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Ayn Rand and Indian Philosophy

Ayn Rand and Indian Philosophy

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Ayn Rand and Indian Philosophy

Roderick T. Long

Note: a mangled and error-ridden version of this essay appeared in Tibor Machan, ed., Ayn Rand at 100 (Liberty Institute, Delhi, India, 2006). This is the correct version.

In her novel The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand has the story¶s chief villain, Ellsworth Toohey, tell his niece Catherine Halsey, whose spirit he is trying to break, that only when she has learned to ³kill the most stubborn of roots, the ego,´ will ³the gates of spiritual grandeur ... fall open before [her].´ To Halsey¶s question, ³when the gates fall open, who is it that¶s going to enter?´ Toohey responds: ³Of course it¶s you who¶ll enter. You won¶t have lost your identity ± you will merely have acquired a broader one, an identity that will be part of everybody else and of the whole universe.´ (Rand 1993, p. 365.) Later in the novel, a franker Toohey explains that this sort of answer functions as a tool of manipulation: Every system of ethics that preached sacrifice grew into a world power and ruled millions of men. Of course, you must dress it up. You must tell people that they¶ll achieve a superior kind of happiness by giving up everything that makes them happy. You don¶t have to be too clear about it. Use big vague words. µUniversal Harmony¶ ± µEternal Spirit¶ ± µDivine Purpose¶ ± µNirvana¶ .... (p. 638.) The reference to ³Nirvana´ makes it clear that Rand intends to include the central traditions of Indian thought among the systems of ideas that she is condemning. This judgment is still clearer in her next novel, Atlas Shrugged, where villains like Eugene Lawson, Ivy Starnes, and Emma Chalmers are presented as enthusiasts for Hindu and Buddhist ideas (Rand 1996, pp. 290, 301, 858), while the hero, John Galt, dismisses the ³mystic muck of India´ as a ³refuge against reality´ and ³escape from the mind.´ (p. 967.) Given Rand¶s hostility toward Indian traditions of spiritual thought, looking for points of contact between her ideas and Indian philosophy might seem a quixotic task ± since most of India¶s major philosophical traditions have been affiliated with either Hinduism or Buddhism.1 But on the other hand, while Rand also despised Christianity, she nevertheless enthusiastically admired Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas as one of the greatest philosophers of all time; and conversely, many Christians have found much of value in Rand¶s work. So there is nothing impossible in the supposition that similar affinities might be found between Rand and the great philosophers of India, despite her antipathy toward the associated religious traditions. There is no evidence that Rand¶s knowledge of Indian philosophy was more than cursory, and so she would

Buddhist thinkers.5.. the Advaita tradition in Hinduism and the Madhyamaka tradition in Buddhism) that reject the applicability of reason and logical distinctions to reality. these traditions are the first place to look. affiliated with Hinduism. But the Indian tradition also includes the Hindu and Buddhist logicians ± adherents of the Nyaya3 and Mimamsa4 traditions. as for Rand. who regard the external world as either an inference from or a construction out of our sensory images. 35-6). however. understood the world as an orderly realm governed by regular causal laws. and any attempt to undermine them must thus be self-defeating. identity. for example. On this issue Rand is probably closer to the Buddhists: admittedly she regards testimony as a genuine source of knowledge. the Buddha is traditionally described as urging his disciples not to accept even his teachings on his mere say-so. Knowledge and Reality For the Buddhist logicians. If affinities between Rand and the Indian philosophers are to be found. or the Abhidharma and Yogachara traditions. who envisioned human beings as efficacious minds in an intelligible universe. and consciousness are axiomatic presuppositions of all meaningful thought and discussion. but denying that . the two valid sources of knowledge are a) perception and b) inference from what has been perceived. by contrast. would have had little sympathy for those traditions within Indian thought (e.9 Among Buddhist theories an exception is the Vaibhashika branch of Abhidharma. by contrast. embraces representational realism. are less enamored of scriptural authority. whose reducibility to the first two they deny. These thinkers developed a theory of the syllogism akin to Aristotle¶s.8 When it comes to the nature of our perceptual and inferential knowledge. affiliated with Buddhism. but unlike the Hindu logicians she would take the validity of such testimony to rest not merely on the source¶s reliability but on evidence of the source¶s reliability. For Rand. testimony. such basic categories as existence.7 The Hindu logicians likewise accept perception and inference but add a third source of knowledge. but rather to test them in their own lives as assayers test gold.2 Rand. the Sautrantika branch of Abhidharma.g. part (though not the whole) of their motivation is to safeguard the authority of the Hindu scriptures. regarding our belief in the external world as a legitimate inference from our perceptual experiences. insisting that ³every man gains an incalculable benefit from the knowledge discovered by others´ (Rand 1989. pp. thereby reducing the authority of testimony to that of perception and inference. Rand is closer to the Hindu than to the Buddhist logicians. For Rand.most likely have been unaware of such potential affinities ± especially since throughout most of the 20th century there was a tendency for popularizing works on Indian philosophy to emphasize its differences from Western philosophy and to downplay its similarities. sensory perception places us in direct cognitive contact with the external world ± a view accepted by the Hindu logicians but rejected by most of the Buddhist ones. which embraces direct perceptual realism. and likewise rejected as self-defeating the irrationalist paradoxes of Advaita and Madhyamaka.6 to be investigated through logical reasoning grounded in the evidence of the senses.

