Book Review by Terri McNichol

Terri McNichol, an author and artist, has kindly written a review of my book, which is given below. She describes the central thesis of my work and explains why the study of the classics is still important and worth pursuing.

Sapiens and Sthitaprajna: A Comparative Study in Seneca’s Stoicism and the Bhagavadgita (hereafter Gita), by Ashwini Mokashi is an important addition to the growing list of publications of comparative ethics based on ancient wisdom texts. In contrasting Seneca’s writings with the text of the Gita, Mokashi makes an important contribution to the field of developing ethics in a global context. Such a dialogue can elucidate overlapping virtues despite great cultural and geographic variation showing that people from dissimilar cultures, follow a different ordering of values rather than hold differing values (1). In the Gita section of the Hindu epic, Mahabharata, two factions of the same family face off with one another on the battlefield with time on “pause,” while the epic’s protagonist the warrior and great archer Arjuna, has an existential crisis. He confides his fears to his charioteer, Krishna, that he knows by day’s end all the casualties will be that of his kin. Unbeknownst to Arjuna, Krishna, is actually the avatar of the Hindu God Vishnu, who walks Arjuna through the nature of life disciplines of knowledge, action and devotion that are not always fixed entities, but require, at times, expanding and re-ordering.  The Sthitaprajna is the practitioner who has succeeded in conquering the “inner battlefield” of the warring self to reach a selfhood of moral clarity that is reflected in his actions conducted with equanimity and non-attachment. Sapere (v.), although negatively inserted into the Enlightenment war cry, to this day it remains anchored in Greek, Jewish, Christian thought as the thread linking successive sources of Europe’s spiritual tradition of being “wise” or “knowing.” Morality was preserved in the lives of a Sapiens who singularly could make a great difference to the world by exercising his moral power so much so that the wise person becomes unconquerable in the world in understanding the laws of nature and following the Stoic ethical principles [p. 57]. Sapiens and Sthitaprajna advances the conversation with the classics at a time of waning general humanities curriculum. As, W. T. De Bary, author of The Great Civilized Conversation wrote, no other approach than studying the classics and the perennial questions will give us a clearer sense of direction for value judgments that have been informed by the experience of the best minds of the past and the best way to do this is to have engaged them in conversation (2).

(1) Rosemont Jr., Henry. (2015). Against Individualism: A Confucian Rethinking of the Foundations of Morality, Politics, Family, and Religion. Lexington Books. London. Pg. 21


How to Lead a Good Life

(C) Ashwini Mokashi

The pursuit of happiness is led by everyone across the planet throughout the human history. Assuming there must be some truths to this pursuit which are common across the world, I turned to the ancient wisdom on the subject. Little did I imagine that the road to happiness would go through wise and moral choices. If that was true for ancient philosophers, would it still hold true today? Would it be possible for us to overcome various obstacles to arrive at some basic principles of life, that would lead us to a good life?

The wise people of yore came up with an ideal of a human being, known as Sapiens in the Greek/Roman philosophy and ‘Sthitaprajna’ in the Indian philosophy of the Gita and the Upanishads. The tools they have provided us include being detached from our circumstances, taking right decisions by vigorous thinking and challenging one’s beliefs and ideas, acting morally without being unjust to oneself or the others, taking control of one’s negative emotions especially anger, grief and anxiety, accepting the inevitable as the law of nature and most importantly understanding the laws of nature, facts of sciences and our emotional make-up. When this seems like an impossible task, one can find a wise person to consult with like how Arjun consulted with Lord Krishna in the Gita or how Socrates counseled other so-called wise people in the marketplace, by trying his Socratic method of questioning and challenging their beliefs.

The major obstacles in this road are emotional disturbances or having negative emotions. We see a lot of doom and gloom among our young folks leading to anxiety and depression, sometimes caused by loss of opportunities and sometimes caused by loss of face. It happens to those, who fail to do well enough, but also to those, who are extremely successful. The reason is that any kind of rejection is hard to swallow. It may be rejection in your career, in your office, in your family or in your love-life. A little detachment would help to continue to pursue our goals with a renewed effort or rethinking whether that is the right goal. Some strategic thinking and not getting too involved would help us see the light of the day. That is wisdom. In the Gita, it is known as Vairagya and in Stoicism, apatheia. It is very difficult to learn or practice detachment, but somehow life always has a way of throwing curveballs and the best way to juggle them is by staying detached and calm from these ups and downs.

