The General Framework of Hinduism- I

The General Framework of Hinduism- I


The purpose of this paper is to present the general framework of Hinduism to develop our understanding of its nature and core principles and their significance to help resolve the tensions and complexities of the contemporary society. The motivation comes from the misconceptions that surround its theology and practice. Given the vast philosophical literature developed over the years, often the central message of Hinduism for humanity gets lost. Furthermore, those interested are often confused due to the complexities of Hindu societal fabric, the political narrative surrounding, lack of familiarity with the original literature written Sanskrit language and onslaughts by adherents of rival faiths interested in increasing their own market share in the world religious market. Some wonder whether the ancient philosophical system that dates back to 5,500 years has any relevance to the modern age. We find that the core framework of Hinduism is built to create, support and maintain a harmonious society. The aim of Hindu philosophy is the extinction of sorrow and suffering which arises due to ignorance about our true original nature. The ignorance can be dispelled by acquiring knowledge about the Ultimate Reality by a rational endeavour (both theoretical and practical) underpinned by critical thinking and covering aspects such as metaphysics, epistemology, logic, ethics and aesthetics among others. An overview of Hinduism could help enlighten the adherents as well as the non-adherents of the Hindu way of life to create harmonious society and to ensure the wellbeing and prosperity for all.

1. Introduction

Life’s journey consists of both favourable and unfavourable events. Favourable events make us happy, but the happiness is generally short-lived. Unfavourable events make us unhappy and we want to get rid of ensuing pain and sorrow. We are caught in a private world or interests such as family and friends. We rarely factor in the outside world except when it supports or hinders us. But the powerful outside world can crush our private world to ruins instantaneously. We feel that we are powerless, there is no escape and ultimately surrender to the outside forces. There is no lasting peace and poise in such a life and we feel disempowered or prisoner of our circumstances (Russell, 1912)[1].  When life turns sour we ask why is this happening to me? I did nothing wrong then why should I suffer? Why do good people seem to suffer, and bad people seem to be enjoy? What is life all about?  Who am I? what I am doing here? Where will I go from here? Is there a God?

When we ask such questions, we are doing philosophical thinking. The need thereof arises both from the desire of a rational person to find answers to the eternal questions posed above as well as to improve man’s ability to cope up with the problems of everyday living.

Philosophy centres around three issues: the world or nature, the place of the self in the world and the possibility of a creator God. Both the Western and the Eastern philosophies concern themselves with these fundamental issues. The philosophical issues investigated by both are the same. They, however, differed in the method of inquiry as well as the processes of development of philosophical thought.  The philosophical inquiry in the West was in parts or in segregated manner such as metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, logic and aesthetics while Indian philosophers considered these aspects in a synthetic or aggregated manner – not in parts (Chatterjee and Datta, 1984)[2].

Philosophy is an all-encompassing framework that includes, among others, the philosophy of science as well as the philosophy of religion. ‘The philosophy of science is concerned with all the assumptions, foundations, methods, implications of science, and with the use and merit of science’ (Stanford, n.d)[3]. The central question of the philosophy of science is the demarcation between science and non-science. Science relies on evidence to validate its claims. The predictions made need to be consistent with observation by human senses such as sight, hearing etc. The focus of science is on understanding nature. The tools of science include objective observation, experimentation, replicability and logical reasoning. Science concerns itself with nature or natural phenomena.  To solve the demarcation issue – science and non-science- Karl Popper gave the criterion of falsifiability. ‘Theories that are permanently immunized from falsification by the introduction of untestable ad hoc hypotheses can no longer be classified as scientific’ (Shea, n.d.)[4].  Theories about God or theology -especially the Abrahamic theologies -are immunised from falsification and hence are non-science.

To understand the philosophy of religion, we need to define religion. Religion is ‘an organised institution- replete with a founder, a holy order, temples, ceremonies, and so on’ (Cooper, 2003:14).  Matters become further complicated if by religion we mean ‘a dogma or a doctrine whose central assertion is that there exists a supreme creator, an object of total devotion with which we should aspire to union’ (Cooper, 2003:14) or surrender completely. Religions concern themselves with transcendent (beyond physical) reality that falls outside the scope of science.