as we¶ll see) denies the existence of an enduring self. just as it denies the existence of any other enduring entity. durationless. by contrast. centuries-long battle against every form of skepticism and phenomenalism ± consciousness by its very nature presupposes an object distinct from itself.) But the degree of affinity between this sort of ethical egoism and that of Rand depends on how the self and its interests are conceived. but it is nevertheless a unified whole with an identity of its own. As would Rand. reality is pure flux. however. For Rand. thus committing the fallacy Rand labels the ³prior certainty of consciousness´). a person¶s life is simply a . an endless. when it comes to the nature of the world we experience through perception.) For the Buddhists. Against both. present portions of surfaces ± and at worst. embracing duty for duty¶s sake ± a notion alien to Rand. as for the Nyaya and Mimamsa logicians ± who fought a sustained. and like Nyaya she vigorously rejects as incoherent the notion that activities or properties could exist without an enduring subject to underlie them.10 The Ego and Its Own Indian moral philosophy is generally ³egoistic. insist that perception reveals to us a world of unified entities. (Since the similarities between the Nyaya theories and those of Aristotle have often been remarked on by historians of comparative philosophy.11 (The Mimamsa tradition is an exception. it is probably not surprising that Rand. an entity may be made up of tiny material particles. The Buddhist tradition (with one exception. The Buddhist logicians agree with these Hindu thinkers that all purported entities are in fact mere passing modifications. should be most closely aligned with Nyaya. purely mental for Yogachara). This rules out both the Yogachara position (which denies the metaphysical priority of object over subject. momentary episodes (both mental and physical for Abhidharma. at best. causally ordered sequence of extensionless. Indeed. There are Hindu thinkers from other traditions who also reject the existence of independent and enduring entities. the Yogachara tradition rejects the existence of external objects entirely. but differ from them in denying the existence of any enduring subject underlying the modifications (unless the Yogachara notion of a storehouse-consciousness should be interpreted as playing that role). this is Rand¶s position also. as an Aristotelean herself. keeping only the perceptual experiences and perceivers¶ fictive constructions therefrom. Rand is also closer to the Hindu thinkers. or at any rate all material entities (so the Samkhya tradition) as mere passing modifications of a single underlying reality.external objects are actually given directly in such experience. regarding all entities (so the Advaita tradition). thus committing the fallacy Rand labels the ³primacy of consciousness´) and the Sautrantika position (which denies the epistemological priority of object over subject. the Nyaya theorists condemn the anti-entity position in both its Hindu and Buddhist forms. all we perceive are. particularly those in the Nyaya tradition. the Buddhist logicians deny the existence of unified entities entirely. and that we are aware of such entities per se and not just of the surfaces or effects or time-slices of such entities. we do not perceive unified entities extended in space and enduring through time. not a mere aggregation of its constituents. The Nyaya thinkers. our own fleeting mental images.´ in the broad sense that benefit to the individual agent is regarded as the proper purpose of morality.

