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Ethics & Devotion

A lecture before The National Seminar on Values and Ethics in Business, Utkal University, Bhubaneswar, Orissa, India, given on April 20, 2000.

Before coming here today I was considering how it is that a group of professors and professional businessmen would invite a shaven-headed renunciant dressed in simple dhoti and kurta, with no money of his own and no business experience, to be the chairman of the first session of this seminar. Why would you spend your valuable time unless there was some practical and profitable reason? You must be considering that the spiritual conception of ethics has practical value in today’s business world. Here we’ll discuss the spiritual conception of ethics from a most practical perspective, as presented by the famous son of Orissa Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura.

Bhaktivinoda Thakura (1838-1914) was the great theologian who first presented the teachings of Caitanya Mahaprabhu in a modern context. His pioneering efforts have manifested today as the Hare Krishna movement, which is being spread worldwide by ISKCON, or the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. In a discussion on ethics it is significant to analyze the work of ISKCON. The cultural and philosophical teachings of ISKCON have inspired millions of people all over the world to reject immoral behavior and embrace a saintly way of life.

Ethical Systems

The term ethics refers to the systems of moral behavior accepted by individuals or groups. Different mature individuals will have different conceptions of what kinds of behavior are right and what kinds are wrong. Such conceptions of right and wrong define different ethical systems. As leaders of society we need to know which ethical systems are valuable in a progressive society and which are not, and those which are valuable should be promoted. Bhaktivinoda Thakura has offered a scientific conception of ethics and morality based on the Vedic literature, which states that a truly progressive society is one that discourages its members from exploiting others.

Societies that adopt ethical systems based on materialistic conceptions cannot be progressive because they cannot be free of exploitation. To establish this, Bhaktivinoda has described four categories of materialists:

  1. Those who have no ethics and no faith in God: immoral materialists.
  2. Those with ethics but no faith in God: non-theistic moralists.
  3. Those with ethics based on faith in God, but who give more importance to morality than they do to God: theistic moralists.
  4. Those who engage in immoral behavior while posing as theists: pretenders.

Immoral Materialists

Those who follow no ethical system are the lowest of human beings. They are the primitive peoples and the hedonistic modern man. Indeed, such human beings are on the same level as animals. Bhaktivinoda describes the attitude of the hedonists: “They consider that this variegated universe is simply a chance combination of atoms and molecules with no creator. Any belief in God or the soul is simply blind faith and gross superstition. As we only live once, a person should try to enjoy as much as possible.”

With his far-seeing vision, Bhaktivinoda Thakura perfectly described the popular idea embraced by many today that life is simply a chance combination of chemicals with no intrinsic purpose. With such a conception there is no particular need to honor or respect others. Is it any wonder that a great ethical crisis has risen and sprouted into an increase of violent crimes and corruption?

Non-Theistic Materialists

Next, Bhaktivinoda describes that higher than the immoral materialists are the non-theistic moralists who accept some ethical system but are not concerned with God. Describing the view of the non-theistic moralists, he has written:

Being more intelligent, the moralist can easily defeat the immoral materialist. He says: “Oh brother, I respect what you say but I cannot accept your self- motivated actions. They are not at all good. You are seeking out happiness in life, but without morals how can there be happiness? Do not think that your life is everything! Consider society as well. Rules which can increase the happiness of the human being in society are advisable. That is called morality. Gaining happiness through morality makes man superior to animals. It is necessary for man to accept individual suffering where it will give happiness to society. That is called selfless morality, and it is the only path for man. You must cultivate all the positive sentiments such as love, friendship and compassion in order to increase the over- all happiness of society. By doing this, violence, hatred and other evil tendencies will not be able to contaminate the heart. Universal love is universal happiness. Take up ways of increasing this happiness.” Positivists such as Compte and Mill, Socialists such as Herbert Spencer, as well as lay Buddhists and Atheists firmly believe this philosophy.

The non-theistic moralists are superior to the immoral materialists, but they are still selfishly motivated. Although they follow the ethical and moral rules of society, they do so to avoid public censure, imprisonment, or execution. A businessman may adopt ethical principles just to ensure plentiful customers, or a politician may accept ethical principles to attract followers. This is a more intelligent position than that of the immoral materialist, as there is concern for long-term enjoyment rather than just immediate gratification. However, since there is still an underlying selfishness, a non-theistic moralist is likely to exploit others as soon as he or she thinks there will be no adverse reaction.

Included in this category are the mundane philanthropists who engage in work for the physical, mental, or emotional well- being of others. Because they are unable to appreciate the objects of their compassion as anything more than dull chemicals, the “good deeds” of such “selfless” moral materialists are invariably motivated for their own enjoyment, either subtle or gross. In actuality their “selflessness” is only a fashade, for their actions are motivated by the desire to have the satisfaction of thinking of themselves as, or being well known as, greatly pious persons.

The Scorpion And The Camel

The ethics of the non-theistic moralists are compared to those of the scorpion who once requested a favor from a camel. The scorpion wanted to cross a deep river but could not find any way to do so. Seeing a camel nearby, the scorpion approached him and asked the camel to carry him across. The camel refused, saying, “You will sting me.”

