Niti and Niyama, the Morality and Ethics of Hinduism

Niti and Dharma

by Jayaram V

Summary: This essay provides comprehensive information on the importance of virtue, ethical conduct, morality and righteousness (dharma) in Hinduism.

Hinduism is known as a way of life. That way is paved with righteous conduct. The mortal world is a world of delusion and ignorance because of which beings lack discretion and engage in desire-ridden actions, which bind them to the cycle of births and deaths and cause them suffering. They can escape from the darkness of the mortal world only by knowing right from the wrong and engaging in righteous actions. The ethics of Hinduism are meant to help them know what constitutes right conduct and what leads to their liberation.

The knowledge concerning morality, purity, ethical conduct, righteous behavior, propriety, discernment, right judgment etc. goes by the generic name Dharma. Morality or ethical conduct is an important aspect of it. Mention may also be made of two other words which are associated with Hindu moral code, niti and niyama. We may loosely translate them as the ethics and morals respectively. The guidance, science, philosophy or the instruction concerning morals, principles and conduct is known as Niti. Niyamas are the morals, rules, regulations or the restrictions which ensure righteous conduct or the discernment of right and wrong, which ensure right adherence to Dharma.

While Dharma encompasses a whole range of practices, Niti is mostly concerned with guidance regarding a particular conduct, thinking and behavior, which lead to specific ends. Hence, it may not necessarily deal with morality or ethics only, but with a wide range of subjects such as politics (raja niti), warfare (yuddha niti) or economics (ardha niti). It may also provide practical guidance for good, evil or worldly ends. For example, Kutila Niti is a reference to the Machiavellian tactics that are used in politics or governance. Asura Niti is the science of demonic tactics. Accordingly, there can be many Niti Sastras, providing practical guidance on a wide range of moral, spiritual or worldly subjects.

The sources

The ethics of Hinduism are derived mainly from the Dharma Shastras (the law books or books of moral duties). Manusmriti is foremost among them. Others include The Yājñavalkya Smriti The Nāradasmṛti, The Viṣṇusmṛti, and The Dharma sutras such as The Gautama Sutras, The Apastamba Sutras, The Vashishta Dharma Sutras, The Baudhayana Sutras, The Srauta Sutras, The Smarta Sutras, etc. Additional information regarding them may be found in the Darshanas (philosophies), Puranas (ancient lore) and Itihasas (epics). All these are either derived from the Vedas or based upon the principles that are enshrined in the Vedas.

They also acknowledge the Vedas as the Verbal testimony (Sabda Pramana) of eternal truths and their ultimate source or inspiration. Thus, the Vedas are the foundation of the Hindu moral code. Manu states, “Whatever law has been ordained for any (person) by Manu, that has been fully declared in the Veda.” The smritis (traditional views) are based upon the Vedas only. These “two must not be called into question in any matter, since from those two the sacred law shone forth.” The Baudhayana Dharma Sutras makes a similar assertion, “The 'gates' of the sacred law are the Vedas, the Smritis, and the rules practiced by wise men (shishtas). They are many, because the redactions of the Vedas and Smritis are numerous and the practices vary in different countries.”

Since God is the source of all, virtue and morality also emanate from God. Therefore, humans are creators of neither Dharma nor Niti. The laws (niyamas) governing them exist eternally and universally in all the worlds of creation. Gods may have an inherent awareness of righteous knowledge, but humans have to discover the principles and practice of Dharma and realize them through their own conduct and discerning wisdom. The law books (Dharma Shastras) which lay down specific rules of conduct for each class of beings may be considered Shruti or manmade, but their roots are in heaven only. Humans have a choice to govern their lives by knowing the ethics and rules of conduct from the lawbooks or other scriptures, and thereby protect themselves from sinful karma.

