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Positive Contribution Of Hinduism To Ethical Thought

( Originally Published 1922 )

THE criticism which has been offered in this work has necessarily been largely of a negative and destructive kind. We have found reason for believing that Hindu philosophical thought furnishes no satisfactory basis for an ethic, while the system of dharma rests on no sure intellectual supports. But the impression must not he left that India has nothing to contribute to the study of the great questions connected with the moral life and no suggestions to make for its conduct, that its search for a true way of life has been utterly vain, and that thinkers may pass by its achievements in the ethical sphere merely as phenomena having a certain historical interest but without significance for serious ethical thought. That would be a profound mistake. The spiritual history of India is closely connected with its most fundamental thought, and it is inconceivable that a culture such as that which for millenniums has flourished in India could have rooted itself so deeply and maintained itself so persistently if it did not contain within it elements of great and abiding value.

In considering the contribution which Hindu thought has made, and which it may be believed it has yet to make, it must be borne in mind that we have to deal with something more than a system or systems of thought. We have to deal also with the culture of a people. We shall consequently have to take into account not only the ethical conceptions with which they have worked, but the expression of these in actual life and the psychological significance of this expression. It is necessary also to bear in mind that the value of ethical conceptions or of forms of practice is not necessarily dependent on their consistency with each other or with fundamental principles, or on our estimate of the validity of these fundamental principles themselves. To take a parallel case from Western thought, few of those who reject the Utilitarian theory of morals would deny that its exponents have made a great contribution to ethical thought or that their principles have had great practical value.

Looking, then, at Hindu thought and culture with these considerations in mind, we may claim for them that they contain elements which are of great value in themselves, and which may serve to enrich the thought and culture of the world.

We may take first the Hindu system of dharma. Enough has already been said about it to make clear the weaknesses that belong to it. But, at the same time, we must recognize how great an asset India had and still has in the stable social order which it reflects, and how strong and yet tender are the ties that may bind together members in various relationships within that order. In a restless age in which the whole structure of Western society is in danger of being reduced to chaos, it is not strange that the eyes of many should be directed to the more stable conditions that govern Hindu society, where each man has his place and function irrevocably assigned to him. This is not to say that the Hindu social organization, with its caste and its other unnatural distinctions, can serve as a model in a day of social reconstruction. In its concrete form it is an anachronism which can be accounted for only by the comparative removal of India down through the ages from the influence of the great currents that were moving in the life of the wider world. But it is an equally great mistake to regard it as if it expressed a spirit in which there was nothing worthy. Where the system of caste, considered as a social institution, has been chiefly wrong, has been in its fixing of men to a particular position of society from which there is no escape whatever may be their individual capacity. Where it has perhaps been strongest has been in its development of a certain sense of vocation, whatever the sphere in which the individual has found himself. This sense of vocation means much for the stability and usefulness of any society and for the worth and dignity of the individual life, and it may be that in time to come the world will learn something from India of the benefits of its exercise. It may also be hoped that when juster conceptions of individual liberty come to prevail in India, her long social discipline will be proved to have tempered the mind of her people, so that liberty will not lead to licence.

Further, it should be observed that, while Hindu society has been so organized that impassable barriers have been erected between different sections of it, there has been on the other hand, as an almost natural consequence of these same conditions, a strong sense of the sacredness of the ties that bind individual to individual Within their more restricted communities. The most attractive features in Hindu social life are to be found in the family affections, the mutual devotion of parents and children and of brothers and sisters, in the respect for elders, and in the sense of the identity of the interests of the individual with those of the community,. which are so common in Hindu society. A people of whom this can be said is not morally bankrupt. It has great reserves of moral wealth which may yet be turned to the service, not merely of the narrow communities on which it is now lavished, but of the community at large. For the realization of this. end great and even fundamental changes of social organization are no doubt necessary, but it may be found that Hindu society has provided a valuable training ground for the public affections.

When we turn our attention, on the other hand, to Hindu asceticism, we shall find elements in it which have abiding worth. We have found grounds for condemning the theoretical basis on which it rests, and we believe many of its practical expressions to be evil ; yet we cannot deny all value to the spirit which has animated it or to the discipline which its practice has involved. It has been the expression of a sense of the supremacy of the spiritual over the material, of the eternal over the temporal, and however much we may disagree with Hindu conceptions of the nature of the spiritual and the eternal, it means much that there should have been so many who have sought resolutely and fearlessly and at all costs to pursue the highest that they knew. There is reason to believe that with truer conceptions of the nature of reality, with the conviction that the phenomenal is not the negation of the real, but that it may be turned to account in the realization of the real, we should find in India, as a result of the discipline to which many of her people have subjected themselves, an ethical spirit that would risk everything in working out its loyalty to the ideal.

