A system of philosophy is generally tested by its ethical doctrine. Though a criticism of life, philosophy is judged by its capacity to improve life. Let us, therefore, ask how far the Vedanta philosophy satisfies the demands of the moral consciousness. Like dress and other things, advanced thought has its own fashions, and it has become a philosophic fashion of the present day to consider the Vedanta system a non-ethical one. But the careful observer will notice that this doctrine is instinct with ethical interest. Max Müller says: “The Vedanta philosophy has not neglected the important sphere of ethics; but, on the contrary, we find ethics in the beginning, ethics in the middle, and ethics in the end, to say nothing of the fact that minds, so engrossed with divine things as the Vedanta philosophers, are not likely to fall victims to the ordinary temptations of the world, the flesh, and other powers.” It is true, the Vedanta does not contain an articulate code of morality derived from an acknowledged ethical ideal. Though the problems of modern ethics are not explicitly raised in the Vedanta writings, the answers to them can be gathered from suggestions contained in the Vedanta texts. It is for the critical student of the Vedanta to bring together the scattered elements and present them in a whole.

The ethics of the Vedanta is dependent on its metaphysics. According to the Vedanta metaphysics, the Brahman is the sole reality, and the individuals are only modifications of it. The Vedanta postulates the absolute oneness of all things. “In a Brahmana endowed with wisdom and humility, in a cow, in an elephant, as also in a dog and a dog-eater, the wise see the same” (“Bhagavadgita,” Chap. V, 18). This metaphysical monism requires us to look upon all creation as one, upon all thinking beings and the objects of all thought as non-different. In morals, the individual is enjoined to cultivate a spirit of abheda, or non-difference. Thus, the metaphysics of the Vedanta naturally leads to the ethics of love and brotherhood. Every other individual is to be regarded as your coequal, and treated as an end and not a means. In the Mahabharata, Parasara says to Janaka: “Let no man, however unhappy his lot, despise himself; man as such, though a chandala, is a noble creature in every way.” The Vedanta requires us to respect human dignity and demands the recognition of man as man. To a Vendantin nothing human is alien. The whole universe is one country, all creation the family of God. No man has a right to isolate himself from the life of the whole. The individual’s life is not a means to the satisfaction of his personal desires, but is a trust for humanity. This Vedantic ideal of love, fellowship, and self-sacrifice is not the vain fancy of a dreaming poet sighing after an impossible Utopia, but is the logical outcome of a rational reflection upon man’s place in the cosmos.

But if the individual is already an expression of the Infinite, why should he strive? Where is the necessity for work and effort? The Vedanta answers that, though the individual is lit with the divine spark, he is not wholly divine. His divinity is not an actuality, but a potentiality, a prophecy and not a fulfillment. Man is a part of God aspiring to be the whole. As he is, he is dust and deity, God and brute crossed. It is the task of the moral life to eliminate the non-divine element, not by destroying it, but by suffusing it with the divine spirit.

Let us next see what kind of life would enable the individual to make his whole nature divine. It cannot be a life of mere existence and growth, for even plants possess that; nor can it be a life of mere feeling and sensation, for even animals share this. It should be a life of reason. Without reason, man is on a level with the grass that withers and the beasts that perish. Life according to nature is, for man, life according to reason. What are the general features of a rational life? First, it will be a life of unselfish devotion to the highest ideals of humanity. Though the other parts of human nature lead to distinction and individuality, the touch of reason makes the whole world kin. Anything rational will be acceptable to all. Reason makes us act on a feeling of the unity of the whole human race. The ideals of reason will be the ideals of justice, humanity, and righteousness. The rational life will thus be an unselfish life. Secondly, it will be a life in which the senses are controlled by reason. This is plain from the Bhagavadgita. We find it there stated that Arjuna comes to the battlefield of Kurukshetra to fight the enemy. He is fully convinced of the righteousness of the cause for which he stands. But it is action that tries. At the psychological moment, when he has to put the hand to the deed, Arjuna’s strength fails. He is overcome with pity and grief. He hesitates, doubts, falters, and at last declines to fight. Tossed hither and thither in his distress, with a mind divided by doubt and torn asunder by conflicting apprehensions, he approaches his spiritual leader. Sri Krishna explains to him the metaphysics of the relation of the Eternal Spirit to the finite, points out how the kingdom of God may be planted on earth by every man performing his assigned task, describes to him the work of the warrior which he has to do, and concludes by exhorting him to make a stand and fight. The lesson of the Bhagavadgita is to displace ignorance by knowledge, selfishness by love of duty. Inclinations must be overcome or else they drag us on without resistance. The mere push and pull of desire must yield place to the calm and quit of reason. The divine element of reason should leaven the whole nature of man. Rational life is, then, the life in which the senses are curbed and confined within their proper limits. It is wrong to think that the Vedanta demands the total abolition of the senses. In the opinion of the present writer, the Vedanta asks us to beware of them. The senses are not bad in themselves; they are bad when uncontrolled and indulged under unlawful conditions. The senses are to be disciplined and not crushed. The following passages show that the Vedanta, while recognizing the dangerous nature of the senses, asks us to keep them in good trim and under bridle.

