My column today relates to a guru, but one who is the polar opposite of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, convicted of rape on Friday. While the head of the Dera Sacha Sauda has been a subject of amusement for years among my friends and social media contacts, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev is respected by many in my circle. Four acquaintances I respect are disciples of his, and a good friend has written a laudatory book about the man. Reason enough to take what he says seriously.

On Saturday, as Singh occupied the front page of newspapers, Vasudev published an article in The Indian Express that opened with an extraordinarily provocative line: “As a culture, India has no sense of morality.” It was a sentence that seemed calculated to raise hackles, but what followed was not a criticism of Indian culture, but rather one of morality itself. If Indian culture has no sense of morality, Vasudev thinks that is a very good thing. Morality, he has said in a number of discourses, is nothing more than a source of confusion and hypocrisy. It breeds confusion because people disagree about what is good and what is bad, and hypocrisy because, when religions speak in moral terms, people buy their way out of guilt and continue down the same immoral path.

I believe Vasudev fails to grasp certain central features of moral systems, and sets up a strawman instead. But I will not discuss that because Pratap Bhanu Mehta has cogently countered Vasudev’s conception of morality in a column in The Indian Express. Instead, I will take on two of Vasudev’s central propositions, the idea that Indian culture is devoid of moral sense and the notion that an absence of ethical consideration is a congenial state of affairs.

Indian culture and morality

Vasudev uses the Ten Commandments from the Old Testament as exemplars of narrow, morality-focussed religion. But the initial commandments have little ethical content. The first asserts that followers should obey no other god; the second warns against making “graven images”, or idols; the third prohibits the taking of god’s name in vain; and the fourth reminds believers to keep the Sabbath day holy. Only after these non-ethical commands does a sense of morals come into play: honour your parents, do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, and do not covet things that belong to others, the Commandments state. Compare this with the precepts of two of the four major religions to have originated in India, Buddhism and Jainism. Jains are prescribed five vows, covering non-violence, truth-telling, not stealing, chastity and non-possessiveness. These five map very closely onto the last five Christian commandments. Since Jains take no vows devoid of ethical content, morality is arguably more fundamental to Jainism than to the Old Testament of the Bible. The same is true for Buddhism, whose Five Precepts or five moral virtues are also very similar to Commandments six to 10. A Buddhist is expected to abstain from taking life, taking what is not given, sensual excess, false speech, and intoxication.

I am not suggesting Jain and Buddhist morality is identical to Christian ideas of virtue. There are significant philosophical differences between the two, which I discussed in relation to the Jain tradition of Sallekhana or fasting to death. Some of our seemingly secular laws are grounded in Christian morals, and there is room for adjusting them in the light of Jain and Buddhist philosophies, which give the well-being of animals, plants and other living creatures greater importance than do the Judaic, Christian and Islamic traditions. In that respect, Indic faiths seem more attuned to contemporary attitudes. Although Buddhism and Jainism have a different perspective from Christianity when it comes to the value of life, that perspective is rooted in a profoundly ethical ground. It would be a great disservice to these religions to speak of them as having “no sense of morality”.

Is Vasudev entirely wrong, then, in the contrasting picture he paints of India and other cultures? Not quite. His mistake is the common one of conflating Hindu thought with Indian thought. It would be more accurate to say that Hindu culture does not foreground morality as much as many other cultures and faiths do. Vasudev speaks in favour of contextual truth, which he believes is rejected by moral perspectives, but permitted by a consciousness-based philosophy. An acceptance of the contingency of truth is, like the absence of morality, a feature of Hindu philosophy. For a Hindu, the eating of meat is neither good nor bad in itself. A priest is forbidden from it but a warrior could be encouraged to partake. Here, again, Buddhist and Jain thought are not congruent with Hinduism. Jainism’s proscription of meat-eating is not contingent or contextual. Unlike Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism share the universalist impulse that animates Christianity and Islam.

Vasudev’s opposition between a morality-based culture and one that focuses on consciousness is a false dichotomy, because Buddhism demonstrates the two are not mutually exclusive. The vogue for mindfulness currently sweeping the globe, which is the largest example of a movement that privileges self-awareness over moral considerations, originated in Buddhist practices.

Hindu thought and social justice

As I have indicated, Hinduism is not congruent with India, and Hindu thought not the same as Indian culture. Having said that, there is no doubt that Hindu thought operates powerfully in a country where the majority follows that faith. As a result, we witness a number of instances of contextual morality in daily life. One can buy bhaang at the local Shiva temple, but selling a chemically similar concoction on the street will get the peddler arrested. Such a contingent notion of truth has a liberating aspect. It undergirds the organic tolerance and respect for customs of other faiths that is among the best features of Indian society. I wrote about this tradition during the debate sparked by the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq.

The flipside of this manner of thinking is that it is silent on matters of social justice. Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes in his rebuttal of Vasudev, “The Indian intellectual tradition of consciousness foundered on two challenges. With a few exceptions, it was never able to prove its sincerity on the social question: How does the discourse of evolved consciousness relate to the mutilating realities of social power, as embodied in institutions like caste? It gestures at them, but has no social imagination to confront them.”

I would go further. Why, we ought to ask, is Hindu morality contextual while Buddhist and Jain morality is not? What is it that plays a major role in Hindu philosophy but is absent in or rejected by Jainism and Buddhism? The answer is, of course, caste. Caste is the bedrock on which Hinduism’s contextual morality rests. Not only can Hindu thought not question caste discrimination, it is constituted in its essence by caste discrimination. Its contextual understanding of truth was engendered by and in turn justified the worst discriminatory practices in society.

A side effect of the contextual nature of truth in Hinduism is the demand for gurus. If what is right for me is not right for you, how do I know which way is the true one? The easiest solution is to seek the help of a wise, enlightened soul who will show the way. In the West, the rise of relativism created as a corollary a demand for gurus who would assist in a personal search for salvation. The guru business, therefore, has boomed globally since the 1960s.

Vasudev has helped a number of individuals gain clarity about their lives and their place in the world, and I commend him for that. His prescriptions are, however, utterly useless when it comes to political change, overcoming histories of dreadful discrimination, and creating a more equitable society, none of which can be achieved without invoking universal rather than contingent ideas of morality and justice.