A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 2

by Surendranath Dasgupta | 1932 | 241,887 words | ISBN-13: 9788120804081

This page describes the philosophy of the ethics of the gita and the buddhist ethics: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the eighth part in the series called the “the philosophy of the bhagavad-gita”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 8 - The Ethics of the Gītā and the Buddhist Ethics

The subject of sense-control naturally reminds one of Buddhism. In the Vedic religion performance of sacrifices was considered as the primary duty. Virtue and vice consisted in obedience or disobedience to Vedic injunctions. It has been pointed out that these injunctions implied a sort of categorical imperative and communicated a sense of vidhi as law, a command which must be obeyed. But this law was no inner law of the spirit within, but a mere external law, which ought not to be confused with morality in the modern sense of the term. Its sphere was almost wholly ritualistic, and, though it occasionally included such commands as “One should not injure anyone” (mā himsyāt), yet in certain sacrifices which were aimed at injuring one’s enemies operations which would lead to such results would have the imperative of a Vedic command, though the injury to human beings would be attended with its necessary punishment. Again, though in later Sāṃkhya commentaries and compendiums it is said that all kinds of injuries to living beings bring their punishment, yet it is doubtful if the Vedic injunction “Thou shouldst not injure” really applied to all living beings, as there would be but few sacrifices where animals were not killed.

The Upaniṣads, however, start an absolutely new line by the substitution of meditations and self-knowledge for sacrificial actions. In the primary stage of Upaniṣadic thoughts a conviction was growing that instead of the sacrificial performances one could go through a set form of meditations, identifying in thought certain objects with certain other objects (e.g. the dawn as the horse of horse-sacrifice) or even with symbolic syllables, OM and the like. In the more developed stage of Upaniṣadic culture a new conviction arose in the search after the highest and the ultimate truth, and the knowledge of Brahman as the highest essence in man and nature is put forward as the greatest wisdom and the final realization of truth and reality, than which nothing higher could be conceived. There are but few moral precepts in the Upaniṣads, and the whole subject of moral conflict and moral efforts is almost silently dropped or passes unemphasized.

In the Taittirlya Upaniṣad , i. n, the teacher is supposed to give a course of moral instruction to his pupil after teaching him the Vedas—Tell the truth, be virtuous, do not give up the study of the Vedas; after presenting the teacher with the stipulated honorarium (at the conclusion of his studies) the pupil should (marry and) continue the line of his family. He should not deviate from truth or from virtue (dharma) or from good. He should not cease doing good to others, from study and teaching. He should be respectful to his parents and teachers and perform such actions as are unimpeachable. He should follow only good conduct and not bad. He should make gifts with faith (śraddhā), not with indifference, with dignity, from a sense of shame, through fear and through knowledge. If there should be any doubt regarding his course of duty or conduct, then he should proceed to act in the way in which the wisest Brahmins behaved. But few Upaniṣads give such moral precepts, and there is very little in the Upaniṣads in the way of describing a course of moral behaviour or of emphasizing the fact that man can attain his best only by trying to become great through moral efforts.

The Upaniṣads occupy themselves almost wholly with mystic meditations and with the philosophic wisdom of selfknowledge. Yet the ideas of self-control, peace and cessation of desires, endurance and concentration are referred to in Bṛhadāraṇyaka , iv. 4. 23, as a necessary condition for the realization of the self within us[1]. In Katha , vi. 11, the control of the senses (indriya-dhāraṇa) is referred to as yoga, and in Muṇḍaka, 111. 2. 2, it is said that he who consciously desires the objects of desire is again and again born through desires; but even in this world all desires vanish for him who is self-realized in himself and is self-satisfied[2]. The idea that the path of wisdom is different from the path of desires was also known, and it was felt that he who sought wisdom (mdyābhīpsita) was not drawn by many desires[3].

The point to be discussed in this connection is whether the central idea of the Gītā , namely, sense-control and more particularly the control of desires and attachments, is derived from the Upaniṣads or from Buddhism. It has been pointed out that the Upaniṣads do not emphasize the subject of moral conflict and moral endeavours so much as the nature of truth and reality as Brahman, the ultimate essence of man and the manifold appearance of the world. Yet the idea of the necessity of sense-control and the control of desires, the settling of the mind in peace and contentment, is the necessary precondition for fitness for Vedic knowledge.

Thus Śaṅkara, the celebrated commentator on the Upaniṣads, in commenting on Brahma-sūtra , 1. 1. 1, says that a man is fit for an enquiry after Brahman only when he knows how to distinguish what is permanent from what is transitory (nityānitya-vastu-viveka), and when he has no attachment to the enjoyment of the fruits of his actions either as mundane pleasures or as heavenly joys (ihāmutra-phala-bhoga-virāga).

The necessary qualifications which entitle a man to make such an enquiry are

  • disinclination of the mind for worldly joys (śama),
  • possession of proper control and command over the mind, by which it may be turned to philosophy (dama),
  • power of endurance (viṣaya-titikṣā),
  • cessation of all kinds of duties (uparati),
  • and faith in the philosophical conception of truth and reality (tattva-śraddhā).

It may be supposed, therefore, that the Upaniṣads presuppose a high degree of moral development in the way of self-control and disinclination to worldly and heavenly joys. Detachment from sense-affections is one of the most dominant ideas of the Gītā, and the idea of Muṇḍaka, 111. 2. 2, referred to above, is re-echoed in the Gītā, 11. 70, where it is said that, just as the waters are absorbed in the calm sea (though poured in continually by the rivers), so the person in whom all desires are absorbed attains peace, and not the man who indulges in desires. The Gītā, of course, again and again emphasizes the necessity of uprooting attachments to pleasures and antipathy to pains and of controlling desires (kāma) ; but, though the Upaniṣads do not emphasize this idea so frequently, yet the idea is there, and it seems very probable that the Gītā drew it from the Upaniṣads. Hindu tradition also refers to the Upaniṣads as the source of the Gītā. Thus the Gītā-māhātmya describes the Upaniṣads as the cows from which Kiṣṇa, the cowherd boy, drew the Gītā as mil[4].

But the similarity of Buddhist ethical ideas to those of the Gītā is also immense, and, had it not been for the fact that ideas which may be regarded as peculiarly Buddhistic are almost entirely absent from the Gītā , it might well have been contended that the Gītā derived its ideas of controlling desires and uprooting attachment from Buddhism.

