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Outstanding Features Of Hindu Ethical Thought

( Originally Published 1922 )



OUR historical survey of Hindu ethics will have served to show how different in many ways the Hindu point of view is from that generally held by the modern European. The differences are greater than the casual observer usually realizes. Attention has been drawn by students of the history of ethical thought to the fact that there has been considerable variety of moral practice in different ages and in different lands; and this, apart altogether from those differences which are connected with conditions belonging to various levels of development. There are, for example, very marked differences between the Greek and the Christian ideas of virtue. To take but a single aspect of the case, much has been made of the Christian idea of humility in distinction to the qualities which Aristotle holds up to admiration in the magnanimous man. There are differences of opinion regarding moral ideals in the modern world. It is impossible for one to pass from one European country to another without being conscious of a difference in the moral atmosphere ; and even within any given land different ideals are held by equally serious men. Among people of our own nation there are some who hold to what is called a Puritanical code of morals, while others, whose desire to lead the best life may be no less sincere, follow a code which their Puritan neighbours regard as dangerously lax. And these differences in many cases have behind them more fundamental metaphysical or theological differences regarding the nature of reality, or the being or character of God. Yet amid all differences there is a remarkable amount of unanimity. Occasionally discussion waxes loud over some practical question, but even then it often happens that differences are found not to be really fundamental, and to be connected rather with the application of principles than with principles themselves.

This may be put in another way. Modern European thinkers have propounded various theories of the moral end. But the remarkable thing is that they have not usually questioned the validity of current ethical judgements except in matters of detail. Occasionally, indeed, there appears a thinker, like Nietzsche, who rejects our conventional moral standards and offers us a new morality. But more commonly moral philosophers have started from the assumption, avowed or implied, that conventional moral judgements are on the whole sound, and that where they are defective the explanation is to be found in lack of depth and precision of thought on the part of those who are the moral guides of society. Mill, for example, compares the accepted ethical code to the Nautical Almanac, regarding the business of the moralist, in one of its departments, as comparable to that of the astronomer who makes the calculations and pushes on to further inquiries. Regarding the main lines of moral truth Mill and Kant would have been Iargely in agreement. Differences of opinion would have arisen, not so much regarding the forms of conduct which would have been held to be virtuous or vicious, as on the grounds on which moral judgements are based. It is surprising that thinkers belonging to various schools should have given so little attention to the problem that would con-front them if an objector were to say, ` I deny the truth of your maxims and of the whole web of maxims to which they belong. Kant would point the objector to the breach of rationality which such a position would involve, but this would not move the man who preferred to be irrational. Mill would point to the loss of pleasure which would be involved to himself or to the sentient creation generally, but this would not move the man who refused to adopt the pleasure of all as his end.

The fact is that our modern European ethic—and in this it is at one with Greek ethics and the ethical tendency of Christianity in its most typical expressions—is an ethic of self-realization. We are not unmindful of schools like the Cynic and the Stoic, or of ascetic and quietistic tendencies which have shown themselves sometimes in extreme forms within the Christian Church, which might seem on the face of them to be expressions of a different spirit. It remains true that amid many differences of metaphysical standpoint there has persisted a sense of the worth of personality or, at any rate, of the worth of those ends in which the spirit of man seeks satisfaction. This is perhaps a somewhat vague statement, but it may be expressed more pointedly in this way, that the ideal of the West has been self-expression rather than self-repression. There have been many warring schools and factions, but the casus belli has usually been the relative place to be given to different elements in human nature. There have been few who have had the courage to maintain the position that the great expressions of the human spirit in science, art, and civilization generally are not its true expressions. And even when there has appeared in the West such a spirit of dissent, the ideal has nevertheless been the enriching of personality ; it has not been held that man found his true end in mere privation.

