The Basis of Morality in Hinduism


by Jayaram V

What is the basis of morality or the right code of conduct according to Hinduism? Or who decides whether the actions of an individual are lawful or unlawful? We are aware that Hinduism is a very loosely assembled basket of religious traditions, some of which date back to prehistoric times. Since, Hinduism derives its knowledge from various sources, it is difficult to arrive at a consensus opinion regarding several matters related to morality, code of conduct and religious practice.

According to Professor Stenzler there are forty six Hindu Law Books, called the Dharma Sastras. According to Edward Roer and W.A. Montriou, "Of the above list, twenty are in Yájnavalkya's list: seventeen of these are named by Paráśara, viz. all except Yama, Brihaspati and Vyása, instead of whom he gives Kaśyapa, Gárgya and Prachetas: the Padma Purána gives those named by Yájnavalkya, with the exception of Atri, and seventeen others, three of whom, Prachetas, Kaśyapa and Gárgya, are on Paráśara's list, and the remaining fourteen, not before mentioned: Madhusúdana Saraswatí names the same nineteen of Yájnavalkya's list, also Devala, Nárada, Paithínasi: Ráma Krishna, in his gloss to the Grihya Sútras of Páraskara, mentions thirty-nine, of whom nine are new ones. There is also a Dharma Śástra attributed to Śankha and Likhita jointly, thus making forty-seven in the whole. "

Apart from them there are "several recensions of the same Dharma Śástras, of which professor Stenzler speaks to having read of twenty-two." Each of the 47 Dharmasastras is an independent source and authority on Hindu law.

From the above, clearly Hindu law is not only comprehensive, but also very complicated. No effort seems to have been made in recent times by anyone to compare and contrast these 47 Dharmasastras.

Ironically, most of the laws prescribed by these law books are outdated and cannot be applied to current situations in contemporary Hindu society. Doing so would be retrogressive and amount to taking Hindu civilization back to a thousand years.

Then how do we know what is right, what is morality and right code of conduct according to Hinduism? We find an answer to this in Yajnavalkya Smriti (1.7). Yajnavalkya is considered the second most important authority on Hindu Law, next only to Manu. He defines the law in the following manner, "The Śruti, the Smriti, the practice of good men, what seems good to one's self, and a desire maturely considered—these are declared to be the root of Law." He also adds that four persons well-versed in the Vedas can form a Court and whatever they decide becomes the law. Alternatively, the opinion of a self-realized yogi who has knowledge of Self can be considered. There are explained below.

Sruti: The triple Vedas constitute the Sruti, the heard ones.

Smriti: The law books (Dharma Sastras) constitute the Smriti, the scholarly works.

Practice of good men: This constitutes the established practice or what is generally approved by society as the opinion of the righteous ones.

What seems to be good to oneself: When the above three are not clear, and when we have conflicting opinions and proofs, one should go by one's conscience or inner compass.

Desire maturely considered: This is the intention behind actions examined by elderly people and weighed against prevailing practices.

Of the four, Sruti carries the highest authority and the last one the lowest.

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