3. Know the self to be sitting in the chariot, the body to be the chariot, the intellect (buddhi) the charioteer, and the mind the reins.

4. The senses they call the horses, the objects of the senses their roads. When He (the highest Self) is in union with the body, the senses and the mind, then wise people call him the enjoyer.

5. He who has no understanding and whose mind (the reins) is never firmly held, his senses are unmanageable like vicious horses of a charioteer.

6. But he who has understanding and whose mind is always firmly held, his senses are under control like good horses of a charioteer. (Katha Upanishad, 3rd valli, verses 3 to 6.) The dangerous senses, O son of Kunti, forcibly carry away the mind of a wise man, even while striving to control them. Restraining them all, a man should remain steadfast, intent on Me. His knowledge is steady whose senses are under control (The Bhagavadgita, Ch. II, pp. 60, 61).

The senses are, of course, dangerous. In the normal state, they ought to be dependent on reason, while we generally find them asserting their authority and claiming independence, fighting with and resisting reason. This dangerous character of the senses might have betrayed the Vedanta writers into the extravagance of advocating the total destruction of the senses. But it is only an extravagance inconsistent with the general spirit of the Vedanta. A rational life is not a life of no desire, but a life of regulated desires. By making our senses serve our higher ends we can elevate ourselves.1 Besides the two features of unselfishness and rational control of the senses, the rational life will be marked by unity and consistency. The different parts of human life will be in order and make manifest the one supreme ideal. If instead of reason, our senses guide us, our life will be a mirror of passing passions and temporary inclinations. He who leads such a life will have to be written down, like Dogberry, an ass. His life, which will be a series of disconnected and scattered episodes, will have no purpose to take, no work to carry out, no end to realize. In a rational life, every course of action, before it is adopted, is brought before the bar of reason, and its capacity to serve the highest end is tested and, if found suitable, adopted by the individual. The Vedanta ethics requires us to think before we act.

