The mark of Dharma is Achara or good conduct. Achara is the mark of the good. From Achara is Dharma born. Dharma enhances life. Man attains prosperity and fame, here and hereafter, through the practice of Dharma.
Good conduct is the highest Dharma. It is the root of all Tapas or austerities. Righteousness, truth and good works, power and prosperity—all originate from conduct.
Conduct And Character
Man wills to obtain his objects of desires. Willing results in action. This is called conduct. Conduct is behaviour. The will that is expressed becomes conduct.
Man has various sorts of desires. Sometimes, there is conflict of desires. That desire which obtains victory is termed ‘will’. The inner disposition which makes the will possible is called character. Character is the aggregate of peculiar qualities which constitute personal individuality.
External behaviour is not always a sure guide in judging the character of a man.
Ethics Or The Science Of Conduct
Morality or ethics is the science of conduct. Ethics is the study of what is right or good in conduct. Ethical science shows the way in which human beings should behave towards one another, as well as towards other creatures. It contains systematised principles on which a man should act. Ethics is right conduct or Sadachara.
We have human morality, family morality, social morality, national morality, professional morality, etc. A doctor has his professional ethics. He should not divulge to others the secrets of his patients. It is his duty to take all precautionary hygienic measures to stop the spread of an epidemic disease and direct his earnest attention towards public health and hygiene.
Ethics is a relative science.
What is good for one man may not be good for another man. What is good at one time and at one place may not be good at another time and at another place. Ethics is relative to the man himself and to his surroundings.
Ethics, Spirituality And Religion
Without ethics, you cannot have progress in the spiritual path. Ethics is the foundation of Yoga. Ethics is the corner-stone of Vedanta. Ethics is the strong pillar on which the edifice of Bhakti Yoga rests. Ethics is the gateway to God-realisation.
Without ethical perfection, no spiritual progress or realisation is possible. A Yogic student or aspirant must be strictly ethical. He must be truthful and pure in thought, word and deed. He must possess excellent conduct. He must not injure any living being in thought, word and deed. He must practise rigidly right thought, right speech and right action.
Every religion has its ethics.
The Sermon on the Mount of Jesus and the Ten Commandments contain ethical teachings for the uplift of man. The Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddha is the essence of ethics. The Yamas and Niyamas of Patanjali Maharshi constitute the highest ethics. Manu Smriti, Yajnavalkya Smriti and Parasara Smriti contain the code of conduct for man. The three kinds of austerity of the Gita are nothing but ethics in an intensified form.
Benefits Of The Practice Of Ethics
Morality is the gateway to religion. He who leads a moral or virtuous life attains freedom, perfection or Moksha.
Practice of ethics will help you to live in harmony with your neighbours, friends, your own family members, fellow-beings and other people. It will confer on you lasting happiness and Moksha. It will purify your heart. It will keep your conscience ever clean. A moral man who follows strictly the principles of ethics will not deviate even a fraction of an inch from the path of Dharma or righteousness.
Yudhishthira had earned an undying reputation for his practice of ethics. He was an embodiment of Dharma. Hence he still lives in our hearts.
Good conduct is the root of material and spiritual prosperity. Conduct increases fame. It is good conduct which prolongs life and destroys all calamities and evils and brings eternal happiness. It is good conduct that begets virtue. Therefore develop good conduct.
Ethical Codes In Hinduism
Hinduism lays great emphasis on ethical discipline. Yama (self-restraint) and Niyama (religious observances or canons) are the foundations of Yoga and Vedanta.
Undeveloped persons cannot think for themselves. Hence rules of conduct have been laid down by great sages or seers.
Lord Krishna says in the Gita: “Let the scriptures be thy authority in determining what ought to be done or what ought not to be done. Knowing what hath been declared by the ordinances of the scriptures, thou oughtest to work in this world” (Ch. XVI-24).
The Smritis written by sages distinctly prescribe the rules of conduct. As you have not got the power nor the time to think of the moral principles and rules given in the scriptures, you can get them from the sages and saints and follow them to the very letter.
The Foundational Principles Of Hindu Ethics
The ethics of the Hindus is subtle, sublime and profound. All religions have taught ethical precepts such as: “Do not kill, do not injure others, love your neighbour as your self,” but they have not given the reason. The basis of Hindu ethics is this: “There is one all-pervading Atman. It is the innermost soul of all beings. This is the common, pure consciousness. If you injure your neighbour, you really injure yourself. If you injure any other creature, you really injure yourself, because the whole world is nothing but your own Self.” This is Hindu ethics. This is the basic metaphysical truth that underlies all Hindu ethical codes.
