THE BHAGAWADGITA: A CLASSIC OF APPLIED ETHICS


Anjan Kr. Borah
Department of Philosophy
Devi Charan Baruah Girls’ College, Jorhat, Assam, India

Abstract
The Bhāgavadgītā is generally regarded as a religious classic. But the colophon clearly says that the Gītā is metaphysics and ethics. Metaphysical speculation is essential for ethics. But the purport of the Gītā is karma or action. It teaches the whole mankind to be dutiful. Everyone has specific duty in the society. Anyone’s duty depends on his nature. The very nature of prakti compels man to perform his duty. To perform won duty is essential for purification of the self and world maintenance. It is possible through performing actions wholeheartedly and without attachment. Hence, the Gītā is a mandate for action which makes it practical. Action, according to the Gītā leads to the goal of life as well as welfare of the society. In all ages it inspires some eminent leaders in various field and common people to perform action. Thus, the Gītā is a classic of practical ethics, but metaphysical speculation and religious preaching have also got there due place in it.
Keywords: Applied ethics, Svadharma, Nikāma karma, Vara, Prakti, Goal of life

1.   Introduction
The Bhāgavadgītā (later it will be called simply as the Gītā) is one the world’s great scriptures. In this classic, Kṛṣṇa, who is believed as the human form of Hindu God Viu, plays an important role, and devotion to Him is entertained; why it is generally regarded as a religious classic. But the colophon of the Gītā clearly says that it is metaphysics and ethics, Brahmavidyāyā yogaśāstre śrīkṛṣṇārjunasavāde. Radhakrishnan writes, “As the colophon indicates, the Bhāgavadgītā is both metaphysics and ethics, brahmavidyā and yogaśastra, the science of reality and the art of union with reality.” The colophon indicates (Swami Krishnananda, 2014) that the Gītā teaches three things—theory, practice and realization, which refer to knowledge, work and devotion respectively. First we have to know, then we have to do, and then we have to realize. In fact, ethics is always based on some metaphysical speculations. This is the only reason why it is required in the Gītā to teach metaphysics in the Kuruketra war to Arjuna for making him dutiful, that is, as a Katriya hero his duty is to fight against what is wrong. Again, in India, philosophy, religion and morality are so intimately related that no ethical theory can be presented in isolation. The Gītā is a great work as it synthesizes deep philosophic, ethical and religious knowledge in seven hundred verses. But its central teaching is nikāma karma. Performing duty without any desire and attachment is known as the doctrine of nikāmakarma in the Gītā.
In this paper the Gītā is studied from the perspective of applied ethics. Applied ethics is distinguished from two other branches of ethics, namely, normative ethics and meta-ethics. Normative ethics deals what people should believe to be right and wrong, while meta-ethics is concerned with the nature of moral statements. Meta-ethics deals with whether morality exists. But, applied or practical ethics is (Peter Singer, 1993) the application of ethics or morality in practical life. Ethics of the Gītā is practical as it teaches that everyone have to perform his own duty. Again, it teaches the mankind what to do in a perplexing situation. It teaches how to be victorious against internal and external enemies of life. It is not a bundle of prohibitions, but a way of action. Moreover, it leads to the ultimate goal of life by purifying the soul as well as the welfare of the society. It teaches that everyone has specific duty and for the welfare of the society he/ she should perform own duty. The ethics of the Gītā, therefore, is practical. Again, the teachings of the Gītā are not for the Hindus, but for the mankind of all ages and all places irrespective of cast, creed and religion why it becomes popular around the world.

2.   Objective
The objective of this paper is to study the Gītā as a classic of applied or practical ethics. Applied ethics, a recent development of ethics, is the philosophical examination, from a moral standpoint, of particular issues in private and public life that are matters of moral judgment. It is an attempt to use philosophical methods to identify the morally correct course of action in various fields of human life. Two thousand years ago the Gītā taught the whole mankind the correct course of action which is relevant in present day also. In this paper, the relevance of the Gītā ethics is also enquired.  

