The subject of moral issues is as comprehensive as our life. It has always been important, and because of the technological progress it is even more important today. Morality attempts to answer fundamental questions, like, 'What is good , what is bad?, 'How should I lead my life?, 'Is telling of truth imperative?, 'Are pleasures the aim of life? Morality encompasses all activities of life. The fact that there are problems galore with the world today, demonstrates that morality is complex, and also that people do not behave as morally as they should.
Look at some of the problem areas we are all facing today- terrorism, threat of nuclear war, poverty, education, racism, environment, legality or otherwise of abortion, homosexuality, violence, vulnerability of human rights, religious conversion etc. There are many facets to the problems mentioned above. If most of the world is condemning terrorism, there are many who believe that terrorism is a moral weapon. Then there are learned and devoted activists who feel that, 'Every gun that is forged, every battleship that is launched, every missile fired, is an inhuman theft from those who are hungry and starving, from those who are cold and are shivering. And so on, these differences in moral views also create conflicts. In this short essay I plan to discuss briefly some 'world moral issues' from the point of view of Hindu or, more precisely, Vedantic system of morality. Subject of ethics was of great concern to the Hindus in Ancient India.
Contrary to some Western philosophers' opinions, Hindu moral thoughts were developed in a formal and analytical sense. It had meta ethics because it investigated the source of moral statements. It of course had 'normative ethics' because it took on a more practical task, which is to arrive at moral standards that regulate right and wrong conduct. The indication of ten characteristics of Dharma is just one such example. Arthur Schopenhauer was the first European philosopher to start out from the ethical achievements of Ancient India (Wikipedia). Albert Schweitzer has stated that for the first time in world history, the Hindus described the highest ethical standards called "absolute ethics" (Wikipedia). Hindu moral view takes its authority from direct experience of Reality. It can be categorized as a mystic view. A wide range of perspectives occur among mysticisms which embrace direct experiential knowledge of God, Divinity, or Ultimate Reality. Hindu mysticism is different from those mystical views where commandments etc are received from God either in a tablet or through revelations. Mystical experience in Western tradition is most often understood as individual communion with a god or goddess. These experiences are very subjective, and they may be experienced as visions, dreams, revelations, prophecies, and so forth. In Catholicism the mystical experience is not sought for its own sake, and is always informed by revelation and ascetical theology.
In Vedanta the mystical experience is not revelation. In Vedic mysticism the 'knowledge of Self' ('Prajnyaanam Brahma' 3.1.3. Aitaraiya Upanishad) or 'realization of Self' (Aham Brahm Asmi, 1.4.10 Brahadaaranyak) is itself the goal of the mystical experience. It may be termed as Self-transcending, 'Self-discovery'. As a result of such a transcendental experience, suddenly, mind, body and intellect of the seeker are recognized to be not the Self but the instruments for the Self, which are necessary for the journey in this world (1.3.3. Katthopanishad) This Self is also realized to be 'Brahma' the Supreme Self, the cosmic Self ('Ayam Atman Brahma' ' 2. Maandookya Upanishad), i.e. Existence ' Consciousness ' Bliss (Sat-Chit-Anand). This non-dualistic state which is a transcendental experience can be realized by any seeker as it was realized by ancient Rishies, and in modern times by Yogi Paramaananda, Raamkrishna, Vivekananda, Aurobindo, yogi Ram etc. In this sense it may be called 'empirical', but not in the strict scientific objective sense. Science cannot prove moral statements as to why must they be obeyed. Western systems of philosophy though they are well developed also cannot prove moral statements as to why must they be obeyed. In the end they appeal to either religious authority or individual emotions. Even what is 'good' has been found difficult to define. Therefore it is worth noting that Vedantic ethics does not take its authority from any religious book, nor from individual emotional make-up, but from direct experience of Reality, from which it is logically derived. Therefore the moral statements are naturally acceptable, as naturally as ones own existence. 'Perennial Philosophy' proposed by Aldous Huxley was heavily influenced by Vedic philosophy as understood by him.
Transcendental experiences is the source of Hindu morality, its meta ethics, if you will. Though ineffable, they have been described by many seekers including the rishies, the authors of Upanishads. Upanishads are also known as Vedanta. As a result of their transcendental experience, rishies said that the absolute Reality is 'the only One without the second' ('Aykmaywa adwiteeyam' 6.2.1. Chhandogya Upanishad) . There is nothing else but the 'Existence ' Consciousness ' Bliss' (Sat-Chit-Anand). What they see is an ever changing world which is based on ever unchanging Absolute Reality (1. Ishaawaasya Upanishad). They tell us that differences in human beings and in all living creatures, that we see are merely differences of forms, not the content; internal Reality is 'the same'. I would attempt to give an analogy, though difficult and incomplete.
