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Philosophy of Right and Wrong

by Swami Sivananda

Right and wrong, Dharma and Adharma, are both relative terms. It is very difficult to define these terms precisely. Even sages are bewildered sometimes in finding out what is right and what is wrong in some special circumstances. That is the reason why Lord Krishna says in the Gita: "What is action, what is inaction? Even the wise are herein perplexed. Therefore I declare to thee the action by knowing which thou shalt be liberated from evil. It is needful to discriminate action, to discriminate unlawful action, and to discriminate inaction; mysterious is the path of action. He who seeth inaction in action, and action in inaction, he is wise among men, he is harmonious, even while performing all actions." Ch. IV-16, 17, 18.

I shall try to explain the terms right and wrong. Rishi Kanada, the author of Vaiseshika philosophy says in the opening Sutra: "That which brings Nisreyasa and Abhyudaya (supreme bliss and exaltation), is Dharma. That which elevates you and brings you nearer to God is right. That which takes you down and away from God is wrong. That which is done in strict accordance with the injunctions of the Sastras is right, and that which is done against the injunctions of the Sastras is wrong." This is one way of defining these terms. To work in accordance with the Divine Will is right; to work in opposition to the Divine Will is wrong.

It is very difficult to find out by the man in the street what exactly the Divine Will is in certain actions. That is the reason why wise sages declare that people should resort to Sastras, learned Pandits and realised persons for consultation. A pure man who has done Nishkamya Karma Yoga for several years and who has done worship of Isvara for a long time can readily find out the Divine Will when he wants to do certain actions. He can hear the inner shrill, small voice. Ordinary people should not attempt to hear this Divine Voice, the voice of God-they may mistake the voice of the impure mind for the voice of God. The lower instinctive mind will delude them.

That work which gives elevation, joy and peace to the mind is right; that which brings depression, pain and restlessness to the mind is wrong. This is an easy way to find out right and wrong. Selfishness clouds understanding. Therefore if a man has even a tinge of selfishness he cannot detect what is right and wrong. A very pure, subtle, sharp intellect is needed for this purpose. The Gita describes the nature of Sattvic, Rajasic and Tamasic natures in chapter eighteen as follows:

"That which knows the path of work and renunciation, what ought to be done, fear and fearlessness, bondage and liberation-that intellect is Sattvic (pure), O Arjuna. That by which one wrongly understands Dharma and Adharma and also what ought to be done and what ought not to be done-that intellect, O Arjuna, is Rajasic. That which, enveloped in darkness, sees Dharma as Adharma, and all things perverted-that intellect is Tamasic."

Various other definitions are given by wise men to help the students in the path of righteousness. In the Bible it is said: "Do unto others as you would be done by." This is a very good maxim. The whole gist of Sadachara or right conduct is found here. If one practises this very carefully he will not commit any wrong act. Ahimsa Paramo Dharmah-non-injury is the highest virtue. If one is well established in Ahimsa in thought, word and deed, he can never do any wrong action. That is the reason why Patanjali Maharshi has given Ahimsa great prominence in his Raja Yoga philosophy. Ahimsa comes first in the practice of Yama or self-restraint. To give pleasure to others is right; to spread misery and pain to others is wrong. One can follow this in his daily conduct towards others and can evolve in the spiritual path. Do not perform any act that brings shame and fear. You will be quite safe if you follow this rule. Stick to any rule that appeals to your reason and conscience and follow it with faith and attention. You will evolve and reach the abode of eternal bliss.

Now I shall talk to you on another important point. I have already pointed out in the beginning of this chapter that 'right' and 'wrong' are relative terms. They vary according to time, special circumstances, Varna and Ashrama. Morality is a changing and relative term. To kill an enemy is right for a Kshatriya king. A Brahmin or a Sannyasin should not kill anyone even for protecting himself during times of danger. He should practise strict forbearance and forgiveness. To speak an untruth to save the life of a Mahatma or one's Guru who has been unjustly charged by an unjust officer of a state is right. Untruth becomes a truth in this particular case. To speak a truth which brings harm to many is untruth only. To kill a dacoit who murders wayfarers daily is Ahimsa only, Himsa becomes Ahimsa under certain circumstances.

There are special Dharmas during critical and dangerous circumstances. They are called Apat-Dharma. Rishi Vishwamitra took forbidden meat from a Chandala when there was severe famine and offered this in his sacrifice to the Devas. Ushashti, a learned sage took the Ucchishta beans from the hands of an elephant-driver when he was suffering from acute hunger and when he was not able to get food from anyone. Performance of one's own duties brings happiness, quick evolution and freedom.

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