yoga and ethics

Yoga places at its base the fundamental requirement that one be good before one can even begin the process of renunciation and acquire knowledge of Brahman. According to Patanjali, the first limb of yoga is “abstention from evil-doing”. Further, “undisturbed calmness of mind is attained by cultivating friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and indifference toward the wicked.”

It is interesting how ethics, individuality and practice are here combined – in a very un-Modern fashion.

In the West, since the begining of modernity, ethics is usually thought of as the end of a human being’s activities, not the beginning. We see ethics as the goal towards which we strive, and we acquire knowledge in order to better define that goal. Ethics in indian philosophy seems to be a tool used for the furthering of (one’s) salvation. You do good to others because that is a necessary prequel to liberation.

Furthermore, ethics in the West usually adpots a communal perspective: it is defined with respect to Humanity (Kant) or to the whole of human beings (utilitarianism) or with respect to a community (communitarian virtue ethics). In the Upanishads and other attendant texts, however, ethics seems to be a purely individual practice. The goal of your ethical behaviour is not so much doing good to others as becoming a good person yourself. Doing good to others is the means to becoming perfect – ie the means to achieving that state in which you can begin to do yoga.

Also, in indian philosophy you do good because it is in your interest to do so, not because some abstract universal law requires it of you. That does not mean that the goal is crude happiness – it is in fact liberation (from happiness and everything else) – but the goal is intrinsic to the practitioner, whereas in the west the goal is usually defined as extrinsic (Kant doesn’t care if you are happy, so long as you do your duty; the utilitarians don’t care if you are happy, so long as lots of other people are happy. Patanjali thinks you cannot be happy unless you begin to practice ethics).

So indian ethics does not differ in what it tells us is good, but it differs in how it explains why we are to be good. Europeans are to do good because that is what the fundamental structure of the world requires of them; indians are to do good because that will make them good people.

p.s. it might have occurred to some that this difference probably flows from the christian insistence that salvation does not come through works. But that is a musing for another post.

UPDATE: thanks to S. for pointing out in the comments that i got a bit carried away with my generalisations. Of course, the west i had in mind was that of the Renaissance and after. The Greeks as S. points out, but also early christianity (think of John’s Jesus “if you hold to my teachings … you will know the truth” or Origenes) was very much concerned with becoming good in order to attain to knowledge, just as Patanjali is.

Corrected the first instance of “western” into “Modern”.


2 Comments to “yoga and ethics”

  1. This is very un-modern but it is not un-Western. Many of the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers also held that one had be good before one could know, that a certain way of being in the world was prerequisite for knowledge of the truth — and not, as the moderns have thought, that certain knowledge (or commitment to a principle or community) is a necessary prerequisite to being good. Foucault talks about this some in his later work.

  2. Yoga For Kids Can Help A Child Acheive Balance In Their Young Lives

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