Today our Philosophy Group met at Arpana’s Art Gallery in the Siri Fort Institutional Area. Professor Makarand Paranjape of JNU ( was gracious enough to present a paper he wrote about my dear mentor Ramuji. What follows are some of my notes from the discussion that ensued during the reading of his paper.

Arunachala is the holy hill representing nonseparation of ourselves from the absolute

Philosophy is a part of life not a discipline

Fitting in wasn’t about him (Ramuji)

Advaita = heterodoxy

To address them and be addressed by them is what it means to be a person…conscious of sharing a personal form of life with others

We are communicative beings…in the act we are one

Advaita is communication…dvaita you think there are two but the communication makes us one

Being human means to communicate

Secularized advaita, socially engaged

He put the material world into advaite

Brahmacarya was the way of the vast, not celibacy, more love, the vastness of brahmacarya

Advaita must be lived!

When you realize there is no ther then you have abhaya…when you know “I am thou” then you won’t fight

Gandhi…Aurobindo…Ramana Maharshi…

Life really is amazing and the universe most certainly does work in the most mysterious way. A former student sent me a speech one of her Professors gave and it introduced me to the ideas found in “Confucian Humanism” further supporting my allegiance to “I am/and Thou.” What follows in the relevant text from the speech:

“But the status quo in the United States is clearly unjust, and to the extent the status quo is defended by appeals to individualism, to just that extent do we need a broader view of what it is to be a human being.

One candidate for such a view, suitably modified for the contemporary world, is that of the classical Confucians, whose texts provide significant conceptual resources for forging new pathways to social justice and the alleviation of poverty. Here now is the other side of the mirror.

The texts gathered under the heading of “classical Confucianism” are by no means in full agreement on all points, and there are several tensions within each text itself; and many passages in those texts have an ambiguity about them that makes reading them an act of creation. They nevertheless present an overall coherent view of the good life for human beings, and the good society in which those lives may be led. This life is an altogether social one, and central to understanding it is to see that Confucian sociality has aesthetic, moral, and spiritual no less than political and economic dimensions, all of which are to be integrated.

None of the early texts address the question of the meaning of life, but they do put forward a vision of being human, and a discipline in which everyone can find meaning in life. This meaning will become increasingly apparent to us as we pursue our ultimate goal, namely, developing ourselves most fully as human beings to become junzi, “exemplary persons,” or, at the pinnacle of development, sheng, or sages. And for Confucians we can only do this through our interactions with other human beings. Treading this human path (ren dao) must be ultimately understood basically as a religious quest, even though the canon speaks not of God, nor of creation, salvation, an immortal soul, or a transcendental realm of being; and no prophecies will be found in its pages either. It is nevertheless a truly religious path, yet at the same time a humanistically oriented one; for Confucius, we are irreducibly social, as he makes clear in the Analects: “I cannot run with the birds and beasts. Am I not one among the people of their world? If not them, with whom can I associate?” (18:6)

Thus the Confucian self is not a free, autonomous individual, but is to be seen relationally: I am a son, husband, father, grandfather, teacher, student, friend, colleague, neighbor, and more. I live, rather than “play” these roles, and when all of them have been specified, and their interrelationships made manifest, then I have been fairly thoroughly individuated, but with nothing left over with which to piece together an autonomous individual self, free to conclude mutually advantageous contracts with other rational individuals. Rather, to put the case strongly, I am constituted by the roles I live in consonance with others. The free, autonomous, individual self is not a fact, but an ideological fiction underpinning the ethos of a capitalist economic system.

While this view may seem initially strange, it is actually straightforward: in order to be a friend, neighbor, or lover, for example, I must have a friend, neighbor, or lover. Other persons are not merely accidental or incidental to my goal of fully developing as a human being, they are essential to it; indeed they confer unique personhood on me, for to the extent that I define myself as a teacher, students are necessary to my life, not incidental to it. Note in this regard also, that, again, while Confucianism should be seen as fundamentally religious, there are no solitary monks or nuns, anchorites or anchoresses, or hermits to be found in the tradition.