97) ± parodies and condemns in the Fountainhead passage with which we started. irreplaceable lives of individual men´ (Rand 1989. accept the notion of an enduring self. Perhaps the standpoint closest to one Rand could accept is that of the Pudgalavada branch of Abhidharma. though ridiculed as contradictory by other Buddhists. For Rand. feelings of enjoyment are the result of achieving one¶s values and so cannot themselves be the criteria of value. All Hindu philosophical traditions. The emphasis.´ his wife Cherryl speaks for Rand in asking: ³But then . would Rand find congenial the opposite position of the Charvaka materialists. specific. arguably. such reductionism is no more acceptable to Rand than is dualism. declared in 1926: . interpreted the Buddha¶s denial of a self to mean only the denial of a self separable from its mental and physical career. affiliated with neither Hinduism nor Buddhism. mindless flesh versus disembodied consciousness.. by contrast. In contrast to the Buddhist mainstream ± which taught that a distinct self. she rejects the opposition between hedonism and asceticism as yet another form of the false dichotomy between matter and spirit. what is yourself?´ (Rand 1996. moreover. by contrast. he cannot exist in separation from them.g. ³I want to be loved for myself ± not for anything I do or have or say or think . perhaps comes closest to Rand¶s view that a human being is a unified integration of mind and body rather than being either mind or body alone. The majority view in the Indian philosophical tradition has located our true self-interest in ascetic detachment from material concerns and worldly satisfactions. In addition to rejecting most Indian philosophers¶ conceptions of the self. 809. however. maintain ± along with the Samkhya tradition (which is monistic about matter but not about spirit) ± that each person has his or her own individual self. The Hindu poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore.causally connected series of momentary episodes like droplets in a waterfall. with no underlying subject to unite them. in Indian thought.. if it existed. namely. would she find congenial the opposing Charvaka view. Rand would have found incoherent the project of trying to secure benefits for a self that does not strictly exist. such activities and constituents. a position for which Rand would have little sympathy. on spirit over matter has often led to a distrust of modern industrial civilization. Advaita and. but for some (e. Nor. However. which champions hedonistic immersion in bodily satisfactions. the early Upanishads) this means positing One Big Self for everybody. When James Taggart in Atlas Shrugged insists. regarded as heretical by Buddhists of other traditions. radically distinct both from its body and from its conscious experiences ± an unacceptably dualistic position from Rand¶s point of view. These Buddhist thinkers. would have to be (per impossibile) a separable self à la Hinduism ± the Pudgalavadins maintained that a person is distinct from his mental activities and physical constituents in the sense that he is not identical with.. The Hindu logicians. who simply identified the self with the physical body. or a mere aggregate of. not for my body or mind or words or works or actions.. but that he is not distinct from these activities and constituents in another sense.) Nor. p. Rand would also reject most Indian philosophers¶ conception of self-interest. however.12 This is precisely the conception of self that Rand ± champion of the ³single. p. this self is generally conceived as a separable immaterial soul. for example. and true happiness is said to lie in having one¶s illusory individual identity absorbed into this One Big Self. This view...

