Hindu ethics defy characterization because Hinduism’s ethical model is predicated on a series of metaphysical forces which possess an ontological basis to their existence. These are the interlocking forces of Caste, Karma, and Dharma, which govern the universe and subsequently human behaviour. This argument was first articulated by the analytical philosopher Arthur Danto in the 70s, whose critiques form the basis of a previous article I had written. The purpose of this article is to explore potential reasons for Hinduism’s minimal emphasis on ethics and morality. I’m neither an expert in Hinduism nor philosophy, so once I’ve presented my arguments here, feel free to rip into them.
First, I’d like to point out that from a historical context pagan religions were not concerned with ethics; they were concerned with exerting control over the elements and moral behaviour was well outside their purview. This is why magic was such big business in antiquity as Bart Ehrman correctly observes. This is not to say that there existed no semblance of morality during antiquity, but rather that ethics was external to religion. The function of religion was to petition, and Zoroastrianism was possibly the first religion that incorporated the morality function into its dualistic theology. Some of the oldest controls on human behaviour were law codes, and thus one should not be surprised to learn that the scope of the Ur-Nammu code wasn’t so different from the Yajnavalkya’s Dharma Shastra. Hammurabi’s code also bears a striking resemblance in scope to the aforementioned Dharma Shastra as both are focused on laws and punishment, debt settlement, fines ect…
Human morality began with the concept of justice in antiquity and the texts mentioned above attest to this as law codes were embedded with moral imperatives. There did not seem to be any significant bifurcation between law and morality. The first topic of discussion in Plato’s Republic was also centered around the definition of justice. The difference between the Ur-Nammu code and Yajnavalkya’s Dharma Shastra lie in their contrasting conceptions of justice. According to the Dharma Shastra: “justice was created by Brahma under the form of punishment” (Dharma Shastra: Book 1 – Ritual and moral conduct). Ur-Nammu’s code is prefaced with a definition of justice that is summarized as: “The orphan was not delivered up to the rich man; the widow was not delivered up to the mighty man; the man of one shekel was not delivered up to the man of one mina.” One need not look too closely to see the the seed of social justice taking root, or its ideological ancestor if you will. The King of Larsa, Nur-Adad (c1850 BCE), famously proclaimed: “I made the weak, the widow, the orphan content.” As Linda Darling points out, the rulers of the Near east saw themselves as shepherds of the people. This moral idea would eventually metamorphosize into the reciprocal ethical system most fully expressed in Islamic theology.
Absent from the Dharma Shastras is any notion of social justice as Hinduism’s caste structure renders social justice redundant. If a society is founded upon the principle that all men are born inherently unequal, and that this inequality is divinely sanctioned, then experiments in social justice are not only pointless, but also sinful. The ends of justice in such a society is to perpetuate a static social order and thus punishment is a means to that very end. Hinduism’s disproportionate emphasis on the social status quo has yielded some interesting consequences on its moral system. Hindu morality is essentially absolutist, with laws being binding and applicable without exception, even if the outcome leads to human suffering instead of its opposite effect. Colonial literature is replete with examples of the Indian’s callous indifference to human suffering. We have also seen a sample of it here. Another possible reason for moral absolutism could be Danto’s observation about Indian philosophers being unable to differentiate knowledge from its application. This has predictably negative consequences on free will and its logical counterpart Intention (components which Hindu ethics essentially lack) but I shall postpone this argument for a future post.
One particular point of interest for me is how Hinduism robs actions of their moral qualities by basing its moral framework on a series of impersonal and external metaphysical forces whose existence is never proved, but merely taken for granted. Let us explore Danto’s chief argument with the following illustration. Let us suppose there are two monarchs, one Indian, the other Chinese. Let us also assume that the two fastidiously adhere to their respective morals systems. The Chinese monarch adheres to the reciprocal ethical framework of Confucianism while the Indian adheres to Hinduism. The Chinese monarch, being the one in power, fulfills the obligations of his post by building schools and granaries. By doing so, he earns the obedience of his subjects thereby legitimizing his power (The mandate of Heaven). The Indian king likewise undertakes charitable endeavours such as providing pilgrims and wayfarers with accommodation and food. He does so to fulfill his Dharma. The Indian king’s actions are neither motivated by the welfare of his people nor by the need to legitimize his power. The morality driver is the external and impersonal grand cosmic order known as Dharma. I believe this is the major weakness of Hindu ethics as its morality operants are external and far removed from the people whose behaviour they intend to govern. This undermines the individual’s moral character development in addition to muting compassion. If the existence of Karma and Dharma can be disproved, there is very little point to Hindu morality. Furthermore, while Dharma is a ‘way of life’ (as most Hindus will tell you) it is not a moral code per se for it does not differentiate moral injunctions from ritual ones. To the Hindu, salvation can be attained by leaping into a holy river to wash away sins. In the Abrahamic traditions of Christianity and Islam, individual moral behaviour and social justice are essential components of salvation.
In the next part of this series we’ll explore two other reasons for Hinduism’s minimal approach to ethics.