Do others have the right to define what's ethical for me?
RADHIKA SEKAR holds a PhD in religious studies and taught Hinduism courses at Carleton and University of Ottawa. An aspiring Vedantin, she is a devotee of the Sri Ramakrishna Mission.
Cultures differ widely in their moral practices even in matters where one would assume consensus. For example, on the matter of homicide, in some societies a husband has a right of life and death over his wife, or it is considered a child’s duty to kill his parents before they get old.
Suicide for some may be a spiritual act, while for others a crime punishable by law.
Such differences may lead us to question whether there are any universal moral principles or whether morality is merely a matter of “cultural taste.” While Indian religions have no problem with cultural relativism, they do insist upon a universal code informed by an absolute Truth.
Hindu ethics are based on the complex concept of Dharma. The term can mean religion, law, duty, order, proper conduct, morality, righteousness, justice, norm and thus incorporates all the fundamentals that underlie morality.
Dharma puts things in their proper place, creates and maintains order and balance. To act dharmically therefore is, in essence, to act appropriately. But appropriate action is relative and determined by the context in which the action is to be performed and who is performing it.
Different people have different dharmas — one’s occupation (caste), position in life (ashrama), and one’s gender all determine what is dharmic in a particular instance. Ethical and moral guidelines for a soldier differ from those of a priest or teacher. This is called “svadharma,” or one’s own, personal dharma.
However, while specific ethical and moral guidelines may vary, the general ethical and moral principles that underlie them do not. These are informed by the five principles: non-violence, truth and refraining from sexual misconduct, greed and possessiveness, that are enshrined in the fundamental Yama-niyama code.
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