champions of this-worldly realism in metaphysics and epistemology. once again. she thought.´ and insists instead that ³action is man¶s proper state. . . to set its purpose.) The following passage from Atlas Shrugged reads almost as though Rand had written it as a reply to Tagore: Why had she always felt that joyous sense of confidence when looking at machines? .. Rand characterizes Mises¶ position as ³Nirvana-worship´ and ³seeking the Nirvana of stagnation... lengthening and multiplying our limbs. Every part of the motors was an embodied answer to ³Why?´ and ³What for?´ ± like the steps of a life-course chosen by the sort of mind she worshipped. 226-30.. The modern mind in its innate childishness delights in this enormous bodily bulk . and she would have no patience with the suggestion that freedom of the spirit requires an abandonment of such material concerns.. I know that pain is to be fought and thrown aside. is an absence and a negation . the supreme goal of life is moksha or nirvana.... You seek escape from pain... commenting on economist Ludwig von Mises¶ view that all human action is motivated by ³uneasiness.13 Rand explicitly rejects such an approach. not value.. it¶s that I know the unimportance of suffering. 878.. p.. This final state of liberation is conceived sometimes as a boundless and ineffable bliss. .) For Rand the realm of industrial production is above all a realm of intellectual and spiritual achievement. (Quoted in Sharma 1965. and is to be achieved through renunciation and detachment. p.) . Was this the surrender of man¶s spirit to his body? (Rand 1996.. the cessation of all craving and striving.´14 A similar criticism of the nirvana ideal appears in John Galt¶s words in Atlas Shrugged: Joy is not µthe absence of pain. The motors were a moral code cast in steel. two aspects pertaining to the inhuman were radiantly absent: the causeless and the purposeless. 937. because they are the physical shape of the action of a living power ± of the mind that had been able to grasp the whole of this complexity. to give it form.¶ . Evil.´ so that a completely happy existence would be devoid of either desire or action. embrace this other-worldly ethical ideal.) [I]t¶s not that I don¶t suffer. (p. (Rand 1996.. matter and spirit form a unity. They are alive. We seek the achievement of happiness.... 301.. These things and the capacity from which they came ± was this the pursuit men regarded as evil? Was this what they called an ignoble concern with the physical world? ..Purely physical dominance is mechanical and modern machines are merely exaggerating our bodies. Even the Nyaya thinkers.. a permanent scar across one¶s view of existence. In these giant shapes. It does not realize that in this we are returning to that antediluvian age which reveled in its production of gigantic physical frames. leaving no room for the freedom of the inner spirit. The Fruit of Conduct According to the dominant position in Indian moral philosophy (again with the usual exception of Charvaka). not to be accepted as . and sometimes as the extinction of consciousness itself. pp.

) Rand¶s emphasis on voluntary cooperation brings us to one final parallel (and contrast). in the form of a prohibition on any attempt to profit from another without giving an equivalent value in return.The contrast with Buddhism.. p.15 Most Indian philosophical traditions accept the law of karma. Howard Roark. 14). as the heroes ³drop out´ of their former lives. for which the all-pervasiveness of suffering is the First Noble Truth.) But she would emphatically reject as a ³morality of death´ the Indian philosophers¶ conclusion that such attachment. As long as there is that untouched point. puts it: ³I¶m not capable of suffering completely.. 30) which one programs through one¶s choices. the Government will come to a standstill. because remaining in the world would continue the cycle of exploitation.´ (Rand 1993. While she certainly rejects the sort of detachment that leads one to withdraw from worldly concerns (as dramatized by the character of Dominique Francon in The Fountainhead). 443-4. is obvious. 157.. according to which our actions create traces or tendencies called samskaras in our souls that affect our prospects in future lives. She would also agree with Indian tradition that attachment (she would say: the choice to live) involves us in the causal network of karma by committing us to certain patterns of action with certain definite tendencies and effects ± in Rand¶s words. pp.) Likewise. Since both . . It goes only down to a certain point and then it stops. one might say that she embraces a naturalised version of the karma doctrine.´ (Rand 1996.´ or more broadly ³non-injury´ ± though the precise requirements of this ideal (is it compatible with warfare? meat-eating? self-defense?) are vigorously disputed. resulting in automatised reactions that have a decisive impact on one¶s future in this life. the strategy of the strikers in Atlas Shrugged ± undermining the power of oppression by withdrawing cooperation from it ± bears more than a passing resemblance to Gandhi¶s campaign of satyagraha.16 In Rand¶s ethic too we find a version of the ahimsa principle (though she does not use the term). Indeed. ³non-violence. renouncing (albeit temporarily) their most treasured projects. the psychological outlook that Rand advocates might be characterized as one of passionate engagement with the world ± but with an inner core of detachment. ³You can govern us only so long as we remain the governed. ³the terms.´ Gandhi declared (Gandhi 2001. and consequent entanglement in karma.´ (p.) A further echo of Indian asceticism shows up in the plot of Atlas Shrugged. While Rand would not accept the idea of reincarnation or a supernatural causal mechanism. p.´ (p. 344. ³no Government can exist for a single moment without the cooperation of the people. p. in Atlas Shrugged Hank Rearden tells his prosecutors: ³If you choose to deal with men by means of compulsion. But you will discover that you need the voluntary co-operation of your victims .. Common to many Indian ethical traditions is the ideal of ahimsa. despite Rand¶s disagreements with Mahatma Gandhi over the merits of industrial capitalism.. methods. 26. And your victims should discover that it is their own volition ± which you cannot force ± that makes you possible. it¶s not really pain. are evils to be overcome through detachment and renunciation.. do so. As The Fountainhead¶s hero.´ so ³if the people suddenly withdraw their co-operation . Yet Rand¶s attitude toward the Indian ideal of detachment is more complicated than it might appear.. insofar as she compares the human subconscious to an ³electronic computer´ (Rand 1989. conditions and goals required for the survival of a rational being through the whole of his lifespan.