Sometimes, this exercise of reason or thought descends into a scrupulosity that fights shy of action. We have such a character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Arjuna at the opening of the war resembles Hamlet. The Vedanta is criticized as encouraging quietism and inactivity, since it demands an undue amount of deliberation and contemplation. In this difficulty the Bhagavadgita again helps us. No doubt, contemplation is proclaimed as the highest good by the Vedanta. If reason is the peculiar privilege of man, distinguishing him from the other species of the creation, then an exercise of reason, pure and simple, ought to be considered a good in itself. The Vedanta recognizes the importance of this energizing of thought. It is that which enables us to see the oneness of things, that gives us the power to recognize the brotherhood of all, and points out the necessity of merging the individual will in the collective will. Knowledge is an organic part of the spiritual good of humanity. But when the Vedanta speaks of knowledge, it does not mean a study of the technical disciplines of the schools or systems of philosophy, or abstract analyses of thought, but the knowledge that is power, the knowledge that enables us to take a right view of things and our place in the world. The criticism points out the danger incident to a conception of life which lays stress on thought-activity. The Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita come after the Vedas, and their spirit is a revolt against the depressingly utilitarian spirit of the Vedas, which advocated the mere observance of the ritual for the sake of rewards and punishments. They pointed out that the outward conformity to law was not so important as the inner spirit. An action is good, not because of its external consequences, but on account of its inner will. Virtue is a mode of being and not of doing. It is not something to be found, but a function or an exercise of the will. This lesson of the Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita should be retold at the present day. To bend the knee to and worship a deity is not religion if the principles of morality are ignored. Many believe that to be religious is to perform sacrifices, visit the sacred places, and feed a number of people on special occasions required by the sacred scriptures. Brigands rob and kill while considering themselves quite religious if on fixed days they allot a certain proportion of their funds to pacify the wrath of gods, as if piety could remain intact without character. If piety is the telling of beads and the tramping of pilgrimages, it can exist without morality. But religion is a matter of the heart and is nothing if not inclusive of morality. Without the moral spirit, which in the main is identical with the religious, the Vedic culture and the observance of the Vedic ritual bear no fruit. The Vedas declared that the way to salvation was through the performance of sacrifices and the observance of elaborate ritual. The Upanishads explained the significance of sacrifices by holding out that the greatest sacrifice is unselfish devotion to the general good at the sacrifice of the individual self. A Vedanta text says: “And of the sacrifice performed by the master who has understood these truths, the soul is the performer; the heart, the seat of the sacrificial fire; sensual desires, the ghee; anger, the sacrificial lamb; contemplation, fire; the period of sacrifice as long as life lasts; whatever is eaten is sacrificial rice; whatever is drunk is the soma drink; and death is the sacred bath concluding the ceremony.” Thus, while the Vedas lay stress on the external conformity to the law, later Vedanta writings bring out that this outer conformity without the right spirit is good for nothing. Action generally produces a reaction. So from mere action without the underlying spirit, mere spirit without the act became emphasized. Sri Krishna argues in the Bhagavadgita that life and action are deeper than logical processes. He advises Arjuna not to fritter away his life in scruples, tremors, and hesitations, but asks him wholeheartedly to perform his duty. The highest knowledge cannot be got by turning our attention inward, but only by conducting ourselves in our external relations, fully imbued with the spirit of the all-presence of the divine. The Vedanta ethics does not ask us to sit with folded hands or, like the mystic, look down on earth or up to heaven, at nothing in particular. In the world here and now, the individual inspired by the vision beatific must do his level best to make his small corner of the world happier, nobler, and better. It is not the mystic in his cell or the philosopher in his retreat who is held up as a model, but the warrior fighting with righteous indignation the battle against the forces of evil and wickedness. Life is a battle of good against evil. By ceaseless striving and activity, man must conquer the opposition between the two. He must work out his spiritual destiny by struggle and effort.

The motive with which all acts should be performed ought not to be selfish. No act should be done with a selfish interest or for the gratification of inclinations. Reason tells us that the highest ideal is service of humanity, and reason must be exercised in the ascertainment of our duty in any particular crisis. If our conscience tells us that something is right, we must follow it, thoroughly prepared to meet fortune in all its moods. We must act disinterestedly. The Bhagavadgita says: “Then treating alike pleasure and pain, gain and loss, success or defeat, prepare for the battle and thus wilt thou not incur sin” (II, 38). This ideal of disinterested action is misconceived when it is confused with motiveless action. A rational being cannot act without motives, but can and ought to act disinterestedly. The Vedanta says, let not your selfish satisfaction be your motive. Anything you do, do because it is a necessary means of promoting the general welfare. Let not self-love be the motive, but let it be the love of soul to soul, love of the whole race of mankind. Only that love abideth. The highest form of self-realization consists in living for others. The Vedanta law of morality does not ask us to act without motives, but asks us to serve humanity, without any selfish desires or petty interests, without envy or jealousy, regardless of party or personality.