Whatever may be thought of this line of argument, it can at least be maintained with full assurance that Hindu ethical thought and practice have rested on presuppositions of a different kind from those on which the ethical thought and practice of the West have rested. All down through the history of Hindu thought it has been almost taken for granted that individuality is a limitation, and that as such it is some-thing that must be transcended. In the great systems of philosophy this is taken as almost axiomatic, though there are differences in the explanations given of the illusion of individuality and the methods by which it is to be dispelled. We are not unmindful of Ramanuja, or of other thinkers and religious leaders who have taught the doctrine of the reality of the soul not as essentially one with God, but as distinct from God and capable of entering into union with Him. The significance of such doctrines has already been discussed, and nothing that we have seen of them in their theoretical formulation or their practical expression serves to modify the general impression which we receive of the practical tendencies of Hindu thought. Without committing ourselves to any sweeping generalization, we may say that even with thinkers who have denied the illusoriness of personal existence, the end of man has been thought of as being in the silence. It has been characteristic of Hindu thought generally that the world of ordinary experience has been thought of as a barrier blocking the way to Reality. It is not conceived as in any way revealing the Real, which is to be found through negation of the phenomenal.

The reply is sometimes made that these conceptions are not distinctive of Hindu thought. Deussen in particular has sought to maintain the essential similarity of the solution of the philosophical problem given by the great thinkers of India and of the West. But in spite of all that may be said, the great thinkers of the West have held that there is a pathway to the Real through the phenomenal, and that there is a path-way to the goal of human attainment through the performance of the duties of ` the good neighbour and the honest citizen . Hindu philosophy has its Karma-kanda, its system of works propaideutic to the Jnana-kanda, but none of the great systems of thought contains anything that can properly be called a system of ethics. They represent the end as a form of being in which the ethical is simply transcended, and, what is more important, as standing in no vital relation to any discipline of a strictly ethical kind.

Let the case be stated bluntly. Those ideas which bulk so largely in the Vedanta, and which find expression in other systems of philosophy, when logically applied, leave no room for ethics. Nevertheless, as has been already shown, if human life is to go on at all there are certain principles in accordance with which it must be carried on. This practical need is met by the system of dharma, in which guidance is given for human conduct in almost infinite detail. These details are to a large extent connected with ritual observance, and only to a limited extent are they of the nature of moral precepts. In so far as moral duties are inculcated, the details of the moral law are partly drawn from sources common to primitive morality generally, as in the case of the duties of hospitality to strangers, liberality, and such like ; partly they are the outcome of the peculiar philosophical notions which had grown up, as in the case of the various ascetic disciplines. We cannot draw a sharp line of distinction between these two sources, for disciplines which later came to have a more strictly moral appearance were in some cases practised originally in the belief that they had magical efficacy. But the important thing for us to consider now is the fact that dharma has to do with a lower sphere of experience. It serves as a sort of platform over which one may climb to a position from which it becomes easier to reach the higher, but when this position has been reached it is no longer needed.

These ideas have filtered down into popular thought. It is not claimed that they have absolutely dominated it, but, to say the least, they have very widely and powerfully influenced it. This comes out nowhere more clearly than in the popular ideas of sainthood which bulk so largely in Hindu thought. Any one who has been brought into close contact with Hindu life can testify to this. The following incident recorded by Miss Cornelia Sorabji is typical :

Of charity in its scriptural meaning I once had a talk with an orthodox old Hindu Sadhu. A friend, just arrived from England, was discussing with him through an interpreter what the Hindu called the `big-little things. In response to the Hindus invitation to take my friend on a pilgrimage, he was shown the Englishmans engagement book. The Holy man said that he who kept an engagement book could never attain to holiness. `But, said the Englishman, `my engagements are some of them in the service of my fellowmen. That is surely the way of holiness. ` Yes, said the Hindu, ` the very bottom-most step of the ladder. ` What ! then which is the highest ? ` Meditation—perfecting your individual self, losing it, in contemplation. ` But while I am making my soul, sitting here meditating, my brother may be run over by a car in the street. Is not the higher work to go and rescue him? `Oh! no, said the Hindu. `That is for men who are beginning the way of holiness. Works are for those who need to buy. Then he stopped, puzzled by his own philosophy. ` Or is the rescue of your brother Gods work and not mans ? he said, and left it there.

