. 2. 3 vols. Pali Text Society: Translation Series. Lancaster: Pali Text Society.

Manu. 2005. Manu’s Code of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the Mānava-Dharmaśastra. Translated by Patrick Olivelle with the editorial assistance of Suman Olivelle. South Asia Research. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. 1976. The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Ramanujan, A. K. 1989. “Is There an Indian Way of Thinking? An Informal Essay.” Contributions to Indian Sociology 23 (1): 41–58.

Shaw, George Bernard. 1927. Man and Superman: A Comedy and a Philosophy. Westminster: Archibald Constable.

Svaraj In Ideas by Krishnachandra Bhattacharyya — A Summary

Lecture presented in 1928–30. First published in Visva Bharati Journal 20 (1954): 103–114.

My Reference:
Krishnachandra Bhattacharyya, “Svaraj in Ideas,” in Indian Philosophy in English: From Renaissance to Independence, ed. Nalini Bhushan and Jay L. Garfield (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 101–111.
[Google Drive Link]

I must warn the reader that, unlike other summaries, I have taken considerable liberty in rephrasing this text.

(1) We speak today of Svaraj in politics. For our subjection is felt most tangibly in the political sphere. I wish, however, to speak of Svaraj in ideas in order to impress the point that we need to break out of our cultural subjection. By cultural subjection, I mean the supersession of our traditional ideas and sentiments without comparison or competition by an alien culture.

(2) How far have we assimilated our western education? How far has it become an obsession? Perhaps there is some assimilation. But has this assimilation happened after a full and open-eyed struggle between it and our indigenous culture? It appears not. For we generally receive the alien culture first and then peer at our own as a matter of curiosity.

(3) It is a truism that this alien culture has been imposed on us. But we have not been unwilling recipients. The problem I see is that we have not assimilated it in an open-eyed way. The Indian mind has simply lapsed. It still operates in the humdrum of daily existence of course. But it does not exert itself in the cultural sphere.

(4) There is no vital assimilation. There is assimilation no doubt, as I have just said. But that assimilation happens the form of a mere absorption that induces certain habits of soulless thinking. The century old contact with the vivifying ideas of the west, springing as they do from its rich and strong life, have led to any vigorous Indian contribution in a distinctive Indian style to the thought and culture of the world.

The imagery of “life” is significant in the lecture, but especially in this passage. Bhattacharyya talks about vital (from Latin vita, meaning “life” [he doesn’t mean “important”!]) assimilation; the vivifying (from the Latin vivere, “to live”) ideas of the west; the rich and strong life of the west; and the lack of vigorous (from Latin vigeo [via vigor] meaning “to be lively or energetic”) Indian contribution.

(5) Forget about great contributions to the culture and thought of the world, even in mundane activities of daily life, we either accept or repeat the judgment passed on us by western culture. Sometimes, we resent them but have hardly any estimates of our own that are derived from an inward perception of the realities of our position.

(6) In politics, we are only realising now that the principles we counted upon are applicable to countries that are already free. In the case of social reform, we have failed to examine if the social principles of the west are applicable universally. We are either unthinkingly conservative or airily progressive.

(7) And in the field of learning, no Indian has given a distinctively Indian estimate of western literature and thought.

(8) Of course, I am not saying that judgements or estimates have not been made. Just that they are not Indian. Indeed such judgments do not differ much from that of an English critic, and one suspects if such judgments are authentic, or if they are merely the mechanical thinking of the galvanic mind induced in us through our western education.

Note the low estimation of the “mechanical” thinking, which would stand opposed to vigorous, lively, and vital thinking. Also, galvanism refers to the production of electric current by a chemical reaction, a term invented by Alessandro Volta. By galvanic minds, Bhattacharyya means a mind that is induced (or shocked or excited [note the connection with electricity]) into action.

(9) In philosophy, no educated Indian has written anything that displays a synthesis of western and Indian thought; no judgment on western philosophy from the standpoint of Indian philosophy. This is unfortunate because one would think that the most the most prominent contribution ancient India to the culture of the world.

It is in philosophy, if anywhere, that the task of discovering the soul of India is imperative for the modern India; the task of achieving, if possible, the continuity of his old self with his present day self, of realising what is nowadays called the Mission of India, if it has any. Genius can unveil the soul of India in art but it is through philosophy that we can methodically attempt to discover it.

(10) Our education has not helped us understand ourselves, the significance of our past, the realities of our present and the mission for our future. It has instead driven our real mind into the unconscious and replaced it with a shadowy and rootless mind. Neither has fully worked: the real mind hasn’t been fully vanquished, and its substitute is not effective. Thus there is a confusion between the two minds creating a hopeless Babel in the world of ideas. “Our thought is hybrid through and through and inevitably sterile.”

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east,a they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. … Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused [Hebrew balal, meaning “to confuse”] the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Genesis 11:1–9 (NRSV)

(11) Consider the strange medley of vernacular and English in which we speak. We find it very difficult to express cultural ideas in our own language. “If I were asked; for example, to conduct today’s discourse here in Bengali, I would have to make a particularly strenuous effort.” Surmounting this barrier of language would be the first step in acquiring Svaraj in ideas.

