Hindu Ethics (Purity, Abortion and Euthanasia)

Item Code: NAE694
Author: Harold Coward, Julius J.Lipner
Publisher: Sri Satguru Publications
Language: English
Edition: 1991
ISBN: 8170302730
Pages: 143
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.0 inch x 6.0 inch
Weight 300 gm
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About the Book

“Much attention has been given to the topic of duties in the Indian tradition. This work includes rights as well, as any competent ethical discussion must. The topic is highly significant for ethical dialogue, East and West, and for our closer understanding of the Indian religious tradition.”

Harold W. French University of South Carolina.

Modern Western approach to India often have focussed on metaphysics at the expense of ethics, leading many to see Hinduism as only concerned with the esoteric and the or there worldly. The chapters of this book offer case study explorations that are selected and presented to invite comparisons with the modern West. Such comparisons will help to remove the apparent otherworldly nature of Hindu thought from the minds of Western readers, as well as give depth and new significance to Indian ideas in the areas of medical ethics, social ethics, and human rights. The case studies demonstrate that Indian thought has not ignored deep reflection on ethical problems that are presenting serious challenges to the modern world. They demonstrate that Hinduism has a firm grounding in ethics, even when the most difficult questions are raised.

The present volume includes a detailed introduction and is divided into three chapters. Ch. ideals with Purity in Hinduism; with particular Reference to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Ch. 2. The Classical Hindu view on Abortion and the Moral Status of the Unborn. Ch. 3. Euthanasia Traditional Hindu Views and the Contemporary Debate.

“The book takes specific moral issues and traces the response of specific texts and thinkers to the issues rather than making the usual generalizations about ‘the Hindu view’ It is not superficial but sound, and deals with issues that are a part of contemporary ethical discussions. This makes it unique and a valuable work.” Robert N. Minor University of Kansas.’


About the Author

Harold G. Coward is professor of religious studies and Director the Calgary Institute for the humanities. The university of Calgary. He received his PH.D form McMaster University and was a research fellow at Banaras Hindu university and Madras University in India. Publication include Bhartrhari (1976) sphota theory (1980) studies in Indian thought (1983) jung and eastern thought (1985) pluralism: challenge to world religion (1985) sacred word and sacred text: Scripture in word religions (1988) and the philosophy of Grammar (1988) he gave the T.R.V. Murti Memorial lectures at Banaras Hindu University.

Julius J. Lipner is lecturer in the comparative study of religion Faculty of Divinity Cambridge university and a fellow of St. Edmund college at Cambridge university. After his early university studies in India he obtained he Ph.D. in the History and philosophy of Religion king college London. He has lectured widely in England Indian Canada and the united states. Publication include the face of truth: A study of Meaning and Metaphysics in the Vedantic Theology of Ramanuja (1968) and articles on indology and inter religious Understanding. He is currently completing a book on the Bengali Brahmin, Brahmabandhab Upadhyay (1861-1907).

Katherine K. Young is Associate Professor in the Faculty of religious studies at McGill University Montreal, Quebec, Canada. She received her M.A. from the university of Chicago and Ph.D. from McGill University in the history of Religions with specialization in Hinduism. She has periodically studied and done research in India and has published in Several main areas; religion in south India women in Hinduism and ethic. The McGill studies in the history of religion is appearing under her general editorship.

Harold G. Coward is Professor and Director of Religious Studies and Director of the Humanities Institute at the University of Calgary. In addition to Jung and Eastern Thought, Coward’s books include Bhartrhan, Sphota Theory of Language, Studies in Indian Thought, and Pluralism challenge to World Religions. Julius J. Lipner is University Lecturer in the Comparative Study of Religion in the University of Cambridge; he is also Fellow of St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge. He is the author of The Pace of Truth: A Study of Meaning and Metaphysics in the Vedantic. Theory of Rmnanuja Katherine K. Young is Chair of the Faculty of Religious Studies at McGill University.



Modern Western approaches to India, and in particular to Hinduism, have focused on metaphysics at the expense of ethics, As a result, Westerners have often tended to see Hinduism as concerned with the esoteric, the other wordly, the mystical, and thus as having a blind eye when it comes to the ethical issues of daily life. Western religions like Judaism and Christianity were thought to offer something lacking in Hinduism, namely, the moral vitality of the Hebrew prophets and the New Testament. It was this moral vitality that many Christian missionaries saw themselves as bringing to India to challenge an ethically lax Hinduism. Sati or widow burning and the making of caste distinctions were typical of the so-called heathen practices singled out by the missionaries for attack.

