Professor M.Hiriyanna is one of the little-known scholar-giants who gifted us new insights and corrected thriving mis-perceptions about Indian philosophy. The title of this piece is derived from his 1939 Indian Philosophical Congress lecture bearing the same title.

His lecture delivers the message of Indian philosophy in the layman’s language both in content and presentation. That is a rare feat given the complexity and abundance of technical terms and concepts Indian philosophy contains. As he mentions at the outset of the lecture, the subject he has selected “possesses little technical importance.”

Hiriyanna deals with the “familiar theme” of the ideal of life in the backdrop of Indian philosophy. He begins by briefly examining the conception of philosophy itself.

Philosophy in India was not an idle quest unlike in the West where it aims at satisfying the desire or curiosity to know. Indeed, the root Greek word, philosophia stops at defining it as merely a “love of wisdom.” For all its virtues and exalted status, wisdom is a function of the buddhi, a state or faculty higher than the mind. There is no corresponding word for buddhi in all of Western philosophy.

In India, the corresponding word for “philosophy” is darshana, one of the meanings of which is “a system of philosophy.” Other meanings include “direct perception,” “observation,” “cognition,” and “realization.” It is from the first meaning that we have the six schools of Indian philosophy. And as Hiriyanna says, the philosophic truth was sought for the light it may throw upon the ultimate significance of life. This practical interest in a way unites all these six systems of Indian philosophy. Philosophical exploration in India from the earliest times moved away from merely formulating a set of theoretical views of the universe and dealt in applying philosophic concepts to everyday life. This is also the Indian ideal of life.

Hiriyanna elaborates this ideal of life in the rest of his lecture. As a starting point, he identifies three common features of this ideal as unselfishness, service, and abiding enlightenment.


Both Vedanta and Buddhism stress on unselfishness as one of the ideals of practical life. Buddhism goes to the extreme step of denying the very existence of the self (nairatmya vada) “in order to impress upon its adherents the importance of unselfishness.” However, unselfishness is clearly defined as the “entire abnegation of self-interest.” It is indeed an ascetic ideal but not in the sense of voluntary forsaking of the world. It is asceticism that goes hand in hand with altruistic activity and not divorced from it. The aim of life is not just detachment but detachment and service, which brings us to the second feature of the Indian ideal of life.


Hiriyanna devotes the majority of his lecture to service. The pursuit of service is not running away from society and seeking passive isolation. Indian philosophy commends self-renunciation, not world-renunciation. The Bhagavad Gita upholds this feature by stressing upon the necessity of leading a life of incessant activity although one may have no personal gain accruing as a result of this activity. In the words of Krishna, there’s nothing in the three worlds I have to toil for; and yet I act.

To explore this a little deeper, renunciation and service are not opposing or separate aims. In the Indian conception, service is one of the means to cultivate renunciation. True detachment cannot be achieved without living an active life in the midst of people, devoting oneself to their welfare with no thought of self-advantage. In Hiriyanna’s words, “as active service, it involves self-affirmation and as tending to complete detachment it also involves self-denial…” Hiriyanna explains this apparent paradox best:

…the excellence of this teaching is in bringing these opposites into harmony; and it is possible to do so by purifying the one [service] of egoism and the other [renunciation] of passivity or inaction. But these activities are not left to be determined by the choice or opinion of the individual, for the service which is to be the means of cultivating the spirit of renunciation is defined as consisting in doing sva dharma or the duties of the station which one fills in society.

Most classical Indian texts on Dharma stress on performing sva dharma to near perfection. Very vaguely, sva dharma involves doing immediate and routine duties like taking care of the house and family. It is the simplest purifier of the soul, leading to gradual spiritual elevation. A person, who fails to perform sva dharma effectively, fails in every other task or dharma. Mahatma Gandhi is a good example of this. He embarked on a quest of trying to liberate India from foreign rule while his own family life was in shambles. And was he effective in liberating India? All I can say is his legacy in this respect is doubtful. And therefore, although sva dharma is simple to practice, its actual practice is often fraught with difficulty—perhaps the greatest difficulty is the sheer boredom of routine and the thankless nature of the task. However, the need for performing one’s sva dharma is deeper.

…this insistence on the performance of one’s own duties implies the abolition of all distinctions of high and low among them for, when we consider duties as means to renunciation, it is not their content that matter, but the selfless spirit in which they are done. All can therefore be sanyasins in this sense. (Emphasis added)

But does the Indian ideal stop at selflessness and renunciation?