(12) This hybridisation is distressing. It is unnatural and may be regarded with the same sentiment with which on old world-Hindu looks upon varṇasaṃkara (वर्णसंकर). For while thought may be universal, ideas are not. Rather, they are carved out of thought differently by different cultures according to their genius. So that “no idea of one cultural language can exactly be translated in another cultural language.”

Varṇa-saṃkara literally means mixing or, in this case, confusion (saṃkara) of castes (varṇa is usually translated as “caste”, but literally means “colour”). For example, the Bhagavad Gita (1.41, trans. Franklin Edgerton) says:

अधर्माभिभवात् कृष्ण
प्रदुष्यन्ति कुलस्त्रियः |
स्त्रीषु दुष्टासु वार्ष्णेय
जायते वर्ण-संकरः |

adharmābhibhavāt kṛṣṇa
praduṣyanti kulastriyaḥ
strīṣu duṣṭāsu vārṣṇeya
jāyate varṇa-saṃkaraḥ

Because of the prevalence of lawlessness, Kṛṣṇa,
The women of the family are corrupted;
When the women are corrupted, O Vṛṣṇi-clansman,
Mixture of caste ensues.

(13) “A patchwork of ideas of different cultures off ends against scholarly sense just as much as patchwork of ideals off ends against the spiritual sense.” There is always room for adaptation and synthesis. But we must be clear about how to do so. In life, we may accept facts and adapt our secular life and secular ideas to the times. But we cannot compromise our ideals in our spiritual life. Here, we might, if possible, adapt the times to our life.

(14) But the world confronts us with aggressive ideals too. How may we respond to them? Shall we respect them without accepting them? Do we attempt a synthesis without compromise? Or should we simply accept them? Different responses might be given. What will not do is a patchwork without adjustment accepted complacently. What can work is acceptance along with a synthesis.

(15) We often talk of the conflict between ideas and ideals of the west and those that are our own. But often, there is only confusion and no conflict. The point is to make that conflict clear and definite. The realisation of such conflict and the commitment to one’s ideals in the face of such conflict will lead to a deepening of the soul.

(16) We also, indeed I already have, talk readily of the need for synthesis. But “it is not necessary in every case that a synthesis should be attempted. The ideals of a community spring from its past history and from the soil: they have not necessarily a universal application, and they are not always self-luminous to other communities.” And whenever synthesis is demanded, the foreign ideal is to be assimilated to our ideal and not the other way. There is no demand for the surrender of our individuality in any case: Perform your own duty, not that of another.

There is a reference to the Bhagavad Gita (3.35, trans. Franklin Edgerton).

स्व-धर्मे निधनं श्रेयः
पर-धर्मो भयावहः|

sva-dharme nidhanaṃ śreyaḥ
para-dharmo bhayāvahaḥ

Better death in (doing) one’s duty;
Another’s duty brings danger.

(17) Some find this insistence on individuality dangerous; they think it to be the expression of “national, communal, or racial conceit and the excuse for a perverse obscurantism.” Instead of these, they believe in “abstract self-luminous ideals for all humanity, in a single universal religion and a single universal reason.”

(18) I grant that there is a case for universalism, that the progress of humanity implies a gradual simplification and unification of ideals. But this the rationalising and universalising movement, the emergence of a common reason. But there are two forms of rationalism. In one, reason follows the travail of the spirit: here reason is put in the service of spirit, it is the efflux of reverence for traditional institutions, and through it “customary sentiments are deepened into transparent ideals”. In the other, reason works impenitently to mechanically separate the essential from the inessential. Among the inessential are such things as customs and institutions which are bound up with age-old sentiments: these are discarded. The right kind of rationalism is the first; it is that in which there is space for humility and patience, indeed for reverence, in the adjustment of the world of ideas.

(19) We need not reject an ideal from a foreign country simply because it is foreign even if it is felt to be a simpler and deeper expression of our own ideas. The acceptance of such an ideal is really no surrender of individuality; it is our own. “The guru or teacher has to be accepted when he is found to be a real guru, whatever the community from which he comes.” What must be remembered is that not every foreign ideal will be of such a kind.

(20) Those who advocate universalism will do well to keep in mind that the universalism of reason is a work in progress, not an established fact or code. Indeed, the only thing that is universal is the commitment to one’s own spirit and our own ideals. “The only way to appraise a new ideal is to view it through our actual ideal; the only way to find a new reverence is to deepen our old reverence.”

(21) I will say only so much against universalism. The reason why I spent this much time time on universalism is because a half-baked universalism is the inevitable result of our ‘rootless’ education. It, more than anything else, stands in the way of Svaraj in ideas.

(22) There is another danger: the unthinking glorification of everything in our culture and depreciation of everything in other cultures. In our time, this seems to require less stressing because we seem to suffer more from over-diffidence than over-confidence. The old habit of regarding everything we are taught as sacred, even if they are merely the opinion of others, refuses to leave us.

(23) A good deal of learning imparted to us is of a tendentious kind. In it our own culture and history is appraised from a foreign standard. Our attitude to such standards should be that of critical reserve. Even though a critical attitude is abhorred by our foreign teachers and by many of us as uncultured and ignorant, and likened to the absurdity of refusing to recognise the truths of geometry.

