Wednesday, February 14, 2007


"Democracy", Mr. Vajpayee emphasised, "was more a moral than just a constitutional or legal system. While constitution and law are important, the prestige of Parliament is its life-giving strength (Pranshakti) and this must be bolstered by observing morality and ethics". (G.B.Pant Award for the best Parliamentarian of the year 1994; Times of India, Aug.18, 1994, p. 1)

"Does morality hold any value in this age of corruption and competition", asked the army-retired bank manager, after his long quarrel with the TTE while I was travelling with him from Kanpur to Lucknow. Though he held a second class ticket, yet knowing that he should not travel in the second class sleeper coach, yet he boarded in my compartment at Kanpur with his family. And caught by the TTE, he first started in mere argument that everybody is travelling not minding about the rule. When the TTE, not yielding to his arguments, started to fine him, the Bank Officer began to quarrel with the TTE. Finally I had to interfere when the Bank Manager started to use unparliamentary words against TTE, even threatening to beat him with his chappel, if he (TTE) did not fine the rest of the passengers in the same compartment (I had my second class sleeper ticket).

Finally a compromise was reached, and only charging the actual rate, the TTE left the compartment. He could not collect the fine because already he had collected some fives and tens from the rest of the passengers. After a long gap of silence the Bank Officer and I entered into discussion, and in the course of our talk he asked this question.

Though I did not expect such a question from an educated man, that too a retired army officer, I said, "I know that the TTE is a corrupt fellow. We all know that we are living in a morally degraded society. But simply blaming the society for all its corruption, imagining as if we are not part of it, won't solve this problem. My immediate concern to interfere in this matter was not to protect the TTE or to help him to uphold the law. My only concern was your two sons (12 and 10 years respectively). Anything your children are going to learn in this world is first from their parents. They may be very much influenced by the world as they are growing up, and the modern world is largely depriving them of the fellowship of their parents and elders. Yet still the first impression that they will get is from their parents. Now they have seen you using unparliamentary words, that too before their mother, and the way you threatened the TTE to beat him even with chapels, etc, would definitely make its own impression on their young minds. Now tell me what kind of morality would you expect from them as they grow up?"

The Bank Manager remained silent for a few minutes. After some thought he said, "No, I will bring them up in such a way that they will face their challenges and learn how to survive, rather than to think about MORALITY." THIS INDEED SHOCKED ME; what about you?

What does MORAL actually mean?

I would like to hear practical answers rather than philosophical ideas.

Welcoming your reply,



Satya said...

I am 33 years old. When I was a child, there was a general understanding that the reasons for being moral were two-fold:
1. You sow what you reap. If you are moral and righteous, you will have a good life here on earth.
2. Fear of God. God is watching you and your deeds and will surely punish you for wrongdoing, either in this life or the life after.
As an adult, I realised that there is no direct correlation between morality and how well you do in life. Immoral people seem to prosper as much and in some cases more than moral people. BUT, I still hold morality very high because I believe that this life is not all there is. I am afraid most modern people seem to not think very much beyond this life, which is one of the reasons there is no compelling reason to be moral. Maybe, in some cases, it is fear of society, or the law and even God. The reason for wanting to be moral should be Love of God rather than fear.

Bungi said...

Morality is something very important and is something that is constantly evolving.

Unfortunately, for many it changes according to circumstances. If it benefits us, we choose it and if it doesn't benefit us, then twist it.

I think it should evolve more in the positive direction. None of us are perfect. So our morality is not perfect either. But as we realise the higher standard of morality each time, we should be willing to accept it.

ashish said...

Let me play the devil's advocate -

Morality for our generation is a sick word. It is just list of do's and dont's. There isn't anything black or white. There are these grey areas, forever expanding. Wasn't it the duty of the father to ensure a comfortable journey for his family? By hook or by crook? In the end everything turned out ok. The TTE made a few bucks. The family got a nice ride.

We require morality for the smooth functioning of the society. Greasing the palms make it possible without worrying too much about these issues.