Tachibana collects a long list of Buddhist vices as follows[5]:

  • aṅganaṃ, impurity, lust, Sn. 517.
  • ahankāro, selfishness, egoism, A. 1. 132; M. ill. 18, 32.
  • mamaṅkaro, desire, A. 1. 132; M. 111. 18, 32.
  • mamāyitaṃ, selfishness, S.N. 466.
  • mamattaṃ, grasping, egoism, S.N. 872, 951.
  • apekhā, desire, longing, affection, S.N. 38; Dh. 345.
  • icchā, wish, desire, covetousness.
  • ejā, desire, lust, greed, craving, S.N. 751; It. 92.
  • āsā, desire, longing, S.N. 634, 794, 864; Dh. 397.
  • pipāsā, thirst.
  • esā, esanā, wish, desire, thirst, Dh. 335.
  • ākāñkhā , desire, longing, Tha. 20.
  • kiñcanaṃ, attachment, S.N. 949; Dh. 200.
  • gantho, bond, tie, S.N. 798; Dh. 211.
  • ādāna-gantho, the tied knot of attachment, S.N. 794.
  • giddhi, greed, desire, Sn. 328; M. 1. 360, 362.
  • gedho, greed, desire, Sn. 65, 152.
  • gahanaṃ, entanglement, Dh. 394.
  • gāho, seizing, attachment.
  • jālinī, snare, desire, lust, Dh. 180; A. 11. 211.
  • pariggaho, attachment, Mahānid. 57.
  • chando, wish, desire, intention, S.N. 171, 203, etc.
  • jatā, desire, lust, S.N. 1. 13; V.M. 1.
  • jigiṃsanatā, covetousness, desire for, Vibhaṅga, 353.
  • nijigiṃsanatā, covetousness, V.M. 1. 23.
  • toṇhā, tasinā, lusj, unsatisfied desire, passion.
  • upādānam , clinging, attachment, Dh. 11. 58, III. 230.
  • paṇidhi, wish, aspiration, Sn. 801.
  • pihā, desire, envy, Tha. 1218.
  • pematn, affection, love, A. 111. 249.
  • bandho, thong, bondage, attachment, Sn. 623; Dh. 344.
  • bandhanaṃ, bond, fetter, attachment, Sn. 522, 532; Dh. 345.
  • nibandho, binding, attachment, S. 11. 17.
  • vinibandhanam, bondage, desire, Sn. 16.
  • anubandho, bondage, affection, desire, M. 111. 170 \Jt. 91.
  • upanibandho, fastening, attachment, V.M. 1. 235.
  • paribandho, Com. on Thi. p. 242.
  • rāgo, human passion, evil, desire, lust, passim.
  • sārāgo, sārajjanā, sārajjitattam, affection, passion, Mahānid. 242.
  • rati, lust, attachment, Dh. 27.
  • manoratho, desire, wish (?).
  • ruci, desire, inclination, Sn. 781.
  • abhilāso, desire, longing, wish, Com. on Peta-vattu, 154. lālasā, ardent desire (?).
  • ālayo, longing, desire, lust, Sn. 535, 635; Dh. 411.
  • lobho, covetousness, desire, cupidity, Sn. 367; Dh. 248.
  • lobhanam, greed, Tha. 343.
  • lubhanā, lobhitattam, do. (?).
  • vanaṃ, desire, lust, Sn. 1131; Dh. 284, 344.
  • vanatho, love, lust, Dh. 283, 284.
  • nivesanam, clinging to, attachment, Sn. 470, 801.
  • saṅgo, fetter, bond, attachment, Sn. 473, 791; Dh. 397.
  • āsatti, attachment, hanging on, clinging, Sn. 777; Vin. 11. 156 S. 1. 212.
  • visattikā, poison, desire, Sn. 333; Dh. 180.
  • santhavaṃ, friendship, attachment, Sn. 207, 245; Dh. 27.
  • ussado, desire (?), Sn. 515, 783, 785.
  • sneho, sineho, affection, lust, desire, Sn. 209, 943; Dh. 285.
  • āsayo, abode, intention, inclination, V.H. 1. 140.
  • anusayo, inclination, desire, A. 1. 132; Sn. 14, 369, 545.
  • sibbanī, desire (?), Sn. 1040.
  • kodho, anger, wrath, Sn. 1. 245, 362, 868, 928; Dh. 221-3; It. 4 12, 109.
  • kopo, anger, ill-will, ill-temper, Sn. 6.
  • āghāto, anger, ill-will, hatred, malice, D. 1. 3, 31; S. I. 179.
  • patigho, wrath, hatred, Sum. 116.
  • doso, anger, hatred, passim.
  • viddeso, enmity, hatred (?).
  • dhūmo, anger (?), Sn. 460.
  • upanāho, enmity, Sn. 116.
  • vyāpādo, wish to injure, hatred, fury, Sum. 211 ; It. 111.
  • anabhiraddhi, anger, wrath, rage, D. 1. 3.
  • veraṃ, wrath, anger, hatred, sin, Sn. 150; Dh. 3-5, 201.
  • virodho, opposition, enmity (?).
  • roso, anger (?).
  • rosanam, anger (?).
  • vyāroṣaṇam, anger, Sn. 148.
  • aññāṇam, ignorance, It. 62.
  • moho, fainting, ignorance, folly, passim.
  • mohanam, ignorance, S.N. 399, 772.
  • avijjā, ignorance, error, passion.

It is interesting to note that three vices, covetousness, hatred and ignorance, and covetousness particularly, appear under different names and their extirpation is again and again emphasized in diverse ways. These three, ignorance, covetousness and hatred or antipathy, are the roots of all evils. There are, of course, simpler commandments, such as not to take life, not to steal, not to commit adultery, not to tell a lie, and not to take intoxicating drinks, and of these stealing gold, drinking liquors, dishonouring one’s teacher’s bed, and killing a Brahmin are also prohibited in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad, v. 10. 9-10 [6]. But, while the Chāndogya only prohibits killing Brahmins, the Buddha prohibited taking the life of any living being. But all these vices, and others opposed to the atthaṅga-sīla and dasa-kusala-kamma, are included within covetousness, ignorance and hatred. The Gītā bases its ethics mainly on the necessity of getting rid of attachment and desires from which proceeds greed and frustration of which produces anger. But, while in Buddhism ignorance (avidyā) is considered as the source of all evil, the Gītā does not even mention the word.

