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       =======  Understanding Hinduism  =======


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Ethics forms the steel-frame foundation of the spiritual life

Hindu Ethics is Mainly Subjective or Personal

Social welfare

The Basis of the Caste System

The Sudra rule (Labour Rule)

The Four Stages of Life


Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha

Personal Ethics Over Social Ethics

Disciplines of Subjective Ethics

Three Gateways of Hell

The Non-dualistic Ethics

An Essay on Hindu Ethics
By Swami Nikhilananda
Ramakrishna – Vivekananda Center, New York

Ethics forms the steel-frame foundation of the spiritual life

Ethics, which concerns itself with the study of conduct, is derived, in Hinduism, from certain spiritual concepts; it forms the steel-frame foundation of the spiritual life. Though right conduct is generally considered to belong to legalistic ethics, it has a spiritual value as well. Hindu ethics differs from modern scientific ethics, which is largely influenced by biology; for according to this latter, whatever is conducive to the continuous survival of a particular individual or species is good for it. It also differs from utilitarian ethics, whose purpose is to secure the maximum utility for a society by eliminating friction and guaranteeing for its members a harmonious existence. Hindu ethics prescribes the disciplines for a spiritual life, which are to be observed consciously or unconsciously as long as man lives.

Hindu Ethics is Mainly Subjective or Personal

Hindu ethics is mainly subjective or personal, its purpose being to eliminate such mental impurities as greed and egoism, for the ultimate attainment of the highest good. Why Hindu ethics stresses the subjective or personal value of action will be discussed later. Objective ethics, which deals with social welfare, has also been considered by Hindu thinkers. It is based upon the Hindu conception of Dharma, or duty, related to a man’s position in society and his stage in life. Objective ethics, according to the Hindu view, is a means to an end, its purpose being to help the members of society to rid themselves of self-centredness, cruelty, greed, and other vices, and thus to create an environment helpful to the pursuit of the highest good, which transcends society. Hinduism further speaks of certain universal ethical principles which apply to all human beings irrespective of their position in society or stage in life.

Social welfare

The ethical doctrines of the Hindus are based upon the teachings of the Upanishads and of certain secondary scriptures, which derive their authority from the Vedas. But though their emphasis is mainly subjective, the Upanishads do not deny the value of social ethics. For instance, we read: "As the scent is wafted afar from a tree laden with flowers, so also is wafted afar the scent of a good deed." Among the social virtues are included ‘hospitality, courtesy, and duties to wife, children, and grandchildren.’ In one of the Upanishads, a king, in answer to a question by a Rishi regarding the state of affairs in his country, says: "In my kingdom there is no thief, no miser, no drunkard, no man without an altar in his home, no ignorant person, no adulterer, much less an adulteress."

Ethical actions calculated to promote social welfare is enjoined upon all who are identified with the world and conscious of their social responsibilities. Without ethical restraint there follows social chaos, which is detrimental to the development of spiritual virtues. According to the Upanishads, the gods, who are the custodians of society, place obstacles in the path of those who seek liberation from samsara, or the relative world, without previously discharging their social duties. As a person realizes the unreality of the world and the psycho-physical entity called the individual, his social duties gradually fall away; but they must not be forcibly given up. If the scab is removed before the wound is healed, a new sore forms. Every normal person endowed with social consciousness has a threefold debt to discharge: his debt to the gods, to the Rishis, and to the ancestors. The debt to the gods, who favour us with rain, sun, wind, and other natural amenities, is paid through worship and prayer. The debt to the Rishis, from whom we inherit our spiritual culture, is paid through regular study of the scriptures. The debt to the ancestors, from whom we have received our physical bodies, is paid through the procreation of children, ensuring the preservation of the line.

With the blessings of the gods, the Rishis, and the ancestors, one can cheerfully practise disciplines for the realization of the highest good, in which all worldly values find fulfillment.

The observance of social ethics, in a large measure, preserved Hindu society when various outside forces threatened to destroy it. The neglect of social ethics, on the other hand, has undermined its vitality.

How, by suitable ethical disciplines, the brutish man may become a decent man, a decent man an aristocrat, and the aristocrat a spiritual person, has been explained by a story in one of the Upanishads.

Once a god, a man, and a demon – the three offspring of the Creator – sought his advice for self-improvement. To them the Creator said: "Da." As the syllable ‘Da’ is the first letter of three Sanskrit words, meaning, respectively, self-control, charity, and compassion, the Creator was in effect asking the god to practise self-control, the man to practise charity, and the demon to practise compassion.

In human society there exists aristocrats, average men, and demoniacal men. The aristocrat, in spite of his education, refinement, generosity, and gentleness, may lack in self-control and go the excess in certain matters like eating, drinking, or gambling. Hence he needs self-control to improve his character further.

The average man, in spite of his many human qualities, is often greedy; he wants to take what belongs to others. Liberality or charity is his discipline for self-improvement. The demoniacal person takes delight in treating others with cruelty and ruthlessness, which can be suppressed through the practice of compassion.

The Upanishads say that the Creator, even today, gives the same moral advice to different types of human beings through the voice of the thunderclap, which makes the reverbrating sound ‘Da-da-da.’

The caste system in Hinduism is intimately connected with the social aspect of Hindu ethics, demonstrating the importance of renunciation and self-denial as cardinal virtues. The origin of this system is found in the Vedas, though it later underwent much transformation in the hands of the Hindu lawgivers. The Bhagavad Gita says that the Lord Himself divided human beings into four groups, determined by their actions and virtues. Traditions other than Hinduism support similar divisions.

