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 Table of Contents    
Year : 2013  |  Volume : 55  |  Issue : 6  |  Page : 283-287
Morality and moral development: Traditional Hindu concepts

1 Psychiatry Unit, Department of Medicine, MLN Medical College, Allahabad, India
2 Department of Pathology, MLN Medical College, Allahabad, India
3 North Essex Partnership Foundation Trust, Stapleford House, 103 Stapleford Close, Chelmsford, Essex CM2 0QX, United Kingdom
4 Consultant Pediatrician, Vatsalya Hospital, 6/8 Elgin Road, Allahabad, India

Click here for correspondence address and email

Date of Web Publication7-Jan-2013


Morality (from the Latin word moralitas that means "manner, character, proper behavior") is the differentiation of intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are good (or right) and those that are bad (or wrong). It is determined by how one's genetic makeup interacts with the environment. The development of morality has been a subject of investigation for a number of decades, and our understanding of neuro-biological and psychological mechanisms has increased manifolds in the last few decades. Development of morality has been of particular significance to psychiatric literature because of its significant contribution to the development of one's personality and it's aberration in various disorders. Cultures that have been just, equal and moral have been widely accepted and appreciated. In this review, we shall summarize the modern theories of moral development and then look into a part of our past and cultural heritage and review the traditional Hindu concepts of morality and their contribution to development of one's personality and their relevance in the current times.

Keywords: Dharma , Hindu, morality, vedanta, vedas

How to cite this article:
Srivastava C, Dhingra V, Bhardwaj A, Srivastava A. Morality and moral development: Traditional Hindu concepts. Indian J Psychiatry 2013;55, Suppl S2:283-7

How to cite this URL:
Srivastava C, Dhingra V, Bhardwaj A, Srivastava A. Morality and moral development: Traditional Hindu concepts. Indian J Psychiatry [serial online] 2013 [cited 2021 Apr 13];55, Suppl S2:283-7. Available from:

   Introduction Top

Morality (from the Latin word moralitas that means "manner, character, proper behavior") is the differentiation of intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are good (or right) and those that are bad (or wrong). It is an intriguing and evolving construct. Moral values are governed by a number of biological-socio-cultural-religious underpinnings. Not everyone within the same environment ends up with the same moral values. It is determined by how one's genetic makeup interacts with the environment.

The development of morality has been a subject of investigation for a number of decades [1],[2] and our understanding of neuro-biological and psychological mechanisms has increased manifolds in the last few decades.

Development of morality has been of particular significance to psychiatric literature because of its significant contribution to the development of one's personality and it's aberration in various disorders. The abhorrent acts of "immorality" conducted by those who are "psychiatrically unwell" have intrigued the society for long. Society is in some ways in pursuit of the "ultimate in morality". Cultures that have been just, equal and moral have been widely accepted and appreciated. Such social set-ups promote healthy upbringing. An essence of this healthy upbringing is inculcating moral values from parents, teachers, role models, peers, colleagues and the wider society. In this review, we shall summarize the existing modern theories of moral development and then look into a part of our past and cultural heritage and review the traditional Hindu concepts of morality and their contribution to development of one's personality and their relevance in the current times.

   Modern Theories of Moral Development Top

Biological theories

Moral development doesn't start on a blank slate at birth. Our genes determine our temperament to a large extent, although, gene expression can be influenced by one's environment. It therefore, follows that both our genetic makeup and the environment we experience would influence our overall development, including our moral development. However, further discussion on this is not the purpose of this review and therefore, we will not dwell on this further.

Cognitive theories

Cognitive development theorists, Jean Piaget (hereby referred to as Piaget) and Lawrence Kohlberg (hereby referred to as Kohlberg) have shown that the moral development during childhood occurs in stages and is mirrored by other cognitive changes in the child's brain. Piaget referred to himself as a genetic epistemologist, interested in the process of development of human knowledge. He explained that Genetic Epistemology attempts to explain knowledge, and in particular scientific knowledge, based on its history, its sociogenesis, and especially the psychological origins of the notions and operations upon which it is based. According to Piaget's theory, morality is formed in two stages. The first stage is that of "Heteronomous morality" in which children are able to see rules as fixed and dictated by authority. [1] Rewards and punishment dictate one's actions. The next stage is that of "Autonomous morality", in which they are able to move beyond the consequences and are able to see morality as linked to intentions and that rules are flexible. [1]

Kohlberg further developed Piaget's theory. He described stages of moral development that depended on Piagetian stage of cognitive development. Kohlberg described three major levels of moral development that were each further subdivided into two stages making it six stages in total. The three levels are pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional morality. [2] The pre-conventional stage is essentially the morality possessed by pre-school children and is focused on avoiding punishment and obtaining reward. The morality in the conventional stage focuses on the notions of mutual benefits, social conformity and following law and order. The post-conventional stage focuses on general internalized moral principles. The sub-stages are listed in [Table 1]. Kohlberg used moral dilemmas to investigate the moral reasoning of individuals and he focused on individuals' thinking process rather than the content.
Table 1: Stages of moral development as described by Kohlberg

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Other theories

In her book "In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development", Carol Gilligan criticized Kohlberg's theory as it was developed by studying male subjects exclusively. [3] Gilligan argued that females act from concerns about social relationships and that their moral development has elements of compassion and caring strongly built in. On the other hand, according to her, justice dominates men's morality.