(24) The question of imposition does not arise in mathematics or the natural sciences, for these have no nationality and imply no valuation. “A valuation of our culture by a foreigner from the standpoint of his own culture should be regarded by us as meant not for our immediate acceptance but for our critical examination.” If we accept such valuation docilely, we become slaves.

(25) This is because all concepts and ideas, barring perhaps those of science, have the distinctive character of the culture from which they emerge. “They have to be accepted, but [as] metaphors and symbols to be translated into our own indigenous concepts. The ideas embodied in a foreign language are properly understood only when we can express them in our own way. I plead for a genuine translation of foreign ideas into our native ideas before we accept or reject them.”

(26) “In the sphere of ideas, there is hardly yet any realization that we can think effectively only when we think in terms of the indigenous ideas that pulsate in the life and mind of the masses. We condemn the caste system of our country, but we ignore the fact that we who have received Western education constitute a caste more exclusive and intolerant than any of the traditional castes. Let us resolutely break down the barriers of this new caste, let us come back to the cultural stratum of the real Indian people and evolve a culture along with them suited to the times and to our native genius. That would be to achieve Svaraj in Ideas.”

Politics as a Vocation by Max Weber — A Summary

Originally a lecture presented in 28 Januray 1919.

Max Weber, The Vocation Lectures, edited with an introduction and notes by David S. Owen and Tracy B. Strong, translated by Rodney Livingstone (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004). [This edition also has the lecture “Science as a Vocation” along with a valuable Introcution and critical apparatus.]

There are many elements to this essay. One, it is an intervention by an important figure — perhaps the most well known intellectual of the time — at an important moment in German history: Germany had just been defeated in World War I. Two, it has what might be called an ethical dimension: what kind of person must one be in order to take up politics as a vocation? Three, there are issues that are of historical interest elements of which Weber draws from the distant and recent history and from Asia to (of course) Europe to America. Four, there are a number of conceptual elements. There are others besides. Anyway, as I have often done, it is the conceptual elements that I am mainly interested in. For the ethical part, I have merely provided extracts (see the last section).

The divisions are mine. The commentary is relevant but not crucial to understanding the summary. It may be read at leisure. Two pieces of trivia: the famous definition of the state and the equally famous remark that Machiavelli’s The Prince is “harmless” when compared to Kautilya’s Arthaśāstra appear in this lecture.


What is politics?

“The concept is extremely broad and includes every kind of independent leadership activity.” Such leadership can be found in the the central bank, a trade union, a municipal corporation, in the family. But I wish to talk about the leadership of a political organisation; more specifically, a state.

But what is a state? The state cannot be defined in terms of its activities. This is because there is not only no task that has not been undertaken by some state but also because there is no task that is exclusively undertaken by the state. The state can only be defined on the basis of the specific means peculiar to it: the use of violence.

The logic is simple here. If there were certain number of activities — this could very well be a large number so long as it is limited — that all states undertook to fulfil, then we could be able to define state as that organisation which does those things. Better, if there were certain things that only the state did, we could say that the state is that organisation, the only one in fact, which does them. But this is not the case, Weber says. The state takes upon itself an imponderable number of activities which are not exactly unique to it — i.e. which can be and are often taken up by other organisations. Therefore the uniqueness of the state cannot be defined on the basis of its activities.

But what is peculiar and unique to the state, Weber claims, is the legitimate use of physical violence. And hence, his definition of the state hinges on this claim. The qualifications are important. Other organisations might, and do use, violence. But not legitimately. Also, the state might indulge in non-physical violence (such as structural violence to take just one example among many which were articulated after Weber’s death). But so does other organisations: notably, the society and the family in the case of structural violence.

‘Nowadays … we must say that the state is the form of human community that (successfully) lays claim to the monopoly of legitimate physical violence within a particular territory — and this idea of “territory” is an essential defining feature. For what is specific to the present is that all other organizations or individuals can assert the right to use physical violence only insofar as the state permits them to do so. The state is regarded as the sole source of the “right” to use violence. Hence, what “politics” means for us is to strive for a share of power or to influence the distribution of power, whether between states or between the groups of people contained within a state.’

Weber is not saying that the monopolisation of legitimate physical violence is the only thing that the state does. He is saying that it is what only the state does.

To say that something is political is to say that it involves the ‘distribution or preservation of power, or a shift in power … [And] whoever is active in politics strives for power, either power as a means in the service of other goals, whether idealistic or selfish, or power “for its own sake,” in other words, so as to enjoy the feeling of prestige that it confers.’


Now, if this state is to exist — this organisation which embodies the rule of some over others based on the legitimate use of violence — then those who rule must be obeyed by those who are ruled. When do they do so and why? What are the internal justifications of such rule? And what are its external supports (see end of next section for this)?

There are three basic internal justifications. ‘First, the authority of “the eternal past,” of custom, sanctified by a validity that extends back into the mists of time and is perpetuated by habit. This is “traditional” rule, as exercised by patriarchs and patrimonial rulers of the old style.’

‘Second, there is the authority of the extraordinary, personal gift of grace or charisma, that is, the wholly personal devotion to, and a personal trust in, the revelations, heroism, or other leadership qualities of an individual. This is “charismatic” rule of the kind practiced by prophets or — in the political sphere — the elected warlord or the ruler chosen by popular vote, the great demagogue, and the leaders of political parties.’