The Indian ideal of life recognizes incompleteness even in these two crucial areas. A person may abolish self-interest but he/she will still be aware of what is known as agency. Agency simply means the cognition that the person is (still) the doer of the action or duty. According to the Gita, though he may free himself from the idea that he is an enjoyer (bhoktr), he will remain conscious that he is the doer (kartr). Thus, “disinterested activity, even when it is the result of strife, may be commendable. But it cannot be the ultimate ideal. The need for such effort must wholly disappear. The notion of agency must be given up.”

In other words, the agent (or the person doing the duty) should transcend the sense of duty, and must become the effort/action itself. This in a sense also reflects the timeless truth embodied in Tat Tvam Asi—That art Thou. Hiriyanna recalls this wonderful verse from the Mahabharata’s Shanti Parva:

Tyaja dharmam adharmam ca ubhe satyanrte tyaja|
Ubhe satyanrte tyaktvaa yena tyajasi tat tyaja||

Foreswear dharma, adharma, truth, and falsehood–and then
Foreswear that by which you foreswore all these.

The Indian ideal regards a person conscious of his own unselfishness as imperfect, even dangerous. There is no greater tyranny than that of the person who is convinced of his own moral superiority. Hiriyanna illustrates this very well using the example of a mother’s love for her infant. A mother’s love for her child is not out of a mere sense of duty. A nurse who is paid to take care of babies does the same job equally well–as a duty but “the mother’s response is on a higher plane where duty merges in love and she grows completely un-self-conscious in attending to the needs of the child.” The attainment of a similar level of action with regard to the whole universe represents the Indian ideal of life. According to Hiriyanna, it is “love mediated by comprehensive knowledge. Utter knowledge is utter love,” and

If one form of love is notoriously blind, all forms of it operate more or less instinctively and not with complete understanding. The only key to such understanding is philosophy.

Thus, in the Indian ideal, philosophy bridges the gulf between common morality and the ideal. A familiar term used even in routine conversation is Shastra-jnana or knowledge of philosophical texts. And the way

For acquiring that key, a further course of discipline is necessary, [and] that discipline is predominantly intellectual. Here we see the relation to philosophic theory to the ideal of practical life. Which means, it is not enough to think and know; one must also feel and experience. The knowledge conveyed by the teaching should be transformed into an immediate conviction, if it is to issue in unbidden action, like a mother’s love …. it is only such a living awareness, and not a merely conceptual knowledge of reality that can inspire love which will transmute conduct. (Emphasis added)

When we realize the highest end of service and renunciation, we come to the third feature of the Indian ideal of life.

Abiding Enlightenment

So far, what we notice is the successively higher and higher stages of evolution: unselfishness, service and renunciation. These three still fall in the realm of ethics and morality. But now we arrive at what is known as abiding enlightenment.

When the ethical training of the first stage comes to be aided by such enlightenment, renunciation, instead of being merely an aim externally regulating conduct, becomes the natural expression of an inner conviction; and…service, instead of being a means to an end, becomes the necessary consequence of that conviction. Or….the constraint of obligation is replaced by the spontaneity of love. (Emphasis added)

When this stage is reached, the person transcends all subjective evaluations of his social/moral actions. He no longer feels the need to question “have I done right or wrong?” In other words, although he is in the world, “he is merely an impartial spectator.” More significantly, he sets a standard for others to strive for. That was the way of ancient Indian rishis. It is what Swami Vivekananda meant when he said that Hindus are proud to trace their roots to sages who lived in the forest. The Bhagavad Gita calls this loka samgraha. Roughly this means: what the best men do, that becomes the standard for the rest.

Hiriyanna concludes that the message of Indian philosophy is that

…man should seek for the fulfilment of his highest being in such service. The distinctive features of this service…are that it should be rendered in a spirit of absolute disinterestedness and that it should be rooted in an all-comprehensive love which is the outcome of complete enlightenment.

He laments the fact that in his time, “the emphasis on these features has weakened” and the consequence was the

…subordination…of spiritual to worldly ends in the pursuits of life. The idea of altruistic service is…there but its scope has been narrowed in various soul-cramping ways. Its quality. has deteriorated…on account of attempts made to reconcile service to others with what is called ‘reasonable self-love.’

Hiriyanna delivered this lecture in the early part of the previous century. As we now know, this “reasonable self-love” gradually metamorphosed in Ayn Rand’s hands into the “virtue of selfishness.”

Abiding enlightenment comes from integration, not diffusion.

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Sandeep Balakrishna

Writer, blogger and lapsed IT professional.