A Comparative Analysis of Dharmic Ethics and the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments
By Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya
This paper was originally written by Sri Acharyaji on behalf of the Goodwin Procter Law Firm while serving as an informal consultant in an amicus brief for a Supreme Court case involving the display of the Ten Commandments in a public area. December, 2004.
IntroductionThe theological claim for the existence and efficacy of a divinely revealed set of norms for ethical human behavior has been proffered by every major world religion. Moreover, the notion that there can be a trans-rational basis for ideal human behavior, in addition to being universally acknowledged, is also one of the most consistently ancient beliefs commonly held by the faithful of every religious tradition. The practical result of such a belief in the importance of spiritually motivated morality has been the repeated codification of specific and diverse sets of moral proscriptions and prescriptions on the part of each individual religion.
Despite the fact that moral certitude is a common goal of every religion, however, there has historically been a great deal of diversity of codes of morality, often with individual rules and commandments of one religion standing in mutually opposing positions to the rules and commandments of other religions. Consequently, history has witnessed immense difference of opinion between religions on the question of which specific religion’s moral code is the correct moral code. Without venturing to settle the argument of which, if any, religion’s moral code is actually of divine origin, I will show that the moral codes presented by Sanatana Dharma (often referred to by the inaccurate term "Hinduism") and the Judeo-Christian Decalogue tradition are different in content. They are, in fact, different not only in substance, but they are quite different in their individual approaches to what even constitutes the underlying foundational enterprise of ethics.
Diversity of Ethical SystemsWhile there are arguably a number of discernible similarities between some ethical rules upheld by several of the world’s many religions (for example, murder, incest and stealing are universally held moral wrongs), we also find that there is a great deal of dissimilarity between particularly held codes of ethics. When we do even the most rudimentary comparative analysis of the major world religions’ diverse ethical systems, we immediately see that there is some considerable disagreement between them on the question of what is a morally good action versus what is a morally objectionable action. In some religions, for example, it is considered an immoral act to drink alcohol (Islam, Sanatana Dharma, Evangelical Christianity). In other religions, by contrast, alcohol is considered to be just fine from a moral perspective (Judaism, Catholicism, Unitarianism). For some faiths, the killing of animals to eat meat is an ethically prohibited activity (Sanatana Dharma, Jainism, and traditional Buddhism). In other religions, killing animals is an ethically neutral activity (Islam and Christianity). In some religions it is considered morally legitimate to periodically kill members of another religion merely for shear act of being members of a different religion. Historically, the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have all been culpable in supporting such a view to greater or lesser degrees. For most of the other religions of our world – especially the Dharmic religions of Sanatana Dharma, Buddhism and Jainism - on the other hand, to kill someone simply because they practice a different faith from one’s own would be considered demonic, and has never been an activity that these religions have historically engaged in. These differences in moral codes are, in turn, tied closely to the historically developed ethnic, linguistic and paradigmatic differences that we see in the overall world-views of our world’s many culturally distinct geographic regions.
Differences between Dharmic and Judeo-Christian world-viewsWhile there are several distinct similarities between the world-views of Dharmic civilization, with its foundation in the religions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, and the overall world-view of the Abrahamic Judeo-Christian tradition, these similarities are far outweighed by the significant differences between them. The similarities tend to be of a more superficial and formal level. These similarities include the primacy of a spiritual world-view, the belief in a unitive and transcendent ground of being, and the centrality of a moral outlook in general. The differences, however, are much more pronounced and specific. Moreover, they are grounded in completely divergent views and approaches to the ontological reality of the human person. Sanatana Dharma views the human person as being primarily composed of consciousness-substance (chaitanya)– termed very specifically atman in Sanskrit when referring to the individual unit of consciousness (often translated into the English language by the word "soul"). Atman is ontologically antecedent, causally non-contingent and qualitatively superior to matter. For the greater Abrahamic Judeo-Christian tradition, on the other hand, the human person is seen to be a necessarily co-existent matrix of consciousness (spirit, or soul), physical body and personality. The precise degree to which primacy is according to one or another of these elements of the human person varies in accordance with whether one speaks of the Jewish, Christian or Islamic perspectives, and further, whether one is referring to a specific school of thought in either of these traditions.
The Judeo-Christian worldview has traditionally stressed religious practice as a more socially manifest phenomenon. The primary motivating factors for living a moral life include a) pleasing God / fear of God, b) becoming a better person, c) creating a society in which the rule of law and ethical concern for others are sovereign, d) avoidance of divine retribution and punishment. Morality is seen in terms of exteriority of behavioral norms, goals, and empirically observable consequences. Virtues, for the Judeo-Christian denominations, are qualities to be cultivated and acquired, not made manifest as a direct result of the inherent presence of virtue subsisting in the very essence of the living being.
