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Eros, Ethics, and Enlightenment

Eros, Ethics, and Enlightenment: Towards a Reconstructive Approach to Ultimate and Penultimate Goals in Hindu Theology
By Rita Dasgupta Sherma
Claremont Graduate University

The use of philosophical categories for the interpretation of social behavior has not been a characteristic of traditional Hindu theology and philosophy. Thus, metaphysical categories such as ontology and cosmology do not provide significant guidance for the establishment of an ethical framework. This has left unexplored the ways and means by which the theological telos of human life (moksa) could inform the ethical norms of human society (dharma). Different Hindu theological traditions have made different pronouncements on the value, or lack of it, of the moral life for the spiritual life. Hindu theologies are similar, however, in their indifference to the possibility that different theologies may, with all justification, give rise to different ethical norms; that the selection of the soteriological path should, in some way, affect the rationale of the ethical path.

In addition, there does not appear to be a significant curiosity about Divine motivation for creation. Since divine purpose does not seem to constitute an important element of Hindu theological reflection, there is also no corresponding concern for linking the ethical foundation for human action with the telos of divine purpose. The vast corpus of Hindu ethical literature, therefore, is essentially independent of specific cosmovisions or theologies of divine purpose. Elements of Hindu ethics are very clearly articulated in various types of literature, especially the Bhagavad Gita, the Epics, and the comprehensive codes of conduct outlined in the Dharmasastras. The ethical principles and behaviors, as categorized in these texts, represent the complex of ritual and moral obligations known as dharma. While the principle of dharma–that human action must be in harmony with cosmic and social order–holds for every age, the content of dharma, is subject to change. Nevertheless, Hindu theological reflection has not shown much proclivity, historically, towards altering the existing content of dharma in keeping with new directions in theology.

Thus, major theological perspectives stand in virtual isolation from the contents of the moral framework that embeds Hindu society. This framework, or dharma, has its own foundational texts (as I have noted) and self-referential norms. One text, however, in which ethical guidance and soteriological inspiration famously come together is the Bhagavad Gita. Yet, even here, what is explicitly laid out is the method by which dharma can be used as a vehicle for moksa. What is not addressed is the need for a relationship between the specific theological vision that is being expounded and the content of the dharmic life that is being recommended.

Later theological schools have reflected even less than the Gita on what should have been a pivotal relationship. Reformation of ethical norms are often catalyzed by the appearance of new ontological and soteriological perspectives within a given religious tradition. Hence, the Protestant Reformation initiates new ethical norms–the ultimacy of married life, the perception of secular work as a “calling” and so forth. Similarly, Mahayana Buddhism, with its invocation of the Boddhisattva ideal, changes the discourse on the relationship between compassionate engagement and wise detachment. In the Hindu context, however, the significant differences in ontology and soteriology that appear in successive theological traditions do not seem to take into consideration their own potential for altering the meaning and basis of the moral order.

An examination of the different positions on the relationship of dharma to moksa reveals an overriding concern for the relevance of dharma to moksa, rather than the relevance of moksa for dharma. Therefore, theological consideration centers on the ways in which upholding the ritual and moral order can smooth the passage to liberative gnosis. But that the gnosis which liberates should also inform the properties of the moral framework remains unexamined because the trajectory of the aim of human life is considered to be linear; it is a progression from dharma to moksaMoksa represents the ultimate telos and, as such, there is an expectation that the social order should be so arranged as to facilitate the endeavor.

If, however, the relationship between the moral order and liberative knowledge were understood to be parabolic and integrative rather than unidirectional and disjunctive, the theological conceptual framework would indeed impact the tenor of the ethical vision. This, of course, is precisely what occurs, for example, in the Boddhisattva ideal where the vision of enlightenment demands a return to conventional reality to assist all sentient beings; here, then, the soteriological trajectory is parabolic; one sees this too in Sri Aurobindo’s tantric vedanta. Whether such a parabolic trajectory is justifiable in Hinduism depends on the stance of the particular theological tradition vis ‘a vis the God-world relationship.