Scientists have been attempting for the last 300 years the fundamental particle that universe is made of; Einstein wanted to go a step ahead by attempting to discover the 'Unified Field Theory'. By now the scientists have reduced the number of fundamental particles to be 6, they call them 'quarks' of 6 different flavors. That means entire universe of billions of different things is nothing but different arrangements of those 6 quarks. They see in these billions of things just 6 quarks! Hopefully, tomorrow, they would be able to discover the one fundamental particle of which these 6 are made, then they would say that all these myriad forms of matter are projection of but one particle! Similarly Rishies have been saying for at least 5000 years that the external reality is based on or is projection of just one Reality, one Atman of three flavors 'Existence, Consciousness, Bliss. I should clarify here that the three flavors are not three distinct entities, but the trinity is just one which we sometimes experience as three. The fundamental basis of morality is as inbuilt in human beings as are their identities. The realized ones become Blissful, and fearless (2.9 Taittareeya & 8.3.4. Chhandogya Upanishads), they have no 'moha' i.e. obsessions, experience no hatred (6&7. Ishaawaasya Upanishad). Indeed they become free of greed and desires (3.2.2. Mundak Upanishad) etc. Such Blissful persons are motivated to serve humanity by spreading the knowledge leading to Bliss in this world.
Bliss is not happiness or joy or delight etc because its sources are not the senses or even the mind, but the source is our own Self. Hindu ethics is not a social invention but a discovery, discovery of the source of ethics. All psychologists agree that self-oriented interests ultimately motivate all human actions. And some state that pleasure is the specific driving force behind all our actions. These motivations no doubt lead to material prosperity, progress and pleasure, but are no guarantee of happiness, and what is worse is that they inevitably lead to conflicts among humans, societies and nations. Rishies discovered that the same selfish person is naturally benevolent after the mystic experience; he is not driven by pleasure but by love, kindness and justice. Lives of Rishies and sages, ancient and modern like Shankaachaarya, Raamaanujaachaarya, Raamkrishna, Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Yogi Ram, Maharshi Mahesh Yogi etc. demonstrate the same truth. Hindu ethics is not emotion-based, and it progresses on rationality. It does not agree with the 'emotive based theory' of British philosopher A.J. Ayer; but agrees more with the rationalist Kurt Baier. Rishies had also discovered that morality exists within the living creatures, especially in humans; it does not live in the Platonic spirits. Objective morals are those that exist regardless of the existence of beings who can perceive them; in this sense Hindu morals are not objective. Hindu ethics is this worldly (2.3.14. Katthopanishad); it is other worldly also for those who believe in other world; for those who believe in rebirth, it liberates them from this cycle. The realization of (the Self and thus) the Bliss is to be experienced here and now in this world. The realization is really a discovery of the true Self which was hidden behind the worldly mind. The 'knowledge' that is realized during the mystical experience is, therefore, not 'man-made', in the sense that it is not made by the mind or brain of man, indeed one has to go beyond the mind and brain of a man. It is neither 'God-made' in the sense that there is no personal God, except that it is the nature of Brahman to be everywhere including the creatures. It is simply discovering the already present one's own real Self through the direct experience of 'Reality' or 'Sat'Chit'Anand.
The fundamental discovery of 'Unity' and the deductions from this are absolute (6.2.1. Chhandogya Upanishad). The fundamental Hindu ethics is absolute, and that it never changes, and also that it is timeless and universal insofar as it applies to all rational creatures around the world; because its source is timeless (2.1. Taittareeya Upnanishad). However, some applied ethical morals derived from the most fundamental morals may be regional, temporary and may depend upon situations for their ranking or validity. Therefore for a Hindu some moral values can be relative to a society depending upon their approval, thereby expressing his belief in cultural relativism or pluralism (1.89.1. Rig-Veda). Here it must be clarified that 'individual relativism' in which an individual decides the code of conduct disregarding the society, would not be acceptable in Hindu morality. Even if an individual may be responsible for his actions, as in Existentialism, it would not be acceptable.
It is worthwhile noting that the Hindu view of morality is neither male oriented nor female oriented, rather it is 'unity' oriented or it is just humane; again because Brahma is genderless, indeed formless; the realization of the Self is independent of gender of the seeker, and the realized person sees nothing but Unity everywhere (3.14.1. Chhandogya Upanishad).
