The Bhagavad Gītā

Author: Amod Lele (Boston University)

The Bhagavad Gītā is an episode from the Mahābhārata (the long Indian epic poem) in which the god Krishna offers advice to the hero Arjuna, in response to Arjuna’s despair at the need to kill his cousins in battle. It is one of the most loved texts in Indian tradition – enough that some modern thinkers, including Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi have taken it to be the central text of Hindu tradition. When one wants to identify the ethical teachings of the great philosophers in the Vedānta tradition (such as Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja), those philosophers’ commentaries on the Gītā, while difficult for a novice reader, are often the clearest guide to their ideas.

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Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra

Author: Amod Lele (Boston University)

The Bodhicaryāvatāra is an Indian Mahāyāna Buddhist text from approximately the eighth century CE, whose author is referred to as Śāntideva. It is very popular among Tibetan Buddhists; the present Dalai Lama has referred to it as his favourite book. It instructs its readers how to live up to the ideal of the bodhisattva, the Buddhist hero who swears to free all living beings from suffering.  Continue reading “Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra”

Xunzi on Morality and Human Nature

Author: Sonia Sikka (University of Ottawa)

Xunzi is a Confucian philosopher who lived from 310-220 B.C.E., towards the end of the “Warring States” period in Chinese history. Against Mencius, he claims that human nature is intrinsically evil or bad, and requires reshaping to be made morally good or virtuous. The tool he recommends for that reshaping is “ritual practice,” consisting of study and learning, guided by teachers and models of exemplary individuals. Xunzi offers several arguments against Mencius’ apparently opposed thesis that human nature is intrinsically good. Continue reading “Xunzi on Morality and Human Nature”

Nagarjuna’s Anti-Substantialism

Authors:  Sonia Sikka (University of Ottawa), Melanie Coughlin (Carleton University)

Nagarjuna’s central work, the Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā), is a classic of Indian Buddhist philosophy that has generated a wealth of commentarial literature. Likely composed in the 2nd or 3rd century CE, it offers a critique of the idea of svabhava, a Sanskrit term literally meaning “own-nature” and suggesting independent or substantial existence. Continue reading “Nagarjuna’s Anti-Substantialism”

Political Authority – The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant

Author: Megan Mitchell (Stonehill College)

This rich philosophical piece that dates from Egypt’s Middle Kingdom is an exploration of political authority. After his property is unfairly seized by a conniving official, the peasant Khunanup petitions the official’s superior to correct the injustice. Chike Jeffers, in his 2013 article “Embodying Justice in Ancient Egypt: The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant as a Classic of Political Philosophy,” argues that this text includes reflection on the nature and value of political authority by outlining the role of the bearer of authority as “leader, safeguard and creator of good” through an “argument from dysfunction.” That is, in contrast to the approach found in many Western texts in which the nature and value of political authority is explored by imaging a state of nature, this text assumes well-functioning political authority as a starting point and argues for its conception by pointing out what has gone wrong.

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Anekantavada or Multisidedness

Author: Ashwani Peetush (Wilfrid Laurier University)

Anekantavada (Sk. lit.: theory of not-one-sidedness) is a Jaina epistemological view that requires that the truth of any claim must consider the context and standpoint (naya) from which it is made.  The theory has had an enormous impact and influence on the logic, epistemology, and ethics of Buddhist and Upanisadic schools as well as on Mohandas Gandhi’s activism and philosophy of nonviolence. Anekantavada grows out of a commitment to the Jaina principle of ahimsa or non-harm to others (including their intellectual perspectives). It requires one not simply to tolerate and put up with others’ perspectives, but to see them as on par with one’s own views; it also emphasizes that one’s own views may themselves be wrong. This theory is used to understand religious and philosophical differences to this day in India and is popularized in the Jaina metaphor of the elephant and the blind men.

The theory is grounded in a pluralistic metaphysical realism that argues that reality is composed of an infinite number of entities that are modified in innumerable variation. The meaning of any particular claim to truth must therefore take into consideration and be indexed to substance/subject, time, space, and mode/quality. Statements may thus be asserted only conditionally (syadvada or the theory of conditional predication). What may at first appear as contradictory may actually be complementary (e.g., “the pot exists” and “the pot does not exist” are not necessarily contradictory if indexed to different times of assertion, spatial location of the pot, or the modality of the clay of which it is made).

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Shankara’s Nondualism (Advaita Vedanta)

Author: Sonia Sikka (University of Ottawa)

Shankaracharya, also known as Adi Shankara, is an 8th century Indian philosopher and theologian who argues that ultimate reality or brahman is single and not substantially distinct from the world. Often compared with Western monists such as Parmenides, Plotinus and Spinoza, Shankara contends that the universe of distinct particulars has only a dependent and limited being, and that our everyday attribution of ultimate reality to it is a result of ignorance. While in some respects this metaphysics resembles Buddhist emphases on the conditioned and transient nature of things, Shankara posits a stable and unchanging reality behind the shifting appearances, which is said to be identical with the permanent aspect of the self (atman) as pure consciousness. Shankara is a Vedantic thinker who respects the authority of the Upanishads, to which he appeals in support of his claims. However, his metaphysical position is at the same time developed through philosophical refutations of the views of rival schools, including Buddhist ones. Shankara’s commentary on the Brahma Sutras, for instance, contains arguments against Buddhist subjective idealism maintaining the non-existence of the external world, and against the central Buddhist doctrine of no-self or anatta.

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Gandhi on non-violence

Authors: Sonia Sikka (University of Ottawa), and Manvitha Singamsetty (University of Ottawa)

Non-violence or ahimsa is a principle at the heart of Gandhi’s moral and political philosophy. Most fundamentally, the principle involves a commitment to not harming others in one’s interactions with them, but it is especially connected with a variety of peaceful civil resistance. Gandhi drew on classical schools of wisdom such as Jainism, Buddhism and Vedic thought to presents an ideal of non-violence adapted to a contemporary social and political climate.  This ideal encompasses the virtues of freedom, truth, love, justice, courage, honesty and sacrifice. Its political methods include, among others, satyagraha (“holding to the truth”), civil-disobedience and non-cooperation. For Gandhi, the goals of non-violence are political justice, social stability and economic self-sufficiency

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Dalai Lama: “Redefining the Goal” from Ethics for the New Millennium

Author: Anna Lännström (Stonehill College)


In “Redefining the Goal,” the Dalai Lama contrasts transient and lasting happiness and argues that while other factors like friends, good health, liberty, and prosperity can contribute to our happiness, the most important component of happiness is inner peace and that, in turn, is largely about our own attitude. Without inner peace, these other factors can be a source of trouble (worry, frustration).

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No-self (anatta) in The Questions of King Milinda

Author: Sonia Sikka (University of Ottawa)

The Questions of King Milinda is an Indian Buddhist text probably written between 100 – 200 B.C. Its authorship is uncertain, and it is most likely a composite work.   The narrative is composed as a fictional dialogue between the Greek King Milinda (an Indianization of Menander) and the Buddhist Sage Nagasena. A portion of the dialogue presents the Buddhist doctrine of anatta or no-self. Using the analogy of a chariot, Nagasena demonstrates to Milinda that the person named “Nagasena” cannot be identified with any part of his body or consciousness nor with any sum of these parts, but also cannot be conceived as existing independently of his parts. The conclusion is that “Nagasena” is only a conventional term to name something that has no substantial existence, and that this is generally true of what we understand as the “self.”

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