[Part 2] Ethics and Values in India: Ethics in Indian Religions

Ethics in Hinduism

Doctrine of Karma

This doctrine asserts that whatever a person suffers/enjoys is a fruit of his own deeds. This doctrine introduces the concept of cycles of births, in which, an individual take rebirth after living a life. Through his karma of the previous birth, his fate is determined for the present birth. Karma can be of four types- Sanchit karma, which means the accumulated past actions; Prarabdha karma, which means the part of karma which has been done in the present birth; Kriyamana karma, which means the present voluntary actions of the free will; and Agami karma, which means the immediate result caused by our present actions.

The doctrine of karma suggests that the consequence of an action is a part of the action itself, and cannot be separated from it.

Transmigration of Soul

The concept of transmigration of soul is closely related to the concept of karma. It implies that after the death of the body, the life of the individual continues in another body. The main identity of an individual is his soul, which is eternal and immortal. While the body can expire, the soul does not. It merely changes the body, as its abode, and continues its cycle of karma.

The soul is central to the Hindu philosophy. Soul is considered as pure and blessed. However, due to the various attachments, it gets trapped into the material world, and falls into the cycle of rebirth. Thus, the reason of rebirth is seen as karma.

Concept of Purushartha

The main objective of philosophy is to achieve the highest value in human life. These values have been referred to as Purushartha, in the Hindu tradition. There are 4 broad purusharthas- Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha.

Dharma is distinguished into-

1. Sadharana Dharma– which refers to the duties of the universal scope and validity. There are 10 cardinal values under this category, according to Manu- endurance, patience, self-control, integrity, purity, restraint of senses, wisdom, learning, non-violence and truth.

2. Varnashrama Dharma– which refers to the duties of persons according to the caste and the stage of life.

Artha refers to the attainment of the riches and worldly prosperity. Kama, on the other hand, is a comprehensive term, which includes all desires, ranging from purely lustful to purely devotional. Hindu philosophy lays good emphasis on the enjoyment of secular pleasures, along with the spiritual ones.

The uniqueness of the Hindu philosophy lies in the fact that material pleasures have been given an adequate place in the moral-ethical pursuits of an individual. The first three purushartha are of instrumental value, aimed at the attainment of the fourth value- Moska.


It implies one’s personal obligations. Each individual has to develop to realize his true potential, through the course of dharma. Svadharma, thus, becomes a principle of individual growth. However, Svadharma is never universal. It varies according to one’s position and role in the society. Thus, one’s svadharma is based on one’s varna and ashrama.

The concept of svadharma also introduces the three elements/gunas in the human soul- Sattva (Purity), Tamas (Darkness), and Rajas (Virility). These three qualities are found in every individual, in varying degrees. The character and temperament of a person is determined by the element that dominates the soul of a person. The components of Sattva are- Altruism, Restraint and moderation, honesty, cleanliness, universality, peace, non-violence and reverence for elders and teachers. This concept is very close to the understanding of soul, made by Greek-philosopher, Plato.

The theory of svadharma suggests that, in order for the society to work smoothly, there should be a hierarchical arrangement of functions and duties in it.


The concept of Varnashrama dharma is the basic model of social stratification in the Hindu society. It is based on the gunas, caste and age of the person. Caste system worked as a stratification model in the Hindu society. However, there have been many pathologies in the caste order. That is why, it has been decried in the contemporary society.

Originally, one’s caste was determined by one’s occupation. However, with time, this system crystallized and caste came to be associated with a clan and birth in a particular caste.

Ashrama Dharma

It refers to the philosophy guiding the stages of life of an individual. The lifespan of the individual has been divided into four stages- Brahmachari (Student-hood)- from birth to 25 years, when the person is bound to practice celibacy; Grihasthah (Householder)- from 25 years to 50 years of age; Vanaprastha (Forest Dweller)-from 50 years to 75 years of age; and Sannyasin (Mendicant)- from 75 years till one’s death. A man should pass through these stages, in order to live a wholesome life. No person should enter any stage prematurely.

This passage through the different stages of life is considered as essential for the true development of the Jivatma, and proper functioning of the society.

Hindu Rites (Samskara)

Sacrifices form a central component of the Brahminical religion and philosophy. Sacrifices are done with an intent to please the Gods, and get favors. There are many types of sacrifices mentioned in the Hindu scriptures. There are also a number of personal and family sacraments known as Samskara. These are generally of the nature of acts of purification.