Religious traditions can be divided in two broad categories: theistic and non-theistic (or atheistic). In Western religions (Abrahamic traditions- Judaism, Christianity and Islam), the Ultimate Reality is conceived as a ‘personal God who is creator and sustainer of all and perfect in every respect. Many other properties are commonly attributed to God as well, including omniscience, omnipotence, and immutability’ (Meister, n.d.)[5]. In Eastern religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Advait Vedanta school of Hinduism, the Ultimate Reality doesn’t refer to a personal creator God.  Accordingly, these religions are non-theistic religions. Some of the Hindu philosophical systems are flatly atheistic… and in others God is only an ‘impersonal cosmic principle’ (Cooper, 2003:14)[6]. Hinduism considers the Ultimate Reality as supreme or pure consciousness (called the Brahma).

Against the above general scheme of things or the canvas and the place of Hinduism within it, I now present the framework of Hinduism in the next section and thereafter in section 3, examine the relevance of Hindu thought for the demands of the modern society.  However, before we consider the various elements of the framework, a quick look at the Hindu demography may be in order.


According to the Pew Research Centre (PRC, 2017)[7], Hinduism was the fourth largest religion in the world in 2010 in terms of population (1.03 billion or 15% of world population). Christianity with 2.2 billion (31%) and Islam with 1.6 billion (23%) were the top two religions. The unaffiliated (includes atheist) accounted for 1.13 billion (16%). Buddhism holds the fifth rank with a population of 788 million (7%). Christianity and Islam were established about 2,000 years and 1,500 years ago respectively. Buddhism dates to roughly 500 BCE while Hinduism from prehistoric times roughly 5,500 BCE (Violatti, 2013)[8].  It is important to note, at this stage, that Christianity and Islam are proselytizing religions, that is, they actively seek more members to join their religion and aggressively go about religious conversion. Hinduism is not a proselytizing religion and there is no theological injunction to convert others as found in Christianity and Islam (Bandarage, 2015) [9] . ‘The more people understand the openness of Sanatana-dharma [Hinduism] the more likely there could be an end to religious war and misunderstandings’ (Knapp, n.d.)[10].

2. The General framework of Hinduism

For a proper understanding of the Hindu thought, it is important to know its general framework – that is, its core concepts and the interrelationships between those concepts. Such a knowledge would help us know how the core principles and philosophy of Hinduism can help us navigate through the needs of the contemporary society. Importantly, it will help us realise that the Hindu thought would considerably help in creating a harmonious world and as such would be of benefit not only to Hindus but to non-Hindus alike. Consequently, the Hindu way of life needs to be propagated for the betterment of the world and to end inter-religious hostilities and violence as well as to make individual life richer, happier and worry-free.

The description of the elements of the general framework of Hinduism, has been grouped in five strands in which Western philosophy is generally studied, that is, metaphysics, epistemology, logic, and ethics and aesthetics (Chatterjee and Datta, 1984)[11]. However, as noted earlier, while Western philosophy considers these elements in parts or in a disaggregated manner, Hinduism considers them in an aggregated manner, hence it becomes at times difficult to divide Hindu thought in the above five elements. Yet such a division, it is hoped, could help us discuss Hinduism in a multicultural setting.

2.1 Hindu metaphysics

Metaphysics refers to ‘the rational inquiry in to the structure of being, its polarities and categories as they appear in man’s encounter with the reality’ (Tillich, 1956:57)[12].  There is finer distinction between metaphysics and theology.  The former is an intellectual exercise to understand the Ultimate Reality, the latter is a ‘belief system’.  The mother-board of Hindu philosophical system is intellectual exercise underpinned by rational/critical thinking, discussions and debates.  Unlike the Abrahamic religions, Hindus don’t assume existence of an imaginary personal male God. Theology comes in picture when such an imaginary personal God is the starting point.  Some strands of Hindu philosophy do assume a personal God (in the form of deities or devata) but only as – an intermediary step – a tool for understanding Brahma -the abstract reality or pure consciousness.  This is the reason why Cooper (2003) asserts that Hinduism is atheistic.

Hindu metaphysics can be discerned from its scriptures.

2.1.1 Scriptures (Literature)

Hinduism’s vast literature consists of the Shrutis (revealed literature), Smritis (recollections), Darshana (viewing or how philosophical system looks at things) and Tantra (technique). The Shruti’s were in place since about 4,000 BCE (Dasgupta, 1922)[13] and consist of the four Vedas and over one hundred Upanishads (philosophical portion of Vedas)[14]and provide the foundation for Hindu metaphysics. The Smritis consist of law books (eg. Manu Smriti), Puranas (stories and parables, eg. Srimad Bhagwat), the epics Mahabharat and Ramayana, six philosophical systems (Shad Darsan) and finally, the vast Tantric (technique of spreading knowledge) literature with 64 prominent texts.  Smriti’s consist of ethical and moral teachings besides the mythology. The literature is vast, for example, the Skanda Purana alone contains 88,100 slokas (aphorisms)[15] and there are 18 such Puranas with varying sizes! The Bhagvad Gita (written around 400 BCE to 200 BCE)[16] synthesizes the vast literature.