Given that we now live in a global village, where immigration is the order of the day, exchange of ideas and a mish-mash of culture occurs all the time, what could help us see through all sorts of confusion is a value-based, principle based existence, where the universal values are agreed upon. Comparative philosophy becomes very useful in that sense, especially when the ancient texts of the east and the west agree on what values to pursue and how to pursue a good life for all. The remarkable family resemblance between the concept of the wise person of the Gita and Stoic Seneca requires both to use intellectual rigor to decide on the right action (Jnana-marg), then implement the right action (Karma-marg) and defend it in a way that is understood by all (wisdom).

Prevalence of positive emotions or the lack of negative emotions leads to tranquility, peace of mind and to a blissful state of happiness resulting from the integrity of thoughts and actions. The more we try to be in that state, the longer we enjoy happiness. This theory contrasts with the idea of desire-fulfillment to be happy. Fulfilling one’s goals of wealth, health, beauty and fun will give you pleasure and is important at a certain age, but that is not the way to become happy. In following this path, one must constantly challenge one’s thoughts, be strategic and think about the long-term consequences of one’s actions. For example, if buying one’s dream car may bankrupt one for many years, it may not be worth it. Taking a high-flying job without being ready to work hard and live a solitary life to focus on the job, may not be a suitable opportunity. So, if nothing else, following this path may at least put us in the right direction and do justice to ourselves and those around us to increase our chances of a good life.

(This article is based on my newly published book ‘Sapiens and Sthitaprajna’ by Ashwini Mokashi.)

Keeping Independent Scholarship Alive

Seneca, an ancient Hellenic philosopher, always maintained that the retirement phase was an extremely important phase of life, as it allowed one to practice virtue and Philosophy. To me, this phase also symbolizes not just with the practice of virtue, but also with the practice of independent scholarship. In order to be an independent scholar without an academic job, one needs to be free of one’s duties as a householder and be financially supported in ways that one can spend one’s time on scholarly activities and pursuing dreams of research.

The group of independent scholars at Princeton has survived and thrived over last thirty years. When the group started, it consisted mostly of academic spouses, retired luminaries from the academic world. Being surrounded by a world-class university as well as the Institute of Advanced Studies helped create the ambience for intellectual environment. The history and the location of Princeton, surrounding libraries and university made it very attractive for a lot of aspiring independent scholars to be connected with this place. Some of those advantages still hold true.

Thirty years later, due to the changing nature of society, most of the aspiring scholars are required to have a career of some sorts and with a career comes responsibility to focus on work anywhere from forty to eighty hours a week. That leaves very little time for scholarship or a dual career. The current expectation makes it very difficult for independent scholarship to thrive at a younger age. Hence like in Senecan fashion, one can either focus on philosophical or scholarly thinking in the later years after retirement, or we need to figure out different ways of encouraging young independent scholars, who are also otherwise busy either making a career for themselves or raising a family or both.

It will benefit the survival of the organization in the long run to have a younger pool of members, who are enthusiastic about the organization, about their membership in this like-minded community and about continuing to fulfil their research aspirations.

Some ways in which we can capture this population are:

  1. Allowing members to come in and out, when they are in between professional ventures
  2. Allowing graduate students to be members, if they want to be independent scholars for personal reasons
  3. Allowing academic aspirants to be scholars, when they are not currently employed in an academic job

Some of our members have been in these situations at some point in their lives and the organization has been richer as a result of their contributions, when they have been producing works of scholarship. At this point, I would like to welcome ideas from our members about how to make this organization richer in ways that we can assure its long life and productive phase year after year over a long period of time.

(C) Ashwini Mokashi

(This article had first appeared in the newsletter of the Princeton Research Forum in the Winter 2014 edition. )

Goddess of Wisdom – Saraswati

by Ashwini Mokashi (c)

Today is Dussehra, Dasara, Vijaya Dashami and the day is celebrated by the Hindu community as a worship of Goddes Saraswati, who is the Goddess of Wisdom, Knowledge and Art. I hope with her blessings, we can move forward with the mission of spreading the word that wisdom leads to happiness and therefore try to inculcate it in our lives.

Here is my poem as my tribute:

Pond Behavior

Little did I know that I lived in a pond

And shared it with those, who knew all along

That they belonged there, and I did not.

We spent all day playing tag and whispers

I couldn’t pass on what I had heard

With the same attitude as others

Authority and judgments of a class of people

Who know, they are much above and beyond

For the sundries to reach them and their pals

And cause any damage to their reputation

What are my options? Leave and go

And begin the search for my true station

Or stay here with the sense of alienation

That does me no good, nor the others

It is time to play a new game, take the lead and

Spread wise thoughts with good deeds.