Some of the important samskara are- Garbhadhanam or conception; Pumsavanam, to ensure the male offspring; Simanthonnayanam, parting of the hair; Nama-karana; Annaprasnam, the first feeding of the child with solid food; Chudakaranam, the rite of tonsure ceremony; Karnavedham, piercing of earlobes; Upanayanam, initiation by the teacher; Vivaha, marriage; and Antyesti, funeral rites.

Ethics in Buddhism

Buddhism suggests 10 cardinal duties for every human being, as a path to gain a happy and peaceful life. These duties are- charity, morality, mental culture, reverence and respect, helping others, sharing, rejoicing in the merits of others, celibacy, listening to dhamma and straightening one’s view. According to Buddhism, moral conduct benefits everyone. The culture of reverence brings peace to the society.

Buddha also elucidated the demeritorious deeds, which an individual should avoid. The root of the unethical deeds lie in greed, hatred and delusion, and bring suffering to the self as well as the others. Buddhism shuns the actions that harm other, either through bodily action, verbal action, or action of the mind.

Buddhism judges an action as good or bad on the basis of intention or motivation. Actions, that are motivated by one’s greed, hatred or ill-will, are categorized as unethical and immoral; while the actions guided by love, charity and wisdom are beneficial to the society as a whole.

Buddhism advocates the first duty of an individual as- to cleanse oneself of the mental vices of greed, hatred and ignorance. Buddhist philosophy does not focuses upon the divine entity, as the centre of human action. But human actions are to be guided by reason and wisdom, in order to be beneficial to others. Performance of good actions strengthens a person morally, and aids in the process of one’s moral growth.

Buddhism, as a religion, developed the Five Noble Duties for the followers of Buddha. These five principles are supposed to guide the path towards liberation. However, these principles/duties are purely voluntary, and are not imposed upon a follower through social sanctions. Broadly, the five percepts of Buddhism are- Refrain from Killing living creatures; Refrain from taking which is not given; Refrain from Sexual misconduct; Refrain from false speech; and Refrain from taking intoxicating drugs. These principles have been referred to as the Panchsila.

Lord Buddha proposed the path of Universal Love, or Metta. This involves giving charity/dana to others, without expecting anything in return. While doing charity, one should not expect others to be grateful. A act of charity does not create any obligations. Thus, only a true and noble person can perform the true charity. Such a person does not feel any dilemma regarding his decision. The practice of charity curbs our craving for greed and selfishness.

Another significant principle of Buddhism is Love for all living beings. Here, buddhism extends the scope of benevolence, by transcending the scope of love beyond the humans, to every living organism. No one has a right or authority to infringe the right to life of any being. Killing and war are the indicators of disturbance in the moral order of the human society. Man’s cruelty towards animals is an indicator of their greed.

Ethics in Jainism

Similar to Buddhism, Jainism also rejects the greed and unethical behaviour in the human society. Jain ethics reject the dogmas and orthodoxy in the Hindu society, and denounces the vedic sacrifices. Jainism, in the pursuit of ethical conduct, goes to extreme extents. The extreme character of Jain ethics are found in the codes of Panchamahavrata and Triratnas. Tri-Ratnas refer to the three principles of Right Knowledge, Right Faith, and Right Conduct.

Jainism puts emphasis on attaining the realization of the real nature of the human self and the society. It is proposed to be done through the teachings of the Tirthankaras, who were the sages who attained liberation, and broke the bondages of life cycles.

Also, Right Faith does not imply blind faith. Instead, one must have the right attitude of respect towards truth. Jainism proposes a rigid practice to develop the right attitude in the individual. Through right conduct and attitude, a person can escape from the birth cycles. The code that Jainism provides involves- control of passion, senses, thoughts, speech, desire etc.

The Panchmahavrata provide the five great vows, to achieve the right conduct. The five vows are- Ahimsa- non-violence, Sathyam- truthfulness, Asteyam- abstaining from stealing, Brahmacharya- abstaining from sensual pleasures and Aparigraha- abstaining from worldly attachments.

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One response to “[Part 2] Ethics and Values in India: Ethics in Indian Religions”

  1. Hari says :

    Article is summary of IGNOU, ETHICS IN HISTORY OF INDIAN PHILOSOPHY and I found it very useful.


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