Book Reviews

Shashi Misra's Beyond Ethics:

An Inquiry Into the Values for the Business of Life

Smt. Shashi Misra’s book is perhaps as yet the most comprehensive work on spiritual ethics published in India. It is earnest, passionate and forthright. Her scholarship is wide-ranging. A little more compression and crystallization would have been good however. Some of the essentials in Smt. Misra’s book, as this reviewer understands them, are:

  1.  She roundly, and rightly, condemns the ‘passing-the-buck-to-schools’ phenomenon with respect to the teaching of values. There is this brilliant rebuke: ‘vicarious parentage’ (p. 43). Like the undersigned, she too recalls the good old-fashioned practice of parents acting as role models for the education of their children (44).

  2.  Her comments about secularism and religion, comparing the West with the East, are clear and courageous. By officially, even socially, throwing out religion India has, in fact been jettisoning values, ethics, morality – a ‘violence of the first order’ (48). She alludes, as a remedy to fill the void of ‘parts’ in Western thinking about values, to Swami Vivekananda’s emphasis on the trans-rational ‘world of intuition’ which alone can embrace the ‘whole’ (62). Unfortunately, the source reference is not given. This stands in contrast to the italicized reference about another author on the very next page, even though the contents of the concerned para are remote from the experiential insight of the Swami.

  3.  Chapter 2, (un-numbered though) ‘The Centripetal’, swerves towards Vedanta etc. for twenty five pages. Many sources, including the author’s own respected mentor, have been duly or amply mentioned or quoted here. What is intriguing is that while one Sri ‘Mauj’ finds a place on p.64, Sri Aurobindo is simply absent throughout. Has anyone realized anything as supremely, and written anything as divinely, on ‘centripetality’, better called antarmukhita, than the Sage of Pondicherry? Perhaps he cannot be expected to figure in the illumined company of Zohars, Maujs et. al.

  4.  Chapter 3 states beautifully at one point: ‘The Outer Road Curves Inwards’ (127). One readily recalls here a chapter title, ‘The End of The Curve of Reason’ in Sri Aurobindo’s classic The Human Cycle (1962). To quote the seer: ‘… No machinery invented by the reason can perfect either the individual or the collective man; an inner change is needed in human nature … If this is not the solution, then there is no solution…

  5.  Chapter 5 on Karma etc. is elaborately, usefully done. One was looking for some exposition of the ‘malafide cause – malafide effect’ rule as the moral/ethical deterrent principle imbedded in karma theory. Incidentally, Sri Aurobindo has a tiny breakthrough, first and last, in this chapter (148). But once again, the reader is not led to the source from which the quotation is taken. In fact, he has a whole book on the subject. Such a style appears confounding (especially when boxes and indented quotes in italics highlight numerous other categories of sources with details).

  6.  Page 160 harks back to religion again and explores its definition. While ligare is cited, the Sanskrit root dhri is not mentioned. Nor is the crucial distinction between dharma and religion acknowledged. A certain poet is quoted in Hindi and English. Swami Vivekananda’s definitions, the most perfect yet seen by the reviewer, however do not find a place. i.e. 

               a) ‘Religion is Realization’.
               b) ‘Religion is the manifestation of Divinity already in man’.
               c) ‘The Religion (of mankind) is ONENESS’.

  7.  On p. 166 of Chapter 6 appears an interesting interpretation of verse II. 47 of the Bhagwad-Gitaadhikar is obligations, not rights, and ‘the onus for producing results is not on us’. The word phala seems to have been rendered into result. But the embargo in the verse is on obsession about ‘personal fruits’ from duties performed. This will improve the ‘results’ intended from responsibilities accepted. To distinguish between ‘fruit’ and ‘result’ is important. This difficulty recurs again in p. 360.