This suggests another point of view from which we may look at the case. According to our Western ways of thinking the ideal type of character is one which has been formed under conditions of strenuous activity. It is not the cloistered virtue that is praised so much as that which has come like pure molten gold out of the furnace of worldly trial. There have been those who have thought the virtue of the monastery or the convent the highest, no doubt. And it is significant that it is those Christian saints, who manifest and commend this kind of virtue, who of all Christian saints are most widely appreciated in India. Thomas A Kempiss Imitation of Christ is probably the most popular Christian work in India. But most Christian people would agree that this type of sainthood expresses only in a very partial way the spirit of Christ. The place it has come to have at times in parts of the Christian Church may be explained partly by the fact that down through the history of Christianity there have been some who have thought of the Kingdom of God, erroneously, as a kingdom apart from all the activities with which men busy themselves in the world ; partly by the fact that there have been those who have thought that for some there is a mission to sweeten the life of the world through the influence of lives lived apart from the hurry of its business. With those who hold this latter point of view we have no reason to quarrel. But the well-known lines of Goethe express the mind of the West, and in this case also the mind of Christian people, regarding the moral life :

Es bildet ein Talent sich in der Stille,
Sich ein Charakter in dem Strom der Welt.

The Hindu ideal, as we have seen, is different from this. By widely sundered schools of thought the ideal man is believed to be he who has broken all worldly ties and who seeks a life of meditation apart from the haunts of men. There have been, it is true, especially in modern times, some who have felt that their true sphere was in the world. The call to service came to Debendranath Tagore while in retirement on the Himalayas : Give up thy pride and be lowly like this river. The truth thou hast gained, the devotion and trustfulness that thou hast learned here ; go, make them known to the world. 2 And like the river he descended from the mountains to water the arid plain. But this is not typical. The great religious teachers of India have not generally come down among men seeking to lift them up. Their gospel has not been a social one. The ideal life is not one that can be lived in the city, in the family, in the performance of the duties of everyday life. It is only rarely, as in parts of the Bhagavadgita, that the belief has been held with any clearness that there is a way to salvation through the faithful performance of the duties of ones station. And even when it has been held, it has not been with that clearness that has enabled men to see a pathway to reality through the humblest duties of everyday life.

If all this has been made clear, it will be seen that the Hindu ethical position is a very curious one. There are in a way two standards, and their bearing on practical life presents problems that are full of difficulty. The duties of social life cannot be deduced from the ultimate goal of attainment as the orthodox understand it, nor can they be shown to stand in any vital relation to it. Dharma is imposed by authority, and that is the end of it.

Whatever law has been ordained for any (person) by Manu, that has been fully declared in the Veda: for that (sage was) omniscient.

But the authority of dharma is not the highest, and it is possible for a man to advance to a stage at which he owes no obligation to it. This is a fact that raises serious difficulties. It is not as if there were a ready-made code of laws, and an ideal, of which they were a partial expression, and by reference to which the code might be indefinitely extended. For it is only to a limited extent and in an ambiguous sense that dharma receives its content from the highest ideal. The want of a fertilizing ideal and the existence of a social morality that rests on authority are facts which have had the effect of preventing progress in ethical thought and practice. The Sastras stand, and to this day social life is to an almost incredible degree regulated by their precepts. Not that the intellectual ferment which is going on in India at the present time has not spread to the sphere of ethical thought. Ethical questions are being discussed, and in certain circles the highest and most ancient authority is being challenged. One reads occasionally articles in which it is held that the system of dharma enjoined by the sacred writings had a value at the time at which it was formulated, which it does not have amid the changed conditions of the present. But one does not see much in the way of constructive suggestion that possesses much value.

The social and ethical situation within Hinduism at the present time is a very peculiar one, and its peculiarities have been far too little appreciated by many Western critics. We Westerners pride ourselves on our progressiveness. The Hindu realizes that the West is restless and changeful ; he is not so sure of the progress. And he points with pride to the fact that Hindu civilization has seen many Western civilizations rise and decay. Down through the centuries Hindu civilization has stood firm founded on dharma, each individual unquestioningly fulfilling the duties of the station into which he has been born. There is something grand about such a: social system, and it is not wonderful that there are some bred in the restless West who are attracted by the restfulness which seems to characterize life lived within such a system. Nor is the Hindu impressed by a certain kind of argument which some base on the political consequences of the acceptance of a system which so prescribes the lines of the individuals activity. This argument is put in the form in which it is most obnoxious to the Hindu mind by Mill :

