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Ethics, Culture, and Hinduism

Ethics is a study of moral issues in the fields of individual and collective interaction. The term is also sometimes used more generally to describe issues in arts and sciences, religious beliefs and cultural priorities. The professional fields that deal with ethical issues and include medicine, trading, business, law, and etc.

Modern Culture and its Influence on Ethics

Modern science has positively influenced general attitudes and beliefs in ethical and moral social code. However, all is not well as far as the health of ethics is concerned. Ethics has not produced the desired effect in eradicating material disparity between haves and have-nots. The plight of vast majority of people in South East Asia, Latin America, and Africa is most pathetic, to say the least. The dollar is now nothing less but 'adored deity' and consequent hankering after materialistic gains has pushed the nobility of ethics and morality into disrepute. Materialistic influence has also led to the general belief that gratification of senses is the only way of enjoyment. This has produced highly selfish mentality without spiritual concept of life.

The question of unethical trends cannot be put directly on one individual scientist, but there is no doubt that 'scientific culture' has led to this disparity and discrepancy in making the scarce resources available to all. How to reconcile such diverse trends in ethics? Are they related to prevailing culture? To answer these questions we must know something about culture and civilization.

Culture may be defined as a particular stage in civilization associated with certain tastes in art and manners, and also all the knowledge and values, shared and favored by a society or a social group. Civilization means societal norms and aspects of human interrelationship that have advanced and reached a particular state of fossilization based on a given culture. Thus we can talk of Vedic culture and ancient civilization, feudal culture and medieval civilization, scientific culture and modern civilization. Moreover, culture and ethics are constantly in a kind of dynamic flux.

The present day culture is based on philosophy of science and its economical fall out as capitalism. It progressed and evolved as a reaction to outdated feudal and theocratic clergy in England and spread globally during the British colonial rule. It was accepted without reservation particularly in whole of Europe and USA. Thus scientific culture has also come to be known as western culture. Science has had its innumerable benefits and plus points. It led to material progress and comfort in our lives. Many awe-inspiring discoveries and inventions were the outcome of rapid strides in science and technology. Contribution of science to health and material comfort cannot be underestimated.

Indian Culture and Ethics

As with other cultures science also has its own ethics, but that remained just words on paper, useful to 'haves' only as a tool to exploit the poor, underprivileged, and deprived. Most people have forgotten their true nature, divinity, because 'scientifically' it cannot be proved! They are ignorant of true purpose of life, which is spiritual self-awakening. Due to its emphasis and clinging to 'objectivity' philosophy or culture of modern day science has led to disintegration of values and crisis of confidence both in the east and the west. Under the narrow definition of freedom, people have become 'free individuals'. But, unfortunately, with this western concept of 'individualism' they have fallen further in the clutches of infatuation of erroneously thinking themselves bound by body, mind and intellect. Values like solidarity, natural love, forbearance, compassion, generosity, and altruism do not find any place independent of an 'individual'. Thus, selfishness rules the heart and mind of these champions of democracy and scientific culture.

Scientists do not know the origin of such negative consequences in the culture of science, which according to them is flawless. They cannot explain the strife torn fabric of social and family structure prevalent at the acme of scientific growth and achievement. Their conscience is not perturbed in the least by the corruption and vanity born out of the compulsions of seeking privileges. Thus, the culture shows signs of degeneration into lawlessness, disease, and want on one hand, and affluence and sense gratification of wanton degree on the other. With this decline in cultural values, ethical values are also eroded. Not one particular field is afflicted with this 'virus of corruption'; all departments of human interaction show the same trend. It is difficult to find an isolated island of purity in the sea of corruption all around.

Hinduism believes that it is an undeniable fact that in the evolution of history of human culture and civilization spiritual force plays the most important role. It supplies the motive for social organization, stability and cohesion through its impact on evolution of higher and still higher ethics. A closer study would reveal to us that the advent of science did give the global perspective to the sectarian culture and ethics of the past; however, this evolution stopped at a certain point in its evolution, and we see static complacency in ethical code in modern times. Some of the scholars and scientists would try to counter this argument by posing the plea that science itself has evolved a new higher and better ethical code including democratic values, individual freedom and healthy competition for acquisition of higher knowledge. However, viewed at the global plane, these arguments fall on their face for everyone to see.

Cultural Subsets and Ethics

As already mentioned ethics is not a static proposition, but is constantly in a state of dynamic flux. The older cultural stranglehold does not loosen its grip easily, and some of its remnants are always visible as a dying subset in a given society. But equally heartening is the fact that there evolves a progressive subset simultaneously pointing towards the dawn of new culture and morality. Thus, while on one hand we see dowry deaths of feudal cultural past in an advanced society of gender equality, there are examples aplenty where such customs are scoffed at and exchange of money at the time of marriage is seen as the meanest act.

The same is the case with professional ethics. While a few black ships tarnish the image of noble professions by accepting commission and bribe, a nucleus of scientists and social workers practice the profession with the motto of 'work as worship', or work with the firm conviction of 'Shiva Bhave Jiva Seva (serving God in human being)'.

Thus, selflessness and giving up of privileges would constitute new cultural paradigm in coming years. As Swami Vivekananda says: "...we know that as knowledge comes, person grows, morality is evolved, and idea of non-separateness begins. Whether men understand it or not, they are impelled by that power behind to become unselfish. That is the foundation of morality. It is the quintessence of all ethics, preached in any language, or any religion, or by any prophet in the world..."

It is not necessary to always fall back upon spiritual giants to justify the new ethics. Equal numbers of scientists and doctors are themselves concerned with the declining ethical trends. To give an example in medical field, Dr R P Sapru in his thought-provoking article 'Ethical Concerns in Modern Medical Practice' says, "It is important to recognize that ethical concerns are evolutionary and culture-specific. The response of different patients (and doctors as well) to a given set of circumstances is likely to be different. Thus ethical issues are not amenable to stereotyped answers. It may, therefore, be worthwhile to consider the constitution of voluntary ethical committees."

These voluntary ethical committees will be based on the new spiritual subset, if I may say so. Vedanta offers the most rational and scientific basis for global culture; it says that 'each soul is potentially divine' and religion consists of manifesting this divinity by developing character based on ethics and morality of highest order.

Conclusion

Ethics is the reflection of cultural health of the society at a given time. In course of evolution of human societies, man creates progressive cultural and moral ethos. But then a stage comes when cultural growth slows down for want of fresh ideas. Consequently ethics also remains a mere shadow of its own pervious glory. Now it is in search of fresh inputs to spring to new life again. Therefore, when matter is worshiped as supreme and privileges are sought after, ethical decline is not a surprise. The remedy lies in adding spiritual dimension to existing culture and in course evolving a new moral and ethical code for coming generations. And about this spiritual dimension, let us conclude by quoting Swami Vivekananda once again:

"...Ethics cannot be derived from the mere sanctions of any personage, however great and divine he may have been. …The infinite oneness of the Soul is the eternal sanction of all morality, that you and I are not only brothers… but that you and I are really one. This is the dictate of Indian philosophy. This oneness is the rationale of all ethics and spirituality."
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c s shah
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