Ethics in Indian Tradition: An Outline


Ajit Kumar AJIT KUMARWISDOM IAS, New Delhi.

Ethics (nītīśāstra) is a branch of philosophy that deals with moral values. The word ‘ethics’ comes from the Greek ethikos, which means a set of moral principles. The word is sometimes used to refer to the moral principles of a particular social or religious group or an individual. It studies human character and conduct in terms of good and bad, right and wrong. What are the qualities of good character? What type of human behaviour is evil or bad? How should one act in life? These are some of the fundamental questions of ethics.
The moral code of the people is an indicator of their social and spiritual ways of life. The true essence of human life is to live amidst worldly joy and sorrows. Ethics is primarily concerned with the moral issues of the world. True religion lays stress on moral virtues. People are required to discharge their duties according to the moral code of ethics. A true knowledge of ethics would be attained if one practices and imbibes these moral values. Ethics is of two kinds, individual and social. Individual ethics is indicative of the good qualities that are essential for individual well-being and happiness. Social ethics represents the values that are needed for social order and
harmony.
In the knowledge tradition of India, ethics has its origin in its religious and philosophical thinking. From time immemorial, various religious faiths have flourished here. Every religious and every philosophical system of India has a prominent ethical component. Ethics is the core of all these systems. In every religious tradition, good moral conduct is considered essential for a happy and contented life. Without following the path of righteousness no one can attain supreme goal (moksha) of life. For this one has to perform good deeds and avoid wrong-doing.
The Cosmic Order (Rita)
India has a very ancient history of thinking about ethics. Its central concepts are represented in igveda, one of oldest knowledge texts not only of India but of the entire world. In igveda, we come across the idea of an all-pervading cosmic order (ita) which stands for harmony and balance in nature and in human society. Here ita is described as a power or force which is the controller of the forces of nature and of moral values in human society. In human society, when this harmony and balance are disturbed, there is disorder and suffering. This is the power or force that lies behind nature and keeps everything in balance.
In Indian tradition, the concept of ita gave rise to the idea of dharma. The term dharma here does not mean mere religion; it stands for duty, obligation and righteousness. It is a whole way of life in which ethical values are considered supreme and everyone is expected to perform his or her duty according to his or her social position and station in life. In Buddhism, the word dhamma is used, which is the Pāli equivalent of the Sanskrit word dharma. The guidelines and rules regarding what is considered as appropriate behaviour for human beings are prescribed in the Dharma Śāstras. These are sociological texts that tell us about our duties and obligations as
individuals as well as members of society.
In the Hindu way of life, every individual is expected to perform his or her duty appropriate to his or her caste (varna) and stage of life (āśrama). This division of one’s life into the four āśramas and their respective dharmas, was designed, in principle at  east, to provide fulfilment to the person in his social, moral and spiritual aspects, and so to lead to harmony and balance in the society. The four āśramas are: (1) brahmacarya, stage of studentship; (2) ghastha, stage of the householder; (3) vanaprastha, life in the forest; and sanyāsa, renunciation.
Apart from this, the concept of four ends of life (purusārthas) is also very important. These four ends of life are the goals which are desirable in them and also needed for fulfilment of human aspirations. These are (1) righteousness (dharma); (2) 3 worldly gain (artha); (3) fulfilment of desire; (kāma) and (4) liberation (moksa). The fulfilment of all of these four ends of life is important for man. In this classification, dharma and moka are most important from the ethical point of view. They give right direction and purpose to human life. For instance, acquiring wealth (artha) is a desirable objective, provided however it also serves dharma, that is, the welfare of the society.
In the Bhagavad-Gītā, selfless action (niśkāma karma) is advocated. It is an action which is required to be performed without consideration of personal consequences. It is an altruistic action aimed at the well-being of others rather than for oneself. In Hinduism this doctrine is known as karma yoga.