The contemporization of the discourse on the relation of dharma to moksa demands the envisioning of a very different teleological trajectory. To postulate that metaphysics should impact ethics is simply to suggest that our conception of the nature of reality should inform our understanding of the function of humanity within the nature of things. There are a number of ideas in Hindu theology that seem to imply that there is danger in the application of metaphysical principles to the reality of life situations. This is expressed in the traditional stance against the access to vedic knowledge by the unqualified (anadhikara), and in the distinction between ultimate truth versus conventional truth (paramartha satya versus samvritti satya). The proposition is that it is not reasonable to apply the ultimate truth of the theological vision of realized to the arena of conventional truth where samsaric beings live. The two levels of reality reflect two different perceptions of truth. This discourages, in general, the applications of metaphysical paradigms to conventional life. The perceived grounding of the dharmic texts on vedic revelation is another deterrent to thorough-going critical examination and change.

At the same time, however, there is general consensus in the Hindu tradition that the pronouncements of smriti texts can be subject to investigation and critique through the lens of any of the legitimate epistemic methodologies, or pramanasPramanas are the valid or acceptable means of knowledge. The most important of which are perception (pratyaksa); verbal testimony from an authoritative source (sabda); postulation based on prima facie reasoning (arthapatti), and inference (anumana). The very existence of pramana theory gives support to the position that the content of dharma, since it is articulated in the “smriti,” is not absolute and can be subject to argument and alteration.

The fundamental issue that needs to be addressed, however, before any reconstruction of dharma according to a particular theological vision can take place, is the function of dharma. Does the ethical life function as the path to an emancipation eschatologically understood? Is it primarily to establish a way of life that facilitates the bestowal of grace for the purpose of liberation from rebirth in the phenomenal world? Or is dharma ultimately irrelevant to what is understood to be the one truly worthwhile goal, moksa? The first position is that of the Bhagavad Gita. The second and third that of Ramanuja and Sankara respectively.

But perhaps dharma needs to be seen in a totally different light; not as a penultimate aim but containing within itself, and reflecting in its execution the ultimate telos itself. This position would be a departure from the practiced norm and would have significant implications for teleology. A precedence for such a perspective exists in the Prabhakara Mimamsika stance on dharma as the ultimate end. If dharma, however, is perceived solely in terms of obligatory ritual actions, moral injunctions and prohibitions, such a stance would be narrow and impractical. But if dharma is conceived as the propensity for right action informed by a specific theological vision, such a position becomes tenable.

The implied meaning, however, of the inclusion of the above practices under the rubric of dharma is that the human and the cosmic realms are a continuum and the performance of religious ritual and worship is essential to the maintenance and flourishing of the communion between the human and the divine. Hence, the communication with the sacred realm, as well as the regulation of the moral order, is integral to dharma. The fundamental function of dharma, then, is to promote beneficial action, responsible behavior, commitment to community, and communion with the sacred. Accepting these fundamental principles, the content of dharma could be reformulated according to the framework of a specific theological system.

The fundamental purpose of dharma provides sufficient grounds for the development of profound communion with the divine, and for a display of a deep commitment to the ethics of world engagement, but the content of dharma needs to be continually reconceived in order to be relevant. As it stands, dharma cannot be understood outside of its embeddedness in the class and gender hierarchy, the endogamous kinship system, and the injunctions and prohibitions regarding purity and pollution. As I have elaborated elsewhere (Sherma 1998), conventional concepts of purity-impurity negatively impact attitudes towards the restoration of the environment. Regarding traditional caste and gender based hierarchies, one of the main reasons for the intractable entrenchment of caste system and male privilege is precisely its entanglement with the injunctions of dharma. But in an era when the issues of ecological concern, human rights, and gender equality are of prime importance worldwide, strict observance of the caste and gender norms (varnasramadharma) are not only anachronistic but simply untenable for progressive Hindus everywhere and especially so for rapidly growing diaspora communities.

The goals of dharma and moksa are part of a broader ethical structure; the components of this four-fold ethical framework (caturvarga) are moral and ritual obligation (dharma); wealth and power (artha); sensual and aesthetic pleasure (kama), and liberation or “release” (moksa). Dharma is meant to serve a facilitative function with regard to moksa and a regulative function vis ‘a vis artha and kama. Thus, dharma stands apart from the most common and powerful desires and aims of human life as an agency of moral enforcement.