Given that the study of such voluminous literature may take a life time of study, Hindu scholars recommend that every Hindu must read at least three texts called the Prasthan Trayi (literally three points of departure) – The Principle Upanishads (Shruti prasthana- the starting point of revelations), Brahma/ Vedanta Sutra (Nyaya or Yukti prasthana – logical text) and the Bhagvad Gita (Sadhana or Smriti prasthan).  Sastry (1916:47) notes that these three ‘constitute according to Badarayana, the complete canon of the Vedanta Darsana (or philosophy)[17] or the Institutes of Vedantic teachings –Shruti being the scriptural institute, Brahma sutra being the logical institute and Bhagvadgita the traditional institute.

There are ten principal or classical Upanishad – so called as Adi Sankar chose to comment on these. The Upanishads contain the essence of the Vedas and are the concluding portion thereof. They contain accounts of the mystic significance of the syllable aum, explanations of mystic words, sacred texts and esoteric doctrines (Radhakrishan, 1992)[18].  They are the thoughts generated at different points in time by different rishis (spiritual scientists) interested in different aspects of philosophical problems.

Intelligent inquirers, however, needed explanation of the bare quotations contained in the Sruti and Smritis. There was also a need to resolve apparent inconsistencies in the vast Vedic literature. Given the need, Sage Badarayana composed Vedanta or Brahma sutra based strictly on reasoning.

The Bhagvad Gita is essentially a dialogue between Lord Krishna and Prince Arjuna – before the start of the war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas – and is contained in the Bhishma Parva of the Hindu epic Mahabharat.  During the dialogue, Krishna addresses the objections of Arjuna by unfolding a philosophical system which is an amalgam of the Sankhya and the Yoga philosophical strands. The Gita operationalises the abstract ideas contained in the Hindu scriptures to make them accessible for the conduct of everyday life. It can be described as the manual for self-realisation and to achieve societal harmony. The Gita recommends a four-fold path to achieve these objectives: The Way of Knowledge (Jnana Yoga), the way of Action or Duty (Karma Yoga), the Way of Devotion or Bhakti Yoga and the Way of Meditation or Mind Control (Raja Yoga). ‘The Gita gives you the unique way of life that eases off your tension and you enjoy a happy life. Gita, apart from being a religious scripture, is a scripture of life as well’ (Swami Gyananand, 2014:1)[19].

The Vedas and Upanishads (Shruti text) provide the foundation for philosophical speculation in Hinduism. This is followed by the Sutra (literally thread or aphorisms) literature which systematised the thoughts scattered in the Shruti texts. These include: Jaimini sutra for the Mimamsa, Gautama’s sutra for Nyaya, Kanada’s sutra for Vaisesika, Patanjali’s sutra for Yoga, Kapila’s sutra for Sankhya and Badarayana’s sutra for Vedanta (also called Brahma sutra). Accordingly, each of the six strands (Shad Darsana) of Hindu philosophy had sutra literature. The commentaries on the sutra literature was known as the Bhashya. Accordingly, for Vedanta sutra or Brahma sutra, we have commentaries of Adi Sankara, Ramanuja and Madhva besides Vallabha, Nimbaraka, Baldeva and others.

The building blocks (constructs) of Hindu metaphysics emanate from the Shruti’s and are as follows:

(a) Brahma (universal self): The Ultimate Reality is designated as the Brahma – not to be confused with the deity Brahma or the varna Brahmana. The universe emerges from Brahma and finally collapses or merges into it. It is universal spirit or pure consciousness. According to Vedanta Sutra, from the Brahma the creation, preservation and reconstruction of the universe proceeds (Bernard, 1947)[20].  It has two aspects: Nirguna (without qualities or form) and Saguna (with qualities, or form, naama and roopa). As a Nirguna it is unlimited without beginning or end (anadi and ananta).

