Philosophy of Charaka-samhita

by Asokan. G | 2008 | 88,742 words

Ayurveda, represented by Charaka and Sushruta, stands first among the sciences of Indian intellectual tradition. The Charaka-samhita, ascribed to the great celebrity Charaka, has got three strata. (1) The first stratum is the original work composed by Agnivesha, the foremost of the six disciples of Punarvasu Atreya. He accomplished the work by coll...

General outlook of morality

First of all, let us have a brief description of the conception of ethics in general and in Indian tradition in particular before going into the details of the ethical conceptions of Caraka. It would be helpful to understand the relevance and importance of Caraka in this respect.

“Morality means conscious living within the frame of certain principles of conduct laid down by those regarded as authorities. In general, therefore, the moral institution of life or moral point of view consists in the awareness of an important distinction between what is and what ought to be. For man should live not merely in the light of what is but also what ought to be. To be more specific it is the awareness of living based on a distinction between our animal demands and the demands of the higher faculties of human worthy of the distinctive nature of man”.[1]

Morality has mainly got two facets; one is subjective and the other is objective.[2] The subjective dimension refers to the individual ethics or the ethics in relation to oneself and the objective refers to the social ethics or the ethics in relation to others. The social ethics prescribes certain responsibilities and obligations and code of conduct based on which the individuals ought to behave in a group or society.[3] The most significant aspect of the social ethics is that it emphasizes one's concern for others. Love, compassion, and brotherhood are some of its identifying features. On the other hand, individual morality is purely personal. “It is more a repository of prudence than morality”.[4] It implies the procedure of adopting ways and methods like the control of senses and the purification of mind so as to subdue one's lower instincts and to develop the higher values through proper understanding of one's own inner nature in such a way that the optimum of life can be attained. The domain of morality precisely consists of both the behaviour of a person to others and also his character and conduct to himself as a man. Thus, while judging a moral point of view or moral institution these two aspects deserve due attention.

In the West, generally speaking, morality is understood mainly in the sense of social reference. “Outside a society there is no question of morality. The question of morality involves a necessary reference to some others in respect of whom one has to adopt a moral point of view or has to behave either morally in a good manner or bad manner”.[5] Frankena, emphasizing the social reference, says that morality is a social enterprise. It is an instrument of society as a whole for the guidance of individuals and smaller groups because morality is sometimes defined as an instrument of society as a whole.[6] As for as the Westerners are concerned, moral principles are social rules and they are not spun by an individual.

The Indian moral conceptions are referred to by the word dharma. Dharma combines in it the two distinct concepts of duty and virtue in general and is connected with a series of notions frequently called “the aims of life”.[7] With the exception of the Cārvākas, it is basically spiritualistic and is considered as rooted in the Vedas.[8] The word dharma is derived from the root “dhṛ” which means to uphold or support. So dharma is that which upholds the universe from within. Probably dharma is the single most important concept of understanding “Indian Religion” and ethics. Even then, a critical evaluation of the moral teaching of Caraka in terms of general ethical ideas in Indian religio-culture represented by the word dharma has got its own limitations because Indian religio-culture is not a unified creed as we see in Semitic religions.

From the point of human morality, it is a complex whole comprising several religious philosophical beliefs, values, and practices which are often mutually incompatible.Dharma when prefixed by some such proper noun as sanātana (Vedic) or bauddha (non-Vedic or śramanic), means the whole of religion and philosophy and moral code of a given people or community.[9] Thus, broadly speaking, the Vedic dharma and śrmaṇic dharma or the Bauddha-dharma represent the two major streams of thought. Even though both of them uphold dharma as the cardinal principle of their teachings, they fundamentally differ in their outlook.