“No, no. I am an ethical scorpion. I promise I won’t sting you.”

The camel agreed and, taking the scorpion on his hump, began crossing the river. Halfway across, the scorpion suddenly stung the camel.

“Why did you do that?” the camel asked. “Now we will both die.”

“What can I say?” the scorpion replied. “It’s my nature.”

Similarly, although the non-theistic moralists try to live an ethical life, because their concept of the meaning of life is limited to dull matter any ethical behavior they adopt is selfishly motivated and quickly discarded.

Although they speak about universal love and brotherhood, the non-theistic moralists, like their immoral brothers, are unable to appreciate others as anything more than dull matter. Their perception is limited to the external body, and the relationships they form with others are similarly skin- deep—shallow, short-lived, and ultimately prone towards exploitation. Since they identify themselves as temporary matter, there is no reason for them to perform truly selfless acts. The best social message the non-theistic moralists can offer is, “You are just a bag of chemicals and molecules that somehow just appeared and has no intrinsic meaning. Other persons are also only bags of chemicals and molecules—but you should be nice to them.”

The natural reply will be, “Why should I be nice?”

“Because it’s the good thing to do, and if you don’t you’ll go to jail.”

Since the basic motivation of the ethical behavior of atheists is to avoid public censure, is it any surprise that as soon as they think they have an opportunity to gain some illicit advantage without getting caught they will do so?

Theism

More fixed in ethical conduct and hence superior to the non- theistic moralist is the theist. The theist is dissatisfied with the mechanistic concept of life offered by the non- theist. Bhaktivinoda describes the thinking of the theist as follows:

If consciousness arises by some special process through combination of atoms, there should be some evidence of this somewhere in the universe. There should be some example of this in human history. Man is produced from the womb of a mother. Nowhere is any other process observed. In spite of the growth of material science, nothing otherwise has yet been observed. Someone may argue that man has arisen by a chance combination of matter, and later man has adopted this particular process of birth from the womb. However, the succeeding events should be similar to the first event. Even now we should observe at least a few conscious entities arising by chance combination of matter. Therefore it can only be logically concluded that the first mother and father must have arisen from the supreme consciousness.

When the materialist becomes dissatisfied with the mechanistic idea that consciousness is simply a chance combination of chemicals, and thereby concludes that life must be something anti-material or spiritual, he comes to the platform of theism.

Bhaktivinoda points out many ways in which belief in God contributes to moral conduct:

  1. Even is someone has a strong sense of moral values, still the senses are often so strong that even great moralists are defeated. If the opportunity arises to enjoy immorally in secret, belief in God will act as a preventative measure. God can see what man cannot. One who thinks like that will be unable to secretly perform acts contrary to morality.
  2. Everyone will accept that faith in God produces a greater tendency to perform pious acts than morality alone.
  3. If God exists, then by faith in Him so much is gained. If He does not exist, believing in Him is harmless. On the other hand, if God does exist, to not have faith in Him is harmful.
  4. By belief in God, the tendency toward righteousness grows quickly in the mind.
  5. By faith in God, compassion and tolerance become stronger.
  6. By belief in God, one is more eager to perform selfless action.
  7. By belief in God, acceptance of afterlife arises, and man cannot be disappointed by any event in life.

Morality More Important

Bhaktivinoda states that among the theists, most are materialistic. He describes a group called the theistic moralists who worship God with some degree of faith, but who give more importance to their conception of morality than they do to God. Some of them believe there is no harm in imagining a God, worshiping him with faith, and then abandoning that worship when good conduct is achieved. Others believe that by performing worship of the Lord and acting ethically, the Lord will be pleased and will grant one’s material desires.

Either subtly or grossly, the worship of the theistic moralists is selfishly motivated. Although they consider themselves worshipers of God, they are not much interested in God’s form, personality, activities, or desires, but instead are interested only in what they can gain through worshiping Him.

Bhaktivinoda compares the relationship between the theistic moralists and God to the temporary meeting of travelers at an inn. When morning comes and the travelers leave for their separate destinations, the relationship is forgotten. Theistic moralists worship the Lord not out of devotion but simply because they think it to be the proper thing to do, which will result in their happiness.

Being motivated in this way, materialistic theistic moralists are still in the realm of selfishness. Although they conceive of their ethical behavior as being harmless to others, because they are not on the platform of spiritual vision they are unable to maintain impartial dealings and will inevitably fall prey to exploiting others.

In describing different types of acti-vities aimed at human welfare, Bhaktivinoda has stated in his Sajjana Toshani magazine: “Showing kindness to the soul is the best welfare work of all. By such kindness one attempts to save a person from all worldly sufferings by giving him devotion to Lord Krishna.”

Because the theistic moralists are not functioning on the spiritual platform, their ethical systems will never be able to alleviate all the worldly sufferings of the living entities; hence they are unable to completely serve society. They will always fall prey to narrow biases based on bodily, social, or religious differences. In actuality, their relationship with others is much like their relationship with God: as superficial as travelers meeting at an inn.