When Weber refers to “charisma”, he is transliterating the Greek χάρισμα. “Gift of grace” is the literal translation of this Greek word. And while the word was not unknown in English, it is Weber’s use of the word led to its widespread adoption and use.

‘Lastly, there is rule by virtue of “legality,” by virtue of the belief in the validity of legal statutes and practical “competence” based on rational rules. This type of rule is based on a person’s willingness to carry out statutory duties obediently. Rule of this kind is to be found in the modern “servant of the state” and all those agents of power who resemble him in this respect.’

These three legitimations — traditional, charismatic, and legal — are “pure” types. They do not occur in their pure form in reality but in complex variants, transitions and combinations.


“What interests us here above all is the second of these types: rule based on the acquiescence of those who submit to the purely personal “charisma” of the “leader.” For this is where we discover the root of the idea of “vocation” in its highest form..”

The German for “vocation”, which can also be translated as “profession”, is Beruf. It derives from the root rufen meaning “to call”. Hence, it is also translated as “calling” (which means profession in English as well). But Weber refers to “the idea of a Beruf in its highest form” and laters talks about “Beruf in the deepest meaning of the word”. What is he getting at?

Well, first, Beruf conveys a religious notion: that of being called to eternal salvation through or by God. This is not news. We find this in Paul’s Letters. Paul’s word for “calling” in this sense is κλησις [klēsis]. To take just one example:

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling [κλησεως, klēseōs] to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1–6, NRSV)

But, second, according to Weber, Beruf is also “a man’s sustained activity under the division of labour, which is thus (normally) his source of income and in the long run the economic basis of his existence”. This is the modern secular sense conveyed by equivalents like vocation and profession. This idea, he claims, is the innovation of Martin Luther, and appears for the first time as Beruf in Luther’s translation of the Greek Septuagint Bible [completed by 1534], specifically in the Book of Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus. (The Book of Sirach was originally composed in Hebrew but manuscript portions of the Hebrew text were discovered only in the late 19th century and in the 20th century.) Weber:

Luther translates the words in Jesus Sirach with “beharre in deinem Beruf” and “bliebe in deinem Beruf ”, instead of “bliebe bei deiner Arbeit”. … Luther’s translation of the passage in the Book of Sirach is, so far as I know, the first case in which the German word Beruf appears in its present purely secular sense. (The Protestant Ethic, Chapter 3, note 3)

The relevant passage is Book of Sirach 11:20–2. I present Brenton’s English and Luther’s German translation, both from the Septuagint Greek.

Brenton: wax old in thy work [έργω, ergō]. … trust in the Lord, and abide in thy labour [πονώ, ponō].
Luther: Beharre in deinem Beruf …Bertraue du Gott, und bleibe in deinem Beruf.

The full passage, should the reader be interested, is: Stand by your agreement and attend to it, and grow old in your work. Do not wonder at the works of a sinner, but trust in the Lord and keep at your job. (NRSV)

Weber is saying that instead of translating ergon with Arbeit, Luther chose Beruf, and that in doing so gave expression to the notion of “of a life-task, a definite field in which to work”, i.e. a calling in the secular sense, which did not exist before. (Ergon is deed, task, or work, in Greek; Arbeit means work in German [recall the infamous phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” — which, loosely rendered, is “Work makes you Free” — emblazoned on the gate at the entrance of Auschwitz].)

Anyway, by Beruf, Weber means “calling” in both its religious and secular senses.

The charismatic leader is one ‘held to be the inwardly “chosen” leaders of humankind. People do not submit to them because of any customs or statutes, but because they believe in them. Such a leader does indeed live for his cause and “strives to create his work [trachtet nach seinem Werk].” …But the devotion of his followers, that is, his disciples and liegemen, or his entirely personal band of supporters, is directed toward his person and his qualities.’

Weber is quoting Friedrich Nietzsche here.

“Oh Zarathustra,” they said. “Are you perhaps on the lookout for your happiness?” – “What does happiness matter!” he answered. “I haven’t strived for happiness for a long time, I strive for my work [ich trachte nach meinem Werke].

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part IV, The Honey Offering.

All sorts of charismatic leaders have emerged in the past. Two of the most important in types today are the free ‘demagogue’ and the parliamentary ‘party leader’. Both are indigenous to the West.

Now, these demagogues and party leaders, these professional (or vocational) politicians in other words, are not the only ones nor the most decisive ones in the struggle for power. The material resources necessary to make use of physical force where required are also important. These are the external supports. They include ‘the administrative personnel and the material resources of administration.’

The administrative personnel obeys the rulers because of their charisma. But not just this. There are two other factors which appeal to the personal interest of these personnel: material rewards (e.g. salaries) and social honor (e.g. prestige enjoyed by civil servants). By these, their obedience is secured.


All forms of state can be classified into two types based on whether the administrative personnel own the means of administration or is separated from it. The means of administration could consist of ‘money, buildings, the materials of war, vehicle pools, horses, or whatever’. To own the means of administration is to use them as one would use things that one owns, and not as directed by somebody else who actually owns them.