It is also urged, as a charge against the Vedanta, that it encourages reckless action. It asks us to perform acts irrespective of consequences. If we recognize a particular line of action to be right, we are asked to proceed with it in order and gravity, even though the powers that be do not sanction it. But it ought to be remembered that the Vedanta ethics is emphasizing the essence of all moral life, conscientiousness, in pointing out that one must put into practice what one feels to be right. The limitations of this principle the Vedanta is aware of. It anticipates that if every individual forces on others what he considers to be right, it will give rise to lawlessness. That is why the Vedanta demands careful consideration before coming to a decision. We must not judge lightly. We know as a matter of fact that the most pitiable thing in the world is to be a well-intentioned but misguided person. Visionary idealism which lacks focus and intelligent direction is ineffective and mischievous. The Vedanta requires careful consideration of the course we wish to adopt. It knows that if private interest is allowed full license, the chances are the society will be disrupted, and recognizes the necessity of supplying some foundation for the exercise of the individual’s private judgment. A man cannot stop and debate within himself at every point as to what his duty is. Hindu scriptures have laid down certain duties corresponding to the different orders. “Therefore the scripture is thy authority in deciding as to what ought to be done and what ought not to be done. Now thou oughtest to know and perform thy duty laid down in the scriptural law” (Bhagavadgita, Ch. XVI, verse 24). Certain regulations are laid down as binding on members of the four different classes into which men are divided. We are not here holding up the caste system as a model for imitation or as an institution free from blame, but only indicate that the individual’s private judgment is limited by an objective system of right. The Vedanta criterion of morality may well be expressed in the famous formula made familiar to the philosophic world by the Hegelian school of ethics: “my station and its duties.” The Vedanta, no doubt, asks us to act according to our conscience, but at the same time it guides the conscience so far as a general ethical system can do this. The Vedanta recognizes that loyalty to humanity at large does not mean, what it meant to the Cynics of ancient Greece, disloyalty to the narrower conceptions of family and city. It declares that the highest ideals can be realized only through loyalty to the smaller ideals of family, country, and so forth. The world we live in will be made better if each individual does well the small task assigned to him. There is no use talking about reforming the world without caring for the pressing problems of the moment. The immediate crisis, the task that lies ready to hand, must engage the individual’s attention, and if he does it well, he will indirectly help the betterment of the world. Every man has a certain station to occupy and a certain function to fulfill in the social economy. The Vedanta does not stop with pointing out that the ideal is social service, for in that case it would be airy, abstract, and unsubstantial, but it provides us with a code of ethics calculated to realize that ideal. It recognizes that, however good private judgment may be, it has to work under limitations. Free play to the individual’s private judgment would bring about an ethical atomism destructive of the supreme ideal of social solidarity. We see that the anarchic conception of man versus the State is alien to the spirit of the Vedanta philosophy. This does not mean that the principle of private judgment is sacrificed at the altar of social convention. By emphasizing the aspect of knowledge, the Vedanta points out the necessity of thinking obedience to its laws. Blind conservatism is not of much use. The different social rules and conventions are means of expressing the ideal. To the ideal we must hold fast, and if the institutions on account of changing conditions are not true to the ideal, they may be modified. The Vedantin does not ask the individual to be absorbed in the society, but presses home the organic nature of society which would do justice to both individual independence and social solidarity. The ideal thus makes for both moral order and progress.

Let us consider the ambiguity of the phrase ‘duty for duty’s sake’ as applied to the Vedanta criterion of morality. It is true that the Vedanta ethics asks us to do what we feel to be our duty, simply because it is our duty. This view, we have already seen, is a protest against the Vedic spirit which troubled itself much about the external effects of action. But if it is argued that the Vedanta considers the different duties universally valid and exceptionless, then it is open to criticism. First, there are not many moralists who will condemn the physician for giving deceptive answers to the questions of his patients, an honest man for misdirecting a murderer in search of his victim. To respect the principle of veracity to its very letter would be in these instances to expedite the patients’ death and promote the satanic misdeed out of mere love for consistency. To be consistent, sometimes, is to be dead to the generous impulse of the human heart. Secondly, we have what are called conflicts between duties. There arise situations in which it is difficult to find out what we should do. We seem sometimes to be caught in the horns of a dilemma. Scott, in the “Heart of Midlothian,” represents Jeannie Deans as tempted to give false evidence to save the life of her sister whom she knows to be innocent. The Bhagavadgita opens with a conflict between the two duties of fighting in the battle and respecting human life. How does the Vedanta ethics help us in this difficulty? The Vedanta does not regard the different rules as exceptionless and universally valid. It holds that there can only be one Absolute in morality as in metaphysics. Moral life is an organism in which every part contributes to the life of the whole. Every rule is justified by its relation to the other rules and its place in the system of morality. Unless there is one supreme end to which all the other rules are subordinate, our moral life will become a ‘thing of shreds and patches.’ If there is any one end that is universally binding and that can be called a categorical imperative, it is, according to the Vedanta, the rule relating to the highest end. The ideal of unselfish service of humanity is the only absolute moral rule which ought never to be broken. This ideal of social service can generally be attained by the practice of the virtues of veracity, justice, benevolence, and the like. But to hold that these rules cannot be broken at any time, that they are all equally categorical imperatives, is to land us in moral anarchy, in view of the all too obvious conflicts between duties. The laws merely represent the mechanism by which the ideal of service can be realized. But man has no call to act in blind unthinking obedience to them. The end, according to the Vedanta, is not conformity to all these rules, but conformity to the law of reason. It is obedience to reason and its ideal of service and sacrifice that is the one supreme law, and all others are subordinate to it. When the rules come into conflict, we must fall back on the supreme commandment, and ask ourselves which is the course most conducive to the realization of reason in the world. Our whole moral life must be a rational unity. The different acts must be expressive of one central purpose. This consistency, which is the concern of great souls as opposed to ‘little minds,’ is consistency with the supreme ideal and not merely outward consistency with the external law.2

