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[Part 1] Ethics and Values in India


Moral consciousness is a constituent part of the human society. A society's moral consciousness develops with time and age. In different ages, different individuals have ventured into the moral-ethical principles guiding the society, through its ups and downs. A substantive portion of ethical knowledge is derived from our past, in the form of religious scriptures, social customs and traditions.

India is one of the oldest civilizations of the world. Due to this fact, India has a vast reserve of moral-ethical scriptures, which guided our civilization through the ages. The foundations of Indian ethics can be seen in the metaphysical and theological beliefs in the form of worship, prayers and ideals and principles of the society. In India, there exists an intimate relationship between ethics and religion.

Morality implies a conscious living within the frame of certain principles and codes of conduct, laid down by the society. Morality is one of the most basic elements that demarcate the line between the good and the bad. It is the society’s way of telling us what is to be achieved for the betterment of all. The element of morality is what distinguishes the human society from the beasts.

Indian society has always been an ethically motivated, and spiritual one. Thus, the concern of the philosophers of India, transcended the physical world, and reached upto the metaphysical world, of soul and spirit. The human actions, in Indian society, are motivated by a concern towards the other-world. Good deeds are seen as the key to escape the misery of the world.

Indian philosophy is also based on the principle of ‘Karma’, that is, performing one’s duty ethically. It is only through the performance of one’s karma that, one can lead an ethical life.

Sources of Moral-Ethical Principles in India

Every individual needs certain moral guidelines to guide him in his life. These moral guidelines are derived from different sources. In India, a major source of the morality is found in the ancient scriptures Generally, the authority of the Vedas and Smritis is regarded as a source of morality. Verdict of the Vedas is seen as above that to the Smritis. Besides the Vedas and Smritis, the inner conscience of the people also becomes the source of morality. In the modern times, the source of morality is found in the thoughts of leaders like- Gandhi, Aurobindo, Tagore and many others.

Morality, in India, has been based on the authority based on social reasoning. Buddhism and Jainism, both give a predominant place to the social reasoning. Jainism puts the concept of Right Faith in the centre. Jainism advises the individual to use his reason in ascertaining the validity and worth of the different ideas and principles before accepting them. Similarly, Buddhism also gives importance to reason.

Modern Indian thinkers also puts reason in the central place, while dealing with the matters of morality. Vivekanand viewed reason as an important factor in the matters of morality, and viewed the Vedas and Smritis as the fundamental source of morality in India.

Ethics in India

‘Dharma’ is the term used, in India, for morality and ethics. The function of dharma is to sustain the functioning of society. It places importance to the right conduct. The Hindu code of conduct is full of moral-ethical principles. Vedas refer to dharma as the highest truth and power, guiding the human society. The entire framework of dharma, in India, has been laid with a set of rituals, which link the different aspects of the human society. Vedas define dharma as duty and excellence. One’s dharma can be very specifically defined, according to one’s caste, class, religion, sex and age.

Hindu concept of dharma has been closely linked to its ritualistic and caste obligations. Hindu dharma also lays certain universal moral principles, which each person is supposed to follow. These principles have been called the Sadharana Dharma or universal duties. Thus, Dharma, as a term, has two implications:

  1. Performance of rituals and obligations, in accordance to one’s caste/ethnicity;

  2. Practice of moral virtues and norms, which might be the same for all.

Ethics in Vedic Period

The early traces of Indian ethics are found in the Vedas, particularly the Rig Veda. One of the central principle of the vedas is a unifying bond or the moral order that passes through every being. It also puts great emphasis on the Dharma and Karma. The concept of Karma implies a uniform moral order, governing the actions of man. Every actions is associated with the appropriate rewards and punishments.

An important aspect of the Vedic principles is worship/devotion to the Gods, characterized by complete surrender. The moral order is reflected in the ritualistic pattern of the society. Performance of the ritual sacrifices is linked to salvation and reward in the other-world. Thus, the ethics, in the Vedas, are essentially linked to the other-worldly aspects.

The Upnishads and other scriptures does not attach significant value to individual happiness and satisfaction. Rather, it focuses on the liberation from the bondages of the material world, and seek the attainment of the transcendental being. However, the Upnishads differ from the Vedas as they decry the need for rituals to attain moksha. Instead the upnishads lay significance to man’s effort in the attainment of ‘moksha’. Thus, the philoshophical individualism of the Upnishads undermine the communitarian ethical base of the Vedas. Upnishads identifies the self with the Brahma.

For the attainment of moksha, good conduct is a central element. According to these scriptures, a person with good moral conduct comes close to the nature of the divine being.

Ethics in Dharmashastra and Itihas

Hindu ritualism and mores are largely derived from Manu’s Dharmashastra and other Dharmashastras. However, the significance of Manu’s code is often contested, as it subordinated the individual’s free will, under the social structures. Dharmashastra framework identifies the individual as a cell in the social organism. Due to such ideas, Manu’s codes are believed to be relative to their time (Yuga) and place (Desa).

These principles also strictly defined the rules for particular varna. It also dictated the goals and objectives of an individual’s life, in different ages. Manu regarded certain values as universal- Contentment (dhairya), forgiveness (kshama), self-control (dhama), non-stealing (asteya), cleanliness (sauca), wisdom (dhi), truthfulness (sathya), and abstention from anger (akrodha). Together, these virtues are called the moral order for the society.

Ethics in Gita

The central principle of Gita is the realization of the supreme reality through a life of righteous conduct. Karma is seen as the central theme of gita. These actions are to be performed with the realization of the Brahmajnana. The path to be followed is one of- devotion, renunciation and self-surrender. Gita tells how the cause of suffering is desire. Salvation from the cycle of desire is through the realization of the Brahma, which in turn, can only be achieved through breaking the bondages.

Gita teaches the path of acting without any attachment/consideration of the fruits/results. This is a means to attain the Brahmajnana. Thus, Gita advocates both- Karma Yoga and Gnana Yoga. However, it places the Karma Yoga above the Gnana yoga.

More Coming soon….

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