Hindu Normative Ethics: The realized persons see 'Unity' every where, see their selves and all others as Existence ' Consciousness ' Bliss ( 7. Ishawaasya Upnishad). Therefore they only love all humanity as themselves and hate none. The commandments 'Love thy neighbor as thy self', 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you', and 'Thou shalt not kill' etc. are not deontological statements which have to be obeyed just because it is said so in the religious book'. To a Hindu these moral statements are as natural as loving himself is. Indeed to him these are part of fabric of reality in the world. What is 'categorical imperative to Kant is natural and rational to Hindu ethics, viz 'Treat people as an end, and never as a means to an end. That is, we should always treat people with dignity, and never use them as mere instruments.' ((The moral statement, 'Thou shalt not kill' is called 'ahimsa', but Ahimsa is not to cause harm in thought, word and deed; a concept not even talked about in many religions.))'
Rishies have made another far reaching discovery, 'that there may be persons who may have different beliefs or knowledge and that they are free to have them'. The rishies have stated that though the Reality is one, wise persons describe It in many different ways (1.89.1. Rig-Veda). The well known morality of Hindus - 'tolerance' - also issues from the same experience; but others' aggressive intolerance should be guarded against. Hindus are not exclusivists. Thus Hindus neither believe nor act on the dangerous principle ' 'I am right. You are wrong if you differ from me, I must correct you.' Hindus say, 'there are many different ways of realizing that Reality'. We can all follow different paths that appeal to us according to our personalities. Thus Hindu view subscribes to pluralism and 'cultural relativism'. Hindu morality does subscribe to 'utilitarianism' with some conditions, e.g. it is not of the variety of J. Bentham or J.S.Mill. Once all beings are equal and are to be loved, then how does one choose an action that affects people differently? In such cases utilitarian principle 'largest good of the most' (this moral statement was made by Buddha in 6th century BC.) would be operative.
The essence of morality lies in its practice. Wonderful morals exist, though a few are controversial. Harm is being done either by not practicing the good morals such as 'speak the truth', and 'love thy neighbor', or by practice of those that are 'exclusive'. Exclusive morals such as 'My path is the true path, you better follow my path, O.K?' can be dangerous. Humanity is so diverse in its worldly behavior that 'tolerance' becomes a high moral value itself. This accords well with the principle of freedom as well. Practice of good morals is difficult, such as 'love thy neighbor' or 'speak the truth always' etc. Further difficulty is caused by lack of full faith in the moral statements. If such a faith is derived from a religious book then faith in that 'book' is crucial. Also not every 'statement' in a religious book is beyond question. In these days of science and skepticism and hedonism such an unwavering faith is rare. Therefore morals become loose. Such a problem does not exist theoretically in Hindu morality because the faith in the moral statement is deduced from a direct experience of Reality, which establishes the fundamental unity among living creatures. And from here the other moral statements follow. As 'realization of Self' is not an easy activity, and not many may find it practical to devote their time to practices leading to realization, Vedic view subscribes to respect the realized persons and the necessity of education (1.9.1. Taittireeya Upanishad) same as
How do we relate all this to resolving our moral issues? In the preamble of UNESCO it is stated that wars begin in minds. Therefore minds need to be educated. If we care to look deeply at our behavior, we find that most of the problems that are created in this world are mainly because of our enemies within ourselves, viz. uncontrolled and misguided desires, anger, greed, obsessions ('moha'), ego etc (37,38 & 39 Srimadbhagawat Gita). And practice of morality remains, inter alia, at the mercy of these enemies. It can be said at this stage that desires and actions that lead to spiritual evolution of oneself are benign, and those that do not lead to spiritual evolution are our enemies, and moment we are free from them we reach divine peace and realize our Self (18.53. Srimadbhagawat Gita). Evolution here means progress from the 'mere body centered' approach to the 'realized state', which really means progress from hate to love, from darkness to light, from death to life, from an utterly selfish state to the most altruistic state (1.3.28. Brihadaaranyaka) Desires and actions that lead to such evolution are our friends (1.2.1. Katthopanishad). Society with such morals would be a peaceful, progressive and humane society. Let us apply these Vedic morals to some of the problems that the world is facing today.
