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Where Lies The Burden of Moral Action?

T.C.A. Srinivasa Raghavan

Edited by Anand Pandian and Daud Ali
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2011, pp. 290, Rs.695.00

VOLUME XXXV NUMBER 8-9 August-September 2011

Good books often get their timing wrong. In the current context in India, where morality and ethics are both at a discount, this book is both timely and excellent. It comprises a collection of papers, of somewhat uneven quality, presented at a workshop in 2007 in Vancouver on South Asian ethical practices. It is not likely to become a bestseller. Such books never do. There will not be any TV shows on it and the chatterati will not mumble inanities. Yet, it is likely to go down as one of the better publishing decisions of the year, not least because morality has become a subject of intense discussion and debate in South Asia. The essays look at the topic from very different directions and, at times, the reader may get the impression that there is no underlying unity amongst them. After all, the link between a medieval gym and manliness therein on the one hand and subhasitas on the other is not quite obvious. Ethics and their expression in South Asia have been dealt with from various perspectives and, for those who like such discussions, the book is a veritable feast—whether one agrees with the views or not. For a long time, indeed from the very time the West met the East, for the former the notion of South Asian 'ethical practices' was almost an oxymoron. Whether it was Vasco de Gama expressing his views on the people of the Malabar Coast or, later, Sir Thomas Roe about the Mughal mores or, even later, the Victorian priests of the 19th century, they all agreed that the people of South Asia were depraved in various ways. It was a monochromatic view, to which they were entitled. The trouble with morality and/or ethical practice of the western kind, Anand Pandiyan and Daud Ali suggest in their Introduction, is that it lies in the eyes of the beholder. The context of actions is important and they 'examine the moral and ethical traditions of South Asia in their historical diversity, practical vitality, and uneven resonance with the West...' "One difficulty in enterprises such as this one is always the starting point: do you start with a western philosopher like Kant who said the only good thing in the world is goodwill? Or do you start with, say, the Gita which says actions have to be judged in a context and outcomes are ...

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