Vedanta ethics and moral virtues are rooted in the ideal of realizing and manifesting our own innate divinity. Simply put, whatever brings us closer to that goal is ethical and moral; whatever prevents us from attaining it, is not.
Like a diamond buried in mud, the Atman shines within us, yet its presence remains obscured, its shining purity masked by countless layers of ignorance: wrong identification, incorrect knowledge, misguided perceptions. It is important to emphasize that we are not trying to become something other than what we already are. We are not trying to become pure; we are pure. We are not trying to become perfect; we are perfect already. That is our real nature. Acting in accordance with our real nature—acting nobly, truthfully, kindly—tears away the veil of ignorance that hides the truth of reality. Whatever distorts this reality is a perversion of the truth.
The whole of Vedanta ethics, then, is based upon a simple line of reasoning: Does this action or thought bring me closer to realizing the truth, or does it take me further away?
Morality and the Ego
What is it that prevents us from realizing the truth? Simply put, the ego: the sense of “I” and “mine.” As the great spiritual teacher Ramakrishna said, “The feeling of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ has covered the Reality so we don’t see the truth.” He further said, “When the ego dies, all troubles cease.”
What does the ego have to do with ethics and morality? Absolutely everything. All moral codes are based upon the ideal of unselfishness: placing others before ourselves, forcing the ego to play second fiddle. Following selfish desires is always a detriment to our spiritual life. Whether the action or thought is great or small, any selfishness will make the veil of ignorance thicker and darker. Conversely, any act of unselfishness, however great or small, will have the opposite effect.
It is for this reason that doing good to others is a universal ethical and moral code, found in all religions and societies. Why is this so universal? Because it reflects the truth that we instinctively intuit: the oneness of life.
Love, sympathy, and empathy are the affirmation of this truth; they are a reflexive response because they mirror the reality of the universe. When we feel love and sympathy we are verifying—albeit unconsciously—the oneness that already exists. When we feel hatred, anger, and jealousy we separate ourselves from others and deny our real nature which is infinite and free from limitations.
What is the root of the problem here? Our wrong identification: thinking of ourselves as minds and bodies rather than infinite Spirit. As Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna’s great disciple, said: “As soon as I think that I am a little body, I want to preserve it, to protect it, to keep it nice, at the expense of other bodies; then you and I become separate. As soon as this idea of separation comes, it opens the door to all mischief and leads to all misery.”
The Point of Moral Virtues
All the moral virtues taught by Vedanta serve to remind us of our real nature, and no spiritual progress can be made without following them. Any attempt to do so would be like trying to build a house without a foundation. Before we even begin to think about how to realize the ultimate truth, we first need to build the groundwork of a real life, one based on real values.
Spiritual life is not a haphazard affair: it is the most serious task that we shall ever face. And it is absolutely impossible to do so without living an ethical, moral life. It simply does not work.
If Vedanta lays such stress on an ethical life, what, then, are the virtues we emphasize? Patanjali, one of the ancient sages of India and the father of its psychology, formulated standards of moral conduct which have been followed for thousands of years.
These precepts function as spiritual tools, tools that can be used to create spiritually beneficial habits. These tools aren’t goals that can be instantly achieved—they are ideals to strive for, patterns to emulate. Still, it’s good to remember that when we do use these tools, we grow in strength and move closer to our ideal.