Shyam Ranganathan
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The moral semantics I defend in my dissertation has its roots in an account I provide in Ethics and the History of Indian Philosophy (2007),  in response to perplexities Indologists have had in studying moral thought from ancient Sanskrit texts. This was originally my MA Thesis in South Asian Studies (2002). The second edition, (2017), contains additional analysis about theoretical and methodological biases in the Study of Indian Ethics. MLBD is the leading Indology publisher.

One aspect of this book that is right, I think, is my contention that moral concepts have to be understood in terms of their philosophical function. Moreover, I argue that “dharma” and “ethics” serve the same philosophical function in their respective traditions, and that Indian philosophy is saturated with ethics.  

But much of this was written before I did any serious research into moral semantics and translation at the doctoral level. The second edition contains a postscript that fills in some details of my newer thought on the matter. Specifically I bring attention to the obviously political dimensions of standard accounts of Indian thought.

One of the key doctrines I defend here is that if we want to figure out what the ethical terms are in a language, and you don’t want to rely on your own outlook as a standard, you should look to the terms that demarcate what people in that culture get annoyed about if you do not take it seriously. I call this the Anger Inclination Thesis. I was blown over when I found that many readers systematically took me to be arguing that ethics is about getting angry, or that you should get angry if you have an ethical outlook . Nothing of the sort was defended. Yet, it was interesting that this was nearly a universal interpretation. One explanation for this is the linguistic account of thought that I identify and criticize extensively, since my dissertation. If the meaning of moral terminology is this inclination to get annoyed, it would seem that this is what ethics is about, assuming the linguistic account of thought.  


In Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra, I translate, comment on and introduce the Yoga Sūtra (circa 200 CE) by the theory of translation and moral semantics I defend in my dissertation. The Yoga Sūtra is thus shown to be a classic text of moral philosophy and moral psychology. It has formed the basis for my further research into the philosophy of propositions, and moral theory, and has served as a foundation for further research by other scholars (e.g. Puri, The Tagore-Gandhi Debate on Matters of Truth and Untruth, Springer 2014), and was the subject of one MA Thesis  (Taylor-Rugman, Dharmamegha Samadhi in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. MA Thesis, Religion. University of Wales Trinity Saint David).

While I had not worked out the details yet, looking back I see that my approach to this as to all moral texts was to explicate  as opposed to interpret. To explicate is to follow standard practice in philosophy where we read each perspective as entailing a theoretical explanation of its own controversial claims about a topic, such as “dharma” or “ethics,” and we further understand the concept of dharma or ethics in terms of what competing theories of dharma and ethics converge on while they disagree. It turns out that the concept behind both terms, explicated, is the Right or the Good. My account of the Yoga Sūtra follows an explication where the text is treated as entailing a theory that entails its own usage of moral terms such as “dharma.”  

At the time I translated the text, I thought of rendering the text in accordance with standard philosophical practices in reading texts, which assume explication. This seems radical.

I originally decided to translate this text because all the translations I could find were interpretations. An interpretation explains a text or perspective in terms of what the interpreter takes to be true, reasonable, or believable.  This, unlike explication, is subjective: the outcome of an interpretation depends entirely on the background beliefs of the interpreter.


The purpose of the Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Indian Ethics is  is twofold.

First, it brings together articles by scholars working on specific sources of Indian ethics, and is arranged topically in three parts: ethical theory, applied ethics, and morality and politics. I am thrilled with the contributions, which show that Indian philosophy is drawn along moral theoretical lines: different darśanas (perspectives) are differing views on the foundational concept of ethics: the Right or the Good.  Findings presented here for the first time show that not only are the three common ethical theories of the Western tradition present as major options in the Indian tradition—Virtue Ethics (Jainism), Consequentialism (Buddhism, Nyāya), Deontology (Pūrva Mīmāṃsā, Vedānta, and the epics)— but Bhakti/Yoga (especially as we find in the Epics and in the Yoga Sūtra) constitutes a distinct ethical theory.  Surveying these moral theories constitutes the theoretical section. The section on Applied Ethics includes not only an excellent article on the Deontological Particularism of Mīmāṃsā, but also a wonderful article on Indian medical ethics. Finally, the section on politics and morality includes a broad survey of the topic from the Epics, to popular figures, such as Gandhi  and Vivekananda.

