Monday Morning Greetings 2023 #25 – The Challenge in Living an Ethically Tuned Life: Part II

June 19th, 2023

In last week’s post I discussed the article “Reckoning with Compassion”[1], which highlighted a very important point—that being an ethical person was more than rule following, but also having the practical wisdom that enables one to apply moral principles in new and novel situations.


A classic example would be Arjuna’s situation in the Bhagavad-gītā. He was fixed in the important principles of honoring elders, especially one’s family, and being kind to everyone, but was puzzled about how to apply those principles as a warrior when facing his elders, who, in battle, took the side of the enemy that was led by an unscrupulous king threatening to destroy him. Should he drop his weapons and adhere to such universal Vedic principles in that regard, those that we know in Judeo-Christian tradition as the fifth and sixth commandments to honor thy mother and father and thou shall not kill, or is being truly moral something deeper? Śrī Krishna thought so. He thus dissed Arjuna’s so-called compassion as sentimental and spoke the Bhagavad-gītā to hone Arjuna’s rule-based ethical world view in order to convince him that it was a higher principle to fight out of duty and devotion in a just war.


One practical example, which is almost a bit humorous, sticks out in my mind. It illustrates how when our moral judgements are reduced to rule following without the required wisdom to make good judgements, it can result in folly or disaster. One common principle of good behavior is cleanliness, especially in the pure ancient Brahminical tradition of India. Before entering a room, a cultured person takes off their shoes so that the dirt on their soles is not carried inside the house. Thirty years ago, it was reported to me by one devotee that a snake slithered into their room. I immediately called the chokidar (guard) to take care of the situation. He arrived at the room and before courageously entering the room with his choki (stick) to kill the snake, he politely removed his boots for the sake of cleanliness. Yes, cleanliness is next to godliness, but not when it can get you killed!


I am not minimizing that the foundation of morality is rules of good behavior and that too little affection for them is a detriment to bhakti, but rather just emphasizing how much—as was demonstrated in the inspiration for this post, “Reckoning with Compassion”—too much affection for rules is also a detriment to one’s spiritual development when it stifles the ability to practically apply those rules wisely according to circumstance.


Therefore, according to most legitimate spiritual traditions, a person interested in an ethically tuned life must strengthen their moral sense by following how the wise in the past have appropriately applied the tenets of their tradition. Let me end this post with a short discussion on how Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism attempts to create ethically tuned or wise adherents.


Like all traditions, Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism seeks to morally and spiritually elevate adherents by the careful study of the śāstra under the guidance of the wise. To understand how the tradition tries to accomplish this, it is helpful to understand the term sambandha-jñāna, which is the term for metaphysical knowledge or the study of the fundamental nature of reality.[2] The literal translation for sambandha-jñāna is “knowledge of relationship”. The best way, therefore, to understand the fundamental nature of reality is to understand the sambandha (relationship) or balance between various truths.[3]


For example, there is a truth of renunciation, or non-attachment, and there is a truth of attachment, regulating and satisfying one’s desires. If the truth of renunciation is overly accentuated in relationship to the truth of attachment, then jñāna-sannyasa, renunciation of one’s material duties, is artificially promoted, and the household ashram and the respect for women is devalued. Conversely, if attachment, engaging in one’s material duties, is overly promoted, one will adopt and recommend overly indulgent lifestyles and shun the need for the ultimate renunciation of material life. One who properly studies the śāstra, however, under the guidance of those who are realized, will learn sambandha-jñāna, an understanding of the size or relationship between renunciation and attachment, and will neither artificially inflate the importance of renunciation or live beyond what one needs to keep the body and soul together.


It is like that with any of the apparent dualities between different truths found in the tradition. I’ll name a few of those dualities that tend to polarize those who lack sambandha-jñāna: strī-dharmān/independence and empowerment of women, deep spiritual practice/commitment to preaching, strict adherence to tradition/adjustment for preaching, zero tolerance for abuse/api cet su-durācāro,[4] seeing everyone equally/the need for hierarchy.


In summary, sambandha-jñāna, the understanding of the relationship or size of one truth to another, is the basis of having a sound understanding of the fundamental basis of reality. If we don’t strengthen our moral sense by learning from the past applications of wise people, we will be cursed to embrace imbalanced conclusions based not on reality, but our material natures. My faith in this regard is strong based on my personal experience. The guidance of those who deeply study and realize śāstra can guide us to a balanced understanding and inoculate us from the kind of superficial understanding of truths that lead to distress as illustrated in “Reckoning with Compassion”.


[1] Monday Morning Greetings 2023 #24 – The Challenge in Living an Ethically Tuned Life: Part I

[2] The subject of sambandha-jñāna also includes epistemology.

[3] I got this definition of sambandha-jñāna from Pradyumna das, Śrīla Prabhupāda’s Sanskrit editor. He would occasionally visit me when I stayed in the Bhakti Center, and one day shared with me different ways in which we can understand sambandha-jñāna, and this was one of them.

[4] The phrase api cet su-durācāro is from verse 9.30 in Bhagavad-gītā where Krishna explains that even one who commits the most abominable action is considered saintly if he is generally fixed in devotion, and his sin was accidental. Obviously, that requires a careful balance between that conception, the exalted position of one practicing devotion, and the need to protect a society by laws.

Comments are closed.