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The Hindu And The Christian Ehtic

( Originally Published 1922 )



IN the course of the foregoing discussion comparison has frequently been made of the Hindu and the Western points of view in regard to the ethical problem. It may be helpful if we try, even at the risk of repetition, to bring together some of the features in which the Hindu ethic differs from the distinctively Christian ethic. In doing this we do not intend to discuss again any of the great determinative conceptions of Hindu thought. It is intended rather to draw attention to more general differences in attitude to the ethical question, and in particular to try to make clear, so far as that is possible in a brief chapter, the rationale of the Christian ethic.

When we speak of Hindu and Christian ethics it is important that we should recognize the significance of the fact that they are systems integrally related with religion. There are systems of ethics that have been formulated without reference to religion. Any fully developed system involves or implies some theory of the Universe, but it may be a theory in which no place is provided for what in strictness can be called the religious attitude. When we have an ethic bound up with a religion, it generally possesses certain characteristic features. All religions offer to man some kind of deliverance or salvation from evil, though the nature of the evil and of the deliverance to be attained are variously conceived ; and the ethic will have some relation to these conceptions. Again, philosophies are for the few, religions for the many, and the morality inculcated by the latter is supported by motives which will appeal to the popular mind. Connected with this is the further fact that a religious ethic generally has intermingled with it elements that are not strictly ethical. In religion we are, of course, carried into a sphere of experience that goes beyond the merely ethical. It is not that fact to which reference is made, but rather to the fact that within the sphere of conduct there are generally prescribed observances which could not be justified on purely ethical grounds.

Christianity and Hinduism are, then, both religions offering ways of salvation, and the ethical teaching of both is related, though in different ways, to their conceptions of salvation. In Hinduism the various forms of conduct that are prescribed are thought of most usually as helping the soul on its way to the attainment of deliverance. In Christianity, on the other hand, the moral life is thought of rather as part of the expression of the life of him who has found salvation. This is a very far-reaching difference.

The greater part of the practical side of Hinduism is summed up in the word dharma. There is an externality about the Hindu conception of dharma which is lacking to the morality of Christianity. As we have already seen, the details of dharma are not deduced from the end which is set before the soul, nor can their relation to the end be made clear. In the case of Christianity the moral life stands in the most immediate and intimate relation to the highest good. The Old Testament had its elaborate system of dharma, but so far as it was external Jesus swept it aside, emphasizing the inner, spiritual elements half-concealed within it-- Ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time . . . but I say unto you. Mere ritual and ceremonial observances He rejected, and the Pharisees, the people who followed them most rigidly, were the objects of His most severe denunciation. They were a people who made clean merely the outside of the platter, Even the Sabbath, an institution which had been of so great spiritual value to the Jewish people, became an evil when its observance came between them and the higher service of mercy. ` It is lawful to do well on the Sabbath days.

Hinduism has, properly speaking, no New Testament, and it is hard. to see how there could be got from its essential principles a Gospel which would express itself in life in works of love and mercy such as Jesus sought of His disciples. Progress towards the end, so far as this is attained through spiritual discipline, is achieved through withdrawal from the business of life in which the opportunities for service present themselves. This may seem to be a sweeping statement, but its truth may be tested practically. Is there any record in the annals of Hinduism up to modern times of any great religious movement which found its chief expression in a pure yet active social morality ? Is there anything comparable to the movement which St. Francis of Assisi initiated and led ? It is not denied that there have been many who have ceased to put their trust in dharma as a system of ritual, but have they found a new and deeper dharma to take its place, a dharma which is the free expression of a religion of active good-will towards men ?

This carries us on to another point. One of the dominating conceptions in the teaching of Jesus is that of the Kingdom of Heaven or Kingdom of God. Salvation, from one point of view, means admission to this Kingdom. The conception of the Kingdom is one that has deep roots in the history of Jewish thought, and that has many and wide implications. But, looking at it simply from the ethical point of view, we are impressed by the meaning which it lends to the life of every day. Jesus spoke of a spiritual world which was not foreign to the world in which we live. The Kingdom of Heaven He declared to be not something away in the clouds, not something that might be attained at the end of a long and weary journey.

The Kingdom of God cometh not with observation : neither shall they say, Lo here ! or, lo there ! for, behold, the Kingdom of God is within (or among) you.

