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Religion Library: Hinduism

Principles of Moral Thought and Action

Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard

The term "Hinduism" encompasses an incredibly diverse array of beliefs and practices, to the point that Hindus in one part of India might hold particular beliefs and engage in particular practices that would be virtually unrecognizable in another part of India. That said, there are two underlying principles in the Hindu world that are and have been shared by virtually all Hindus: dharma and karma. These principles fundamentally inform Hindu conceptions of moral thought and action.

Dharma is one of the most complex and all-encompassing terms in all of Hinduism: it can mean religion, law, duty, order, proper conduct, morality, righteousness, justice, norm. As such, dharma fundamentally underlies conceptions of morality and ethics in Hinduism. Dharma puts things in their proper place, creates and maintains order and balance. In the vast compendium of literature known as the Dharmashastras, dharma is examined from virtually every imaginable angle, from the proper performance of sacrifice, kingly duties, cultural norms, sexual relations, and everyday social rules such as manners.

Brahmin(priestly caste)
Kshatriya(traditionally warrior caste)
Vaishya(traditionally caste of merchants and farmers)
Shudra(manual laborers)

To act dharmically is, in essence, to act appropriately; what is appropriate is determined by the context in which the action is to be performed and who is performing it. Different people have different dharmas; one's caste, one's position in life (ashrama), one's gender, all determine what is dharmic in a particular instance. The ethical and moral guidelines for a Kshatriya are different than those for a Brahmin, which are in turn different from those for a Shudra. This is sometimes called "svadharma," or one's own, personal dharma. The specifics of these guidelines are discussed in great detail in the Dharmashastras and their commentaries.

Ashrama (station in life)Duties
StudentLearn duties of his caste
HouseholderRaise a family
Forest dwellerStudy sacred texts

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