Social intuitionists such as Haidt [4] argue that individuals often make moral judgments intuitively and that the reasoning only comes later to justify their actions.

Modern psychoanalytic theory conceptualizes the development of conscience as growth of superego through positive identification of parental values and not guilt, which was given a lot of importance by the classical psychoanalytic theory.

   The Hindu Literature Top

The most important Hindu scriptures are the Vedas, which are recorded in the four sub categories viz., Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda and contain the earliest concepts of Hinduism. These four Vedas are further divided into two parts, Karma-Kanda and Jnana-Kanda. Karma Kanda is the section dealing with rituals and prayers while Jnana-Kanda deals only with the ontological realities - the nature of world, consciousness (or self) and God known as Brahman in the Vedas. It logically analyses their mutual relationship to determine whether these are interconnected or if there is any fundamental difference between them. Vedanta refers to the set of teachings that are contained in the Jnana-Kanda section, which are culmination of the Vedas. Their vision is to present what the Vedas want us to know.

Vedanta is not restricted or confined to one book and there is no sole source for Vedantic philosophy. [5] However, it is widely accepted that the three most important constituents of Vedanta are the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Brahmasutras. Upanishads are passages from the Jnana-kanda section of the Vedas. They are the core of Vedic wisdom and are essentially philosophical in nature. Though the authorship of many Upanishads are not known, many of them are presented as set of dialogues between teacher and disciple in logical method trying to uncover the nature of reality. Brahmasutras are intended to logically explain the teachings of the Upanishads. [6] They attempt to systematize the various strands of the Upanishads, which form the background of the orthodox systems of thought.

It is also important to mention that there is a lot of literature for children, to help in their moral development, from an early age. The Panchtantras, [7] which are an ancient Indian inter-related collection of animal fables in verse and prose, are a wonderful example of using social stories to communicate the principles of Dharma (morality) to children. The original Sanskrit work is believed to have been composed in the 3 rd century BCE. The Panchtantras continue to be very popular in India as children stories.

The moral dilemma in Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita has always been of utmost importance and is arguably, one of the most revered religious texts of the Hindus. It consists of 700 verses divided in 18 chapters. It is considered to contain the essence and spirit of Hindu philosophy and is also a literary masterpiece because of its superb poetry. The great Hindu reformer Ram Mohan Roy referred to the Bhagavad Gita as the essence of all Hindu scriptures. To understand Bhagavad Gita, it is important to understand the context within which it is placed. It forms a part of the great epic, Mahabharata which is traditionally ascribed to the sage Vyasa. [8] It revolves around the fight for the throne of the kingdom of Hastinapur. This battle is fought between the Pandavas (five sons of King Pandu) and the Kauravas (hundred brothers who are descendants of King Kuru) who are related as cousins. Pandavas have the legal right to the throne, but Kauravas take over the kingdom by cheating the Pandavas, in a game of dice. The Pandavas have Lord Krishna on their side as their guide, but he has vowed not to use any weapons in the battle. Lord Krishna is considered to be the incarnation of Lord Vishnu who is one of the Gods in Hindu mythology and considered to be the creator of this world. There are numerous moral dilemmas contained in Mahabharata that make it a very meaningful and interesting read. The Bhagavad Gita is centered on the moral dilemma that is faced by despondent Arjuna (one of the Pandavas) in the midst of the battlefield. Lord Krishna is Arjuna's charioteer in the battlefield but essentially his spiritual guide. Just when the battle is about to begin, Arjuna is burdened with severe self-doubt about what he is just about to engage in: a bloody war with his cousins over a kingdom! His dilemma is whether it is appropriate for him to kill his own cousins Kauravas and other close associates for the sake of the kingdom, despite it being his legitimate claim. It is then that Lord Krishna enlightens him through the teachings that together form the Bhagavad Gita. These teachings comprehensively bring out the essence of Vedas, primarily Upanishads, in a language that is less terse than that in the original Upanishads. The main intention of these teachings is to help humans, with the task, which is, perhaps the most difficult, that is, to discriminate, choose and perform actions that are moral and righteous, especially when one is going through an emotional crisis. One of the tenets of Bhagavad Gita's philosophy is Karma Yoga that translates into "path of union through action". It emphasizes on performing selfless actions with an attitude that is not influenced by one's likes and dislikes.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna says:
"tasmad asaktah satatam karyam karma samacara asakto hy acaran karma param apnoti purushah0" [9] which translates into "Therefore, without being attached to the fruits of activities, one should act as a matter of duty, for by working without attachment one attains the Supreme".

