Killing and harming
Contemporary Moral Issues
There is no one ‘Hindu’ view on any moral issue, any more than one ‘Christian’ or ‘Humanist’ view. There is only space here to indicate some Hindu perspectives on some controversial moral issues.
Concepts such as the divine dwelling in all beings, or ahimsa (non-violence) imply that killing and harming are wrong in principle, but there are debates about how to apply this in practice.
War and Peace
Peace (shanti) is highly prized as is non-violence (ahimsa). However, the art of warfare (Dhanurveda) is one of the supplements to the Veda, the Vedic pantheon features Indra as king and warrior and the ruling warrior (rajanya/kshatriya) class have a duty to protect society, by violence if necessary, indicating the existence and legitimacy of warfare. In the fourth century BCE, the emperor Chandragupta Maurya invaded other Indian states in the formation of his empire, as did his famous grandson Ashoka before he renounced violence and turned to Buddhism, and there are historical examples of later Indian rulers campaigning beyond India in what is now Indonesia or Sri Lanka. However, the prevailing Hindu view is that war is only acceptable in defence or to prevent greater evil. In the Bhagavad-Gita, for instance, Krishna urges Arjuna to fight on the grounds that there is no greater good for a warrior than a righteous war with the prospect of heaven and, conversely, to fail to fight would be a dereliction of duty and dishonour worse than death. Even so, Gandhi was insistent that the text should be interpreted as an allegory of an internal conflict where the battle field is the human heart, the combatants are good and bad tendencies and Krishna is ‘the Dweller within’. Notwithstanding Gandhi’s influence on independent India, India as a Hindu-majority state has armed forces and has fought wars. Latterly, it has acquired nuclear weapons with a testing programme called Operation Shakti and missiles called Prithvi and Agni after Hindu deities.
Hindus differ in their views on the death penalty. There are references in sacred texts which support its use to deter the worst of crimes, but also many teachers who state that such violence is wrong in all cases. Contemporary India retains the death penalty, but in recent decades it has been used very rarely and only for particularly shocking crimes such as the 2020 execution of those guilty of a gang-rape and murder.
Suicide and sati
Suicide is generally considered wrong, as life is sacred, and with belief in karma and rebirth, does not achieve any desire to escape unbearable suffering. There are occasional historical examples of heroic warriors preferring death to capture or captured women preferring death to dishonour.
A controversial issue is that of sati (perfect woman), sometimes spelt suttee, where a widow would choose to die either on her husband’s funeral pyre or at a later date rather than live on. Sati can be viewed as an admirable act of a perfect faithful wife, or a crime against women equivalent to murder, rather than suicide, as pressures may be put on women to comply. After campaigning by Hindu reformers and Christian evangelists, the British imperial rulers made sati illegal in 1829 and it remained illegal in independent India. Nevertheless, there are shrines to women who chose to become sati in previous times viewed as goddesses (satimatas) who can provide help. Although illegal, there are occasional recent cases, such as Roop Kanwar in 1987, which led to a new law, the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, also making it an offence to glorify the practice (see Sources of authority within the Hindu tradition). Some contemporary Hindus criticise the emphasis put on sati by Westerners, viewing this as part of creating a negative image of Hindus, when it was never widespread and the act has been illegal for nearly 200 years.
On the one hand, all life is sacred and should not be harmed. Life is considered to start at conception, and may be viewed as a result of karma, even if the circumstances are difficult. Several ancient texts condemn any causing of a miscarriage/killing of an unborn child. However, one exception in some texts seems to have been to save the mother’s life, and Hindus may argue for other circumstances where abortion is the most compassionate action. Abortion was made legal in India in 1971. When medical technology (post 1980s) made it possible to tell the sex of a child before birth, there was evidence of selective female foeticide, leading to a legal ban on prenatal sex screening and female foeticide in India in 1994. Although most Hindus would condemn the practice, it is linked to a cultural preference for sons (hardly unknown in other cultures), in part going back to the ancient Vedic requirement for a son to ensure that the correct rituals were performed after death, and in part economic in a society where a son contributed to the family income whereas a daughter incurred costs such as a dowry.
The sacredness of life and the requirement to accept suffering as karma which would only have to be undergone in a future life if not in this one, combine to make euthanasia generally unacceptable. However, the practice of fasting and the idea of samnyasa (renunciation) at the final stage of life mean that an elderly and ill person who considered they had done all they could in this life, might give up eating and drinking and thus pass away somewhat earlier. The Community of the Many Names of God’s Skanda Vale Hospice is one example of a Hindu initiative to support those with life-limiting conditions as a form of selfless service that provides for the spiritual and other needs of the dying.
Killing and harming animals and vegetarianism
The Hindu belief in reincarnation, as well as in the sacredness of all life, leads to many Hindus having a vegetarian diet. Even those Hindus who do eat meat avoid beef in recognition of the sacredness of the cow. This aspect of Hinduism is so well-known that ‘sacred cow’ has become a metaphor in English. Several reasons are given for the special nature of the cow, including its vital importance to the rural economy, selfless provision of milk for others, dung for fuel, plaster and fertiliser, and bulls for transport. The cow also represents mother earth on whom all humans depend. The milk provided by the well cared for cows at ISKCON’s UK headquarters, Bhaktivedanta Manor, has won prizes for its quality. Protecting cows has also become symbolic of commitment to the whole Hindu way of life and identity, and so harming a cow has meaning beyond the fate of one animal. One example is the controversy in 2007 when there were international protests and legal challenges as the Welsh government sought to slaughter the bull Shambo at the Community of the Many Names of God, because of testing positive for bovine TB during an outbreak. The campaign eventually failed to save Shambo. Some animal sacrifices are offered to goddesses though most offerings are now vegetarian (fruit, flowers, dairy products such as milk and ghee) despite the prominence of animal sacrifice in ancient Vedic ritual.