3.   Methodology
There are two types of sources from where primary and secondary data are collected to prepare this paper. The Bhāgavadgītā is the primary source while its various interpretations are secondary sources of the study. My own interpretation is also present here. Further, both of the analytical and descriptive approaches are used in the discussion of the paper. 

4.Results and Discussion
4.1.The Purport of the Gita 
The Gītā says that action is unavoidable in our life. The aim and objective of the Gītā is to make the mankind dutiful. Kṛṣṇa taught the ‘Gītā’ in the eve of the Kuruketra war while Arjuna decided not to fight, not to do action or karma, not to perform own duty or svadharma for disjunction that killing the relatives is sinful. Hence, the Gītā starts with action. It ends also with action as Arjuna decides to fight at the end of the Gītā. Kṛṣṇa most frequently repeats the necessity of performing actions. He advises Arjuna to perform own duty without any likes or dislikes, without pleasure or pain. The Gītā teaches that everyone must perform his own duty wholeheartedly and without expecting any fruit, which is known as nikāma karma. A person submitting the result of karma to God may perform actions without any fear or anxiety of meeting any evil effect. Only faithful observance of actions dedicated to the God make release from karma. In the Gītā the observance of karma is praised in various ways. Kṛṣṇa tries to induce Arjuna to karma with various arguments, for example, fighting against what is wrong is his duty. All these—beginning and conclusion, repetition, novelty, result, praise and reason—show that the purport of the Gītā is karma or action. It teaches not only what right action is but how to practice right action even in a complex situation. 

4.2. The Gita Teaches to Perform Own Duty
The work that is to be done by any person is known as svadharma. The Gītā teaches the whole mankind to perform own duty. In the Gītā, Kṛṣṇa says to Arjuna that one should never abandon his specific duty. Everyone of the society has specific duty and he must perform it wholeheartedly and without any desire. Thus, a student must study wholeheartedly; a teacher must teach wholeheartedly; a cultivator must cultivate; a public servant must perform his specific duties for the welfare of the public in the same manner.

The word svadharma in the Gītā means the duties incumbent upon the varas or classes into which the society is divided. At the time of Gītā, the society was divided into four classes, viz. Brāhmin, Katriya, Vaiśya andŚūdra. The Brāhmins are the priests, teachers and preachers. The Katriyas are the kings, rulers, warriors and soldiers. The Vaiśyas are the cattle holders, agriculturists, businessmen, artisans and merchants. The Śūdras are labourers and service providers. The Gītā says that the class system is according to action. Action depends on one’s own nature or prakti. The Gītā accepts the Sākhya position that prakti is constituted of three guas or qualities, viz. sattva, rajas and tamas. Sattva represents whatever is fine or light, rajas represents whatever is active and tamas represents whatever is coarse or heavy. Sattva is balance and harmony; rajas is dynamism, distraction and action; and tamasis inactivity. These three guas are present to everyone, but they are not equal to all. Sattva is predominant to a Brahmin. Rajas is predominant to a Katriya, but sattva is higher then tamas to him. Rajas is predominant to a Vaiya, but tamas is higher than sattva to him. Anyone’s activity depends upon the difference of qualities. When anyone cannot deliberately participate in the work of prakti, he will be compelled to his duty by his inborn quality, by the very nature of prakti, which is working inside of all. Thus, it is by nature everybody is bound to do action. According to the Gītā, anyone should perform own duty, not of others; to perform others duty is dangerous. It says, “Better is one’s own law though imperfectly carried out than the law of another carried out perfectly. Better is death in (the fulfillment of) one's own law for to follow another’s law is perilous.”(III.35.) Of course, the Gītā gives importance on observance of one’s duty properly which is known as sāttvika karma. Sāttvika karma is defined by the Gītā (XVIII. 25.) as “an action which is obligatory, which is performed without attachment, without love or hate by one undesirous of fruit”. Anyone, irrespective of his vara, can perform sāttvika karma.

