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Ethics For Our TimesEssays in Gandhian Perspective$

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780198073864

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198073864.001.0001

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Ethics in Hinduism

Ethics in Hinduism

(p.211) 9 Ethics in Hinduism
Ethics For Our Times

M.V. Nadkarni

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the place of ethics in Hinduism. It shows that though Hinduism has shown a strong inclination to metaphysics and spiritualism, it has certainly not ignored ethics. It explains that ethics as dharma comes first among the goals of human beings in Hinduism and the scriptures insisted that other goals are to be pursued according to dharma. This chapter also discusses the misunderstandings about ethics in Hinduism, the ethics in the Vedas and Upanishads, the contribution of the Bhagavadgita to Hindu ethics, and the ethics of sants and social reformers.

Keywords:   ethics, Hinduism, dharma, Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavadgita, Hindu ethics, sants, social reformers, metaphysics

  • Ete satpurushaah paraartha-ghatakaah
  • Svaartham parityajya ye
  • Saamaanyaa tu paraartham-udyata-bhritah
  • Svaartha-avirodhena ye /
  • Temee maanava-rakshsaah parahitam
  • Svaarthaaya nighnanti ye
  • Ye tu ghnanti nirararthakam parahitam
  • Te ke na jaaneemahe //

—Bhatrihari’s Neeti-shataka (verse 74)

Those are the noblest persons who, giving up self-interest, bring about the good of others. Those that undertake a business for the sake of others, not inconsistent with their own good, are the common lot. Those who harm the welfare of others for their own selfish interest, are demons in human form. We know not what to call those who harm others’ welfare for no purpose at all.1

Bhartrihari is an eminent poet in Sanskrit who belonged to the first century before Christ. He is famous for composing three shatakas (sets of hundred—actually 108—verses) each on neeti (ethics), shringaara (romance), and vairaagya (renunciation). In Hinduism, each has its own place. The verse quoted above is from his Neeti-shataka. Interestingly, the composition begins with a religious prayer to the infinite, the pure consciousness or awareness (chinmaatra-moorthi). Tirukkural (The Kural), an ancient Tamil text of aphorisms on ethics by Tiruvalluvar (dated anywhere between second century BC to eighth century AD) also begins with the praise of God, pure intelligence or pure awareness (vaalarivan). (p.212) Religion has always inspired ethics in Hinduism right from the Vedic times. Hinduism may have shown a strong inclination to metaphysics and to some extent even to rituals, but its ethical concern has never been diluted. For medieval sants and certainly for Gandhi in modern times, ethics was the essence of religion, neither metaphysics nor rituals. Even in the ancient times and during the classical period of Hinduism, preceding the medieval, almost every religious leader and scripture has shown due concern for moral values. Bhartrihari’s Neeti-shataka and the ancient Tamil classic, The Kural, by Tiruvalluvar were entirely didactic, but such texts on moral instruction alone were rare. Apart from directly imparting moral instructions in didactic passages or verses, Hinduism also widely adopted the method of combining narratives with the didactic, as Matilal points out. In the epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata and in Puraanas, it is not easy to separate the didactic from the narrative (Matilal 2002: 42). Even Upanishads have quite a few stories to tell with ethical and spiritual implications. Collections of stories, like Panchatantra and Hitopadesha had the main purpose of giving moral instructions and hints on how to make one’s life meaningful and successful, but they did it through stories. The latter two are not regarded as religious texts, but the epics have always had a religious flavour. Even in Tirukkural, there are several religious aphorisms, though the bulk of them is on ethics as such. Religious texts served as a very useful vehicle to convey moral values. Between religion and ethics, it is difficult to tell which serves as a means and which as an end. Just as ethics was advocated as requisite for taking religious or spiritual path, religion also served as the means and occasion for moral instruction. Hinduism is not unique in this respect, since other religions also have shown the same feature.

Every religion has the following components: (a) metaphysics and concept of God, (b) ways to salvation or liberation, (c) mythology, (d) rules or customs governing social institutions and rituals, (e) basic ethics. Religions may differ from each other significantly in the first four components. But they more or less agree on the basic ethical principles like commitment to truth, compassion for the weak, and self-control. Since each religion tries to relate different components with each other, ethics may have a distinct flavour in each religion. But their substance is really the same across religions. While the other components of religion divide people on religion, ethics has the powerful potential to unite them on a common footing. Within Hinduism, the different philosophical systems like Advaita, Vishishthaadvaita, and Dvaita differ from each other (p.213) in respect of the first two components, but they share other components, especially ethics on a common footing. Since all Hindus, irrespective of their philosophical affiliations, also have a common veneration for epics, which also in turn preach ethics, it is certainly possible to speak of a common ethics in Hinduism, overlapping with ethics in other religions, particularly Indian religions including Sikhism.

The closeness between religion and ethics is so intense and deep, that it is easy to mistake one for the other. Yet, it is useful to draw a distinction between the two. Though by and large, the genuinely religious may also be ethical, in quite a few cases they may fall apart. In a public garden, I saw an elderly lady plucking flowers without any feeling of guilt, not minding others watching her. On being asked why she did so in spite of a notice there asking people not to pluck flowers, she replied it was for God’s pooja (worship) and asked in turn what was wrong. She felt she may have been breaking a rule of the park, but hers was not an immoral act as it was religious. What was religious was automatically moral for her. This of course is a relatively harmless case. But there could be more serious deviations of the religious from the moral. For example, Dharm a shaastras not only authenticated the caste system but prescribed stringent, unjust and inequitable punishments for infringement of caste rules and customs. Brahmin widows on the death of their husbands, till about 70 years ago, had to shave their heads, wear very simple and unattractive dress, shun ornaments and flowers, and eat simple non-stimulating food. All in the name of religion and custom. In the case of Christianity and Islam, laws against heresy, blasphemy, and apostacy were so strict as to even invite punishment by death. Cases of religious dictats going against morality arise because they are not cases of genuine religion.

Just as what is religious need not necessarily be moral, what is moral need not necessarily be religious, particularly if religion is interpreted narrowly. For example, if one’s acts of benevolence are in a secular rather than a religious sphere, they may not be regarded as religious, however good and beneficial they otherwise are. V.K.R.V. Rao, for example, wanted to improve the quality of economics teaching and research in India on par with the West. He established and brought up, therefore, three institutions of teaching and research in economics and other social sciences, two in Delhi and one in Bangalore. He gave opportunities to many youngsters to make a good career in social sciences (I being one of them). These activities were certainly of high moral value, but may not be regarded as religious. The point is that morality is not confined to the (p.214) religious sphere. It has to extend to other spheres as well, professions, media, business, research, politics, civic life, entertainment and sports and social relations. By its very nature, ethics are intended to cover all activities of life. That is how the spokesmen of ethics from ancient sages to modern exemplars like Mahatma Gandhi envisaged the role of ethics. When Gandhi took up the cause of mill workers and peasants against their exploiters, he was doing a deeply moral duty, even if in common parlance, it was not a religious activity.

In fact, it is possible to have ethics without religion, but religion without ethics is not worth its name. One can be very ethical without being religious, but cannot be religious without being ethical. In spite of this, a combination of ethics with religion can be useful. Religion lends a fervour, a resoluteness of purpose, and a sense of compulsion, which makes following ethics easier for common people. Gandhi saw no conflict between the two, as his religion was pure and genuine, shorn of narrowness, and truth was his God. When religion is taken in its essence and is deeply spiritual, difference between religion and ethics is significantly reduced because spirituality without ethics is just not possible. Similarly, a deeply moral person cannot escape being religious. This is because such a person sees morality not just as an instrument of keeping peace and order, but as a responsibility to the whole world community including its plants and animals, soils, and water. As the Gita (6.29) says, he sees himself in all, and all in himself. This amounts to nothing less than spirituality.

