The basis of morality in yoga is different from that of humanism3 min read

The basis of morality in yoga is different from that of humanism. It cannot be derived from reasoning, nor from the development of universal fellow-feeling or compassion. Dr. Shastri made a comment on the Buddhist Jataka stories, where for instance a bodhisattva walking along a cliff sees at the bottom a starving tigress with her two cubs, and throws himself over, to feed them: ‘The whole thing is based on cheap sentiment. The purpose of life is realization of Brahman, not feeding tigers!’

I had been aware, from reading H.G. Wells at an early age, and then Whitehead and Eddington, that science could not tell us what to do, but only how to do it, and that in very limited fields. Pasteur had killed a few sheep painfully by injecting massive doses of anthrax bacteria, but his research saved millions of others, and many men as well. It created the science of bacteriology. On the other hand there have been many cases where the sufferings of countless ‘preparations’. as they were called, led to nothing.

Where does the right lie? In his famous radio debate with the Jesuit Copleston (listened to by Dr. Shastri with much interest), Russell at first dismissed the experiments on survival, conducted by scientists at the Nazi concentration camps, as like the actions of mad dogs. But he was forced to consider the possibility that they thought what they were doing could lead to beneficial results for mankind in general. Russell said that he could not imagine circumstances in which this last could be true.

He thought that those who did believe it were deceiving themselves. ‘But’ he concluded, ‘if it could be shown that this was the case, then I should have to say: “I do not like this, but I will acquiesce in it, just as I acquiesce in the criminal law, though I profoundly dislike punishment”.’ Although Russell was a professional philosopher, speaking on an important occasion, he did not add the qualification that the proposed benefit could not be obtained in any other way.

As a matter of fact, a series of photographs taken at one camp, showing the tissue and other changes in a man being starved to death, reportedly proved uniquely useful in teaching anatomy at a great British centre of learning. It would have been very difficult to obtain this series in any normal way. It was finally dropped, as part of the unofficial agreement not to use these results.

Right-and-wrong is a maze, well summed up by the mediaeval Persian poet Sa’adi: ‘He who is kind to tigers is a tyrant to sheep.’ Yet there is a general human hope (shared by Russell) that some guiding principle can be found. The strict Gita morality is not based on impulses of kindness, nor is it doing actions for what he called ‘altruistic joy’.

These are affairs of the mind, not yoga. A rough test is how much they are talked about. If their motives and results are strong in the mind, they do not tend to freedom, and usually do not give the expected benefit. They may have undesirable side-effects, such as hatred, or ‘justified indignation’ against those who oppose them.

The Gita moral principle is summed up in the word: ‘karya’ or ‘kartavya’, ought-to-be-done. It is often translated ‘duty’ but that is not quite the meaning. Duty is often imposed by an arbitrary personal command, which in some cases ought not to be obeyed. Karya is impersonal.

We do not have this grammatical form in English, but we borrow from the Latin words ending in -andum or -endum, Memorandum means ‘to be remembered; addendum means ought-to-be-added. Magna Carta guarantees merchants safety and security to enter and leave the country ‘ad emendum et vendendum’, for what-is-to-be-bought and what-is-to-be-sold, that is, for trading both ways.

Take the application to three pillars of right conduct in the Gita: Gift, Austerity, Sacrifice-in-worship.

© Trevor Leggett