Our first and most basic role, one that significantly defines us in part throughout our lives, is as children; familial reverence (xiao) is one of the highest excellences in Confucianism. From our beginning roles as children – and as siblings, playmates, and pupils – we mature to become parents ourselves, and assume many other roles and responsibilities as well, all of which are reciprocal relationships, best generalized as holding between benefactors and beneficiaries. Each of us moves regularly from benefactor to beneficiary and back again, depending on the other(s) with whom we are interacting, when, and under what conditions. When young, I was largely beneficiary of my parents; when they were aged and infirm, I became their benefactor, and the converse holds for my children. I am benefactor to my friend when she needs my help, beneficiary when I need hers. I am a student of my teachers, teacher of my students, colleague of my colleagues. Taken together, the manifold roles we live define us as persons. And the ways in which we meet the obligations attendant on these relational roles, and the ways others meet similar obligations toward us, are both the ways whereby we achieve dignity, satisfaction, and meaning in life. Although there is no word for “freedom” in the classical language in which the Confucian texts were written, I believe the Master would say that it is not a stative, but an achievement term. We cannot be born free, for we are bound inexorably to others from the moment we leave the womb, and we are surely not “free” even as adults if we only do our moral duty because we feel consciously obligated to do so; it is only when we truly enjoy helping others as benefactors, and being helped by them in return as beneficiaries, that we could meaningfully be said to be free.

With such an emphasis on familial reverence it should be clear that at the heart of Confucian society is indeed the family, the locus of where, how, and why we develop into full human beings. A central government is also important to the good society, because there are necessary ingredients of human flourishing – especially economic – which the family (and local community) cannot secure on their own. The early Confucians saw the state not as in any way in opposition to the family, but rather saw both as complementary; stated in contemporary democratic terms, if we wish to live in a state that insists I meet my fatherly responsibilities, it should insure that I have the wherewithal – i.e., an education, job, good health, etc. – to do so. Similarly, this state must assume responsibility for the well-being of those who have no family networks for support. Confucius, Mencius and Xunzi all insisted that it was the responsibility of the state to provide functional equivalents of universal health insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, workman’s compensation, food stamps and social security – plus employment, and insisted as well on a meritocracy rather than wealth or bloodline in recruiting for officialdom; and they began doing this 500 years before the time of Christ. Mencius and Xunzi also had the keen insight to insist that the government had an obligation to provide jobs for the poor. The problem with most welfare programs is that they consist mainly of handouts, and no person with any degree of self-respect would want to be only a beneficiary; dignity, pleasure and happiness can only come when we have the wherewithal to be benefactors as well.

The ideal Confucian society is thus basically communally oriented, with customs, tradition, rituals, ceremonies and manners serving as the binding force of and between our many relationships to one another. Above all, it is not a laissez-faire capitalist society. “Exemplary persons never compete” said Confucius.(3.7) In another place he said that the major work of exemplary persons was to help the poor, not make the rich richer. (6.4) Mencius said that if you want to be wealthy you cannot become an exemplary person, and if you want to be an exemplary person you cannot be wealthy.(3A3)

This, then, in woefully brief compass, is Confucian humanism in action: interacting with others as benefactors and beneficiaries in an intergenerational context. Confucius himself was absolutely clear on this point, for when a disciple asked him what he would most like to do, he said:

I would like to bring peace and contentment to the aged, share relationships of trust and confidence with friends, and love and protect the young (5:26)

Much more, of course, needs to be said about the early Confucian view of what it is to be a human being, but I believe much more can be said with respect to the contemporary world. The concept of the family can be retained, for example, while making women equals to men, and it can be enhanced by allowing two (or more) nurturers of the same sex to be responsible for child-rearing and care of the elderly – both with state help. Neither sexism nor homophobia are logical implications of Confucian familial communitarianism and its larger philosophical and religious dimensions.

