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Religion Library: Hinduism

Principles of Moral Thought and Action

Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard

Thus in Hinduism specific ethical and moral guidelines vary; the general ethical and moral principle does not, however. That amounts to a simple moral and ethical imperative: act properly (dharmically).

Karma is intimately associated with dharma in this regard. Karma is understood in Hinduism as a universal law of cause and effect. Positive actions produce positive effects; negative actions produce negative effects. To act dharmically is to act in a karmically positive manner, therefore. When one acts dharmically, one necessarily produces positive karma. This karma is cumulative: one accrues karma, positive and negative, not only throughout the course of one's life, but throughout the course of one's multiple rebirths. It is karma that determines one's rebirths.

There is a tension that surfaces at times in these discussions, a tension between one's ethical and moral duty to the well-being of society and others, and one's personal religious progress toward salvation, moksha. Karma, negative and positive, keeps us in the world, leading to birth after birth after birth (this is samsara). To attain ultimate salvation, moksha, is to attain release from this cycle. One accomplishes this by eliminating all karma, negative or positive.

A manuscript illustration of the Battle of Kurukshetra, fought between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, recorded in the MahābhārataAn extremely important ethical element that pertains to both karma and dharma is the principle of ahimsa, non-violence. This is a very old idea in Hinduism, emerging in its ethical sense in texts as ancient as the Mahabharata,where non-violence is said to generate positive karma. The idea behind ahimsa is that all beings are karmically interconnected; any action that harms another being, whether it be a Brahmin priest or a worm, is thus said to affect every other being. To kill an animal, then, is to karmically affect not only oneself (and the dead animal, of course), but collectively all other beings.

The principle of ahimsa can be taken to extremes, leading to a severe sort of asceticism that is essentially absolute non-action, since almost any action can, in some way, lead to harm—one might accidently step on an ant, say, or accidently breathe in a tiny fly. There are thus long and sometimes very complex philosophical discussions of ahimsa, including discussions of the importance of intentionality or volition in harming another being. Many schools hold that one only generates karma when one acts willfully, when one is aware of one's actions and consciously chooses them. Mahatma GandhiJainism split, in part, over this matter, and adopted a radical mode of being that held that any harm to any being, including certain plants, intentional or not, was ethically wrong. (Not all Jains hold to this radical view, however.)

Mahatma Gandhi was an advocate of ahimsa, applying it to all aspects of his life, most famously in the political realm. Ahimsa was his fundamental moral and ethical principle, and his teachings on the matter continue to be extremely popular in Hinduism (and outside of the Hindu world as well), regarded as an ideal—if not always an actual—ethical and moral guiding principle.

Study Questions:
1.     What are the minimal conditions for being a Hindu?
2.     How is dharma static? How does it change with contextualization?
3.     Describe the relationship between dharma and karma.
4.     What is ahimsa? Why is it widely practiced?


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