4.3.The Doctrine of Niskama Karma
In the Gītā, Kṛṣṇa teaches Arjuna to perform his duty without attachment or desire. Kṛṣṇa clearly says to Arjuna, “your concern is solely with action, never with its fruits”. (The Gītā, II. 47) Arjun refused to fight because of his disjunction that he would to kill his relatives which is sinful. All the enemies were his relatives. While he saw the relatives as enemies his mind became full of attachment. Kṛṣṇa teaches him to get ready for battle treating alike both of pleasure and pain, gain and loss, victory and defeat. This spirit of equal-mindedness is a characteristic of nikāma karma. Kṛṣṇa advises to perform always the work that has to be done without attachment.

The Gītā teaches to do action in such a manner that action does not bind, but brings forth about to liberation. One has to follow the path of action without any sense of attachment or selfish desire. Hence a karma-yogin works without a purpose in view. However, no voluntary action seems to be conceivable without some motive. Hiriyanna observes (M. Hiriyanna, 1993) that the author of the Gītā also is aware of it. So the Gītā furnishes two motives of action2
  •  Atman suddhi which means ‘purifying the self’
  • Subserving the purpose of God
The first keeps subjective purification as the aim and the second looks forward to leading to the true goal of life. Thus, the Gītā discusses ethics both from subjective and objective standpoint. Subjective ethics is related to individual discipline while objective ethics deals with social welfare. The purpose of subjective ethics is the purification of the mind; but it is not the final goal. Men have some duties to others, to the society. If anybody attains perfection by performing works, he should do work with a view to the maintenance of the world.  This concept is known as lokasagraha in the Gītā. “Lokasagraha”, as Radhakrishnan wrires, “stands for the unity of the world, the interconnectedness of the society”.The world view presented by the Gita is union of all with the Supreme or Brahman. Everything is Brahman and therefore, union with Him is the goal of life. Man has to sebserve the purpose of the God to attain the Supreme. By performing own duty, man can attain the Supreme which differs from the traditional view of religion. Religion gives importance on devotion only and recommends some religious functions to attain the God or the Supreme. Instead of it the Gītā implies the realistic dictum ‘Work is worship’. 

Although the Gītā gives importance on ethical actions, it gives due place to metaphysical speculation and religious preaching. In fact, it integrates knowledge, devotion and action. The colophon shows that first we have to know and then we have to do. So knowledge is essential for everyone to do action. Again, actions have to be done devotedly. Attaining the Supreme is the goal of life; knowledge, action and devotion are three ways to attain this goal. The Gītā says that all actions have to be based on the knowledge of the Sākhya and perform it with devotion. So, it synthesizes knowledge, action and devotion.

4.4.Application of Morality of the Gita
At the end of the Gītā, Arjuna overcomes his disjunction and decides to fight against his relatives without attachment, i. e., to perform svadharma as a warrior. Thus, he applies the moral teachings of the Gītā. 

In the present age the society as well as individual life is more complex than the age of the Gītā. Social, political and economic perplexities are increasing. Therefore, struggle is also increasing in the society. The Gītā gives the way how to overcome struggles through the path of dharma. Struggles are classified into two kinds—inner struggle and outer struggle. Sri Aurobindo writes, “In the inner struggle the enemies are within, in the individual, and the slaying of desire, ignorance, egoism is the victory. But there is an outer struggle between the powers of the Dharma and the Adharma in the human collectivity”.Man has to always fight against these inner and outer enemies. In all ages the Gītā inspires all to conquer all these enemies and to glorify the life.

The ideal of svadharma, nikama karma and Lokasagraha are applicable in present time also. In any complex situation, everyone must perform his own duty. He must do it without any attachment, without love or hatred, without fear or frown, without pain or pleasure. Equal-mindedness to all makes man free from attachment. Performing own duty without attachment, anyone can overcome various mental troubles. S. B. P. Shinha observes that “modern man who is faced with various troubles and tensions can be immensely benefited if he tries to practice this path of nikāmayoga. He can be free from anxiety, fear, frustration and such other problems.” The cause of major social problems like corruption is selfishness. If everyone does his duty selflessly and with the purpose of social welfare, these social problems do not occur. S. B. P. Shinha says that “selfishness is responsible for various social, political and personal ills of life. Corruptions and malpractices at various levels of life cannot be eradicated unless we develop a sense of value. Specially, we have to cultivate an attitude of detachment which has to aware of various social and political maladies which have invaded our life and causing havoc.”