Misunderstandings about Ethics in Hinduism

Lord Curzon, the then Vice-Roy of India, in his Convocation Address at the University of Calcutta in 1905, called Hindus compulsive liars, having no sense of truth (Chatterjee 2005: 75). He was only an administrator, not a scholar, though as Viceroy, he should have known better. But quite a few Western scholars also, among them Max Weber (1930, 1958), Albert Schweitzer (1936) and W.J. Kapp (1963), though not as damaging and devastating as Curzon, did create a lot of misunderstanding about ethics in Hinduism and the Hindu world view. An attempt is made here to clear these misunderstandings, not author by author, but point by point.

Chapter 6 in this volume, ‘Appearance and Reality’, has already refuted one of the main criticisms that Indian religions are world-negating or life-denying and could not therefore develop a proper ethic, which is possible only if one accepts moral responsibility in this world. For the (p.215) same reason the criticism further alleged that Indian religions remained indifferent to solving the problem of poverty and the need for economic development. It was pointed out in the essay above that even Advaita school of philosophy, which was just one of the many developed in India, duly emphasized our responsibilities to the world, and that there was no question of any philosophy in India, including Advaita, being indifferent to, or inconsistent with the importance of ethical living.

The second criticism is that ethics in Hinduism is mainly deontological, focused on duties, and expressed in terms of ‘do’s and ‘don’t’s’. This preoccupation with duties allegedly came in the way of emergence of any analytical ethics, or meta-ethics, or moral philosophy as such. The neglect of developing moral philosophy, it is pointed out, becomes obvious in the six Darshanas—philosophical systems of thought: Saankhya, Nyaaya, Vaisheshika, Vedaanta, Meemaamsa, and Yoga. These systems gave scant attention to ethics.

In Chapter 5 in this volume, ‘Interrogating the Idea of Justice’, Amartya Sen’s criticism of the Gita as being highly deontological to the point of ignoring consequences, has been referred and also refuted. Main points of my reply to the criticism are summed up here. Call for duty does not mean ignoring consequences. Duties are evolved by taking into account consequences and for the long-term good of the society as a whole, not ignoring long-term interests of individuals. Hinduism, therefore, does not see any general conflict between duty-centred and consequentialist approaches. When in specific situations conflicts arise between the two, Hinduism has even tended to favour consequentialist approach, without diluting the emphasis on duty as a general principle. The language of moral instruction in terms of ‘do’s’ and ‘don’t’s’ is not unique to Hinduism. The famous Ten Commandments in the Bible are in this language only. Contemporary thought emphasizes rights more than duties. Gandhi on the other hand emphasized duties more than rights. Duties involve moral responsibility, which is the basis of ethics. Rights and duties could be considered as two faces of the same coin. Rights cannot be implemented unless corresponding duties of someone are also identified. One may enact a law giving people the right to education, but it cannot be implemented unless duties of the state and of parents/guardians as well are specified in the same Act.

It is not true that there was no attempt in Hinduism or in Indian religions to develop moral philosophy. Only their method was not the same as in western philosophy. As Matilal has observed (in Ganeri (p.216) 2002: 42), the didactic and the narrative were fused together, so that the moral lesson is well received and remembered by people. The epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Puraanas, story books like Panchatantra, Jaataka, and Hitopadesha were all meant to present moral lessons, and show how ethics was put into practice and how moral conflicts were resolved. They were not meant only for the intellectual elite but for the mass of people who could remember moral lessons through stories. It is not enough if ethics were confined to intellectuals. What these texts aimed at was to elevate both the moral and intellectual level of ordinary people including even the illiterate. About the alleged neglect of ethics in Darshanas, Hindery observes:

… applied Hindu morality was already so capably administered by law codes (Dharmashastras), epics, and other popular classics and oral traditions that philosophical systems could simply bypass the ethical task entirely. … The Indian philosophers need not have feared either de-emphasis or downright detraction of moral law and order, because morals were already adequately secured in the Shastras, rituals, dramas and hearts of the people. (Hindery 1978: 188)

Hindery’s justification does not mean, however, that deeper philosophical questions like what is truth and why we should be truthful or moral, were ignored in Hindu ethical thought, as will be clear during the course of this essay. Ethical analysis, such as we get in the epics, Darshanas, Sutras, and Shaastras, may be scattered and not systematic, but is nevertheless very much present.

The third criticism of Hindu ethics is that it is not absolute and universal, but relativist. Shankara’s distinction between two levels of truth—paaramaarthika (transcendental) and vyaavahaarika (practical) is alleged to have created such confusion that people believe that truth can be bent for our convenience for being practical, resulting in relativist ethic or ethic of expediency. This, in fact, is a more serious criticism than the above two, and the reply to this has to be more elaborate, extending beyond this section in the essay.

First of all, we have to remember that Shankara was only one of the many philosophers in India, and that philosophers in other traditions did not make any such distinction between transcendental and practical truths. Even for Shankara, there were no two systems of ethics as such. All religious thinkers and philosophers in India, including Shankara, accepted ethics as absolutely essential, not only in day-to-day activities of our practical life, but also as a preparation for taking the path of self—or God realization. There was no concession either in the former or in the (p.217) latter. Honesty was always commended and hypocrisy condemned. One of the popular Subhaashitas (selected ‘well-said’ verses compiled from different sources) is as follows:

  • yathaa chittam tathaa vaachah yathaa vaachaasththa kriyaah/
  • chitte vaachi kriyaayaancha saadhoonaam ekaroopataa//
  • As in the mind so in the speech, as in the speech, so in the deeds; good persons are the same in mind, speech and action.

(Herur 2001: 75).

The moral path (dharma) was never to be abandoned. Chaarucharya says clearly—‘na tyajet dharma-maryaadam api klesha-dashaam shritah’ (never transgress the limits of dharma even if in difficulty) (Herur 2001: 244). Mahabharata also says the same thing: ‘One should not abandon dharma under the influence of sensual desire, fear or greed. Dharma is eternal, our pains and pleasures are only passing.’2 For the sake of passing pleasures or pain, lasting values of dharma should not be ignored, according to Mahabharata. Do any of these quotations—and there are many such, suggest that ethics is only for expediency, accepted when convenient and rejected when not?

The criticism of ethics in Hinduism as relativist or as expediency-oriented must have been occasioned by the penchant in Hindu epics for projecting moral conflicts and dilemmas for special attention through stories. The Gita itself originated from one such moral dilemma (see Chapter 6 above). Ramayana and Mahabharata raise these dilemmas one after another and the question of how to decide about what is dharma in such situations. The situation is such that in following one moral duty, another has to be sacrificed. This is not a simple question of moral duty conflicting with self-interest, and yielding to self-interest ultimately. That would have been simple expediency. Moral dilemmas are more complex. In the sections below, some of them would be discussed.

One more criticism is that the doctrine of karma is fatalistic, giving no scope for moral responsibility. This criticism has been refuted in detail in my previous book (Nadkarni 2008: 41–5), and also briefly above in the essay on ‘Humanism in Hinduism’. The main point of this refutation is that actually the doctrine of karma gives full moral responsibility to the individuals because present karma determines one’s future. The doctrine of karma is meaningless if freedom of will is denied. A puppet cannot be subjected to the law of karma. The law of karma also does not reduce moral responsibility for social evils and suffering of others. If I ignore a poor man on the ground that it is his karma, I incur the sin of ignoring my moral (p.218) responsibility and if I come in to any difficulty, others may also think so about me. The Gita teaches us how to reduce the burden of karma through detachment. It emphasizes that inaction does not save us, but detachment and discrimination can. Role of grace of God is also stressed, which can come after genuine repentance (paschaattaapa) to a sincere devotee.