The members of the Kingdom are not a people dwelling in monasteries, or in the forest, but a people who live among their fellows, manifesting to them in all their dealings, even the most ordinary and commonplace, that good-will of God which has come to them through Jesus Christ. For the world is Gods world, and His is the rule. Men may have wandered in ways of selfishness and passion and unkindness, but for all who turn from these ways there is a way into all the privileges of the Kingdom. Jesus did not teach that men may enter the Kingdom as a reward of well-doing ; what He did teach was that the Kingdom was there present with them for all to enter whose desire was after God. In its life they would find the inspiration and the strength for all good living.

This is an idea that Hindus generally find difficult to under-stand. It is not easy for them to see how a man can be in the truest sense a religious man while living in the world and engaging in its business. As a matter of fact, it is simply an aspect of the fact that heaven and earth are in the closest relationship, so that the seen and temporal are not simply the negation of the unseen and eternal. In our ethical activity we are in touch with reality ; for the ideals by which it is deter-mined are not simply counsels of prudence having a limited applicability, but principles which enter into the very fibre of the Universe. This is a thought to which St. Paul gives expression when he says that Our citizenship is in heaven. We belong, that is to say, to a Society which transcends all earthly and temporal limitations. The end of man is not in silence and inactivity, but in active membership of a great, eternal Society, and the principles which ought to dominate our conduct in our relations with our fellow men in the world are the eternal principles of this Society. It is on these lines that we must understand the saying of Christ, Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. By this He meant that His followers should realize their membership of the Kingdom not by turning aside from all the activities of the world, but by bringing the principles of the Kingdom to bear on all their activity in the world, not by the subduing of desire, but by the direction of desire in accordance with His mind.

This is a thought which finds expression in some way in all that Jesus teaches regarding human conduct. He condemns pride and covetousness and lust with all the earnestness of any Hindu teacher, but the motive is different. In Hindu teaching these are generally thought of as strengthening that conviction of individuality in cherishing which the soul is drawn away from its true being. In the teaching of Jesus they are thought of as impeding the development of a true individuality through which the highest ends of the Universe may be realized. The subduing of selfishness and passion is then something which in itself has merely negative value. In itself it counts for but little. The best life is that which is lived under the inspiration of a love which issues in the active service of others, seeking for them those things that make for the realization of the richest individuality. Accordingly we find Jesus saying things that have surprised not only Hindus but many others who have conceived the religious life as something essentially other-worldly. One of the most remarkable of these sayings is that connected with His great picture of the Judgement. There the most terrible condemnation is not declared to be the portion of the actively wicked, but of those who have simply done nothing.

Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels : for I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat : I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink : I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed tie not : sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not... . Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

At the same time, it should be emphasized that Jesus nowhere teaches that through the active doing of good works merit is acquired by which one may earn salvation. Good works are the fruit, not the root of the tree, and their significance lies not in themselves, but in the spirit to which they give expression.

It should be observed, further, that there is no indefiniteness about the nature of the beneficent activity which Jesus commends. We are all being constantly reminded of the fact that there is a great deal of benevolence which is extra-ordinarily ill-directed. Many works of charity have served only to aggravate the evils which they have sought to alleviate. In the teaching of Jesus there is no encouragement given to such ill-directed activity. One of His sayings, recorded in the fourth Gospel, undoubtedly expresses the spirit of His teaching : ` I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it in abundance. He sought for each individual the realization to the fullest of his selfhood. And if this statement seems still to be indefinite, we would draw attention again to the sphere within which the self exercises its activity—a kingdom, or, as it is sometimes put, a family. The general nature of the obligations which rest on one who lives within such an organization is clear enough. There is the duty of mutual love and service, with all that this involves of sincerity, faithfulness, patience, self-restraint, and a multitude of other virtues.