Let us take the burning and ubiquitous problem of 'terrorism'. There is class of people who believe that their faith is the only right faith and it is their sacred duty to bring the defaulters on the correct path by hook or by crook. Such a people, for example, are being led by Osama Bin Laden who is using terrorism for his 'divine' mission. In such a case, will the code of nonviolence put a Vedic Hindu in a paralyzing dilemma? First, a Hindu would try even more to create a feeling of love and tolerance and coexistence among the people of that faith especially in India. This should weaken the base on which Osama can act. Then he would attempt to create a world opinion on the same basis. Only as a last resort he would use violence. This argument may be objected. If a Hindu sees his Self in Osama then how can he wish to destroy Osama? Here is the problem of right Vs right. In such cases one 'right' is to be given priority over another 'right' depending upon the situation. In this situation nonviolence is being sacrificed in order to weaken and even destroy the violent evil. So long as Osama practices his faith and does no harm to the humanity, a Hindu has no problem with him, because to a Hindu it is not a fight of one faith against his faith. But moment he physically harms the rest of humanity, he becomes evil and one must defend oneself from him, and kill him if necessary. A Hindu would oppose his own brother if the brother became evil, like Vibhishan opposed Raavan. Hindu code of conduct does not reside in some Platonic spirit. A Hindu's moral code strives for sustenance of peaceful life here. He values freedom and justice even more than nonviolence. Of course the two need not be opposed to each other always. Mahatma Gandhi who was one of the greatest 'ethical leader' of the world secured freedom of India, from the cruel and brutal colonial British, through nonviolence, truth and love.
Let us take the issue of 'abortion'. It is being discussed as 'pro-life' Vs 'pro-choice'. Life is certainly sacred, and the one in the fetus is even more so because it is helpless to defend itself. Further it is our happy duty to bring up children in this world. Hindu scriptures don't give any commandment on this issue specifically. The scriptures do inform that 'dharma', which is loosely translated as 'religion', has ten main characteristics, viz. truth, intellect, control of mind, control of sensory organs, knowledge (including that of Self), steadfastness, non-anger, forgiveness, purity and non-stealing (Manu Smriti). These ten values have been deduced from the same transcendental experience. Dharma means that which sustains all life and living. Dharma is always the basis of all actions of a Hindu. Dharma leads to both, a 'good' material life and spiritual evolution (1.1.2. Vaishayshik Sutra). Abortion is again a case of right Vs right; right of fetus Vs right of mother. Life is sacred. If the birth of that fetus, to one's best understanding, is going to risk the survival of the mother or of the child itself or cause serious problems to that child that would be born, then abortion is better, provided that the mother herself desires it strongly enough to willingly suffer consequences of the abortion. Therefore to a Hindu 'abortion' per se is not an issue but indiscriminate abortion is. Hindu morality is 'consequentialist' in this sense.
Let us take the issue of 'poverty'. (India is a poor country. India was among the richest countries till the twelfth century AD when Muslim invaders colonized it. For centuries, it got busy fighting for its survival. Even then it was rich enough to attract the Europeans in sixteenth century. India was then colonized by the British who destroyed its industrial base and took its wealth away. Britain became one of the richest nations in the world and left India not only poor but shattered. 'Poverty is the worst polluter', said Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India in the World Environment Meet held in
Stockholm.) How to avoid poverty or increase the living standard of all, is one of the greatest challenges faced by us today. When a realized person sees his Self in everyone then how can he tolerate poor persons suffering? Hindus realized long ago that the structure of a society is also responsible for distribution of wealth in a society apart from the qualities of a poor person. And whatever the structure, some persons would always be vulnerable to poverty. Apart from structuring a just society in to four castes based on ones ability and actions, donations and alms were recommended to alleviate conditions of unfortunate persons. It was just because everybody got a caste that he deserved as per his ability and function, and this provided a distribution of Labour that made the whole society prosperous. It is natural to some extent that the caste system has a tendency to become ' birth determined'. For it to remain it needed a society that was alert in this sense as well. It is a pity that the caste system has become hereditary (it was feared), which does not permit a low caste person to progress as much as he may deserve.
Mahatma Gandhi, a high caste person, fought to give the low caste people an honorable place in the society. In order that wealth may not become the most coveted value in life, the rishies made the most respected cast viz. Brahmin to live within modest means and never to covet wealth. This helped in prevention of thriving of distortions such as greed, stealing, cheating etc for money in the society. But it did not prevent entrepreneurship for progress and wealth because one whole cast, out of the four, was given this task of progress as their duty. Vedic Morality is for prosperity but not at the cost of 'dharma' i.e. morality. However prosperous the world may become, poverty and misery would be there because of the inner enemies, like greed and attachment etc., of humans. Poverty is also a relative term. What is poverty in USA is not so e.g. in India. Also material prosperity without commensurate morality cannot eliminate miseries, violence and turbulence. Vedanta states that it is 'knowledge' that can help in eliminating misery; this knowledge is of both kinds, material and spiritual. Further Vedanta is not in favor of unbridled consumerism though today it is treated as a sign of progress. Hindu rishies had realized thousands of years ago that unbridled consumerism does not lead to 'happiness'. It may lead to prosperity, progress and pleasure, but not necessarily to happiness and certainly not to Bliss. Indeed it leads to a feverish race for fulfillment of desires that never end thereby leading to frustration and dissatisfaction. In search of bliss, when rishies controlled their desires, they found it easier to discover the Self, the Bliss; and becoming desireless does not lead to inaction and poverty.