The greater part of the world has, properly speaking, no history, because the despotism of Custom is complete. This is the case over the whole East. . . And we see the result. Those nations must once have had originality; they did not start out of the ground populous, lettered, and versed in many of the arts of life ; they made themselves all this, and were then the greatest and most powerful nations of the world. What are they now? The subjects or dependents of tribes whose forefathers wandered in the forests when theirs had magnificent palaces and gorgeous temples, but over whom custom exercised only a divided rule with liberty and progress.

To the Hindu mind all this seems utterly irrelevant ; and the fact that such arguments are used seem to it to be but one more mark of the materialism of the West.

But India has not been able to remain outside the currents of progress that are sweeping over the world. Its ethical ideas have not remained untouched. The attempt is being made to combine traditional modes of thought with others which are new and alien. The results are strange, sometimes tragic. There are some who are seeking on the basis of an historical understanding of the situation to construct a philosophy of life, the main fabric of which shall be Hindu, but in which shall be incorporated whatever they believe to be good in Western culture. There are more who, while nominally holding to the ancient fabric of Hindu custom, have in spirit departed from it, and who wander among the ideas of the West with no clear guiding light.

This is a point that has been dealt with at some length, because a clear apprehension of it will help to make intelligible a great deal in Hindu ethical thought which otherwise might perplex one. The moral ideas of all peoples have certain features in common. Murder, theft, lying, and the like, are vices, the avoidance of which is a matter of importance in any state, and in some way or within certain limits they have been denounced wherever men have lived together. Again, there are virtues which have their root in primitive practice, the outcome not of reasoned thought but of impulses of the heart, reinforced by magical belief—virtues such as liberality, hospitality, and the like. These are the heritage of manifold peoples ; and it is not in them that we look for what is distinctive in the morality of any people, though there may be great significance in the ways in which these ideas are held and practised. We have to look deeper for what is really distinctive—to the beliefs which are held as to the meaning and purpose of life as a whole. In the preceding chapters many quotations have been given which will have served to show the kind of virtues which are of most fundamental importance, and it will have been seen that, generally speak, ing, they are those virtues in which is manifested that unworldly and anti-social spirit which is the natural outcome of the chief tendencies of philosophical thought. This is so even in the teaching of the Bhagavadgita. It will be of interest to look again at a list of virtues given in it :

Pridelessness, guilelessness, harmlessness, patience, uprightness, service of the master, purity, steadfastness, self-suppression, passionlessness towards the objects of the sense instruments, lack of the thought of an I, perception of the frailties of birth, death, age, sickness, and pain, unattachment, independence of child, wife, home, and the like, ever-lasting indifference of mind whether fair or foul befall him, unswerving devotion towards Me with undivided Rule, haunting of solitary places, lack of delight in the gatherings of men, ceaseless dwelling in the knowledge of the One over Self, vision of the goal of the Knowledge of the Verity,—these are declared to be Knowledge. Ignorance is otherwise than this.

Even Tukaram—to take a representative of the thought of the people in its less sophisticated expressions—shows the same anti-social tendencies at times.

Despise home, wealth and country : embrace spiritually beasts and trees.

The line of argument that has been followed in the preceding pages would be repudiated by some of the most thoughtful Indians at the present time, such, for example, as Dr. Rabindranath Tagore. They have maintained that the thought of the ancient Hindu scriptures does not justify the passivity which we have found reason to believe they teach, but that the realization of their ideals is to be found in action. In his Sadhana Dr. Rabindranath protests against that ideal of life of which the sannyasi is the representative :

He who thinks to reach God by running away from the world, when and where does he expect to meet him ? How far can he fly--can he fly and fly, till he flies into nothingness itself ? No, the coward who would fly can nowhere find him. We must be brave enough to be able to say : We are reaching him here in this very spot, now at this very moment. We must be able to assure ourselves that as in our actions we are realizing ourselves, so in ourselves we are realizing him who is the self of self. We must earn the right to say so unhesitatingly by clearing away with our own effort all obstruction, all disorder, all discords from our path of activity ; we must be able to say, ` In my work is my joy, and in that joy does the joy of my joy abide.

