Ethical code in the Upanisads - by Harish C Gaur Back   Home  
A common feature of Upanisads is their ability to explain even subtle concepts in a matter of fact and simple way, by parables, discourses, and narratives not only by the preceptors but also through the medium of animals, birds, and gods. The discourse would some times be detailed and conveyed in several steps involving brief assignments enabling disciple to grasp the meaning or could be brief. One such discourse, about the ethical code of conduct, given by Brahma is described in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, in the form of one syllable only.

Depending on the gunas of prakriti, all beings have been considered in three groups: Gods (deva) with predominance of sattva, asuras (demons) with predominance of tamas, and humans (manusya) with predominance of rajas. Once the three, as seekers of truth, approached Prajapati to be instructed in respect of the ethical code of conduct. Prajapati first asked them to live with him for some time the life of abstinence (brahmcharya). The idea was to provide them an opportunity to reflect upon their own nature. This was to be Prajapati's way of self-instruction and of self-awareness of the traits and limitations through self-analysis. After the completion of the required period, they approached Prajapati one by one.

First to approach were the gods, who said: "Please instruct us." Prajapati's instruction was the single syllable "da". When asked "Have you understood, what I mean?" They said: "Yes, by saying 'da' you mean 'damyata', meaning 'restrain your self'. They had realized that theirs is the embodiment for going through (enjoyment of) virtuous deeds of previous births (bhoga yoni), with no further inclination to perform virtuous deeds in their embodiment as devas. They are always engaged in seeking sensuous pleasures. Also, among themselves, they are at different levels of spiritual attainments, are jealous of each other and also of humans, fearing that by offer of austerities to the Lord and performance of yajna, may also attain to godhood. For this reason they disturb these human pursuits and distract the aspirants by offering boons, sometimes without realising the implications of the boons offered. Restraining from sensual pleasure and jealousy is the message for them. But here are other restraints too. In Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, restraints (yama) are also considered to include traits as ahimsa (restraint on violence), satya (restraint on speaking untruth), (observance of) celibacy, abstaining from theft and avariciousness. Besides restraints on speaking untruth, it would also mean that even truth, as spoken, should not cause vexation and be agreeable and beneficial to all.

The humans approached Prajapati next and also asked to be instructed in ethical code of conduct. Prajapati repeated the same syllable "da" and said no further but asked: "Have you understood?" They also said: "Yes, we have understood. By 'da' you mean daan (charity)." They understood the meaning of the syllable "da" differently because by nature humans are avaricious with a tendency to hoard wealth. The message was that wealth be offered in charity and thus shared with those in need. Giving of charity has been ordained as one of the prescribed duties for those on path of spiritual enlightenment. It is considered to purify one's antahkarana. In Bhagavadgita, the way of giving charity has been given. It should be born of sattvik nature, be given as one's duty to one who is not expected to serve in return, to a deserving person, on proper time, proper occasion and at a proper place. It should not be given reluctantly with a view to expecting reciprocation or with any desire to the fruit of the activity (here or hereafter, as with a desire to attainment of heaven after death). Also, it should not be offered to unworthy persons, with disdain or without following the norms of giving charity. It should also be given uttering "Om-Tat-Sat", considered by followers of Vedas, as triple designation of Brahman. To them also, Prajapati said: "You have rightly understood."

The asuras were the last to approach Brahma. Asuras are those with predominance of tamasika nature, characterised by "non-discrimination" (due to ignorance), inactivity, miscomprehension and delusion. They proclaim: "The world is without truth, without a (moral) basis, without a God (to rule the world), is born of mutual union by passion with lust, as its cause. Holding such views and given to insatiable desires and full of hypocrisy, arrogance, holding evil ideas through delusion, they indulge in activities with impure resolve. Given to lust and wrath they strive to secure an objective even by unjust means. They are self-conceited, haughty, filled with pride, arrogance and intoxication of wealth. Though they may perform prescribed duties (including giving of charity) but only in name, out of ostentation and disregarding ordinances.

They also asked Prajapati: "Please instruct us in the discipline to be observed in the code of ethics." Prajapati, although aware of their nature, but to them also, he repeated the same single syllable, "da" and asked: "Have you understood?" They also said: "Yes we have understood the message. Considering that by nature we are cruel and given to injuring others, you want us to practise compassion (daya)."

The same single syllable "da" conveyed damyata (practice of restraint) to devas, daana (giving of charity) to humans and daya (compassion) to asuras, which they understood.
Published in Dailypioneer