(b)  Atman (self): When the Brahma becomes limited or Saguna, it is called Atman. Accordingly, Atman is the same universal consciousness trapped in a form or the spirit encased in matter – a caged bird. Bernard (1947)[21] notes that the unlimited Brahma is like electricity but manifest in limited form such as light, heat, motive power without getting exhausted. The electric bulb through which the light emanates has limited life but the electricity per se which illuminated the bulb is inexhaustible.

(c) Maya (delusion): When the Brahma which is in a restive stage (Nirguna) becomes active it assumes a form (Saguna). Ceramic can assume different forms (art ware, tiles, sculpture) but ultimately it is just ceramic material. ‘After a latent period, the universal seeds potentiality begins to germinate, and consciousness becomes active’ (Bernard, 1947: 131) manifesting itself in various forms. The world appears to take different forms because of ignorance (Maya) of the self to distinguish between the real and the unreal.

To sum up, using the key aspects of Vedanta philosophy – the dominant amongst Hindu theology – Hindu metaphysics has been well summarised by Cooper (2003:35). These are derived from the four mahavakyas (great or key sentences) emanating from the Shruti.

  • Prajnanam Brahma (consciousnessis Brahman)
  • Brahma satya jagat mithya: Brahma (consciousness) alone is real (truth), the world of appearances is illusion or
  • Tat tvam asi (That are Thou): You (atman) is the
  • Ahum Brahmasmi: I am ‘pure consciousness’. Since reality is one, ‘I’ and ‘Brahma’ must be one.
  • Outer appearances are due to ignorance (maya), superimposing on the real (Brahma).
  • By focussing attention on our true original nature (pure consciousness, brahman/atman), we can liberate ourselves from the cycle of birth and death. Desires (trishna) create illusion (maya) which in turn creates dukkha (suffering).

2.1.2 Hindu theology

Theology refers to ‘an ordered, coherent exposition of beliefs and commitments, explored and established through the use of a range of philosophical methods of analysis and engaging with the philosophical issues arising out of the ordered set of beliefs’ (Chakravarthi, 2014:98).[22]  The Hindu theological literature can be classified in three distinct groups: theology of identity, theology of difference, and the theology of difference in identity. These schools basically deal with the problem of Ultimate Reality which has transcendental and phenomenal dimensions. Hindu theology asks whether these dimensions are different, identical or both? The theologies of difference would encompass: Sankhya, Yoga, Mimasa, Nyaya school, the theology of identity would include the six strands of Advaita schools and the theology of difference in identity would refer to, the VishishtAdvaita school.

One of the major contributions of Hindu theology to the world of philosophy is, as already indicated above, the karmasiddhanta (The Law of Karma). Hinduism posits that the general moral law which governs all beings and the outside world is the law of karma. Simply stated the law asserts that all actions -whether good or bad – have consequences. We know that some people are happy while others are miserable. Some virtuous people suffer and the wicked prosper. Why does this happen? One can easily see the correspondence between our current actions (karma) and consequences thereof in the present life itself. But many a times, it is difficult to see such an association between consequences and actions. We can’t control the consequences as they seem to hit us from nowhere and we find it hard to provide any logical explanation.  For a scientist, it is a random event, a chance or bad luck. Christianity, and similar other religious paradigms assert that it is due to the wrath of God. No logical reasoning is offered either by science or by religion.

It is here that the theory of karma comes to our rescue.  The theory posits that life is a continuous process and the present life is only a particular realisation of that process. This thought is very similar to the time series analysis in statistics. Time series models assume a continuous process that began ‘in the infinite past and ends into the infinite future’ (Griffith et al. 2003:643)[23]. Hinduism assumes that life is without a beginning and end (anadi and anant). Time series assume that the particular data (say temperatures of earth), we deal with is only a specific realisation of that process. Similarly, Hinduism assumes that the self (atman) passes through several lives and the present is just one specific event or life. In auto regressive timeseries, the assumption is past data (lagged variable) influences present outcome. Similarly, the karma theory asserts that not only your actions in this life but also those performed in the past life influence outcomes in the present life. Such lagged variables taper off to zero in due course and similarly the consequences of the past karma get wiped out over successive lives.

The theory classifies karma in to two broad types: karmas from past lives that have not started generating consequences or outcomes called anarabdha karma and those that have begun to bear fruits, that is, arabhda or prarabdha karma. The anarabdha karma is divided in those accumulated in past life (praktana) and being gathered in this life called kriyaman or sanchayaman karma.