The distinction between the fulfillment of moral duty and the satisfaction of desire betrays a fear of hedonism and is at odds with the aims of the Hindu understanding of the function of the second stage of life, that of the householder (grhastya), in which the realization of sensual and aesthetic desires are supposed to have a rightful place. Ethical thought and conduct should invariably inform the legitimate fulfillment of desire regardless of circumstance. Thus, dharma should, logically, incorporate artha and kama. If the basis of dharma, however, is perceived to be a reactive morality that seeks to stamp out the seeds of any potential threat to the traditional order, then the subsuming of artha and kama may stifle novelty and creativity. But if dharma is seen as proactive and evinces an ethical dynamic where the incremental improvement of the human and natural world is the central concern rather than the preservation of the conventional social order, then the subsuming of the other categories becomes legitimate.

In this perspective, the accrual of power and wealth could be theologically understood to represent a potential for great good that which, if used towards evil ends, would result in serious karmic consequences. Implicit in such an ethic is the idea that, since the amelioration of the condition of humanity and nature is central, any accumulation of power and wealth that degrades the world goes against the grain of such a theology. Dharma, so conceived, could provide the integrative structure necessary to incorporate artha and kama. For such an integration, dharma must be reimaged as being simultaneously the repository of the moral force that keeps human society grounded in the core values of commitment to family and service to society that are central to the emotional, physical and psychological wellbeing of the human person, as well as the source of an enlightened ethic that moves the human community to the realization of higher levels of care, compassion, and courage.

Hindu ethics is characterized by a well known tension between two ideals; active participation in the world (pravritti) and detached quietism (nivritti). The tension exists because of the perceived incremental accrual of karmic residue through active involvement with the world. The Bhagavad Gita attempts to resolve this conflict by suggesting that action performed without attachment to its results (niskamakarma) will not lead to an accrual of karmic effects. This is clearly easier to achieve if the task is initiated for the fulfillment of obligation rather than for the satisfaction of a desire. Dharma can be performed without attachment precisely because it is about duty, not desire. This is why the satisfaction of aesthetic and sensual pleasure (kama), while regarded as a valid aim of human life is, nonetheless, seen as something separate from, and needing the regulation of dharma with its moral, ritual and purificatory concerns. Such a position does not give any quarter to the epistemology inherent in the experience of eros.

The doctrine of rasa, especially in the theology of Abhinavagupta, stands in contradistinction to this dismissal of the value of aesthetic passion. Rasa, on one level is used to denote juice, savor, taste, flavor, or the essence of a thing. On another, it can be seen to signify passion; a specific emotion; exquisite enjoyment; profound aesthetic pleasure; sensual delight, and sensitivity to feeling. But rasa is not just the sensory or emotive response to a stimulus but also the transformative cognition, the sudden knowledge that emerges from that response. While rasa covers a variety of specific emotions, the aesthetic that arises out of the idea of rasa is centered in sensitivity to eros. If rasaas response of feeling is eros in its deepest sense, then rasa as the locus of knowledge is the epistemology of eros in its highest form. It is not rasa if one does not leave one transformed.

The most comprehensive elaboration of rasa theory is found in Kashmir Saivism, especially in the aesthetic theory of Abhinavagupta. Here, poetic drama is the characteristic metaphor for the play of the divine because in it one sees the creation of a world in a specific narrative by the poet (as God creates the world of manifold experience); the deep engagement of the actor with the world (as God, through the Self in beings, is involved with the world); the relational response of the hero to the heroine (mirroring the relationality experienced by God through apparent divine self-differentiation, Siva/Sakti); and the resolution in love between the principals where the sense of separateness of identity dissolves into union (much as the Divine brings the rasika, or person of feeling, into communion by self-revealing grace, the locus of which is the transportive experience of rasa). As the 7th century poetician Anandavardhana writes:

“In the boundless universe of poetry, the poet is the creator, and as it pleases him, so does this world come forth. If the poet is a man of passion (srngarin), the world in poetry is full of rasa. But if he is passionless (vitaraga), that world is devoid of rasa altogether.”