Arjuna finally decides to fight the Kauravas. However, it was not because he didn't like them for cheating him and his brothers. It was because that was the most logical course of action based on his Dharma (morality) that demanded that by fighting the Kauravas and defeating them, he would ensure that justice had been delivered.

The Purusharthas (human endeavours)

The teachings of Vedas and Vedanta focus on the understanding of two aspects: Ontological nature of existence and Dharma (which approximately translates into morality). It is vital to have a clear understanding of Dharma and their various facets that would eventually help to get a more philosophical insight into nature of reality. We will discuss Dharma but as it is not a straightforward topic, we will first place it in context within the four Purusharthas (human endeavours) as expounded in the Vedic tradition. Purushartha refers to a goal, end or aim of human existence. It is a key concept in Vedic tradition that one needs to be clear about. By fulfilling the Purusharthas, man gets fulfillment for life as well as sustains the society.

Purusharthas can be broadly categorized into four major categories:

  1. Dharma
  2. Artha
  3. Kama
  4. Moksha
Dharma is a concept of central importance in Hindu religion and philosophy and is defined in The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions as "the order and custom which make life and a universe possible, and thus the behaviours appropriate to the maintenance of that order". Dharma embraces every type of righteous conduct, covering every aspect of life, both religious and secular, that is essential for the sustenance and welfare of the individual, society and creation. It emphasizes the need to perform one's duty with sincerity. Artha and Kama are pursuits of securities and pleasure, respectively. Artha means looking after one's material and social needs and translates into earning money, social recognition, power, control or its equivalent. The pursuit of Artha gives one a sense of security. Some of these pursuits can also be viewed as Kama because they also give a sense of pleasure although generally, Kama implies pleasure seeking and mainly refers to fulfillment of sensual pleasures.

In its true sense, Dharma should be the basis for Artha and Kama. If a man pursues Artha and Kama with Dharma at its core, his endeavours will not only help him evolve as a responsible human being, but will inevitably benefit the society at large. The Hindu system makes it clear that the ultimate human endeavour is to attain Moksha in the form of total ending from seeking any of the other Purusharthas on its accomplishment. What it would practically mean that even though one may continue to seek Artha and Kama with Dharma as its core to carry on with life, one doesn't have to be attached with it in any form. Moksha, in other words, refers to the freedom from travails that are associated with any pursuit, which is only possible through right knowledge about the nature of one's own consciousness (see the section on "Dharma as related to Moksha" for further elaboration of this).

A similar concept was proposed by Maslow. [10],[11] He described a "hierarchy of needs" model in which he divided human needs into basic (physiological, safety, love, and esteem) and growth needs (cognitive, aesthetics and self-actualization). Although this model is conceptually similar to Purusharthas, there is no concept of attaining Moksha as a human endeavour.


The concepts of Dharma, as expounded in the Vedas, are based on an intrinsic higher order. They are not only confined to human pursuits but also include the nature in totality. Everything that exists on the planet earth, other planets, the solar system, galaxies and indeed the entire universe is governed and sustained by the laws of Dharma. Thus, the laws in empirical science would also be a part of Dharma. There are differences between how the laws of Dharma, if one were to call them laws, apply to the universe as compared to the human beings and to a certain extent, to the animal kingdom on earth. Human beings are born with the unique mental faculty of being able to discriminate and choose. This is a blessing indeed, but is also a curse, because choices create conflicts, which are moral dilemmas for a conscientious person. One's attitude when making these choices and acting accordingly determines how moralistic one is; that is how much one follows the laws of Dharma. So while the universe may naturally and unquestioningly follow the laws of Dharma, human beings may choose otherwise. Whenever Artha and Kama gain excessive importance for humans, they knowingly or unknowingly, deviate from the laws of Dharma. This creates conflicts, which are evident both within individuals and in the wider society. It gives rise to passions of greed, desire, jealousy and anger that give rise to all forms of conflicts and social disturbances.

