Ancient Hindu philosophers have prescribed not only the spiritual path but also moral discipline including social duty. Right from the time of the Vedas and the Upanishads, they have been concerned with such matters as moral conduct, marriage, longevity, obligations of the individual towards society and so forth. For example, the great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata have emphasised the ideal of chastity in women, brotherhood and piety.
In Indian social life, the guiding principle has been Dharma (truth). From birth till death, all activities (individual as well as social) are inspired by this principle which, at the domestic level, has been the basis of family ties and, at the social level, has welded society into a compact unity saving it from disintegration under the force of external ele
Dharma is perhaps the most comprehensive concept in Hindu thought. It is often translated as ‘religion,’ which is a grave mistake. Insofar as religion denotes ‘faith’ in a particular theology, Dharma signifies certain sacraments encompassing different aspects of life. Thus, Dharma is based on the truth of life rather than on religion.
Right from earliest times, Indians approached life as an integrated whole. They recognised the oneness of the inner and outer world, based on the fundamental principle of truth. This attitude towards life is different from that of speculative formations and institutionalised organisations.
To understand the complexity of Indian history and culture, it is imperative to examine the concept of Dharma that has been defined variously by different scholars at different times. With a slight variation in outward significance, Dharma has all along been guiding Indians in a particular direction. We find that during the Vedic period, Dharma signified a transcendental law, whereas in the Upanishadic period it concerned individual growth and development. Thus, Dharma has two broad implications:
- An individual ethic referring to the individual development of personality; and
- Collective or social obligations referring to the castes and occupations (Varnas and Ashrams).
The combination of individual ethical and social duty is a characteristic feature of Indian society. Individual moral performance is equal to doing one’s own social duties. This combination is also represented in the concept of Karma, which is applied to all human relations on the one hand and to political and economic problems on the other.
In India, when an individual’s behaviour is criticised for any reason, he is inclined to justify himself based on his own social duty as determined by caste duty.
It would, thus, be clear that the fundamental psychological and sociological principle of Varna-Ashram ensured an organic unity in Hindu society which, despite the ravages of time and the cruelty of its rulers, protected Indian society from disintegration.