Ayn Rand and Indian Philosophy

Roderick T. Long

Note: a mangled and error-ridden version of this essay appeared in
Tibor Machan, ed., Ayn Rand at 100 (Liberty Institute, Delhi, India, 2006).
This is the correct version.

In her novel The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand has the story’s chief villain, Ellsworth Toohey, tell his niece Catherine Halsey, whose spirit he is trying to break, that only when she has learned to “kill the most stubborn of roots, the ego,” will “the gates of spiritual grandeur ... fall open before [her].” To Halsey’s question, “when the gates fall open, who is it that’s going to enter?” Toohey responds: “Of course it’s you who’ll enter. You won’t have lost your identity – you will merely have acquired a broader one, an identity that will be part of everybody else and of the whole universe.” (Rand 1993, p. 365.) Later in the novel, a franker Toohey explains that this sort of answer functions as a tool of manipulation:

Every system of ethics that preached sacrifice grew into a world power and ruled millions of men. Of course, you must dress it up. You must tell people that they’ll achieve a superior kind of happiness by giving up everything that makes them happy. You don’t have to be too clear about it. Use big vague words. ‘Universal Harmony’ – ‘Eternal Spirit’ – ‘Divine Purpose’ – ‘Nirvana’ .... (p. 638.)

The reference to “Nirvana” makes it clear that Rand intends to include the central traditions of Indian thought among the systems of ideas that she is condemning. This judgment is still clearer in her next novel, Atlas Shrugged, where villains like Eugene Lawson, Ivy Starnes, and Emma Chalmers are presented as enthusiasts for Hindu and Buddhist ideas (Rand 1996, pp. 290, 301, 858), while the hero, John Galt, dismisses the “mystic muck of India” as a “refuge against reality” and “escape from the mind.” (p. 967.)

Given Rand’s hostility toward Indian traditions of spiritual thought, looking for points of contact between her ideas and Indian philosophy might seem a quixotic task – since most of India’s major philosophical traditions have been affiliated with either Hinduism or Buddhism.1 But on the other hand, while Rand also despised Christianity, she nevertheless enthusiastically admired Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas as one of the greatest philosophers of all time; and conversely, many Christians have found much of value in Rand’s work. So there is nothing impossible in the supposition that similar affinities might be found between Rand and the great philosophers of India, despite her antipathy toward the associated religious traditions. There is no evidence that Rand’s knowledge of Indian philosophy was more than cursory, and so she would most likely have been unaware of such potential affinities – especially since throughout most of the 20th century there was a tendency for popularizing works on Indian philosophy to emphasize its differences from Western philosophy and to downplay its similarities.2

Rand, who envisioned human beings as efficacious minds in an intelligible universe, would have had little sympathy for those traditions within Indian thought (e.g., the Advaita tradition in Hinduism and the Madhyamaka tradition in Buddhism) that reject the applicability of reason and logical distinctions to reality. For Rand, such basic categories as existence, identity, and consciousness are axiomatic presuppositions of all meaningful thought and discussion, and any attempt to undermine them must thus be self-defeating.

But the Indian tradition also includes the Hindu and Buddhist logicians – adherents of the Nyaya3 and Mimamsa4 traditions, affiliated with Hinduism, or the Abhidharma and Yogachara traditions, affiliated with Buddhism.5. These thinkers developed a theory of the syllogism akin to Aristotle’s; understood the world as an orderly realm governed by regular causal laws,6 to be investigated through logical reasoning grounded in the evidence of the senses; and likewise rejected as self-defeating the irrationalist paradoxes of Advaita and Madhyamaka. If affinities between Rand and the Indian philosophers are to be found, these traditions are the first place to look.

