An excellent essay by Dota on Hindu ethics and how they are incomprehensible to the Westerner.
Hindu Ethics and the West
Dedication: This essay is dedicated to all the valiant peoples of European ancestry who stand against the modern currents of our time in defense of Western Civilization. You are not alone.
Before we jump right into the thick of things, I’d like to explicitly state that I am not an expert in Hinduism or Philosophy. I have no doubt that after reading this essay some of you are going to challenge the arguments presented here, and I encourage you to do so. Some of you might have questions, and I might not have answers to them all. I do however encourage all of you to research this fascinating subject and formulate your own opinions.
The purpose of this essay is to introduce you to the basics of Hindu ethical thought in light of Arthur Danto’s argument of why they are not compatible with Western ethics. This essay will first introduce the reader to Danto’s argument followed by an application of Hindu ethics in the context of certain stories from the Mahabharat and Ramayan; stories I grew up reading in Hindi class as a child. I will then attempt to draw a comparison between western morality and Dharma.
The scope of this essay is purely introductory and despite the mind-boggling diversity of the Hindu tradition, I will try and focus on mainstream Hindu practices and beliefs.
In his monumental book Mysticism and Morality (1972), Arthur Coleman Danto argues that the Indian ethical systems present within the Hindu and Buddhist traditions are not accessible to most Westerners. I would like to confess that I have not personally read Mysticism and Morality since I have not been able to find a copy of the book in Saskatoon. It is available in the University Library which I unfortunately have no access to.
For the purpose of this essay, we shall focus exclusively on the Hindu tradition and leave Buddhism out. An excellent breakdown of the contents of this book can be accessed at Ralf Dumain’s blog here.
Danto’s major overarching argument is that the factual beliefs upon which Hindu ethics are constructed are not accessible to westerners, and hence the ethical systems themselves are of little value in the west. What are some of these factual beliefs? Many Hindu apologists will attempt to render Hinduism immune to critique by insisting that Hinduism has no doctrines or central creed. That Hindu beliefs cannot be homogenized.
However said apologists will also do everything in their power to link any Indian influences on outside cultures to the great monolithic Hinduism. I refer to this tactic as the shape-shifting apology. Thus Hinduism is rendered a monolith or a phantom depending on the apologist’s agenda.
However as Meera Nanda points out, Hinduism certainly possesses beliefs that are core and non negotiable (caste, Karma, Dharma) which we shall examine. In Hindu tradition, one’s caste is a function of one’s Karma, which in turn is a function of one’s Dharma. If a person’s karma (actions) fulfills his dharma (obligations/duties), he is rewarded in the next life and may find himself born in a higher caste.
Let us assume that a Brahmin sins by committing murder and is reincarnated as a Dalit in his next life. He is barred from accessing the village well and is forcefully segregated with a host of untouchability laws. On the face of it, it seems that justice has been served. However all of this depends on the existence of the interlocking forces of Karma and Dharma. To my knowledge, the Hindu texts do not attempt to prove their existence, but simply assume that their existence is a fact.
If one were to encounter a Dalit enduring social oppression, would it be moral to assist him/her? If Karma exists, then the answer is no, as that Dalit is reaping what was sowed in a previous lifetime. If Karma does not exist, then ignoring the plight of a suffering soul would be rightly regarded as callous indifference in Western ethical thought. Danto points out:
“…that if the factual beliefs of India to which I refer are false, there is very little point in Indian philosophy, and very little room for serious application of Indian moral beliefs. . .” (21)
In the context of caste, Ralph Dumain summarizes Danto’s position as thus:
“Danto argues, as did Max Weber, that the caste system of Hinduism resists universality, as members of different castes are regarded as members of different species. This leads to a peculiar kind of toleration, just as we tolerate animals because they can’t be like us.
Hindus will tolerate the actions of others so long as their behavior is defined as licit for their caste. Therefore, the morality operant in this scenario stands or falls on the presupposed factual beliefs about caste.” (34-5)“
When one studies the Mahabharat, one is immediately struck by two things: The enormous literary value of this monumental epic and the shocking conduct of the amoral trickster god Krishna. In his paper Maximizing Dharma: Krsna’s Consequentialism in the Mahabharata, Joseph Dowd points out:
“For example, consider Krsna’s treatment of Bhisma, a warrior for the Kauravas. Bhisma knows that Sikhandi, a warrior for the Pandavas, was a woman in his previous life. Krsna tells the Pandavas to set Sikhandi on Bhisma. Bhisma refuses to fight Sikhandi, who deals Bhisma a mortal wound. Another example concerns Karna, another warrior for the Kauravas.
When Arjuna fights Karna, Karna’s chariot wheel gets stuck. Karna asks Arjuna to let him get his chariot unstuck before continuing with the battle. But Krsna reminds Arjuna of Karna’s misdeeds and tells him to kill Karna immediately. During a mace fight between Bhima and Duryodhana, Krsna tells Bhima to violate the warrior code by using a low blow.”
Joseph Dowd argues that Dharma (now referring to the Cosmic order) needs to be maintained and can only be done so if the Pandava faction triumphs over the evil Kaurava faction in the war. Krishna himself justifies his shocking actions as thus:
“Ye could never have slain them in battle by fighting fairly! King Duryodhana also could never be slain in a fair encounter! The same is the case with all those mighty car-warriors headed by [Bhisma]! From desire of doing good to you, I repeatedly applied my powers of illusion and caused them to be slain by diverse means in battle.
If I had not adopted such deceitful ways in battle, victory would never have been yours […] You should not take it to heart that this foe of yours hath been slain deceitfully.”
