Indian Ethics

Katinka Hesselink, 2007

The term India - in a historical context - is one that encompasses current Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and even Sri Lanka, in a total of 3000 years. This is obviously a lot. The below is merely a cursory overview. 

The term ethics is so laden with unconscious baggage, that I will start with Western Ethics to get some of it out of the way.

Western Ethics

The very term ethics has connotations that cannot be safely ignored. In Western European philosophy the term ethics has had the connotation of being universal , since roughly the 18 century Enlightenment. Though at the time European society was still hierarchical, with kings, priests, noblemen and farmers, the basis of modernity was starting to develop. The very foundation of society was crumbling with the rise of the merchant class and the power of cities. The power of the church was also crumbling in a sense - though the century of the minister (the 19th) was still to come. Newton's laws of physics put mathematics at the forefront of intellectual life and this meant that the world view of the Middle Ages was no longer self evident. 

In the midst of social change the world was growing larger. Columbus had discovered America. The first overseas colonies were developed and world wide trade was opening new cultural horizons. The complexities of that large world were not yet evident, which made the vision of a 'universal ethics' a very real option. It was also becoming a necessity for anyone seriously thinking about ethics at all. It has to be taken into account that for Plato and Aristotle this was not self evident at all. For Aristotle it was still perfectly obvious that in a different town the social rules were different and therefor proper behavior was different. But somewhere along the line it became clear to philosophers that when different cultures interact they need common ground - hence 'universal ethics'. This slowly came to imply freedom for all, equality for all and eventually equal rights for all. It probably needs repeating that most Western European countries did not give women voting rights till the first decades of the 20th century. 

So what about Indian Ethics? 

Where western ethics can't be seen without taking social and historical questions into account - the same can be said of ethics in India. Starting in the West, Eastern ethics are hard to get a focuss on. There is no sense of a 'universal ethics' there. Some of the moral rules developed in eastern religions are very like those in Christianity. The golden rule is universally present. Lists of morals are quite normal in eastern religions. The Buddhist list of five vows (pancha sila) is one I find particularly inspiring. Jainism is famous for its stringent avoidance of killing - to the extent that people sweep the street in front of them to avoid killing insects. 

Still, there is no getting around the fact that basically Indian society is and has long been a stratified society , with different social groups each with their own social rules and regulations. For instance for a king it is said:

A king should avoid:

  1. untruth and
  2. treachery,
  3. illicit intercourse with women, and
  4. eating what is forbidden. He should shun
  5. envy and
  6. conduct with outcastes, he should
  7. revere all the gods, and satisfy
  8. cows and
  9. Brahmins,
  10. reverence his ancestors, and
  11. feed his guests,
  12. obey his preceptors,
  13. practice penance, and
  14. bathe in sacred waters. He should
  15. nourish the poor, and 
  16. the orphan and widow,
  17. the afflicted, and
  18. his kin, and 
  19. his servants, and
  20. protect those who come to him for refuge. (1)

This text exemplifies perfectly the mix of social custom, by which some groups are shunned (6) and religious duties (13, 14) are as important as actively doing good like nourishing the poor (15 - 20). This type of vision is also present in the much older Bhagavad Gita . The ethical message of the Gita is that each should do their duty . Since it is the duty of a warrior to fight, he has no business worrying too much about results. Arjuna (the main character) should just fight. Clearly the text defends the caste system, with Brahmans (priests and scholars), Ksatryas (kings and military), Vaisyas (merchants) and Shudra (farmers). Historians tell us this fourfold scheme this has probably always been more theology then social reality (2). This does not however change the fact that the Bhagavad Gita supports the theology fully. 

This is the type of ethics that Aristotle might have approved of: one's duty is measured by one's place in society.

Counter movements to social stratification

In the history of Indian thought counter movements to this stratified vision of society have also been present. Buddhism and Jainism are both old examples, though one has to wonder to what extent there was in fact already a stratified society in place. (3) A newer example, and therefore easier to substantiate, is the Bhakti movement. Bhakti devotion started in Southern India. It taught that individual piety would make the God (Vishnu or Shiva) accessible, without intermediation by a Brahmin priest. Originally this included breaking up of social boundaries between Brahmins and the other castes even outside religious services.

The Thirukkural fits these sentiments perfectly. This text is apparently universally admired: 

0241The wealth of wealth is the wealth of grace.
Material wealth, even the mean possess.
0242 Obtain grace by seeking the path of goodness.
That is the aid cited in all paths.
0243 Those who are kind-hearted enter not
Into the terrible world of darkness.
0244 Those who protect other life with kindness
Need not fear for their own lives.
0245 This great earth and its biosphere declare
That sorrows are not for the merciful.
0246 Those who do ill forsaking kindness, they say,
Must be oblivious of forsaking morality.
0247 This world is not for the poor, 
Nor the next for the unkind.
0248 The poor may be rich one day,
But the graceless will always lack grace.
0249 The good acts of the graceless, if examined,
Resemble the muddled head seeing Truth.
0250 When you threaten one weaker than yourself,
Think of yourself before a bully. (4)

Universal ethics?

The study of ethics in the West is like a pendulum. Sometimes the local is stressed, at the expense of the universal. Sometimes the universal is stressed, at the expense of attention to circumstance. 

One cannot read the Thirukkural without feeling that there is surely something universal to ethics . The text speaks to the heart for East and West alike. 

On the other hand one cannot in practice ignore the fundamental insight that 'right action' is subject to circumstance, social position and culture. This is true even in the egalitarian West, where what would be appropriate in a bar is obviously different from what's appropriate in a business meeting. 


1) From 'The Wonder That was India', p. 338. Quoted: Manasollasa i, 14ff. The text is considered to be of the 12 century, though accurate dates are hard to come by in India. 

2) From classes at Leiden University on the people of India.

3) I hope to find out what indications there are on the changes in social stratification in early India (or 'the caste system') in further research.

4) The date of this text is uncertain. Online Indian websites suggest the 3rd century B.C.  I very much doubt such an early date would be acceptable to my professors though. One reason for doubt is that the language is still relatively easy to understand for current speakers of Tamil.
The translation of this portion is from: (last checked March 2007)