Although there is some partial social benefit from the ethics of the theistic moralists, because there is no spiritual bliss in the mechanical worship they perform there is every chance that they will either give up their theism or else adopt the ways of the cheating pretender.

Pretenders

The next class are those who engage in immoral behavior while posing as theists. Bhaktivinoda has described them as pretenders. He says:

Although the pretenders do not accept the eternal nature of devotion, they wear the dress and markings of a believer. They have their own motives, which any honest person would decry. Cheating everyone, they pave the way for a world of sin. Undiscerning people, allured by their external appearance, take up the same path and end up rejecting God. They may have beautiful tilaka, devotional dress, chant the name of Krishna, appear detached from the world, and give attractive speeches, but secretly they harbor desire for wealth and women. Many such persons exist.

Bhaktivinoda has compared such pretenders to the cat and the crane. Once some mice came and said, “Have you heard the news? The cat has become a saint. He is now wearing tilaka and neck beads. He is chanting and has become a vegetarian.” Thinking in this way, the mice gave up their fear of the cat. But when the mice started to come nearby, the cat gave up his pretense and pounced on them.

Similarly, the crane stands motionless on one foot for hours at a time, and thus looks like a great yogi. His real motivation, though, is to catch fish. As soon as a fish comes near, he abandons his saintly demeanor and gobbles it up.

Bhaktivinoda has said, “There is no worse association in the world than such pretenders. It is better to associate with immoral atheists than to associate with them. … Only if one gives up the association of crooked hypocrites can he honestly engage in devotional service. Honest worship is the only way to attain Krishna’s mercy.”

By presenting themselves as saintly and concerned for others, the pretenders sometimes gain positions of trust and responsibility in even spiritually-minded societies. But because their real motivation is to exploit others to satisfy their own subtle or gross pleasures, they are the worst enemies of society.

The Devotees

Devotees who are situated on the platform of pure love of God see their beloved Lord everywhere and see everything, moving and non-moving, in connection with God. From such a platform, to offer respect to all living entities regardless of material bodily designations is quite natural and genuine, and thus on this platform alone can one be free from the propensity to exploit others.

The Bhagavata Purana explains that even though one may follow religious ethics for some time, without genuine devotion to the Lord the subtle desires in the heart, which are the roots of immoral tendencies, are not destroyed and will rise again. Only pure devotion can remove all immoral tendencies. This is described in the Bhagavata:

kecit kevalaya bhaktya
vasudeva-parayanah
agham dhunvanti kartsnyena
niharam iva bhaskarah

“Only a rare person who has adopted complete, unalloyed devotional service to the Supreme Lord Vasudeva, Krishna, can uproot the weeds of sinful actions with no possibility that they will revive. He can do this simply by discharging devotional service, just as the sun can immediately dissipate fog by its rays.”

Moral Behavior?

One problem arises in our discussion of morality. Sometimes, understanding the moral behavior of devo-tees is difficult. A good example is the activities of Krishna’s most exalted devotees, the gopis of Vrindavana, who would leave their homes and husbands in the middle of the night to meet with Krishna. To accept such behavior as saintly is difficult for many persons. On several occasions Srila Prabhupada described the apparent contradiction between morality and the behavior of the gopis:

Any activities that are spiritual are all-good, and any activities that are material are all-bad. This is the difference between spiritual and material. The so-called morality and goodness of the material world is bad, but in the spiritual world even so-called immorality is good. This we must understand. For example, to dance with the wives of others at the dead of night is immoral, at least according to the Vedic civilization. Even today in India, a young woman will never be allowed to go to a young man at the dead of night to dance with him. But we find in Srimad-Bhagavatam that as soon as the gopis, the young cowherd girls of Vrindavana, heard Krishna’s flute, they immediately came to dance with Him. Now according to material conceptions this is immoral, but from the spiritual point of view this is in accord with the greatest morality. Caitanya Mahaprabhu therefore said, ramya kacid upasana vraja-vadhu- vargena ya kal-pita: “There is no better mode of worship than that which was conceived by the vraja- vadhus, the damsels of Vrindavana.”

The gopis superficially seem to transgress the codes of mundane morali-ty. This perpetually puzzles mundane moralists. … The reason the Lord displays the rasa-lila is es-sentially to induce all the fallen souls to give up their diseased morality and religiosity, and to attract them to the kingdom of God to enjoy the reality. A person who actually understands what the rasa-lila is will certainly hate to indulge in mundane sex life. For the realized soul, hearing the Lord’s rasa-lila through the proper channel will result in complete abstinence from material sexual pleasure.

Our standard of morality and immorality is to see whether Krishna is satisfied. If Krishna is satisfied, then it is morality. If Krishna is dissatisfied, then it is immoral.

Conclusion
According to Bhaktivinoda, the best ethical system is that which is based on the awareness that all others are part of the Supreme Lord and meant to give pleasure to Him alone. Any system that gives prominence to the fulfillment of one’s own selfish desires will ultimately be exploitative and thus harmful to the progress of society.

These are some of the practical teachings of Bhaktivinoda Thakura on the topic of ethics. I hope that the respected and learned persons of this assembly will consider them deeply.