Friday, 18 November 2011

Are our various Hindu approaches absolutist or relativistic in ethics?

The question has come up as I see mention of a particular event where three views of ethics are to be presented from the platform: that of the Gita, that of the Koran, and that of the Bible (I should say that none of these presentations are by me, in this particular instance!).

One's view of ethics is always related to one's view of God, since without God no real "ethics" are possible, only rules that individuals may or may not make up for themselves (because individuals are also then free to live not on the basis of rules or principles but even on the basis of whims and fancies).

I guess it is fair to say that the Koran's view of ethics, like its view of God, is absolutist. God is totally sovereign, His will is immmutable, and we can either comply or face punishment. Perhaps some Muslim friends will correct me if they feel that I am being too extreme or partial in my portrayal of the Koran's view of God and of ethics.

The Biblical view (again, I hope that readers better acquainted with the book than me will correct me) seems to me neither absolutist nor relativistic. I would describe it as "aspirationalist" or "idealist". Yes, certain absolutes are presented (e.g. Thou shalt not commit theft or adultery or murder...) but these are negative absolutes, which leave enormous room for positive things. In other words, it is an ethic which emphasises freedom within limits (yes, there was a tree in the Garden of Eden from which one could not eat, but that was only one tree; Adam and Eve were free to eat the fruit of any other tree, and they were free to cultivate and shape the garden as they wished). The New Testament continues in that broad vein, giving very few specific positive commands, and those are mostly to do with aspiring towards ideals that are impossible or rather difficult (such as the total purity of "Look at every woman without lust in your heart" or the total generosity of "if anyone begs you for a coat, give to him your shirt also"). In other words, ideals are presented to us (most fully in the person of Jesus the Lord) and we are urged to grow towards those, with the associated need for self-examination, and the motivation against discouragement provided by the forgiveness for our failures and shortcomings extended to those who are willing to accept that on the basis of the Lord's death on the cross, as well as the encouragement and enablement made possible toward that ideal by His resurrection and the relationship which is therefore possible with Him today. The ideas is that His power working in us can continue to transform us in spite of weaknesses and failures, if we are willing to get up and run again towards those character ideals.

As in the case of my discussion of the Koran and the Bible, I hope that friends who know the Gita better than I do will correct me if my view of ethics in the Gita is distorted: so far as I can see, the Gita's view of ethics is one that is based on the various dharmas (systems of duties, rules and obligations) associated with one's caste as defined by varnashrama provided one has bhakti towards Shri Krishna. The idea is that one is born in a particular caste, which has defined duties and one should do everything one can to uphold those duties and obligations, however illogical or immoral those may seem, provided one has faith in Shri Krishna.

I should also immediately point out that this is only ONE Hindu view of ethics. Overall, we could say that we Hindus are absolutist in terms of our personal orientation (we may owe allegiance, for example as above, to Shri Krishna) but outside that we are relativistic.

What I mean is that while we will not be ashamed about our devotion to our Kuladeva or Ishtadeva, we have no problem with others having their own Kuladeva or Ishtadeva or guru or whatever.

Why do have no problem with that?

Principally because we regard all bhakti and all philosophy and all tapasya as operating at a lower level than the mystical flash which we associate with becoming "fully enlightened" or "self-realised". The mystical flash can certainly come as a result of tapasya or philosophy or bhakti or whatever, but these are mere routes, and they do not by themselves guarantee that one will have the mystical flash, which may even come entirely unbidden. The important thing is not whether we try or don't, the important thing is whether the flash comes. As long as the flash does not come, we should long for it and work towards it, but if and when it comes, it obliterates for us any and all the routes we may have pursued towards it.

Moreover, specifically in terms of our topic: if and when one has such a mystical flash, one is considered to have immediately transcended the earthly level where ethics and morality apply.

That is why so many of our gods and gurus have the liberty to indulge in behaviour that would be, for the rest of us who are not yet enlightened, regarded as immoral or unethical. If they are at a spiritual level beyond ours, they have the liberty to do things that we unenlightened ones cannot - whether in ethics or in the realms of miracles, curses, boons and so on.

So, what is my conclusion?

Some of us simply accept and continue in what we were taught as children, some of us reject everything that was taught to anyone, but some of us do want to study and think properly about the different views of divinity, reality, personality and - in this case - morality or ethics.

In ethics, some of us tend more towards the idealist, some towards the absolutist, some to the traditionalist (which ultimately, in the case of our tradition, eventually becomes relativist).

The important thing, as Jesus put it, is that we seek passionately for the Truth, combining that with love not only those who disagree with us but even those who may consider themselves our enemies. That is what makes democracy and indeed actually in the end even personal/social/political freedom possible.

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