We may call those political organisations in which the lord does not autonomously control the means of administration an ‘organization subdivided into estates’. These are the organisations in which administrative staff owns the means of admninistration. In the “estates”, the lord is dependent upon his vassals who pays for the administration of his fief. The vassals also pay for ‘the equipment and provisioning needed for a war; his subvassals did likewise.’ This had important consequences for the authority of the lord because the lord’s power was dependent on the loyalty of the vassal which in turn was dependent on the fact that the vassals social status derived legitimacy from the lord.

But in many cases, we also find that the lord personally takes up administration himself by having men personally dependent upon him. He pays from his own pocket for the administration, he creates an army which is dependent upon him personally by equipping and provisioning it out of his granaries, magazines, and armories. ‘In this second case he relies either on members of his household or else on plebeians, men from strata of society without either property or honor of their own, men who are dependent upon him entirely for their material well-being, since they have no power at their disposal to compete with his.’

The development of this form of political organisation begins when the monarch [Fürst, as in “first”, and also translatable as prince] expropriates (enteignet) ‘the autonomous, “private” agents of administrative power who exist in parallel to him, that is to say, all the independent owners of the materials of war and the administration, financial resources, and politically useful goods of every kind’.

The bureaucracy of the modern state is the most rational development this type of political organisation. In the modern state, ‘control of the entire political means of production is concentrated in a single culminating point so that not a single official is left who personally owns the money he spends, or the buildings, supplies, tools, and military equipment that are under his control. In the modern “state” — and this is an essential element of its definition — the “separation” of the administrative staff, that is, of officials and employees, from the material resources of administration, has been completed. It is at this point that the very latest development emerges, for we now see before our very eyes the attempt to bring about the expropriation of this expropriator [die Expropriation dieses Expropriateurs] of the resources of politics and hence of political power.’

Weber means the expropriation by the modern state of the (original) expropriator, i.e. the monarch or the prince. Just as the monarch expropriated the ‘autonomous, “private” agents of administrative power’, the modern state expropriates him in turn.

Weber uses the “Expropriation” instead of the German Enteignung (which he does use earlier) because he is adopting a famous passage from Karl Marx’s Das Kapital (Chap 32, The Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation):

The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production which has flourished alongside and under it. The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labour reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated [Die Expropriateurs werden expropriiert.]

‘I shall confine myself to the purely conceptual point that the modern state is an institutional form of rule that has successfully fought to create a monopoly of legitimate physical force as a means of government within a particular territory. For this purpose it has concentrated all the material resources of organization in the hands of its leaders. The modern state has expropriated all the autonomous officials of the “estates” who previously controlled such things as of right and has put itself in the shape of its highest representative in their place.’


In this process of political expropriation, which has occurred with varying success in all countries on earth, “professional politicians” in another sense. ‘This consisted of people who, unlike the charismatic leaders, did not wish to become masters themselves, but to enter into the service of political masters. In these conflicts they put themselves at the disposal of the monarch and treated the implementation of his policies as a way of earning their own material living, on the one hand, and of acquiring a life’s ideal on the other.’ But before discussing them, it is important to be clear about the implications of the existence of such politicians.

One might pursue politics, i.e. seek to influence the distribution of power between and within political structures, as an occasional politician. Most of us are occasional politicians: when we vote, protest, applaud a political speech, etc. So are those ‘local agents and committee members of political party associations who, as a rule, pursue such activities only as occasion demands and who do not make it the primary “task of their lives,” either materially or as an ideal.’ So also are those members of councils and advisory bodies who function only when summoned. Indeed, so are our members of parliament whose engagement with politics is often only when the parliament is in session.

Such occasional politicians were found in the past among the “estates” who owned the means of admnistration. ‘A major portion of them were far from willing to pass their lives wholly or chiefly, or even more than occasionally, in the service of politics. Instead, they used their seigneurial power to maximize their own rents or profits and became politically active in the service of their political associations only when their overlord or their peers expressly called for it.’ But these were not sufficient for the monarch who needed to ‘assemble a staff of assistants consisting of people who were entirely and exclusively devoted to serving him as their principal profession.

‘What did the “full-time” politicians look like in all these cases?’

‘There are two ways of engaging in politics as a vocation. You can either live “for” politics or “from” politics. These alternatives are not by any means mutually exclusive. On the contrary, as a rule people do both, mentally at least, but for the most part materially, as well. Whoever lives “for” politics makes “this his life” in an inward sense. Either he enjoys the naked exercise of the power he possesses or he feeds his inner equilibrium and his self-esteem with the consciousness that by serving a “cause” he gives his own life a meaning. In this inner sense, probably every serious person who lives for a cause also lives from it.’

Given this, the distinction has really to do with the economic aspect of the vocation. The distinction in other words lies in this; that those who live “from” politics are those who seek to make it their permanent source of income whereas those who live “for” politics are those for whom this is not the case.

Now in order that one be able to live for politics, a person must be economically independent. A person who wishes to live for politics must be wealthy. But not just this, such a person must also be in a position to make himself “available” for politics. ‘This means that his sources of income must not require him constantly to devote all or most of his thoughts and energy personally to the task of earning his living.’