Knowledge and Reality

For the Buddhist logicians, as for Rand, the two valid sources of knowledge are a) perception and b) inference from what has been perceived.7 The Hindu logicians likewise accept perception and inference but add a third source of knowledge, testimony, whose reducibility to the first two they deny; part (though not the whole) of their motivation is to safeguard the authority of the Hindu scriptures. Buddhist thinkers, by contrast, are less enamored of scriptural authority; for example, the Buddha is traditionally described as urging his disciples not to accept even his teachings on his mere say-so, but rather to test them in their own lives as assayers test gold. On this issue Rand is probably closer to the Buddhists: admittedly she regards testimony as a genuine source of knowledge, insisting that “every man gains an incalculable benefit from the knowledge discovered by others” (Rand 1989, pp. 35-6); but unlike the Hindu logicians she would take the validity of such testimony to rest not merely on the source’s reliability but on evidence of the source’s reliability, thereby reducing the authority of testimony to that of perception and inference.8

When it comes to the nature of our perceptual and inferential knowledge, however, Rand is closer to the Hindu than to the Buddhist logicians. For Rand, sensory perception places us in direct cognitive contact with the external world – a view accepted by the Hindu logicians but rejected by most of the Buddhist ones, who regard the external world as either an inference from or a construction out of our sensory images.9 Among Buddhist theories an exception is the Vaibhashika branch of Abhidharma, which embraces direct perceptual realism; the Sautrantika branch of Abhidharma, by contrast, embraces representational realism, regarding our belief in the external world as a legitimate inference from our perceptual experiences, but denying that external objects are actually given directly in such experience. Against both, the Yogachara tradition rejects the existence of external objects entirely, keeping only the perceptual experiences and perceivers’ fictive constructions therefrom. For Rand, however, as for the Nyaya and Mimamsa logicians – who fought a sustained, centuries-long battle against every form of skepticism and phenomenalism – consciousness by its very nature presupposes an object distinct from itself. This rules out both the Yogachara position (which denies the metaphysical priority of object over subject, thus committing the fallacy Rand labels the “primacy of consciousness”) and the Sautrantika position (which denies the epistemological priority of object over subject, thus committing the fallacy Rand labels the “prior certainty of consciousness”).

Rand is also closer to the Hindu thinkers, particularly those in the Nyaya tradition, when it comes to the nature of the world we experience through perception. (Since the similarities between the Nyaya theories and those of Aristotle have often been remarked on by historians of comparative philosophy, it is probably not surprising that Rand, as an Aristotelean herself, should be most closely aligned with Nyaya.) For the Buddhists, we do not perceive unified entities extended in space and enduring through time; all we perceive are, at best, present portions of surfaces – and at worst, our own fleeting mental images. Indeed, the Buddhist logicians deny the existence of unified entities entirely; reality is pure flux, an endless, causally ordered sequence of extensionless, durationless, momentary episodes (both mental and physical for Abhidharma, purely mental for Yogachara). The Nyaya thinkers, by contrast, insist that perception reveals to us a world of unified entities, and that we are aware of such entities per se and not just of the surfaces or effects or time-slices of such entities; this is Rand’s position also, and like Nyaya she vigorously rejects as incoherent the notion that activities or properties could exist without an enduring subject to underlie them.

There are Hindu thinkers from other traditions who also reject the existence of independent and enduring entities, regarding all entities (so the Advaita tradition), or at any rate all material entities (so the Samkhya tradition) as mere passing modifications of a single underlying reality. The Buddhist logicians agree with these Hindu thinkers that all purported entities are in fact mere passing modifications, but differ from them in denying the existence of any enduring subject underlying the modifications (unless the Yogachara notion of a storehouse-consciousness should be interpreted as playing that role). As would Rand, the Nyaya theorists condemn the anti-entity position in both its Hindu and Buddhist forms; an entity may be made up of tiny material particles, but it is nevertheless a unified whole with an identity of its own, not a mere aggregation of its constituents.10

The Ego and Its Own

Indian moral philosophy is generally “egoistic,” in the broad sense that benefit to the individual agent is regarded as the proper purpose of morality.11 (The Mimamsa tradition is an exception, embracing duty for duty’s sake – a notion alien to Rand.) But the degree of affinity between this sort of ethical egoism and that of Rand depends on how the self and its interests are conceived. The Buddhist tradition (with one exception, as we’ll see) denies the existence of an enduring self, just as it denies the existence of any other enduring entity; a person’s life is simply a causally connected series of momentary episodes like droplets in a waterfall, with no underlying subject to unite them. Rand would have found incoherent the project of trying to secure benefits for a self that does not strictly exist.

