Important Landmarks in the Development of Indian Ethical Thought

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"Two things have always filled me with awe: the starry heavens above and the moral law within me" - Kant

Thoughts are the cornerstones of civilization. Thoughts make up the most rudimental components of the various factors that have fuelled human evolution, but if one were to be more specific it's the decisions based on various standards that arose from these thoughts that led to evolution. Our uncivilized, feral primogenitors typically chose their leaders based on strength, but as evolution worked its magic over the years, our thought process began assimilating and taking into consideration things like logic, morals etc. The concept of ethics only came into play much later as the standard for measuring right and wrong with respect to a particular course of action. This article simply delineates the most crucial milestones in Indian ethical thought, albeit in a compendious manner.

The Vedas and establishment of ethics 
The Vedas were the primary source of Indian ethical thought, they were roughly classified as Rig(containing nature worship ,cosmic order & certain religious practices), Yajur(liturgy & mantras),Sama(summary of the rig veda in a musical format for the most part) & Atharva veda  (Yoga, physiology, different ailments, social structure etc..). The Vedas were followed by the Upanishads that stated that the highest ethical purpose of a man was his quest for self- knowledge.
The 5th century saw the rise of Buddhism and Jainism, two religions that arose in opposition to the ritualism, formalism and caste division propounded by Hinduism, while the latter half of the century was dominated by the war epic Mahabharata that gave to the field of ethics the concept of, "just war" and propounded personal & royal virtues, statecraft, diplomacy etc. The Bhagavad Gita that was released subsequent to the Mahabharata preached sincere work without any expectations, it emphasised the centrality of dharma to human action and held as its central theme disinterested action with tinges of altruism.
As the principles laid down in the holy book of Bhagavad Gita gained traction, the ancient Greeks  were beginning to have exceptional influence on the global ethical dimensions .The influence was finally extended to Indian ethical thought in the form of moral relativism as propounded by the sophists, this was followed by the rise to popularity of the Socratic school of thought, which would then be followed by Aristotelian and Platonic schools of thought.

Arthashastra and ethics
Indians would finally find their breakthrough in ethics in the form of Kautilya's Arthashastra, the first formal treatise on statecraft, administration, war, diplomacy and state regulation of the economy. Kautilya's treatise would then go on to serve as the guiding light for generations and generations of empires, it would serve as the go-to document for every member of the ruling aristocracy to purge their minds of any misgivings and qualms. Following this the field of ethics would be influenced by the stoics who proposed strict asceticism and severe austerity (Although stoicism was popular right from the Roman times ,it only managed to extend its ideology to mainstream ethics much later on).The Stoics were followed by the Epicureans who advocated happiness as the main goal of life (not in a hedonistic manner but rather in a more sustainable fashion).

Modern Ethical Reforms
Once the Stoic and the Epicurean doctrines began to take their place as the main targets of ethical criticism, Descartes stepped into the picture to introduce new concepts that would soon bring him the title of the founding father of modern philosophy. At the same time Guru Nanak founded Sikhism which preached monotheism and human brotherhood, which would however be soon overshadowed by the prominent Utilitarian school of thought with Jeremy Bentham leading from the forefront (Greatest happiness of the greatest number of people ideology).The final radical movement that would change the face of Indian Ethical thought would be the Hindu religious reforms spearheaded by Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Swami Vivekananda.

Indian ethical thought has gone through a myriad of changes over the years, ranging from radical to minute, these changes no matter their size have all been proven to have had tremendous effect later on. Changes and novel concepts are a must in the field of ethics, after all what would we be the moment we abandoned our doubts. I would like to conclude this brief article on Indian ethical thought with the famous words of Socrates at his trial, "The unexamined life is not worth living".

Written By: T.S. Padma Charan
Edited By: Purav Nayak

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Important Landmarks in the Development of Indian Ethical Thought Important Landmarks in the Development of Indian Ethical Thought Reviewed by EMN on March 09, 2020 Rating: 5

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