Is Hinduism a religion which is weak or lacking in ethics? The authors f this book examine this question by analyzing Hindu teaching on three problems of significance for the modern world: purity, abortion, and euthanasia. This approach enables the reader to see what Hinduism has to say about ethical problems which are posing a serious challenge to modern scholars. In this way, the strengths and weaknesses of Hindu ethics will be immediately apparent to the Western Christian, Jew, humanist, or secularist who wrestles with how abortion, euthanasia, and purity are to be dealt with m our modem world. In this sense, these essays have importance for today’s tidy of medical ethics, social ethics, and human rights, in that they provide i systematic analysis of these problems from the perspective of a quite different Eastern world view.

For the student of Eastern religions, these chapters are important for their exploration in depth of the ethical foundations present within Hinduism—foundations which some would say are more basic than the metaphysics of Sañskara and Ramanuja about which so much has been written in English. Recent scholarship has begun to draw attention to the fundamental position of ethics in Hindu thought. In his Structural Depth of Indian Thought, P. T. Raju charts a new approach for Western graduate students studying Hinduism. Rain begins with ethics (Mimamsa and the Dharma astras) and moves from that basis to a consideration of metaphysics, such as the ontology of Sanskara’s Vedãnta. Raju justifies this approach by noting that past presentations of Indian Philosophy in English (e.g., S. Radhakrishnan’s two-volume Indian philosophy) have subsumed and equated ethics with the theories of salvation offered by the various schools. ‘But,’ says Raju, ‘such an equation gives rise, and has given rise to the impression that Indian thought has no idea of moral and ethical law,” Raju makes clear the importance of the distinction for which he is arguing;

It is not justifiable to equate ethics and the theory of salvation From the ultimate point of view, where there is no Ought” there is no ethics. Disciplines for salvation consist of different forms of worship, breath- control, etc. Nobody is morally obliged to practice them. Most of the Indian philosophers do not regard such practices as an “Ought” (vidhi). But moral law is an “Ought” and the Vedantins and even the Mimamsakas knew the distinction between values which are only recommended to be good. Obtaining salvation, like obtaining wealth, is not an “Ought.” It is, therefore, not justifiable to equate ethics and the theory of salvation.

The ‘ought’ of ethics (dharma) is foundational for all Indian thought in that it includes; the ideals for human life in this world, ones relation to other human beings, the duties of caste (varna) and the stages of life (asramas).Sankara suggests that his teaching of knowledge (jnana) is intended to follow’ immediately on study of the Vedas (purva mimãmsã, the enquiry into dharma), and Patañjali effectively makes the same requirement in his listing of the bad habits to he broken (yamas) and good habits to be established (niyamas) as requirements for the practise of yoga. For jaimini, ethical action (dharma) is inescapable and is therefore the supreme governing force of the universe.

The following chapters on purity, abortion, and euthanasia offer case study explorations into specific topics of dharma or Hindu Ethics—case studies which are selected and presented so as to invite comparisons with modern Western thought to develop in the critical reflection of the reader, Such comparisons, which are merely suggested here, will help to remove the apparent other wordly nature of Hindu thought from the minds of Western readers, as well as give depth and new significance to Indian ideas on these timely topics.

In Chapter 1, Harold Coward surveys attitudes towards purity and bodily function found in the Harappa culture, the Vedas, Epics, and Laws of Mann but focuses on the way in which these early ideas are systematized in Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras. In the Yoga Sutras, the three gunas or qualities of tamas (dullness), rajas (passion, movement), and sattva (transparency) are described as having increasing qualities of purity. The yoga technique outlined by Patanjali is designed to purify the tamas and rajas from one’s material nature (prakrti) until one becomes virtually pure sattva, The yoga sutras, like the Vedas and the Laws of Mann, see bodily discharges as polluting in nature (tamasic), and thus the purified yogi shrinks from contact with such substances, Since women have more bodily discharges than men, they are seen as being more impure, Menstrual blo0d is considered to be especially polluting, although there is ambiguity here since some classical texts treat menstrual blo0d as the female seed which joins with the male semen to produce the child, Some Tantric practices take the approach of using female discharges, such as menstrual blood, as a ritual drink—the idea being to use the most powerful female pollution as a means to overcome all pollution, On the whole, however, Hindus see bodily fluids as polluting and menstrual blood as especially so.

Further exemplification of Patanjali’s position is found in the disciplines followed by Gorakhnath and his followers, the Kanphata Yogis, during the medieval period, Coward shows how all of this provides a basis for the logical development of a strong negative attitude toward women and persons who do not make an effort to practice cleanliness who are thus empirically seen to be of a lower quality (lower caste).

