The Gita’s Ethics (A Critical Study)

by Arpita Chakraborty | 2017 | 59,351 words

This essay studies the Ethical Teachings of the Gita, as presented in the Mahabharata in the form of a dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna. Ancient Indian ethics as evolved from the Vedas developed through the Upanisads, the Gita, Mahabharata, Ramayana and finally reached the Dharma-Shastras such as the Manusmriti. As the means to liberation, the e...

1. Origin of Indian Ethics

Ancient Indian ethics found its way in the thoughts of the Vedas. In almost every part of the world, in the twilight period of human thinking, thought in the various branches of knowledge was not distinctly separated. All human thinking then was mutually interrelated and inseparably intertwined. Most of early thinkers were philosophers who cogitated on all problems of life, including problems relating to ethics. In the very ancient period, the origin of ethics is to be found in the thoughts of early philosophers, as is the case with other fields of thought. India has been exception to this. Consequently, ancient Indian ethics also had its origin in the philosophical ideas of the Vedas. These philosophical texts contained many thoughts on ethics. Thinking is a continuous process, similar to the flow of history. In Indian ethics the same uninterrupted flow can be seen beginning from the very ancient times and continuing till the present.

Explaining this evolutionary approach to the historical progression of Indian ethics, S.Cromwell Crawford rightly pointed out,

“Hindus call their religion sanatana dharma which literally means ‘Eternal Law[1]. The name should in no way suggest that ethical ideals connected with the religion are eternal in the sense of being fixed, static, unchanging substances. Hindu ethics, like the river Ganges, has been in a state of ceaseless flow down the ages, constantly banging its course and currents relative to the hard, intervening realities of Indian history. All of its fundamental presuppositions—karma, samasara, dharma—have evolved from streams of thought originating in earliest times. These elements have survived to the present day, not in spite of change, but because of change. Thus, under the rubric of eternal universal law, Hindu ethics combines continuity with dynamic diversity.”

Ethics whether in India or elsewhere is primarily concerned with practice and action. But it is not just an action or practice; it is a theory of action and practice. It has, therefore, to take into account the impulse which induces man to action. Perhaps any impulse carried to excess may give rise to something bad.

Bad and good are the notions which are primarily concerned with man and the society. But it can be pointed out that anything that is accepted by an individual or a group of individuals becomes good or value for him or them so long as it is accepted by him or them. And, therefore, impulse must be one of the elements in good or valuable action. Impulse means inducement to do something. And it is here that taking an account of others becomes necessary. This is true even when impulses are directed to oneself. At least its Indian synonym codana suggested this. That others are to be taken into account in a theory of action is also suggested by rina. In the English language the word impulse may be contrasted with the word appetite. Appetite is in some sense for myself, impulse can also be for others. If there were only one man in the world, there would not be any ethics. Ethics is after all concerned with the relationship which concerns oneself and others. So, it includes in its very nature the primitive ought. Impulse does not mean an action; it means what we ought to do. The theoretical incentive to action is suggested by the impulse. But the impulse cannot be separated from the individual whose impulse it is. And, therefore, there is a possibility of different impulses conflicting with one another. A moral action is in some sense dependent on the universalization of the impulse. The impulse should have the strength to become public. The impulse transforming itself into code, in some sense determines the number of people who accept the impulse as a code for the action. So, number of people who accept the code based on that impulse will form a society and the action based on that impulse will be regarded by that society as moral or good.

The code of conduct based on the universalized impulse is dharma as it holds a group of people together-

dhriyate anena iti dharmah.

The word codana gives us this concept of impulse and it is defined as:

kriya pravartakam vacanam’.

In later thought, it was thought that codana was concerned with sentence on account of the fact that the word ‘vacana [vacanam]’ occurs in the definition. But ‘vacanam’ actually means expression and therefore corresponding to this expression, there must be a state of affair which suggests inducement to action. Inducement to action is not action. It is the ought, obligation, some kind of voluntary compulsion, a primitive will that is suggested by the word codana. But every codana is not moral. The word artha in the definition of dharma suggests a state of affair. It may, of course, be admitted that the word artha may be used merely in the sense of object or meaning, and, therefore, is ambiguous. But in ordinary language also, the word object is sometimes used for signifying a state of affairs. A state of affair suggests objectivity which is not denoted by particular things. Therefore, it is not any codana that is dharma, it is the artha, a state of affairs or action pointed out by codana i.e. dharma. But underlying this dynamic state of affairs must be something of the nature of codana, that is something which must be accepted by more than one as codana. This is suggested by the word laksana. Laksana means definition and as soon as a definition of a word is made or becomes possible, the word does not remain private. It is already universalized. Therefore, by dharma is meant a dynamic state of affairs based on a universalized codana or impulse. It means that the primitive ought, which is private and personal and which cannot be separated from the individual is now separated from the individual, becomes public and universalized and, therefore, accepted by ‘all’ and therefore, gives a code of conduct of what we ought to do towards others.

Footnotes and references:


Sharma R.N: Indian Ethics, p-13)

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