The Vedic dharma combines in it the two facets that we tend to keep distinct. They are the facets of “is” and “ought”—the dimensions of “how things actually are” and “how things ought to be”. On the one hand it is righteousness and duty essentially ordained in the Vedic scriptures and the objective order of the universe. It combines in one concept the description of the ordering of things and at the same time the prescription for how one should live to attain the optimum of life.[10] Another aspect of morality that this single term dharma upholds is that it carries with it the sense of both objective or socio centric as well as subjective or self centric ethical values. Most often the latter is accentuated.

One of the most important things to be remembered in this connection is that there came in the Smṛtis, the Upaniṣads, and finally the Vedic philosophical system as continuation of the Vedas as sources of dharma. Of them, the Smṛitis provide us with the most important religious beliefs and practices[11] . The Smṛtis disseminate external and ritualistic socio-centric morality. The Smṛti literature is generally taken to include the Dharmasāstras, the Purāṇas and the two Epics.[12] Thus, the Vedas and the Smṛtis taken together have been regarded as the source of morality in the Vedic stream.[13] The main concern of the law givers (smṛtikāras)was often the stability of the social organization and the advocacy of social morality conductive to ritualism. Their chief moral concern was social stability. They seek to protect the various customs and practices of people belonging to different castes, communities, and professions.[14] They also advocated a scheme of life with detailed instructions of duties at every stage of life.

According to the Vedic belief, another significant thing is that dharma is divine. Dharma is not created but discovered by the Ṛṣis. It is not a subject for disagreement or debate. A person should behave in accordance with class (āśrama), whether he/she is a student (braḥmacārin), a householder (gṛhastha), a forest-dweller (vānaprastha), or renouncer (sanyasin).Thus, one behaves as one should behave as laid down in the Dharmaśāstras.[15] Dharma is a cosmic principle and one has to follow it without violating or questioning it. It is one's duty (karma). Reasoning or logic, however, seems to be hardly given any recognizable place in the Vedic ethical tradition. There are rather clear statements of Manu denouncing those who try to asses the opinions of the Vedas and the Smṛtis on the touchstone of logic and reasoning. He says that such people are to be despised and even excommunicated.[16] Kumārila, while emphasizing the place of the śāstra in matters of morality, denounces the intrusion of logical reasoning. He says, “For the comprehension of dharma and adharma there is no other means save the fact of their being enjoined and prohibited. Hence the introduction of inferential argument is not proper”[17] Śukranīti says that theory of religion and morality is very complicated, and hence people should practice the rules of Sṛuti, Smṛti, and Purāṇas.[18] ""It is difficult to find out the reasons on which duties stand.[19]

The Upaniṣhads and the philosophic schools promulgated liberation directed self-centric morality. Accordingly, dharma serves the route to superior control, to the mastering of attitudes of greater and greater concern coupled with less and less attachment. The purification of mind and the control of sense organs are indispensable for the attainment of mokṣa. One has to subordinate lower impulses to the higher ones through the proper understanding of ones inner nature and through the observance of some practical discipline. Subjective process constitutes the moral life of man.

Buddhism and Jainism, which represent the main stream of śramanic ethics, also preach both subjective and objective moralities. But the points in which they differ from Hinduism are: (1) the rejection of an eternal ultimate reality as the essence of the universe, (2) the firm rejection of the Vedic ritualism, and (3) the rejection of the classification of varṇavyavasthā.[20] In the teachings of the Buddha, karma was ethicized. For the Buddha, karma was essentially volition (intention) that leads to the actions of body, mind, and speech.21 If the Vedic karma refers to ritualistic action which calls for external purification, it was a mental event for the Buddha and so he emphasized internal purification.