In any case, things are meant to go from bad to worse. Can we fight the writ of the times? The decree of the Kalyug?

The bank manager was right when he said that the children need to learn to survive. Even the science teaches us, through the theory of evolution, that the fittest will survive, not the most moral.

Swami Dayanand Bharati said...

Thanks, Satya, for sharing your views.

In my teachings often I say that most of the time we uphold morality ‘not by choice but by chance’. As you rightly mentioned, fear of society is one of the reasons for this, at least in India. We have a ‘shame’ conscience; until others see us or we get caught, small level moral lapses are ok for us. The general answer when we are caught is, ‘who is not doing it? Who is perfect? This is kali yuga!’

A guilty conscience also won’t help much. Those who believe in absolute values might shun immorality. And if they fall, then they will confess and repent. But either because of human nature, which often fails or becomes familiar with such rituals (of confession and repentance), this so-called ‘guilty conscience’ also doesn’t help much. However, it does help one come to terms with oneself rather than blaming other factors for moral lapses.

I would rather not say ‘fear of god’ but fear of retribution forces us to think twice before doing seriously immoral things. However, fear of god in relation to ‘immorality’ is fear of the punishment that he will give. But I personally feel that ‘love for god’ should motivate us rather than ‘fear of god’. However this love ‘for’ god is not possible unless we understand the love ‘of’ god. But in our Indian worldview most of the time we use god to get some benefit for our earthly needs, rather than honestly seeking his love to overcome our shortcomings. Of course, our Indian scriptures have plenty of references to seeking god’s grace to overcome moral lapses and make one perfect. Yet in practical life, our approach to god is not for what he is but for what he could/should do for our mundane needs. Exceptions are there, but I am talking about common people. Here alone spirituality and not rituality will help one to rise above his common situation and seek god for his own sake and experience his love through bhakti to uphold ethics in practical life and also prepare our atman for the world to come.

I think we should not link ‘prosperity’ with ‘morality’. Morality is more related with what we ‘are’ than what we ‘have’. That is why for me the answer to the question: ‘Who you are’ is not self-realization (in modern vedantic terms) but ‘what you are when you are alone with yourself’—not even before god, but with yourself.

Though I agree with you that we have to keep in our mind about the life to come, yet morality needs to be first related with our earthly life, for the sake of life itself. To enjoy life legitimately is one important aspect of the purushartas (aims of life—they are four, dharma, artha, kama and moksha). About this Krishna says in the Gita (7:11) that ‘I remain the pleasure in every life which is not opposed to dharma (righteousness).’

Next, morality is related to our life in relationship with others. There it should work first, rather than merely to consider morality for the world beyond this life. ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’, says the bible. No one wants to be immoral to oneself (when he is alone with himself). Then, it should be reflected in our relationship here on earth first.
Yes, ‘law’ several times creates fear in the mind. However, at least in India we have lots of loopholes to overcome this also. Except Sibu Soran, as far as my knowledge goes, not a single politician was ever punished for any crime. In general those who have money, power and authority escape the law. Of course, because of the media, in a few cases like Jessica Lal and Priyadarshani Matto, the culprits are punished, that too after a long battle by the affected people. Yet everywhere in the world ‘law’ alone is not stopping crime. Some break the law intentionally, but most unintentionally. And we are all well aware that the purpose of law is not to punish the criminal but to protect the innocent. The justice system is there to ensure that even if several criminals go unpunished, not one innocent person should be punished. So law, as it is, though it creates fear, yet it does not help much to uphold morality.

So I will narrow down to two levels; reverence for god and respect for relationships should be the starting points. Those who have no faith in god, can still do it out of respect for human relationships.