in its later phase it became known as Navya-Nyaya. On the Hindu logicians see Matilal 1986. and are needed to sustain their lives. not an obstacle. Mimamsa. giving value for value. On the Buddhist logicians see Stcherbatsky 1999.) In addition to ruling out nonviolent forms of manipulation and parasitism. and Vattanky 2003. treating it as a distant ideal whose onerous burdens the ordinary laity may appropriately postpone (either to old age or to a later incarnation). 5. precisely as though it had been written by one of Rand¶s fictional villains ± spends 363 pages describing various Indian philosophical traditions without once citing a single argument. p.´ (Rand 1989.´ (Rand 1989.) Hence all laws restricting the freedom of individuals to do whatever they please with their own persons and property are illegitimate. Mimamsa.´ (p. 106. Chakrabarti 1999.) Many Indian traditions appear to reserve the consistent practice of ahimsa. to distinguish it from the Uttara-Mimamsa of the various Vedanta traditions. 3. the earliest works of Nyaya. in the 7th and 8th with . Ishwar Sharma¶s 1965 book Ethical Philosophies of India ± which incidentally reads.e. with Vasubandhu. dating from the 4th century CE. p. in the 6th and 7th with Dignaga and Dharmakirti. and Duerlinger 2003. and Abhidharma appear to have been extant at least as early as the 4th century BCE. to living in this world.. emphasis added. Sharma¶s book is unfortunately typical of much of the popularising literature on Indian philosophy.´ (Gandhi 2001. Abhidharma was arguably at its height in the 4th century CE. p. Rand¶s version of ahimsa yields a specific condemnation of initiatory force: ³Men have the right to use physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use. For a Rand-inspired critique of Indian religions.´ (Rand 1989. Dreyfus 1997. Rao 1998. Also known as Nyaya-Vaiseshika. Yogachara is a later arrival. if the producer does not own the result of his effort. Yogachara.) Gandhi would agree. Phillips 1995. he does not own his life.) But unlike Gandhi.´ but instead ³deal with one another as traders. 34. Also known as Purva-Mimamsa. Poussin 1990. they bring the Randian equivalent of bad karma ± Rand insists that we should ³not make sacrifices nor accept them. 4. Vaisheshika. 36. But there is nothing optional or deferrable about the Randian version of ahimsa ± which is intended as a guide.17 Notes 1. ch. the Randian call to ahimsa is thus a demand for a radical libertarian transformation of existing society. see Walsh 1998. That is why Rand¶s ban on initiatory force protects not only bodily integrity but private property as well: ³Since material goods are produced by the mind and effort of individual men. p. While the chronology of classical Indian philosophy is difficult to establish with exactness. 2. both in tone and in doctrine. in principle: ³There is surely often more violence in burning a man¶s property than doing him physical injury. For example. 2. thus inviting unwary readers to reach the (radically mistaken) conclusion that Indian philosophers have merely asserted their positions rather than offering reasoned arguments for them. 36. 371. because of its origin in the early merger of the originally separate Nyaya and Vaisheshika traditions. to a committed few. however interpreted. Rand infers the illegitimacy of all taxation and economic regulation ± since officials of the State enjoy no exemption from the requirements of ahimsa: ³No man ± or group or society or government ± has the right to assume the role of a criminal and initiate the use of physical compulsion against any man.subordinating oneself to others and subordinating others to oneself are forms of dependence and so undermine the commitments needed for successful self-maintenance ± i.