While the poetic metaphor is supreme in the metaphysical aesthetics of Abhinavagupta, the profoundly catalytic experience of eros that leads to the moment of epiphany induced by rasa in poetics is also revealed in other sources of aesthetic delight. As Abhinavagupta explains in his Tantraloka:

“Indeed, when he [hears] sweet songs,
Or when he touches sandal-wood,
When he is no longer [content] with staying in the middle [and being indifferent],
When a tense vibration (spandamanata) [starts] in his heart,
Then it is called the power of bliss”
[Tantraloka of Abhinvagupta (12 vols.), with commentary by Rajanaka Jayaratha. KSTS, 1918. Translation by Natalia Isayeva in From Early Vedanta to Kashmir Saivism: Gaudapada, Bhartrhari, and Abhinavagupta. (Albany: SUNY, 1995), p. 174.]

To experience rasa is to enter the domain of sahrdaya (lit. “same hearted one” i.e. the sensitive or emotionally open soul). To know the highest rasa is to be pierced by the sudden recognition of the true nature of things denoted by pratibha, a “flash” of illumination. Kashmir Saivism’s metaphysical conception of realization as the joy drenched emotional knowledge-feeling that characterizes the divine experience of self-manifestation develops into a soteriological ideal where the transportive intensity of emotion accompanies the enjoyment of aesthetic experience and transforms it into ontological passion. It is for this reason that rasa is not only a metaphor for the bliss of liberation but the defining flavor of the liberated state.

The various moods that emerge through the savoring of the different sensory-emotive states elicit different sentiments all of which have epistemic value. Even grief can be a mood that provides the locus for savoring the rasa of compassion (karuna). Thus, the very poignancy of feeling that accompanies profound sentiment, emotion, or sensual perception can allow for the emergence of states that can transcend ordinary consciousness.

The intensity of feeling induced by an immersion in the experience of eros gives rise to an epistemological epiphany where the nature of the Divine is revealed as fundamentally relational. It is where divine immanence, Sakti, seeks ever new expressions of relationality. The interplay of Siva and Sakti is not merely a convenient metaphor for the principles of transcendence and immanence, the static and the kinetic, but for the divine passion for self revealing communion and engagement. The dynamic between Siva and Sakti is presented as the play of eros in the inner life of the divine. That is to say God ad intra is marked by a profound proclivity for relationship.

In the theology of Abhinavagupta’s Paratrisika Vivarana it is Sakti who is the source and presiding deity of all manifestation and as such, informs all perceptive and creative functions in its innate energy. Awareness of the immanence of the Goddess as this ever active energy in one’s life is to know the nature of the divine. Such inner gnosis can be activated by aesthetic passion which in its intense evocation of the sensitivity of the spirit catalyzes transformation.

But, I submit, rasa cannot be attained through either a quietist disengagement (nivritti) nor an active but desireless involvement with the world (niskamakarma). It seems self-evident that rasa requires vulnerability, openness, sensitivity, passion, and emotion. For, rasa is not hedonism; it is not rasa unless it provokes a sudden, poignant recollection of the presence of the Divine. And rasa is not always evocative of delight. A moving and tragic story is capable of bringing about rasa; here it would be the rasa of deep compassion.

Rasa is fundamentally evocative of relationality, engagement with the other–whether in passion or compassion. If the ethics of dharma were to include the moral implications of the epistemology of rasa, it would provide a very important resource for the awakening of the latent impulse of empathetic engagement with the world. To be sure, rasa is traditionally part of a soteriological methodology. But if the relationship of enlightenment to ethics is envisioned as parabolic, the experience of the noumenal elicited by rasa impels the sensitive heart (sahrdaya), moved by the sense of communion with others, to contribute to their wellbeing. The poignancy of the experience of rasa is overwhelming in its intensity, and powerful in its arousal of the sense of divine presence. But it can too easily be subsumed in the peace of a self-indulgent interiority unless the ethics of engagement, lokasamgraha, are imprinted on the heart of the experiencer.