The law of karma is one of the most brilliant contributions of Hinduism to humanity. In one stroke it addresses multiple issues. First, it provides a plausible explanation for the big questions of philosophy, such as, why I am here or why I do I suffer for an apparently inexplicable reason? Second, it puts responsibility on the individual-self instead of blaming others or some imaginary Satan for bad outcomes or unfavourable events. Third, psychologically, it helps one distinguish between what is controllable and what is not (that is, coming from the past karma (deeds). Fourth, by showing the cause and effect relationship it exhorts the individual to do good deeds (by suggesting a host of ethics) in this life which not only builds a harmonious society but assures the individual that her/his good deeds wouldn’t go waste as she/he can reap the benefits in subsequent births (Gita Ch 6.41)[24]

For the Law of Karma to operate obviously the assumption of rebirth is necessary. Hinduism makes that assumption and so does Buddhism and Jainism. Is there really a rebirth?  It is difficult to prove this empirically but recent advances in parapsychology appear to confirm such a scenario (Carpenter, 2012, Chopra, 2006)[25][26]. Empirical research is being conducted for over 50 years in this area in some US universities such as the University of Virginia Medical Centre[27], and Duke University Department of Parapsychology. There are several resources available online in this area for those interested.

Critics of Hinduism often say that it is a pessimistic and other worldly philosophy. Far from it, Hinduism’s foundation is built on rationality and positivity. It doesn’t lull you into a false hope of a better future after death or presents to you a saviour to save you of all sins. As Swami Vivekanand said, ‘Ye are the Children of God, the sharers of immortal bliss, holy and perfect beings. Ye divinities on earth — sinners! It is a sin to call a man so; it is a standing libel on human nature. Come up, O lions, and shake off the delusion that you are sheep; you are souls immortal, spirits free, blest and eternal; ye are not matter, ye are not bodies; matter is your servant, not you the servant of matter’[28]. Hinduism not only accepts ‘free will’ but encourages it. It doesn’t blame fate or any one else for the miseries one suffers but squarely puts the responsibility on you –on your karma – whether past or present, and thereby encourages ethical conduct in the present time.

Hindu epistemology

While metaphysics asks the questions, what is the Ultimate Reality or the Truth, epistemology concerns itself with how we know what we know or about methods of knowing the reality. It refers to the Theory of Knowledge. According to Peirce[29] there are four general methods of knowing: method of tenacity (something is true because one knows it to be true), method of authority (something is true because some authority such as the Bible, for example, says it is true), method of intuition or method of reason (something is true because it agrees with reason, it is rational) and finally the scientific method (something is true because it is scientifically tested).  These methods are like scaffolding, stage 2 (method of authority) more reliable than stage 1 (method of tenacity) with the scientific method at the top (Kerlinger, 2003)[30].  One can easily discern that Abrahamic religions go by the method of authority because of their belief in their respective personal God, messenger of God and the Book of God (such as the Bible or the Koran).  They cite the authority of the Book.

Where does Hinduism fit in this scaffolding?  Given that Hinduism also cites the authority of the Vedas does it belong to stage 2 or the method of authority like the Abrahamic religions? According to Max Muller (1899)[31], prima facie, it may sound like that given the infallibility of Shruti assumed by Badarayana. However, if this condition is waived and Upanishads are considered to be the thoughts of human witnesses to the Ultimate Truth, then a great philosophy similar to that of the Greek and other thinkers of the West emerges. The clear departure of Hinduism from stage 2 is witnessed when the mainstream classical Hindu philosophical schools use epistemological tools (buddhi pamana) such as sensuous perception (pratyaksha), inference (anuman), scepticism, besides verbal testimony (sabda praman) (Stanford, n.d.)[32].  Accordingly, Hinduism climbs to stage 3 in the above ladder.

Scientific method involves careful observation using sensual perception, inference, and controlled experimentation. However, ‘there is a growing realisation, that scientific theories cannot be conclusively proved or disproved’ (Chalmers, 2000: xxi)[33]. In fact, this dissatisfaction with scientific method led the likes of Feyerabend (1975)[34] conclude that science has no special features that makes it the superior method of knowing.  The scepticism of Feyerabend (1975) and others led to the development of what is now known as the socio-logical, social sciences or ‘postmodernist’ approach.