All Hindu philosophical traditions, by contrast, accept the notion of an enduring self; but for some (e.g., Advaita and, arguably, the early Upanishads) this means positing One Big Self for everybody, and true happiness is said to lie in having one’s illusory individual identity absorbed into this One Big Self.12 This is precisely the conception of self that Rand – champion of the “single, specific, irreplaceable lives of individual men” (Rand 1989, p. 97) – parodies and condemns in the Fountainhead passage with which we started. The Hindu logicians, by contrast, maintain – along with the Samkhya tradition (which is monistic about matter but not about spirit) – that each person has his or her own individual self. However, this self is generally conceived as a separable immaterial soul, radically distinct both from its body and from its conscious experiences – an unacceptably dualistic position from Rand’s point of view. When James Taggart in Atlas Shrugged insists, “I want to be loved for myself – not for anything I do or have or say or think .... not for my body or mind or words or works or actions,” his wife Cherryl speaks for Rand in asking: “But then ... what is yourself?” (Rand 1996, p. 809.) Nor, however, would Rand find congenial the opposite position of the Charvaka materialists, affiliated with neither Hinduism nor Buddhism, who simply identified the self with the physical body; such reductionism is no more acceptable to Rand than is dualism.

Perhaps the standpoint closest to one Rand could accept is that of the Pudgalavada branch of Abhidharma. These Buddhist thinkers, regarded as heretical by Buddhists of other traditions, interpreted the Buddha’s denial of a self to mean only the denial of a self separable from its mental and physical career. In contrast to the Buddhist mainstream – which taught that a distinct self, if it existed, would have to be (per impossibile) a separable self à la Hinduism – the Pudgalavadins maintained that a person is distinct from his mental activities and physical constituents in the sense that he is not identical with, or a mere aggregate of, such activities and constituents, but that he is not distinct from these activities and constituents in another sense, namely, he cannot exist in separation from them. This view, though ridiculed as contradictory by other Buddhists, perhaps comes closest to Rand’s view that a human being is a unified integration of mind and body rather than being either mind or body alone.

In addition to rejecting most Indian philosophers’ conceptions of the self, Rand would also reject most Indian philosophers’ conception of self-interest. The majority view in the Indian philosophical tradition has located our true self-interest in ascetic detachment from material concerns and worldly satisfactions, a position for which Rand would have little sympathy. Nor, however, would she find congenial the opposing Charvaka view, which champions hedonistic immersion in bodily satisfactions. For Rand, feelings of enjoyment are the result of achieving one’s values and so cannot themselves be the criteria of value; moreover, she rejects the opposition between hedonism and asceticism as yet another form of the false dichotomy between matter and spirit, mindless flesh versus disembodied consciousness.

The emphasis, in Indian thought, on spirit over matter has often led to a distrust of modern industrial civilization. The Hindu poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, for example, declared in 1926:

Purely physical dominance is mechanical and modern machines are merely exaggerating our bodies, lengthening and multiplying our limbs. The modern mind in its innate childishness delights in this enormous bodily bulk .... It does not realize that in this we are returning to that antediluvian age which reveled in its production of gigantic physical frames, leaving no room for the freedom of the inner spirit. (Quoted in Sharma 1965, p. 301.)