Rishies had also understood that unbridled consumerism leads to distortion of human values and destruction of natural wealth. The whole world cannot, even if made rich enough, afford the living standard of USA; it would poison the air, pollute the water, ravage the earth, deplete the energy sources and destroy the (ozone) umbrella in the sky. As per the Hindu thought these same are the five elements with which the entire universe is made of. It never made much sense earlier, but now it does. These elements need to be protected, if life has to survive on this fragile planet earth. The concept of sustainable development was always the part of Hindu system - one has to control the consumption of natural resources, and nature is to be protected. For the protection of nature, trees, even whole forests, and rivers etc. were (and to some extent today are) worshipped in India (now only in Meghaalaya, and Western Ghats). Hindus do not have much difficulty in accepting 'birth control' also because for Hindus progress must be sustainable.
Let us take the issues of biases that we all have e.g. racial, regional, religious, sexual etc. In the Vedic thought one would not expect any such bias because of the inherent 'oneness' of all in the fabric of Hindu system of thought. India has been home to Christians, Jews, blacks, Parsees or Zoroastrians, Southeast Asians, Shakas and Hoons etc for thousands of years, where they have enjoyed life without any persecution. Shakas and Hoons, the barbarian aggressors, have merged with Hindus. Jews themselves have stated that they have been persecuted all over the world except in India. Parsees are doing extremely well in India. Christians are prospering and living in peace except when the question of conversion raises its demonic head. Hindus, till the arrival of Mogul rule, treated women not only equally but also respectfully. It is stated in scriptures that where women are highly respected, gods reside there. India was one of the leading nations to adapt for a democracy based on adult franchise, and again to produce first woman Prime Minister. Persons from the low caste, Muslims and Sikhs have either become President of India or Prime Minister. Today a Muslim is our President and a Sikh a Prime Minister, and a woman of Italian origin the President of the most influential political Party of India.
Let us take another bias that many people all the world over may have, viz. against 'scientific thinking', including the Theory of Evolution. It may be surprising to know that Hindus never had any bias against science despite their mystic philosophy. Hindus have accepted the Theory of Evolution without any reservation. ((Indeed some seeds supporting the Theory of Evolution are present in Hindu thought e.g. one gets a human birth after passing through 8.4 million species!))' Now it is accepted by the authorities the world over that Hindus are the inventors of zero and the decimal system in mathematics, apart from many theorems; that Arya Bhata, a Hindu, around 500 A.D., proved 1000 years before Copernicus, that the earth goes round the Sun, and also spins on its own axis; that the eclipses are caused by shadows of the moon and the earth (p 9-Scientific Edge ' Jayant V Narlikar). It is not that Arya Bhata made a good 'deduction' by simple observations. He was conversant, if not the originator, with concepts of higher mathematics, even 'Spherical Trigonometry', like 'sine' of angles etc. Thus he could predict the eclipses accurately. He was honored and made the Vice Chancellor of Nalanda, the largest University in the world at that time, and was not burnt on stakes like Bruno, and not jailed like Galileo (Scientific Edge ' Jayant Narlikar). Now, despite joining the science - movement late due to colonization, India has, probably, the largest, number of science and technology students in the world.
Thus it can be seen that the Hindu system of thought and its philosophy is humanistic, promotes love, kindness, service, tolerance, truth and non-violence. It is based not on mere intellectual understanding, but on direct experience of the Reality as Self. It is not against progress and prosperity but is against unbridled consumerism. Thanks to the inherent 'oneness' of all in the fabric of Hindu system of thought one would not expect any biases like racial, regional, religious, feminist, sexual, anti- science etc. To a Hindu all creatures are part of nature, and therefore he 'worships' Nature, and respects all living beings as equal. Further it is easier for a Hindu to practice morality because its tenets are derived from a direct experience of Reality which is unity with Existence ' Consciousness ' Bliss. I conclude this with a prayer:
"May all be happy
May all be healthy
May all experience auspiciousness
May no body suffer misery."