Finally, what is morality? In ‘Times Life’ (Sunday supplement to The Times of India, Bangalore, Feb. 18, 2007, p. 2) there came an article ‘Morality is all in the mind….’ The author of this article, Nona Walia, quotes Marc Hauser (Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong) saying, ‘Moral judgment is less about psychology, and more about biology’. According to him we are genetically programmed to have a rigid concept of morality. The other view (according to Aamir Raza Hussain ) is ‘inner instinct;’ and finally according to ‘Playmate Nicole Narain, who sold her 13-minute sex videotape with Colin Farrell, “Morality is very personal”.’
An advantage in making morality either biological, genetic, instinctive or personal, is that it helps accommodate everyone’s expectations. But as this leads to situation ethics, who is the victim and who is the culprit also becomes relative. For example, for Narain, as morality is personal, she sold her videotape—either for money or to create news. But what about her partner in this act? Is he a victim of her view of morality or a partner? If such situation ethics become the norm, apart from serious crimes like murder, theft, etc., other social offenses will be justified. For example, now in India ‘the draft National Policy on Criminal Justice, authored by the Madhava Menon Committee, has responded to the demand of the National Commission for Women (NCW) to de-criminalise adultery by recommending that it should be treated as a social, rather than criminal offense’ (Bangalore Times, Feb. 17, 2007, p. 1). Here I am not discussing whether it should be treated as a crime or social offense. However, in answer to the final question ‘What about woman’, the expert’s response is: "At present, Section 497 of IPC [Indian Penal Code], provides for jail up to five years as well as a fine for adultery. Interestingly, the NCW has opposed a proposal to amend Section 497 to bring women also under the purview. Under the IPC, the woman shall not be liable even as an abettor, based on the reasoning that a woman involved in illicit relationship with a married man is a victim rather than author of the crime." Such views decide the crime or social offense from a gender point of view, not taking both partners in this act as ‘persons’, ‘human beings’ equally responsible.

Such imbalance is inevitable once morality is placed in the human realm of biology, genetics and personal preference. However, for those who believe that god has expectations from human beings based on his imparting absolute ethical standards for everyone—whether man or woman—there is hope of justice and also progress in this area. As such, absolute moral views cannot be changed according to the whim and fancy of anyone; there is hope for us to measure our progress universally as one humanity. Of course, some ‘social offenses’ can be relative. In such areas most of the scriptures might also be silent. But regarding basic moral codes, the violation of which will affect family, community, society and nation (human relationship as such), clear teaching is given in various scriptures. If in the name of ‘religion’ we reject them, then we alone have to face the consequences—as god has given us free will either to reject or obey.


Swami Dayanand Bharati said...

Thanks, Bungi, for sharing your view. I agree that we must make progress in a positive direction. But my problem is with the concept of ‘evolving’ in this. This makes it become relative. As I pointed out in my response to Satya, at least those who take ‘moral’ issues seriously should begin from the absolute moral views given by the scriptures, rather than supposing there is evolution according to the need and time. Any standard of morality in our terms is going to be relative, whereas the absolute standard given by scriptures establishes a minimum expectation and ‘standard’ for us to measure, improve and work towards; evolving with god in a positive direction.


Bungi said...

Wow! Swamiji, that was awesome and quite challenging. I completely agree with you on the fact that morality based on fear is not really complete. Rather it should emerge from the love of God and love for man.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks to morality is, i think, self-absorption. 'I' always comes first. It is something i struggle with as well. But i guess it is a battle that started when we were born and will continue for a long time to come.

About evolution of morality - i will clarify my thoughts. Since my thoughts were pretty raw when i typed it in first it has turned out to be something i really didn't mean.

I should have said 'our understanding of what is the moral standard is constantly evolving', rather than saying 'morality is constantly evolving'.

I too believe that there are moral absolutes. And we are constantly trying to achieve that - sort of taking it step by step. The moment we think we have become moral by what our understanding of the moral absolute is, we are faced with a higher level of understanding the moral absolute.

And i believe that we should be willing to make way for higher level of interpretation each time and not run away from the challenge it poses.


Swami Dayanand Bharati said...

Thanks Ashish, for playing Devil’s advocate. We need such people to sharpen the iron.

You said ‘we require morality for the smooth functioning of the society.’ But who’s society? One man’s freedom ends at the beginning of another man’s nose. If we expect others to adjust a bit, then they too have the same expectation. However, life is not just mere adjustments. It is a value. Otherwise, like animals, only the fittest will survive in the end. In that case we need no conscience, law, govt., judiciary, etc.

