Ethics and Morality

Vedanta ethics and moral virtues are rooted in the ideal of realizing and manifesting our own innate divinity. Simply put, whatever brings us closer to that goal is ethical and moral; whatever prevents us from attaining it, is not.

Like a diamond buried in mud, the Atman shines within us, yet its presence remains obscured, its shining purity masked by countless layers of ignorance: wrong identification, incorrect knowledge, misguided perceptions. It is important to emphasize that we are not trying to become something other than what we already are. We are not trying to become pure; we are pure. We are not trying to become perfect; we are perfect already. That is our real nature. Acting in accordance with our real nature—acting nobly, truthfully, kindly—tears away the veil of ignorance that hides the truth of reality. Whatever distorts this reality is a perversion of the truth.

The whole of Vedanta ethics, then, is based upon a simple line of reasoning: Does this action or thought bring me closer to realizing the truth, or does it take me further away?

Morality and the Ego

What is it that prevents us from realizing the truth? Simply put, the ego: the sense of "I" and "mine." As the great spiritual teacher Ramakrishna said, "The feeling of 'I' and 'mine' has covered the Reality so we don't see the truth." He further said, "When the ego dies, all troubles cease."

What does the ego have to do with ethics and morality? Absolutely everything. All moral codes are based upon the ideal of unselfishness: placing others before ourselves, forcing the ego to play second fiddle. Following selfish desires is always a detriment to our spiritual life. Whether the action or thought is great or small, any selfishness will make the veil of ignorance thicker and darker. Conversely, any act of unselfishness, however great or small, will have the opposite effect.

It is for this reason that doing good to others is a universal ethical and moral code, found in all religions and societies. Why is this so universal? Because it reflects the truth that we instinctively intuit: the oneness of life.

Love, sympathy, and empathy are the affirmation of this truth; they are a reflexive response because they mirror the reality of the universe. When we feel love and sympathy we are verifying—albeit unconsciously—the oneness that already exists. When we feel hatred, anger, and jealousy we separate ourselves from others and deny our real nature which is infinite and free from limitations.

What is the root of the problem here? Our wrong identification: thinking of ourselves as minds and bodies rather than infinite Spirit. As Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna's great disciple, said: "As soon as I think that I am a little body, I want to preserve it, to protect it, to keep it nice, at the expense of other bodies; then you and I become separate. As soon as this idea of separation comes, it opens the door to all mischief and leads to all misery."

The Point of Moral Virtues

All the moral virtues taught by Vedanta serve to remind us of our real nature, and no spiritual progress can be made without following them. Any attempt to do so would be like trying to build a house without a foundation. Before we even begin to think about how to realize the ultimate truth, we first need to build the groundwork of a real life, one based on real values.

Spiritual life is not a haphazard affair: it is the most serious task that we shall ever face. And it is absolutely impossible to do so without living an ethical, moral life. It simply does not work.

If Vedanta lays such stress on an ethical life, what, then, are the virtues we emphasize? Patanjali, one of the ancient sages of India and the father of its psychology, formulated standards of moral conduct which have been followed for thousands of years.

These precepts function as spiritual tools, tools that can be used to create spiritually beneficial habits. These tools aren't goals that can be instantly achieved—they are ideals to strive for, patterns to emulate. Still, it's good to remember that when we do use these tools, we grow in strength and move closer to our ideal.

Patanjali divided the moral precepts into two categories, yama and niyama, each category consisting of five precepts.

Moral Principles: Yama

Yama consists of nonviolence, truthfulness, nonstealing, chastity or celibacy, and the nonreceiving of gifts. Niyama consists of cleanliness, contentment, austerity, study, and self-surrender to God.

Nonviolence: While many of these disciplines seem self-evident, some of them need further explanation. Serious spiritual aspirants, Swami Vivekananda said, "must not think of injuring anyone, by thought, word, or deed. Mercy shall not be for human beings alone, but shall go beyond, and embrace the whole world."

Truthfulness not only means speaking truthfully but also adhering to the truth in thought, word, and deed. Ramakrishna said that "making the heart and lips one" was the spiritual discipline of our age.

Nonstealing also means noncovetousness: it means not desiring things that belong to others and not appropriating what belongs to others. Even using someone else's words or ideas and presenting them as our own without acknowledging their source is a kind of stealing.