In the twelvefold chain of causality in Buddhism it is held that

  • out of ignorance (avijjā) come the conformations (saṅkhāra),
  • out of the conformations consciousness (viññāna),
  • out of consciousness mind and body (nāma-rūpa),
  • out of mind and body come the six fields of contact (āyatana),
  • out of the six fields of contact comes sense-contact,
  • out of sense-contact comes feeling,
  • out of feeling come desires (taṇhā),
  • out of desires comes the holding fast to things (upādāna),
  • out of the holding fast to things comes existence (bhava),
  • out of existence comes birth (jāti),
  • and from birth come old age, decay and death.

If ignorance, or avijjā, is stopped, then the whole cycle stops. But, though in this causal cycle ignorance and desires are far apart, yet psychologically desires proceed immediately from ignorance, and a frustration of desires produces anger, hatred, etc. In the Gītā the start is taken directly from attachment and desires (kāma). The Buddhist word tṛṣnā (taṇhā) is seldom mentioned in the Gītā ; whereas the Upaniṣadic word kāma takes its place as signifying desires. The Gītā is not a philosophical work which endeavours to search deepl) into the causes of attachments, nor does it seek to give any practical course of advice as to how one should get rid of attachment.

The Vedānta system of thought, as interpreted by Śaṅkara, traces the origin of the world with all its evils to ignorance or nescience (avidyā), as an indefinable principle; the Yoga traces all our phenomenal experience to five afflictions, ignorance, attachment, antipathy, egoism and self-love, and the last four to the first, which is the fountain-head of all evil afflictions. In the Gītā there is no such attempt to trace attachment, etc. to some other higher principle. The word ajñāna (ignorance) is used in the Gītā about six or eight times in the sense of ignorance; but this “ignorance” does not mean any metaphysical principle or the ultimate starting-point of a causal chain, and is used simply in the sense of false knowledge or ignorance, as opposed to true knowledge of things as they are. Thus in one place it is said that true knowledge of things is obscured by ignorance, and that this is the cause of all delusion[7]. Again, it is said that to those who by true knowledge (of God) destroy their own ignorance (ajñāna) true knowledge reveals the highest reality (tat param), like the sun[8]. In another place jñāna and ajñāna are both defined. Jñāna is defined as unvacillating and abiding self-knowledge and true knowledge by which truth and reality are apprehended, and all that is different from this is called ajñāna[9]. Ajñāna is stated elsewhere to be the result of tamas, and in two other places tamas is said to be the product of ajñāna[10].

In another place it is said that people are blinded by ignorance (ajñāna), thinking,

“I am rich, I am an aristocrat, who else is there like me? I shall perform sacrifices make gifts and enjoy[11].”

In another place ignorance is said to produce doubts (saṃśaya), and the Gītā lecture of Kṛṣṇa is supposed to dispel the delusion of Arjuna, produced by ignorance[12]. This shows that, though the word ajñāna is used in a variety of contexts, either as ordinary ignorance or ignorance of true and absolute philosophic knowledge, it is never referred to as being the source of attachment or desires. This need not be interpreted to mean that the Gītā was opposed to the view that attachments and desires were produced from ignorance; but it seems at least to imply that the Gītā was not interested to trace the origin of attachments and desires and was satisfied to take their existence for granted and urged the necessity of their extirpation for peace and equanimity of mind.

Buddhist Hīnayāna ethics and practical discipline are constituted of

The śīla consisted in the performance of good conduct (caritta) and desisting (vāritta) from certain other kinds of prohibited action. Śīla means those particular volitions and mental states, etc. by which a man who desists from committing sinful actions maintains himself on the right path.

Śīla thus means

  1. right volition (cetanā),
  2. the associated mental states (cetasika),
  3. mental control (saṃvara),
  4. and the actual non-transgression (in body and speech) of the course of conduct already in the mind by way of the preceding three sīlas, called avitikkama.

Saṃvara is spoken of as being of five kinds, viz.

  1. pātimokkha-saṃvara (the control which saves him who abidesbyit),
  2. sati-saṃvara( the control of mindfulness),
  3. ñāna-saṃvara (the control of knowledge),
  4. khanti-saṃvara (the control of patience)
  5. and viriya-saṃvara (the control of active restraint).

Pātimokkhasaṃvara means all self-control in general. Satisaṃvara means the mindfulness by which one can bring in the right and good associations, when using one’s cognitive senses. Even when looking at any tempting object, a man will,by virtue of his mindfulness (sati), control himself from being tempted by not thinking of its tempting side and by thinking on such aspects of it as may lead in the right direction. Khantisaṃvara is that by which one can remain unperturbed in heat and cold. By the proper adherence to śila all our bodily, mental and vocal activities (kamma) are duly systematized, organized and stabilized (samādhānam, upadhāraṇam, patitthā). The practice of śīla is for the practice of jhāna (meditation). As a preparatory measure thereto, a man must train himself continually to view with disgust the appetitive desires for eating and drinking (āhāre patikūla-saṅñā) by emphasizing in the mind the various troubles that are associated with seeking food and drink and their ultimate loathsome transformations as various nauseating bodily elements.

He must habituate his mind to the idea that all the parts of our body are made up of the four elements, viz. kṣiti (earth), ap (water), etc. He should also think of the good effects of śīla , the making of gifts, of the nature of death and of the deep nature and qualities of the final extinction of all phenomena, and should practise brahma-vihāra, as the fourfold meditation of universal friendship, universal pity, happiness in the prosperity and happiness of all, and indifference to any kind of preferment for himself, his friend, his enemy or a third party[13].

The Gītā does not enter into any of these disciplinary measures. It does not make a programme of universal altruism or hold that one should live only for others, as is done in Mahāyāna ethics, or of the virtues of patience, energy for all that is good (vīrya as kuśalotsāha), meditation and true knowledge of the essencelessness of all things. The person who takes the vow of saintly life takes the vow of living for the good of others, for which he should be prepared to sacrifice all that is good for him. His vow does not limit him to doing good to his co-religionists or to any particular sects, but applies to all human beings, irrespective of caste, creed or race, and not only to human beings, but to all living beings. Mahāyāna ethical works like the Bodhi-coryāvatāra-pañjikā or Śikṣā-samuccaya do not deal merely with doctrines or theories, but largely with practical instructions for becoming a Buddhist saint. They treat of the practical difficulties in the path of a saint’s career and give practical advice regarding the way in which he may avoid temptations, keep himself in the straight path of duty, and gradually elevate himself to higher and higher states.