The following passage from Atlas Shrugged reads almost as though Rand had written it as a reply to Tagore:

Why had she always felt that joyous sense of confidence when looking at machines? ... In these giant shapes, two aspects pertaining to the inhuman were radiantly absent: the causeless and the purposeless. Every part of the motors was an embodied answer to “Why?” and “What for?” – like the steps of a life-course chosen by the sort of mind she worshipped. The motors were a moral code cast in steel. ... They are alive, she thought, because they are the physical shape of the action of a living power – of the mind that had been able to grasp the whole of this complexity, to set its purpose, to give it form. ... These things and the capacity from which they came – was this the pursuit men regarded as evil? Was this what they called an ignoble concern with the physical world? ... Was this the surrender of man’s spirit to his body? (Rand 1996, pp. 226-30.)

For Rand the realm of industrial production is above all a realm of intellectual and spiritual achievement, and she would have no patience with the suggestion that freedom of the spirit requires an abandonment of such material concerns; once again, matter and spirit form a unity.

The Fruit of Conduct

According to the dominant position in Indian moral philosophy (again with the usual exception of Charvaka), the supreme goal of life is moksha or nirvana, the cessation of all craving and striving, and is to be achieved through renunciation and detachment. This final state of liberation is conceived sometimes as a boundless and ineffable bliss, and sometimes as the extinction of consciousness itself. Even the Nyaya thinkers, champions of this-worldly realism in metaphysics and epistemology, embrace this other-worldly ethical ideal.13 Rand explicitly rejects such an approach; commenting on economist Ludwig von Mises’ view that all human action is motivated by “uneasiness,” so that a completely happy existence would be devoid of either desire or action, Rand characterizes Mises’ position as “Nirvana-worship” and “seeking the Nirvana of stagnation,” and insists instead that “action is man’s proper state.”14 A similar criticism of the nirvana ideal appears in John Galt’s words in Atlas Shrugged:

Joy is not ‘the absence of pain,’ .... Evil, not value, is an absence and a negation .... You seek escape from pain. We seek the achievement of happiness. ... (Rand 1996, p. 937.)

[I]t’s not that I don’t suffer, it’s that I know the unimportance of suffering, I know that pain is to be fought and thrown aside, not to be accepted as ... a permanent scar across one’s view of existence. (p. 878.)

The contrast with Buddhism, for which the all-pervasiveness of suffering is the First Noble Truth, is obvious.15

Most Indian philosophical traditions accept the law of karma, according to which our actions create traces or tendencies called samskaras in our souls that affect our prospects in future lives. While Rand would not accept the idea of reincarnation or a supernatural causal mechanism, one might say that she embraces a naturalised version of the karma doctrine, insofar as she compares the human subconscious to an “electronic computer” (Rand 1989, p. 30) which one programs through one’s choices, resulting in automatised reactions that have a decisive impact on one’s future in this life. She would also agree with Indian tradition that attachment (she would say: the choice to live) involves us in the causal network of karma by committing us to certain patterns of action with certain definite tendencies and effects – in Rand’s words, “the terms, methods, conditions and goals required for the survival of a rational being through the whole of his lifespan.” (p. 26.) But she would emphatically reject as a “morality of death” the Indian philosophers’ conclusion that such attachment, and consequent entanglement in karma, are evils to be overcome through detachment and renunciation.

Yet Rand’s attitude toward the Indian ideal of detachment is more complicated than it might appear. While she certainly rejects the sort of detachment that leads one to withdraw from worldly concerns (as dramatized by the character of Dominique Francon in The Fountainhead), the psychological outlook that Rand advocates might be characterized as one of passionate engagement with the world – but with an inner core of detachment. As The Fountainhead’s hero, Howard Roark, puts it: “I’m not capable of suffering completely. ... It goes only down to a certain point and then it stops. As long as there is that untouched point, it’s not really pain.” (Rand 1993, p. 344.) A further echo of Indian asceticism shows up in the plot of Atlas Shrugged, as the heroes “drop out” of their former lives, renouncing (albeit temporarily) their most treasured projects, because remaining in the world would continue the cycle of exploitation.

