Responsibility in the Moral Imagination


We read of the smile, desired of lips long-thwarted,

        Such smile, by such a lover kissed away,

        He that may never more from me be parted

Trembling all over, kissed my mouth. I say

        That book was Galleot, Galleot the complying

        Ribald who wrote; we read no more that day.”

Dante Alighieri, Inferno, V, ll. 73-142

In Dante’s Inferno, we are greeted with a vignette as familiar to the English writer as Romeo and Juliet – predating it by centuries, the tale of Francesca and Paola. Based on actual events, these are two souls trapped in the depths of hell because of the sin of lust. While the interpretations of Dante regarding hell don’t match wholly those of the Orthodox, the Inferno is often less about theological questions (which are the framework for the series of vignettes) and more about the meaning behind the scenes it permits to be disclosed.

The significance of this scene, like all of those in hell, is less about whether such persons would be condemned (we actually do not know the answer in most cases) but the fact that something gravely wrong, judged by almost any standard conceivable, occurred. Being trapped in hell gives Dante the chance to meet those responsible and ask what error brought them there. In a framework where these tragedies and errors were rendered meaningless or immediately forgotten, there would be no basis for remembering them and letting them stand as witnesses against such behavior. Consider that though the Buddhist would be trying not to be caught up in such things either, would the man reincarnated as a cockroach remember to tell of how he became something worthy of being trodden underfoot?


Conceptual Anarchy in Hinduism

“9.334. But to serve Brahmanas (who are) learned in the Vedas, householders, and famous (for virtue) is the highest duty of a Sudra, which leads to beatitude.” –Manu Smriti

“All your talk is of caste and creed

Is it even as natural as the spider and its web?

The four blessed Vedas, were they created by Brahma?

Is caste and creed worthwhile, ye elders of Paichalur?” -Uttiranallur Nagai


Hinduism is in a constant state of transformation through internal discourse and dissent. Image source.

(This post mostly consists of quotes from Manu Smriti and Medieval Hindu Bhakti poems, so if you want to skip my spiel just hit the “read more” link at the bottom.)

People in the west tend to have an odd outlook on the ethics or “doctrines” of Hinduism. In most religions, doctrine works something like this: There is a core text, or set of texts, which contain precepts. Early in the religion’s history some sages write commentaries on these. The rest of the reasoning and doctrine formation of the religion continues by referring to these sources for legitimacy. Innovations occur, but normally only if it can somehow be “textually justified.”

Certainly there is a part of the Hindu religion, which operates very similarly to this—the religion of the Brahmins. But Hinduism cannot be thought of as just that. It is the religion of all Indians, except perhaps those who explicitly decry the label, like the Buddhists, Jainsm and Sikhs (and even those divisions are sometimes blurry. Even some sects of Islam are pretty heavily syncretized.)