As a father the bank manager needed to ensure the comfort of his family. If he only wanted to teach his children to learn survival, he would merely have greased the TTE rather than fighting with him. First he thought he was fighting for some values. Most of the passengers who boarded from Kanpur did not have sleeper class tickets. So he was following the crowd. But when the TTE asked for his tickets he was not ready to pay the penalty along with the extra sleeper class fare and he also was not ready to give a bribe. Suddenly he became a champion to uphold the law by threatening the TTE to fine all those who were traveling without a proper ticket.

The actual law is that if you board the sleeper class without a proper ticket, along with the extra charge you have to pay a fine. But as the TTE already has greased his hands, he cannot challenge the manager. But if he wanted to he could just call the Railway Police and evict the bank manager or book him for disturbing a govt. employ trying to do his job. Those who gave fives and tens wouldn’t betray him. If the manager challenged the police they would say (as you know well about Indian police), ‘first you get down and come to the station;’ the rest the TTE would take care of.

In all these contradictions, he neither taught values to his children nor taught survival mechanisms by giving a small amount to the TTE for a smooth ride up to Lucknow. Rather, being a bank manager and ex-army person, he thought that he could confront the TTE. It was mere egotism and nothing else.

Yes, there are gray areas in every field. But people with clear convictions will try to uphold some kind of personal ethics by not changing lanes too often. All cannot fight against corruption, and all also cannot escape from it. But instead of justifying it in the name of ‘Kali yuga’, at least it should disturb their consciences. But those who kill the inner voice in the name of ‘survival’ will finally perish, as they cannot live and share some values in life. What the manager did with the TTE, his children will do with him tomorrow. If he questions them, who knows, as he alone taught the survival mechanism, they too will confront him in the same spirit.

As I said earlier in my response to Satya, reverence for god and respect for relationships should be the starting point to uphold ethics in life. For this we need to reflect our words and deeds in the light of God’s absolute values; and those who do not believe in god need their own inner voice, as Tirukkural (famous Tamil book): do not hold as truth what you know to be false; for your own conscience will burn you when you have lied (293).

The Times of India on Feb. 20 had an article called Moral maze: Our sins have changed. As Society Evolves So Does Our Sense Of Virtue and Vice, Good and Evil.

"‘We all like to think that we are pretty ethical at heart. But just how moral are you in everyday life? Are you even sure you know what is bad, as opposed to vaguely risqué?’ says Shane Watson. To prove his point he further says, ‘It can be confusing. For example, there is behaviour that’s legal but, newly, morally reprehensible (that’ll be wearing chinchilla) and behaviour that’s sort of illegal, but no longer considered wrong (the current fuzziness surrounding marijuana). The fact is, the old oral code has been replaced by an alternative one tailored to our more sophisticated modern needs (or so we like to tell ourselves)….’"

Then he continues with comments on the following ‘legal vs. moral’ clashes: wearing fur; trans fats and cheesy wotsits; zeros and skinnies; smoking; racism; sexual harassment; eco-apathy; infidelity; shoplifting; swearing; lying; breaking the law; promiscuity and alcohol abuse. His comments on infidelity indicate again why I consider important it vital to uphold morality, which is keeping respect for others.

"Infidelity—This is still frowned upon, but now (blame Charles and Camilla for rose-tinting an old taboo) cheating on your partner is judged on a case-by-case basis. The modern line—that nobody strays in a good marriage, therefore both parties are equally to blame—has taken the sting out of infidelity.

But infidelity does not only result from a bad marriage. It can also make a good marriage bad. Mutual respect is lost, because the unfaithful partner in the marriage uses people as a commodity to seek pleasure. As s/he has no respect for the other person as his/her equal, the innocent partner now also has to share the blame. The person who suffered now also becomes a victim, blamed as an equal partner for a bad marriage. This is inevitable in every kind of situation ethics.