Indeed, despite Rand’s disagreements with Mahatma Gandhi over the merits of industrial capitalism, the strategy of the strikers in Atlas Shrugged – undermining the power of oppression by withdrawing cooperation from it – bears more than a passing resemblance to Gandhi’s campaign of satyagraha. “You can govern us only so long as we remain the governed,” Gandhi declared (Gandhi 2001, p. 14); “no Government can exist for a single moment without the co-operation of the people,” so “if the people suddenly withdraw their co-operation ... the Government will come to a standstill.” (p. 157.) Likewise, in Atlas Shrugged Hank Rearden tells his prosecutors: “If you choose to deal with men by means of compulsion, do so. But you will discover that you need the voluntary co-operation of your victims .... And your victims should discover that it is their own volition – which you cannot force – that makes you possible.” (Rand 1996, pp. 443-4.)

Rand’s emphasis on voluntary cooperation brings us to one final parallel (and contrast). Common to many Indian ethical traditions is the ideal of ahimsa, “non-violence,” or more broadly “non-injury” – though the precise requirements of this ideal (is it compatible with warfare? meat-eating? self-defense?) are vigorously disputed.16 In Rand’s ethic too we find a version of the ahimsa principle (though she does not use the term), in the form of a prohibition on any attempt to profit from another without giving an equivalent value in return. Since both subordinating oneself to others and subordinating others to oneself are forms of dependence and so undermine the commitments needed for successful self-maintenance – i.e., they bring the Randian equivalent of bad karma – Rand insists that we should “not make sacrifices nor accept them,” but instead “deal with one another as traders, giving value for value.” (Rand 1989, p. 34.) In addition to ruling out nonviolent forms of manipulation and parasitism, Rand’s version of ahimsa yields a specific condemnation of initiatory force: “Men have the right to use physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use.” (p. 36.)

Many Indian traditions appear to reserve the consistent practice of ahimsa, however interpreted, to a committed few, treating it as a distant ideal whose onerous burdens the ordinary laity may appropriately postpone (either to old age or to a later incarnation). But there is nothing optional or deferrable about the Randian version of ahimsa – which is intended as a guide, not an obstacle, to living in this world. That is why Rand’s ban on initiatory force protects not only bodily integrity but private property as well: “Since material goods are produced by the mind and effort of individual men, and are needed to sustain their lives, if the producer does not own the result of his effort, he does not own his life.” (Rand 1989, p. 106.) Gandhi would agree, in principle: “There is surely often more violence in burning a man’s property than doing him physical injury.” (Gandhi 2001, p. 371.) But unlike Gandhi, Rand infers the illegitimacy of all taxation and economic regulation – since officials of the State enjoy no exemption from the requirements of ahimsa: “No man – or group or society or government – has the right to assume the role of a criminal and initiate the use of physical compulsion against any man.” (Rand 1989, p. 36; emphasis added.) Hence all laws restricting the freedom of individuals to do whatever they please with their own persons and property are illegitimate; the Randian call to ahimsa is thus a demand for a radical libertarian transformation of existing society.17


1. For a Rand-inspired critique of Indian religions, see Walsh 1998, ch. 2.

2. For example, Ishwar Sharma’s 1965 book Ethical Philosophies of India – which incidentally reads, both in tone and in doctrine, precisely as though it had been written by one of Rand’s fictional villains – spends 363 pages describing various Indian philosophical traditions without once citing a single argument, thus inviting unwary readers to reach the (radically mistaken) conclusion that Indian philosophers have merely asserted their positions rather than offering reasoned arguments for them. Sharma’s book is unfortunately typical of much of the popularising literature on Indian philosophy.

3. Also known as Nyaya-Vaiseshika, because of its origin in the early merger of the originally separate Nyaya and Vaisheshika traditions; in its later phase it became known as Navya-Nyaya.