Like science, Hinduism also uses perception and inference (logical deduction). Coming to laboratory experimentation, science has many subjects (at least 30) with which such experimentation is carried out. In Hinduism, as the realisation of the ultimate is an individual experience, the laboratory is the ‘self’. Just as in the science laboratory strict conditions need to be observed, similar is the case for the ‘laboratory of the self’. The spiritual scientist of Hinduism (called Rishis) lay down the conditions (yama, niyama), which need to be observed to eventually find the Ultimate Truth (experiencing pure consciousness or Brahma).  Consciousness has now generated interest of scientists in recent years. ‘The recent resurgence in consciousness studies has been fuelled by better, more advanced tools, such as functional brain imaging, and by findings in neurophysiology and systems neurobiology, including those related to memory and language in animals and humans’ (Russo, 1999)[35].

Hindu thought has developed over centuries using multiple case studies, collective lived experiences, narratives and testimony of the spiritual scientists (Rishis). Qualitative research approaches[36]  use the above methods since laboratory experiments are not possible in social sciences research. From the above discussion, one can surmise that Hinduism is at a handshaking distance from science.

Hindu logic

Logic as a branch of philosophy is concerned with reasoning. It differentiates between good reasoning and bad reasoning. Logic forms the foundation of mathematics and computer sciences.  Logic involves arguments or reasoning from available information to new information. ‘The exercise of reasoning and practice of argument are recorded in the early texts of India’ (Stanford, n.d.)[37].

One of the important features of rational inquiry is public debates. By 5th century BCE, rational inquiry was underway in various fields such as ‘Kṛṣi-śāstra (Treatise on agriculture), Śilpa-śāstra (Treatise on architecture), Jyotiṣa-śāstra (Treatise on astronomy), Dharma-śāstra(Treatise on law), Caraka-saṃhitā (Caraka’s collection), a treatise on medicine, and Artha-śāstra (Treatise on wealth), a treatise on politics’ (Stanford, n.d.)[38].  The arguments advanced in these texts, follow the well-recognised rules of inference as indicated in Stanford (n.d.)[39].

Amongst the sad darsana (six philosophical systems), the Nyaya system is deals primarily with logical thinking and rigorous criticism. It is also known as Tarkasastra (the science of reasoning) and Anviksiki (the science of critical study).

2.4 Hindu ethics

Unlike in Western philosophy which considers ethics (or moral philosophy) to be a separate branch of philosophy, in Hinduism, ethics are embedded in all scriptures and are the foundation on which Hindu practices are organised.  Ethics refers to conduct which is studied with respect to personal conduct and social conduct. Unlike Christian ethics which has foreign influences, Hindu ethics is purely indigenous in nature (Satyarthi, 2003)[40].  Besides the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Bhagvad Gita, discussion of ethics can be found in the epics and in the Puranas.  The Vedas gives us two important ethical concepts: Dharma and the Karma (Law of Karma). ‘Dharma is characteristic property, scientifically; duty, morally and legally; religion with all its proper implications, psycho-physically and spiritually; and righteousness and law generally, but duty above all’ (Das, p.11 cited in Satyarthi, 2003)[41]. The Law of Karma refers to the cause and effect relationship or the moral law governing all actions. Similarly, the “Bhakti or loving devotion, which some scholars imagine to be only a late development of Hindu religion, is already evident in the Rig Veda” (Hopkins, p. 8)[42]. The Upanishads introduce two more concepts with ethical import these are Sansara (worldly things) and Moksha (freedom from bondage) and demonstrate the interrelatedness to Dharma and Adharma (non- Dharma) and Karma. Moksha is freedom from bondage or Maya which characterises Sansara- an endless cycle of births and deaths. The epics Ramayana and Mahabharata with its heroes Rama and Krishna, resemble Christianity or Islam with emphasis on total surrender to the will of God.  The Bhagvad Gita discusses two paths: Nivrutti Marg – the path of renunciation and the Pravrutti Marg or the path of discharging one’s moral and social obligations. ‘Perform duty for duty’s sake without the expectation of reward’ is the key ethical theme emanating. It also cautions to keep away from the shadripus: kam, krodha, lobh, maad, moh and matsara (respectively lust, anger, greed, excessive pride, illusion or infatuation, and jealousy)[43].

