Three documents, namely the Upanishads, Bhagavad-Gita and Brahma Sutra form the basis of Vedanta (calledPrasthana-traya). From these scriptures are drawn Hindu ethics that help in guiding the Hindu through his daily as well as spiritual journey.
Though Vedanta currently is the favorite of English-speaking Hindu intellectuals, it was from the wisdom of the Upanishads and Bhagavad-Gita that the ancient Hindus set forth their ethics in a practical way, expected to be followed by all Hindus.
The Laws of Manu (Dharmashastra or Manuva Shastra) gave details of societal rules and Artha-shastra of Kautilya detailed the politics and economics.
Ethics of Upanishads
Upanishad means ‘to sit down near’ because they were explained to the students, who sat at the feet of their teachers. In general Upanishads proclaim salvation by knowledge and realization, rather than by faith and works. Selfish desires are obstacles to the seekers of Truth (the Higher- Self, also called as Brahman). A seeker of true Divinity will attain salvation when he realizes the Truth, the all-pervasive Brahman. The universe came into existence because of a primeval desire of Brahman. Now it is the duty of the humans to restore it to the state of things before creation.
This can be done by sacrifice, benevolence, study and even ascetism, which in turn will permit the seeker of truth to attain bliss. Honesty is especially extolled. He who has not denounced evil will never obtain Brahman. The worldly perceptions of smell, taste, touch, hearing and sight makes one separate from the True Self. When one can transcend these perceptions there is no consciousness of anything other than Self. This is immortality.
There are six great sayings (Mahavakyas) from the Upanishads that give the basic insight into its philosophy. They are as follows with a brief analysis of each:
Aham Brahmasmi : ‘I am Brahman’: Vedic knowledge teaches that our own ‘Self’ is the true Divinity. The Truth is within us, in our own heart. This states the identity of the inner most consciousness of the individual with the supreme Divine.
Ayam Atma Brahma : ‘The Self is Brahman’: This states that not only individual soul is Divine but all beings are identified with the Absolute Truth.
Tat Tvam Asi : ‘That art thou’: Whatever we see or think about, we are That. We are the ultimate Thou and I in all.
Prajnanam Brahma : ‘Knowledge is Brahman’: Supreme intelligence is present inherently within us and is capable of returning us to the Divine. Our understanding of the truth is the Truth itself.
Sarvam Kalvidam Brahma : ‘The whole universe is Brahman’: Not only the consciousness in you and I but also the ‘principle of being’ are all Divine. The entire universe is Divine, which includes our Self.
So ‘ham : ‘Here am I’: This identifies the Divinity in our Self in something that happens naturally like breathing. ‘So’ is inhalation and ‘Ham’ is the natural sound of exhalation.
These are the six statements of the identity of individual consciousness with the Divine reality. They all merge into and derive from the word ‘Om (Aum)’ or the Divine word ‘I Am All’. All of these statements point to the fact that whatever or however we worship, be it an image, book, an idea or even a God, it is the knowledge that the Truth is within ourselves that will ultimately lead to self-realization. Self is the true Divinity. This is the essence of Upanishads.
Gita is the highest expression of philosophical Hinduism. It is a chapter of the immense Indian epic, the Mahabharata, the saga of the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Arjuna, hero of the Pandavas, is about to confront the army of the Kauravas on the battlefield of Kuruksetra. Among the opposing army are his friends and relatives. Convinced that it would be wrong to kill his own kinsmen, Arjuna is overcome by despair. He lays down his bow and declares that he will not fight. God Vishnu, incarnated as the charioteer Krishna, explains that Arjuna should do his duty (Dharma) and do battle. The human soul, which is part of the universal soul, is immortal – therefore no one is actually slain.
If people perform the duties appropriate to their station, without attachment to success or failure, then they cannot be stained by action. The rest of the poem provides the full philosophy underlying this insight. The essence of karma yoga and of self-abnegation through yoga of renunciation as well as yoga of meditation, mysticism and devotion are discussed in eighteen chapters as conversation between Arjuna and Krishna. Detached action along with the fruits of this action is consecrated to God and this forms the basis of karma yoga. Bhagavad-Gita teaches the causation and the effects of karma and how to deal with its manifestations. It also teaches that the human being has a free will that permits him to make intelligent choices, which in turn may alter the manifestation of the karma. The ultimate goal of every Hindu is to reduce the bad karma that he may have to carry with him into his next cycle of birth.
The Gita is variously dated between the third century B.C.E. and the fourth century C.E. The reason for uncertainty is that the Gita is not always consistent and may be the work of several hands. A follower of the philosophy expressed in the Upanishads probably wrote one strand, in which Brahman is the highest unity underlying reality. A devotee of the supreme god Vishnu may have added another strand, focused on a more personal deity, later. The Gita may originally have been written as a separate document and later incorporated into the Mahabharata.
