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Understanding Indian Ethics

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

Social (Objective) & Individual (Subjective) Morality

Unlike the Western, the Indian moral system contains both social and individual ethics and sometimes, the latter is more emphasised. Morality as the most basic element of human life is acknowledged from an early age of Vedas. Indian moral system proceeds on the assumption that a human being has to discharge two types of moral obligations, one with respect to other members of society and the other towards oneself. In other words, an individual has to behave morally (or immorally) with other members of society as also in relation to oneself. 

The social aspect of Indian ethics, also known as objective ethics, refers to questions of morality with relation to others. At the same time, individual or subjective ethics relates to the questions of morality in relation to oneself. A remarkable feature of Indian ethics is that an individual makes moral judgments about the conduct and character of other members of the community and, at the same time, judges their behaviour towards their own self. 

The recognition of both social (objective) and individual (subjective) morality as constituting parts of the moral life of humans corresponds to the acceptance of the “morality of doing” and “morality of being” as integral to Indian ethics. The morality of doing refers to the do’s and don’t’s, and the morality of being relates to the virtues and vices.  Social morality is predominantly the morality of doing, while individual morality is the morality of being.

Inculcation of virtues or practising vices is fundamentally a matter of personal preference and references one’s inner being and character. In comparison, social morality is mainly concerned with one’s conduct, i.e., what one does or does not do in relation to the other members of their society. From this perspective, it can be stated that while objective (social) morality has its roots in the sense of duty (towards others), subjective (individual) morality has its foundations in cultivating virtues. 

Further, the emphasis on objective and subjective morality implied that an individual in the Indian scheme of things had to cultivate a sense of “duty” and was expected to learn and practice virtues. Under the former comes such duties of ahimsa, dana, daya, paropakara, asteya etc., while under the latter come indriya-nigraha (control of senses), aparigraha (non-attachment to worldly objects), the study of scriptures, sauca (cleanliness), asana, pranayama.

To conclude, it can be stated that in Indian ethical tradition, being moral means leading a principled life both in the individual and social reference. Morality in social context implied acts of compassion, love, etc., but for an individual, morality meant self-control and self-discipline.

Satyam vada, Dharmam chara,

Svadhyaanmaa pramadah,

Satyaat na pramaditavyam,

Deva-pitrakaryaabhyaam na pramaditavyam (Upanishads)

Speak the truth. Practice virtue. Do not deviate from study. Do not deviate from truth. Do not deviate from virtue. Do not deviate from duty to gods and parents.    

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