If the leaders are men who live exclusively for politics, their recruitment is plutocratic. That’s to say, those who live for politics are the wealthy. This doesn’t mean that these leaders will not try to life from politics. “It means only that professional politicians are not directly compelled to seek remuneration for their political services as everyone without means is forced to do. But by the same token, this is not to suggest that politicians with no independent means entered politics solely or even principally with an eye to providing for their own material welfare, or that their concern for their “cause” was not uppermost in their minds, or even present at all.’

Plutocracy from ploutos (πλουτος) + kratos (κρατος). Ploutos means riches or wealth. Kratos means rule, also strength/power. Pluto is also a Greek god, equivalent to Hades, who rules Tartarus, the under- or nether-world. It is after this god that the ex-planet is named! The philosopher Plato has an explanation, the first such explanation, connecting the all three, i.e. ploutos, Pluto, and Hades, which he gives in Cratylus (403b).

As for Pluto, he was given that name because it accords with his being the source of wealth, since wealth (πλούτος, ploutos) comes up from below the ground. It seems to me that most people call him by the name ‘Pluto’, because they are afraid of what they can’t see (άειδες, aeides), and they assume that his other name, ‘Hades’, associates him with that.

And in order to recruit politically interested people, both leaders and their followers, non-plutocratically, i.e. those who do not own property or have wealth, those leaders and their followers will have to extract a regular and reliable income from the practice of politics. Such politicians could be pure benificiaries or draw salaries. In the former case, they derive income from fees and other payments for services (including tips and bribes). In the latter case, they receive fixed benefits in cas or kind regularly.


‘In his struggles with the estates, the ruler sought the assistance of politically exploitable strata who did not form part of the estates. These included, first and foremost, the clergy. … The aim everywhere was to acquire literate administrators who could be deployed by the emperor or princes or the khan in their struggle with the aristocracy. Members of the clergy, especially if they were celibate, stood outside the hustle and bustle of ordinary political and economic interests and, unlike the ruler’s vassals, were not exposed to the temptation to compete with him for political power of their own to pass on to their heirs. The cleric was “separated” from the machinery of the ruler’s administration by the characteristics of his own status group.’

‘A second stratum of this kind consisted of men of letters with a humanist education. There was a time when men learned to make speeches in Latin and write verses in Greek in order to qualify as political advisers and above all to compose political memoranda on behalf of a ruler.’

‘The third social stratum was the court nobility. Once the rulers had succeeded in depriving the aristocracy of its political power as an estate, they attracted the nobility to the court and enrolled them in their political and diplomatic service.’

‘The fourth category was a specifically British phenomenon: this was a patrician class comprising the minor nobility and the urban inhabitants of independent means, known technically as the “gentry.” This was a stratum that the monarch had originally attracted in his conflict with the barons and that he put in charge of the offices of “self-government,” only to become increasingly dependent upon them subsequently.’

‘A fifth stratum was peculiar to the West, particularly on the Continent, and it was of crucial importance for its entire political structure. This was the class of university-trained lawyers. Once Roman law had been transformed under the late Roman bureaucratic state, it continued to exert a powerful influence over a long period of time. Nowhere was this more evident than in the circumstance that, in its advance toward the rational state, the revolution of the machinery of politics was undertaken everywhere by trained lawyers.’

‘Since the founding of the constitutional state, and even more markedly since the establishment of democracy, the demagogue has been the typical political leader in the West. … The political publicist, and above all, the journalist is the most important representative of the species today.’

Yet another figure is that of the party official. This figure has emerged in recent decades. The party officaisl are those ‘who do the continuous day-to-day work within the [party] organization or of those on whom the party apparatus depends for either money or personnel.’

A fascinating digression!

This section is an extract.

The genuine official [i.e. the bureaucrat] … should not be politically active but, above all else, should “administer,” impartially. This applies also to so-called “political” civil servants [such as ministers belonging to the party that has formed the government], officially at least, as long as there is no threat to “raison d’etat,” that is, the vital interests of the dominant order. Sine ira et studio — that should be the official’s motto in the performance of his duties. He should therefore abstain from doing what politicians, the leaders as well as followers, must always necessarily do, namely, to fight.

Raison d’etat is French for “reason of state”, a translation of the Italian Ragione di Stato. Probably first articulated by the Italian Jesuit priest Giovanni Botero in his Della Ragion di Stato [1589].

The state is a firm domination over peoples. And the reason of state [Ragione di Stato] is the knowledge of the appropriate means for founding, preserving, and expanding such a domination.

The terms means something quite different now.


Sine ira et studio is Latin meaning without anger and partiality. It is a quotation of the Roman historian Tacitus who declares right at the beginning of his Annals:

Hence my design, to treat a small part (the concluding one) of Augustus’ reign, then the principate of Tiberius and its sequel, without anger and without partiality [sine ira et studio], from the motives of which I stand sufficiently removed.

For taking sides, struggle, passion — ira et Studium — are the politician’s element, especially the political leader’s. His activity is subject to an entirely different principle of responsibility, in fact, the very opposite principle to that of the official. When an official receives an order, his honor lies in his ability to carry it out, on his superior’s responsibility, conscientiously and exactly as if it corresponded to his own convictions. This remains the case even if the order seems wrong to him and if, despite his protests, his superior insists on his compliance. Without this discipline and self-denial, which is ethical in the highest degree, the entire apparatus would collapse.