Second, it contains within it an extended introduction, where I explore the philosophical problems in studying Indian ethics. On first blush, these are a function of the widespread adaptation of interpretation instead of explication.  Explication is what philosophers employ in studying philosophy. Interpretation is what philosophers spend all of their time trying to discourage.

Interpretation seems appropriate in part because it is the theoretical answer to the challenge of understanding in the Western tradition, which in turn is based on a guiding idea of Western theory: thought is the meaning of what we say in our language.

 I call the tradition of the linguistic account of thought with a European origin “the West.”This account ignores the political history of language formation. I argue that this seemingly innocent thesis in the philosophy of thought is responsible not only for the West’s history of imperialism, but also the botched study of alien moral philosophy, which comes to the same thing. In both cases, the only way that aliens can be countenanced as having views on ethics is if they agree with the imperialist/interpreter.  I defend an alternative account of thought, that makes sense of our basic practice in philosophy: explication. Whereas interpretation treats truth as primary, explication treats objectivity (what we can converge on while we disagree) as primary. The section addresses a confluence of topics in metaethics, politics, the philosophy language, epistemology and metaphysics, as they bear on questions of cross cultural scholarship.

e-PG Pathshala is not quite a book:  this is the Government of India’s project of bringing resources for graduate education across disciplines to the web. I was asked to oversee (design the course, recruit authors, vet contributions, and contribute myself) Ethics 1: a first year MA course that covers the European and Indian traditions of moral theory– there are also two lessons on Chinese moral philosophy (by me).  This was one of sixteen courses in total that comprise the Philosophy offerings on this site. I was happy to agree, but I found that I could not signup very many authors who could deliver the materials within the frame that the overseers wanted. So I ended up writing many (twenty two) of the lessons. The lessons themselves are 3000 to 5000 in length, with Power Point slides. Instructors and students alike can make use of these resources to either structure their course, or as a study aid. All written lessons in essay format were peer reviewed. Many of my wonderful York colleagues contributed to!  To browse the lessons, please select “Ethics 1” from the first drop down menu, and the lesson title from the list in the second drop down menu. If a lesson is not working (the site is Beta, and a bit buggy) please let me know.   

The book blurb:

Hinduism: A Contemporary Philosophical Investigation explores Hinduism and the distinction between the secular and religious on a global scale. According to Ranganathan, a careful philosophical study of Hinduism reveals it as the microcosm of philosophical disagreements with Indian resources, across a variety of topics, including: ethics, logic, the philosophy of thought, epistemology, moral standing, metaphysics, and politics. This analysis offers an original and fresh diagnosis of studying Hinduism, colonialism and a global rise of hyper-nationalism, as well as the frequent acrimony between scholars and practitioners of Hindu traditions.

This text is appropriate for use in undergraduate and graduate courses on Hinduism, and Indian philosophy, and can be used as an advanced introduction to the problems of philosophy with South Asian resources.”

This book, much like the extended intro to the The Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Indian Ethics explores the role of the West (the linguistic account of thought with a European origin)  in motivating interpretation, which I argue is irrational. While ostensibly on Hinduism, it’s also very much a philosophical analysis of the political and epistemic implications of the West and the history of European philosophy, including its expression in the Analytic and Continental traditions. One of the curious implications of following these threads is that Hinduism, a religion, is secular (in the sense of freethinking and the freedom to philosophically disagree), and the West is not.  Another implication of this line of inquiry is that what we call religion on a global scale is simply what cannot be interpreted by the West.  Yet another  implication is that identity politics, nationalism and xenophobia are signs of Westernization.

For reviews, please click here. For the table of contents, here.

In my recent work, (Research Handbook of Indian Ethics Ch.4, and Hinduism: A Contemporary Philosophical Investigation, Ch.5) I note that in a world of moral diversity, assuming the linguistic account of thought leads to an inability to understand disagreement and moreover to view everyone else as a threat. In retrospect, I the argument in Ethics and the History of Indian Philosophy builds on this insight, without any explicit criticism of the linguistic account of thought.

To date, it’s still available as it is in its second incarnation.