ETHICS IN HINDUISM – WHERE DO YOU FIND THEM?
We have come across Hindus themselves talking about vanishing ethics and morals in Hindus. There is increasing greed, corruption, materialism, untruthfulness, intolerance etc that are being practiced by them. They seem to think that doing religious rituals will somehow exonerate them. By going to temples and making donations, or by undertaking pilgrimages and having a holy dip, the public seem to believe that their crimes and sins will wash away. Is this not a sorry state of affairs? The questions asked are, has Hinduism any real and worthwhile moral tenets? If yes, where are they codified? Are they ever preached? Or is it that Hinduism is basically about Gods, metaphysics, rituals and festivals?
In this connection, inter-religious comparisons are made. The Ten Commandments revealed to Moses guide Judaism. Buddhism has Dhammapada, Panchasila, Eightfold Paths etc in terms of texts on/and morals and ethics. Islam is guided by Koran and Hadith. Christianity has ethical and moral tenets such as “love your enemy”, “turn the other cheek” and such others apart from tenets relating to love, charity, mercy, austerity, forgiveness, repentance etc. It talks about the “Seven Deadly Sins” and “Seven Virtues”. Where are the coded ethics in Hinduism?
Hinduism goes to prehistory and is roughly 10,000 years old according to some scholars. Over the last 35 centuries, voluminous texts have come down to us starting from the Vedas and covering Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads, the epics, Gita, Puranas, Sastras etc. There is progression in the evolution of thoughts and beliefs over the centuries. It is not just about the Creator, the Gods, the Devas, the Asuras, the worshipper , sacrifices, rituals etc. It is about an immense level of metaphysics unlike in any other religion from the Upanishadic age. And it is about ethics too. The ethics are scattered in various texts and are not negligible. Circumstantially it is sad that no single and precise codification of ethics seems to be available. But is it such a big handicap? The answer seems to be “no”.
Hindu ethics have evolved with time. The author S.Cromwell Crawford of the book “The Evolution of Hindu Ethical Ideas” has divided his book into three portions: (1) Ethics of the Vedic Period (2) Ethics of the Sutra and Epic Period and (3) Ethics of the Darsana Period. Ethics have not been static but have changed with times and have progressed.
Rig Veda talks about “Satya” and “Rita”. Vedas recognize the power of nature in terms of Gods (Indra, Varuna, Surya etc) and exhorts man to live in harmony with that nature. Gods were aplenty but there were no temples in the Vedic age. Good deeds and bad deeds were rewarded with heaven and hell respectively. Yamaraja was the adjudicator there. Tapas (austerity) and vairagya (non attachment) were greatly recommended. The Vedas are said to have enjoined 5 primary duties on every householder: (1)worship of gods (2) honour to ancestors (3) kindness to domestic animals (4) hospitality to guests and (5) alms to impoverished. It is said that gaining wealth was alright, and debtors were heavily punished. Non-harming and non-killing was advocated as implied in the phrase “Do not harm anything” except for the ritual sacrifices.
I must confess that I am only a learner-inquirer-student and I have no expertise on Hinduism. The material I have culled is from articles, books and the internet. For those who are scholarly and who have the time, I recommend the book, available free on the internet, titled “The Principles of Hindu Ethics” (1921) by Maganlal A.Buch which runs into nearly 600 pages.
There are two interesting stories one repeatedly comes across on the subject of ethics in ancient times:
One is that the Creator was asked by a God, a human and a demon about what to do for self improvement. The Creator pronounced “dha” in reply to that. Dha is the first syllable for the three different words the Creator meant for them. The advice-word meant “self-control” for God, “charity” for man and “compassion” for the Demon. In the modern context, you can substitute a greedy person for God, and a heartless person for the demon. The sound of thunder is “dha-dha-dha” too reminding us of the Creator’s advice!
The second story, upanishadic, relates to what a Raja tells a rishi: “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”.
Upanishads were basically metaphysical texts. The very important concepts of “dharma”, “karma”, reincarnation and “moksha” originate from them. And it is in the post-Upanishadic texts such as various Sutras and Sastras that we get to see some codification of subjective ethics and objective ethics. Subjective ethics relate to the individual himself and objective ethics relate to society.
“Dharma” is such a quintessential word as cannot be easily translated into one word in English. It is in the nature of a cosmic or universal law. And it implies many other things too. It is cosmic justice, it is righteousness, it is duties, it is right thoughts, words and actions etc. Obviously the theory of karma guides man to do good deeds in order that he avoids sufferings later in terms of reward. The concept of attainment of Moksha takes man on the higher spiritual route. All these concepts have deep ethical implication.