God is in all things, and all things are in God. But the visible universe springs from only a fraction of Vishnu’s glory. There is also a hidden part of God, which extends beyond the universe.
Nevertheless, the Gita contains probably the most powerful and thoroughgoing expression of pantheism in world scripture. The one God is the pinnacle of all things ‘ the radiant sun of lights, the thought organ of sense organs, the intellect of beings, the ocean of waters, the Himalayas of mountain ranges, the Ganges of rivers. He is also the inherent essence of everything – including evil. He is the gambling of rogues, the courage of the courageous, the rod of disciplinarians, and the statecraft of politicians, the Knowledge of the knowing.
Hindu Ethics and Conduct
Elaboration of the social code is found in the Mahabharata. There are four great aims of human life (purusharthas), namely dharma or righteousness, artha or wealth,kama or enjoyment and moksha or spiritual liberation; the four stages of life, the student or brahmacharya, the householder or grahasthya, the forest-dweller orvanaprastha and the wandering ascetic or sanyasa: and the four castes, the priest-teacher or Brahmin, the warrior or kshatriya, the trader or vaishya and the worker orshudra.
The Manuva-shastra (codes of Manu) gives details of social rules and practices. Kautilya’s Artha-shastra discusses economics and politics. A Hindu finds the ethics of Hinduism in the poems of Bhagavad-Gita. These were written at a time when there was attack on the establishment by reformers in order to maintain the order of the society. Gita teaches that by fulfilling his class function to the best of his ability, with devotion to God and without personal ambition, a man can find salvation, whatever his class. The teachings of the Bhagavad-Gita are summed up in the maxim ‘your business is with deed and not with the result’.
Other texts that that give insight into Hindu ethics also shaped the life of a Hindu. There is the Manasollasa written by 12th Century Deccan king Someshvara III Chalukya that illustrates Hindu morals. Hospitality, charity and honesty are extolled. Piety, performance of religious worship and pilgrimage are also important. Eight virtues of the soul were mentioned in the law book of Gautama, namely compassion, patience, contentedness, purity, earnest endeavor, pure thoughts, freedom from greed, and freedom from envy. Tamil texts of Tiukkural and Naladiyar also stress on the moral codes.
Earnest kindliness and tolerance to all human relations along with non-violence had real effect on Hindu life. Desire for the well being of all beings and benevolence in the form of almsgiving were encouraged especially when done with no expectation of rewards at least in this life. The duties also changed according to the ages and classes of people. The ascetic should set his mind on unworldly things but a layman was encouraged to strike a harmony between religion, profession and material pleasures. Similarly students, householders, elderly and the aged had different functions and duties to fulfill. Especially the orthodox classes also followed taboos like not coming in contact with an untouchable, eating forbidden meat as well as left over food. However the more intelligent teachers realized that mere outward observance was not meritorious as inner goodness. Rules were not rigid and there was always a way to circumvent the most stringent of the rules.
A Hindu is advised to contain and restrain all the emotions that may lead to a sinful existence. Thus he is asked to control such emotions as Kama (lust), Krodha(anger), Mada (ego, pride) and Matsara (jealousy). The moral codes of various texts repeatedly emphasize the importance of being aware of these ordinary but strong human emotions that lead to the disruptions of a harmonious society.
There are nine basic requirements that a Hindu should be aware of and follow. Personal discipline, good conduct, self-inquiry and meditation are important. Here briefly are the nine beliefs of Hinduism.
- Belief in the divinity of Vedas.
- The Supreme Being is both immanent and transcendent, thus both a Creator and Un-manifest Reality.
- The universe is in an endless cycle of creation, preservation and dissolution.
- One creates his own destiny by his thoughts, deeds and words. This law of cause and effect is called the Karma.
- Every soul evolves through a series of births and deaths (janma and punar-janma) until all karmas have been resolved. The cycle of many births (samsara) is the opportunity to shed the effects of karma in order to attain liberation (moksha) form the eternal cycle. Not a single soul is deprived of this destiny.
- Belief in the existence of divine beings in unseen worlds. Temple worship, rituals, sacraments as well as personal devotions create a communion with the devas and God.
- A master or a guru is essential to follow the right path to know the Transcendent Absolute.
- All forms of life are sacred and are to be loved and revered. All must follow the practice of ‘non-injury’ or ahimsa.
- No one particular religion teaches the ‘only pathway’ to salvation. All genuine religious paths are facets of God’s Light and Love, deserving tolerance and understanding.
~ Dr. Neria H. Hebbar, Tarpon Springs, FL, USA (Source: From ‘Dancing with Siva’, by Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami)