Hindu philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-F002-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 24, 2024, from

5. Moral issues

Two important principles govern Indian moral philosophy: karma and dharma. The theory of karma was articulated early in Upaniṣadic times (which are usually placed from 700 bc onwards, but were possibly earlier). It concerns the causal relation between acts and their results, although neither was always understood in a uniform way. In general, the workings of karma were not interpreted as a fatalistic mechanism. With the exception of a few schools, most Indian thinkers came to conceive of karma in terms of a kind of naturalistic law of causation. The best-known philosopher of the Upaniṣads, Yājñavalkya, was the first one to teach karma, which soon became discernible in almost all intellectual developments, as well as being a governing principle in everyday ethics.

The principle of dharma is closely connected with karma. Dharma literally means ‘to uphold what is correct’, what we may call today ‘morality’. The precise translation of the term depends on the context. For example, we can translate dharma as ‘justice’ in cases where something that was unlawfully taken away is to be regained. Thus, in the epic Mahābhārata, it is justice for the Pāṇḍavas to regain their kingdom, which was illegally taken from them by their cousins, the Kauravas. There is also dharma as ‘individual duty’, according to a person’s social and economic status in society. This could be compared to a certain extent with the Kantian idea of duty (duty for duty’s sake). Then there is general dharma which applies to society as a whole, a guide in moral and social issues.

An important ideal in Hindu moral philosophy, that of the stages of life, is described in the body of literature known as the Dharmaśāstras. This endorses the determination of social status by birth, and prescribes for each individual (at least, each male of the two highest classes, namely priests and royalty) the various stages to progress through in life. The prescribed sequence is as follows: first, the socially responsible person should study and abstain from sexual relations; next, he should marry, bring up offspring and accumulate material possessions; third, he should become a religious seeker, leaving behind the comforts of home, family and riches (although his wife may still provide some familiar comfort); finally, he should leave the companionship of his wife and roam alone as an ascetic until death. Two value systems, one socially engaged, the other with an ascetic tendency, appear to be combined here (see Duty and virtue, Indian conceptions of). Closely related are the four aims of human life (puruṣārtha): material wellbeing, pleasure and enjoyment, morality and social responsibility, and, the ultimate goal, liberation from repeated birth. Here, too, two value systems are combined: the first three aims guide the socially engaged, whereas the last is the aim of a person in the final stage of life.

Citing this article:
Clear, Edeltraud Harzer. Moral issues. Hindu philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-F002-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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