That’s a great question, Anthony. I was recently reading Fred Dallmayr’s introductory anthology on comparative political theory and found that while the writings on East Asia were quite good, those on South Asia were… not. That’s a pattern I find in other places, too.
I might go out on a bit of a limb and say that, historically, there just hasn’t been all that much political philosophy, relatively speaking, in India. Part of this may be because so many Indian thinkers were in renouncer traditions that rejected political involvement (see my article in Journal of Buddhist Ethics, or my post about justice on this blog.)
I noted that most of the papers on Indian political philosophy in Dallmayr’s anthology referred either to the Arthaśāstra (a text obscure enough that we really don’t know if it was ever put into practice) or to Rammohun Roy and Jawaharlal Nehru, whose political philosophies were based almost entirely on Western sources. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that, but it will disappoint people looking for a “distinctly Indian” political philosophy.
For the latter, the one really clear source is Mohandas Gandhi (one could add Aurobindo Ghose along with him)i; in premodern times, I suspect one is most likely to find it in the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyana, and it can be tricky to distill a coherent set of ideas and arguments from those texts (especially the MBh). There have been a number of people doing constructive political work thinking with Gandhi, but beyond that I think the literature is relatively thin on the ground.
Amod Lele on 5 February 2015 at 5:06 pm said:
I suppose if one were to make a claim like that it might have less to do with the notion of the “political” than of “philosophy/theory”: especially, to what extent do the epics count as philosophy or theory?
I was thinking about using the Śāntiparvan of the Mahābhārata to teach political philosophy in my introductory Indian philosophy class, since there are certainly a great number of political ideas in it. But I soon realized that, as with dharmaśāstra, there is little to no explicit reasoning attached to the ideas; it is simple injunction, do this and don’t do this, which has little power to affect those who do not already buy into it. I suspect there’s better political wisdom to be found in the narrative portions than the didactic ones, but it’s harder to weave those into a philosophy course. It may be for similar reasons that the Pañcatantra and Hitopadeṣa have been much more widely read than the Arthaśāstra, texts with similar messages.
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