Some prominent leaders, like Rammohun Roy, Swami Vivekananda, B. G. Tilak, Sri Aurobindo and M. K. Gandhi applied the moral philosophy of the Gītā in their personal, social and political life. Rammohun Roy fought against suttee custom in Indian society. He was influenced by the Gītā in this social movement. Satya P. Agrwal observes, “The way Rammohun Roy interpreted and used the Gita for a social cause, namely to save women’s lives, has been recognized as the first major social application of the Gita in modern times of which written records are available… Roy found the Gita the most helpful in proving that the suttee custom was not the right dharma, because it violated the Nikāma karma doctrine.”

Vivekananda’s goal was, as Agarwal observes (Satya P. Agrwal, 1995), to revolutionize the entire socio-spiritual outlook of the people. He synthesized the Nikāma karma doctrine centered on Lokasagrahaof the Gītā and Advaita Vedanta philosophy to profound Practical Vedanta.

Tilak extended the Gītā ethics in attaining political independence of India. To encourage the people for freedom movement he wrote a commentary on the Gītā, Gitarahasya where he declared that Karmayoga is the main teaching of the Gita, and Lokasagraha is the foundation of Karmayoga” 

Agarwal observes (Satya P. Agarwal, 1995) that Sri Aurobindo made significant contributions to the Lokasagraha message of the Gita, first as a karmayogin, and later as a Pūnuayogin.The Gītā gave him a clear vision how one can make a complete surrender to God and work in the world for universal good.

Gandhi was highly influenced by the concept of non-violence, ahisā of the Gītā. “It was through Mahatma Gandhi, who believed in putting Gita-teachings into practice, that non-violent methods were applied to tackle crisis situations, both on the social and political fronts.”Gandhi’s satyagraha technique is based on ahisā.

The morality of the Gītā inspires common people also. Therefore it gathers wide readership around the world irrespective of religion. S. B. P. Sinha says, “though the Gītā is not merely a code of universalistic ethics as it is sometimes maintained, yet it would be unfair to denigrate the profound practical implications of the great work. As a matter of fact, the very origin of this work testifies to this practical character.”


5. Policy Implication

i)The Gītā is to be studied not only as a religious scripture, but as an ethical treatise.
ii)As the society has changed, study of the Gītā in present context is a necessity of time.
iii)The Gītā ethics is to be practiced by all in their life to purify the soul as well as welfare of the society.
iv)Works should be done, as the Gītā says, “an action which is obligatory, which is performed without attachment, without love or hate by one undesirous of fruit”.
v)Thevara or class system is to be regarded not by birth, but by action.

6.   Conclusion
The Gītā teaches how to apply morality in practical life. Morality conveyed in the Gītā is laid down in performing one’s own duty. In the Gītā, moral teachings of Kṛṣṇa become fruitful as the teachings remove dejection of Arjuna and he decides to fight, to perform own duty. Arjuna, is not just character of the Gītā, but he represents the whole mankind. Every human being faces the similar situations like Arjuna, when man becomes unable to decide what he has to do. The entire sermon by Kṛṣṇa is not merely to Arjuna, but to the whole mankind. The Gītā raises the question whether action of renunciation of action is batter and concludes that action is better. Hence, the Gītā is a mandate for action which makes it practical. It inspires millions of people all around the world for performing moral action. Therefore, it is a classic of practical ethics.

Reference
  • M. Hiriyanna. Outlines of Indian Philosophy. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas Publishers, 1993, p. 125.
  • S. B. P. Sinha. Perspectives of Philosophy. Delhi: Authorspress, 2005, pp. 120, 123 – 124.
  • S. Radhakrishnan. The Bhagavadgita. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992 (First published in UK 1948) pp. 12, 139.
  • Satya P. Agarwal. The Social Message of the Gita Symbolized as Lokasagraha. Calumbia: Urmila Agarwal, 1995, pp. 72-73.
  • Sri Aurobindo, The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Vol. 19, Essays on the Gita. Pandichery: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department, 1997, P. 175.
  • Swami Vivekananda. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol. III. Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1989 pp. 142-143.

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