Let us next consider the charge that the Vedanta ethics is ascetic in its nature and does not positively support the conception of an active life. The metaphysical doctrine of Maya resolves the facts of this world into pure illusions. If the world of our knowledge is purely illusion, then morality becomes an appearance. Life, with its distinctions of subject and object, good and evil, is reduced to a fiction of the mind. The best thing for man would be to withdraw from this Maya world, turn his attention inward and see if there is anything there that is not a mere appearance. The whole criticism rests on a misunderstanding. The world of knowledge and life is not an appearance or a shadow, but is reality partially understood. The different parts are real in so far as they are parts of one whole. They do not have a self-dependent reality. This does not mean that the facts of life are all illusory. There are, of course, passages in Sankara which might be taken to mean that the world of science, art, and morality is illusory. Sankara, when confronted with the difficulty that such a conception does not do justice to the moral life, says the world of morality is illusory sub specie œternitatis. But here, from the platform of empirical knowledge, sub specie temporis, the world is as real as anything can possibly be.3

Another argument for the quietistic interpretation of the Vedanta doctrine of ethics is derived from the doctrine of karma. ‘Karma’ is a hypothesis devised by the later Vedanta writers as an explanation of the inequalities of this life and a solution of the problem of future life. It says we are not the sport of a cruel chance or the victims of a blind destiny. There is a principle governing the universe. We reap what we sow. The accidents of birth and fortune in this world are but the rewards and penalties of our deeds in the past life. The conception of karma has a great positive value. The good and evil we do not only affect society, but ourselves and our lives. Suffering in this universe is regarded as the wages of sin, which ought to be borne in meek resignation and in the belief that it is the reward of our own wrongdoings. Personal responsibility is given its due importance. As a solution of the problem of future life, the doctrine of karma holds that there is conservation of value in the economy of nature. The values of spirit and reason are not wasted. This life is the beginning of another into which we carry with us what we are and do here. The new starts just where the old life left off. The law of karma is the law of spiritual continuity. The Chandogya Upanishad says: “Now man is formed out of will. According to what his will is, in this world, so will he be when he has departed. Let man then seek the good will” (III, 14).

But this doctrine of karma is sometimes interpreted in a way that makes impossible individual initiative, so that the proper attitude for the individual is to bow to what happens in the belief that it is the inevitable. Let us, therefore, inquire into the relation of karma to human freedom. If karma means that all our acts, including the complex details, are completely predetermined, human freedom, without which moral life loses its integrity, becomes a fiction. Then the doctrine of karma brushes aside the consciousness of freedom as a palpable illusion of the intellect, destined to disappear with a more adequate knowledge of the world. But does the doctrine of karma say that all our acts are predestined by our past deeds? No. It only says that man’s past deeds are continued into this life in the form of tendencies or predispositions. But character is not the product of karma. Though character has to do with inherited endowment, it is not the inherited endowment. Character, which is the habit of will, is not determined but self-created. Certain dispositions are given to us, but they are not motives or self-conscious desires. The rational self must consent to the disposition before it becomes a desire. Man is not bound down to the natural endowment. Reason enables him to transcend it. The independence of reason asks him not to accept the given nature as his natural destiny, but requires him to control the given and shape it conformably to the ends of spirit and reason. In rationalizing the given, or in forming character on the basis of the given material, we are free. The Vedanta ethics recognizes the limitations under which our human freedom has to work. We do not have the universal field of possibilities or ourselves to choose from. Natural forces, heredity, and environment limit our freedom. These external conditions may thwart the free passage of an idea into an act, but this cannot materially affect the human soul any more than poverty can debase or riches elevate it. Our duty is to stand for the right and fight for it. It does not matter whether we succeed or not. We must do the right whether the right is done or not. Thus we see that the karma doctrine is not opposed to an active life of exertion. We are not asked to sit idle in the belief that everything will follow the impulse of karma, but are asked to do our very best, through the exercise of reason to overcome the force of karma. There is a famous saying which asks us to “destroy fate by force of exertion.”