Returning now more directly to poverty alleviation again, It is clear that such role-bearing persons will take second generation social, economic and cultural rights very seriously, while necessarily remaining sensitive to the civil and political. If you and I can only flourish as we help each other realize our full humanity as benefactors and beneficiaries, why would I want to silence you, not let you choose your other friends, or follow whichever faith tradition inspires you? That is to say, with role-bearing persons as our philosophical foundation, moving from second to first generation rights is conceptually and attitudinally straightforward.

But the converse does not hold. It requires a major cognitive (and affective) shift to move from respecting civil and political rights passively to actively helping others obtain the benefits attendant on respecting social, economic and cultural rights and committing the country to the elimination of poverty. The history of the U.S. provides little grounds for expecting the shifts to take place: It is now 216 years since civil and political rights became the law of the land, yet we have all those nauseating figures I narrated at the beginning of my talk, and they are worsening even as we are discussing them here.

It is time to conclude these remarks, and I want to do so by offering some reasons to believe the struggle for a better future than our present is possible, and worth the effort. And I want to do that by simultaneously replying to an objection to my analyses of why poverty continues to grow both at home and abroad.

“Look here,” someone might reasonably object, “It is all well and good that you have been beating up on the rich and the super rich, the politicians, pundits, corporations and the media while lamenting the gross inequalities that define the country today, but they are only a relatively small part of the problem. It is the overweight, TV-addicted, consumptive anti-intellectual average American that is largely responsible for the country’s plight. Americans don’t study the issues, tend to be self-centered, and indeed often celebrate the rugged individualism you have been challenging. Don’t you know anything about the pro-life movement? Have you never heard of the National Rifle Association?”

This objection is not without force. We all know someone pretty much like what was just described. While this view of the American public is unfortunately fairly widespread, there is one major problem with it: the evidence strongly suggests that it is false. Let me return to some statistics, this time from non-partisan polls.

First, when asked if it is the responsibility of government to care for those who can’t take care of themselves, 57% answered affirmatively in 1994 – the year Newt Gingrich and the conservative Republicans gained control of the House. In 2006, 69% of Americans answered the question affirmatively, according to the Pew Research Center, after completing a 20-year roundup of public opinion. Exactly the same percentage of Americans – 69% — believes that the government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep – even if it can only be done by raising their taxes. 75% of small business owners believe the minimum wage should be raised by at least another $2 per hour.

For every citizen who wants the government to reduce services in order to reduce spending, two citizens want more services even if it means increases in spending.

In another recent poll taken by the Wall Street Journal — certainly not a socialist-leaning part of the media – 53% of those polled said the Bush tax cuts were “not worth it because they have increased the deficit and caused cuts in government programs.” There is much more, some of it surprising to some. CNN reported that in their latest poll, only 25% of the people polled wanted to see Roe v. Wade overturned. 67% would prefer diplomatic and economic efforts over military efforts in fighting terrorism. A Zogby poll found 89% of the population much preferred rehabilitation over incarceration for youthful offenders. Immigration?

62% told a CBS/NYTimes poll that undocumented workers should be allowed to keep their jobs and eventually apply for legal status. And oh, yes, the NRA: another Wall Street Journal study found 10% of the American public wanted gun controls to be less strict; 58% wanted much stronger controls.

These figures are, to my mind, of great significance, yet they receive no coverage in the news. They show a decent American people who can keep their decency even when they think they’re almost alone, and when the are bombarded instead with such trivia as Barack Obama’s middle name, Hilary Clinton’s cleavage, and the cost of a John Edwards haircut – none of which is of any significance to their lives, or ours.

I trust these figures, because the responses are just what I personally find when I leave a college or university campus to lecture at churches and union halls. The American peoples no less than college students have always been a source of hope for me, and I hope they may be the same for you.

These, then, are the ways my Chinese mirror has reflected the ways in which I reflect on my own culture, my own country.