Gary Gutting interviews Jonardon Ganeri in the NYT's The Stone (image from Wikimedia commons):
G.G.: What sort of ethical guidance does Hinduism provide?
J.G.: One of the most important texts in the religious life of many Hindus is the Bhagavadgita, the Song of the Lord. The Gita is deeply philosophical, addressing in poetic, inspirational language a fundamental conundrum of human existence: What to do when one is pulled in different directions by different sorts of obligation, how to make hard choices. The hard choice faced by the protagonist Arjuna is whether to go to war against members of his own family, in violation of a universal duty not to kill; or to abstain, letting a wrong go unrighted and breaking a duty that is uniquely his. Lord Krishna counsels Arjuna with the philosophical advice that the moral motivation for action should never consist in expected outcomes, that one should act but not base one’s path of action on one’s wants or needs.
G.G.: This sounds rather like the Kantian view that morality means doing what’s right regardless of the consequences.
J.G.: There are ongoing debates about what sort of moral philosophy Krishna is proposing — Amartya Sen has claimed that he’s a quasi-Kantian but others disagree. More important than this scholarly debate, though, is what the text tells us about how to live: that living is hard, and doing the right thing is difficult; that leading a moral life is at best an enigmatic and ambiguous project. No escape route from moral conflict by imitating the actions of a morally perfect individual is on offer here. Krishna, unlike Christ, the Buddha or Mohammed is not portrayed as morally perfect, and indeed the philosopher Bimal Matilal very aptly describes him as the “devious divinity.” We can but try our best in treacherous circumstances.
G.G.: How does the notion of “karma” fit into the picture?
J.G.: Let me be clear. The idea of karma is that every human action has consequences, but it is not at all the claim that every human action is itself a consequence. So the idea of karma does not imply a fatalistic outlook on life, according to which one’s past deeds predetermine all one’s actions. The essence of the theory is simply that one’s life will be better if one acts in ways that are ethical, and it will be worse if one acts in ways that are unethical.