Ethics in the Vedas and Upanishads

The Foundation of Indian ethics, not Hindu ethics alone, lies in the Vedas. Vedic ethics has its own distinct flavour. Rigveda, composed some 2,500 years before Christ, had a concept of ritam, or cosmic order, by which both the physical and the social worlds were sustained. When a sceptic asked who has seen god Indra, he was told to see him in the working of this world itself, and in the beauty and order resulting from the working of the moral law—ritam. Ritam was ordinarily understood in the sense of righteouness. Ritam quickly developed in to the concept of satyam or truth, with strong ethical implications. Sometimes, both words are used simultaneously, as in the following:

  • Ritam cha satyam cha abheeddhaat /
  • Tapascha adhi ajaayata // (Rigveda X.190. 1).
  • Righteousness and truth upsurged,
  • kindled from self-discipline.

(Tr. by Hattangdi 2002: 127).

The word, satyam, occurs many times in Rigveda itself.3 An aphorism declares: ‘God is the source of Truth’ (satya-savam savitaaramRigveda V.82.7) (ibid.:183). Rigveda exhorts people—‘speak truthfully, and act truthfully’ (satyam vadan satya karman, X.113.4, ibid.: 134). It assures, ‘God escorts us on to the path of righteouness’ (VI.44.8; ibid.: 169). There is ardent prayer to God to lead us along the path of righteouness (X.133.6).

Sins were regarded as something which apart from displeasing gods, adversely determined the future of individuals as well as that of the society. That is how the doctrine of karma developed later, but its seed was already there in the Vedas. Cheating others, arrogance, cruelty, and indolence were regarded as sins, while the acts of charity, helping others, hospitality, truthfulness, self control, chastity, courage, and humility were considered as virtues, which led us on the path of ritam (Dasgupta 1961: 9; Crawford 1982: 3–16). Though sins were feared as making gods angry, virtues were praised and followed for their own sake too, and for the good of the society or also for heaven. Vedic people do not appear to have developed the concept of moksha or liberation. They were content with heaven, and surely before that, happy with realization of worldly (p.219) aspirations like prosperity, children, and peace—both social and mental, to be achieved through the path of righteousness. In this sense, Vedas could be said to be ‘this-worldly’ and life-loving. For this, certain ethical values were considered essential, which they identified and developed.

The word dharma, originated from Rigveda. It occurs there not once or twice but many times, as Kane has observed (1990, vol. I: 1). But it is used with different meanings in different contexts—moral ordinances, as synonym for satyam, duties, and ritual obligations. The word is derived from the verb dhri, that is, uphold, support, or sustain. World is believed to sustained by dharma (prithiveem dharmanaa dhritamAtharvaveda 12.1.17). The word is used in Jainism and Buddhism as well, with ethical implications—not ritual. In spite of its ambiguity—or rather, multiple meanings, dharma became the most popular word in all Indian religions, forming the main vehicle for expression of ethical thought. The word was never used in the western sense of religion in the traditional texts or even in popular usage. Since Indian languages did not have an equivalent word for religion, the use of the word dharma in this sense came into vogue only with modern times.

A very interesting feature of Vedas is the evidence of congregational prayers, conveying a strong sense of fraternity and even equality and bonding. The following prayer from Rigveda (X.191.3) is still in vogue:

  • May our prayer be one and the same;
  • May we belong to one fraternity;
  • May our minds move in accord;
  • May our hearts work in unison
  • For our supreme goal;
  • Let us be inspired by a common ideal;
  • Let us sing Thy praises in congregation.

(Tr. by Vidyalankar: 218).

The Vedic religion is considered generally to be polytheistic. There are many gods, with Varuna and Mitra and even Indra keeping the moral order, ritam. Crawford observes that ‘on the whole, the gods are approached through love rather than fear’ (1982: 6). There was no image worship during the Vedic and Upanishadic period, and no temples. There is simultaneously the concept of One God (Ekam) also in the Vedas. The oft-quoted saying,’ Ekam sadvipraah bahudhaa vadanti’ (One Truth is spoken variously by the wise) is from Rigveda (I.164.46). The plurality of gods is taken to represent different aspects of the One. Various gods take the fight on behalf of goodness, while raakshsas or asuras (demons) represent evil. They are always in conflict with each other. But the fight (p.220) often seems to take place through humans! Humans seem to be caught in the proxy war between the good and the evil. ‘Because ultimate reality is Sat (Truth), it follows that in a world structured by Truth, men should live by the principle of Truth’ (Crawford 1982: 9).

Crawford observes that women in the Vedic and Upanishadic period were treated with regard, enjoying both educational and religious rights. The wife invariably joined the husband in religious rites. She had also the right to select her husband. Boys and girls had the freedom and opportunity to meet each other in the Vedic society. Women participated in public lfe and debated in public assemblies. Monogamy was the generally prevalent form of marriage (Crawford 1982: 13).

When we come to the Upanishads, we find that not only the basic moral values of the Vedic period were retained, there was also a further development of ethical thought. Though Upanishads were more concerned with metaphysics, they always thought that a moral life is a prerequsite for taking the path of spirituality and that they go together. The highest good was in attaining self-knowledge, but without controlling selfishness and anger, and without equipping one self with self-control, compassion for others, and generosity, no self-knowledge can come, however intense one’s efforts at meditations and reflection may be. Good news here is that, meditation and right reflections help one in leading a moral life. They can form a virtuous circle.

However, Upanishads gave greater priority to attaining spiritual and long-term happiness, Shreyas, than to worldly or sensual pleasures which gave only a momentary happiness, Preyas. The distinction between the two may already have been conceived in a dormant form, but it became conspicuously clear in the Upanishads. They declared that the wise are those who know this distinction, and those who do not are ignorant. Ignorance and delusion (avidyaa) are very much looked down upon in the Upanishads. They gave a higher priority also to study, meditation, relection, and debate, than to religious rituals. Ethics received more weightage than rites. The famous Convocation Address exhorts pupils who have completed their studies with their Guru to pursue a path of truth and righteousness, or virtue and not to deviate from studies:

  • Satyam vada, dharmam chara,
  • Svadhyaayaanmaa pramadah,…
  • Satyaat na pramaditavyam,
  • Dharmaat na pramaditavyam,…
  • (p.221) Deva-pitrakaryaabhyaam na pramaditavyam /

(Taittireeya Upanishad I.11.1)

Speak the truth. Practise virtue. Do not deviate from study. Do not deviate from truth. Do not deviate from virtue. Do not deviate from your duty to gods and parents.

(translation by author)

Upanishads emphasize ahimsa a (non-violence) for the first time, which was to become a major virtue in Indian religions later. Chaandogya Upanishad (VIII.15) exhorts pupils to practise ahimsa with all living beings (ahimsa sarva-bhootaani). The same Upanishad emphasizes austerity, charity, and uprightness along with Ahimsa (III.17.4). These virtues are stated to be more potent than animal sacrifices. Bhagavadgita (Gita) takes up this clue to change the very meaning of Yajna (sacrifice) as we see below.

The Gita’s Contribution to Hindu Ethics

Though the Gita is a part of the Mahabharata (forming chapters 23 to 40 in Bheeshmaparva), it is considered to be the essence of the Upanishads, bringing out their moral philosophy, and is venerated as a scripture along with Vedas and Upanishads. Because of its small size and simple language, many more Hindus know about the Gita than about Vedas and Upanishads. A hymn on the greatness of the Gita says that all the Upanishads are cows, their milk is the Gita, and Krishna is the milkman who has squeezed the milk out of the cows. But the Gita has also its own contribution to make to ethics, even if derived from the Upanishads and Saankhya philosophy. Its message is mainly for those in worldly activities. D.V. Gundappa calls his Kannada commentary on the Gita as Jeevana-dharma-Yoga. It is dharma for living day-to-day life actively, and leading one’s life by its teaching is Yoga itself. That is why the background of war in the Gita, is considered by Gandhi to be only a metaphor for life’s struggles.