As has been frequently said in previous chapters, there is in Hinduism no philosophy of conduct. We are given no principle by reference to which the value of actions may be determined. Nor, indeed, could such a principle be given, for there is very little trace of any belief that activity of any kind can contribute directly to the attainment of the summum bonum. We are here face to face with a profound philosophical question regarding the nature of reality. People sometimes talk in a loose way about the philosophy of the Christian religion, understanding the religion to be a philosophy. As a matter of fact, religion is prior to philosophy, and when we speak of the philosophy of a religion we mean a philosophy which justifies or finds a place for the conceptions with which the religion works. Now, Hindu religion, even in its theistic expressions, is involved with a view of reality which is incompatible with the Christian conception of individuality. In the loftiest expressions of Hindu theism it is true that individuality is no longer thought of as a limitation as it is in the philosophy of the Vedanta. But even in them, when individuality has been conceived as having a place in the eternal constitution of the Universe, it is an individuality which is not essentially active. It finds its true being in a relationship with God of an emotional and contemplative kind, and there is no place for the conception of a society of individuals with which it has manifold relationships. It is only when we come to such modern writers as Dr. Rabindranath Tagore that we find the conception of realization through activity grasped with any clearness, and even with him the idea finds only uncertain expression. The conception of the Kingdom of God is one in relation to which human personality receives meaning, and in relation to which its activity in the world is invested with eternal significance. The conviction may be expressed here that some such conception is essential as a basis for the highest ethic. The West has been fruitful in ethical theories, various in form. But almost all of them have been formulated as attempts at the solution of the problem of the meaning of the active morality which men practise imperfectly in their relations with each other in society. The solutions offered may be divided broadly into two classes. There are those theories which regard the end as something external to the means, and there are those which regard end and means as standing in the most intimate relationship to each other. According to the latter view the individual who lives the moral life is finding himself, not in the sense that his good deeds will bear fruit to his profit, but in the sense that in such activity a self which has eternal value finds one of the` lines of its true expression. Hinduism has no philosophy of morality, nor are there hints of such a philosophy in its religious literature. Men may travel to a certain length in the moral life without a philosophy or with a false philosophy, but the only sure basis of a satisfactory morality is a view of life, whether philosophically formulated or naïvely held, in which the eternal worth of individuality is recognized. This is the significance of the Christian conception of the Kingdom of God regarded from the strictly ethical standpoint.

In this exposition certain points of great importance have been left out of account, but they will perhaps be more readily understood after what has been said. There is no thought in the mind of Jesus of morality apart from God. He sought that men should be perfect as their Father. Mans kinship to God, who is represented most truly as the Father of men, is the great motive to moral attainment. It is only the pure in heart who can see Him, and by purity of heart is meant not the spirit that leads a man away from all the activities of the world, but the spirit of childlike simplicity and sincerity, of unselfishness, and of love, by which is determined the purest human conduct. In many ways Jesus shows how the father-hood of God implies the brotherhood of man, so that devotion to God issues in the service of man. As the -other side of all this we have the Christian attitude to sin. It is the great positive evil from which man needs deliverance. It is a positive evil, because it is not merely shortcoming, it is not something with merely negative significance ; it is something which comes between man and God, marring their fellowship. In the teaching of Jesus we find no trace of that morbid concentration on sin which has been not uncommon in certain types of Christians at different periods in the history of Christianity. Yet the fact of sin is insisted on as something that does not cease to be when it is simply ignored, but as a fact with which one has to reckon. Accordingly, of all the words that Jesus spoke regarding human life and conduct, those that impressed His hearers most deeply, whether they, believed Him or not, were the words in which He proclaimed the forgiveness of sins. In the Jewish consciousness His words regarding sin found an echo, and there were many to whom His words about forgiveness came as a message from God.

This has been stated in its simplest terms and without reference to some of the most distinctive elements in the teaching of Jesus regarding sin and its forgiveness. But it is well that we should pause at this point and consider the significance of these thoughts for the moral life. Let it be remembered that we are not here dealing with a philosophical theory, but with certain facts of experience which may be capable of being interpreted or justified in accordance with the principles of more than one philosophical system. But certain things are posited. It is assumed that the Universe is morally constituted, that God is an ethical Being in whose fellowship man finds the true end of his being, that in the attainment of this end there is no way, either through knowledge or through feeling, by which man can overleap the ethical, and that sin is a hindrance to the entrance into this fellowship which can be removed only through forgiveness. The Christian message is in one of its essentials a message of forgiveness by the grace of God, mediated through Christ, and this forgiveness is not simply a cancelling of the penalties of sin, but above all the reconciling of the soul to God through the removal of the cause of estrangement.

These are ideas which have never come to clear conception in Hinduism. The Hindu mind has not thought of God as an ethical personality. We have seen that it was on the way to doing so in the Rig Veda, especially in certain conceptions which it formed regarding Varuna. We have seen in many places, almost throughout the whole range of Hindu literature, the expression of thoughts regarding sin, but it has not usually been ethically understood, nor has it been related to a conception of God as ethically holy. In some of the literature of bhakti we seem to come nearer to the Christian standpoint, but even there the idea lingers that God is Himself beyond good and evil, and that when His worshipper finds Him, he too is carried beyond the ethical ; indeed, neither in seeking nor in possessing is it recognized that the claims of the ethical are indefeasible. The idea of forgiveness is no foreign one.