Gandhi Jayanti – Birth Celebration of Mahatma Gandhi

What better way to celebrate Gandhi Jayanti than saying we will try to understand the moral values discussed in the Bhagavadgita, the basis of the moral philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi…

The Humanities Group of Princeton Research Forum will hold a book discussion on the first and second chapters of the Bhagavad-Gita on Saturday, October 5th at 10 am at the Mary Jacobs Library in Rocky Hill, NJ.

From Violence to Security

by Ashwini Mokashi (c)

Violence against women has continued despite the wake-up calls through the ‘me too’ movement a few years ago. Violence occurs not just from powerful men, but also from men on the street. Anger takes the form of violence, when it is out of control. Why are women being held responsible in these instances and how can they protect themselves and lead a life of dignity?

Anger is necessarily connected with a sense of power. Anyone who has a sense of power can victimize another weaker person. In many cases, women are weaker parties either due to their cultural placement or due to their choice of being the homemakers or caretakers. These jobs don’t necessarily translate into money-making and due to the lack of financial power; they suffer from direct or indirect violence at the hands of other powerful male members, once in a while also at the hands of female members, who are either powerful themselves or are acting in lieu of the powerful males.
Sociologically speaking, women from various regions, castes, tribes, minorities, poor communities already feel themselves at a disadvantage and are coerced to do whatever they need to do. Many women from upper class or upper caste may also be subject to random acts of violence. In short, most women can potentially be subject to violence. There is not a single section of women in the country that does not feel today that they are not under threat. The point is that the probability that a woman will face violence in her lifetime is high.

Statistically, India has an unequal ratio between male and female children, due to the culture of male-child preference among some parents. It is a comparatively small group of people, but the impact it has is staggering. As per the 2011 census, there were only 943 females to 1000 males in India. When they grow up, there will be roughly 57 young men at a given time without a spouse to marry and so the chances of 57 boys per 1000 people, who may not be able to find spouses and that would make them unsatisfied with life, possibly leading them astray. This already complicates the issue at hand.

A rational solution would be to give power to women. This entails both financial power as well as inner strength, including a recognition of their role as a caretaker of the family. Some of the measures we can undertake are building the confidence of our young people – both men and women, teach boys to be respectful and sensitive, educate and teach our children values of hard work and moral ways of life; teach young girls self-defense; extend family support to married daughters; provide equitable treatment to both girls and boys, make them responsible. This shift in our mindset could really deepen the support system and help alleviate problems in the future.

As the joint family system is breaking down, young people are moving out to different places for jobs and most cities are filled with strangers. The safety net of the families is thinning and there is not an inherent community that binds the young people together, teaches or reinforces values. Everyone in the family may hold different views about what is an appropriate expectation from their role in the family, whether they live with the family or away from them. This has caused a lot of turmoil in the minds of people from the Indian subcontinent. Even the Indian diaspora in foreign countries is not an exception to it.

To vouch for the safety of our younger generation assuming an overall responsibility to do what is good for the young people, the elders need to be good role models. We need to continue the discourse in which we talk about our idols, our unsung heroes, ordinary men and women, who live a good moral life without any expectation of praise or money. If we look around, there are still plenty of examples available. We need to raise them to a higher status, before that generation of people vanishes. Even now, western people look towards holy places in India to seek spiritual solace. With a responsible and moral attitude, we can try to create a safer society for our young women and counter these social ills by leading moral lives ourselves. This will go a long way to stabilize the situation, even if it doesn’t eradicate the problem.

[This article was originally written for the audience in India. It does have some global appeal as well.]

Sapiens ani Sthitaprajna

This was my first article in Marathi that I published after two decades of not having written anything in Marathi. One doesn’t forget one’s mother-tongue and the joy I felt after having written the article was unbelievable. The article was very well-received by so many readers. I was glad, it struck a chord with many.

This is a summary of my research in Marathi, written mostly for the Marathi-speaking audience. Below is the link:

The Pursuit of Happiness

My recently published book ‘Sapiens and Sthitaprajna: A Comparative Study in Seneca’s Stoicism and the Bhagavadgita’ is based on the concept of a wise person as we see in Stoic Seneca as well as in the Bhagavadgita. The scholarly research shows how wisdom leads to happiness, in a simple layman’s terms. This article below is a brief summary of my research. I hope you will enjoy the article, that originally was published in the Indian Express:

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