Notions of morality communicated through stories is a much more effective way of embedding values in a society as opposed to codifying them as commandments or laws.
Human culture has evolved two methods to reason about morality. Language is the fundamental tool for reasoning, but it can be used in two ways to debate about what forms the right action and what forms the wrong action, in any given circumstance.
The first method is the legalist approach — to write everything down as a set of laws. Probably, the first person to codify law in this manner was Hammurabi. The more famous examples were the ten commandments of Moses, or the religious books of Christianity and Islam. Religious scholars will be horrified if anybody argues that humans could be moral without such a codified set of rules. However, it is not just religion that imposes this structure on morality. The notion of a constitution, which supposedly protects the set of rights for citizens (and even all humans, and sometimes even animals), is based on this legalist understanding of morality. Needless to say, this way of thinking is almost universal in today’s world. The debate is merely about how long this list of rights be, and what should be included and what not in this list. Nobody asks the deeper question of whether it is even possible to even completely encode ethical action in all real-world contexts within a language. Non-governmental organizations that battle for human rights also think within this framework. However, in human history, this was not the only way to think about morality.
Mencius and Panchatantra provide an alternate way to think about morality, as cognitive training through stories.
The second method to reason about morality is to give a set of examples, typically encoded as stories, and to reason how a given circumstance fits into one of these examples. This approach is not rigidly codified in language, but requires an element of human interpretation and imagination. This is probably the most common approach for understanding ethics in all human cultures, including tribal cultures. This approach to morality is beautifully expressed by the Chinese philosopher Mencius. He argued that people should memorize classical texts like the “Book of Odes”, and the examples of conduct from the “Analects of Confucius” and quote these examples in situations of daily life. This is a reinforcement of an earlier injunction from Confucius, who argued about using sacred poems from the “Book of Odes” in daily life. But Mencius gave an important elaboration to this argument, he said that the examples are not applicable literally and immediately to a given situation in life. Instead, people should cultivate an inherent mental capacity known as “moral extension” that lets them generalize the kernel of wisdom in a given example to a new context. Without this capacity for moral extension, Mencius argued that there is no wisdom in a dead text. The genius of Mencius lies in observing two innate aspects of how the human mind works: (i) the mind’s actions are not atomic, but based on the subconscious that is cultivated for a long time by a variety of influences from the environment (ii) the real world is infinitely complex and no amount of codified knowledge from the past can relate exactly to a new situation. Instead, the human mind has to actively generalize known ideas and categories. Both of these observations are justified by the current understanding from neuroscience in how the brain works.
In India, this understanding is even more elaborated. For example, the fables of Panchatantra invented a method of recursive story-telling, where characters in a story reason about a given situation by relating a different story and arguing about how to extend the moral argument. Like Russian dolls, these stories are embedded at several levels. Such narrative devices were not present in the Chinese example (or in the Aesop’s fables of Europe, which were created much later). Another startling element of Panchatantra is that the characters are fully fleshed out, with even animals having names and personalities. Such narrative devices were not to be seen in Europe till the modern times, like in the literary novel. However, Panchatantra was embedded in the greater corpus of Hindu stories and epics — known as Itihasas and Puranas. In this tradition, the right ethical conduct, termed as Dharma, is known to be ineffable and beyond any form of codification in language. Unique to all ancient civilizations, Indians had a very sophisticated understanding of language, in the form of Sanskrit. This language is of exquisite precision and fecundity, unparalleled to this day in any other language. But even with this extremely precise language, Indians felt inadequate in expressing “truth” or “ethical conduct” in a rigid set of laws. This is probably due to their understanding of the pitfalls of logic, and specifically of the two-sided negation, which completely escaped the Greek tradition of Aristotle. The notion of non-expressibility in language appeared in Western philosophy extremely late, for example, in the works of C.S.Peirce or Ludwig Wittgenstein. In contrast, this question was studied very rigorously in India from the earliest days.
Indians did have a large volume of literary texts for codifying ethical conduct, which were known as Dharma Shastras. But unlike the Biblical example, these texts come with a warning that they are not to be blindly applied to any context in space and time. Manu, the author of one of the earliest texts, states explicitly to not use his code in any context, but to modify it appropriately. Unlike the code of Hammurabi, Manu Smriti was only meant as suggestive and not a rigid enforcement. Another unique aspect of Dharma Shastras is the emphasis on Prayaschitta (prayah + chitta = prior mind) that is used as a corrective to a crime, in addition to Danda or Vyavahara (external punishment). This refers to a Confucian-like understanding of the subconscious of the mind, which needs to be trained, such that misconduct will not be repeated. Vedic Yagna (sacrifice) also remains a superlative of Confucian ritual, with exhaustive attention to detail in how to perform the ritual and how to even chant the Mantras. But despite the attention to detail and copious volume of these texts, Indians did not rely exclusively on legal texts like the Dharma Shastras, but debated about Dharma using examples from the epics. The greatest of these epics is the Mahabharata, which ruthlessly discusses the nature of Dharma in many tricky situations. These stories are immensely popular to this day and form part of a living tradition. Such popular depiction of Dharma through stories is known as the “Panchama Veda” or the “Fifth Veda”. This term is used to denote both the Mahabharata and the Natyashastra — the treatise on drama and dance for depicting stories. The comparison with Vedas should not make them similar to religious scripture. Stories can be chosen or left out because whether they are relevant to any given situation is always open for debate.