Again, it may be believed that India will have much to teach us in the matter of the interpretation and practice of what are usually known as the passive virtues. The people of India have been much bewildered by the activity of the peoples of the West, and many even of its best men have been but little impressed even with their works of charity and social service. But they seldom fail to be impressed by the exercise of virtues like forbearance, long-suffering, non-resistance to evil, calmness of temper, and unselfishness. So far as Christian morality is concerned, the lives of nominally Christian people may, on the whole, have impressed them but little, but the ethical teaching of Jesus, particularly as it is found in the Sermon on the Mount, has found a response in many quarters. There may be a wide difference in the ways by which the Hindu and the Christian have come to appreciate such virtues, and in the motives which they believe to underlie them. There may even be a great difference between the virtues themselves as understood by Hindu and Christian respectively. But that is not the important thing. What is here maintained is that there has been developed in India a spirit to which certain elements in our Western ethical teaching make an appeal, and which, if properly directed, may be capable of making more explicit, both in practice and theory, the significance of these elements in a well-rounded moral life.

Attention may here be drawn to one virtue of a passive kind which has for long occupied a high place in Hindu morality—that of ahimsa—a term in which is gathered up all that is connoted by harmlessness in the individuals dealings with sentient beings. It is a curious thing that so little attention has been given up till recent times to this side of human conduct in our Western discussions of morality, and that so little protection should have been afforded in Western lands by legislation to the lower animals. It is no less remarkable that the impulse both to a more adequate theoretical treatment of the subject and to a greater considerateness in practice should have come chiefly from the side of Utilitarianism, which in its presentation of the moral end as pleasure was led logically to a recognition of the pleasure of the lower animals as of equal value with that of man, in so far as it is pleasant. Here again the origin of the idea is not what is of first importance. It may have been in its origin bound up with the idea of transmigration, or it may have been, as Dr. Rabindranath Tagore says, the outcome of ` the sentiment of universal sympathy for life or it may have sprung from some quite different impulse. Nor is it of the greatest importance that there are crudities in its actual practice in India—that it has taken forms so largely negative, the chief emphasis being laid on the mere avoidance of destroying life, apart from considerations of well-being in life ; or that it has been given a position of false importance in relation to other virtues. What is here contended for is that in the history of Western ethics too little attention has been devoted to the lower animals in their relation to human conduct. It is to the credit of Hindu thought that it has, both in its legal and philosophical formulations, found a place for the duty of man towards the whole sentient creation. It may be that there shall come from India a stimulus to a more thorough treatment of this subject.

We cannot leave the doctrine of karma, which has been criticized, we believe with justice, as marking one of the weakest points in the whole system of Hindu thought, without giving due recognition to what in it has real value. It will be recognized that the doctrine owes its far-reaching influence and its marvellous vitality to the elements of truth which underlie it. It is based on a conviction of the immense significance of all human activity. In the form in which it has been most widely accepted it has been found to be false and misleading, chiefly because it has been associated with fantastic eschatological conceptions, because it has been applied unethically, and because it has been conceived as operating in a hard, mechanical way. In the earliest formulations of Buddhist doctrine, it was presented in a form in which it was still open to most of the main objections which may be offered to it in its Hindu garb, but it was at least shown to be capable of a more strictly ethical application. And so far as it is the expression of a deeply-rooted conviction that there is something in human conduct to the import of which no limits can be set, we must regard it as a conception of great and permanent value. It may be that in this conception Hindu thought has no great independent contribution to make to the thought of the world. It is no uniquely conceived idea, that whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap. But it is a fact of great practical importance that Hindu thinkers should have recognized it, and applied it with such thoroughness, however mistaken may have been the specific forms which this application has taken.

These are but a few of the most important ways in which we believe that Hindu thought has a contribution to make to the general ethical thought of the world. They have been merely touched on here, but the subject is capable of almost indefinite development. But the conviction must be expressed that if those things which are true and good in Hindu ethics and morality are to have the place and influence which they ought to have, it must be in relation to a system of thought more satisfying than any that has so far found acceptance in India. There are those who think otherwise. There is common in India at the present time an eclecticism which would embrace all religions and all philosophies. Even a thinker like Max Müller, after expressing sympathy with the famous saying of Schopenhauer regarding the Vedanta, ` It has been the solace of my life, it will be the solace of my death, goes on to say, ` a man may be a Platonist, and yet be a good citizen and an honest Christian, and I should say the same of a Vedantist. 1 Now it may be asserted, and some considerations will be found in the foregoing chapters that will help to bear out the assertion, that there is a deep division between the Vedanta and the Christian conceptions of reality. The Vedanta philosophy and Christian doctrine may have some implications that are alike, notably in the matter of the passive virtues ; but Christianity is not simply Vedantism plus something more, nor can Christian thought be simply combined with Vedãntist. This is a point regarding which it is well that we should be clear. There are other systems of thought which take us much nearer to the Christian point of view, but in most of them, and in most even of the best expressions of popular religion, there is to be seen the influence of what one might call the Vedantic view of life, preventing the development of a strenuous moral life. The most thoughtful people of India have been coming more and more to realize the importance of an active social morality, and with that the need for a philosophy and a religion that will furnish adequate intellectual and emotional grounds for it. The only sure ground for this is, on the intellectual side, in a philosophy which recognizes the place of moral ideals in the very constitution of the Universe, and, on the practical side, . in a religion which is in line with such a philosophy. We believe that Christianity is such a religion, and we believe that the religious thought which has inspired the highest morality in connexion with some of the developments of the Bhakti movement, and in connexion with some modern movements, is that in which the idea of God has approximated most closely to the Christian idea.

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