The concept of right and wrong is the core of the Mahābhārata which emphasizes, among others, the values of non-violence, truthfulness, absence of anger, charity, forgiveness and self realization. It is only by performing one’s righteous duties or dharma that one can hope to attain the supreme path to the highest good. It is dharma alone that gives both prosperity (abhyudaya) and the supreme spiritual good (niśryas). Similarly, the importance of ethics and ethical values is highlighted in epics and philosophical texts like, Upaniads, Rāmāyana, darśana-śāstras and dharma-śāstras. The darśana śāstras are philosophical texts, which provide rational explanations of the ethical issues; the universal moral problems faced by man in daily life are placed in a philosophical context. In the dharma-śāstras, emphasis is on the social ethics. In these texts the inter-personal and social relations are placed in an ethical framework for guidance. In these texts the ethical problems are discussed in an indirect manner. Apart from these some of the texts directly deal with ethical issues:
1. Viduranītī: Attributed to Vidura, the great Mahābhārata character. A rich discourse on polity and dharma-śāstra.
2. Kamandakīya Nītisāra: A Sanskrit work belonging to c. 700-750 CE.
3. Nītivākyamtam: Literally the ‘nectar of science of polity’ contains thirty-two discourses in simple Sanskrit prose by a Jain scholar, Somadeva Suri.
4. aghu Arhannīti: A small manual in Prakrit verse (c. 1088-1172 CE) on civil and criminal laws by Hemachandra, a Jain scholar.
5. Śukranītisara: An abridged Sanskrit text on polity which is attributed to Śukrācārya but believed by scholars to be a work of the early mediaeval period of history.
6. Nītikalpatarū: A Sanskrit treatise attributed to King Bhoja, available in manuscript only.
7. Nīti Śatakam: Bhartṛhari’s hundred verses on ethics.
Buddhist Ethics
Buddhism also gives primary importance to ethics. Sometimes it is called an ethical religion as it does not discuss or depend on the existence of God (the Supreme Being with form and attributes) but instead believes in alleviating the suffering of humanity. The ethical values in this faith are based on the life and teachings of the Buddha. These moral instructions are included in Buddhist scriptures or handed down through tradition. According to Buddhism, the foundation of ethics is the pañcaśīla (five rules), which advocates refraining from killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct and intoxicants. In becoming a Buddhist, a lay person is encouraged to take a vow to
abstain from these negative actions.
In Buddhism, the two most important ethical virtues are compassion (karua) and friendliness (maitrī). One should have deep sympathy and goodwill for the suffering people and should have the qualities of a good friend. The most important ethical value is non-violence or non-injury to all living beings. Buddhist ethics is based on Four Noble Truths. These are: (1) life is suffering, (2) there is a cause for suffering, (3) there is a way to remove it, and (4) it can be removed (through the eight-fold path). It advocates the path of righteousness (dhamma). In a way this is the crux of Buddhist morality.
Jain Ethics
Jainism is another important religion of this land. It places great emphasis on three most important things in life, called three gems (triratna). These are: right vision (samyaka dṛṣṭī), right knowledge (samyaka jñāna) and right conduct (samyaka cāritra). Apart from these, Jain thinkers emphasize the need for reverence (śraddhā). There are other moral principles governing the life of Jains. Most important of these are ideas of puya (merit) and pāpa (demerit). Such deeds are very important from the ethical point of view. Pāpa is the result of evil deeds  enerated by vice and puya is the result of good deeds generated by virtuous conduct. One should take up the path of a virtuous life to lead the way to spiritual growth. In Jainism the other cardinal virtues are: forgiveness, humility, simplicity, non-covetousness, austerity, restraint, truthfulness, purity, renunciation and celibacy.
Ethics in  Bhakti Movement
During the middle ages, the Bhakti movement arose in India. It was an all-India movement of social reform and spiritual awakening. It played a very important part in reawakening moral consciousness in India. Jayadeva, Nāmdev, Tulsīdās, Kabīr, Ravidās and Mīra are some of the prominent saints of this movement. Most of these saints came from the downtrodden sections of society. Rejecting the distinctions of caste, colour and creed, they spread the message of human equality. They were saint poets. In their ī (poetic compositions) they propagated the ideals of love, compassion, justice and selfless service. These are the ethical values which we need even today.

Sunday, 13th Apr 2014, 06:52:18 AM

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