The purpose of ethics and morality

In Hinduism ethical behavior is meant to guide the humans on the path of liberation by encouraging them to engage in righteous actions and protecting them from wrong doing. The purpose of morality or ethics in Hinduism is mainly threefold. Firstly, it is meant to ensure the order and regularity of the world. As people engage in righteous actions and obligatory duties, which humans are expected to perform upon earth to discharge their debt and obligation to themselves, their families, gods, ancestors, etc., there is little scope for confusion or chaos, or the predominance of evil. Life will progress upon earth normally and naturally as ordained by the Creator, without major upheavals and contingencies.

Secondly, it ensures peace and happiness by guiding people in the right direction, by cautioning them the consequences of wrong doing, and by helping them make right decisions and engage in right actions. Without the knowledge of right and wrong, the world will perish. Thirdly it provides necessary guidance to people so that they can overcome their impurities and deficiencies and work for their liberation. Human beings are a mixture of light and darkness. They have the potential to be good or evil. Hence, they are vulnerable to the influence of both gods and demons. With proper ethical guidance and knowledge, they can protect themselves from their own vulnerabilities and weaknesses.

Morality and divinity

In Hinduism morality or righteousness is inseparable from God and Dharma. The ethical system which people are expected to follow upon earth as an obligatory duty to ensure the order and regularity of the world is one of the central aspects of Hindu Dharma, with God as its source and support. Although Dharma is a complex word with many meanings and difficult to define, it primarily means a set of moral and sacred laws which humans have to follow upon earth to fulfill their obligatory duties to experience peace and happiness and attain liberation. Its essential purpose is to uphold the creation, ensure its order and regularity and help humans attain godliness or divinity in the mortal body. It is not only a force (shakti) of God and the mover of the worlds but also an aspect of the Mother Goddess. Hence, it is revered by Hindus as a divinity (devata) and the protector of the good and the divine. It manifests in humans by the practice of morality or ethical living or the sacred way of life, which God himself exemplifies in the highest heaven and which leads humans upon earth to the ultimate goal of liberation (Moksha) or the highest world (Parandhama).

God is the source of all. In his absolute state he is free from qualities and attributes (nirguna), but in his manifested aspect as Isvara, the Lord of the Universe, he personifies purity, perfection and divine qualities or the highest morality. They are also present in us as potentials and possibilities. Morality or the righteous conduct is a projection of God’s divinity in the mortal world just as the reflection of the sun upon the surface of a lake. We can bring it to the fore and let it shine through righteous conduct and the practice of Dharma, by following God’s eternal virtues and exemplary conduct upon earth in performing our duties.

Dharma is sustained by God’s eternal purity and divinity. It is an aspect of them in the mortal world. In creation, it is not a static force, but a moving power, regulating power, motivating power, creating power, sustaining power and transformative power. Hence, in the Hindu iconography it is depicted as a revolving wheel. Virtue, morality, rules of conduct, ethical laws, righteousness, religiosity and auspicious qualities arise from God only as aspects of his eternal Dharma and his very essence. They are characterized by purity, perfection and morality, just as God is. The three are interconnected and concurrent, and cannot be separated, for there can be no purity without morality, and no perfection without purity and morality.

Morality and karma

The ethical values of Hinduism are guided by many principles. One of them is that virtue is the basis of peace and happiness, and the practice of virtue must bring peace and happiness not only to its practitioners but also to others who form part of their lives and environment. Since creation is a projection of God and all manifested things are interconnected and unified by his presence, our actions must bring peace and happiness not only to us but also to others. In other words, selfishness is undivine and unethical. One should live for oneself and for others, and everyone is obligated to God, who is the creator, and serve his purpose and aims within their limitations. This principle is also the basis of the law of karma.

In Hinduism, karma is the inexorable law. Karma and Dharma are intertwined. It is difficult to separate them. The hub of the wheel of karma is Dharma, and the wheel of Dharma is moved by the power of karma only. Therefore, actions (karma) should be performed according to the principles of Dharma only. When both are in harmony, actions lead to peace and happiness, otherwise to sinful consequences, suffering and bondage. The knowledge of Dharma and adherence to the principles of Dharma are necessary not only for the wellbeing of people who engage in actions and obligatory duties but also for the welfare of the world.