Let us once again apply Arthur Danto’s principle in determining the moral validity of Krishna’s actions. It would seem that the morality of Krishna’s actions rest heavily on the existence of Dharma. If Dharma exists, and if its existence is threatened, then agents must do everything in their power to prevent this catastrophe. It would seem that Krishna’s actions would then be moral. However if Dharma does not exist, Krishna’s actions are clearly opportunistic.
Let us now examine another feature of Hindu morality: The lack of intent. Ralph again explains Danto’s point of view:
“The infamous story of Arjuna is the key, the sophistical argument that Arjuna fight and kill with detachment. (88) One must perform one’s actions according to one’s calling, to be true to it without extraneous motivation. (91) This attitude is enabled by the detachment of self from body, so that one does not identify with the necessary actions of one’s body.
Danto finds this to be bone-chilling, Nietzschean and inhuman. The factual beliefs postulated are radically at odds with morality. (94-5) Danto ponders possible points of comparison of this notion of detachment with Kant, but insists that morality has no meaning without systems of rules. (96) Intention is decisive; it ties the agent to the action. The Gita robs actions of their moral qualities by detaching them from their agents. (98) This has some resemblance to Nietzsche’s position. (99)”
A look at the Ramayan story of Shravan Kumar should illustrate this point clearly. I had read this story in Hindi class when I was in grade 5 and the chapter was aptly named: आज्ञाकारी पुत्र (The Obedient Son). The protagonist Shravan Kumar embarks upon a pilgrimage with his blind aged parents who are unable to make the journey alone. En route they grow weary from thirst and request a drink of water from their son.
Shravan wanders over to a nearby stream and begins to draw water. Unfortunately, King Dashratha (Ram’s father) happens to be hunting nearby, mistakes Shravan for a deer, and fires. A wounded Shravan requests that the horrified king complete Sharavan’s task and bring water to the blind parents.
The king complies but is recognized by the blind parents as an impostor; whereupon the king sadly confesses his accidental misdeed. Distraught beyond measure, the parents curse the king that he too would die a lonely death pining for his son. The parents then perish. The curse comes to pass as the king lies on his deathbed longing for his son who is in exile. Thus the king is punished for his action (karma) without his intention even being considered.
The moral maxim of letting the punishment fit the crime cannot be applied if intention is divorced from action. In Western morality, intention is a key variable and the Bible confirms this in numerous places:
“Then the Lord said to Joshua: “Tell the Israelites to designate the cities of refuge, as I instructed you through Moses, so that anyone who kills a person accidentally and unintentionally may flee there and find protection from the avenger of blood.” Joshua 20:1-3
In the sermon on the mount, Jesus adds an additional dimension of intent when proclaiming:
“But I say to you, That whoever looks on a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart.” Matthew 5:28
Also consider the following story from the Mahabharat which is included in Dowd’s paper:
“In one passage, the Pandavas trick Drona, a warrior for the Kauravas, into thinking that his son Asvatthaman is dead. At Krsna’s suggestion, they kill an elephant named Asvatthaman and then tell Drona, “Aswatthaman hath been slain” (Ganguli, 1883-1896a).
As a result, Drona withdraws from the war to grieve. Now, whether or not the Pandavas had killed the elephant, the outcome would have been the same: Drona would have been tricked into thinking that Asvatthaman was dead.
However, truthfulness is a supreme norm in Hindu thought (Buitenen, 1975, p. 177; Goldman, 1997, p. 189; Khan, 1965, p. 204). By killing the elephant, the Pandavas ensure that they are technically speaking the truth when they say, “Aswatthaman hath been slain.”
From a Hindu perspective, the actions of the Pandavas are moral, however from a western point of view, this still amounts to lying as the intent was to deceive.
Morals Versus Dharma
In his brilliant and succinct article Anatomy of an Indian, Aakar Patel states:
“Is Shri Ram’s murder of Vali and his treatment of Sita moral? Is Shri Krishna’s advice to Arjun on Karna moral? Is his action on Jayadrath moral? Is Acharya Drona’s behavior with Eklavya moral? Our texts say: “Yes.” They are right according to dharma (if the question is asked in an Indian language). But they are wrong morally. Dharma is opportunistic, while morals are not.”
Lets expand upon this point with the Ramayan story of Ram’s murder of Vali. At the behest of Vali’s younger brother Sugriva, Ram agrees to murder the latter’s older brother Vali, who has threatened the younger brother’s life. Ram executes a ruse where Sugriva issues a challenge to Vali, whereupon Vali accepts and emerges forward to participate in the duel. Ram ambushes Vali from behind and kills him with an arrow.
A dying Vali questions Ram’s morality, and the latter responds that Vali failed in his obligation of forgiving his younger brother’s past transgressions. This was evil, and Ram was tasked with eradicating evil.
Clearly Vali did violate his dharma as an older brother by not making amends with Sugriva, and the significance of brotherly duties are clearly illustrated in the Mahabharat story of Arjun’s wow and Yuddistira. So dharma was satisfied, but what about morality? Indeed, from a western point of view this murder was indeed cowardly and immoral; and what further compounds Ram’s duplicity is that he had committed this deed in exchange for Sugriva’s troops which were needed for the siege of Lanka.
Dharma is concerned with duty and not morality where the emphasis is on fulfilling obligations or risking misfortune. Dharma is radically at odds with Western morality.
The purpose of this essay was not to prove the inherent superiority of the western moral system over the Indian one, but to alert Westerners of the folly of imitating a foreign set of beliefs without understanding them. Western morality is a highly developed and universal code which is adaptable, humane and has evolved beyond the Bible from which it originates. Upon it the modern world stands, and it cannot be replaced by any code of the Orient.
For the purpose of fair discourse I would also like to recommend Hindu Ethics: A Philosophical Study by Roy Perret, who challenges many of Danto’s interpretations and his central argument.