In contrast, the point of honor of the political leader, that is, the leading statesman, is that he acts exclusively on his own responsibility, a responsibility that he may not and cannot refuse or shuffle off onto someone else. It is precisely civil servants of high moral stature who make bad politicians, in other words, who act irresponsibly from a political standpoint. We must judge them, therefore, to be ethically inferior politicians of the kind we in Germany have unfortunately had time and again in leading positions. That is what we call “government by civil servants” [Beamtenherrschaft].

Weber has a very long section discussing in some detail the role and the development of the last two figures: the journalist and the party official (for this latter figure, he goes into even more depth about the development of party organisation). Much of this is of historical interest and deals with the development of party organisations in the US, England, and Germany in what was then the recent few decades. The point of all that seems to be the following conclusion:

It is not possible to see today, therefore, how the business of politics can take the outward shape of a “profession,” and even less what prospects of a worthwhile political challenge might open up for people who are politically talented. The man who is compelled by his financial situation to live “from” politics will always find that the typical direct paths will involve choosing between journalism or a post as party official. Or else he could consider a post with one of the representative bodies: trade union, chamber of commerce, farmers’ association, craft workers’ chamber, industrial chamber, employers’ associations, and so on, or the appropriate positions in local government. Nothing further can be said about the outward shape of the profession except that the party official shares with the journalist the odium of being “déclassé.” He will, unfortunately, always have the actual or unspoken rebuke of “hired hack” ringing in his ears, in the case of the journalist, or “hired speaker,” in the case of the official. Anyone who lacks inner defenses against accusations of this kind and is unable to find the proper retort to them should avoid such a career, because in addition to the risk of exposing himself to grave temptations, he may find that it turns out to be full of disappointments.


This is the ‘ethical’ part of the essay. Extracts.

We may inquire what inner pleasures may be expected from a political career and what are the personal qualifications called for in those who choose it?

Well, to start with, it provides a sense of power. Even in what may be quite a modest post formally, the professional politician may feel he has been raised above the commonplace by his discovery that he has influence on people, that he has his share of power over them, but above all that he holds in his hands a strand of some important historical process.

But the question now confronting such a politician is: What qualities does he need to do justice to this power (however narrowly circumscribed it may be) and hence to the responsibility that it imposes on him?

We can say that three qualities, above all, are of decisive importance for a politician: passion, a sense of responsibility, and a sense of proportion.

Passion in the sense of a commitment to the matter in hand [Sachlichkeit], that is, the passionate dedication to a “cause” [Sache], to the God or demon that presides over it. …[But] mere passion, however sincerely felt, is not enough in itself. It cannot make a politician of anyone, unless service to a “cause” also means that a sense of responsibility toward that cause is made the decisive guiding light of action. And for that (and this is the crucial psychological characteristic of the politician) a sense of proportion is required, the ability to allow realities to impinge on you while maintaining an inner calm and composure.

What is needed, in short, is a distance from people and things. The “absence of distance,” pure and simple, is one of the deadly sins of every politician and one of those qualities which, if instilled into our intellectuals, will condemn them to political impotence. For the heart of the problem is how to forge a unity between hot passion and a cool sense of proportion in one and the same person. Politics is made with the mind, not with other parts of the body or the soul. And yet if politics is to be an authentic human activity and not just a frivolous intellectual game, commitment to it must be born of passion and be nourished by it. Even so, the ability to keep the soul in check is what characterizes the passionate politician and distinguishes his attitude from the “sterile excitement” of the amateur. This can be achieved only by acquiring the habit of distance, in every sense of the word. The “strength” of a political “personality” means, primarily, the possession of these qualities.

‘[W]hat is the true relation between ethics and politics?

We need to be clear that all ethically oriented action can be guided by either of two fundamentally different, irredeemably incompatible maxims: it can be guided by an “ethics of conviction” or an “ethics of responsibility.” This does not mean that an ethics of conviction is identical with irresponsibility or an ethics of responsibility with a lack of conviction. Needless to say, there can be no question of that. But there is a profound abyss between acting in accordance with the maxim governing an ethics of conviction and acting in tune with an ethics of responsibility. In the former case this means, to put it in religious terms: “A Christian does what is right and leaves the outcome to God,” while in the latter you must answer for the (foreseeable) consequences of your actions.

But even this does not exhaust the problem. No ethic in the world can ignore the fact that in many cases the achievement of “good” ends is inseparable from the use of morally dubious or at least dangerous means and that we cannot escape the possibility or even probability of evil side effects. And no ethic in the world can say when, and to what extent, the ethically good end can “justify” the ethically dangerous means and its side effects.

[With the] problem of justifying the means by the ends, we see the inevitable failure of an ethics of conviction in general. And in fact, it logically has only one possibility. That is to repudiate every action that makes use of morally suspect means, logically. …It is not possible to reconcile an ethics of conviction with an ethics of responsibility or to decree which end can justify which means, if indeed you wish to make any concessions to this principle at all.