  8. Chapter 8 on ‘Identity’ is thirty pages long. The key theme here centers on ‘layers of personality’. Elaborate treatment has been offered from several angles. It ends on the note of ‘integrity’ by alignment with the Supreme Being (229). The numerous shaded, boxed, italicized quotes interlacing the chapter, though showing the author’s hard work, ignores articulations by these who have actually realized these states (except Kabir). The most authentic and holistic treatment of ‘layers’ is contained in the Taittiriya Upanishad (the pancha kosha model). Sri Aurobindo’s ‘Integral Yoga’ is the most competent spiritual exposition of this process.

  9.  ‘The Self’ is the topic of Chapter 9. Smt. Misra is correct to say that the greatest bar to experiencing the Self is our drowning in the world of concretes and tangibles alone (231). The chapter could have started off with some very apt and moving quotation(s) from Rabindranath Tagore’s The Religion of Man(Hibbert Lectures at Oxford) and Gitanjali also. He was the most complete aesthetic genius of India in this epoch. Of course Tagore does luckily have a box to him on p. 192, although through translation by others, not in his own words.  Amplifying her main argument just noted, she rightly assails the deleterious consequences of the desire-driven self. She advises mastery over the ego (248). Absolutely correct. But the almost insurmountable difficulties of ego-containment have not been acknowledged. It has been passed over lightly, incidentally. ‘The in-built mechanism in every human organism which provides ... a harmonious profile of action is the intrinsic knowledge of our divine origins. … With everything so neatly built into us… Values are thus part of the innate self of ours. We know them well enough’ (248-9). The distinction she then speaks about, despite such built-in knowledge, however is not taken up for resolution. The crux of the problem gets lost. The deadly grip of the shada-ripus or cardinal-sins, the well-spring of rampant dis-values, is neither acknowledged nor tackled.

  10.  Chapter 10 touches marginally upon the character of Krishna (267). But the direction of argument is correct. This epic figure of Indian culture is a favorite shooting target for a certain class of self-righteous apostles of one-sided peace, tolerance and non-violence. Smt. Misra’s arguments from the analogy of government and administration are pertinent. Compared to most of the greatest world figures like Buddha, Christ and others, Krishna’s role model is the most holistic one. He is not just sweet love and infinite compassion, but a stern, selfless administrator and governor as well. He is the best example of holistic leadership and administration for human society – with all its glories and ignominies. 

    On p.268 secularism is claimed to be a valid base in a multi-religious society. But dictionaries tell that secularism is that world-view which reckons with only the material and the mundane, not the sacred and spiritual. If equal treatment for all religions by the State is meant, then secularism is not the right word. The sooner a more appropriate word is chosen, the better for all of us. So, correctly understood, the word secular contradicts her own emphasis on religion. In any case, whether the professed impartiality towards all religious communities is translated into practice by the powers-that-be is a big ethical question mark in India, compared to other countries like the UK or the USA.  The people of a 6000-year old religious culture like India’s can never be secular. Smt. Misra’s allusions to this aspect, based on a few recent writers, are to the point. Her whiplash for the modernized elite of India as ‘bunches of village children exposed to the cinema screen for the first time’ is superb (271).  

    One wonders why the media (especially English, both print and audio-visual)  has escaped her whiplash!

  11.  The chapter on ‘Dilemma’ is a long one – a good forty four pages. Ideas and concepts are to be found aplenty here: Self, alienation, sin, ahankar, threegunas and so on. But somehow ethics does not seem to emerge in bold relief against this wideband canvas. Thus, it is interesting to note ahankar mentioned in pp.284-5. Further, p-284 admits the fact of the ‘whole universe clutched in the vicious grip of a runaway ahankar’. Yet, this is intriguingly followed by the incredible statement on p. 285: ‘Oriental tradition has generally given a long rope to ahankar and looked upon it with an indulgent eye’. We do not know what ‘oriental’ means here. But Bharatvarsha’s Gita, which Smt. Misra quotes abundantly, sounds this warning through the lips of Sri Krishna: ahankara vimudhatma, kartahamiti manyate (III 27). This is just one instance from endless caveats against ahankara in our shastras. In any case, a journey through this elaborate chapter does not bring us in touch with how to go about ‘ethical dilemmas’ – a pet theme, and frequently a convenient rationalization among all classes of professionals. What indeed is the ‘dilemma’ of chapter 11?