In ancient China, there was a philosophical battle between the different schools of thought, on whether the law can be explicitly formulated or not. The first philosopher to argue explicitly for the written law was Mozi, who stated that personal bias needs to be minimized in any conduct. Mencius argued back, stating that doing this is impossible, due to the very nature of the human mind. Mencius was in turn critiqued by Xun Zi, who argued that his philosophy is not practical and cannot be applied to a worldly situation. Later philosophers like Shang Yang and Han Fei created a powerful framework called “legalism” that is arguably the origin of Chinese bureaucracy (and all modern bureaucracy). This efficient bureaucracy had unified China under the Qin dynasty, but this process resulted in a lot of violence, including the murders of Shang Yang and Han Fei. Abandoned for a long time, the ideas of Mencius found favour in China at a later time, along with the spread of Buddhist ideas from India. Owing to the Indian intellectual tradition, Buddhist philosophy is intimately aware of the limitations of language and binary logic. Thus, the Chinese popular understanding of ethics is also very closely aligned with the Indian notion of Dharma. This is however not represented in state policy.
Asuras and Devas represent two sides of language. Creative action is possible only by a tussle between the two sides.
In ancient India, this legalist turn to rigid law never happened. A figure comparable to Shang Yang was Chanakya (Kautilya), who unified Indian polity under the Mauryan empire. In contrast to Shang Yang, who advocated the ruthless manipulation of individuals for the cause of universal good, Chanakya had a nuanced notion of Dharma. He advocated a minimalist state which lets different individuals lead their lives according to their personal Dharma, but which protects the common universal ethic. With this background, it may appear that a literalist interpretation was unknown in India, but actually, it was refined to a very great detail. It was known as the Asura perspective. This refers to the Asuras, who confuse their bodies with the true self. They were contrasted with the Devas, who know that their true self is not identical to their bodies, but shared between each other. The perspectives of the Asuras and Devas give two distinct theories about meaning: one claims it is contained completely within the words of a language, the other claims it is contained in the holistic context of how words are used. This eternal debate keeps happening between philosophers grounded in Nirukta and Vyakarana perspectives in India. After Ferdinand de Saussure developed European linguistic theory on the basis of the Sanskrit grammar of Panini, a similar debate germinated between structuralists and post-structuralists (deconstructionists) in 20th century Europe.
Hindu mythography recognizes this to be an eternal, irresolvable battle and represents these two positions through the figures of Vishnu and Shiva. In the Indian tradition, creative action is represented using the mythical image of Samudra Manthan — as an eternal tussle between the Asuras and the Devas, pulling on either end of the giant snake Vasuki (language). Thus, the Asura perspective was considered essential, even though its limitations were identified. In contrast, the western interpretations of “law” are exclusively Asuric. With Islamic invasions and European colonization, this Asuric perspective replaced the notion of Dharma for the Indian state. However, a corresponding change in the cultural mindset has not happened. In India, even Muslims and Christians have an innate understanding of Dharma as something beyond the law.
[Samudra Manthan is an ancient Hindu myth, with Devas and Asuras churning the milk ocean by pulling from the two sides of a giant snake (language).]
The two different ways to reason about morality can be measured with respect to their relative success in inculcating moral behaviour in people. The contrast is very stark. Starting from the archaeological record from Indus-Saraswati valleys, India shows extremely low amounts of violence as compared to the rest of the world. Unlike the total war in Europe (and ancient China) which engulfed all sections of the society, war in India was restricted exclusively to the warrior classes. The farmers and artisans are protected from violence, as is the fertile capacity of the earth — represented by rivers and cattle. Even in war, the enemy is given multiple opportunities to surrender, and no surrendered enemies are murdered. This is in stark contrast to the plurality of incidents of genocide in Abrahamic religions, as well as in western archaeological record.
India fares better than even China, which is already very humane when compared to the barbarism of the west. Unlike the legalists in China, who advocated the abduction and even murder of philosophers and thinkers from the opposing countries, India had a sharp ban on the murder of philosophers. A trial like that of Socrates has never happened in India because ideological differences were not considered as a threat to social order. The power of the king was not absolute in India, unlike in most other civilizations. And absolute slavery was non-existent. Even in the medieval periods, India showed extremely low amounts of violence (this data is conspicuously absent from the massive tome of Steven Pinker “Better angels of our nature”). Pinker argues that literary novels which encouraged people to take the perspective of different characters have massively reduced violence in Europe. He relates this to corresponding anatomical areas in the human brain. However, he says that this civilizational turn happened for the first time ever in history in Europe. This is absolutely wrong. The data from India is often uncomfortable for any myth-making about Western or Judaeo-Christian supremacy, so this is simply just ignored. This is unpardonable because India is the largest concentration of humans in the world for the most part of history.
In conclusion, thinking about morality through stories is far better than arguing about it within the prism of legal texts. This removes the power of ethical interpretation from a special class of humans (lawyers) and places it within the reach of all humans. Unlike technical or artistic expertise, which is always specialized, morality should be a universal. An ethical model based on stories and rituals inculcates ethical behaviour by moulding the subconscious of individuals as well as that of the society. Such an ethical model is completely absent from the western Hobbesian state. With the rise of India and China, this ancient Dharmic model of state might find a rebirth. This will be better for all humanity.
References / Footnotes
On the philosophy of Mencius and his debates with literalists like Mozi and Xunzi.
This debate of Dharma vs. scriptural law is alluded even in modern Indian films, as Vamsee Juluri reviews on Bahubali.
Michel Danino’s lecture on the relevance of Indian knowledge systems today.
Subhash Kak explains the Indian scientific tradition of Vaiseshika and the dual interplay of Deva and Asura perspectives.
Balagangadhara discusses the Indian notion of history (Itihasa) and how meaning is derived from Hindu mythography.