No one can escape from the consequences of their own actions, for which no outside witness or enforcement is required. In all actions, thoughts and intentions, the Self which resides in all living beings stands as their witness and holds them answerable to the. The law of karma is thus inviolable. As the regulating and correcting mechanism, it encompasses all the rules and laws that govern human conduct upon earth. Further, it governs itself by the power of God. As the karma of each action fructifies in its own time, people learn their own lessons and correct themselves. Hence, although man made institutions may dispense with justice, in reality karma is the enforcer of Dharma and morality upon earth.

The framework of Hindu ethics and morality

Hindu lawbooks establish a broad framework of rules, rewards, punishments and procedures to ensure Dharma, morality, righteous conduct, the order and regularity of the world and the progression of life upon earth. The rules are mainly with regard to food, personal hygiene, education, caste, family, afterlife, social engagement, treatment of parents, teachers, elders and others, performance of sacrifices, sacraments and rituals, martial relationships, sexual mores, inheritance, ancestors and afterlife, gods and goddesses and liberation.

Hindu Dharma recognizes the complexity and the compulsions of human life. Hence, it does not prescribe rigid laws that universally govern all humans. The Baudhayana Sutras states the problem, “Narrow and difficult to find is the path of the sacred law, towards which many gates lead. Hence, if there is a doubt, it must not be propounded by one man only, however learned he may be… Thousands of Brahmanas cannot form a lawful assembly to determine the sacred law, if they have not fulfilled their sacred duties, are unacquainted with the Vedas, and subsist only by the name of their caste.”

Righteousness is determined not by the authority of caste or status or by blind adherence to a rigid code of conduct as laid down in a scripture, but by the circumstances in which humans find themselves and the actions they perform in varying conditions according to the best of their judgment, knowledge and discernment. Still, laws are important for the guidance of people, especially for those who do not possess the required knowledge or think for themselves. However, they cannot blindly be interpreted, without any reference to the context in which actions have been performed and the constraint to which  individuals are subject. Hence, Hinduism emphasizes the importance of cleansing the mind and intelligence and cultivating discernment so that one can know the right from the wrong through careful observation and reflection, in the light of prevailing laws and established customs, traditions, norms and practices. One should also consider the transient nature of the world and the changes that happen in the moral, social, political and secular aspects of human life.

Factors governing morality or ethical conduct

Due to the diversity and complexity of its social order and religious and spiritual practice, the laws and the ethical standards and principles of Hinduism are governed by various factors. They encompass all classes of people and all aspects of life and form part of the Hindu way of life. The law books take these factors into consideration to ascertain righteous conduct or prescribe appropriate laws or recommend suitable rewards and punishments according to the context or the situation in which people find themselves and engage in actions or inaction. The laws concerning Hindu ethics and morality are therefore complex and require deeper study.

Birth or caste

In the past, birth played an important role in determining the caste of a person and which laws governed his or her life and conduct. The Dharma Shastras clearly discriminated between people according to their caste. For example, those who were born in higher castes had a different set of laws compared to those who were born in lower castes. The punitive laws also varied according to the same criteria. Higher castes were subject to most severe punishments for certain offences, and the lower castes for certain others. Manu Smriti set higher standards of conduct for Brahmanas since they were supposed lead exemplary lives as the upholders of Dharma and the beloved of the gods. While caste determined ideal code of conduct for each person, conduct also influenced the caste status of a person. For example, the Vashista Sutras says that “Brâhmanas who neither study nor teach the Veda nor keep sacred fires will become equal to Sûdras.” The moral of this is that if you are an important person in society, you have an obligation to lead an exemplary life and adhere to higher standards of behavior.