The contribution of the Gita is on several counts. First it establishes Hinduism (Sanaatana Dharma) firmly on the basis of ethics more than on rituals. It repeatedly enumerates virtues to be cultivated and vices to be avoided. For example, Chapter 16 begins with stating qualities which make a human being divine (in verses 1 to 3):—fearlessness, purity of heart, steadfastness in knowledge, studiousness, charity, self-control, uprightness, austerity, non-violence, truthfulness, tranquility, compassion for all living beings, uncovetouness, gentleness, forgiveness, cleanliness, humility, and absence of anger, hatred, and fickleness. The (p.222) chapter also mentions (in verse 4) qualities that make a man demon-like: arrogance, anger, harshness, cruelty, and ignorance. These qualities are mentioned in the Vedas and Upanishads too, but Gita’s speciality lies in its greater emphasis on ethics than on outward religiosity or even mere learning and contemplation. Gita expects us to make ethics a way of life, doing one’s duty dispassionately, and facing life not only with equanimity but with active enthusiasm. The Gita also gives a valuable criterion in terms of three gunas—satva, rajas, and tamas—by which to judge the morality of different things we face not only on the path of spirituality but also day-to-day life.: work, knowledge, perception, prayer, charity, happiness, and even food (see chapter 8 above). For example, prayer is saatvik, if it is for pure love of God or for the welfare of the world; raajasik if it is to meet one’s own desire; and taamasik if it seeks to harm others. It is significant that the Gita does not apply this criterion of gunas to varnas, nor even to individuals. The Gita says that we have all the three gunas in varying proportions, varying in the same person from time to time.

The Gita is also quite emphatic on justice and equality of all beings. Its chapter 6 elaborates the concept in a few verses (29–32). The key verse (6.32) has been quoted in original along with translation in the previous chapter here (p. 205), which briefly put, asks us to feel the pleasure and pain in others as our own. The significance of these verses is not for metaphysics alone, as some have mistakenly interpretetd. It has social relevance too. For example, it follows from them that the caste system has no ethical or spiritual validity. Krishna declares in the Gita, Chaturvarnyam mayaa srishtam guna-karma vibhaagashah (4.13), which means, ‘I created the four varnas on the basis of qualities and occupations’. Krishna removes any possible ambiguity about this in Uttara-gita in his reply to a question by Arjuna:

  • Na jaatih kaaranam taata gunaah kalyaanakaarakaah/
  • Vritastham api chaandaalam tam devaah braahmanam viduh//
  • Birth is not the cause, my friend, it is virues which are the cause of welfare. Even a chaandaala [a low caste] observing the vow is considered a Brahmin by the gods.4

Consistent with this stand, the Gita opened the door to all castes and classes, particularly the lower, which had been closed to them by narrow-minded priests. This was by showing a new path for spiritual upliftment through bhakti, simply love of God, without the necessity of rituals or even contemplation, which was mostly beyond the lowest varna of Shudras. Bhakti on the other hand, was open to all including even the illiterate. The Gita took this step several centuries before the bhakti movements in (p.223) India, which also did the same job. In the same spirit, the Gita changed the meaning of yajna (which meant Vedic sacrifice earlier). The word was stripped of its rigid ritualism, and taken in the sense of offering, which anybody without wealth or high varna status could do. Such an offering to God could be in the form of help to others (lokahita) by way of giving food, clothing, shelter, vessels, knowledge, or service.

The Gita pioneered the concept of karma-yoga or karma-maarga—undertaking all work with a sense of detachment, selflessly. Even if is work intended for one’s own benefit, it is to be done unattached, in the sense of doing one’s duty well and leaving the fruit of its action in God’s hands, without unduly worrying about it. But the Gita’s emphasis is more on altruistic work, which is morally of a higher level. Doing one’s work with detachment does not mean doing it without interest. On the other hand, work has to be done with fortitude and enthusiasm (dhrityutsaaha-samanvitah) and with due regard to consequences (18:23 and 26). The Gita’s advice to do loka-sangraha, that is, doing good to people, is in chapter 3 (verses 20–5). Elsewhere too it exhorts people to do loka-hita, which is also the same. Thus, the Gita teaches us both how to do work and what type of work to do.

The Gita also authenticates the pluralism of sanaatan dharma. It advocates different approaches to God realization as suited to the aptitudes of people—Jnaana-maarga (path of knowledge), karma-maarga (path of detached and altruistic work), and bhakti-maarga (path of love or devotion), or a path integrating all the three. Krishna gives a firm assurance:

  • Ye yathaa maam prapadyante taan tathaiva bhajaamyaham/
  • Mama vartmaanuvartante manushyaah Paartha sarvashah// (Ch. 4:11).
  • In whatever way people approach me, I reward them in the same way. O Paartha [Arjuna], people can follow my path in all [different] ways.

(Tr. by author)

This is not just pluralism alone, but liberalism too. It is this spirit which marked the respect of Hinduism to other religions. Naarada Bhakti Sutras say clearly, ‘It is not proper to enter in to a controversy about God, or spiritual truths, or about comparative merits of different devotees. For there is room for diversity in views; no one view based upon mere reason is conclusive in itself.’ (Sutras 74 and 75; translated by Tyagisananda 2000: 20).

An important contribution of the Gita to Hindu ethics consists in its reconciling the different human goals known as purushaarthas—Dharma, artha, kaama, and moksha. While the pursuit of wealth (artha) and satisfying desires (kaama) had since long been considered as legitimate (p.224) goals, the Gita insisted that it be in accordance with dharma, that is, by just means. The Gita is clearly world-affirming in doing so—emphasis on ethical means being part of this. We can enjoy life in this world, but without coming in the way of similar enjoyment by others and without cheating and deceit. Just as artha and kaama are legitimate only if in accordance with dharma, dharma would be empty in the absence of artha and kaama. After all, why do we need ethics unless meant to be used as a guide in worldly pursuits? But the Gita also suggests that true happiness does not lie in selfish enjoyment, but in transcending it. And that is where the idea of moksha becomes relevant. Moksha consists in transcending the narrow cage of personal ego, and identifying with the wider Self (Atman) which is in all. That is the culmination of ethical life, the most supreme human goal. The Gita shows that even this goal can be achieved while being engaged in this world according to dharma. The Gita thus removes the tension among purushaarthas, which otherwise can be bothersome.

The Gita’s God is accessible to all directly, without any medium of priests. The Gita co-opted all people left out by the Vedas and Upanishads into the mainstream of sanaatan dharma, and imbibed into them a strong sense of ethics. Its philosophy is activistic and inspired people to resist injustice and evil. Aravind Nadakarni, a noted poet and author in Kannada, observes that in resisting foreign invasions from the North-west, Buddhism in India succumbed to them, while activist teachings of the Gita and also epics enabled Hindus to successfully survive their onslaughts (Nadakarni 1998: 22–4). Buddhism in India proved to too pacifist to face such invasions, while Hinduism could rise to the occasion and survive. But this would not have been possible if vast masses of people had been left out of Hinduism. The Gita, epics, Puraanas and the latter Bhakti movements corrected the elitism of Vedas and Upanishads to a great extent.

Intricacies of Dharma

The exposition of ‘dharma’, continued during the post-Vedic/Upanishadic literature of Hinduism, namely, the phase of Dharmasutras and subsequent Dharmashaastras, including Smritis. The age of the composition of major epics—Ramayana and Mahabharata is uncertain and could be the same as that of Dharmasutras (sixth to second century BC) or even earlier. The epics expound the tenets of dharma through stories and dialogues. Puraanas including Bhaagvata came subsequently. Their main purpose was to reach ethics and religion to the mass of people. Dharma is the most common topic of discussion in all these texts.

(p.225) Mahabharata defines dharma in terms of its purpose and consequences:

  • Dhaaranaat dharma ityaahuh dharmo dhaarayate prajaah /
  • Yat syaat dhaarana samyuktam sa dharma iti nischayah //

Karnaparva ch. 69, verse. 58.