The Gītā is neither a practical guide-book of moral efforts nor a philosophical treatise discussing the origin of immoral tendencies and tracing them to certain metaphysical principles as their sources; but, starting from the ordinary frailties of attachment and desires, it tries to show how one can lead a normal life of duties and responsibilities and yet be in peace and contentment in a state of equanimity and in communion with God. The Gītā has its setting in the great battle of the Mahā-bhārata. Kṛṣṇa is represented as being an incarnation of God, and he is also the charioteer of his friend and relation, Arjuna, the great Pāṇḍava hero. The Pāṇḍava hero was a Kṣattriya by birth, and he had come to the great battle-field of Kurukṣetra to fight his cousin and opponent King Duryodhana, who had assembled great warriors, all of whom were relations of Arjuna, leading mighty armies.

In the first chapter of the Gītā a description is given of the two armies which faced each other in the holy field (dharma-kṣetra) of Kurukṣetra. In the second chapter Arjuna is represented as feeling dejected at the idea of having to fight with his relations and of eventually killing them. He says that it was better to beg from door to door than to kill his respected relations. Kṛṣṇa strongly objects to this attitude of Arjuna and says that the soul is immortal and it is impossible to kill anyone. But, apart from this metaphysical point of view, even from the ordinary point of view a Kṣattriya ought to fight, because it is his duty to do so, and there is nothing nobler for a Kṣattriya than to fight. The fundamental idea of the Gītā is that a man should always follow his own caste-duties, which are his own proper duties, or sva-dharma. Even if his own proper duties are of an inferior type, it is much better for him to cleave to them than to turn to other people’s duties which he could well perform. It is even better to die cleaving to one’s caste-duties, than to turn to the duties fixed for other people, which only do him harm[14].

The caste-duties of Brahmins, Kṣattriyas, Vaiśyas and Śūdras are fixed in accordance with their natural qualities. Thus sense-control, control over mind, power of endurance, purity, patience, sincerity, knowledge of worldly things and philosophic wisdom are the natural qualities of a Brahmin. Heroism, bravery, patience, skill, not to fly from battle, making of gifts and lordliness are the natural duties of a Kṣattriya. Agriculture, tending of cattle and trade are the natural duties of a Śūdra. A man can attain his highest only by performing the specific duties of his own caste. God pervades this world, and it is He who moves all beings to work. A man can best realize himself by adoring God and by the performance of his own specific caste-duties. No sin can come to a man who performs his own caste-duties. Even if one’s caste-duties were sinful or wrong, it would not be wrong for a man to perform them; for, as there is smoke in every fire, so there is some wrong thing or other in all our actions[15]. Arjuna is thus urged to follow his caste-duty as a Kṣattriya and to fight his enemies in the battle-field. If he killed his enemies, then he would be the master of the kingdom; if he himself was killed, then since he had performed the duties of a Kṣattriya, he would go to Heaven. If he did not engage himself in that fight, which was his duty, he would not only lose his reputation, but would also transgress his own dharma.

Such an instruction naturally evokes the objection that war necessarily implies injury to living beings; but in reply to such an objection Kṛṣṇa says that the proper way of performing actions is to dissociate one’s mind from attachment; when one can perform an action with a mind free from attachment, greed and selfishness, from a pure sense of duty, the evil effects of such action cannot affect the performer. The evil effects of any action can affect the performer when in performing an action he has a motive of his own to fulfil. But, if he does not seek anything for himself, if he is not overjoyed in pleasures, or miserable in pains, his works cannot affect him. A man should therefore surrender all his desires for selfish ends and dedicate all his actions to God and be in communion with Him, and yet continue to perform the normal duties of his caste and situation of life. So long as we have our bodies, the necessity of our own nature will drive us to work. So it is impossible for us to give up all work. To give up work can be significant only if it means the giving up of all desires for the fruits of such actions. If the fruits of actions are given up, then the actions can no longer bind us to them.

That brings us in return peace and contentment, and the saint who has thus attained a perfect equanimity of mind is firm and unshaken in his true wisdom, and nothing can sway him to and fro. One may seek to attain this state either by philosophic wisdom or by devotion to God, and it is the latter path which is easier. God, by His grace, helps the devotee to purge his mind of all impurities, and so by His grace a man can dissociate his mind from all motives of greed and selfishness and be in communion with Him; he can thus perform his duties, as fixed for him by his caste or his custom, without looking forward to any reward or gain.

The Gītā ideal of conduct differs from the sacrificial ideal of conduct in this, that sacrifices are not to be performed for any ulterior end of heavenly bliss or any other mundane benefits, but merely from a sense of duty, because sacrifices are enjoined in the scriptures to be performed by Brahmins; and they must therefore be performed from a pure sense of duty. The Gītā ideal of ethics differs from that preached in the systems of philosophy like the Vedānta or the Yoga of Patañjali in this, that, while the aim of these systems was to transcend the sphere of actions and duties, to rise to a stage in which one could give up all one’s activities, mental or physical, the ideal of the Gītā was decidedly an ideal of work. The Gītā , as has already been pointed out, does not advocate a course of extremism in anything. However elevated a man may be, he must perform his normal caste-duties and duties of customary morality[16]. The Gītā is absolutely devoid of the note of pessimism which is associated with early Buddhism.

The śīla, samādhi and paññā of Buddhism have, no doubt, in the Gītā their counterparts in the training of a man to disinclination for joys and attachments, to concentration on God and the firm and steady fixation of will and intelligence; but the significance of these in the Gītā is entirely different from that which they have in Buddhism. The Gītā does not expound a course of approved conduct and prohibitions, since, so far as these are concerned, one’s actions are to be guided by the code of caste-duties or duties of customary morality. What is required of a man is that he should cleanse his mind from the impurities of attachment, desires and cravings. The samādhi of the Gītā is not a mere concentration of the mind on some object, but communion with God, and the wisdom, or prajñā , of the Gītā is no realization of any philosophic truth, but a fixed and unperturbed state of the mind, where the will and intellect remain unshaken in one’s course of duty, clear of all consequences and free from all attachments, and in a state of equanimity which cannot be shaken or disturbed by pleasures or sorrows. It may naturally be asked in this connection, what is the general standpoint of Hindu Ethics? The Hindu social system is based on a system of fourfold division of castes.