Duty or profession

The law books also specify different set of rules for people engaged in different professions. In the past, a person’s birth and caste determined his or her profession, which is not the case now. Still, one cannot ignore the importance of profession or duty in the conduct of a person. For example, a person who has taken up priestly functions or the duties of a spiritual teacher has to live a righteous life and show exemplary conduct, while a solder has to show exemplary courage in the battlefield and do his part as a warrior in protecting and upholding the order and regularity of the world. Whatever may be the profession, it is an important aspect of human life, where humans with an opportunity to engage in righteous karma by serving themselves, others and God himself, and thereby work for their liberation, peace and happiness.


In Hinduism, both action and inaction have moral and ethical consequences. Morality may be the consequence of both direct and indirect actions. People do not live in isolation. Their actions affect others and the others’ actions affect them. There is also the problem of collective karma. Thus, a person may incur sin by engaging or not engaging in certain actions. For example, while truthfulness is one of the highest virtues, a person may cause suffering to others by speaking truth. Although a person may not directly hurt or harm others, by remaining silent or doing nothing he may allow a violent person hurt others. Therefore, the Dharma Shastras prescribe laws not only for regulating direct actions but also involvement or complicity. A person shall not speak truth if it is going to harm or hurt someone. Similarly, a person, who witnesses an evil action but does nothing, also incurs sin by his inaction, fear or cowardice. Aiding and abetting others in their sinful actions, protecting a person from a punishable offence, etc. are deemed unethical and evil.


One of the governing principles of Hindu lawbooks is that the ethical nature of actions or behavior is determined not only by actions but also by the intentions behind them. According to them actions that are performed with selfish intentions are evil and lead to sinful consequences. A seemingly good action may be driven by an evil or selfish intention and vice versa. A sacrifice may be performed out of vanity or egoism. Hence, Hindu ethics put equal emphasis upon all physical, mental and verbal actions. They also declare that desire is the root cause of evil. Therefore, one should cultivate detachment and engage in desireless actions to cultivate purity and overcome sinful karma. If the intention is good, a violent act such as fighting in a war for the sake of Dharma will not bind, whereas if the intention is evil, even verbal violence leads to bondage and suffering.


The Vedic Varnasharama Dharma (which is no more followed by most Hindus) prescribes different set of rules and code of conduct for the four phases in human life namely the age of celibacy (Brahmacharya), the age of householder duties (Grishasta), the age of contemplative life in a secluded place or forest (Vanaprastha) and the age of renunciation (Sanyasa). For example, a student has to live by begging, a householder by sacrificing, serving and ensuring the continuity of his family lineage, and an ascetic by renouncing worldly life and practicing austerities. A student was prohibited from enjoying any luxuries or contact with women, whereas a householder had the permission to marry one or more women and engage in conjugal activities to produce children and facilitate the rebirth of his ancestors. Daily fire sacrifices were obligatory for the householders, while a renunciant had to give up the use of fire even to warm his body and depend upon his bodily heat only.


Although the basic morality and moral percepts are the same for both men and women, the Hindu code of conduct prescribes different standards and set of rules for both genders in matters of education, religious or spiritual practice, marriage, personal freedom, punishments for various offences and inheritance. The law books explicitly restrict the freedom of women to make important decisions for themselves, while giving them a place of honor in the social order and recognizing their importance in the practice of Dharma and continuation of family. For example, Manu declared that a father who takes even a little of his daughter’s property (streedhanam) would go to hell, while he was rightfully entitled to claim financial support from his sons. Vashista states, “A woman is not independent, the males are her masters. As the Vedas declared, 'A female who neither goes naked nor is temporarily unclean is paradise.'” Again, “Their fathers protect them in childhood, their husbands protect them in youth, and their sons protect them in old age. A woman is never fit for independence.”