Plato divided the state into three classes, castes, or professions, namely, philosopher-rulers, warriors, and the masses. Nietzsche says that every healthy society contains three mutually conditioning types and that it is Nature, not Manu (the Hindu law giver), which separates one from another; the mainly intellectual, those mainly endowed with muscular and temperamental strength, and those who are distinguished neither for the one nor for the other, the mediocre third class. The first group contains select individuals, and the last, the great majority.

According to the Hindu scriptures, a normal society consists of the Brahmins, who are men of knowledge, of science, literature, thought, and learning; the Kshatriyas, who are men of action and valour; the Vaisyas, who are men of desires, possessiveness, and acquisitive enterprise; and lastly the Sudras, who are men of little intelligence, who cannot be educated beyond certain low limits, who are incapable of dealing with abstract ideas, and who are fit only for manual labour. Each of them, in the words of Nietzsche, has its own hygiene, its own domain of labour, its own sentiment of perfection, and its own special superiority. In the Vedas the four castes are described as four important parts of the body of the Cosmic Person: the head, the arms, the thighs (or the stomach), and the feet. This analogy suggests the interdependence of the four castes for the common welfare of all; it also suggests that the exploitation of one by another undermines the strength of the whole of society. The rules regarding the four castes sum up the experience, sagacity, and experimental morals of long centuries of Hindu thinkers.

The Bhagavad Gita describes the virtues of the four castes, and their duties. The qualities of a Brahmin are control of the mind and the senses, austerity, cleanliness, forbearance, uprightness, scholarship, insight, and faith. He possesses a minimum of worldly assets, accepts voluntary poverty, and is satisfied with simple living and high thinking. Both a priest and a teacher, he is the leader of society and an adviser to king and commoner. A custodian of the culture of the race, he occupies his high position in society by virtue of his spirituality, and not by the power of arms or wealth.

The qualities of a Kshatriya are heroism, high spirit, firmness, resourcefulness, dauntlessness in battle, generosity, and sovereignty.

Agriculture, cattle rearing, and trade are the duties of a Vaisya. The main duty of a Sudra is action entailing physical labour.

The hierarchy in the caste system is determined by the degree of voluntary renunciation, poverty, and self-control, and also by the degree of intellectual and spiritual attainments. A Brahmin has to suppress many impulses for physical enjoyment. A Kshatriya, no doubt, enjoys power and pleasure, but he is ready at any time to lay down his life for the protection of the country from external aggression or internal chaos. A Vaisya, whose moral code and intellectual attainments are not so rigorous or high as those of the two upper castes, amasses wealth, both for his own enjoyment and for the welfare of society. One does not expect from a Sudra very much of spiritual, intellectual, or moral perfection. The higher is one’s position in the caste system, the greater is one’s obligation to members of the lower castes, and the more stern is the renunciation of personal comforts. Noblesse oblige. The caste system was designed to promote the harmonious working of society, the weak being assured of protection from the strong. "It is a law of spiritual economics," said Mahatma Gandhi; "it has nothing to do with superiority or inferiority." When a person belonging to a lower caste becomes a saint, he is honoured even by the Brahmins. The disciplines for spiritual development are not withheld from anyone.

continued below

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The Basis of the Caste System

The basis of the caste system, according to the Hindu view, is men’s self-evident inborn inequality; physical, intellectual, and spiritual. An individual is born into a higher or lower caste as a result of actions performed by him in his previous life, and each person, therefore, is himself responsible for his position. By discharging the duties determined by his caste, a man becomes qualified for birth in a higher caste in a future life. If one does not accept the doctrine of rebirth and the law of karma, then the inequity from which members of lower castes often suffer cannot be explained.

A second element in the organization of the caste system is varna or colour. Even in the remote past of history, people of different racial groups marked by different complexions inhabited the Indian subcontinent, which formed the basis of their divisions. In course of time, through trade relations and invasions, the Persians, the Greeks, the Scythians, the Bactrians, the Sakas, the Khusanas, the Huns, and peoples of other races entered India and were gradually absorbed into Hindu society. They were assigned places in the caste system according to their physical or mental aptitudes. In this manner Hindu society solved the problem of alien minorities in its midst. Gradually the contrast between colours was toned down by intermarriages. Through permutations and combinations many subcastes came into existence. A tolerant Hindu society allowed the newcomers to preserve, as far as practicable, their own racial preferences regarding food, clothes, and social and religious customs. This perhaps explains the existence of a great diversity in India in regard to these matters. A composite Hindu society gradually came into being, whose watchwords were unity in diversity and friendly coexistence. In olden times inter-dining was permitted, as also intermarriage under certain conditions. Through the caste system, Hindu society entrusted itself to the leadership of spirituality and intellect in preference to that of military power, wealth, or labour.

As the population increased and other complexities set in, the qualities of the individual became less easy to determine and heredity was gradually accepted as a sort of working principle to determine the caste. The son inherited the professional duties of the father as well as some of his physical and mental traits. But in olden times, when a Brahmin did not live up to his virtues, he was demoted, and a Sudra, by the acquisition of higher qualities, was promoted. Conduct was more important than birth. One of the Upanishads narrates the touching story of Satyakama, a young boy who wanted to study the Vedas, a privilege accorded only to one who was born in the Brahmin caste. When the boy asked his mother about his lineage, she said:

"I do not know, my child, of what ancestry you are. In my youth I was preoccupied with many (household) duties and with attending (on guests) when I conceived you. I do not know of what ancestry you are. I am Jabala by name, and you are Satyakama. So you may speak of yourself as Satyakama Jabala (the son of Jabala)".

When the teacher whom Satyakama approached for Vedic knowledge heard this, he was impressed with the boy’s truthfulness and outspoken nature and concluded that his father must have been a Brahmin.