The Gītā says that God Himself created the fourfold division of castes into

  1. Brahmins,
  2. Kṣattriyas,
  3. Vaiśyas
  4. and Śūdras, a division based on characteristic qualities and specific duties.

Over and above this caste division and its corresponding privileges, duties and responsibilities, there is also a division of the stages of life into that of

  1. Brahma-cārin — student,
  2. gṛha-stha —householder,
  3. vāna-prastha —retired in a forest,
  4. and bhikṣu —mendicant, and each of these had its own prescribed duties.

The duties of Hindu ethical life consisted primarily of the prescribed caste-duties and the specific duties of the different stages of life, and this is known as varṇāśrama-dharma. Over and above this there were also certain duties which were common to all, called the sādhāraṇa-dharmas.

Thus Manu mentions

  • steadiness (dhairya),
  • forgiveness (kṣamā),
  • self-control (dama),
  • non-stealing (cauryābhāva),
  • purity (śauca),
  • sense-control (indriya-nigraha),
  • wisdom (dhī), learning (vidyā),
  • truthfulness (satya)
  • and control of anger (akrodha)
  • as examples of sādhāraṇa-dharma.

Praśastapāda mentions

  • faith in religious duties (dharma-śraddhā),
  • non-injury (ahiṃsā),
  • doing good to living beings (bhūta-hitatva),
  • truthfulness (satya-vacana),
  • non-stealing (asteya),
  • sex-continence (brahma-carya),
  • sincerity of mind (anupadhā),
  • control of anger (krodha-varjana),
  • cleanliness and ablutions (abhiṣecana),
  • taking of pure food (śuci-dravya-sevana),
  • devotion to Vedic gods (viśiṣṭa-devatā-bhakti),
  • and watchfulness in avoiding transgressions (apramāda).

The caste-duties must be distinguished from these common duties. Thus sacrifices, study and gifts are common to all the three higher castes, Brahmins, Kṣattriyas and Vaiśyas. The specific duties of a Brahmin are acceptance of gifts, teaching, sacrifices and so forth; the specific duties of a Kṣattriya are protection of the people, punishing the wicked, not to retreat from battles and other specific tasks; the duties of a Vaiśya are buying, selling, agriculture, breeding and rearing of cattle, and the specific duties of a Vaiśya. The duties of a Śūdra are to serve the three higher castes[17].

Regarding the relation between varṇa-dharma and sādhāraṇa-dharma, a modern writer says that

“the sādhāraṇa-dharmas constitute the foundation of the varṇāśrama-dharmas, the limits within which the latter are to be observed and obeyed. For example, the Brahmin in performing religious sacrifice must not appropriate another’s property, non-appropriation being one of the common and universal duties.

In this way he serves his own community as well as subserves (though in a negative way) the common good of the community—and so, in an indirect way, serves the common good of humanity. Thus the individual of a specific community who observes the duties of his class does not serve his own community merely, but also and in the same process all other communities according to their deserts and needs, and in this way the whole of humanity itself.

This, it will be seen, is also the view of Plato, whose virtue of justice is the common good which is to be realized by each class through its specific duties; but this is to be distinguished from the common good which constitutes the object of the sādhāraṇa-dharmas of the Hindu classification. The end in these common and universal duties is not the common well-being, which is being correctly realized in specific communities, but the common good as the precondition and foundation of the latter; it is not the good which is common-in-the-individual, but common-as-the-prius-of-the-individual. Hence the sādhāraṇa duties are obligatory equally for all individuals, irrespective of their social position or individual capacity[18].”

The statement that the common good {sādhāraṇa-dharma) could be regarded as the precondition of the specific caste-duties implies that, if the latter came into conflict with the former, then the former should prevail. This is, however, inexact; for there is hardly any instance where, in case of a conflict, the sādhāraṇa-dharma , or the common duties, had a greater force. Thus, for example, non-injury to living beings was a common duty; but sacrifices implied the killing of animals, and it was the clear duty of the Brahmins to perform sacrifices. War implied the taking of an immense number of human lives; but it was the duty of a Kṣattriya not to turn away from a battle-field, and in pursuance of his obligatory duty as a Kṣattriya he had to fight. Turning to traditional accounts, we find in the Rāmāyaṇa that Śambūka was a Śūdra saint (muni) who was performing ascetic penances in a forest. This was a transgression of caste-duties; for a Śūdra could not perform tapas, which only the higher caste people were allowed to undertake, and hence the performance of tapas by the Śūdra saint Śambūka was regarded as adharma (vice); and, as a result of this adharma, there was a calamity in the kingdom of Rāma in the form of the death of an infant son of a Brahmin.

King Rāma went out in his chariot and beheaded Śambūka for transgressing his caste-duties. Instances could be multiplied to show that, when there was a conflict between the caste-duties and the common duties, it was the former that had the greater force. The common duties had their force only when they were not in conflict with the caste-duties. The Gītā is itself an example of how the caste-duties had preference over common duties. In spite of the fact that Arjuna was extremely unwilling to take the lives of his near and dear kinsmen in the battle of Kurukṣetra Kṛṣṇa tried his best to dissuade him from his disinclination to fight and pointed out to him that it was his clear duty, as a Kṣattriya, to fight. It seems therefore very proper to hold that the common duties had only a general application, and that the specific caste-duties superseded them, whenever the two were in conflict.

The Gītā does not raise the problem of common duties, as its synthesis of nivṛtti (cessation from work) and pravṛtti (tending to work) makes it unnecessary to introduce the advocacy of the common duties; for its instruction to take to work with a mind completely detached from all feelings and motives of self-seeking, pleasure-seeking and self-interest elevates its scheme of work to a higher sphere, which would not be in need of the practice of any select scheme of virtues.

