Hindu Ethics edited by Harold G. Coward
Publisher: State University of New York Press, 1989
ISBN: 0-88706-763-8 hardback -6 paperback
The early Indologists were not noted for a sympathetic approach to their subject.� Frequently coming from the angle of devout Christianity they viewed Hinduism, whose scriptures completely contradict many accounts found in the Bible, as a threat that needed to be thoroughly discredited.� Sadaputa Dasa (Richard Thompson) illustrates this point nicely: 'Bentley and other pioneer Indologists such as Sir William Jones and Max Muller worked hard, and quite successfully, to convince people that the Vedic scriptures are nothing but fables and fiction.� They started a school of thought that is solidly established in modern universities, both in Western countries and in India itself. One of the teachings of this school is that all Vedic literature, from the Rg Veda to the Puranas, is essentially a fraudulent concoction written in recent times.' ('World Views: Vedic vs Western',� Back to Godhead, January/February 1993).Hindu Ethics is a book that should be read against this background.� The authors of these three essays are not holding a priori assumptions that Hinduism and its scriptures are simply a creation of some 'impostors, cheaters and superstitious fools' which has become the prevalent academic view today. They strive to maintain a total academic objectivity, offering little overt value judgments on the matters discussed.� However, everyone holds their own beliefs and assumptions and thus objectivity may be an impossible ideal.� It is clear that the assumptions of these authors are somewhat at variance with those held by a practising devotee of Krsna, who would, of course, hold that the Vedas are revealed, axiomatic truths. Nevertheless, the authors have thoroughly researched their subjects in the Vedic literatures and the resultant essays are certainly thought-provoking.�
The first essay, 'Purity in Hinduism', by Prof. Harold Coward of the University of Calgary, examines Hindu attitudes towards external and internal cleanliness.� Coward examines his subject thoroughly from four angles: suddha (purity), subha (auspiciousness), sattva (goodness) and sauca (cleanliness). Although employing the standard academic dating of Vedic texts, Coward has nonetheless extracted an accurate analysis of the positions they espouse.� He has carefully and painstakingly put together a picture of a classical Vedic lifestyle in relation to the above four concepts. This is useful in showing how there is a real depth and coherent philosophy underpinning classical Vedic ethics. Not that, as many academics might suggest, it is all just ignorance and superstition.� Of course, without understanding the basic Vedic assumption that life is meant for ultimate liberation rather than material gain, the Vedic lifestyle will always be enigmatic as it does not easily admit to academic understanding.� However, by reading Coward's essay one will at least appreciate that it is a sophisticated and intelligent culture with a consistent, if complex, value structure and inspire further enquiry by the reader.�
The second essay on abortion, by Julius Lipner of Cambridge University was, I felt, perhaps the most lucid. Again, it contains a very thorough study of the classical Vedic position.� Lipner examines the attitude towards abortion from all angles: social, moral and religious.� However, it is perhaps a little disappointing that scholars of such stature as Lipner should make free use of the term 'Hindu' in referring to the attitudes of a society that substantially pre-dates the introduction of this term. Lipner's approach unnecessarily polemicises the issue and takes from the universal stance of the Vedic statements that form the basis of his research.� However, this criticism could be applied to all the essays, which all share the general academic viewpoint that attitudes within the Vedic tradition are formed by a synthesis of scriptural and social influences.� This approach does not accept authority as such, and apparent contradictions in the Vedic position are not reconciled. Rather, the scriptural position is seen as having always been open to interpretation and expedient application, rather than being divinely originated, authentic and indeed, once practised. In fact, Lipner appears to almost mock when scriptural statements defy logic and current experience. (For example, a reference where Vyasadeva is said to have immediately flown a large distance is given the jocular aside of 'superman'). However, he does labour at length to establish the exact position of the Vedas on the sensitive and controversial issue of the rights of the unborn.� As he himself comments: 'I venture to say that the topic of this essay has rarely, if ever, had the benefit of the study brought to bear here.'� From that point of view, it is certainly worth reading.
The final essay by Katherine Young of McGill University, deals with the issue of euthanasia, or self willed death - istamrtyu.� Yet again, her careful analysis of the Vedic scriptural position struggles to piece together the complete picture of Vedic morality and its underlying philosophical basis, and makes it difficult to reconcile the Vedic juncture that human life has a higher purpose with modern attitudes towards euthanasia.� Indeed some forms of voluntary death are quite consistent with Vedic morality; for example, a ksatriya's death in battle or the forest-bound ascetic's praya vow (starvation).� Of course, even these forms of dying must be considered in relation to time and place and may not be appropriate in the modern context.� But at any time, suicide that is not sanctioned by scripture is sinful.� Voluntary death in order to relieve suffering has no place in Vedic morality, where the knowledge of karma and the next life exists.� Ms Young does make this distinction clear, although her attempts to define the Vedic position are strictly relativised.� For example, with reference to the Mahabharata she says the following: 'It is as if a brahmin author were attempting to ... woo ksatriyas back from Buddhism.' She makes an interesting examination of the problem of how any form of religiously acceptable suicide is open to abuse; for example, the sati rite (saha marana), the suicide of a widow on her husband's pyre, which has been seriously abused in modern India and is now outlawed. The analysis of this phenomenon is useful and needs to be carefully considered by those who would advocate a return to the old standards of Vedic morality.