THE EPICS AND THE GITA
Ethics and morals abound in the myriad stories that constitute the two epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata. They are expounded to the populace when acharyas give pravachanas and kathakalakshepams. At the macrolevel, Ramayana shows the evil effect of the inordinate pursuit of kama. And at the macrolevel, Mahabharata portrays the evil consequences in the pursuit of inordinate artha (wealth). The Gita provides a veritable wealth of dharmic principles.
PERIOD OF SUTRAS AND SHASTRAS
Post-Vedas, some consistent codification of ethics happened during the time of Sutras and Shastras that cover a few centuries just before and just after the time of Christ. The Dharma Sutras (before Christ) and the subsequent more elaborate Dharma Shastras (after Christ) particularly provided this codification. The Dharma Sutras were short and crisp in prose and the chief four sutras were composed by Apastamba, Gautama, Baudhayana and Vasistha. Amongst the various works of Dharmashastra, the one by Manu and the one by Yagnyavalkya are considered to be the most important. The conduct of humans at an individual level, at the societal level and the conduct of kings (rajadharma) were prescribed, in detail. The idea of four purusharthas (aims in man’s life) was expounded –namely, dharma, artha, kama and moksha. The four ashrams in life were also elaborated –namely brahmacharyam, grihastham, vanaprastham and sanyasam. And the four varnas in society also got a firm founding –and they consisted of brahmins, kshatriyas, vaishyas and sudras.
The Dharmashastra by Manu (circa 2nd century AD) is a landmark text of codification of Hindu Law that covered ethics and morals. Manu’s work consisted of 12 chapters with 2694 verses. The universal duties prescribed by Manu consisted of (1) steadfastness (2) forgiveness (3) application (4) non-appropriation (5)cleanliness (6)sense-control (7) wisdom (8)learning (9) veracity and (10) non-anger. The duties relating to individuals, society and kingship are all elaborated. The shastra also elaborates on hindu holidays (festivals), pilgrimages, expiations etc.
YAMAS AND NIYAMAS
Many of us have no idea of Yamas and Niyamas which are important ethical principles evolved nearly 2000 years ago. They are the principles of the code of conduct for man. Yamas are the constraints or the don’ts governing objective ethics, meaning actions towards others. Niyamas are the rules in the form of dos governing subjective ethics, meaning personal observances.
Patanjali, nearly 2200 years ago, made Yamas and Niyamas an integral part of Yoga Sutra as two important limbs of yoga, out of the 8 limbs that constitue yoga, the other important limbs being asanas, pranayama, dhyana etc. The five Yamas and the five Niyamas prescribed by Patanjali are as follows:
1) Ahimsa (non violence)
2) Satya (truth)
3) Asteya (non stealing)
4) Brahmacharya (regulated conduct)
5) Aparigraha (non possessiveness)
1) Saucha (purity)
2) Santosha (contentment)
3) Tapas (discipline/austerity)
4) Swadhyaya (self study)
5) Isvarapranidhana (laying action at God’s feet)
The Shandilya Upanishad and the Varaha Upanishad however prescribe 10 Yamas and 10 Niyamas, and some of the important additional Yamas and Niyamas are compassion, honesty, moderate appetite, patience, remorse and alms giving.
We cannot ignore the six Darsanas (six systems/schools of Hindu philosophy) which combine metaphysics with man’s duties. One of the darsanas is Yoga and we have already seen what Patanjali has said.
Hindu ethical and moral principles have evolved over millennia.
Hinduism has a strong ethical basis and often times many aspects of the ethics are intermingled with metaphysics.
The ethical principles lay scattered across the inherited texts. The principles are all-comprehensive. The Jewish Ten Commandments, for example, are silent on charity, patience, forgiveness, austerity, compassion etc.
The Hindus practiced the ethical principles which did not merely lie on paper. Rishis, sadhus, gurus, acharyas and brahmins, down the centuries, expounded the ethics and morals to the masses.
The various bhakti movements that arose in the last millennium infused in the masses higher ideals. While god and guru were given primary place of reverence, many of the movements treated all men as equal and castes were made irrelevant. To an extent, the movements saved Hindus from mass conversion to Islam during the Muslim rule.
Globalization, materialism, modern living, and competition in the areas of jobs and livelihoods have resulted in several changes in the practice of Hindu ethos. Personal ritual observances have diminished whereas at the collective level festivals, pilgrimages etc have not abated. Morality and virtues are on the wane as cutting corners and becoming wealthy anyhow have become the goals of the working man. The leaders and opinion makers have themselves become corrupt and this affects the ranks of the people too. Luckily we see a resurgence of reformist passion amongst the youth who are disillusioned with a corrupt India.