The Sanatana Dharma world-view, on the other hand, has always stressed religious practice as a process of interiorization, and manifesting forth natural qualities that lay hidden within the human person as an inherent aspect of the soul. Religion is seen as a process of interiority, a process of self-realization, rather than merely self-improvement. Given the above outlined Dharmic position on the nature self, the human person is seen as being inherently spiritual, good and virtuous by their very ontological nature. Via the process of leading an ethical life, coupled with the systematic practice of Yoga ("unity with the Divine") and meditation, one’s essentially virtuous interior attributes are brought to exterior manifestation. Virtues, for Sanatana Dharma, are qualities to be rediscovered as aspects already present in the soul, and not merely as acquisitions to be gained by the soul.
Epistemologically, Judeo-Christian theology can be said to primarily stress Biblical revelation, coupled with theory, dialectic and discursive deductive reasoning. The traditional philosophical trends found in Sanatana Dharma, on the other hand, put more of an epistemological emphasis on a) non-mediated intuitive insight and introspection, intimately coupled with b) the modalities of logical reasoning, and c) scriptural authority of the Vedas.
Inherent Virtue Ethics and Proscribed Ethics
Two fundamental observable distinctions in the realm of general ethics are a) Virtue Ethics, and b) Proscribed Ethics. For the former, the inner qualities of the individual are seen as being of preeminent importance. In this view, moral laws exist in order to foster positive internal qualities. For Proscribed Ethics, on the other hand, the functional externalities of moral laws, formal adherence to the precise minutia of each rule and regulation, is seen as the primary goal of ethics. As is the case for most non-Judeo-Christian religions, and many of the religions of the ancient world, Sanatana Dharma upholds a form of Virtue Ethics. For Sanatana Dharma, morality and ethical laws are seen as a means to an end. That end is to discover and reclaim the inherent goodness of the unencumbered Self (atman). As a result of this Virtue Ethics approach, the proscriptions and prescriptions of Sanatana Dharma are seen as existing in order to serve the higher purpose of self-realization, as well as to serve as an externalized behavioral model for the eventual manifestation of the internal qualities of the soul.
Shruti Versus Smriti
The scriptures of the Judeo-Christian tradition (whether the Torah of Judaism, or the “Old” and “New” Testament of Christianity) are viewed as a unified set of scriptures, a continuous divine canon of literature, revealed incrementally throughout human history. Thus for both Jews and Christians, the Ten Commandments, as found in Exodus, are considered to be the authoritative pronouncements of their god, made temporally manifest within the context of space/time. For Sanatana Dharma, on the other hand, scripture is seen as both pre-existing temporal and spatial reality, and not being existent-dependent upon any audible receiver (i.e., human beings). Rather, scripture, or Veda, is considered to be apaurusheya; that is, scripture transcends all materiality, is eternally manifest, is infallible, and is not dependent upon its own revelation for justification of its validity - as is true for God as well.
Vedic scripture is of two qualitatively conterminous forms: Shruti, or scripture that is directly heard, and which is infallible, authorless and eternal by nature, and Smriti, or scripture that is remembered, and is thus also infallible, authorless and eternal by nature but the veracity of which is more dependent upon human remembrance of its sacred content. While many moral codes are to be found in the Shruti canon, the vast bulk of ethical codes is found in the latter category. The primary law books for Sanatana Dharma are called the Dharma Shastras, and are considered part of the Smriti canon. Written by a variety of individual sages and philosophers, the genre of sacred literature known as the Dharma Shastras has served as general guidebooks for Sanatana Dharma morality, law and jurisprudence for over 2500 years. The British even employed the authority of one of these works, the Manu Smriti, as a guide to formulating the colonial legal system of India during British rule. At no point, however, did orthodox Dharmis (followers of Sanatana Dharma) consider the moral rules of the Manu Smriti to be the very last word on Vedic morality, universally binding upon all Dharmis for all times of history. Rather than being written in stone, the applicability of the rules and laws found in the Manu Smriti were considered fluid and dependent upon time, rational cogency, and culture given the fact that it was only one text of many constituting the Dharma Shastra literature.
Ten Principles of Yoga
While numerous lists of ethical codes are to be found in many different scriptures of Sanatana Dharma, possibly the most influential code of behavior for Dharmis has historically been the Ten Principles of Yoga. These ten principles are divided into a) Yama, or five proscriptive rules of behavior, and b) Niyama, or five prescriptive rules. The Ten Principles are the following:
d) Sexual restraint
c) Study of Hindu scriptures
d) Devotion to God
While there is certainly some slight, superficial overlap between the Ten Principles of Sanatana Dharma and the Ten Commandments of the Judeo-Christian tradition, these very few similarities are greatly overshadowed by the distinct differences.
Comparative Analysis of the Ten Commandments and the Ten Principles
The Decalogue consists of the following ten pronouncements, found in Exodus 20: 1-17:
1. You shall not have any gods before me
2. You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth
3. You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain
4. Remember to keep holy the sabbath day
5. Honor your father and your mother
6. You shall not kill
7. You shall not commit adultery
8. You shall not steal
9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.