It means: ‘Dharma sustains the society. Dharma maintains social order. Dharma ensures the well being and progress of humanity. Dharma is surely that which fulfils these objectives’ (tr. by Jois 1997: 2). Dharma is said to be crucial even in promoting individual welfare. In reply to a question from Yudhishthira, Bheeshma observes that dharma in the sense of righteousness is the truest and most dependable friend of human beings. He says, friends and relatives part company after death, but dharma clings and protects them even after one’s death.

Depending on the context, dharma connotes rules of moral conduct or virtue, religious duties including obligatory rites, and also duties to society, both in the Dharmashaastras and epics. It was never used in the sense of ‘religion’ in the texts. In the Shaastras, dharma meant both varnaashrama dharma (specific to each varna and aashrama) and saamaanya dharma (universal or common dharma). In the post-Vedic age, caste system had developed as a major feature of the Hindu society. Though originally, there was only a system of four varnas (brahmana, kshatriya, vaishya, and shudra) based on division of labour or occupation, it consolidated itself in to a birth-based caste system. There was opposition in scriptures to this deterioration of the original concept and repeated clarifications that it is not to be based on birth.5 Simultaneously with varnas, there was also the system of aashramas, consisting of four stages of life: student (brahmachari), householder (grihastha), forest-dweller (vaanaprastha), and recluse or monk (sannyaasi). However, it was not necessary for a man to go through all the four stages. A venerated ancient Tamil text, Tirukkural by Tiruvalluvar, says for example that ‘if a man goes through the householder’s life along the way of dharma, nothing is left for him to attain by becoming a recluse or staying in the forest’ (tr. by Rajagopalachari 1999).

Saamaanya-dharma means moral obligations common to all, irrespective of one’s occupation or aashrama. This dharma is absolute and universal. Manusmriti (X.63) explains what common dharma is:

  • Ahimsa satyamasteyam shoucham indriya-nigrahah /
  • Etam saamaasikam dharmam chaaturvarne abraveet Manuh //

(p.226) It means: ‘Nonviolence, truthfulness, not acquiring illegimate wealth, purity, and control of senses, are, in brief, the common dharma for all the four varnas’ (tr. by Jois 1997:26). Among specific dharmas, Raaja-dharma was taught to princes, nobles and to administrators in general. It was derived from several sources, especially, from Kautilya’s Arthashaastra.6 It was not meant exclusively for kings, but mainly for governance and government, and included moral principles. Arthashaastra, for example, says: ‘In the happiness of his subjects lies the king’s happiness; in his welfare, his welfare; He shall not consider as good only that which pleases him but treat as beneficial to him whatever pleases his subjects’ (1.19.34; translated by Rangarajan 1992: x). Specific dharmas are thus derived from a sense of fairness and justice, that is, from Saamaanya-dharma. In spite of differences between specific dharmas, it was made clear by teachers and in scriptures that Saamaanya-dharma was mandatory for all without exception. Dharma is both social and individual. Values of individual morality are common and mandatory, but duties to society could differ. But relative or specific dharma is subordinated to the universal or basic dharma, and if there is a conflict between the two, the universal dharma would prevail. It would be unfair to call this as relativism.

In judging the righteousness of an act, according to the principles of dharma, three criteria are useful. They are: the motive, the means adopted, and the consequences. This was Gandhi’s approach too, as explained in Chapter 1 above. Purity is insisted upon both with regard to motive and the means. For example, a man can choose his wife only through wooing and by her consent, and not by force. A forced marriage is considered as raakshasi (devilish, demonical). Consequences of an act, both intended and realized, constitute the third criterion. In fact, dharma or satya is defined as that which achieves the welfare of all. An assertion to this effect occurs in several places in Mahabharata and also other texts. Take for example, the following verse from Shantiparva of Mahabharata (329.13):

  • Satyasya vachanam shreyah, satyaadapi hitam vadet /
  • Yadbhootahitam atyantam etat satyam matam mama //

It means: ‘It is good to speak the truth; to speak what does good is still better. What is ultimately good for the welfare of all beings is what I consider as truth’.

Even then, how to decide what is good, what is dharma? Often, there may be conflicts even among texts and no clear path may be in sight. In (p.227) such situations of conflicts between texts themselves, Smritis (Dharma sutras, Dharmashaastras, epics, and so on) have themselves have clearly said that the opinion in the Shrutis (Vedas and Upanishads) should prevail. But even Shrutis may not be clear for specific cases. The texts advise two ways to resolve this problem. One is to rationally think over from all sides of the problem. When even this is not helpful, go by the advice of the wise and good persons.

Dharma is sometimes taken as unsentimental in the same sense as justice is taken as blind. But it does not preclude rationality and humanism. In the Gita, Krishna asks Arjuna at the end of his sermon to critically think over what all he has said and then act as per his will (vimarshyetad asheshena yathechchasi tathaa kuru—18.63). In the considered opinion of philosopher, Matilal, ‘dharma tradition developed through an attempt at rational criticism of itself’ (in Ganeri (ed.) 2002: 51). Reasoning does not take place in an intellectual vacuum. Even while reasoning out what is right or wrong in specific situations, we need some values given by Saamaanya-dharma. The Gita gives a valuable hint as help in this (ch. 6, verse 32. It calls upon us to judge happiness and sorrow in others by the same standard as we apply to ourselves. The Kural also says ‘do not do to others what you know has hurt yourself’ (tr. by Sundaram 1990: 50). Panchatantra says the same thing; ‘atmanah pratikoolaani pareshaam na samaacharet (Kakolaleeya 10–2), That is, whatever is harmful to oneself, should not be done to others.

In spite of this insistence on rational judgment in the light of moral principles, there are quite a few who have emphasized that decisions on dharma have to be tempered by compassion. Basavanna (Basaveshwara), an eminent social reformer and leader of Bhakti movement in Karnataka in twefth century, asked: ‘dayeyillada dharma-vaavudayyaa’ (what kind of dharma would it be if it is without compassion?). To discourage irrational sentimentalism, D.V. Gundappa, an eminent poet-philosopher of twentieth century Karnataka, responded to this with a counter question: dharma-villada daye enthadayya? (What kind of compassion is it if it is without dharma?) As Gundappa explains, a mother cannot go on giving whatever the child asks, for it can only spoil the child—both its health and conduct. A wicked person bent upon harming others and found guilty, cannot be let off free, as compassion to him this way would mean harm to his potential victims (Gundappa 2001: 70). Dharma requires love and compassion to be combined with rationality, justice, and responsibility.

(p.228) There could be situations when even rational reflection on the instructions in the shruti may not yield a solution. Yudhishthira observes in Mahabharata:

  • The scriptures are many and are divided; the Dharma-shaastras
  • are many and different. Nobody is called a sage until and unless
  • he holds a different view. The truth of dharma lies concealed in a
  • dark cave (of the human heart?). Therefore, the way to dharma
  • is the one that is taken by mahaajanas (great persons or a great number of persons)

(translated by Matilal in Ganeri [ed.] 2002: 41).

The advice to go to the wise and the good for counsel on dharma is in Manusmriti also (2:1):

  • Vidvatbhih sevitah sadbhirnityam advesharaagibhih/
  • Hridayenabhyanujnaato yo dharmastvam nibodhata//

It means: ‘Know that to be true dharma which the wise and the good and those who are free from passion and hatred follow, and which appeals to to the heart (or conscience)’. (translated by M.K. Gandhi) (CWMG Vol. 75: 375)

A difficulty with the advice of taking counsel from even the wise who are also good, is that there may be no unanimity among them in specific cases involving moral conflict. That is, ultimately, one follows what appeals to his heart or conscience. This again could expose such a decision to a criticism that it amounts to relativism or ethics of expediency. This would be unfair because that is not the spirit in which this approach to dharma was developed. There are many verses in religious texts and texts of moral instruction to be strict follower of ethics, come what may.7 Moral dilemmas or conflicts may arise such that they defy an easy solution, because in following one moral duty, another may have to be violated. There are several instances of them in the epics, which are briefly reviewed in the following section. We may only note here that the awareness of differences in points of view regarding dharma promoted a degree of tolerance in Hinduism which is almost unparalleled.

