Digest of terms

Hindu Ethics

'Hinduism' is a label that has come to be attached to a diverse set of religious traditions which include forms of polytheism, monotheism and monism. Unlike the western monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, therefore, ethical thinking in Hinduism is not structured around belief in God or scriptural revelation. An alternative background structure is provided by a different set of doctrinal presuppositions, notably belief in karma and samsara. The law of karma entails that, morally, one sows what one reaps, while samsara, the doctrine of the cycle of birth and rebirth, means that the reaping will continue in future reincarnations as indeed it has been proceeding through countless previous reincarnations, until, ideally, liberation or salvation (variously conceived) is attained.

Integrated into this framework is a further presupposition regarding the propriety of social hierarchy, a principle which finds expression in the caste system - or rather caste systems, since in practice there is appreciable local diversity in hierarchical rankings.

This diversity exists in good measure because 'caste' refers to two distinct concepts, varna and jati. The latter is sometimes taken to mean sub-caste, but this implies a uniform overall 'caste system', which is misleading. Rather, two systems of classification which were originally different have gradually become interwoven but with local variations. Both are strongly hierarchical.

In addition to this emphasis on society and social roles within it, there is a strong tradition of ascetic renunciation of society and solitary meditation. A famous synthesis of these different orientations is to be found in the notion of varnashramadharma, meaning duties (dharma) proper to caste (varna) and stage of life (ashrama).

The varna system consists of an idealised system of fourfold social stratification with Brahmins (priests) at the top, followed by warriors, merchants and traders, and labourers. Some modern thinkers, including Gandhi, have endorsed this social ethic as providing stability and a sensible division of labour. Its mechanism of inherited social inequality is justified by appeal to karma and samsara. To critics, however, it is a system of inherited discrimination, a charge levelled equally at the related jati system governed by intricate rules of proper work occupation, marriage, and commensality. Meanwhile at the bottom of the hierarchy are the untouchables, now claiming the label 'dalits' (broken people) in protest at their inherited plight.

With the warrior varna near the top of the social hierarchy, clearly Hinduism is not, despite the example of Gandhi, a religion of non-violence (ahimsa). Yet admittedly ahimsa is a powerful strand within Hindu heterogeneity, and typically associated with ascetics. It is incorporated into the varnashramadharma synthesis within the second component, stages of life, of which there are four. Beginning as a celibate student, one proceeds to being a family man (the synthesis is a patriarchal one) or householder, before beginning to withdraw from society in the third stage, followed by the fourth step of becoming a homeless ascetic (sannyasin), a state governed by its own set of rules. Thus affirmation of society and rejection of society - originally separate impulses - are in principle harmonised, albeit in a stylised and idealised manner.

Other strands of ethical tradition identify three goals of human existence, wealth, pleasure and morality (dharma), the first two to be pursued in accordance with the latter. Dharma, though, assigns different duties to members of different varnas and jatis (e.g. vegetarianism and abstention from alcohol for Brahmins), and to women as opposed to men, so that while the pursuit of wealth and pleasure is appropriate for a householder it would be wholly inappropriate for a renouncer.

Caste duties are set out in the ancient Law of Manu, but appeal may be made to a wide spectrum of sources and resources - unlike, say, Islam textual authority in Hinduism is varied and diffuse. The Bhagavad Gita is highly popular, and was Gandhi's favourite text - yet paradoxically so, since it endorses warrior violence in a manner wholly at odds with his own (admittedly Jain-influenced) ethic.

There is, in addition to caste ethics, a tradition of general personal ethics (sadharana dharma) covering duties incumbent on all, irrespective of caste. These include such virtues as truthfulness, not stealing, forgiveness, charity and freedom from anger - worthy but general ideals: the distinctively Hindu ones remain tied to notions of caste and stage of life.

Under the impact of the British Raj, prominent Hindu reformers began to emphasise in a novel way an ethic of social service, and to question the lot of the untouchables, as well as endorsing British outlawing of sati, the duty (according to some Hindu authorities) of a widow to volunteer to be burnt alive on her husband's funeral pyre as a seal of devotion to her lord. An ethic of religious tolerance was highlighted, and under Gandhi ahimsa achieved unprecedented prominence.

Ethical theorising has not been a major feature of Hindu tradition, but today issues of caste and gender status generate heated controversy, and the question of Hinduism's possible relations with a modern human rights agenda is increasingly being explored, as are issues in medical ethics.

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