Dharma as selfless action

This comes out in teachings of Karma Yoga in the Bhagavad Gita. It states that one has the ability to choose actions, but the individual does not govern the results of these actions. There is emphasis given to selfless action that is not influenced by one's likes and dislikes and without concern for the outcome. The outcome is then accepted as Prasada (gift from God), whether it is desirable or undesirable. This allows the individual to focus on action completely without allowing his mind to be affected with the anxiety and exhilaration invariably associated with its consequences. This also allows actualization of one's full potential.

Dharma as universal moral principles

Compassion and empathy form an extremely important part of Dharma. It comes out in various principles of Dharma. In following Dharma, a number of values and attitudes are listed in the Hindu scriptures as necessary for a human being, for example absence of conceit, absence of hypocrisy, speaking the truth, harmlessness, accommodation, straightforwardness and compassion for all beings. Ahimsa (Non violence) is often regarded as an absolute Dharma. However, the Sanskrit phrase is "Ahimsa Paramo Dharma. Dharma himsa tathaiva cha0" that translates into "Non-violence is the ultimate Dharma. So too is violence in service of Dharma". In the great epic, Mahabharata, Arjuna's decision to inflict violence on his cousins Kauravas was therefore, in accordance with his Dharma.

Dharma as related to Moksha

assumes more significance due is its complex but invariable relationship with the fourth Purushartha, Moksha. Dharma says that there is an inherent relationship between everything in this creation that is built on mutual interdependence based on unseen laws. If these laws were flouted, then the one who is responsible for this would be penalized through ways that do not lend easily themselves to logical scrutiny. Therefore, Dharma involves faith in intrinsic intelligence of creation and that the world is not as inert as it apparently appears to be. Following Dharma for a sustained period of time leads to purification of mind that becomes free from strong likes and dislikes. A purified mind can ask fundamental questions of life and is capable of discovering the basis of creation called Brahman in Vedic philosophy. Discovering Brahman as one's own self is Moksha. This discovery is of enormous significance as it brings with it a deep sense of fulfillment that is difficult to be expressed in words. It is extremely important to understand Brahman to understand the meaning of Moksha, as understood by the Vedas. Brahman is the basis of the creation. The Creator or God is both the intelligent cause and the material cause. This means that God is not separate from the world. It is within you and within everything. The knowledge that your own consciousness is one with God, the Brahman, is called Moksha. Wig [12] discussed this as differing with the concept of God in a number of other religions including Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In these traditions, 'God' is the Creator of the universe and everything in it; thus the Creator, in a way is 'outside' this world, which he has created.

   Conclusion Top

The Vedic principles have influenced the Indian psyche for many centuries. These principles have underpinned the socio-cultural-religious framework for the development of individual and social moral principles. The Indian psyche and society is in a phase of rapid evolution. Pursuit of Artha and Kama are overtaking the responsibility of Dharma. The moral structure of our society is at an interesting crossroad. Prosperity has given rise to greed and corruption. Reminding oneself of our glorious past and enriching scriptures and understanding their essence can bring back the necessary balance for us to develop and evolve into mature beings. This would not only benefit the Indian society but also the world at large.

   References Top

1.Piaget J. The Moral Judgment of the Child. New York: The Free Press; 1965.  Back to cited text no. 1
2.Kohlberg L. Moral stages and moralization: The cognitive developmental approach. In: Lickona TE, editor. Moral Development and Behavior: Theory, Research and Social Issues. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston; 1976.  Back to cited text no. 2
3.Haidt J. The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychol Rev 2001;108:814-34.  Back to cited text no. 3
4.Gilligan C. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; 1982.  Back to cited text no. 4
5.Brodd J. World Religions. Winona, MN: Saint Mary's Press; 2003.  Back to cited text no. 5
6.Radhakrishna S. Brahma Sutra, The Philosophy of Spiritual Life: Greenwood Press; 1960.  Back to cited text no. 6
7.Edgerton F. The Panchatantra Reconstructed (Vol. 1: Text and Critical Apparatus, Vol. 2: Introduction and Translation), Vol. 2-3. New Haven, Connecticut: American Oriental Series; 1924.  Back to cited text no. 7
8.Fowler JD. The Bhagavad Gita: A Text and Commentary for Students, Eastbourne: Sussex Academy Press; 2012.  Back to cited text no. 8
9.Bhagavad Gita. Chapter 3, Text 19.  Back to cited text no. 9
10.Maslow AH. A theory of human motivation. Psychol Rev 1943;50:370-96.  Back to cited text no. 10
11.Maslow A. Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper; 1954.  Back to cited text no. 11
12.Wig N. Mental health and spiritual values. A view from the East. Int Rev Psychiatry 1999;11:92-6.  Back to cited text no. 12

Correspondence Address:
Chhitij Srivastava
Psychiatry Unit, MLN Medical College,Allahabad - 211 001
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/0019-5545.105552

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