‘Ethics and Epics’

‘Ethics and Epics’ is the title of the collected essays of hilosopher, B.K. Matilal (Ganeri 2002). The main theme of the essays in the book is to discuss moral dilemmas faced in the epics—Ramayana and Mahabharata. There is another book of essays edited by Matilal himself, Moral Dilemmas in the Mahabharata (1989) which also deals with the same issue. A recent (p.229) book by Gurcharan Das, The Difficulty of Being Good (2009) is also on moral dilemmas or conflicts. A few other books on Hindu ethics, such as that by Crawford (1982) have also attended to this. Though moral dilemmas in the epics have thus received considerable attention, they still haunt Hindu thinking minds. We may therefore take up this issue here though briefly, and the interested readers may go further in to this with the help of above books.

In the Ramayana, there are at least three incidents which morally question the decision taken by Rama, who is otherwise venerated as Maryada-Purushottam, a paragon of virtues. For the sake of honouring his father’s word of promise to Rama’s stepmother, Rama gives up his throne and goes to the forest. Even as the king later, after his return to Ayodhya, his rule is considered as exemplary from the point of his commitment to the welfare of his people, But even such a person had to face serious moral conflicts. The first is his killing of Vaali by shooting an arrow from behind. It was for the sake of Rama’s friend, Sugriva, whose wife Vaali had taken away by force. In ancient India, there were certain ethical rules of warfare or battle, one of them being to fight face-to-face, and not by cheating. The mortally wounded Vaali questions Rama about the morality of his action and Rama’s replies are not convincing (Matilal in Ganeri 2002: 45–6). But Ramayana explains this conduct by saying that Vaali was blessed by God that he would be invincible in any face-to-face combat, which made him arrogant and reckless. Matilal does not refer to this explanation. Matalal says that embarrassed by Vaali’s admonition, Rama offers to bring him back to life, but Vaali, a devotee of Rama, did not agree and preferred to die seeing his Lord face-to-face. Matilal observes that ‘the theology of bhakti absolved Rama here of any immorality in the act’ (Matilal in Ganeri 2002: 46). But karma is said to have pursued Rama in his next birth as Krishna, who was killed by an unseen hunter’s arrow.

The next incident is Rama’s killing of Shambuka, a shudra by caste, for doing penance which was forbidden to shudras as per varna-dharma. This was when Rama returned to Ayodhya and took over as king after 14 years of forest dwelling. When there was a drought in a part of Rama’s kingdom, his subjects there said that there must have been a transgression of dharma and asked Rama to find out. His spies reported about a shudra doing penance, transgressing his caste duty. Rama actually did not seem to have believed in such caste rules himself, for in his forest dwelling days, he visited sage Maatanga and paid his respects, and Maatanga belonged to an untouchable caste. When Shabari, a tribal woman, out of her devotion (p.230) to Rama, offered berries to him when visited her, he ate with relish. She had offered them after biting each one of them to see if they were good. But in Shambuka case, Rama had to bend to the will of his people, who believed that the drought occurred because of violation of varna-dharma. The third incident was also for a similar reason. This time, Rama had to abandon his own pregnant wife and leave her in the hermitage of Vaalmiki, because some of his subjects believed that her chastity was violated by Raavan when she was in his custody. People believed that when the king’s wife was not chaste, the kingdom would be in peril. Rama deeply loved his wife, he himself had no doubt that she was pure, but still he felt that he had to bend to the will of his unreasonable subjects. It was as if his subjects ruled Rama, more than he ruled them.

If Rama appears like a tragic hero, Krishna of Mahabharata appears more like a cunning politician with the difference that he is staunchly committed to the cause of his friends, Pandavas, and not his own personal interests. In the war, he defends his friends against all odds even if it meant adopting some low tricks, not regarded as morally acceptable. Krishna, in human form at least, is hardly the omnipotent God he claims to be in the Gita, for he failed to avert the war and secure justice to Pandavas without war, though he tried his best for it. Or, it could be that once human beings are granted free will, God puts limits on his own intervention in human affairs. On his way back to Dwaaraka after the conclusion of the war, Krishna happens to meet his devotee Uttanka. The latter is surprised that being God, Krishna could not prevent so much bloodshed and death. Krishna replies that there was so much hate and hostility on both sides, the war became inevitable, that he tried to negotiate peace but Kauravas did not listen. ‘All he could do was to try to see that justice was done in the end, and the kingdom returned to Pandavas’ (Das 2009: 208).

The situation was becoming more and more grim for Pandavas with the progress of Kurukshetra war. Their army was much smaller and had less number of great warriors than on the Kaurava side. One after another, Bheeshma, Drona, Karna, and Duryodhana were showing signs of invincibility on the Kaurava side. If Krishna had not intervened with his tricks almost at each stage, Pandavas would have lost the war. Krishna did not want Paandavas to lose, because justice was on their side. Kauravas had ‘tried to burn Pandavas in the house made of lacquer, usurp Pandavas’ kingdom through a crooked game of dice, and tried shamefully to disrobe Draupadi [in public]’ (Das 2009: 190). How do you tackle an unscrupulous evil-doer who is also very strong? Can you allow the (p.231) doctrine of ‘might is right’ to succeed? Is it moral? This was the moral dilemma which Krishna faced.

On the eve of the war, both Kauravas and Pandavas agreed to a code of just war (dharma-yuddha) on humanitarian grounds. For example, nobody should fight and kill a person who is running away from the battlefield, also one who is unarmed and defenceless; it should be through one-to-one combat and ambush was to be avoided; in a fight with maces, no one should hit below the waist; all fighting should cease after the sunset and resumedonly after sunrise, and so on (Matilal in Ganeri 2002: 94–5; Das 2009: 207). Yet both sides broke the code. Drona led the ambush of Abhimanyu, a teenage son of Arjuna, and killed him surrounded by seven warriors. Drona also started killing fleeing soldiers of Pandavas (Matilal in Ganeri 2002: 95–6). Of course, Bheeshma and Karna were honourable men and played no tricks. But they were on the side of Kauravas, for no other reason than that they were under Kaurava patronage. Bheeshma had a sympathy and respect for the just cause of Pandavas, and yet when he faced the moral choice of either staying neutral or fighting on the side of his patrons, he decided on the latter, knowing well that they had committed heinous crimes against Pandavas, including the attempt to disrobe Draupadi in public.

Gurcharan Das draws a parallel between the World War II and the Mahabharata war. World War II was a ‘just war’ ‘A world dominated by a victorious Nazi Germany would have been even more intolerable than the one ruled by Duryodhana. In that war the victorious Allies did some nasty things. In the five months of of World War II in the Pacific theatre, American “fire bombing” raids killed more than 90,000 Japanese civilians—and this happened before they dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the European theatre, the British killed more civilians with their bombing of German cities than were killed by Germany’s blitz on Britain. The Pandava’s acts seem like indiscretions by comparison’ (Das 2009: 203–4).

If that is the case, why are we so bothered by Krishna’s tricks by which Bheeshma, Drona, Karna, and Duryodhana, the most invincible warriors on the Kaurava side, were killed one after another, without Krishna’s shooting a single arrow? That is because Krishna is supposed to be God’s incarnation, who preached high morality to Arjuna in the Gita. How could God resort to tricks? Just as he prevented disrobing of Draupadi by a miracle, when she remembered and prayed to him though he was not present on the scene, similarly he could have through some miracle solved the problem! That was Uttanka’s question too, referred above. (p.232) But by so doing, Mahabharata would have lost much of its interest and excitement. It is continued to be read and retold in stories by millions of Hindus and even others, made into numerous dramas and films all over the world with undiminished interest for over two thousand years. The intention of Mahabharata appears to be to raise these moral dilemmas, tickle our brains and keep our moral quest alive.