Chastity or celibacy is stressed for two reasons: First, serious spiritual seekers need to conserve the energy generally directed to sex and to redirect it to Self-realization. Second, physical or mental sexual activity reinforces our idea of ourselves as bodies and not as Spirit. If we want to progress in spiritual life, we need to regard other people as human beings—as manifestations of God—and not as male and female bodies.

We should add here that Vedanta is meant for all people—not simply those with monastic inclinations. Vedanta acknowledges that sexual desire is, at its core, longing for union with God. While strict celibacy is stressed for monastics, Vedanta advocates sexual responsibility and self-control for nonmonastics. For nonmonastics, chastity means fidelity to one's spouse. Further, when approached in the right spirit, marriage is a sacred spiritual path. One's spouse is also one's spiritual partner and should be looked upon as a manifestation of divinity.

Nonreceiving of gifts: The ethical virtues listed above may seem fairly reasonable, but what's the problem with accepting gifts? We can see from this guideline how carefully the ancient Hindu sages watched the workings of the mind. Accepting gifts from others makes us feel obligated: we can become manipulated through them and lose our independence. Sometimes gifts are really bribes in disguise: if we feel even vaguely indebted to the giver, our minds become tainted. Sometimes the effect is obvious, sometimes it is subtle; but it is there nonetheless. For this reason we should accept no gift unless it is given with no motive except pure love. Otherwise we'll be like puppets who jump whenever the invisible strings are pulled.

Moral Principles: Niyama

Niyama consists of cleanliness, contentment, austerity, study, and self-surrender to God.

Cleanliness means not only physical cleanliness but also mental and moral cleanliness. When our minds are jealous, suspicious, rancorous or just plain mean, our minds are "dirty." We can take all the baths in the world but we still are failing in cleanliness if our minds are polluted. Cheerfulness is an essential component of mental cleanliness.

Contentment is tied to mental cleanliness because a dissatisfied mind is a turbulent, unhappy mind. We should be content with our present condition, and move forward. Contentment doesn't mean laziness: it doesn't mean that we should be satisfied with our current state of spiritual progress. We should have divine discontent but at the same time be satisfied with the externals that we are presented with.

The word "austerity" generally makes people shudder. They shouldn't though, because we all practice austerities all the time, we simply don't use the word. No great endeavor can succeed without austerity: a student must study hard in order to get good grades, a parent must sometimes give up sleep in order to care for a sick child. Our jobs demand hard work and long hours.

Spiritual austerity is much sweeter than all these put together, for the goal to be attained is the highest. Austerity in Vedanta means disciplining the body and mind in order to put them at our disposal for the realization of God. It also means keeping an even keel in the tempests of life.

Life generally presents us with what Vedanta calls "the pairs of opposites": praise and blame, health and sickness, prosperity and penury, joy and misery. We cannot get one without eventually getting the other; they are two sides of the same coin. Keeping our mental poise in the midst of all of these is true austerity: neither being elated by praise nor depressed by criticism, neither being haughty in prosperity nor dejected in poverty. Evenness of mind under all conditions is genuine austerity, for the ego is given no opportunity to come into play.

Study—which comprises not only the study of sacred literature but also the repetition of a mantra or name of God—is vital for spiritual aspirants. Firm regularity in practice is also included in the discipline of study.

While routine might seem counterproductive to spiritual development, it is, in fact, crucial. The force of a regular habit of spiritual study insures that—like it or not, tired or not, interested or not—we will doggedly pursue our highest ideals. The nature of the mind is fickle: sometimes it's in a good mood, sometimes it's not. Sometimes it's energetic, sometimes it's lazy. We can't allow our spiritual life to become subject to the mind's whims. A regular habit of study creates a favorable mental atmosphere: at the appointed time the mind will naturally become quiet since it has been trained by repeated habit to react that way.

Our Choice

As we can see, the guidelines for spiritual aspirants are serious and demanding. We should remember, however, that no one is imposing these disciplines upon us. We are choosing to follow them and we are doing so because we desire our own freedom. No one is cracking a whip over us; no God is writing our failures in a ledger. Even failing in the attempt to follow these disciplines has benefit because at least we are trying to develop spiritual strength; trying and failing is infinitely better than not trying at all. Every failure is a steppingstone on the path to spiritual perfection.

Suggested Reading
Vedanta Philosophy
The Concept of Maya
Karma and Reincarnation
Harmony of Religions
Avatar: God in Human Form
The Meaning of Yoga
Bhakti Yoga
Jnana Yoga
Karma Yoga
Raja Yoga
Ethics and Morality