Hinduism and Morality

by Luke Wayne

Under the wide umbrella of Hinduism lies a broad and diverse body of beliefs and practices with no central creed or unifying theology. There are basic concepts like reincarnation and karma which all Hindus will, in some sense, accept, but on most issues, various schools and personal interpretations of Hinduism disagree on almost everything. It would be relatively easy, therefore, to dig up a collection of historical Hindu practices or quotes from Hindu scriptures that are morally objectionable to any biblically minded Christian. It would be just as easy, on the other hand, to pull together a list of moral judgments, proverbs, and decrees from Hindu sources that the Christian reader would find quite agreeable, even virtuous. It should come as no surprise to us that fallen men often speak and act like fallen men, and yet that even unbelievers, created in the image of God (Genesis 2:27) and with His morality written on their hearts (Romans 2:15), would often promote true morality. We need to go deeper. It is not enough to ask whether or not Hindus sometimes uphold a particular moral precept or violate a specific ethical principle. The question we must ask is whether or not Hinduism offers a sufficient foundation for morality. Does a Hindu worldview provide an adequate grounding for objective moral values and duties?

Hindu scholars certainly believe that it does. Indeed, one author boast of the enlightened Hindu that:

“He alone can love his enemies, because he does not see an enemy anywhere. All that he experiences is the manifestation of God. As he can no longer identify with his psycho-physical complex, he cannot hold himself responsible for whatever his body or mind does. He loses his sense of agency, the awareness that he is the doer of things. Thus, he goes beyond violence. The Bhagavad Gita says, ‘he who does not have the sense of agency or egoism, whose intellect does not hold itself responsible for action performed by the body and the senses, he does not kill, nor does he become bound by the result of such killing.”1

It is worth briefly noting that a man does not "love his enemies" if he does not have any enemies to love. To know someone is hostile toward you and yet love them anyway is a great virtue. To deny the existence of enemies and then boast of that denial as love is a mere shell game. This is not the primary issue with this paragraph, however. There is something far more disturbing going on here. The enlightened man is praised for the fact that he no longer identifies with his "psycho-physical complex" and therefore does not consider himself responsible for what his body or even his mind does. Such a man is said to be "beyond violence," not because his body no longer commits violence, but rather because he is not bound by the killing his body may carry out. This is not just the fringe opinion of a random Hindu scholar. He is expressing the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, the most popular and widely revered sacred text in all of Hinduism.

The Gita is the story of a conversation between a prince named Arjuna and the god Krishna just before a great battle in a civil war. Arjuna is a mighty warrior, but he does not want to fight. He has family fighting on the other side, and he is concerned that it would be wrong to kill his kin. He is also concerned that the level of slaughter on both sides would break down the family, mix the castes, and even perhaps lead to an increase in rape and prostitution. He is convinced that, for the sake of both personal morality and the greater good of society, he ought to stand down rather than fight.

Krishna rebukes him, explaining that his motives flow out from attachment. Attachment to relatives, attachment to society, attachment to the greater good, attachment to the results of his actions. All such attachment perpetuates the suffering cycle of death and rebirth. Krishna also explains that enlightened people realize that murder is impossible because souls are immortal and will just be born again in new bodies, so for the enlightened man, there is no guilt in your body killing the body of another immortal. You cannot really kill them, and they cannot really die. The evil is only in the desire, not the action. With this enlightenment in mind, Arjuna should fight the battle and slay without hesitation. There will be no guilt in it.