The Atman or Self is one. One life vibrates in all beings. Life is common in animals, birds and human beings. Existence is common. This is the emphatic declaration of the Upanishads or Srutis. This primary truth of religion is the foundation of ethics or morality or science of right conduct. Morality has Vedanta as its basis.
The first thing you learn from religion is the unity of all selves. The Upanishads says: “The neighbour is, in truth, the very Self and what separates you from him is mere illusion.” One Atman or Self abides in all beings. Universal love is the expression of the unity. Universal brotherhood has its basis in the unity of Self. All human relations exist because of this unity. Yajnavalkya said to his wife Maitreyi: “Behold, my dear, not indeed for the love of the husband is the husband dear, for the love of the Self is the husband dear.” And so with wife, sons, property, friends, worlds and even the Devas themselves. All are dear, because the one Self is in all. If you injure another man, you injure yourself. If you help another person, you help yourself. There is one life, one common consciousness in all beings. This is the foundation of right conduct. This is the foundation of ethics.
Service As Worship
A philanthropist donates big sums to social institutions. He regards this as some kind of social service only. That is all. He has not got the Bhava or mental attitude, that the whole world is a manifestation of the Lord and that he is serving the Lord. He has not got the Bhava that the Lord is working through his instruments or senses, that every act is an offering unto the Lord, and that every deed is a Yogic activity.
In India, dinner is prepared for five hundred persons even when two hundred persons are invited. Feeding is worship of Narayana or the Lord, for a Hindu. It is Atithi-Yajna or sacred sacrifice. A Hindu regards every creature as the Lord.
The Hindus are very generous, noble, large-hearted, charitable, God-fearing, sympathetic, merciful and hospitable. If they see a hungry man in the street, they will take him to their house, treat him as Atithi-Narayana (God in the form of guest), feed him first and then take their food. Nowhere in the world you will hear of such a treatment. You cannot get even a morsel of food free in other countries.
A Hindu believes that if he feeds a single sage or a Mahatma, he is feeding the whole world, because he has realised that a realised sage is identical with the whole Virat or Brahman and is one with all beings of the entire universe. Hindu ethics is based on the sublime philosophy of Vedanta which propounds the doctrine of oneness of life and unity of consciousness. Ethics or morality and doing good to others, is the manifestation of this oneness. A Hindu distributes food to the crows, dogs, cows and fish first before he takes his food. He tries to recognise the one Atman that is hidden in all these forms. He endeavours to become one with the Universal Being. He knows that in loving others he loves himself and in injuring others he injures himself. Through the practice of cosmic love he feels that all bodies are his, all hands are his, all feet are his and that the whole world is his home (Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam). Gradually he becomes one with the soul of the universe and one with the Oversoul also. Hindu ethics leads eventually to Self-realisation. Ethics is a means to Yoga.
Ethical Culture Or The Process Of Purification
The very root and core of all moral discipline is mental purification through refraining from all evil action and the active practice of virtue. Do good at all times. Ahimsa, Satya and Brahmacharya symbolise the three processes of avoiding sin, sticking to virtue and Self-purification.
All harm arises out of man’s egoism. The ego manifests itself as ambition, desire and lust. Under their influence man indulges in hatred, love, flattery, pride, unscrupulousness, hypocrisy and delusion.
To eradicate egoism arising out of Deha-Abhimana (body-idea), think constantly on the foulness and perishability of the body and the pains arising out of the senses. Reject them as evil and mentally rise above them. Dwell upon that which is desirable, elevating and divine.
Improper action—thoughtless action without discrimination—gives rise to all misery. To get freedom from misery, the noble path of virtue—Sadachara—is to be followed. Rigidly observe truth and purity in your thoughts, speech, actions, inner motive and general conduct. Be loving, tolerant and charitable in your opinion of men and things and in your dealings with others.
In every sphere, the individual should strive to adhere to these qualities and to manifest them. Thus, this ideal is to be practised between parents and children, elders and youngsters, teacher and pupil, friend and friend, Guru and disciple, leader and follower, subject and ruler, and nation and nation.