The theory of the Gītā that, if actions are performed with an unattached mind, then their defects cannot touch the performer, distinctly implies that the goodness or badness of an action does not depend upon the external effects of the action, but upon the inner motive of action. If there is no motive of pleasure or self-gain, then the action performed cannot bind the performer; for it is only the bond of desires and self-love that really makes an action one’s own and makes one reap its good or bad fruits. Morality from this point of view becomes wholly subjective, and the special feature of the Gītā is that it tends to make all actions non-moral by cutting away the bonds that connect an action with its performer. In such circumstances the more logical course would be that of Śaṅkara, who would hold a man who is free from desires and attachment to be above morality, above duties and above responsibilities.

The Gītā, however, would not advocate the objective nivṛtti, or cessation of work; its whole aim is to effect subjective nivṛtti , or detachment from desires. It would not allow anyone to desist from his prescribed objective duties; but, whatever might be the nature of these duties, since they were performed without any motive of gain, pleasure or self-interest, they would be absolutely without fruit for the performer, who, in his perfect equanimity of mind, would transcend all his actions and their effects. If Arjuna fought and killed hundreds of his kinsmen out of a sense of his caste-duty, then, howsoever harmful his actions might be, they would not affect him. Yudhiṣṭhira, however, contemplated an expiation of the sin of killing his kinsmen by repentance, gifts, asceticism, pilgrimage, etc., which shows the other view, which was prevalent in the Mahā-bhārata period, that, when the performance of caste-duties led to such an injury to human lives, the sinful effects of such actions could be expiated by such means[19].

Yudhiṣṭhira maintained that of asceticism (tapas), the giving up of all duties (tyāga), and the final knowledge of the ultimate truth (avadhi), the second is better than the first and the third is better than the second. He therefore thought that the best course was to take to an ascetic life and give up all duties and responsibilities, whereas Arjuna held that the best course for a king would be to take upon himself the normal responsibilities of a kingly life and at the same time remain unattached to the pleasures of such a life[20]. Regarding also the practice of the virtues of non-injury, etc., Arjuna maintains that it is wrong to carry these virtues to extremes. Howsoever a man may live, whether as an ascetic or as a forester, it is impossible for him to practise non-injury to all living beings in any extreme degree. Even in the water that one drinks and the fruits that one eats, even in breathing and winking many fine and invisible insects are killed. So the virtue of non-injury, or, for the matter of that, all kinds of virtue, can be practised only in moderation, and their injunctions always imply that they can be practised only within the bounds of a commonsense view of things. Non-injury may be good; but there are cases where non-injury would mean doing injury.

If a tiger enters into a cattle-shed, not to kill the tiger would amount to killing the cows. So all religious injunctions are made from the point of view of a practical and well-ordered maintenance of society and must therefore be obeyed with an eye to the results that may follow in their practical application. Our principal object is to maintain properly the process of the social order and the well-being of the people[21]. It seems clear, then, that, when the Gītā urges again and again that there is no meaning in giving up our normal duties, vocation and place in life and its responsibilities, and that what is expected of us is that we should make our minds unattached, it refers to the view which Yudhiṣṭhira expresses, that we must give up all our works. The Gītā therefore repeatedly urges that tyāga does not mean the giving up of all works, but the mental giving up of the fruits of all actions.

Though the practice of detachment of mind from all desires and motives of pleasure and enjoyment would necessarily involve the removal of all vices and a natural elevation of the mind to all that is high and noble, yet the Gītā sometimes denounces certain types of conduct in very strong terms. Thus, in the sixteenth chapter, it is said that people who hold a false philosophy and think that the world is false and, without any basis, deny the existence of God and hold that there is no other deeper cause of the origin of life than mere sex-attraction and sex-union, destroy themselves by their foolishness and indulgence in all kinds of cruel deeds, and would by their mischievous actions turn the world to the path of ruin.

In their insatiable desires, filled with pride, vanity and ignorance, they take to wrong and impure courses of action. They argue too much and think that there is nothing greater than this world that we live in, and, thinking so, they indulge in all kinds of pleasures and enjoyments. Tied with bonds of desire, urged by passions and anger, they accumulate money in a wrongful manner for the gratification of their sense-desires.

“I have got this to-day,” they think,

“and enjoy myself; I have so much hoarded money and I shall have more later on”;

“that enemy has been killed by me, I shall kill other enemies also, I am a lord, I enjoy myself, I am successful, powerful and happy, I am rich, I have a noble lineage, there is no one like me, I perform sacrifices, make gifts and enjoy.”

They get distracted by various kinds of ideas and desires and, surrounded by nets of ignorance and delusion and full of attachment for sense-gratifications, they naturally fall into hell. Proud, arrogant and filled with the vanity of wealth, they perform improperly the so-called sacrifices, as a demonstration of their pomp and pride. In their egoism, power, pride, desires and anger they always ignore God, both in themselves and in others[22]. The main vices that one should try to get rid of are thus egoism, too many desires, greed, anger, pride and vanity, and of these desire and anger are again and again mentioned as being like the gates of hell[23].

Among the principal virtues called the divine equipment (daivī sampat) the Gītā counts

  • fearlessness (abhaya),
  • purity of heart (sattva-saṃśuddhi),
  • knowledge of things and proper action in accordance with it,
  • giving,
  • control of mind,
  • sacrifice,
  • study,
  • tapas,
  • sincerity (ārjava),
  • non-injury (ahimsā),
  • truthfulness (satya),
  • control of anger (akrodha),
  • renunciation (tyāga),
  • peacefulness of mind (śānti),
  • not to backbite (apaiśuna),
  • kindness to the suffering (bhūteṣu dayā),
  • not to be greedy (alolupatva),
  • tenderness (mārdava),
  • a feeling of shame before people in general when a wrong action is done (hrī),
  • steadiness (acapala),
  • energy (tejas),
  • a forgiving spirit (kṣānti),
  • patience (dhṛti),
  • purity (śauca),
  • not to think ill of others (adroha),
  • and not to be vain.