“Non-being cannot come to be, nor can what is come to be not. The certainty of these sayings is known by seers of truth. Know that it is indestructible, that by which all is pervaded; no one may cause the destruction of the imperishable one. Bodies of the embodied one, eternal, boundless, all enduring, are said to die; the one cannot! Therefore, take arms, O Bharata! This man believes the one may kill; that man believes it may be killed; Both of them lack understanding. It cannot kill nor be killed. It is not born, nor is it ever mortal, and having been, it will not pass from existence. Ancient, unborn, eternally existing, it does not die when the body perishes. How can a man who knows the one to be eternal (both unborn and without end) murder or cause another to? Whom does he kill?” (Bhagavad Gita, 2:16-21).2

Krishna doesn't encourage Arjuna to fight because the cause is right or because there is a distinction between killing in warfare versus murdering. Krishna instead tells Arjuna to have an enlightened mindset, and then there will be no guilt in anything his body does:

“When pleasure is the same as pain, profit as loss, conquest, defeat, then join the battle, Arjuna. Evil will not be heaped on you,” (Bhagavad Gita, 2:38).3

“One disciplined by higher mind here casts off good and bad actions,” (Bhagavad Gita, 2:50).4

“No guilt attaches to one whose self is governed by his yoked mind and who performs, without desire, actions only in the body,” (Bhagavad Gita, 4:21).5

“Were you the very worst of all, the very worst of sinful men, nonetheless, you would transcend all evils in the boat of knowledge,” (Bhagavad Gita, 4:36).6

“Even the evil doer, if he worships me and no other, is considered to be righteous, truly, for his resolution,” (Bhagavad Gita, 9:30).7

The Bhagavad Gita is certainly not intending to justify vile acts like homicide or rape, but the moral theory it puts forward is hardly a foundation by which we could call such things objectively wrong. Unless you obtain enlightenment, abstaining from such acts will not help you. If you do obtain enlightenment, continuing to perform such actions will not make you guilty. The body's actions ultimately do not matter, whether they are virtuous or wicked. There is no expectation of repentance nor a promise that enlightenment will lead to the eschewing of evil and the pursuit of good. Indeed, there is exactly the opposite. One transcends responsibility for one's own body and mind, and actions no longer matter.

Such teachings are hardly limited to the Bhagavad Gita. One Hindu scholar, summarizing the teachings of the sacred texts of the Shiva sect, explains:

“He transcends the duality of good and evil, right and wrong, auspicious and inauspicious. The Sanatana Dharma, which is the actual name for Hinduism, forces the human mind, time and time again, to accept the fact that the divine is all that exists, both clean and unclean, pure and impure, auspicious and inauspicious.”8

To reach enlightenment, one must accept that evil is as divine as good and thus stop making distinctions between them. Far from creating a foundation for objective morality, the Hindu worldview undermines it. Again, this is not to say that all Hindus are uniquely vile people who run around committing heinous acts without conscience. It merely means that when Hindus do good things; when they act on the moral conscience that God has given to all mankind, they are acting on a foundation borrowed from outside their own worldview. Hinduism cannot justify any claims that certain actions are inherently right and others are inherently wrong, even if most Hindus still go on believing in such moral absolutes in spite of their lack of any grounding for them. The truth is that such actions are only truly right or wrong because Hinduism is untrue. Morality is established by the perfect nature and authoritative commands of our Supreme Maker, the one true God, to whom we owe our sole devotion and before whom we will all one day stand in judgment. In this truth and this truth alone are morality, justice, holiness, and ethics firmly and concretely established.

  • 1. Swami Bhaskarananda, The Essentials of Hinduism (Viveka Press, 2002) 188-189
  • 2. Gavin Flood and Charles Martin, The Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation (W.W. Norton and Company, 2012) 14-15
  • 3. Gavin Flood and Charles Martin, The Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation (W.W. Norton and Company, 2012) 18
  • 4. Gavin Flood and Charles Martin, The Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation (W.W. Norton and Company, 2012) 20
  • 5. Gavin Flood and Charles Martin, The Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation (W.W. Norton and Company, 2012) 39
  • 6. Gavin Flood and Charles Martin, The Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation (W.W. Norton and Company, 2012) 41
  • 7. Gavin Flood and Charles Martin, The Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation (W.W. Norton and Company, 2012) 76
  • 8. Vanamali, Shiva: Stories and Teachings from the Shiva Mahaourana (Inner Traditions, 2013) 15