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Value ethics in the early Upanishads: A hermeneutic exercise

Shivdasani Seminar
Professor T.S. Rukmani
Thursday, 4 May 2006 - 1:00pm

The general view amongst scholars, and western scholars in particular, is that there is not sufficient attention paid to ethics in Hinduism. While no one holds that view seriously these days it does surface in discussions on Hinduism even today. This presentation tries to tackle that issue from the point of view of the early Upanishads. The main argument I develop is that moral theory and ethical behaviour is culture specific and there cannot be a uniform standard moral theory for all cultures. Moreover, it is axiomatic that no culture, particularly one that has survived thousands of years like that of the Hindus, could have survived without a moral code. Moral theory grows in consonance with the values that each society considers of ultimate importance. Keeping this as the background, this paper looks at a number of the early and middle Upanishads to build a behaviour pattern based on the twin concepts of dharma and moksa. Along the way the paper also tries to answer criticisms from scholars like Zaehner for whom a jivanmukta (one liberated while still in the body) is beyond all morality. The conclusion drawn is that there is a close connection between moral behaviour and the realization of what it means to be human.