As can be readily seen, the general emphasis in the Ten Principles of Sanatana Dharma is geared toward self-transformation. These yogic principles are focused on the revealing true spiritual nature of the inner person. The Ten Commandments, on the other hand, are more externally oriented. They focus on proper social conduct. While the Ten Principles are mystical and spiritually subjective in content, the Ten Commandments are more social and legalistic in content. More, each set of rules contains codes of conduct that are parochial and sect-dependent in nature. For the Ten Principles, for example, the importance of studying Vedic scripture is upheld. This code would certainly not pertain to a follower of either Judaism or Christianity, who do not subscribe to the spiritual authority of Vedic scriptures. Conversely, keeping the Sabbath holy would hold no significant meaning to a Sanatana Dharmi, Buddhist or Jain, since the latter religions have a different cosmogony from that portrayed in the Book of Genesis. Thus, traditional Sanatana Dharmis would not uphold the Decalogue as authoritative, and the Ten Principles are not accepted as being divinely inspired by either Jews or Christians.
Decalogue and Dialog
Despite the many similarities that are found among the world’s many diverse religious traditions, the fact that these religions nonetheless remain distinct and unique traditions cannot be overlooked. In the pluralistic democratic society that we enjoy in America, religious differences must be respected and protected by law. Only by respecting the religious differences of minority religions such as Sanatana Dharma, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism, and others, as well as protecting such minority religions’ right to practice their respective religions, can we ensure the freedom of religious belief and practice for all.
About the Author
Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya (Dr. Frank Morales, Ph.D.) is universally acclaimed as one of the world's most respected and qualified Dharma teachers and Hindu spiritual leaders alive today. He personifies what it means to be a true and authentic guru.
Dr. Deepak Chopra has exclaimed in 2002: "You've done truly phenomenal work teaching the pure essence of Yoga". In a similar manner, Dr. David Frawley has said about Sri Acharyaji, "Dr. Frank Morales represents the Sankalpa [the will] of the Hindu people and the cause of Sanatana Dharma. I urge all Hindus everywhere to give him your full support, assistance, and encouragement in his crucial work. He needs and deserves our help."
Sri Acharyaji began his personal spiritual journey over 35 years ago at the tender age of ten when he read the Bhagavad Gita for the very first time. He coupled his decades of intense spiritual practice and study with advanced academic achievements, earning a B.A. in philosophy/theology from Loyola University Chicago, as well as an M.A. and Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
He has lectured on Dharma at dozens of top universities, such as Harvard, Columbia, Rutgers, Cornell, and Northwestern. He has also served as a consultant for such Fortune 500 companies as Ford Motor Corporation and Lucent Technology.
Explaining to his doctoral advisor that "I don't want to just study the history of religion…I want to make religious history", Sri Acharyaji eventually left academia to devote himself exclusively to spiritual teaching and to the preservation of the great tradition of Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism).
Today, Sri Acharyaji occupies his full time teaching Dharma spirituality to diverse audiences. In addition to leading classes, satsanghas, seminars and lecturing on Sanatana Dharma widely, Sri Acharyaji is a renowned author, as well as a personal spiritual guide (guru) to a rapidly increasing following of enthusiastic students from both the Indian and the non-Indian communities.
Sri Acharyaji was the Resident Acharya (Spiritual Preceptor) of the Hindu Temple of Nebraska (2007 - 2009), which represents the first time in American history that a Hindu temple has ever made such an esteemed appointment. He is the Founder-President of the International Sanatana Dharma Society, a global movement dedicated to teaching Dharma in its most authentic form.
Sri Acharyaji is the real thing: an enlightened guru with the ability to deliver the highest wisdom and spiritual liberation to his sincere students.
Sri Acharyaji's teachings stress the achievement of enlightenment through the practice of meditation, Yoga, and directly experiencing the presence of the Divine. Another overarching aspect of Sri Acharyaji's teachings focuses on the importance of love, compassion and service toward all living beings.
Whether speaking to an audience of thousands, or having a heart-felt discussion with only one person, Sri Acharyaji vividly conveys a deeply moving sense of compassion, peace, humility, and spiritual insight that has endeared him to thousands of students and admirers throughout the world.
Some of his books include:
"Sanatana Dharma: The Eternal Natural Way"
"Living Dharma: The Teachings of Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya"
"Radical Universalism: Does Hinduism Teach that All Religions are the Same?"
"Taking Refuge in Dharma: The Initiation Guidebook"
"The Vedic Way of Knowing God"
"The Shakti Principle: Encountering the Feminine Power of God"
"The Art of Wisdom: Affirmations for Boundless Living"
His latest book Sanatana Dharma: The Eternal Natural Way, is scheduled for publication in 2011.
For more information on following the life-transforming path of Sanatana Dharma, please visit his website:
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 These ten principles are mentioned, among other places, in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, II. 30,32.
 There are three versions of the Decalogue mentioned in the Torah (or Hebrew Scriptures). All are different. They are found in Exodus 20:2-17, Exodus 34:12-26, and Deuteronomy 5:6-21. The version in Exodus 20 is by far the most commonly cited today.