Indian civil society has a wonderful set of civil and criminal laws but much of the chaos in our life is due to lack of implementation. In the religious sphere too, there are enough ethics to guide us but due to want of a will and discipline there is a huge gap between precepts and practices. At present we largely seem to suit our behaviour so as not to transgress our criminal laws but such laws provide no exhortation to the practice of love, compassion, austerity, patience etc. We keep breaking the criminal laws even as their implementation is poor.
Perhaps it is time for the Hindus to put together in one tome the future guiding principles for the Hindus in terms of their conduct culling the elements from old texts and making necessary additions. This tome should be preached to each and every Hindu.
Sorry for the delay and thanks for your comments including your significant second sentence.
As you stated, the tenets evolved by various religions basically suited the people of those times. I would add that some of those tenets have a universal and permanent validity. You rightly talked about various "isms" and your point about "survivalism" seems to have a lot of validity!
Cheers and regards!
Thanks for writing on some of the basics of Hinduism and other religions.Enjoyed reading and would also try to read the book by Maganlal Buch, which you referred and suggested.The commments posted by knowledgeable readers were very informative.
'The “non-uniformity” in holy texts, prayers and practices etc. in Hinduism (points # 4, 5 and 6 above) just expresses the monotheistic polymorphism, according to which one God has many names and representations thus giving people the freedom (through a sound theological and religio-philosophical backing) to worship and pray according to their capabilities, conditions and situations:
“BRAHMAN (God) in Hinduism” …
http://www.geocities.ws/lamberdar/brahman.html ' Seva-Lamberdar
>>> To shed light briefly on different aspects of various Hindu philosophies (regarding the above), the following reference (link) may also be used,
"Theistic and non-theistic Hindu philosophies" ...
I had a patient reading of the post and more importantly all the seventy and odd responses . I was elated by some comments and some others made me put down my head ..
All the tenets of religions of the world were mostly suited to the conditions of the people of that time . Now in this present ' man-eating-man ' world , all these " isms " do not carry any weight .to the people . Only survival matters .... WHAT MATTERS is " SURVIVAL-ISM " .
This may look crude ... that's a fact !!!
"Those which divide the society (as some passages in Manusmriti) will have to be omitted." ...VSG
>>> Good idea!
Moreover, as I indicated in earlier comments, the real Vedic sage Manu did not have anything to do with the Manusmriti except that someone else used the very famous sage Manu’s name to make the text (‘Manusmriti’) popular and acceptable among public.
Thus it is time to start calling this text as Amanusmriti (meaning ‘not Manusmiti’) so that people know the real truth about it.
Dear Krishnan Balaji,
Many thanks for your insightful comments.
The view has spread amongst even educated Hindus that Hinduism is just a mumbo jumbo of festivals, rituals, temple going etc and no ethical tenets have been prescribed. Mothers and grandmothers relate the epics to children in a story form, and the ingrained morals are ususally missed out.
What I had in mind was that Hindus could attempt to bring a book (not sacred) to be popular and widely read that brings out the universal and permanent values, ethics and morals to be practised. For example the 26 virtues you saw in verses 1 to 3 in Chapter XVI of Gita. Name the virtues and give the references. Those which divide the society (as some passages in Manusmriti) will have to be omitted.
The above is only in the area of ethics and not rituals, manner of worship, pilgrimages, sacraments etc which will vary from man to man, people to people, depending on customs, practices, personal inclinations etc.
Hope I am clear. Will you agree with me?
Cheers and regards!
Dear Shri Gopalji
We, irrespective of any caste, creed or religion have unique culture which varies from region to region. Neither the Muslims nor the Hindus ever had any problem in any manner. Today the problems are created by our Politicians to a great extent who falls prey of Israili policies against muslims world over joined by US and UK and these three countries are dragging Indian also in this war. Mr S.Vardharajan, editor of Hindu had a long back in 2006 sometime in December had written a article on this issue wherein he pointed out the above. Therefore we should make all endeavour to eradicate the misconception, hat-redness, some elements of society including our politicians try to spread for their personal or political mileage and under pressure of overseas powers, which people have started realising. All these can be checked only if we inculcate moral & ethical value in the people who are holding powers and misusing the same against the mankind.
Dear Maria Thomas,
The two-nation theory of Jinnah (of India and Pakistan) was implemented because it was felt that Muslims can't live along with Hindus. But most left-over Muslims in India have no problems with leading a peaceful life in the company of Hindus. But some jihadi elements are rising up and creating problems. The Govts should handle them in a more tough manner without worrying about vote-banks.