Lecture 1, Part 1: Indian Way of Thinking? 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. 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.

A famous distinction between rules and principles was made by B. R. Ambedkar. That distinction which he makes in his Annihilation of Caste is worth quoting at length.

I do not know whether you draw a distinction between principles and rules. But I do. Not only I make a distinction but I say that this distinction is real and important. Rules are practical; they are habitual ways of doing things according to prescription. But principles are intellectual; they are useful methods of judging things. Rules seek to tell an agent just what course of action to pursue. Principles do not prescribe a specific course of action. Rules, like cooking recipes, do tell just what to do and how to do it. A principle, such as that of justice, supplies a main head by reference to which he is to consider the bearings of his desires and purposes, it guides him in his thinking by suggesting to him the important consideration which he should bear in mind. This difference between rules and principles makes the acts done in pursuit of them different in quality and in content. Doing what is said to be good by virtue of a rule and doing good in the light of a principle are two different things. The principle may be wrong but the act is conscious and responsible. The rule may be right but the act is mechanical. A religious act may not be a correct act but must at least be a responsible act. To permit of this responsibility, Religion must mainly be a matter of principles only. It cannot be a matter of rules. The moment it degenerates into rules it ceases to be Religion, as it kills responsibility which is the essence of a truly religious act. What is this Hindu Religion? Is it a set of principles or is it a code of rules? Now the Hindu Religion, as contained in the Vedas and the Smritis, is nothing but a mass of sacrificial, social, political and sanitary rules and regulations, all mixed up. What is called Religion by the Hindus is nothing but a multitude of commands and prohibitions. Religion, in the sense of spiritual principles, truly universal, applicable to all races, to all countries, to all times, is not to be found in them, and if it is, it does not form the governing part of a Hindu’s life. (Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, vol. 1, p. 75.)

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.