The Shift from Material Happiness to Internal Happiness
Indian Philosophy and Nicomachean Ethics
The astonishing realization that things have not always been as they are is one of the great reasons for studying ancient humanities. While holding to my thesis that people are and have been basically the same for the duration of the history that may be called human, it is undeniable that philosophical institutions and understandings have changed dramatically over the millennia. It is taken for granted in modernity that happiness is internal. Methods for producing internal happiness differ from philosophy to philosophy, religion to religion, but I contend without hesitation that the vast majority people of the world today know, though they might not always practice accordingly, that lasting happiness is not in material things. This is due largely to the work of two of the largest influences on modern human thought: Indian philosophy and Greek philosophy. Indian philosophy and Nicomachean ethics both represent the philosophical shift from materialism to what may be termed spirituality by emphasizing right understanding, right action, and right habit.
Aristotle is meticulous at his approach to gain right understanding. As was noted by several students within my earshot, Aristotle’s method is to go around and around a thing and seek to understand it from every angle, refusing conclusion until a satisfying thoroughness is achieved. Understanding the impossibility of perfection, even using the most rigorous methods available, he is content to “indicate the truth roughly and in outline… to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits” (Supplement 17). The right understanding of what is epistemologically possible was similarly voiced by Indian Jain philosophers in the doctrines of anekantavada, syadvada, and nayavada. Anekantavada literally means “doctrine of not one side,” meaning that there is necessarily more than one way to look at things. Nayavada considers the different points of view that observers may bring with them, including prejudices and predispositions. Syadvada makes every statement conditional by adding the Sanskrit word “syat” to any claim, transforming, for example, “this chair is big” into “this chair, in a way, is big,” or, more generally, “in a way, X is Y, and in a way, X is not Y.” With all of this considered, the honest acquisition of truth becomes an effort well defined by Aristotle when he claimed only a rough definition of the truth. Armed with the right understanding of our own limitations, we march forward in an attempt at right action.
Permissible actions in Hinduism are of four categories: pleasure, power, duty, and release. Of these the first two are considered lower and the last two are considered higher, with the goal of release being the highest. Aristotle examines pleasure, honor, money-making, and happiness as the general categories of human endeavor, and ranks as the highest category that of happiness attained through virtue. There is great, though not total, correlation between Aristotle’s definition of happiness and Hinduism’s definition of release. Aristotle sees happiness correlating to material things as low and fleeting. Hinduism sees the material world as something that must be escaped for release to happen and nirvana to set in. Aristotle says, “We call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else.” In the Bhagavad Gita, one of Hinduism’s sacred scriptures, the avatar Krishna tells the great warrior Arjuna “A disciplined man abandons the fruits of his action and attains unlimited peace, but an undisciplined man becomes a slave to the rewards of his action” (Bhagavad Gita 5:12). Action done for a reward other than the action itself is doomed to disappointment, and is missing the essence of happiness. Action, therefore, may be called “right” if it is done because it is right, and not because of any outcome apart from internal happiness.
Right habit, according to Aristotle, comes from practice in doing what is right and virtuous (22). Gandhi, arguably the most prominent Indian of recent times, agreed wholeheartedly. In battling the caste system prominent in India, he affirmed that if one acts as a holy man, then one is a holy man, and if one acts as a slave, then one is a slave, regardless of birth or station. There is evidence that ancient Indian philosophy was similar to Gandhi’s views (cf. Bhaskarananda, The Essentials of Hinduism 23). There is nothing in man’s nature but potential, and this potential may be nourished through action and preserved when actions become habits. In correlation with Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean, we have “sarvam atyanta garhitam,” meaning “too much of anything is bad” (Bhaskarananda 187). Hinduism respects and venerates the great discipline and moral rectitude of the ascetic holy persons, but self-mortification was never the purpose and is not permissible for even the holy persons, for a life may not be taken before its time. In virtue, morality, as well as in practical living, a doctrine of the mean and right habit is affirmed in both traditions.
In showing the great similarities within the philosophical traditions of Aristotle and the Indian ancients, I have sought to focus only on points of agreement. There are obviously great differences in matters of theology, theodicy, the organization of society, art critique, etc. My goal in this examination has been simply to trace some of our taken-for-granted philosophical stances to two of their possible roots. Of course, we in the American West owe most of our cultural philosophy to Aristotle and other occidental thinkers. However, as the worlds of East and West become ever more integrated, it is valuable to find common ground on which to build, common sensibilities that may be activated, and common subjects on which to have intercourse.
 Though no figures are cited to support this claim, it is easily defendable. From India came Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and others, which spread into greater Asia. Greece imparted traditional occidental philosophy and paved the way for Christianity and Islam to take root, which spread into Europe, the Americas, and Africa. Much culture mixing added into this, coming from China, greater Arabia, Africa, etc., but identifiable and undeniable roots are in India and Greece. Most of the human family falls under the umbrella of one or both of these schools.