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. Introduction (The Nature of Dharma)

When we use the word ‘dharma’ from the worldly point of view, we consider in what way society will be maintained (dharana) and benefited.

Manu has said that ‘dharma’ which is ‘asukhodarka’, that is to say, ‘from which unhappiness ultimately results should be given up[1]; and Bhisma says in the Satyanrtodyaya of the Santiparva[2], where the exposition of ‘dharma’ and ‘adharma’ is made, before that, Krishna also says in the Karnaparva:

dharanad dharmamityahur dharmo dharayate prajah |
yat syad dharana sanyuk’am sa dharma iti niscayah|[3]

That is, “the word dharma comes from the root ‘drh’ i.e. to hold or uphold, and all human beings are held together by dharma. That by which the holding together (of all human beings) takes place is dharma”.[4]

Dharma restores the true senses of values in social thinking. Dharma means the stream of evolution in life. It offers different spheres of stimuli and example of all aspirants. It combines individual’s self-realization and social well-being.

The word dharma has appeared on numerous occasions in the Mahabharata, and whenever it has been said there that a particular person is bound to do a particular thing according to his dharma, the word dharma means ethical science (kartavya sastra). Or then the sociology (samaja-vyavastha-sastra); and whenever there has been occasion to refer to the paths leading to next world happiness, in the latter half of the Santiparva, the specific word ‘moksa-dharma’ has been used.

The Manusmriti[5] maintains:

acarah paramo dharmah

“Good conduct is the excellent dharma.”

Manusmrti further holds that:

vedah smrtih sadacarah svasya ca priyam atmanah
etaccaturvidham prahuh saksad dharmasya laksanam

“The Veda the sacred tradition, the custom followed by virtuous persons, and one’s own pleasure and the visible four-fold characteristics of dharma”.

The Vaisesika’s call as dharma that which is responsible for prosperity (abhyudaya) as well as for final emancipation (nihsreyas).[7]

The Mahabharata[8], in the context of the purusarthas, also defines dharma somewhat similarly:

acara sambhayo dharmo, dharmad-vedah, samutihitah

Dharma has its origin in good practices and the Vedas are established in the dharma.”

In the Mimamsa philosophy dharma is defined as “codanalaksano rtho dharmah[9]. ‘Codana’ means ‘inspiring’, that is, some authoritative person saying or ordering; do this or do not do this. Dharma or law is the subject matter of the Mimamsa.

Dharma has been taken as the command of the Veda. It imbibes in itself the following characteristics:

  1. It implies the soul to act.
  2. It leads to the attainment of the highest good.
  3. It indicates the nature of both good and evil.[10]

All the acts like the performance of sacrifices, rites, ceremonies etc, prescribed by the Vedas, along with all the ingredients necessary for them, are to be regarded as dharma. The whole of the Veda defines dharma and no portion of it is such which can be held meaningless or without any purpose. The Mimamsakas hold that dharma has not been created by anybody, not even by the king or any other power like god. It is everlasting and it is supreme. Its authoritativeness is not drawn from any other source. There is no law-giver like the God of the Naiyayikas. It has its own intrinsic validity as self revealing transcendental moral laws which are found in the Vedas. So Vedas are essentially the ‘pramana’ (source of knowledge) for knowing what dharma is.

Dharma is infact the problem of moral order in human society. In the Mimamsa it is regarded as a law which is eternal, absolute and supreme. The Mimamsa lays down the responsibility on man to fulfill the requirements of the dharma and lead his life accordingly. As it has been enumerated in the Vedas, the Vedas supply the criterion of knowing what is right and what is wrong. So a life which is led in obedience to the Vedic commandments is supposed to be a good life.

Thus, dharma in the Indian conception is not merely the good, the right, morality, and justice, ethics; it is the whole government of all relations of man with other beings, with nature, with God, considered from the point of view of a divine principle working itself out in forms and laws of action, forms of the inner and the outer life, orderings of relations of every kind in the world. Dharma is that which holds together our inner and outer activities. In its primary sense it means a fundamental law of our nature which secretly conditions all our activities, and in this sense each being, type, species, individual, group has its own dharma.[11]

Footnotes and references:


Manu. 4.176 Cited from Motilal Bimal.Krishna,” Moral Dilemmas in the Mahabharata”,p-61


Santiparva. 109,p-33-37.12


Mahabharata. Karna. 69.59 from Dutt M.N,” Mahabharata Sanskrit text with English translation”,p-267.


Tilak: Gitarahasya tr by Bhalchandra Sitaram Suthankar, P-90


The Manusmriti (1.108), from Motilal Bimal.Krishna,” Moral Dilemmas in the Mahabharata”,p-54


The Manusmriti 2.12 from Motilal Bimal.Krishna,” Moral Dilemmas in the Mahabharata”,p-54


The Mahabharata 3.149.28


Mimamsa Sutra, 1.1.2


Acharya Madhava:” Sarvadarshan Sangraha”,trans by Cowell,E.b and Gough,A.E 288-89


Aurobindo: Essays On The Gita, p-162-163

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