For many centuries the caste system worked in a super manner, creating and consolidating the Indian culture, which reached its height when the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas, and Sudras all dedicated their activities and efforts to the common welfare. But in this relative universe even a good custom, if it continues for a long time, becomes corrupted. The Brahmins had a monopoly of the knowledge of the scriptures, which was the source of their power; eventually they became greedy for more and began to exploit the lower castes. They demanded privileges and respect even when they did not possess Brahminical qualities. Similarly, the Kshatriyas and the Vaisyas exploited the Sudras, who formed the majority of the population. The social laws became rigid, and in the absence of freedom Hindu society stagnated. On account of exploitation, the masses became weak and the country fell an easy prey to powerful invaders from the outside. Islam and Christianity took advantage of the injustices that prevailed in Hindu society and made easy converts, especially among those who were denied social privileges. Hindu society, however, was not completely to blame; for these foreign religions also sometimes used force and unethical persuasion for the purpose of conversion.

But it should not be forgotten that the caste system, even in its rigid form, rendered good service to Hindu society during the days of foreign domination. The Brahmin leaders, by means of ironclad caste laws, prevented Islam and Christianity from completely destroying it. They became the custodians of the Hindu culture and zealously protected it from the leveling influence of these alien faiths.

Contact with the West revealed to the Hindu leaders many drawbacks in their society and made them aware of the need for drastic changes in the caste system. Since India’s attainment of political freedom, laws are being enacted for the gradual elimination of taboos about marriage, inter-dining, and social intercourse. The lower castes are being given greater facilities for education, and no one is being debarred from government jobs on account of his caste. It is to be hoped that this unique social system, which has n the past decisively contributed to India's spiritual life, will again create an environment in which men and women will be able to practice the virtues stressed in Hinduism for the realization of the final goal of human evolution.

The Bhagavad Gita states, in its last verse, that the secret of prosperity, strength, morality, and all round social welfare lies in the harmonious working together of the spiritual and the royal power. Sankaracharya points out that a conflict between the Brahmins, the creators of the spiritual culture, and the Kshatriyas, the protectors of that culture, causes the disintegration of society. If India gives up the caste system in principle and in practice, she will surely lose her spiritual backbone. There is, however, no room for the caste system in an industrialized society, which is controlled largely by the power of wealth and labour. It is the goal of a secular classless society to create an equality on the level of the Sudras, whereas Indian society, through the caste system, has aimed at creating an equality by raising all to the level of the Brahmins.

Even at its best, however, the caste system is a human institution, and one cannot expect perfection of it. The good an evil of the rule of society by the four castes have been brilliantly pointed out by Swami Vivekananda in a letter to an American friend written during the last decade of the nineteenth century. The Swami says:

(Ethics continued below)

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(Ethics continued)

The Sudra rule
By Swami Vivekananda

"Human society is, in turn, governed by the four castes- The priests, the soldiers, the traders, and the labourers. Each state has its glories as well as defects. When the priest (Brahmin) rules, there is tremendous exclusiveness on hereditary grounds- the persons of the priests and their descendants are hemmed in with all sorts of safeguards- none but they have any knowledge. Its glory is that at this period is laid the foundation of the sciences. The priests cultivate the mind, for through the mind they govern.

The military (Kshatriya) rule is tyrannical and cruel; but they are not exclusive, and during that period the arts and social culture attain their height. The commercial (Vaisya) rule comes next. It is awful in its silent crushing and blood-sucking power. Its advantage is that, as the trader himself goes everywhere, he is a good disseminator of the ideas collected during the two previous states. They are still less exclusive than the military, but culture begins to decay.

Last will come the labour (Sudra) rule. Its advantages will be the distribution of physical comforts- its disadvantages (perhaps) the lowering of culture. There will be a great distribution of ordinary education, but extraordinary geniuses will be less and less.

If it is possible to form a state in which the knowledge of the priest period, the culture of the military, the distributive spirit of the commercial, and the ideal of the equality of the last can all be kept intact, minus their evils, it will be an ideal state. But is it possible?

Yet, the first three have had their day, now is the time for the last- they must have it- none can resist it. … The other systems have been tried and found wanting. Let this one be tried- if for nothing else, for the novelty of the thing. A redistribution of pain and pleasure is better than always the same persons having pains and pleasures. The sum total of good and evil in the world remains ever the same. The yoke will be lifted from shoulder to shoulder by new systems, that is all.

Let every dog have his day in this miserable world, so that after this experience of so-called happiness they may all come to the Lord and give up this vanity of a world and governments and all other botherations".

Outside the pale of society are the untouchables, whose contact pollutes others. Who are these untouchables? Originally they were the aborigines, with a very low mental development, who ate unclean food, lived by hunting, and were uncouth in appearance, manner, and conduct. The Aryans, proud of their spiritual culture, shrank from them. But instead of annihilating them outright, or forcibly superimposing upon them their own higher culture, the Aryans sought to assimilate them through education. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata record that many of these aborigines established intimate friendships with the Hindus of the higher castes. During the foreign rule of India, when the very existence of Hinduism was threatened, society became conservative and the process of assimilation practically stopped. Now that the danger is over, laws have been passed abolishing untouchability. Economic and political positions, educational facilities, and temple entry for the purpose of worship are open to all. Even in the past many Hindu religious leaders have protested against untouchability and regarded it as a blot upon society.

The Four Stages of Life

Apart from caste, a person’s duties, in the Hindu tradition, are determined by the stage of life to which he belongs. Life, which is regarded by Hinduism as a journey to the shrine of truth, is marked by four stages, each of which has its responsibilities and obligations. In that journey a normal person should leave no legitimate aspiration unfulfilled; otherwise physical and mental sickness will follow, putting roadblocks in the way of his further spiritual progress.