13. The Buddhist logicians regard universals as a subjective invention of our consciousness. 9. for a reformulation of Mises¶ position that avoids the implications Rand finds objectionable. 10. however. promulgated in such Hindu classics as the Manu-smrti. however. having no reference to reality. the second in the 11th through 14th with Udayana and Gangesha. 43. There are also some interesting affinities between the Hindu logicians¶ treatment of perceptual illusion (see Matilal 1986.) 16. romantic love: ³If a man gives his love to one woman. inter alia. 11. µLife is refuted. epistemology. Nyaya arguably enjoyed two peaks. and their eyes. but for Mimamsa. 7. what is there left for all the world besides?´ (Gandhi 2001. the first in the 5th through 7th centuries CE with Vatsyayana and Uddyotakara. Rand¶s sympathies would be with Mimamsa and the Buddhists against Nyaya on this issue. Rand-inspired defenses of anarchism include Tannehill 1993 and Rothbard 1998. 6. All these schools of thought have since decayed in India. instead locating universals in the objective relation between consciousness and reality rather than in either of the relata separately. and Kelley 1986. by contrast. to put it mildly. Gandhi. 108. as for the various Buddhist traditions. 49. Western moral philosophy was likewise ³egoistic´ in this sense for most of its history ± until the late 18th century. but versions of Abhidharma and Yogachara are still active in Tibet. p. Krishna 1991. see Long 2005. 45. 14. We may here detect the influence on Rand of two of her favorite philosophers: Aquinas. for whom evil is always ³an absence and a negation´ rather than a positive force. the Hindu logicians.Kumarila and Prabhakara. in fact. In light. 1998. p. who in a reference to the traditional tale of the Buddha¶s discovery of suffering writes: ³They encounter a sick man or an old man or a corpse. 12. Rand¶s views generally come closer to Hindu than to Buddhist logic. For a critique of Rand¶s view of testimony see Long 2000. and so no theistic hypothesis is necessary. Rand 1995. Rand would reject this dispute as a false dichotomy. On the issue of universals. takes consistent ahimsa to require ³utter selflessness´ and so to be incompatible with. for Rand¶s own critique of anarchism see Rand 1989. p. (cf. for example. For Nyaya this causal order is to be attributed to a divine creator. or a woman to one man. 132. apart from anybody¶s consciousness. that one¶s duties should be determined by one¶s social class is arguably a naturalised version of this same collectivist ideal ± and equally unacceptable to Rand. pp.) In any case. the universe is orderly in virtue of its own nature. of the relatively scant attention actually paid to ethical questions in the Nyaya literature ± in comparison with the thousands of pages devoted to metaphysics. 17.´ (Nietzsche 1978. Rand would surely have regarded the Nyaya thinkers¶ failure to extend their this-worldly orientation into the realm of practical ethics as a major tragedy for Indian culture. 15. regard universals as an intrinsic feature of reality.) This standpoint would not find favor with Rand.¶ But only they themselves are refuted. and logic ± one is tempted to speculate that the Nyaya tradition¶s acquiescence in India¶s dominant ethical paradigm may have been mere lip service. Rao 1998) and Rand¶s views as elaborated in Kelley 1986. . Ch. 8. 14. and Nietzsche. Indeed it is a matter of controversy whether Rand¶s prohibition on initiatory force is compatible with the existence of any State at all. For Rand¶s theory of knowledge see Rand 1990. The view. As we¶ve seen. which see only this one face of existence. and immediately they say. Rand cannot be claimed for either side. Peikoff 1993.

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