You must proceed along the path of virtue. Be determined never to swerve even an inch from Dharma. The mind has to be carefully trained and the will should be developed and strengthened. Therefore much importance has been laid by the ancients upon Yama, Niyama and Shat-Sampat (six treasures of virtue). The mind and will must be exercised and disciplined through deliberate acts of self-denial and self-sacrifice in everyday life. Ethical culture, therefore, demands moral vigilance and right exertion. The development of a sensitive conscience and positive admiration for goodness and nobility plays a great part in ethical culture.
Philosophy Of Right And Wrong
Everybody speaks: “This is right, that is wrong; you are right, he is wrong;” but he cannot tell you exactly what he means by ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
What is the criterion by which we judge an action to be right or wrong, and good or bad? “Right and wrong” and “good and bad” are relative terms. Right and wrong refer to the moral standard, as law. Good and bad refer to it, as end. You will have to adjust your conduct according to this moral standard. That which is in accordance with a rule is right. That which is worthy of achievement is good. Religion gives us the ultimate data upon which ethical science may be built.
Relative Nature Of Right And Wrong
Right and wrong—Dharma and Adharma—are relative terms. It is very difficult to define these terms precisely. Even sages are bewildered sometimes in finding out what is right and what is wrong in some special circumstances. That is the reason why Lord Krishna says in the Gita: “What is action? What is inaction? Even the wise are herein perplexed. Therefore I will declare to thee the action by knowing which thou shalt be liberated from evil. It is needful to discriminate action, to discriminate unlawful action, and to discriminate inaction; mysterious is the path of action. He who seeth inaction in action and action in inaction, he is wise among men; he is harmonious, even while performing all actions” (Ch. IV-16, 17, 18).
Illustrations Of Right And Wrong
Right and wrong are always relative to the surrounding circumstances. What is right in one situation is not right in another. Right and wrong vary according to time, special circumstances, Varna (status or class in society) and Asrama (order or stage of life). Morality is a changing and relative term. That passionate man who molests his legally married wife frequently to gratify his passion is more immoral than a man who visits the house of his sister of ill-fame once in six months. That man who dwells constantly on immoral thoughts is the most immoral man. Do you clearly note the subtle difference now? To kill an enemy is right for a Kshatriya king. A Brahmin or Sannyasin should not kill anybody even for protecting himself during times of danger. They should practise strict forbearance and forgiveness. To speak an untruth to save the life of a Mahatma or one’s Guru, who has been unjustly charged by the unjust officer of a state, is right. Untruth has become a truth in this particular case. To speak a truth which brings harm to many is untruth only. To kill a dacoit who murders the wayfarers daily is Ahimsa only. Himsa becomes Ahimsa under certain circumstances.
Forgiveness or Kshama befits an ascetic or Sannyasin who leads the life of Nivritti Marga or renunciation. It cannot befit a ruler. The ruler may forgive one who has injured him, but he cannot forgive one who has done the greatest harm to the public.
There are special Dharmas during critical, dangerous circumstances. They are called Apad-Dharma. Rishi Visvamitra took forbidden meat from a Chandala or outcaste when there was a severe famine, and offered this in his sacrifice to the Devas. Ushasti, a learned sage, took the polluted beans from the hands of an elephant-driver when the former was suffering from acute hunger and when he was not able to get food from anyone else.
Indicators Of Right And Wrong
Rishi Kanada, author of the Vaiseshika system of philosophy, says in the opening Sutra: “That which elevates you and brings you nearer to God, is right. That which brings you down and takes you away from God, is wrong. That which is done in strict accordance with the injunctions of the scriptures is right and that which is done against their injunctions is wrong.” This is one way of defining the terms ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. To work in accordance With the Divine Will is right and to work in opposition to the Divine Will is wrong.
A pure man who has done Nishkama Karma-Yoga for several years and who is doing worship of Isvara for a long time, can readily find out the Divine Will when he wants to do certain actions. He can hear the inner, shrill, silent voice. Ordinarily people should not attempt to hear this Divine Voice, the Voice of the Silence. They may mistake the voice of the impure mind for the Voice of God. The lower instinctive mind will delude them.
Selfishness clouds understanding.