The traditional Hindu approach to purity is found to exemplify the kind of ethical and philosophical issue that the modern experience of a pluralism of world views raises. What happens when the modern Western presupposition of the right to equality comes into conflict with a traditional world view in which equality at the highest level is not a legal right but a hard won achievement resulting from good ethical choices the doing of one’s dharma—in this and previous lives? Such a clash occurs when Hindus who have become Canadian or American citizens, and are thus tinder the equality prescribed by the Charter of Rights of those countries, attempt to practice their traditional religious approach to purity and pollution, a religious practice which that same Charter of Rights guarantees, Coward examines how this conflict with the received egalitarian world view of modernity is present in the new Constitution of India. The clash between the classical Hindu view of purity and the negative attitude it establishes toward women and the lower castes is examined against the background of the equality prescribed by the Constitution of India.

In Chapter 2, Julius Lipner examines the Hindu attitude to abortion. Iii (be classical Hindu view, the living embryo enjoys a special moral status ii (he eyes of the Hindu and is specially deserving of protection and respect. In the law books, the keeling of a pregnant woman is given the same status as (lie killing of a Brahmin. Therefore, for the Hindu, pregnancy is a very special state in which the unborn have a moral status which merits special protection. It is no surprise that many Hindu texts specifically condemn abortion. Special exemplification is provided from the Mahabharata. Lipner makes clear that, in spite of some suggestions in the law books that it is social status rather than morality which is at issue in cases of abortion, there is a strong moral element in the Hindu condemnation of abortion.

Lipner notes that, in the classical Hindu view, only when the mother’s lift is in danger in childbirth (due to a badly placed foetus) is abortion allowed. Lipner analyzes reasons why Hindus accorded the unborn such a high status. Reasons used by modern moralists (such as, the foetus has not yet attained human form or demonstrated cerebral activity) to distinguish between human persons (not acceptable to abort) and human beings (acceptable to abort) are not found or supported in classical Hindu thought. In fact, the classical Hindu view was that the soul (jiva) descends into the union 0f semen and menstrual blood in the womb and so coincides with conception Thus no qualitative distinction can be made between conception and a later time at which the embryo is postulated to become a person. Traditional Hindu medical texts emphasize that the jiva, the individual abode of consciousness, is present from the moment 0f conception onwards through the process of foetal growth. These texts note no significant break or leap forward in this growth which would lead one to conclude that some qualitative change had taken place equivalent to the distinction suggested by some modern ethicists from human being to human person. The texts Lipner cites to prove the awareness of the foetus in the womb also reflect the impurity of the womb referred to in Coward’s discussion of purity.

Abortion was also unacceptable to the classical Hindu because it interferes with the natural and necessary cycle of karma and rebirth. Abortion is seen as a grave infringement on the working out of an individuals destiny— especially since only during one’s life could an individual make decisions which would result in the goal of enlightenment or release (moska). By virtue of abortion, a person’s chance for the realization of moska in this life is being removed the person’s freedom is being taken away. Other reasons militating against abortion in the Hindu view are the stress on the egg or embryo as the scriptural symbol for life, the felt need to continue one’s line through male heirs, the obtaining of security after death through the sraddha rites performed by the heir, and finally the high status given to ahimsa or non-injury in Indian society.

In her study of the traditional Hindu view of euthanasia in Chapter 3, Katherine Young observes that, if we were to take today’s emergent definition of euthanasia with its technical insistence on medically defined cases of terminal illness and its circumscribed meaning of a doctor actively killing a patient on compassionate grounds, given due process of decision making, then, by definition, we would be hard pressed to find equivalent situations in the past and in other premodern societies. To facilitate an historical and comparative study, she uses the archaic meaning of euthanasia as “freedom to leave,” which permitted the sick and despondent to terminate their lives. Her study illumines how self-willed death in certain situations of old age and disease was found in India throughout much of history until it was eliminated in the early modern period. In comparison, euthanasia, in the sense of freedom to leave, was rarely found in the West after the Graeco-Roman period, although today its merits are increasingly debated, as withdrawal of treatment becomes a common phenomenon in hospitals and the debate over compassionate murder continues.

Katherine Young’s analysis of the Indian sources focuses on the various forms of self-willed death: suicide; heroic, voluntary death; and religious, self-willed death. Suicide, prohibited by the traditional Hindu law books, was self-willed death prompted by passion, depression, or uncontrollable circumstance. Heroic, voluntary death was of three kinds: heroic, self-imposed death by a warrior as a way to avoid calamity, as a substitute for death in battle (which was thought to result in the attainment of heaven), and as a way to allow peaceful succession to the throne. Closely related to heroic death was religious, self-willed death, which was explicitly viewed as a means to maintain dharma, attain heaven, or achieve liberation; it attracted people beyond the warrior milieu and, over time, became a popular religious practice. In the Hindu context, euthanasia belonged to the category of religious self-willed death. Accordingly, it was never understood as the mercy killing of one person by another. In Hinduism, therefore, the willpower of the individual to bring about his or her own death was narrative for the acceptance of euthanasia.