Is the Vedanta ethics asceticism? The Vedantic principles of the energizing of the soul and the rational control of the senses are regarded as countenancing a life of inactivity. We pointed out that the Vedanta requires the due control and not the destruction of the senses. The Vedanta recognizes that the end-all and be-all of life is not the satisfaction of the senses. Life is more than animal enjoyment. If asceticism consists in the recognition of a higher principle than the animal, and in the call to sacrifice our lower interests for the sake of higher ends, then the Vedanta ethics is a type of asceticism. If the sacrifice of selfish desires, love of ease, and other sugar-plums in the cause of the right, is a feature of asceticism, then the Vedanta ethics is an ascetic code. But why say it supports a life of inactivity? The Vedantin knows that such a life is not possible, if desirable; not desirable, if possible. Arjuna at the beginning of the battle, in a fit of weakness, proposed to give up the warrior’s career and assume the life of an ascetic. Sri Krishna protested against this resolve and advised him to do his duty unselfishly. The Vedanta philosophy teaches us that our lives are not ours. They belong to humanity, which ought not to be deprived of its possessions. Render unto humanity what belongs to humanity. “Not by abstaining from works does a man reach the actionless state; not by merely renouncing works does he attain perfection” (Bhagavadgita, III, 4).

There is absolutely no doubt that this lesson must be brought home to the drugged conscience of the average Hindu mind. Political apathy, lack of organization, absence of the civic virtues, and a spirit of the exaggerated importance of relaxation and rest led to that great country’s fall. The sad story of India’s fall should teach every individual the utility of practical energy, efficiency, strength of character, and unity. Unless India recovers from her stupor, there is no chance for her. She must meet death from without. But if she takes to heart the lessons of her great religion and ethics, which bid her neither sit, nor stand, but go, she will have victory from within. It is a great pity that the Hindu religion and philosophy have been so interpreted in the past as to give color to a quietistic and unpractical code of duties, quite in accord with the introspective turn of the Hindu’s mind. The whole spirit of the Bhagavadgita is a protest against this quietistic spirit. The highest religious philosophy of the Hindus requires each man to enter into the strife of the world and wholeheartedly to perform his duty. “Devoted each in his own work, man attains perfection” (Bhagavadgita, 18-45). Every man, according to the ethics of the Vedanta, is required to contribute to the national strength his quota of earnest work. It is by the adoption of this gospel of work that the nation can grow.

S. Radhakrishnan,
The Presidency College, Madras.


1. See Bhagavadgita, Ch. VI, verses 5, 6.

2. There is the obvious danger in all such theories that if we allow a loophole for breaking the laws, we do not know where it will all end. Every man will try to excuse himself for violating the laws on account of his peculiar circumstances. But before we think of violating the well-recognized rules of morality, we should make sure that the one supreme end is promoted by our violation. Secondly, we should also take into account the remote effects of this violation on the society.

3. He says: “The entire complex of phenomenal existence is considered true so long as the knowledge of Brahman, as the Self of all, has not arisen; just as the phantoms of a dream are considered true until the sleeper awakes. When a person has not reached the true knowledge of the Unity of the Self, it does not enter his mind that the world of effects, with its means and objects of right knowledge and its results of actions, is untrue; rather, in consequence of his ignorance, he looks on mere effects as forming part of and belonging to his self, forgetful that Brahman is in reality the Self of all. Hence, so long as true knowledge does not present itself, there is no reason why the ordinary course of secular and religious activity should not go on undisturbed.”