4. Also known as Purva-Mimamsa, to distinguish it from the Uttara-Mimamsa of the various Vedanta traditions.

5. On the Hindu logicians see Matilal 1986; Phillips 1995; Rao 1998; Chakrabarti 1999; and Vattanky 2003. On the Buddhist logicians see Stcherbatsky 1999; Dreyfus 1997; Poussin 1990; and Duerlinger 2003. While the chronology of classical Indian philosophy is difficult to establish with exactness, the earliest works of Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mimamsa, and Abhidharma appear to have been extant at least as early as the 4th century BCE; Yogachara is a later arrival, dating from the 4th century CE. Abhidharma was arguably at its height in the 4th century CE, with Vasubandhu; Yogachara, in the 6th and 7th with Dignaga and Dharmakirti; Mimamsa, in the 7th and 8th with Kumarila and Prabhakara. Nyaya arguably enjoyed two peaks, the first in the 5th through 7th centuries CE with Vatsyayana and Uddyotakara, the second in the 11th through 14th with Udayana and Gangesha. All these schools of thought have since decayed in India, but versions of Abhidharma and Yogachara are still active in Tibet.

6. For Nyaya this causal order is to be attributed to a divine creator; but for Mimamsa, as for the various Buddhist traditions, the universe is orderly in virtue of its own nature, and so no theistic hypothesis is necessary. Rand’s sympathies would be with Mimamsa and the Buddhists against Nyaya on this issue.

7. For Rand’s theory of knowledge see Rand 1990; Peikoff 1993; and Kelley 1986, 1998.

8. For a critique of Rand’s view of testimony see Long 2000.

9. There are also some interesting affinities between the Hindu logicians’ treatment of perceptual illusion (see Matilal 1986, Rao 1998) and Rand’s views as elaborated in Kelley 1986.

10. As we’ve seen, Rand’s views generally come closer to Hindu than to Buddhist logic. On the issue of universals, however, Rand cannot be claimed for either side. The Buddhist logicians regard universals as a subjective invention of our consciousness, having no reference to reality; the Hindu logicians, by contrast, regard universals as an intrinsic feature of reality, apart from anybody’s consciousness. Rand would reject this dispute as a false dichotomy, instead locating universals in the objective relation between consciousness and reality rather than in either of the relata separately.

11. Western moral philosophy was likewise “egoistic” in this sense for most of its history – until the late 18th century, in fact.

12. The view, promulgated in such Hindu classics as the Manu-smrti, that one’s duties should be determined by one’s social class is arguably a naturalised version of this same collectivist ideal – and equally unacceptable to Rand.

13. In light, however, of the relatively scant attention actually paid to ethical questions in the Nyaya literature – in comparison with the thousands of pages devoted to metaphysics, epistemology, and logic – one is tempted to speculate that the Nyaya tradition’s acquiescence in India’s dominant ethical paradigm may have been mere lip service. (cf. Krishna 1991, p. 49.) In any case, Rand would surely have regarded the Nyaya thinkers’ failure to extend their this-worldly orientation into the realm of practical ethics as a major tragedy for Indian culture.

14. Rand 1995, pp. 108, 132; for a reformulation of Mises’ position that avoids the implications Rand finds objectionable, see Long 2005.

15. We may here detect the influence on Rand of two of her favorite philosophers: Aquinas, for whom evil is always “an absence and a negation” rather than a positive force, and Nietzsche, who in a reference to the traditional tale of the Buddha’s discovery of suffering writes: “They encounter a sick man or an old man or a corpse, and immediately they say, ‘Life is refuted.’ But only they themselves are refuted, and their eyes, which see only this one face of existence.” (Nietzsche 1978, p. 45.)

16. Gandhi, for example, takes consistent ahimsa to require “utter selflessness” and so to be incompatible with, inter alia, romantic love: “If a man gives his love to one woman, or a woman to one man, what is there left for all the world besides?” (Gandhi 2001, p. 43.) This standpoint would not find favor with Rand, to put it mildly.

17. Indeed it is a matter of controversy whether Rand’s prohibition on initiatory force is compatible with the existence of any State at all. Rand-inspired defenses of anarchism include Tannehill 1993 and Rothbard 1998; for Rand’s own critique of anarchism see Rand 1989, Ch. 14.


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