In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ethics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • Karma
  • The Aims of Life
  • Gender

Hinduism Ethics
Amod Lele
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 August 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0155


All attempts to discuss “ethics in Hinduism” should proceed with caution, because neither of these terms had any indigenous Indian equivalent before relatively recent times. While the term “Hindu” was used by some non-Muslim Indians in the medieval period, the idea of a single entity called Hinduism dates only to the 19th century. And while there are some premodern Indian terms (such as dharma) whose semantic range overlaps with “ethics,” their meanings are very different. So any bibliography on the subject needs to specify its own range. Here, “Hinduism” refers merely to the set of Indian traditions (such as Vaishnavism and Advaita Vedānta) that are not widely recognized today as separate “world religions” in their own right (such as Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism, or Jainism); we should not suppose without evidence that that set constitutes a single tradition with any greater unity. The English term “ethics,” often used interchangeably with “moral philosophy,” typically refers to the subfield of philosophy concerned with good lives and right action for individual human persons (as opposed to political theory, which examines the good for a state). As a form of philosophical inquiry, ethics requires reasons to be provided for one’s claims about what is good and what is bad; bare assertions that a given action is good or an emotion bad do not involve sufficient reflection to be called “ethics,” any more than an assertion about gravity with no theoretical or empirical backing would be sufficient to be called “physics.” Given the rich tradition of rational thought in India, it is worth keeping a bibliography on Hindu ethics focused on those texts and traditions which involve reasoning about good and bad human lives,—while noting that that reasoning can, and very often does, take the form of stories, which show rather than tell the reasons involved.

General Overviews

Perhaps because of the field’s amorphous nature, Hindu ethics is not an area that has many clear introductions covering its scope. The works listed here typically have significant limitations (dated, oversimplified, or overly partial or speculative) and should not be taken as definitive, but each has its value as a starting point for thinking about what Hindu ethics is or could be. Dhand 2002 is a short, article-length starting reference. Crawford 1974 is of interest for those interested in reconstructing the early historical development of Hindu ethics. Potter 1972 and Ranganathan 2007 take more analytical approaches to spelling out the nature of Indian ethics and philosophy more generally; Ranganathan defends the idea of Indian philosophy as ethics by defining ethics in terms of an “anger inclination,” while Potter situates Indian philosophy as having ethical aims similar to those of Friedrich Nietzsche. Hindery 1978 offers detailed examinations of ethical themes and views expressed in selected classical texts, especially the Rig Veda (Ṛgveda), the Laws of Manu, the Rāmāyaṇa, and the Bhagavad Gita. Maitra 1925 and Sharma 1965 are rarely read today because of their age (Maitra 1925) or obscure publisher (Sharma 1965), but they remain valuable for the connections they draw between ethics and the remainder of Hindu philosophy.

  • Crawford, S. Cromwell. The Evolution of Hindu Ethical Ideals. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1974.

    A speculative but interesting attempt to reconstruct the history of Hindu ethical ideas over time. The early chapters are particularly noteworthy for their bold attempt to trace the development of ethics in the Vedas across time—something rarely attempted.

  • Dhand, Arti. “The Dharma of Ethics, the Ethics of Dharma: Quizzing the Ideals of Hinduism.” Journal of Religious Ethics 30 (2002): 347–372.

    DOI: 10.1111/1467-9795.00113

    The article is hindered by looking for ethics in “the tradition as a whole,” without attempting to establish what exactly the author means by that. Still, it provides a useful reference for passages dealing with categories of universal and particular selves within Indian ethical reflection, especially in the Rāmāyaṇa.

  • Hindery, Roderick. Comparative Ethics in Hindu and Buddhist Traditions. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1978.

    A sometimes dry introduction to ethical reflection across a variety of texts, from the Rig Veda to the modern day, with an emphasis on those in the classical period.

  • Maitra, Sushil Kumar. The Ethics of Hindus. Calcutta: Calcutta University Press, 1925.

    One of the earlier systematic attempts to map out “Hindu ethics,” this work remains valuable because it focuses on very different territory than later works—most notably the moral psychology of the Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika approaches.

  • Potter, Karl H. Presuppositions of India’s Philosophies. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1972.

    Potter interprets Indian philosophy in terms of the goal of increasing one’s personal power—not in a political sense but a spiritual sense, following an ethical worldview roughly comparable to Nietzsche. Technical and not a balanced introduction to Indian philosophy or ethics, but an important perspective.

  • Ranganathan, Shyam. Ethics and the History of Indian Philosophy. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2007.

    Attempts to argue that ethical reflection is central to the history of Indian philosophical reflection, against various arguments to the contrary. The work is hampered somewhat by an eccentric definition of “ethics,” but many of its arguments would be successful even by a more conventional definition.

  • Sharma, I. C. Ethical Philosophies of India. Lincoln, NE: Johnsen, 1965.

    A general introduction to Indian ethical thought, this volume has the virtue of exploring ethical thought among the various traditional darśanas (philosophical views), as well as in modern thinkers like Rabindranath Tagore, and drawing the often overlooked link between ethics and metaphysics.

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