Furthermore, for the journey from the lower-self to the higher-self (Ultimate Reality) some accessories have been suggested in the scriptures such as the Ahirbudhnya Samhita and the Patanjali Yoga Sutras (Yoga School). These are yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dhyana, dharana and samadhi (Dasgupta, 1922). The yama include: satya (utterance of truth), Ahimsa (non-injury to all beings by word, deed or thought), daya (compassion), dhriti (steadfastness in duty despite dangers), shaucha (purity), brahmacharya (absence of lust), kshama (forgiveness), arjava (uniformity in thought, deeds and words), mitahara (restriction on food intake), and asteya (non-stealing, non-greed). The niyama include: sravana (listening to scriptures), manana (introspection, questioning, reasoning, critical thinking about what is listened to), nididhyasana (repetitive meditation on the Ultimate Truth so learnt), dana (gifting duly earned wealth), santosha (contentment), hri (shame in committing prohibited actions), japa (reciting mantra) and citta-vritti-nirodha (control of tendencies of mind). There are many others too. For those interested in more insights in the topic of Hindu ethics the scholarly work of Buch (2012)[44] could be a good reference.

2.4.1 Ethical thoughts in the Hindu epics

In the Hindu literature, the two great epics -Ramayana and Mahabharata – occupy a special place. ‘They are comparable to the Iliad and the Odyssey of the Greek’ (Brown, 1921).[45]  Written by the Sage Valmiki, Ramayana narrates the tale of Rama, a prince and Sita his wife who was abducted by a demon King by name Ravana. Rama who is widely considered by Hindus to be the avatar (personification) of Vishnu (God) rescued her. The couple Rama and Sita are the Hindu ideals of a Perfect Man and a Perfect Woman. Ordinary Hindu learns the ethical value system by reading Ramayana in which it is told in a story form which makes it more interesting and accessible to the common man. Rama is also the epitome of good governance and demonstrates the Raj Dharma (what constitutes the right conduct of the King).  Parpola (2002)[46] and Basu (2016)[47] put the period of Ramayana circa 500 BCE.  But the jury is still out (Kumar, 2016)[48] as can be seen from below.

The Mahabharat war is widely accepted to have taken place after the Ramayana period.  Professor of Physics at the Memphis University Narhari Achar using astronomical method planetarium software found that Mahabharata war took place in 3,067 BCE while according to Bhatnagar it would have happened around 1,793 BCE (Kumar, 2016)[49].  Consisting of 100,000 verses, the Mahabharata is a story of the war between Kauravas and Pandavas for the throne of Hastinapur. The Bhagvad Gita features in this great poem. The story demonstrates the different shades of human character as well as the ethical dilemma people face. Lord Krishna shows the way out of these dilemmas by emphasizing on Karma Yoga or devotion to duty. With Mahabharata, the conception of four ends of life – dharma (ethics), artha (wealth), kama (sensuous pleasure) and moksha (freedom from bondage) was established as an important part of Hindu view of life (Mohanti, 1999)[50] .

A discussion of Hindu ethics would not be complete without reference to the work of the Sage Manu and his monumental work Manu Smriti.  It has often been discredited for supporting the caste system.  Sadly, it is little known that it is an authoritative work on jurisprudence – the first of its kind ever known to human civilisation.  The institution of Manu is older than the Justinian Roman Law or the Law of Salon or Lycurgus.  Naturally, the Manu smriti was relevant for the time it was created – circa 1,250 BCE[51] and to suit the societal organisation of that age.

Hindu art and aesthetics

Aesthetics as a branch of philosophy deals with issues such as art, beauty and good taste.  The written philosophical texts were the preserve of the elitist. To convey philosophical thought to the masses visual text was developed in ancient India since it has no limitations of language. The visual text expands understanding of any culture. Accordingly, art including paintings, dance, music and sculptures developed in ancient India. ‘The arts are also the key to important strands of Hindu theological thought’ (Frazier, 2010:3)[52]. Frazier (2010)[53] further enumerates that Hindu art has taken five approaches: artefactual (grown from archaeology depicts, among others, cultural trends), iconic (images as Hindu theologies), embodied (the image is interpreted as the manifestation of the deity and aesthetics of presence (Davis, 1997)[54], and transformative (particularly in the Bhakti literature leading to internal transformation). Several researchers have considered the beauty and words relating to beauty, for example, in Ramayana or in the work of Kalidasa[55].

Many missionaries and colonial rulers misinterpreted, or outright downgraded Hindu thought to serve their objectives (Arnett, 2014)[56]. In the process, humanity was deprived of this golden treasure that could help build harmony in the present confused world. The remainder of the article aims to display the gems. Hindu scholars do acknowledge that like any tradition ‘there is much in our past that is degrading and deficient but there is also much that is life-giving and elevating’ (Radhakrishnan, 1992:9). If a person and the humanity must benefit from the over 5,000-year-old traditional wisdom, then we need to focus on what can help us nourish and create a harmonious society around us. In the next section, I attempt this.