But Mahabharata does not absolve Krishna or try to defend him. It speaks through Duryodhana, when he lay morally wounded, by enumerating Krishna’s guiles one after another. Through grieving Gaandhaari (mother of Kauravas), the epic pronounces a curse on Krishna that his ehnic group—the Vrishnis—would perish through infighting, and makes it come true. Mahabharata does not leave us with an impression that the end morally justifies the means. It leaves us in no doubt that the means too have to be morally acceptable. But the dilemma remains to tickle our brains. How do you tackle a clever, strong, and unscrupulous evil-doer, to ensure justice in the world? How does morality work in a situation of conflict between an oppressive and arrogant but a strong party on one side, and a weaker party deprived of its rights by the strong? Whatever the answer may be, the adoration for Krishna has only increased over the centuries, not excluding the modern times. He is looked upon by his devotees as the One who will take them through all the difficulties and evils in life, just by taking refuge in Him with full faith, and He will in addition ensure lasting happiness hereafter too.

Ethics raises also an important question of how to treat a person who deviates from dharma, but sincerely regrets it. Hinduism concedes that man may sin and go astray from dharma. But, as in Christianity, there is liberation from sin (paapa) through genuine repentance, with a resolve to desist from further sin, and seeking forgiveness from God. There are several legends in Hindu epics to illustrate this point. Two of them are well known. One is from Ramayana—the legend of Ahalyaa. She is the beautiful wife of a sage called Gautama. Indra, King of celestial beings, develops a strong urge for her. Taking the disguise of Gautama, he enters the sage’s hut in his absence. Ahalyaa sees through the disguise but is tempted and allows herself to be seduced by Indra. Gautama returns and finds what has happened. He curses his wife to turn into a stone. Indra does not escape from the holy rage of the sage. As a result of his curse, Indra loses not only the respect of all human beings, but his testicles too. When God takes the incarnation of Rama, Ahalyaa is redeemed by an act of his grace and reunited with her husband to the joy of both. While (p.233) this is a story of a momentary temptation of sin, Ajaamilas’s story from the Bhaagavatam is an illustration of lifelong of sin. With advancing age he repents from his heart and seeks the forgiveness of God, and he is liberated through an act of Grace. Such liberation, however, does not come to persons who wilfully indulge in sin without any repentance. Duryodhana, the villain of Mahabharata, says:

  • I know what is dharma,
  • but have no inclination to it.
  • I know what is against dharma,
  • but cannot desist from it

(quoted in Pandurangi 1999b: 27)

There is no liberation for such a person, who has to go through the cycle of death and birth through grace of God, he gets the wisdom to take a path of virtue. There is no eternal damnation in Hinduism. It is the destiny of all beings to attain union with God.

Ethics of Sants and Social Reformers

Though there is no dearth of condemnation of the caste system in the scriptures of Hinduism and also in anti-caste legends, the system continued in India, and the opposition to it also continued. But this time the opposition came from the lower castes themselves, joined sometimes by Brahmins too. The sants in bhakti movements came mainly from victimized castes, even from the outcastes—the untouchables. The notion that human beings were equal and that service of other human beings was like service of God, came to the fore as never before. Such a philosophy, though expressed earlier in the scriptures, was now reemphasized and felt to be necessary to humanize religion, more than in the past. Some of the most trenchant critics of the caste system were the Siddhas of Tamil Nadu (seventh century AD onwards) and Veerashaivas of Karnataka (twelfth century AD onwards). The author of the Kural, Tiruvalluvar, a weaver by caste, had expressed himself against the caste system and was an inspiration for anti-caste movements in Tamil Nadu. Siddhas condemned bigotry and superficial symbols of religion, and emphasized universal love. The Veerashaiva Sharanas (devotees of Shiva) took in to their fold people from all castes, from Brahmins to untouchables and also women on equal footing. In the zeal for erasing the caste system from the face of the society, they not only inter-dined but also encouraged inter-caste marriages. The marriage of the daughter of a Sharana who was earlier a Brahmin (p.234) with the son of a Sharana who was formerly an untouchable, created tremendous commotion. Their leader, Basavanna, was a great visionary and clearly ahead of his time. Siddhas and Sharanas explicitly recognized that women were not a subordinate sex and women had equal access in philosophical discussions. The bhakti movements had quite a few women saints: Andal in Tamil Nadu, Akka Mahadevi in Karnataka, Meerabai in Rajasthan, Lalla in Kashmir, Janabai in Maharashtra, and several others who may not be as well known as those mentioned here. Similarly there were several eminent untouchables in Bhakti movements—Nandanaar in Tamil Nadu, Chokhamela in Maharashtra, and Ravidas in north India among them. There were even Muslims who were accepted as the sants of Bhakti movements—Pir Mohammed and Mastan Sahib in Tamil Nadu, Kabir in North India, Latib Shah, Shaikh Mohammed and Shah Muni in Maharashtra, and Shishunal Sharief in Karnataka. All of the sants condemned inequality in society and emphasized love of God as the only effective means of God realization.8

The sants were not merely saints and reformers, but also poets and mystics too. What is more, they composed in India’s regional languages in a way accessible to all, avoiding Sanskrit, though quite a few of them like Jnaneshwar in Maharashtra knew Sanskrit very well. Jnaneshwar (1271–96) rendered the Gita into Marathi, which is more a commentary than an exact translation, known after him as Jnaneshwari. It became much more popular in Maharashtra than the original Gita. The poet-saints addressed themselves mainly to ordinary people, and had no inclination to elitist analysis of dharma or moral philosophy, though they made moral exhortations and tried their best to raise the moral level of ordinary people, leading a pious and simple life themselves. They mostly kept their occupations to make a living, being tillers, potters, weavers, washermen, cobblers, tanners and so on, and yet found time for loka-hita, welfare of people. A few verses by some of the sants, especially conveying their moral stance are presented below, to give a flavour of their works.

Nammalvar (880–930 AD approx.) born in a poor peasant family, wrote:

  • The four castes uphold all clans;
  • go down, far down, to the lowliest outcastes
  • of outcastes:
  • if they are intimate henchmen
  • of our Lord …
  • then even the slaves of their slaves
  • are our masters.

(Tr. by A.K. Ramanujan 1993: 60)

(p.235) Though protest against social injustice was one of the main themes in the literature of sants, other aspects of ethics, particularly the need for good conduct, truthfulness, equanimity and the like received equal attention. Akka Mahadevi (twelfth century AD) was a prominent woman devotee, a Sharane, in Basavanna’s movement, known for her detachment and equanimity. The following is my English rendering of one of her famous sayings (vachanas) in Kannada:

  • Having made home in a forest,
  • how can one be scared of wild beasts?
  • Having made home on the sea-shore,
  • how can one be scared of the waves of the sea?
  • Having made home in a market place,
  • how can one be scared of din and noise?
  • Once born in this world,
  • shunning anger,
  • one has to be at peace
  • both with praise and reproach,
  • Oh, Lord, Pure as Jasmine!9

Tukaram (1598–1650), respected as the greatest of the sants in Maharashtra, is known for his piety and prolific compositions (abhangs). He came from a non-brahmin family of grain dealers and broke through his caste barrier. Apart from expressing his intensity of love for Vithoba, his God, Tukaram’s songs emphasize virues of self-control, simple living, freedom from hatred, softness of speech, kindness, integrity, and truthfulness. Here is an example of his abhang though translated into English:

  • I would bow to his feet,
  • who acts as he speaks,
  • I will sweep his courtyard
  • and accept his serfdom.
  • Like a slave I would stand
  • with folded hands before him.
  • Tuka says, God, my heart goes to his feet.