Wherever the fact of sin is admitted, there is to be found at the same time belief in means by which men may be loosed from it or from its effects. Frequently in these beliefs we are very far from the idea of forgiveness as it is understood ethically, but there are expressions in the literature of bhakti which seem on the face of them to bring us nearer to a true appreciation of its ethical character. There is, for example, the famous passage in the Bhagavadgita :

Even though he should be a doer of exceeding evil that worships Me with undivided worship, he shall be deemed good : for he is of right purpose.

Speedily he becomes righteous of soul, and comes to lasting peace. O son of Kunti, be assured that none who is devoted to Me is lost.

We have here the idea of the grace of God as available to man even when he has a record that is evil, provided only he turn to God with singleness of purpose. But the free operation of this idea has been to a large extent inhibited by another idea, that of karma. The Hindu mind has found it difficult to get away from the belief that this principle is dominant in the direction of the destiny cf the man who is engaged in the active life of the world, and even in the Bhagavadgita the idea remains that he who finds deliverance realizes his true being, not in social activity pursued with a purified will, but in an ecstatic union with God in which the ethical is transcended. There are texts which might be used in contradiction of this statement, and their force, when they are taken by themselves, would have to be admitted. But the teaching of the work as a whole is full of ambiguities, and we are justified in maintaining at least that the idea of forgiveness in the sense in which it enters into Christian thought does not find clear and unambiguous expression.

The Christian attitude to sin and forgiveness is emphasized because of the extraordinary value which it has for the practical moral life. Setting aside the great question of the philosophical explanation which these beliefs are capable of, we cannot fail to be impressed with the reinforcement which is given to the moral life by the belief that the individual in his practical life is in touch with eternal realities, so that the good man is working in harmony with the Spirit of the Universe, while the bad man is found to be fighting against the Spirit of God. This belief by itself would suggest nothing but despair to the evil man, but for the doctrine of the grace of God, through which the evil man may be reconciled to Him, and his will may be renewed so that it may be brought into conformity with Gods will.

The careful reader will have come to realize, in the course of his study of this work, that according to the view set forth in it the Hindu ethic is in certain important ways fundamentally different from that of Christianity, resting as it does on pre-suppositions which are different. It is not intended to elaborate this point further, but it is well that, in conclusion, attention should be unambiguously directed to it. In Hinduism, let it be said again, there are two principles which have never been satisfactorily related to each other. There is Hindu philosophy, which in all its varieties of form has provided a basis only for a quietistic ethic, furnishing no basis for the direction of the active life of men in society. There is, on the other hand, the system of dharma, cold, rigid, and lifeless, resting on no great fundamental principle, of doubtful utility even in the judgement of some of the great philosophical thinkers of India. If the people of India were content to remain behind in the march of human progress, seeking only those ends which the great teachers of the past have set before them, they might find in it a way of life by which they might traverse this present evil world. But there is no evidence that India desires so to be left behind, nor is there evidence that her people are satisfied with the goal that they have been taught to seek, nor with the conditions under which it is believed to be attainable. Nor, again, can those who are at the same time morally earnest and intellectually alive find either intellectual or practical satisfaction in a morality resting on such a heterogeneous basis. As a matter of fact, the most earnest minds in India have discarded much that belongs to traditional Hinduism, and are seeking in many directions after a more satisfying religion and philosophy. Most of them are seeking, naturally, for a position in which shall be united what they believe to be essential in their old beliefs with something which will justify them in their active moral endeavour. Whatever they may make of this task, it seems clear at least that it will involve a reinterpretation of much that has been regarded by Hindus themselves as belonging to the very essence of their religious thought and practice, in such a way that it cannot amount to less than a radical transformation.

The Christian ethic, on the other hand, rests on a foundation which makes the facts of our ethical experience intelligible. The basis is the eternal love of God to His creatures. The whole of Christian doctrine is nothing more than an exposition of the way in which this love has been and is operative in Gods dealings with men. It is believed that a purpose of love runs through the whole Universe, that the history of human strivings, hopes, and aspirations is not something that is in the end meaningless and outside the scope of Gods purposes, but that the cry of man for richer and fuller life is a cry which God has inspired and which He is willing to answer.



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