The Sāṃkhyas believe in three kinds of ethically significant actions:

  1. sāttvika actions which consist in kindness, restraints of sense organs, and freedom from hatred.
  2. rājasika actions which consist in passion, anger, greed, violence, discontent, faultfinding, and rudeness.
  3. tāmasika actions which consist in madness, intoxication, lassitude, drowsiness, lust, worthlessness, and impurity

Of them, virtues are the first kind of actions since they lead to liberation.[21]

Similarly, in the philosophy, merit (dharma) and demerit (adharma) are the qualities of the self and they are not the objective act which is prompted by the self. There is no merit or demerit in the action itself. It is always the intention which causes merit and demerit.[22] The Nyāya-Vaiśeṣikas say that actions are caused by volition (prayatna). Śaṅkaramiśra defines karma as action (pravṛtti) and inaction (nivṛtti) for acquiring the beneficial and avoiding the non-beneficial and that such actions and inactions are produced by peculiar type of volitions springing from the mental dispositions of desire and aversion.[23] So, according to the Nyāya - Vaiśeṣika, it is the intention that determines whether an action is right or wrong.

Thus, we see a transition in the concept of ethics in the philosophical systems. Karma was given a new interpretation. In spite of the differences in their world outlook, they were more or less unanimous in reinterpreting karma. If karma formerly stood for ritual action and social duties, the new meaning it acquired was action prompted by intention. Thus, intention became absolutely essential for constituting rightness and wrongness, and naturally the purification of mind attained prime position in ethical conceptions. In spite of the differences, all are unanimous in the basic postulation of ultimate values. All of them accept the ethical values of exclusion of envy, hatred, covetousness, wickedness, and the practice of humility, charity, love, greatfulness, sympathy, and self sacrifice.

Footnotes and references:


CIET, p. 2.


Ibid., p. 6.


Ibid., p. 2.


Ibid., p. 6.


Ibid., p. 2.


W.K. Frankena, “The Concept of Morality”, Readings in Contemporary Ethical Theory, ed., Pahel & Schiller, Prentice Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1970, p. 6.


The Sanskrit terms for the notions are dharma, artha, kāma, and mokṣa. Among them artha usually refer to material prosperity;kāma, refers to sexual relations and incidentally to aesthetic values; Dharma is said to have to do with one's duty to family, caste, or class, and mokṣa to complete freedom. KHP, p. 6.


vedo dharmamūlaṃ”, Gautamadharmasūtra I. 1. “vedo'khilo dharmamūlaṃ”, Manusmṛti., II. 6.


AHM, p. 2.


BT, p. 18.


tadvidāṃ ca smṛtiśīle, Gautamadharmasūtra, I. 1.; smṛtiśīle ca tadvidāṃ, Manusmṛti., II. 6; dharmaśastraṃ to vai smṛtiḥ, Ibid., II. 10.


CIET,p. 51.


śrutismṛtyuditaṃ dharma”, Laghu Yama Smṛti, 1; Aṣṭādaśasmṛti., p. 172 śrutismṛtiśca viprāṇāṃ nayane dve prakīrtite, Atrisaṃhitā, 349, Aṣṭādaśasmṛti., p. 54.


AHM, pp.73-74.


BT, p.15


Manusmṛti., II. 10, 11.


Kumārilabhaṭṭa, Ślokavārtika, Eng., Trans., Ganganath Jha, p.242-243. Cited in CIET, p. 20.


dharmatattvaṃ hi gahanamataḥ satsevitaṃ naraḥ śrutismṛtipurāṇānāṃ karma kuryād vicakṣaṇaḥ. Śukranītisāra of Śukrācārya, with elucidative notes by Jīvānandavidyāsāgara Bhaṭṭācārya, Nārāyaṇa Press, Kalikālatārajaghanī, 1890, III. 39.


Mahābhārata., Apaddharma, 132, 2.


CIET, pp. 63-64 21 BT, p.72.


CIET, p. 60.


Ibid., p. 27.


CS, Śārīra - sthāna, V. 9 iccādveṣajanite pravṛttinivṛttī prayatnaviśeṣau tābhyāṃ ca hitāhitaprāptiparihāraphale śarīra karmani ceṣṭālakṣāṇe janyate. Śaṅkaramiśra on Vaiśeṣikadarśana., III. I. 19, Vaiśeṣikopaskāra of Śaṅkaramiśra., pp. 231 -232.

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