Ethics in the Upanishads

Ascetic Visited by Yogini – Wikimedia Commons (Museum fur Islamische Kunst)

Literature from across the world engages with ethical questions and moral quandaries, and plays a role in cultivating our moral sensibilities.  Religious literatures often present ethical teachings indirectly, such as in the form of parables, or more directly, such as moral commandments.  In the Upanishads of late Vedic India, we find both ethical and metaphysical teachings set out in contexts of lineages of teachers and students.  In this vein, the Great Forest Upanishad (Bṛhadāraṇyakopaniṣad) presents a set of three alliterative virtues to be cultivated, which are self-control (dama), giving (dāna) and compassion (dayā).

The three children of Prajāpati, gods, humans and asuras, lived as Vedic students with their father Prajāpati.
When they had finished their studentship, the gods said “Speak to us, sir.”
He said, “Da.  Understood?” 
They said, “Understood.  You said to us ‘Dāmyata’.” 
He said, “Yes.  You understood.”

Then the humans said to him, “Speak to us, sir.”
He said, “Da.  Understood?” 
They said, “Understood.  You said to us ‘Datta’.” 
He said, “Yes.  You understood.”

Then the asuras said to him, “Speak to us, sir.”
He said, “Da.  Understood?” 
They said, “Understood.  You said to us ‘Dayadhvam’.” 
He said, “Yes.  You understood.”

Then this Divine Voice of Thunder repeats this same thing, “Da. Da. Da.  Be self-controlled.  Give.  Have compassion.”
So these three should be learnt – self-control, giving, compassion.

[Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad Chapter 5 Brāhmaṇa 2 Section 3]

However, could our ability to act ethically also be tied to our ability to perceive our reality as it is?  Indeed, this same Upanishad also seems to suggest that, by seeing clearly, we can also act with compassion towards others.  As the Upanishad explains, when we perceive the ātman, the inner nature or true self in everyone and everything, then everyone and everything becomes loved by us.  Fittingly, this passage is a teaching that Yājñavalkya gives to his dearly beloved wife Maitreyī.

“A husband is loved not as a husband, but as true self.   A wife is loved not as a wife, but as true self.”

[Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad Chapter 2 Brāhmaṇa 4 Section 5]

Yājñavalkya goes on to say in turn that children, wealth, Brahmins, Kṣatriyas, worlds, gods, elements, and everything, are similarly dear when seen in the form of true self.  What this true self exactly is I won’t discuss further here, but Yājñavalkya also explains –

“The true self is to be seen, heard, thought about and meditated on, Maitreyī.  By seeing, knowing, thinking about and knowing the true self, all this [reality] is known.”

[Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad Chapter 2 Brāhmaṇa 4 Section 5]

So here we see that getting to know the true self is a mental and intellectual process, which also has as an outcome that we develop love and compassion for others.  In the world today, we see how autocratic leaders can unleash widespread suffering on their own population or others without compunction.  And as autocrats become more and more emboldened to act ruthlessly, we see that they also become more and more cut off from the reality that they are dealing with.  Perhaps their lack of empathy is similarly correlated with a failure to understand what is happening and to respond effectively, as both a moral failing and an intellectual one.

Indeed, the first passage above was adapted by T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land, in the section ‘What The Thunder Said’.  We may end with a quote from that which seems to suggest that, without empathy, we are trapped in a solipsistic reality without reference to the whole world of life and activity around us.  In expressing this idea, Eliot also alludes to the idealist metaphysics of F.H. Bradley which was the topic of his PhD dissertation.

Dayadhvam: I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
Only at nightfall, aethereal rumours
Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus

[The Waste Land, lines 411-417]

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