  12.  Fortunately, chapter 12 does pick up the ‘dilemma’ trail (323). In that case it prompts the question: why was the preceding chapter titled ‘The Dilemma’? We agree entirely with Smt. Misra when she asserts: ‘… About the identification of a duty, there is never any dilemma. Much of what passes for ethical dilemma is a clear sense of duty battling with a desire masquerading as a duty’. Her comments on p.337 on this issue are also pertinent. Incidentally, this chapter seems to have given at last a little space to Buddhist and Gandhian thought.

  13.  Chapters 12 to 14, spanning 120 pages, dilate upon action. Chapter 12, towards the end (343-4), hearkens back to the primal ripus of raag-dwesh-kaam-krodhspringing from vasanas. The distressed individual is caught in their grip. Chapter 13 speaks of the cosmic, and invites the worker to link up with the Omnipotent/Universal through samarpan (392). Chapter 14 reminds us about the opportunity offered, through pure action, to play the game of the Maker. All this is spirituality at its highest. But where is the reader standing today?

  14.  The last four chapters (15 to 18, covering 143 pages) dwell on work-perfection, on service-and ahimsa modes, on nurturance at home, and on the world of formal interactions, respectively. In this final chapter the author comes to grips with several practical and difficult problems in administration where the ‘circle of ethics widens’ (534). She supports the transition, if called for by the context, from the Rama paradigm of leadership to that of the Krishna paradigm (550). The analysis about the pursuit of economic values presented in a UNICEF publication is correctly assailed by Smt. Misra – though by means of a sentence which is a paragraph (561). She speaks about the ultimate aim, the real aim, of absolute dedication of life and work to the Universal (569). This chapter also expatiates on purushartha, love, Patanjali (Vivekananda gets one more lucky chance here via Patanjali – 576), serene supernal and the like. They are quite mystical – at least for this reviewer.

  15.  The ‘Epilogue’ (580 – 621) is japa, prarthana, mantra, music, swadhyaya, satsang, sadachar, and sat-chit-ananda all over. Samatwa and sanyam of the Gita would have completed the package. It is interesting to note here that when it comes to practical methods for moving towards spiritualized administration, the host of writers and sources which received such profuse highlighting in so many of the earlier chapters seem to yield little. It is India’s sanatan yoga-Vedanta (more briefly Hindu) psychology which gives all the light.

The review may now be concluded with some general observations:

  •  The book would have profited by the inclusion of an Index and a Bibliography.

  • The book appears to be more on and about spirituality and less on ethics as such. Hence the sub-title might have been more apt to say ‘pilgrimage’, instead of ‘business’ of life. The latter is too secular for the sacred tone of the work.

  •  It is precisely because of such a dominant spiritual tendency that this reviewer has noticed an almost conscious side-lining of Vivekananda and Aurobindo. The latter has thirty plus world-class volumes and the former ten, all in English. Both had scaled the summits of spirituality, and had lived Indian thought and ethics in their bones and marrow. They were also universalists and institution-builders par- excellence. Yet, the one box falling to the lot of Vivekananda (p.160) is taken from a second hand source. Sri Aurobindo is almost invisible, confined to a few innocuous lines for once. In terms of frequency of references, Tagore and Gandhi fare slightly better. But Tagore too is always quoted second hand, although the Sahitya Akademi has published three large volumes of his English writings. Such perfunctory treatment of these modern epitomes of spirituality, ethics and nation-building appears all the more painful when one notices many little-known writers (except perhaps in certain pockets of India) of certain categories quoted almost interminably – carefully highlighting them in italics, bolds, boxes etc. Ramana Maharshi, Radhakrishnan, Tilak and some more of that stature too are altogether absent.

