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Ethics

skaushik_at_MIT.EDU
Date: Wed Mar 20 1996 - 17:59:08 PST

Over the past week or so, there has been a number of heated exchanges 
on many controversial aspects of our sampradaya. To this let me pose a 
few questions for us to further investigate.

Is ethics and dharma the same? When we refer to "sanatana dharma," is
it fair to translate that as "eternal ethics?" Webster defines ethics
as:

eth.ic \'eth-ik\ n [ME ethik, fr. MF ethique, fr. L ethice, fr. Gk
   e-thike]-, fr. e-thikos pl but sing or pl in constr  1: the discipline
   dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation 2a: a
   set of moral principles or values 2b: a theory or system of moral values pl
   but sing or pl in constr  2c: the principles of conduct governing an
   individual or a group

By this definition, are our Rishis, our Alwars and our Acharyas
"ethical" people? In otherwords, are their moral principles, their
systme of moral values, and the principles of conduct, the same
principles that  we would like to see in our children and rest of humanity?

Consider the following alternative view. Suppose ethics and dharma are
not synonymous. Certainly the Vedas talk about the notion of sanatana
dharma. Do they similarly talk about ethics?  Perhaps then,  our
poorvacharyas and our Alwars are NOT ethical people in the modern
sense of the word, but are still are men of  "dharma?" In otherwords,
are they adherents to "sanatana dharma?" (whatever that means).

Now if our poorvacharyas are NOT ethical people (because the Vedas do
not teach them), then based on what independent "logical" framework do
we, as members of the 20-21rst century, argue that we ought to be
"ethical" and follow the ethics of the present century?  Perhaps, then
santana dharma is really telling us that we ought to follow the ethics
suited to  the times. In this view,  dharma is 
really changing, but it is sanatana in the sense that it is ALWAYS
changing. Somewhat perverse logic, but perhaps ok (in some twisted
way). In this viewpoint, there is no "superior" ethical perspective.
One adopts the ethics and morals suitable for that time. There is
nothing inherently "good" or "evil" about any view, becausee tomorrow,
if there is sufficient majority, the view can be modified.

Consider yet another alternative viewpoint. Suppose that the
Poorvacharyas and our Saints were men of dharma, but not of ethics.
And suppoe that Vedas do tell us how to follow BOTH   
dharma, as well as ethics, then I ask, who do we look upon as
individuals of singular merit and good deed to guide us? It does
require further thought that our Vedas and Sruti are passed down from
individuals who merely "mouth  the words" but do not live it. What
belief can we place on imperfect men, especially since we have no
means of ascertaining the full nature of their imperfectness.

Finally, let's suppose that our poorvacharyas were really not perfect
men, and neither are our Sruti. Suppose all are "approximating Truth."
Suppose each offers their own "brand of Truth." Thus, since God is so
beyond comprehension, only approximations are ever possible (vid Ne
iti, Ne iti). Thus, in this framework , it can be argued that one
should treat our acharyas with rspect insofar as they were men who
"sought to approximate," but not because of the particular "values"
they intuited. In this mode of interpretation, we seek from our
poorvacharyas a guidance that coupled with our own experiences, we
arrive at the "Grand Truth." Thus, a case can be made for rationalism
within the context of our traditon of inquiry.

However, if this is really the "true" mode of interpretation, then all
forms of interpretation are equally valid. Since, every interpretation
is an expressionof ones personal experience, tehre is no one
viewpoint, be it on the nature of Brahman,or the nature of man (i.e.
society), that is any superior than the next. Ethics, in this frame,
is NOT absolute, but rather shaped intimately by ones own personal
experiences. One can learn from it, but one cannot fiat it on others.
After all, how can one impart one's experience to someone else. After
all, we can only experience God ourselves -- no one can experience it
for us.

This brings my final point. There has been some vitriolic rmarks made
against some individuals who have posted on this net. I feel that no
matter what logical frame one takes  (e.g. the frames of references suggested
above, there is no cause for this. Everyone sees God differently and
everyone is entitled to express  their viewpoint without condemnation.
We can learn from everyone's experiences and in this manner, wee may
all  find Truth. 

Howver, the caustic nature of some of the responses may make many shy
to express their views. The sad part is that most of the views that
have been expressed (I dare say all the views expressed so far) are
views shared by many  members of our own families. One need not go to
Ramanuja's times. Our own grandfathers, uncles, mothers, fathers etc.
had views that many of you onth net have objected.

However, I think that tone of the e-mails and the sharpness of the
rebukes tends to make us forget how close to home all these views are.
The impersonaility of the e-mail allows one to make replies that one would
otherwise not make in person. Individuals whom one would otherwise
address as Mama, Mami, Uncle, Aunti, become Mr. This and Mrs. That.
Due reverence to age and experience that is so integral a feature of
our culture wash away in the millions of impersonal  bits and bytes
that convey our thoughts.

Clearly, culture is not santana. It is not within the purview   of
ethics, but of aesthetics. It may not be the Truth, but atleast it has
provided us a base for well over five millenniaia to explore it with
freedom. Let's not so easily disgard it without due consideration.

sk