The first stage of life covers the period of study, when a student cultivates his mind and prepares himself for future service to society. He lives with his teacher in a forest retreat and regards the latter as his spiritual father. He leads an austere life and conserves his energy, spurning the defilement of the body and mind through evil words, thoughts, or deeds. He shows respect to his elders and teachers, and becomes acquainted with the cultural achievements of the race. Students, rich and poor, live under the same roof and receive the same attention from the teacher and his wife. When the studies are completed, the teacher gives the pupil the following instruction, as described in one of the Upanishads:

"Speak the truth. Practise Dharma. Do not neglect the study (of the Vedas). Having brought to the teacher the gift desired by him, (enter the householder’s life and see that) the line of progeny is not cut off. Do not swerve from the truth.

Do not swerve from Dharma. Do not neglect personal welfare. Do not neglect prosperity. Do not neglect the study and teaching of the Vedas. Do not neglect your duties to the gods and the Manes. Treat your mother as God. Treat your father as God. Treat your teacher as God. Treat your guest as God. Whatever deeds are faultless, these are to be performed- not others. Whatever good works have been performed by us, those should be performed by you- not others. Those Brahmins who are superior to us-you should comfort them by giving them seats. Now, if there arises in your mind any doubt concerning any act, or any doubt concerning conduct, you should conduct yourself in such matters as Brahmins would conduct themselves-Brahmins who are competent to judge, who (of their own accord) are devoted (to good deeds) and are not urged (to their performance) by others, and who are not too severe, but are lovers of Dharma. Now, with regard to persons spoken against, you should conduct yourself in such a way as Brahmins would conduct themselves- Brahmins who are competent to judge, who (of their own accord) are devoted (to good deeds) and are not urged to their performance by others, and who are not too severe, but are lovers of Dharma. This is the rule. This is the teaching. This is the secret wisdom of the Vedas. This is the command (of God). This you should observe. This alone should be observed".

With marriage, a person enters the second stage. A normal person requires a mate; his biological and emotional urges in this respect are legitimate. Debarred from marriage are those alone who have a dangerous ailment that may be transmitted to children, or those rare souls who, as students, forsake the world at the call of the spirit. Neither a confession of a sin nor a concession to weakness, marriage is a discipline for participation in the larger life of society. Children endow marriage with social responsibilities; Hinduism does not regard romance as the whole of the married life. Husband and wife are co-partners in their spiritual progress, and the family provides a training ground for the practice of unselfishness. A healthy householder is the foundation of a good society, discharging his duties as a teacher, a soldier, a statesman, a merchant, a scientist, or a manual worker. He should be ambitious to acquire wealth and enjoy pleasures, but not by deviating from the path of righteousness. The following are the five great duties of a householder; the study and teaching of the Vedas; daily worship of the gods through appropriate rituals; gratification of the departed ancestors by offering their spirits food and drink according to the scriptural injunctions; kindness to domestic animals; and hospitality to guests, the homeless, and the destitute.

When the skin wrinkles, the hairs turn grey, or a grandchild is born, one is ready for the third stage of life in the forest or in a quiet place. At this stage, the pleasures and excitements of youth appear stale and physical needs are reduced to a minimum. The third period of life is devoted to scriptural study and meditation on God.

During the fourth stage, a man renounces the world and embraces the monastic life. He is no longer bound by social laws. The call of the infinite becomes irresistible to him; even charity and social service appear inadequate. He rises above worldly attachments, finite obligations, and restricted loyalties; he is a friend of his fellow human beings, of the gods, and of the animals. No longer tempted by riches, honour, or power, a monk preserves equanimity of spirit under all conditions. He turns away from the vanities of the world, devoting himself to the cultivation of God-consciousness, which is a man’s true friend both here and hereafter. During the fourth stage, a disciplined life attains to its full blossoming. Well has it been said: ‘When a man is born he cries and the world laughs; but let him lead a life that when he dies, he laughs and the world cries.’

Thus it will be seen that every stage of life, as described in the Vedas, has its duties and obligations, the right discharge of which requires self-control. Through the disciplines of the four stages of life, a Hindu learns progressive non-attachment to the transitory world. The movement of life has been aptly compared to that of the sun. At dawn the sun rises from below the horizon, and as the morning progresses it goes on radiating heat and light till it reaches the zenith at midday. During the afternoon it goes down, gradually withdrawing its heat and light, and at dusk, it sinks below the horizon, a mass of radiance to illumine other regions.

continued below

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The key to the individual and social ethics of Hinduism is the conception of Dharma, whose full implications cannot be conveyed by such English words as religion, duty, or righteousness. Derived from a root, which means to support, the word signifies the law of inner growth by which a person is supported in his present state of evolution and is shown the way to future development. A person’s Dharma is not imposed by society or decreed by an arbitrary god, but is something with which he is born as a result of his actions in previous lives. Dharma determines a man’s proper attitude toward the outer world and governs his mental and physical reactions in a given situation. It is his code of honour.

Hinduism emphasizes the relative nature of Dharma, and does not recognize absolute good or evil; evil may be described as what is less good. One cannot stipulate what is absolutely good or evil for all men at all times. The attempts to do so, and to judge all people by a single concept of Dharma or impose upon all a single idea of righteousness, has been the cause of much injustice to humanity. If one wants to give a comprehensive definition of good and evil, one may say that what helps men toward the realization of God or the unity of existence is good, and its reverse is evil. But one faces difficulties when one tries to work out practical details. A soldier unsheathes his sword to vindicate law and justice, whereas a saint lays down his own life for the same purpose. The injunction of non-killing cannot therefore have a universal application, at least at the present state of human evolution. A man must not give up his imperfect Dharma, determined by his inborn nature; all actions have elements of imperfection in them. He should follow his own Dharma and should not try to imitate the Dharma of another, however perfect the latter may be. By performing his duties in a spirit of worship without seeking any personal result, a man ultimately realizes God, in whom alone all duties and values of life find fulfillment. The Mahabharata narrates the stories of a housewife and an untouchable butcher who, by following their respective Dharmas, realized the highest truth and became teachers of the knowledge of Brahman.

Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha

The affirmative attitude of Hinduism toward life has been emphasized by its recognition of four legitimate and basic desires: Dharma or righteousness, Artha or wealth, Kama or sense pleasure, and Moksha or freedom through communion with God or the Infinite. Of these, three belong to the realm of worldly values; the fourth (Moksha) is called the supreme value. The fulfillment of the first three paves the way for Moksha. Enjoyment, if properly guided, can be transformed into spiritual experience. The suppression of legitimate desires often leads to an unhealthy state of body and mind, and delays the attainment of liberation.

Dharma, or righteousness, we have already seen, to be the basis of both individual progress and social welfare. Artha, or wealth, is legitimate; money is indispensable in the present state of society. Voluntary poverty, as practised by religious mendicants, is something quite different; pious householders provide for the monks’ few necessities in recognition of their efforts to keep alive the highest spiritual ideal. But a man of the world without money is a failure; he cannot keep body and soul together. According to an injunction of Hinduism, first comes the body and next the practice of religion. Furthermore, money is needed to build hospitals, schools, museums, and educational institutions, which distinguish a civilized from a primitive society. Money gives leisure, which is an important factor in the creation of culture. But money must be earned according to Dharma; otherwise it debases a man by making him greedy and cruel.

The object of the third legitimate desire is Kama, or the enjoyment of sense pleasure. This covers a vast area- from the enjoyment of conjugal love, without which the creation cannot be maintained, to the appreciation of art, music, or poetry. Life becomes drab and grey unless one cultivates aesthetic sensitivity. But sense pleasures, if not pursued according to Dharma, degenerate into sensuality. Wealth and sense pleasure, which are only means to an end, are valuable in so far as their enjoyment creates a genuine yearning for spiritual freedom in the mind of the enjoyer. The hedonists alone regard sense pleasure as an end in itself.

The Charvaka school of thinkers, out-and-out materialists, rejects righteousness and spiritual freedom and admits only two values, namely, those related to wealth and sense pleasure. The Upanishads make a sharp distinction between the ideal of the pleasant and of the good, and declares that the former, created by ignorance, ultimately brings about suffering and misery. Even Dharma, or duty, for its own sake, is regarded as empty and dry by Hindu philosophers. It is a worthy end in so far as it helps the soul to attain its spiritual goal. But the illumined person serves the world not from a sense of duty, but because of his overflowing love for all created beings.

The fourth legitimate desire, equally irresistible, is related to Moksha, or freedom from the love and attachment prompted by the finite view of life. Man, who in essence is spirit, cannot be permanently satisfied with worldly experiences. The enjoyment of desires cannot be satisfied by enjoyment, any more than fire can be quenched by pouring butter into it; the more they are fulfilled, the more they flare up. Nor can man attain his divine stature through correct social behaviour, economic security, political success, or artistic creation. Charity for the needy may be a corrective for selfishness, but cannot be the ultimate goal of his soul’s craving. Even patriotism is not enough: as history shows, undue emphasis on patriotism was a major cause of the downfall of the Greek city-states. After fulfilling all his worldly desires and responsibilities a man still wants to know how he can suppress his inner restlessness and attain peace. So at last he gives up attachment to the world and seeks freedom through the knowledge of the spirit.

continued below

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Personal Ethics Over Social Ethics

A few words may be said here to explain why Hindu philosophers emphasized personal ethics over social ethics. Their argument was that since society consisted of individuals, if individuals were virtuous, social welfare would follow as a matter of course. Second, the general moral tone was very high in the ancient Hindu society, where everybody was expected to do his appropriate duties, which included, among other things, rendering help to one’s less fortunate fellow beings. As the country was prosperous and men were generous and hospitable, no need was felt for organized charity, which even in Europe and in America, has been a comparatively new development. The organized social service in the modern West is, to a large extent, a form of sentimentalism in reaction against the doctrine of utilitarianism and the industrialization of Western society due to the extraordinary growth of science and technology.

Third, the Hindus regarded spiritual help as of more enduring value than material help: the hungry would feel again the pinch of hunger, and the sick would again be sick; but a spiritual person could easily bear with calmness his physical pain and privations. Finally, Hindu philosophers believed that the sum total of physical happiness and suffering remains constant. Suffering, like chronic rheumatism, only moves from one place to another but cannot be totally eradicated. It is not easy to substantiate the claim of progress, if it means the gradual elimination of evil and increase of good. It is true that we are living in a changing world, but it need not be true that we are living in a progressive world. Every age has its virtues and limitations; but can anyone really show that men today are enjoying more happiness, peace, and freedom than their forebears? The Hindu philosophers, without encouraging the illusion that a perfect society could be created, always exhorted people to promote social welfare as a part of spiritual discipline. We must do good to others, because by means of selfless action we can purify our hearts and transcend the relative world of good and evil. Social service has only an instrumental, not an ultimate, value.

But the need for emphasis on social ethics in modern India cannot be denied. For times have changed; the conception of Dharma, which was the foundation of Hindu life, both individual and social, has greatly lost its hold upon the people. The struggle for existence in an increasingly competitive society has become keen, and wealth is not justly distributed. The strong often invoke the law of karma to justify their exploitation of the poor, who are helpless in their suffering. There exists in India a widespread misery due to ignorance, poverty, ill health, and general backwardness. The rich and the powerful are often too selfish to remove these drawbacks. Hinduism in the past has no doubt produced many saints; but the precious gems of their spiritual realizations have been preserved in heaps of dirt and filth.