  • Similarly, in a book that purports to deal comprehensively with spirituality for ethics, the three other spiritual modes which had emerged and flourished indigenously, as offshoots or rebel children of Sanatan Hindu spirituality, have also been made a short shrift of. The Dhammapada of Buddhism is mentioned a couple of times towards the end, the Granth Sahib of Sikhism is quoted but once, and Jainism is omitted altogether. Zoroastrian thought also escapes mention in the book. Yet the Parsee community has been a perfect model of full acceptance of and integration with the sanatan Hindu culture and ethics. Its positive contribution to almost every aspect of Indian life, without losing its own identity, has been most glorious.

  •  Such apparently planned inclusion and emphasis on the one hand (e.g. first quote of the book on p. 20 and the last one on p. 621), and exclusion or neglect (e.g. Sri Aurobindo etc.) on the other, suggests a latent agenda of the book. This agenda can be understood well through the following thoughts recently shared with the reviewer by a European professor (70 years old). He loves India dearly for her ‘core culture’ (not composite culture). So he makes it a point to come to India every year to stay, study and teach for 3 to 4 months at a stretch.

    ‘Whenever I come to India I make sure to glance through a cross section of latest books in the field of social sciences written by Indian scholars. Most of them are full of disproportionately extensive and over-zealous references to writers and sources which do no synchronize with your cultural milieu. Such writers have little empathy for your core culture – disconnected as they are with its mainsprings. They may physically belong to India, or to other countries. But both groups owe allegiance to cultures which have had aggressive, conquering relationships with India. Honoring them with copious references no doubt flatters and pleases them. But due to increased arrogance, they do not reciprocate with respect and gratitude. So far as I can assess, such one-sided efforts by the core culture for sixty years since independence has failed to achieve India’s avowed goal of national integration. And if my prognosis has any merit, this method will not be fruitful in future either. For, no matter how much you concede, the stark truth is that cultures which keep their anchors planted firmly in epicenters outside India will never integrate with her. It is naïve, both intellectually and politically, to berate this hardest of all facts. Who knows if this one-way traffic is not really a symptom of an ineradicable malaise of the literate Indian mind: will-to-slavery! My apologies for saying this.

    ‘There are several Western and Eastern countries with plural societies. But scholars there never indulge in debilitating prevarications about their respective core cultures. Authors in these countries, where significant numbers of various denominations live (e.g. Germany where 30 per cent are Turkish), do not bend their backs to accord parity to the core texts or writers belonging to external cultural origins. In Malaysia, where the core culture constitutes only 55 per cent of the population, only the sacred text of that culture is recited during inauguration of all government functions. Deluxe copies of that text are gifted to visiting speakers from other cultures – without any qualms. British books on values, ethics etc., for example, never quote the Gita or the Upanishads or Indian authors of world-wide standing. Yet, Britain has been deeply connected with India for over 250 years. Now I realize: Why should they?, for Indian authors themselves are shy or afraid of owning up (far less asserting) their own core culture, and its greatest modern exponents who had not only thought, but also lived. The only plausible explanation for this may lie in the enslaved sub-conscious of the Indian mind’.

  •  The zeitgeist of the present times puts a premium on political correctness, while discounting intellectual honesty. Commissioned books are naturally more susceptible to this zeitgeist. This conscience-killing trend is becoming widespread. It bodes ill for the future of India.

  • Pictures, diagrams, boxes etc. seem to have been overdone. Numerous pages are cluttered by them. They detract from smooth, concentrated reading of the author’s thoughts in the main text. They also tend to mar the elegance of the book.

  •  Unfortunately, the word ‘Ruvvish’ sounds just as degenerate as ‘Ravish’, though the former was coined by the author as a better alternative.

  •  Printer’s devils are not wanting, though this is no longer exceptional. But here one of the ‘devils’ surpasses all the rest: the epithet ‘peshawari’ prefixed to the name of a certain hapless author! (p.30).

  •  Finally, all said and done, the reviewer must end on a note of gratitude to Smt. Misra for trying to bring spirituality to the centre-stage of administration. On a more personal note too, he recalls with ever-lasting gratitude the nursing and care Smt. Misra had bestowed on him when he suffered from severe back pain in the Yashada campus. This had happened fifteen years ago perhaps. That was spiritual ethics in action.


More by :  S. K. Chakraborty

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