Overall I found the book interesting, especially the many quotes notusually encountered in ISKCON publications, and also the analysisof how the interpretation of the Vedas has been possibly influencedby different social phenomena over the years. I would recommend itto anyone concerned with modern attitudes towards the Vedic tradition.
Some thirty years ago, the theologian Wilfred Cantwell Smith asserted that any serious intellectual statement of the Christian faith must include, if it is to serve its purpose, some sort of doctrine of other religions. 'We explain the fact that the Milky Way is there by the doctrine of creation,' he wrote, 'but how do we explain that the Bhagavad-gita is there?'
Thirty years later, Cantwell's question is also the concern of Maurice Wiles, Regius Professor of Divinity Emeritus at Oxford University.� For Prof. Wiles, the close co-existence of different faith communities in the modern world is as important as a background to Christian theology as the rise of the mechanistic, scientific worldview.
At a time of increasing conservatism and opposition to interfaith activity, Prof. Wiles' book is something of a radical departure from the traditionally narrow Christocentric approach of the established churches.� It is a soul-searching book, which begins by asking whether acceptance of the possibility of open dialogue with other religions is not a desertion of the way in which the church has understood its faith through the ages.� Both Catholic and Protestant churches have traditionally been somewhat averse to venturing outside their own territory.� In the fifteenth century, the Council of Florence affirmed that:
No-one outside the Catholic church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics, can share eternal life, but will perish in the eternal fire pared for the devil and his angels.
One hundred years later, Martin Luther wrote in strikingly similar terms:
Those who are outside Christianity, be they heathens, Turks, Jews or even false Christians and hypocrites . cannot expect either love or any blessing from God, and accordingly remain in eternal wrath and perdition.
Of course, these declarations are not conducive to interfaith dialogue, and Prof. Wiles painstakingly disassociates himself from this stance by constructing a personal theology for dialogue without compromising traditional Christian theology.� He emphasises that a vital feature of a Christian theology for dialogue is a revisionary approach to the faith and its practices, but without surrendering the absoluteness of commitment to Jesus. These, he argues, are not incompatible; loyalty to one's own faith and self-criticism can co-exist.� Indeed, the former implies the latter. Wiles is hopeful that a theology arising out of the experience of dialogue with other religions will raise new possibilities and new necessities of further revision.
However, Christian Theology and Inter-Religious Dialogue is not an easy book to read.� As it reveals the mind of a Christian who is genuinely concerned to construct a coherent theological position of faith, and is replete with Christian terminology, it is essentially a specialist publication.� Although at times difficult to follow, it is nonetheless interesting, and is a helpful book for all those who have an interest in interfaith dialogue.
During the Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago, a declaration was passed that was subscribed to by representatives from all the major faiths in the world - the 'Declaration Toward a Global Ethic.'
At just over one hundred pages, this book describes the historical background of how the declaration toward a global ethic was conceived and the principles it adheres to.� The understanding behind this initiative is that there can be no improved world order without a global ethic and that this basis for such an ethic can be found in an already existing fundamental consensus concerning values, standards and moral attitudes among the world's religions.
Prof. Hans K�ng, who was� largely responsible for the wording of the declaration, states in the preface of this book that
. a global ethic seeks to work out what is already common to the religions of the world now despite all their differences over human conduct, moral values and basic moral convictions.� In other words, a global ethic does not reduce the religions to an ethical minimalism but represents the minimum of what the religions of the world already have in common now in the ethical sphere.
The Global Ethic is based on four basic directives or principles, namely:
According to Vedic literature, progressive human life is based in the development of four basic human qualities, namely mercy, truthfulness, austerity and cleanliness. The Vedic tradition is formed in such a way as to promote the development of these basic human qualities and in that way advance the human race.� It is interesting to see the same approach being taken in the 'Declaration of a Global Ethic', where the importance of people 'changing their hearts' and 'transforming their consciousness' as a means of solving the world's problems is stressed.
Prof. K�ng makes the point that the declaration is not an end in itself, but should serve as a basis for continued discussion and further progression towards gradually making individuals, organisations and political establishments aware of the importance of taking personal responsibility for the state of the world by developing their own inner character towards nobility.
Discussion on this theme is already underway in many countries and will also be on the agenda of the next meeting of the World Conference of Religion and Peace (WCRP) in Italy at the end of 1993.
As followers of the Vaishnava tradition, ISKCON welcomes the initiative of working towards a change in individual consciousness as a means of solving global problems, and now have the opportunity to do so in co-operation with many other spiritually-minded people.
I strongly recommend that anyone involved with interfaith dialogue read this book, whose concept could open up many opportunities for such contact.