A certain measure of compliance with the general principles of social ethics may well have helped to preserve the Hindu social system from total disintegration during the dark period of Indian history. But on account of insufficient emphasis on social responsibilities, there is in Hindu society a lack of the vitality characteristic of Western society. Therefore India is now emphasizing the value of social ethics; the government is trying to create a welfare state. Whatever may be the pattern of development in the new India, she should not forget the ultimate goal of ethics, namely, the liberation of the soul from the bondage of the phenomenal world.

From what has been said above it will be clear that social ethics is efficacious in so far as it helps a person to curb his selfishness. But Hindu philosophers have recognized that social duty also has its limitations. Duty is often irritating; behind it is the idea of compulsion and necessity. Thus a person constantly engaged in the discharge of his duty finds no time for prayer, meditation, study, recreation, or other things, which his soul craves. If the kingdom of heaven is within a man, he cannot attain it by always looking frantically outside. It is often under the guise of duty that a man indulges his greed, passion, desire for domination, or morbid attachment. When stretched too far duty becomes a disease. As Vivekananda has said: ‘Duty is the midday sun which scorches the tender plant of spirituality.’

Hindu philosophers encourage the performance of duties, but they exhort men to perform them not from a sense of compulsion but through love. Unless a man is inspired by love, he cannot cheerfully perform his duty at home, in the office, in the factory, or on the battlefield. This love is not, however, sentimentality, but springs from the perception of God in all living beings. Work done under the impulsion of duty deepens a man’s attachment to the world, but when performed through love it brings him nearer to freedom.

The healthy social environment created by objective ethics provides men with an opportunity to cultivate the more important subjective ethics. The disciplines of subjective ethics for the liberation of the soul have been stressed in the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. The Gita says: ‘Let a man lift himself up by his own self; let him not depress himself; for he himself is his friend and he himself is his enemy. To him who has conquered himself by himself, his own self is a friend, but to him who has not conquered himself, his own self is hostile like an external enemy.’

(Ethics continued below)

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Disciplines of Subjective Ethics

The chief disciplines of subjective ethics are austerity, self-control, renunciation, non-attachment, and concentration. Austerity enables a man to curb his impulses for inordinate enjoyment of physical comforts and also for the acquisition of supernatural powers, which exalt him far above the world of man, nay, even above the world of the gods. In the Upanishads, austerity or tapas often denotes intense thinking, the same sort of thinking which precedes creative work, making a man indifferent about his personal comforts or discomforts. But later austerity degenerated into bodily torture as practised by spurious Yogis with a view to performing miracles for selfish purposes, thus depriving this noble virtue of its original significance.

Let us try to understand the meaning of self-control. The sense organs, which are ordinarily inclined toward material objects and employed to seek only the pleasant, should be controlled in order to create that inner calmness without which profound spiritual truths cannot be grasped. But self-control does not mean the weakening of the organs, as is explained in the Katha Upanishad by the illustration of the chariot. The body is compared to the chariot, the embodied soul to its master, the intellect or discriminative faculty to the driver, the mind to the reins, the senses to the horses, and sense-objects to the roads. The chariot can serve its purpose of taking the master to his destination if it is well built, but if the driver can discriminate between the right and the wrong road, if the reins are strong, if the horses are firmly controlled, and if the roads are well chosen.

Likewise, the spiritual seeker should possess a healthy body and vigorous organs, unerring discrimination, and a strong mind. His discrimination should guide his senses to choose only those objects, which are helpful to the realization of his spiritual ideal. If the body, the mind, or any of his faculties is injured or weakened, he cannot attain the goal, just as the rider cannot reach his destination if the chariot and its accessories are not in the right condition. Thus the two important elements emphasized in the practice of self-control are discrimination and will power. The middle path, which makes a man ‘temperate in his food and recreation, temperate in his exertion in work, temperate in sleep and waking,’ has been extolled by the Bhagavad Gita and also by Buddha.

Renunciation is another discipline for self-perfection. A good example of it is seen in the institution of monasticism. A monk takes the vow of renouncing enjoyments in the ‘three worlds’–earth, the mind-region, and heaven. The four stages of life, already described, are a training ground for this important discipline. Non-attachment and concentration are the other disciplines for self-perfection.

Ethics is principally concerned with conduct,
which is in turn guided by will, pious or impious.

The impious will leads to unrighteous conduct and produces evil, whereas the pious will leads to righteous conduct and is conducive to the highest good. With the help of ethical disciplines one suppresses unrighteousness and stimulates righteousness.

Unrighteousness may be physical, verbal, or mental. Physical unrighteousness is expressed through cruelty, theft, and sexual perversion; verbal unrighteousness through falsehood, rudeness, insinuation, and gossip; mental unrighteousness through ill will, covetousness, and irreverence.

Righteousness is also threefold: physical, verbal, and mental. Physical righteousness is expressed through charity, succour to the distressed, and service to all; verbal righteousness through gentle speech conducive to the welfare of others; and mental righteousness through kindness, detachment, and reverence. Righteousness and unrighteousness cover both personal and social duties. Broadly speaking, virtue is defined as what is conducive to the welfare of others, and vice as what causes them pain and misery.

Patanjali, in his Yoga philosophy, enumerates the important virtues as follows: non-injury, truthfulness, abstention from theft, chastity, and non-attachment to material objects. Non-injury and truthfulness are sovereign virtues emphasized by all religious Hindus, from the Vedic seers (Rishis) to Mahatma Gandhi. The practice of non-injury also includes gentleness and abstention from harsh words. Mahatma Gandhi applied non-injury as a discipline for the individual and for the nation. Chiefly by means of non-violence, India, under his leadership, secured her political freedom from alien rule.