Continued in next part


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[2] Chatterjee, S. and Datta, D. 1984. An Introduction to Indian Philosophy, University of Calcutta. Kolkata.




[6] Cooper, D. (2003) World Philosophies: An historical introduction, Blackwell Publishing, USA.



[9] Bandarage, A. (2015) Proselytism or a Global Ethic?

[10] Knapp, S. (n.d.) Becoming a Hindu or Devotee is Easy

[11] Chatterjee, S. and Datta, D. 1984. Op. cit.

[12] Tillich, P. (1956) Relation of Metaphysics and Theology, The Review of Metaphysics, vol. 10. No. 1. pp. 57-63.

[13] Dasgupta, S. (1922) A history of Indian Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, London.

[14] Upanishads exceed 200 in numbers, but Indian tradition puts it at one hundred and eight (Radhakrishan op.cit.)



[17] Sastry, T. (1916) The Age of Sankara, Paul & Co. Madras.

[18] Radhakrishnan, S. (1992) The Principal Upanishads, Humanity Books, New York.


[20] Bernard, T. (1947) Hindu Philosophy, The Philosophical Library, New York.

[21] ibid

[22] Chakravarthi, R. (2014) Reading the acaryas: A generous conception of the theological method, Journal of Hindu Studies, Oxford University Press, vol.7, pp. 98-112.

[23] Griffiths, W., Carter Hill, R. and G. Judge (2003) Learning and practicing econometrics, John Wiley, New York.


[25] Chopra, D. (2006) Life after death, Random House, USA.

[26] Carpenter, J. (2012) First Sight: ESP and Parapsychology in Everyday Life, Rowman and Littlefield, USA.


[28] Vivekanand, S. (1893) Paper on Hinduism, Addresses at The Parliament of Religions, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, vol. 1.

[29] Buchler, J. (1955) Philosophical writings of Peirce, Ch 2. Dover, New York.

[30] Kerlinger, F. (1964) Foundations of behavioural research, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York.

[31] Max Muller (1899) The Six systems of Indian Philosophy, Forgotten Books 2014, London.


[33] Chalmers, A. (2000) What is this thing called Science? University of Queensland Press, Australia.

[34] Feyerabend, P. (1975) Against method: outline of an anarchist theory of knowledge,



[37] Stanford (n.d)

[38] Stanford (n.d) ibid

[39] Stanford (n.d) ibid

[40] Satyarthi, P. (2003) Sources and Development of Hindu Ethics, Global Religious Vision, vol 4/1, pp. 1-23.

[41] ibid

[42] Hopkins, E. (1924). Ethics in India, Yale University Press, USA.

[43]Klostermaier, K. (2010) A survey of Hinduism, SUNY Press, Canada.

[44] Buch, M. (2012) The principles of Hindu ethics, Simha Publications, Baroda (India).

[45] Brown, B. (1921) The Wisdom of the Hindus, Brentano’s Publishers, New York.

[46] Parpola, A. (2002) On the historical background of the Sanskrit epics, Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 122. No. 2 pp. 361-373.

[47] Basu, A. (2016) The Ramayana, Ancient History Encyclopedia, Retrieved:

[48] Kumar, S (2016) The epic riddle of dating Ramayana and Mahabharata, Huffington Post,

[49]  Kumar, 2016. op. cit.

[50] Mohanti, J. (1999) A history of Indian philosophy, in (ed. Deutsch & Bontekoe) A Companion to World Philosophies, Blackwell, USA.

[51] William Wilson Hunter. The Indian Empire: Its People, History and Products. Routledge. p. 114

[52] Frazier, J. (2010) Art and Aesthetics in Hindu studies, Journal of Hindu Studies, Oxford, vo. 3, issue 1. pp.1-11.

[53] ibid

[54] Davis, R. (1997) Lives of Indian images, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

[55] Smith, D. (2010) Beauty and the words of beauty in the Ramayana, the kavyas of Aswaghosa and Kalidasas Kumarsambhavam, Journal of Hindu Studies, Oxford, vo. 3, issue 1. pp.36-52.

[56] Arnett, R. (2014) India Unveiled: Spirit, Tradition and People, Atman Press, USA.

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Milind Sathye

Milind Sathye is an Australian academic.