Volume 29, 2008
Philosophy in Asia and the Pacific
T. R. Raghunath
An Asian Ethic of Compassion
Chidambaram Ramalingam (1823 – 1874) was a nineteenth century Indian-Tamilian poet, mystic, and visionary moral thinker well-known for his seminal contributions to Tamil religious and moral literature. He initiated a new moral and spiritual community and movement, Suddha Sanmargam, or “The Pure Path to True Harmony”, in the nineteenth century in the province of Tamilnadu in Southern India. One of Ramalingam’s texts which laid the philosophical foundation for this community and movement is his great unfinished essay “The Ethic of Compassion for Sentient Beings”. In this talk, I will attempt a systematic presentation of the moral vision and ethical system in his essay. Among Ramalingam’s central claims are the following: a) Compassion involves understanding or discernment of the ultimate metaphysical truth pertaining to sentient beings, b) Compassion is the foundation of all other moral virtues, c) Compassion provides the standard of the moral worth of actions, d) Compassion is the basis of morality itself, and e) Compassion is an essential condition of attaining spiritual liberation or enlightenment. In my talk, I will clarify, develop, and critically examine these five theses on compassion and consider relevant views and objections in the Western and Asian philosophical traditions.