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Duty and virtue, Indian conceptions of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-F067-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 15, 2024, from

Article Summary

Two principal strains of ethical thought are evident in Indian religious and philosophical literature: one, central to Hinduism, emphasizes adherence to the established norms of ancient Indian culture, which are stated in the literature known as the Dharmaśāstras; another, found in texts of Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism alike, stresses the renunciation of one’s familial and social obligations for the sake of attaining enlightenment or liberation from the cycle of rebirth. The Dharmaśāstras define in elaborate detail a way of life based on a division of society into four ‘orders’ (varṇas) – priests, warriors, tradesmen and servants or labourers – and, for the three highest orders, four ‘stages of life’ (āśramas). Renunciation is valid only in the final two stages of life, after one has fulfilled one’s responsibilities as a student of scripture and as a householder. The various traditions that stress liberation, on the other hand, advocate total, immediate commitment to the goal of liberation, for which the householder life presents insuperable distractions. Here, the duties of the householder are replaced by the practice of yoga and asceticism. Nevertheless, specific ethical observances are also recommended as prerequisites for the achievement of higher knowledge through yoga, in particular, nonviolence, truthfulness, not stealing, celibacy and poverty. The liberation traditions criticized the system of the Dharmaśāstras for being overly concerned with ritual and external forms of purity and condoning – indeed, prescribing – the killing of living beings in Vedic sacrifices; but it was only in the Dharmaśāstras that the notion of action solely for duty’s sake was appreciated. The Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gītā (Song of God) represents an effort to synthesize the two ideals of renunciation and the fulfilment of obligation. It teaches that one should integrate yoga and action in the world. Only when acting out of the state of inner peace and detachment that is the culmination of the practice of yoga can one execute one’s duty without regard for the consequences of one’s actions. On the other hand, without the cultivation of inner yoga, the external forms of renunciation – celibacy, mendicancy, asceticism – are without significance. It is inner yoga that is the essence of renunciation, yet yoga is quite compatible with carrying out one’s obligations in the world.

Citing this article:
Taber, John A.. Duty and virtue, Indian conceptions of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-F067-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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