Therefore, if a man has got even a tinge of selfishness, he cannot detect what is right and wrong. A very pure, subtle and sharp intellect is needed for this purpose. The Bhagavad-Gita describes the nature of Sattvic reason, Rajasic reason and Tamasic reason as follows: “That which knoweth energy and abstinence, what ought to be done and what ought not to be done, fear and fearlessness, bondage and liberation, that reason is pure, O Partha. That by which one wrongly understandeth right and wrong, and also what ought to be done and what ought not to be done, that reason, O Partha, is passionate. That which is enwrapped in darkness, thinketh wrong to be right and seeth all things subverted, that reason, O Partha, is of darkness” (Ch. XVIII-30, 31, 32).
Various other definitions are given by wise men to help the students in the path of righteousness. In the Bible it is said: “Do unto others as you would be done by.” This is a very good maxim. The whole gist of Sadachara or right conduct is here. If one practises this very carefully, he will not commit any wrong act. Do not do to another what is not good for yourself. Do not do any act which does not bring good to another or which injures another and makes you feel ashamed for it. Do that act which brings good to others and which is praiseworthy. Do as you would be done by. Do unto others as you wish others should do unto you. This is the secret of Dharma. This is the secret essence of Karma Yoga. This is a brief description of what right conduct is. This will lead you to the attainment of eternal bliss.
“Ahimsa Paramo Dharmah—non-injuring in thought, word and deed is the highest of all virtues.” If one is well established in Ahimsa in thought, word and deed, he can never do any wrong action. That is the reason why Patanjali Maharshi has given Ahimsa great prominence in his Raja Yoga philosophy. Ahimsa comes first in the practice of Yama or self-restraint. To give happiness to others is right; to spread misery and pain to others is wrong. One can follow this in his daily conduct towards others and can evolve in his spiritual path. Do not perform any act that brings to you shame and fear. You will be quite safe if you follow this rule. Stick to any rule that appeals to your reason and conscience and follow it with faith and attention. You will evolve and reach the abode of eternal happiness.
That work which gives elevation, joy and peace to the mind is right and that which brings depression, pain and restlessness to the mind is wrong. This is an easy way to find out right and wrong.
That which helps you in your spiritual evolution is right and that which obstructs and hinders your spiritual evolution is wrong. That which leads to unity of self is right and that which leads to separation is wrong. That which is in accordance with the injunctions of the holy scriptures is right and that which is not in accordance with the sacred lore is wrong. To work in accordance with the Divine Will is right and to work in disharmony with the Divine Will is wrong. To do good to others, to serve and help others, to give joy to others, is right and to give pain to others, to injure others is wrong. All that which is free from any motive of injury to any being is surely morality. Moral precepts have been made to free creatures from all injuries.
Why is charity right? Because it is in conformity with the law: “Do charity.” Why is stealing wrong? Because it is against the law: “Thou shalt not steal.” Why is it good to help a man when he is in trouble and difficulties? Because it will refine and ennoble your character. It will instil mercy in your heart. The cultivation of virtues will help you to realise the Supreme Self. Why is it bad to kill any being? The end is unworthy. It will corrupt your character. It will reduce you to the level of a brute.
By doing wrong actions, you taint your character. By doing virtuous actions, you develop a noble character. Without character, man falls down to the level of a brute. A man of character is honoured, trusted and adored everywhere. Therefore, develop a good character when you are young. Learn how to eradicate vices and how to cultivate virtues in the garden of your heart. Vices and evil habits are the weeds. Virtues are priceless fruits and flowers. Learn the Yogic method of Pratipaksha Bhavana or cultivation of the opposites. Purity or celibacy, forgiveness, generosity, humility and selflessness are the opposites of lust, anger, greed, pride and selfishness. Become a skilful Yogic gardener. Plant good flowers in the garden of your heart and enthrone the Lord in the centre of the heart-garden and meditate on Him. You will enjoy eternal bliss and immortality.
You must obey the laws or rules of conduct. The rules are given for you by the law-givers for your own betterment and spiritual uplift. The law-givers are great sages who had direct God-realisation.
To stick to Sadachara is difficult, no doubt. Mockery, misunderstanding and persecution will have to be faced. Therefore, the cultivation of forbearance, meekness of spirit, calm endurance and spirit of forgiveness are of great importance. Uphold virtue at any cost. For its sake, bear any calumny. Return good for evil.
Do not leave the path of morality even if your life is in danger. Do not leave righteousness for the sake of some material gain. Consult the Sastras and Mahatmas whenever you are in doubt. Build up your character. Grow. Evolve. Keep up your ideal always before your mind. Stick to Sadachara or right conduct. Practise it. You will soon attain eternal bliss and immortality.