It is these virtues which liberate our spirits, whereas vanity, pride, conceit, anger, cruelty and ignorance are vices which bind and enslave us[24]. The man who loves God should not hurt any living beings, should be friendly and sympathetic towards them, and should yet be unattached to all things, should have no egoism, be the same in sorrows and pleasures and full of forgivingness for all. He should be firm, self-controlled and always contented. He should be pure, unattached, the same to all, should not take to actions from any personal motives, and he has nothing to fear. He is the same to friends and enemies, in appreciation and denunciation; he is the same in heat and cold, pleasure;and pain; he is the same in praise and blame, homeless and always satisfied with anything and everything; he is always unperturbed and absolutely unattached to all things[25]. If one carefully goes through the above list of virtues, it appears that the virtues are preeminently of a negative character—one should not be angry, hurtful to others, egoistic, proud or vain, should not do anything with selfish motives, should not be ruffled by pleasure and pain, heat and cold and should be absolutely unattached. Of the few positive virtues, sincerity and purity of heart, a forgiving spirit, tenderness, friendliness, kindness, alertness and sympathy seem to be most prominent.

The terms maitra (friendliness) and karuṇā (compassion) might naturally suggest the Buddhist virtues so named, since they do not occur in the Upaniṣads[26]. But in the Gītā also they are mentioned only once, and the general context of the passage shows that no special emphasis is put on these two virtues. They do not imply any special kind of meditation of universal friendship or universal piety or the active performance of friendly and sympathetic deeds for the good of humanity or for the good of living beings in general. They seem to imply simply the positive friendly state of the mind that must accompany all successful practice of non-injury to fellow-beings.

The Gītā does not advocate the active performance of friendliness, but encourages a friendly spirit as a means of discouraging the tendency to do harm to others. The life that is most admired in the Gītā is a life of unattachedness, a life of peace, contentment and perfect equanimity and unperturbedness in joys and sorrows. The vices that are denounced are generally those that proceed from attachment and desires, such as egoism, pride, vanity, anger, greediness, etc. There is another class of virtues which are often praised, namely those which imply purity, sincerity and alertness of mind and straightness of conduct. The negative virtue of sense-control, with its positive counterpart, the acquirement of the power of directing one’s mind in a right direction, forms the bed-rock of the entire superstructure of the Gītā code of moral and virtuous conduct.

The virtue of sameness (samatva), however, seems to be the great ideal which the Gītā is never tired of emphasizing again and again. This sameness can be attained in three different stages: subjective sameness, or equanimity of mind, or the sameness in joys and sorrows, praise and blame and in all situations of life; objective sameness, as regarding all people, good, bad or indifferent, a friend or an enemy, with equal eyes and in the same impartial spirit; and the final stage of the achievement of this equanimity is the self-realized state when one is absolutely unperturbed by all worldly things—a state of transcendence called guṇātīta. Thus in the Gītā, n. 15, it is said that he whom sense-affections and physical troubles cannot affect in any way, who is unperturbable and the same in joys and sorrows, attains immortality. In 11. 38 Kṛṣṇa asks Arjuna to think of joys and sorrows, gain and loss, victory and defeat as being the same, and to engage himself in the fight with such a mind; for, if he did so, no sin would touch him. In 11. 47 Kṛṣṇa says to Arjuna that his business is only to perform his duties and not to look for the effects of his deeds; it is wrong to look for the fruits of deeds or to desist from performing one’s duties. In 11. 48 this sameness in joys and sorrows is described as yoga, and it is again urged that one should be unperturbed whether m success or in failure.

The same idea is repeated in 11. 55, 56 and 57, where it is said that a true saint should not be damped in sorrow or elated in joy, and that he should not be attached to anything and should take happiness or misery indifferently, without particularly welcoming the former or regretting the latter. Such a man is absolutely limited to his own self and is self-satisfied. He is not interested in achieving anything or in not achieving anything; there is no personal object for him to attain in the world[27]. To such a man gold and stones, desirables and undesirables, praise and blame, appreciation and denunciation, friends and foes are all alike[28]. Such a man makes no distinction whether between a friend and foe, or between a sinner and a virtuous man[29]. Such a man knows that pleasures and pains are welcomed and hated by all and, thinking so, he desires the good of all and looks upon all as he would upon himself—on a learned Brahmin of an elevated character, on a cow, an elephant, a dog or a caṇḍāla ; and the wise behave in the same way[30].

He sees God in all beings and knows the indestructible and the immortal in all that is destructible. He who knows that all beings are pervaded by all, and thus regards them all with an equal eye, does not hurt his own spiritual nature and thus attains his highest[31]. As the culmination of this development, there is the state in which a man transcends all the corporeal and mundane characteristics of the threefold guṇas , and, being freed from birth, death, old age and sorrow, attains immortality. He knows that the worldly qualities of things, the guṇas, are extraneous to his own spiritual nature, and by such thoughts he transcends the sphere of all worldly qualities and attains Brahmahood[32].

Apart from the caste-duties and other deeds that are to be performed without any attachment, the Gītā speaks again and again of sacrifices, tapas and gifts, as duties which cannot be ignored at any stage of our spiritual development. It is well worth pointing out that the Gītā blames the performance of sacrifices either for the attainment of selfish ends or for making a display of pomp or pride. The sacrifices are to be performed from a sense of duty and of public good, since it is only by the help of the sacrifices that the gods may be expected to bring down heavy showers, through which crops may grow in plenty.

Physical tapas is described as

  • the adoration of gods,
  • Brahmins,
  • teachers and wise men,
  • as purity,
  • sincerity,
  • sex-continence
  • and non-injury;

tapas in speech is described as

  • truthful and unoffending speech,

which is both sweet to hear and for the good of all, and also study;

mental tapas is described as

and the higher kind of tapas  is to be performed without any idea of gain or the fulfilment of any ulterior end[33].

Gifts are to be made to good Brahmins in a holy place and at an auspicious time, merely from a sense of duty. This idea that gifts are properly made only when they are made to good Brahmins at a holy time or place is very much more limited and restricted than the Mahāyāna idea of making gifts for the good of all, without the slightest restriction of any kind. Thus it is said in the Śikṣā-samuccaya that a Bodhisattva need not be afraid among tigers and other wild animals in a wild forest, since the Bodhisattva has given his all for the good of all beings. He has therefore to think that, if the wild animals should eat him, this would only mean the giving his body to them, which would be the fulfilment of his virtue of universal charity. The Bodhisattvas take the vow of giving away their all in universal charity[34].

