Ethics – a short extract from Swami Nikhilananda


One of the cardinal disciplines for the Knowledge of the Ātman is the practice of ethical values.

Self-knowledge is denied to him ‘who has not first turned away from wickedness, who is not tranquil and subdued, and whose mind is not at peace.’

The Katha Upanishad states that the sense-organs are created with an inclination toward material pleasures and hence embodied souls are entangled in the phenomenal life of increasing birth and death, but that calm sages turn their sense-organs inward in order to attain freedom and immortality.

It does not allow any compromise, for the advanced seeker, between the ideal of pleasure and the ideal of the good. The two are as sharply distinguished as darkness and light. ‘He who chooses the pleasant misses the end.’ ‘The fool chooses the pleasant out of greed and avarice.’

In the Taittiriya Upanishad the boy Bhrigu is repeatedly asked by his father to seek Brahman by means of tapas, or austerities. Mere mental austerities are not enough; these must be accompanied by appropriate external conduct.

The practice of austerities does not, however, mean the mere mortification of the flesh or the sense-organs. This is explained in the Katha Upanishad by the illustration of a chariot. The body is compared to the chariot, the senses to the horses, the intellect to the charioteer, the mind to the reins, the sense-objects to the road, and the embodied soul to the master of the chariot, who is desirous of reaching the goal of Self-knowledge.

The chariot can take the master to his destination only when the vehicle is well built, when the driver knows the way, and when the reins are strong, the horses held firmly under control, and the roads are well chosen.

What is emphasized here is the need of a healthy body, vigorous sense-organs, a strong mind, and an intellect which will choose only those material objects conducive to a man’s spiritual life.

Some of the ethical virtues extolled by the Hindu philosophers are: truthfulness, non-injury, forgiveness, good conduct, non-appropriation of others’ property, control of the senses, absence of anger, equanimity, detachment from the world, charity, and continence.

Through the practice of these virtues, the heart becomes pure and the mind tranquil, and a mood is created for the proper contemplation of God or of Brahman.

The virtues mentioned above may be called subjective or personal. Objective ethics, dealing with social welfare with a view to creating an ideal environment for the peaceful pursuit of the spiritual life, is also mentioned in the Upanishads.

A good action is thus extolled in the Mahānārāyana Upanishad: ‘As the scent is wafted afar from a tree laden with flowers, so also is wafted afar the scent of a good deed.’ The Brihadāranyaka Upanishad exhorts the gods, that is to say, the refined and wealthy men of society, to cultivate the control of body and mind; average greedy man to practice liberality; and cruel men to cultivate compassion. ….

The non-dualistic philosophy of the Upanishads points out that ethics, both subjective and objective, belongs to the phenomenal world, where one finds such pairs of opposites as good and evil.

As a person transcends his identification with the body and the physical world, and realizes the oneness of existence, he is no longer troubled by the idea of good and evil. But an illumined person can never perform an action injurious to others. Though he no longer consciously strives for moral perfection, virtues like humility, love, compassion and self-control become his natural attributes.

In the words of Brihadāranyaka Upanishad: “Evil does not overtake him, but he transcends all evil. Evil does not consume him, but he consumes all evil. He becomes sinless, stainless, and free from doubts.”

— Swami Nikhilanada in THE UPANISHADS

Some terms used in this part of extract:

Ātman: The self or soul; essence, nature, peculiarity; (with capital A) the Supreme Soul or Brahman; (with small a) the individual soul (both are essentially identical, according to Advaita Vedanta); the unchanging spirit in the universe and the individual creature; the experiencer (called Visva or Vaisvanara) of the gross world during the waking state, the experiencer (called Taijasa) of the subtle or mental world during the dream state, and the experiencer (called Prajna) of the causal world during dreamless sleep; also called Turiya as the witness of the experiences of the three states.

Brahman: (literally growth, expansion, evolution) the non-dual, self-existent, impersonal Spirit, or the divine essence and source from which all created things emanate, by which they are preserved, and to which they return; the Absolute (not generally an object of worship but rather of meditation and knowledge). When associated with māyā, Brahman is called Saguna Brahman (Brahman with attributes), who is called the Creator, Preserver and Destroyer of the universe.

Upanishads: A class of philosophical treatises (supposed to be one hundred and eight in number) attached to the Brāhmana portion of the Vedas. The purpose of the Upanishad is the exposition of Vedic philosophy; it is regarded as the source of the orthodox systems of Hindu philosophy.

Non-dualistic: Philosophy of Advaita, the name of a school of Vedanta philosophy teaching the ultimate oneness of Brahman, embodied souls (jiva), and universe (jagat), and the unreality of the last two apart from Brahman. (The chief and classic exponents of the Advaita philosophy are Gaudapada and Sankaracharya.)


August 29, 2017.


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