Chokhamela (fourteenth century), an untouchable sant from Maharashtra, shows in his poems intense love and faith in God, but also strongly protests against inequty and disparity in the world. Here is an example of his Marathi poem rendered into English by Rohini Mokashi-Punekar:

  • You know, Keshiraj,10 on the other hand,
  • I am filled with surprise.
  • (p.236) A throne for one, a hovel for another.
  • Yet one other wanders bare,
  • one half-fed, another feasting,
  • for some not a scrap for the asking;
  • high glory for one, good posts for a few,
  • others beg from village to village.
  • Such, it seems, is the law of your world,
  • Says Chokha,
  • Hari, my fate lies in this.

(Tr. by Mokashi-Punekar 2002: 21)

Sant Kabir (1440–1518), a Muslim weaver in sant tradition, made fun of differentiating beween Hindus and Muslims, and between castes:

  • If caste was what the Creator had in mind,
  • why wasn’t anyone born
  • with Shiva’s three-lined sign?
  • If you are a Brahmin,
  • from a Brahmin woman born,
  • why didn’t you come out some special way?
  • And if you are a Muslim,
  • from a Muslim woman born,
  • why weren’t you circumcized inside?
  • Says Kabir, no one is lowly born.
  • The only lowly are those
  • who never talk of Ram.

(Tr. by Hawley and Juergensmeyer 2004: 54)

Samartha Ramdas (1608–81), known to be the guru of Maratha Emperor, Shivaji, is also well known for his two works—Daasabodh and Manaache Shlok in Marathi. Both show his ethical concerns and emphasis on bhakti, and and do not reflect any political beliefs or any dislike of Muslims, though Shivaji resisted Muslim rule. Both his works are free from any narrow or parochial feelings. Though an ascetic himself, Ramdas did not preach asceticism to others but emphasized that God realization is possible for ordinary people engaged in worldly affairs, provided that that they are devoted and ethical in conduct. One of his verses from Manaache Shlok is as follows in English rendering by me:

  • Compassionate to the meek,
  • Tender at heart,
  • Affectionate and gracious,
  • Protective of the poor,
  • How can anger torment him?
  • He is a blessed servant of God.

(p.237) The contribution of bhakti movements in further promoting a sound ethical basis for Hinduism on non-sectarian and non-caste basis is of great importance. Every sant put emphasis on integrity and character. These ethical values have been there in Sanskrit texts referred to in the earlier sections. But the distinctiveness of bhakti movements was in transmitting ethical values to people in their own language through songs that reached their hearts directly.

In spite of this ethical teaching, social evils did continue in India, particularly the oppression of lower castes and discrimination against women. Their cause was taken up again by modern reformers, beginning with Raja Rammohan Roy (1774–1833). Roy laid the road map for the modernization of both Hinduism and India. He could see the advantage of Indians taking up science education on Modern Western lines in English in contrast with traditional learning, and gave great support to the British government in promoting it. He is also remembered in connection with resolute efforts to get sati finally abolished. He drew support for his stand from Hindu scriptures themselves, particularly the Gita. He fought against idol worship and superstition, again referring to Hindu scriptures. Similarly he fought against polygamy and child marriage. He started the Brahmo Samaj for carrying on the task of reforming Hinduism and making its practice more rational and ethical. The stimulus he gave to reform created a powerful mood for it which continued well after his death. His task was taken up later by several others—Swami Dayanand Saraswati (1824–83), Mahatma Jyotiba Phule (1827–90), Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1836–86), Mahadev Govind Ranade (1842–1901), Shri Narayan Guru (1854–1928), Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), Swami Vivekanand (1863–1902), Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948), E.V. Ramaswamy (1879–1973), and B.R. Ambedkar (1891–1956), being some eminent persons among them in chronological order.

While some reformers reviled Hinduism as a whole, most sought to eradicate social evils within the framework of Hinduism, arguing that these social evils are not consistent with it. Shri Narayan Guru brought up a whole community of Ezhavas in Kerala from out of the status of untouchables into the mainstream of Hindu society, by encouraging them take up modern education. Nadars in Tamil Nadu also rose in economic and social status like the Ezhavas within the framework of Hindu society, demonstrating that it is quite possible for lower castes to raise themselves significantly in status within Hinduism. Though a (p.238) bitter critic of Hinduism, Ambedkar made a very valuable contribution to it by trying to reform its society through required legislation. Sants of the medieval age could not succeed in social reform despite strongly advocating it, because they had no political backing. It was the modern phase and its legislative process in a secular frame that finally dislodged the Dharmashaastras from their legal authority. Sardar Panikkar observed that social evils had persisted in Hindu society for ages, not because of lack of dynamism on the part of Hinduism but because India had lost political power for nearly eight hundred years (Panikkar 1953: 328). But the legislative process alone could not have worked in the absence of support from religious reformers. Forces of modernization and economic development also helped social reforms. With the breakdown of jajmani system, and with urbanization, the ritual rigidity of the caste system very much weakened, and the role of rituals declined. Priests and even heads of Mathas (monasteries) are now emerging from the so-called lower castes. Sophisticated practices like meditation and yoga are no longer the monopoply of higher castes. Devotional songs or bhajans are sung in mixed gatherings without botheration of caste and class. Cinema, the Press, and the electronic media have also played crucial role in giving easy access to religion and its moral instruction, for the masses.

Social service to fellow human beings got huge impetus as never before. During earlier phases, virtues of charity, hospitality, and helping fellow humans and even non-human beings were certainly eulogized, but implementation of this did not take any organized or institutional form. It was mostly at the individual level. During the modern phase, many Hindu institutions and philanthropists, either under the banner of Hinduism or not, took to social service in a big way.

Women also have started getting new opportunities as never before and begun to occupy public space occupied by men earlier. The enactment of the Hindu Law made it possible for Hindu women to obtain divorce and claim alimony. It enforced monogamy, made dowry illegal, and gave rights of inheritance to women. The task however is not over, since the dowry system is yet to vanish and women’s status is not yet equated with that of men in the public space. With mandatory reservation of seats to women in village panchayats, the situation is improving slowly now even in rural areas. India is still behind several other developing countries in human development and gender indexes. It is hoped, however that with a faster pace of economic development and improvement in education, health and infrastructure envisaged, the socio-economic situation will (p.239) considerably improve. Hinduism cannot and will not, be an obstacle in this process of improvement.

Concluding this essay, it may be observed that Hinduism aimed at an all-round human being, a complete human being. Ethics was certainly an important part of this vision, but not the whole of it. Hinduism celebrated aesthetic enjoyment of life, but also insisted that it be in a morally acceptable way. Though spiritual progress was highly regarded, dharma was a pre-requisite for it. J.N. Mohanty insightfully says, ‘Aurobindo, unlike Gandhi but much like Tagore, did not regard the ethical person to be the highest person. A perfect individual for him, must make his entire life beautiful. The spiritual man, in his estimation, integrates the ethical, the aesthetic and the cognitive in a harmonious unity’ (Mohanty 1999: 303).11


(1.) Translated with the help of M.R. Kale (1971: 126).

(2.) This is in Mahabharata, Udyogaparva 40.12, quoted in Herur ed. (2001: 243).

(3.) See Hattangdi (2002: 133–6) for quotations from Rigveda using the word, satyam.

(4.) As quoted by Sharma (2000: 165). His source is S.V. Oka (1957) Uttara-gita with a translation in to English and Appendices, Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute.

(5.) For a detailed documentation of this, see Nadkarni (2008: 77–129).

(6.) For an exposition of Raajadharma, see Michael ed. (2005).

(7.) Some of these have been quoted in the second section of this chapter.

(8.) For a detailed discussion of Bhakti Movements in India, see chapter 5 in Nadkarni (2008: 219–79).

(9.) This is my translation, as this vachana is not in Ramanujan (1973). Akka Mahadevi ends her vachanas, addressing her Lord as ‘Chenna-Mallikarjuna’, a name of Shiva. Ramanujan translates it as ‘Lord, White as jasmine’ in her other vachanas.

(10.) Keshiraj is one with lovely hair, a name of Krishna.

(11.) For a detailed account of modern religious leaders-cum-reformers, see chapter 6 in Nadkarni (2008). (p.240)