Truthfulness implies the ascertainment of facts by such valid proofs as direct perception, correct inference, and reliable testimony. In addition, truthfulness demands that facts must be described without any intentional deceit or unnecessary verbiage. Such truthfulness is often in diplomatic statements and political discussions. Half-truths and evasions are regarded as lies. But truthfulness, in order to be effective, must not unnecessarily hurt the feelings of others, its purpose being the welfare of others. When such a purpose is not served the wise remain silent. A Hindu injunction says: ‘Speak the truth; speak the pleasant, but not the unpleasant truth.’

Abstention from theft requires not only that one should not appropriate another’s property unlawfully but also that one should abstain from greediness. What it really amounts to is indifference to the material advantages of life. The accumulation of physical objects beyond a certain limit is generally tainted by cruelty, greed, or similar blemishes.

The practice of chastity, highly extolled by Hindu philosophers, includes abstention from lewdness in thought, speech, and action. According to a strict definition, as applied to monks, a man becomes unchaste not merely through the sexual act, but even when he listens to or utters lewd words, engages in a sport or looks at an object which arouses lust, exchanges secrets with a member of the opposite sex, or expresses the desire or makes the effort for carnal gratification. Both the body and the heart must be kept unsullied by a spiritual seeker, the body being the temple of God and the heart its inner shrine.

The Bhagavad Gita speaks of the spiritual virtues as the ‘divine treasures’ with which an aspirant provides himself in his search for God. Their opposites-for instance, ostentation, arrogance, self-deceit, anger, rudeness, and ignorance- belong to those who are born to the heritage of the demons. Here is a graphic description from the Gita of men of demoniac nature:

They do not know what to do and what to refrain from. Purity is not in them, nor good conduct, nor truth. They say: ‘The world is devoid of truth, without a moral basis, and without a God. It is brought about by the union of male and female, and lust alone is its cause- what else?’ Holding such a view, these lost souls, of little understanding and fierce deeds, rise as the enemies of the world for its destruction. Giving themselves up to insatiable desires, full of hypocrisy, pride, and arrogance, they hold false views through delusion and act with impure resolve. Beset with innumerable cares, which will end only with death, looking on the gratification of desire as their highest goal, and feeling sure that this is all; bound by a hundred ties of hope, given up wholly to lust and wrath, they strive by unjust means to amass wealth for satisfaction of their passions. [They say to themselves:] ‘This desire I have gained today, and that longing I will fulfil. This wealth is mine, and that also shall be mine. That enemy I have slain, and others, too, I will slay. I am the Lord of all, I enjoy; I am prosperous, mighty, and happy. I am rich; I am of high birth. Who else is equal to me? I will offer sacrifice, I will give, I will rejoice.’ Thus deluded by ignorance, bewildered by many fancies, addicted to the gratification of lust, they fall to the lowest depths of degradation.

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Three Gateways of Hell

According to the Bhagavad Gita, the ‘three gateways of hell’ leading to the ruin of the soul are lust, wrath, and greed, and the five cardinal virtues are purity, self-control, detachment, truth, and non-violence. Called universal virtues, they admit of no exceptions arising from caste, profession, place, or occasion. They are compulsory for all spiritual seekers aspiring after freedom, and they differ from ordinary moral standards, by which one treats differently men and animals, one’s fellow countrymen and foreigners, relatives and strangers.

Jainism, which is an offshoot of Hinduism, speaks of an action as immoral if it is impelled by the impious thought of the agent, and moral if there is pious thought behind it. Forgiveness is regarded as the highest virtue. Jain ethics aims more at self-culture than at social service, though in actual practice the Jains of India are most forward in alleviating miseries, especially those of dumb animals and insects.

Buddhist philosophers hold that it is not words or tangible actions alone that are moral or immoral, but also the disposition of the mind. Thus unrighteousness begins to accumulate from the day when a man resolves to earn his living by plundering and killing others, though the resolution itself may remain unfulfilled for a long time. Likewise, a man begins to accumulate virtue from the day he makes a pious resolution, even though the conscious action may take place much later. Furthermore, Buddhism admits of institutional morality; the founder of an institution is responsible for its good and bad effects upon others. Thus the founder of an alms-house engages in a meritorious action, whereas the founder of a temple where animals are slaughtered is guilty of an immoral act.

Greek ethics stresses the social virtues, the two most prominent ones being justice and friendship. Of these, the former emphasizes proper respect for the rights of others, and the latter is a social quality.

Many thinkers, both Eastern and Western, find it difficult to reconcile ethics with non-dualism. It is argued that ethical laws can have meaning only in a world of duality, and non-dualism denies the reality of such a world. This contention is based upon a misconception of non-dualism. It is true that from the absolute standpoint Brahman alone is real and the universe and individual souls, as such, are unreal. But from the relative standpoint neither the physical universe nor individual souls can be repudiated, nor birth and death, pain and pleasure, good and evil, virtue and vice, and the other pairs of opposites. As long as a person sees imperfection, he cannot remain indifferent to ethical virtues; but when everything appears as Brahman, no question of ethics arises. Admitting the empirical reality of the phenomenal universe, the non-dualistic Vedanta has formulated its ethics, cosmology, theology, and philosophy with a view to enabling the embodied soul to realize its oneness with Brahman.