But it may be emphatically maintained that this conception of realization through action has no sure foundation in Hindu thought. The Bhagavadgita is the great authority of those who hold otherwise, but it is only in a qualified and uncertain way that activity finds support and justification there.

The radical fault in Hindu ethical thought seems to lie in this, that the root of all evil is held to reside not in the will but the intellect. It is ignorance, not moral fault, which in the last analysis stands between the soul and its realization of the highest, or, to put it more accurately, moral error is not something sui generis, but is one of the fruits of intellectual error. This, as we have seen, is the position which is held by all the great philosophical schools. And from the philosophical point of view the task of man is the removal of those obstructions that stand in the way of his attainment of know-ledge. Let it be emphasized that the Hindu position is not really related to the question, as old at least as Socrates in Western thought, whether with full knowledge one can deliberately choose the evil. That is a profound psycho-logical question, and the answers that may be given to it raise still more profound metaphysical problems. The Hindu holds a point of view at which the question is irrelevant. He maintains that with full knowledge the desires will not be trained towards either the good or the evil, but the root of desire itself will be cut. The. moral ideal is thus not fulfilled but transcended. And in spite of all that has been said of the place that is given to activity in the Bhagavadgita, what has just been said applies with equal truth to the doctrine which it teaches.

He who rejoices not, hates not, grieves not, desires not, who renounces alike fair and foul, and has devotion, is dear to Me.

At the stage of enlightenment, even when what is called devotion to the Supreme has a place in it, the soul is carried beyond good and evil.

We may consider briefly one more question which has been much discussed regarding Hindu thought, its alleged pessimism. This is a question which has not always been intelligently treated. It has been thought by some who have approached the question from the point of view of Christian thought that it can be solved by a mere exposition of the nature of the goal which Hinduism offers. As a matter of fact not very much can be made by arguments conducted along this line. Whether the goal be regarded as absorption in Brahma or a state of continued bliss in union with the Supreme, the answer to the question whether or not the end to which one may attain is supremely good, will be determined very largely by individual predilections. There is, however, one aspect of the case, considered even from this point of view, which merits consideration. Can it be maintained that the goal is supremely worth attaining, or is it, far from being a true goal, merely a deliverance from the struggle ? In answer to this it may be said that whatever bliss may be enjoyed in actual realization, the struggle for attainment is regarded as evil. In it there is contributed nothing which serves to enrich the possession to be won. The struggle availeth nought ; ` the labour and the wounds are vain. Optimism and pessimism are after all relative terms, though derived from superlatives, and the attainment even of a great good loses something of its value when the quest is so meaning-less as the quest of this is. For to the Hindu mind the whole business of individual existence is in the end a mystery, a hard judgement for which with all his ingenuity he has not been able to provide satisfactory justification.

But this touches only one side of the question. Let it be granted that the end is good, and there remains the other and far more important question as to the means to its attainment. Has the individual any reasonable guarantee that he will be able to reach the goal ? The answer to this raises questions which will be discussed in the next chapter in connexion with the doctrine of karma, and, not to anticipate what will be said there, we may content ourselves with remarking at this point that, as this doctrine is usually formulated, little room if any is left for freedom, and the soul is carried on from one birth to another without its being able effectively to determine the direction which it is to take. It is entangled in a round of existence by conditions which belong to itself, but which are, strictly speaking, beyond its control. Now, even if we were able to prove that Hindu thought is through and through deterministic, that would not settle the question of its pessimism, for the question at issue between pessimism and optimism is not necessarily the same as that between necessity and self-determination. The best possible world might quite conceivably be one in which the individual was under the rule of forces other than himself. But in Hindu thought the goal is represented as for most men so distant, and the way to it as so controlled by forces that are in every real sense alien to himself, that we feel justified in maintaining that Hindu thought is pessimistic in the extreme. And it will hardly be denied that this pessimism colours a very large part of Hindu literature.



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