This Hindu perspective is shown by Young to have evolved dynamically out of the historical interaction of Hinduism with jainism and Budhism her discussion of self-wined death with reference to euthanasia, mug finds the 8th—6th century B.C.E. a significant period. She argues that e extreme violence, which accompanied the rise of kingdoms, characterized the epoch; to understand why the Vedic ideal of a life of one hundred are ending in natural death was gradually displaced., it is necessary to postulate that the various forms of heroic and religious self-willed death were alternatives to death in battle by which one attained heaven or were ways to escape violence within society.

Not only does Young develop a new theory of the origins of nonviolence in this analysis, she demonstrates how the religions came to terms with the new phenomenon of self-willed death. Jainism was likely the first religion to accept the practice of a religiously motivated, self-willed death; it was called sallekhana and involved a fast to death. While Buddha tried to avoid acceptance of the heroic, self-willed death so common in Ksatriya circles, he did allow self-willed death for the extremely ill person as an act of compassion; that is, he endorsed euthanasia. In Hinduism, Brahmanical willingness to ritualize the withdrawal by the king (and his wife) into the forest as a way of abdicating the throne in old age way may have set the stage for religious self-sacrifice and self-willed death as a way to attain heaven.

From the 6th century B.C.E. to the 10th century C.E., Young compares the Hindu law books (Dharmasastras) with Buddhist and Jam texts from the same period and finds that, while suicide is thoroughly condemned, heroic death in battle, self-imposed death by one who is enlightened or desires enlightenment, and self-willed death in extreme old age and ill health is increasingly accepted. For example, dignity in 0ld age is safeguarded for the Hindu. When one can no longer perform daily dharmic duties for oneself, such as bodily purification, euthanasia is then allowed by means such as jumping from a cliff into water or jumping into fire or walking until death occurs. Religious, self-willed death also comes to be accepted in many medieval Buddhist texts, although the method differs, with cutting the throat by the sword being preferred. Here, the sword seems to symbolize the cutting out of desire and ignorance so as to usher in enlightenment. With legitimation of self-willed death and its promise of heaven or liberation, the religions started to compete in their prescription of an easy means to achieve enlightenment. Hindu texts, for instance, promoted self- willed death at a sacred place, which was understood as a spot to cross over from this world to the next. In Mahayana Buddhism, the bodhisattva ideal of self-sacrifice, including sacrifice of one’s body to help another unfortunate being. led to further popularity of the practice. Jainism, too, embraced the increasing popularity of self-willed death by extending the practice of sallekhanä from monastics to the laity, particularly in cases of old age and severe disease.

Young’s analysis shows, however, that from the tenth century on there was increasing criticism of religious, self-willed death. Such criticism, already prevalent in Hindu circles, was greatly accentuated by the outcry of the Christian missionaries in the 18th and 19th centuries. Young includes in this discussion a very helpful analysis of sati or the burning of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre. Young also notes that modern Jams continue to practice sallekhana, the fast to death, and carefully distinguish it from nonreligious suicide which is prohibited by the Indian Penal Code. The modern reassessment of euthanasia in India has been led, in fact, by the Jams who argue that in Jainism sallekhand was not abused; on the contrary, it provided a meaningful and dignified death that was in tune with the religious perspective.

Young concludes from her study of euthanasia in Hinduism and, by extension, in other Indian religions that it was extremely difficult to limit euthanasia to certain contexts and to prevent abuse even when there was a strong religious predisposition to live out the natural life span. She suggests that there are two basic approaches regarding the reassessment of euthanasia in India today. One is to see if fasting to death has modern relevance in today’s world where medical technology keeps people alive for longer and longer periods. Ways of relating the traditional Hindu notion of the religious ‘good death” with the modern notion of the “meaningful death” are examined. The second is to suggest that, on the evidence of past history, Indian law should not legalize euthanasia, even taking into consideration the new definition of euthanasia which insists on medical diagnosis of terminal disease, due process of decision making, and so forth.

These three case studies in Hindu Ethics demonstrate that Indian thought has not ignored deep reflection on problems which are presenting serious challenges to the modern world. They also demonstrate that Hinduism is more than metaphysics—that it has a firm grounding in ethics even when the most difficult questions are raised.




  Introduction 1
Chapter 1 Purity in Hinduism: With particular reference to Patanjali’s Yoga sutras 9
Chapter 2 The classical Hindu view on abortion and the moral status of the unborn 41
Chapter 3 Euthanasia: Traditional Hindu views and the contemporary debate 71
  About the author 131
  Index 133

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