My colleague F. W. Foerster … expresses the belief in his book that we can get around the difficulty with the aid of the simple thesis that nothing but good can come from good and nothing but evil from evil. … [But] as far as a person’s actions are concerned, it is not true that nothing but good comes from good and nothing but evil from evil, but rather quite frequently the opposite is the case. Anyone who does not realize this is in fact a mere child in political matters.

It is in this connection, i.e., the propriety of the ethics of resposibility for politics, that Weber makes that famous comparison between Kautilya and Machiavelli. The general thesis, of which the connection I just mentioned is just a specific instancem is that there need not be one ethics for every area of life.

This specialized approach to ethics made it possible for Indian philosophy to develop an internally consistent treatment of the royal art of politics, focusing entirely on its own particular laws and indeed intensifying them radically. A genuinely radical “Machiavellianism,” in the popular sense of the word, received its classic formulation in Indian literature as early as Kautilya’s Arthashastra (long before the Christian era, allegedly from the time of Chandragupta). Machiavelli’s The Prince is harmless in comparison.

However, the unworldly imperatives of the Sermon on the Mount, which are in complete harmony with an ethics of conviction, and the absolute demands made by the religious natural law based on it retained their revolutionary power.

Whoever makes a pact with the use of force, for whatever ends (and every politician does so), is at the mercy of its particular consequences. The man who fights for his faith, whether religious or revolutionary, is particularly exposed to this risk. We need not look beyond the present to find examples. Anyone who desires to use force to establish absolute justice on earth needs followers, a human “apparatus.” He must be able to hold out the prospect of the necessary internal and external prizes (heavenly and earthly rewards), or else this apparatus will not function.

The leader is entirely dependent for his success on the functioning of this apparatus. He is dependent, therefore, on its motives, not on his own. He is therefore dependent on being able to keep providing the followers he relies on … with these rewards in perpetuity. Since his activities must be carried out under these conditions, it is evident that what he in fact achieves is not in his own hands but is laid down for him by the predominantly base motives governing the actions of his followers. For they can only be kept under control as long as at least some of them, though probably never a majority, are inspired by a genuine belief in him personally and his cause.

But this belief, even when it is subjectively sincere, is in very many cases really no more than the ethical “legitimation” of the desire for revenge, power, booty, and the rewards of office. And we must not let ourselves be persuaded otherwise about this, since the materialist interpretation of history is not a hansom cab to be picked up on an impulse, and it makes no exceptions for the agents of revolutions!

The last sentence is a cheeky remark. The reference to Marx (and by extension, in this case, to ‘agents of revolutions’) is obvious. But there is also a less obvious reference to Arthur Schopehauer who had said, in the On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason [1847], that:

The law of causality therefore is not so accommodating as to let itself be used like a hired cab, which we dismiss when we have reached our destination.

Anyone who wishes to engage in politics at all, and particularly anyone who wishes to practice it as a profession, must become conscious of these ethical paradoxes and of his own responsibility for what may become of him under the pressure they exert. For, I repeat, he is entering into relations with the satanic powers that lurk in every act of violence.

In truth, politics is an activity of the head but by no means only of the head. In this respect the adherents of an ethics of conviction are in the right. But whether we should act in accordance with an ethics of conviction or an ethics of responsibility, and when we should choose one rather than the other, is not a matter on which we can lay down the law to anyone else.

[In our age] conviction politicians may well spring up in large numbers all of a sudden and run riot, declaring, “The world is stupid and nasty, not I. The responsibility for the consequences cannot be laid at my door but must rest with those who employ me and whose stupidity or nastiness I shall do away with.” And if this happens, I shall say openly that I would begin by asking how much inner gravity lies behind this ethics of conviction, and I suspect I should come to the conclusion that in nine cases out of ten I was dealing with windbags who do not genuinely feel what they are taking on themselves but who are making themselves drunk on romantic sensations.

By the same token, I find it immeasurably moving when a mature human being — whether young or old in actual years is immaterial — who feels the responsibility he bears for the consequences of his own actions with his entire soul and who acts in harmony with an ethics of responsibility reaches the point where he says, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” That is authentically human and cannot fail to move us. For this is a situation that may befall any of us at some point, if we are not inwardly dead. In this sense an ethics of conviction and an ethics of responsibility are not absolute antitheses but are mutually complementary, and only when taken together do they constitute the authentic human being who is capable of having a “vocation for politics.”

Three references here: to Immanuel Kant, Aristotle, and Martin Luther.

Kant had declared at the beginning of his essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’ that ‘Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.’ [Kant’s term for “immaturity” is Unmündigkeit. Weber’s term for “mature” is reifer.]

As for Aristotle, he had stipulated in his Nicomachean Ethics (1095a5) that “the young are not fit to be students of politikē [or politics; the term is usually, but problematically, translated as political science].

And the words “Here I stand [hier stehe ich], I can do no other [ich kann nicht anders]” are attributed to Martin Luther who is said to have uttered them at the Diet of Worms in 1521.

The only man who has a “vocation” for politics is one who is certain that his spirit will not be broken if the world, when looked at from his point of view, proves too stupid or base to accept what he wishes to offer it, and who, when faced with all that obduracy, can still say “Nevertheless!” despite everything.