Thus the fundamental teaching of the Gītā is to follow caste-duties without any motive of self-interest or the gratification of sense-desires. The other general duties of sacrifices, tapas and gifts are also to be practised by all and may hence be regarded in some sense as being equivalent to the sādhāraṇa-dharmas of the Vaiśeṣika and Smrti literature. But, if caste-duties or customary duties come into conflict with the special duties of non-injury (ahiṃsā), then the caste-duties are to be followed in preference. It does not seem that any of the other special duties or virtues which are enjoined can come into conflict with the general caste-duties; for most of these are for the inner moral development, with which probably no caste-duties can come into conflict.

But, though there is no express mandate of the Gītā on the point, yet it may be presumed that, should a Śūdra think of performing sacrifices, tapas or gifts or the study of the Vedas, this would most certainly be opposed by the Gītā, as it would be against the prescribed caste-duties. So, though non-injury is one of the special virtues enjoined by the Gītā, yet, when a Kṣattriya kills his enemies in open and free fight, that fight is itself to be regarded as virtuous (dharmya) and there is for the Kṣattriya no sin in the killing of his enemies. If a person dedicates all his actions to Brahman and performs his duties without attachment, then sinfulness in his actions cannot cleave to him, just as water cannot cleave to the leaves of a lotus plant[35].

On the one hand the Gītā keeps clear of the ethics of the absolutist and metaphysical systems by urging the necessity of the performance of caste and customary duties, and yet enjoins the cultivation of the great virtues of renunciation, purity, sincerity, non-injury, selfcontrol, sense-control and want of attachment as much as the absolutist systems would desire to do; on the other hand, it does not adopt any of the extreme and rigorous forms of selfdiscipline, as the Yoga does, or the practice of the virtues on an unlimited and universalist scale, as the Buddhists did. It follows the middle course, strongly emphasizing the necessity of selfcontrol, sense-control and detachment from all selfish ends and desires along with the performance of the normal duties. This detachment from sense-pleasures is to be attained either through wisdom or, preferably, through devotion to God.

Footnotes and references:


śānto dānta uparatas titikṣuḥ samāhito bhūtvātmany eva ātmānam paśyati.
iv. 4. 23.


kāmān yah kāmayate marryamānaḥ sa kāmabhir jāyate tatra tatra paryāpta-kāmasya kṛtātmanas tu ihaiva sarve pravilīyanti kāmāḥ.
iii . 2 . 2 .


Kaṭha, II. 4 .


Sarvopaniṣado gāvo dogdhā gopāla-nandanaḥ.

{GL_NOTE:86:} The Ethics of Buddhism, by S. Tachibana, p. 73.



There is another list of eightfold prohibitions called aṭṭḥaṅgāsīla; these are not to take life, not to take what is not given, to abstain from sex-relations, to abstain from falsehood, from drinking liquors, from eating at forbidden times, from dancing and music and from beautifying one’s ’īody by perfumes, garlands, etc. There is also another list called dasa-kusala-kamma, such as not to take life, not to take what is not given, not to commit adultery, not to tell a lie, not to slander, not to abuse or talk foolishly, not to be covetous, malicious and sceptical.


ajñānenāvṛtaṃ jñānaṃ tena muhyanti jantavaḥ.
      v. 15.


jñānena tu tad-ajñānaṃ yeṣām nāśitaṃ ātmanaḥ.
      v. 16.


adhyātma-jñāna-nityatvaṃ tattva-jñānārīha-darśanam etaj-jñānam itiprok-tam ajñānam yad ato ’nyathā.
XIII. 12. (=11)


Ibid. xiv. 16, 17; x. 11; xiv. 8.


Ibid. v. 16.


Gītā, iv. 42; xviii. 72.


See A History of Indian Philosophy, by S. N. Dasgupta, vol. I, p. 103.


Gītā, III. 35.


Gītā, xviii. 44-48.


Śaṅkara, of course, is in entire disagreement with this interpretation of the Gītā , as will be discussed in a later section.


The Gītā, however, counts

  • self-control (śama),
  • control over the mind (dama),
  • purity (śauca),
  • forgiving nature (kṣānti),
  • sincerity (ārjova),
  • knowledge (jñāna),
  • wisdom (vijñāna)
  • and faith (āstikya)

as the natural qualities of Brahmins.

The duties of Kṣattriyas are

  • heroism (śaurya),
  • smartness (ttjas),
  • power of endurance (dhṛti),
  • skill (dākṣya),
  • not to fly in battle (yuddhe cāpy apalāyana),
  • making of gifts (dāna)
  • and power of controlling others (īśvara-bhāva).

The natural duties of Vaiśyas are agriculture, rearing of cows and trade. Gītā, xvi 11. 42-44.


Ethics of the Hindus, by S. K. Maitra under Dr Seal’s close personal supervision and guidance, pp. 3-4.


Mahā-bḥārata, xii. 7. 36 and 37.


Thus Arjuna says :

aśaktaḥ śaktavad gacchan niḥsaṅgo mukta-bandhanaḥ
samaḥ śatrau ca mitre ca sa vai miikto mahīpate

to which Yudhisthira replies:

tapas tyāgo ’vadḥir iti rtiścayas tv eṣa dḥīmatām
parasparaṃ jyāya eṣāṃ yeṣāṃ naiḥśreyasl matiḥ.

Ibid. xii. 18. 31 and xii. 19. 9.


Loka-yātrārtham evedaṃ dharma-pravacanaṃ kṛtam
ahiṃsā sādhu hiṃseti śreyōn dharma-parigraḥaḥ
nātyantaṃ guṇavat kiṃcin na cāpy atyanta-nirguṇam
ubḥayaṃ sarva-kāryeṣu dṛśyate sādhv asādhu vā.

xii. 15. 49 and 50.


Gītā, XVI. 8-18.


Ibid. XVI. 21.


Ibid. XVI. 1-5.


Ibid. XVI. 13-19; see also ibid. XIII. 8-11.


The term maitra occurs only once in the Muktikopaniṣat, u. 34, and the Muktika is in all probability one of the later Upaniṣads.


Gītā , III. 17, 18.


Ibid. xiv. 24, 25.


Ibid. vi. 9.


Ibid. vi. 31; also v. 18.


Ibid. xm. 28.


Gītā, xiv. 20, 23, 26.


Ibid. xvi. 11-17.


Śikṣā-samuccaya, ch. xix, p. 349.


Gītā, V. 10.

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