The Non-dualistic Ethics

The non-dualistic ethics can be regarded from two standpoints: ascetic or negative, and affirmative. Let us first consider the ascetic aspect. Under the influence of nescience or ignorance there appears an individual soul who regards the world of diversity as real. First he forgets the non-dual nature of his soul, and next entertains the wrong belief that he is separate from others. He sees a physical and social environment to which he reacts in diverse ways: he develops love or hate for certain individuals, and remains indifferent toward the rest. Thus it is not merely forgetfulness of one’s true nature but also the perception of other individuals as separate from oneself which is the cause of suffering. The idea of ego, which arises when the soul through ignorance identifies itself with the body and senses, is the source of all evil; selfishness is sin. Hence a man seeking freedom and peace should give up identification with the body and the sense organs, and all private and personal attachments. Therefore non-dualistic ethics, in one of its phases, preaches the ascetic or the negative discipline of the suppression of ego.

Now let us consider the affirmative aspect of the non-dualistic ethics. Man is more than the narrow and finite self; he is Brahman, the All, and it is his duty to recognize his oneness with all. But a theoretical recognition is not enough; his daily action must demonstrate it. A man trying to understand the nature of his relationship with others should be told that all individuals, being of the nature of the spirit, are in essence identical with one another. Consequently it is his duty to avoid discrimination between one being and another, and cultivate a feeling of kindliness and love for all. For the non-dualist this love is not confined to men, but extends to all living creatures. Love for one’s neighbour means love for every living being, and this all embracing love is based upon the fact all living beings have souls, though all souls may not have reached the same state of spiritual growth. The universal love taught by non-dualism is based upon the realization of the fundamental oneness of all living beings. The apparent difference between one being and another is entirely due to ignorance; the wise see the same spirit everywhere. Even the exclusive love shown by the ignorant is an expression of the universal love based upon the non-duality of the spirit. Whether one knows it or not, the oneness of existence is the only source of mutual attraction. The husband loves the wife not for the sake of the wife but for the sake of the spirit, which dwells in both.

Now, the question arises whether a man, still cultivating ethical disciplines, can transcend the strife and contradictions which are the characteristics of the phenomenal world, and experience the peace and freedom, which his higher nature seeks. Is ethics an end in itself, or does it lead to a higher state in which all ethical laws are transcended?

Hindu philosophers believe that no real freedom or peace is possible as long as man is identified with the domain of ethical laws. Moral life cannot be dissociated from struggle-an incessant struggle against evil and imperfection, which seem to be always present on the relative plane. Ethics is concerned with life, as it ought to be lived. A moral man constantly says to himself: ‘I ought to have done this, I ought not to have done that.’ Therefore oughtness is the very crux of morality and implies an unceasing struggle for self-improvement. Moral life belongs to the plane of imperfection. No one can be merely moral and at the same time perfect; for oughtness and imperfection go together. Where there is no imperfection there is no ought; the ought itself implies imperfection.

The struggle against evil cannot be won on the moral level;
for morality cannot redeem the sinner.

The woman taken in adultery, as described in the Bible, was condemned by her judges according to the moral laws of the time, but could not be redeemed by them. The redemption came from a spiritual man, der reine Tor, who had transcended moral laws and was the embodiment of innocence and guilelessness. How could the moral judges, themselves still struggling against evil, enable the woman to rid herself of her Sin? One is redeemed through love and grace, which belong to the realm of spirit. Dirt cannot be completely washed away by water which is less dirty, but only by water which has no trace of dirt.

Hindu philosophers have suggested the means of enjoying spiritual freedom even while engaging in the performance of action. Both optional duties, through which the agent seeks particular ends, and obligatory duties, which ought to be done by all spiritual seekers endowed with social consciousness, should be performed according to the moral laws. But the actions of the enlightened, performed in a spirit of love and non-attachment, cannot bind the doer; the secret of freedom is non-attachment. This non-attachment is not a negative attitude; it is not indifference. On the contrary, it denotes a superior power of the mind, which enables one to preserve inner peace and equanimity in success and failure. The practice of non-attachment by both the dualist and the non-dualist, relate to Karma Yoga.

Both enlightened dualists and non-dualists, free from ego, transcend the moral ought. In their activity they are not impelled by the compulsion of duty, but by love. Action flows spontaneously from the fullness of their hearts. To them the ideas of work with the purpose of improving the world is meaningless. Devotees of God see the world as God’s world, His playground, and regard themselves as His playmates. Non-dualists see everywhere and in everything only the spirit, ever perfect, ever free, and ever illumined. The world-process is the spontaneous manifestation of the spirit, as the waves are of the ocean, there being neither rhyme nor reason behind the cosmic activity. To project, support, and dissolve names and forms is the very nature of Brahman, say the Upanishads. Only the ignorant read a motive into the creation. Their little brains fool them all the time.

Work of lasting benefit of humanity has been done by blessed souls like Christ and Buddha, who were free from ego and moral struggle, and inspired by selfless love for all. On the other hand, the work done by many social reformers or philanthropists has a limited value. It is said that nowadays men become philanthropists only after making their first million; even in a noble act of charity there is a conscious or unconscious desire for fame, power or recognition. Too often a philanthropist is trying to soothe a guilty conscience or escape the boredom of life. And how different modern charity is from the charity of St.Francis, inspired by his love, humility, chastity, poverty, and complete self-denial. Only an illumined person, whose ego has either been burnt in the fire of self-knowledge or totally transformed by love of God, has no trace of selfish motive. Sankaracharya says that a man should first of all see God in himself, and then serve others as manifestations of God. Such a man alone can perform really unselfish and therefore fruitful action. His moral struggles are over. He is no longer deceived by the notion of good and evil. He does not refrain from evil from fear of punishment or engage in good works from hope of reward; moral virtues become his natural attributes, the by-products of his spiritual freedom. In the words of the Upanishad: ‘Evil does not overtake him, but he transcends evil. He becomes sinless, taintless, free from doubts, and a knower of truth.’
Related articles
Caste System
Senses-Self Discipline

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