The Hindu code of conduct also varies according to the path of liberation or the lifestyle one chooses. According to Manu a householder has the permission as well as obligation to engage in obligatory duties and worldly activities, observing the tenfold law (Contentment, forgiveness, self-control, abstention, etc.), while a renunciant has to give up all rites and live in seclusion, without a shelter and without attachments and relationships. Such laws extend to many areas of life. For example, Vashista suggests how much food is appropriate for people pursuing different paths of life, “Eight mouthfuls for an ascetic, sixteen for a hermit, thirty-two for a householder, and an unlimited quantity for a student.” Similarly, the use of sex, meat, alcohol, intoxicants, etc., is allowed in the religious or spiritual practices of the unconventional, left-hand methods (vamachara), whereas they are prohibited in the traditional, right hand practices (vedachara).

Place and time

In Hinduism, moral and religious actions may also be bound to place and time. Certain places are deemed impure and evil such as places frequented by prostitutes, gamblers, thieves, murderers, etc., which pious people were advised to avoid. If they visited such places by mistake or by chance, they would have to follow prescribed procedures to purify themselves. One of the lawbooks states that a householder shall not eat food on a ship or a wooden chamber or in a house where a woman is still sleeping, where a death occurred within ten days or where a corpse was lying. Students should not sleep in daytime. A Brahmana might accept food from anyone in times of distress, but he should accept from Brahmanas only in other circumstances. Students should not sleep in daytime, and householders should not engage in sexual activity except in the nights, and that too on specific days and subject to conditions. The lawbooks also proscribed sexual activity for women when they were practicing penances (vratas), or when they were menstruating. A teacher was advised to avoid intercourse during the rainy season and in autumn, and not to lie with his wife for the whole night.

Good and evil

The ethics of Hinduism draw a clear line between good and evil. Virtuous people are expected to avoid association with evil people, since the contact itself may result in the accumulation of sinful karma. The same principle applies with regard to the practice of Dharma, acceptance of charity or observance of penance. For example, Apastamba discourages householder from accepting food from “a drunkard, a madman, a prisoner, he who learns the Veda from his son, a creditor who sits with his debtor (hindering the fulfillment of his duties), a debtor who thus sits (with his creditor.” Similarly, certain actions result in the loss of caste (pataniya) such as stealing, homicide, neglect of the Vedas, causing abortion, incestuous relationships, drinking spirituous liquor, and intercourse with persons with whom it is forbidden. The scriptures such as the epics and the Puranas indicate that mere association with evil people may result in the accumulation of sin and a visit to the hell in the afterlife.

Common or cardinal virtues

Although Hindu ethics are complex and circumstantial and difficult to generalize or translate into a rigid code of conduct, the lawbooks uphold certain cardinal morals, values and virtues as universally valid and applicable to all people, irrespective of their caste, profession, age or background. They also recognize the importance of moral conduct and righteous actions for peace and happiness here and hereafter. Scriptures such as the Bhagavad-Gita go a step further and emphasize that morality and righteous duties should be pursued not for any particular end but as an end in itself, without any desires and expectations, and as an obligatory duty and service to God.

It is so because renunciation is one of the highest virtues, which involves the renunciation of judgment, the worldly notions of morality and right and wrong, and preference for any rigid code of conduct. The absolute reality of Brahman is complete and perfect in every aspect, and contains in itself everything. We cannot say that he is only truth, or light since he transcends all the known divisions, dualities and polarities. Therefore, to attain oneness with Brahman one has to renounce all notions or morality and immorality and cultivate sameness, suspending judgment, attraction and aversion.

Yet, Dharma and morality cannot be abandoned even after renunciation, only the clinging, judgment and the mental preference for them. The karma of beings upon earth and their existence in the afterlife or their transmigration are determined by purity and righteous conduct. Without them, no one can enter the highest heaven. The mortal world is an impure world. The mortal bodies are filled with many impurities. When they are removed through righteous conduct, the divinity of the soul manifests itself. It is why in Hinduism transformative practices such as Yamas (restraints) and Niyamas (observances) have great significance. They are meant to cleanse the being and remove the impurities that accumulate around the soul, so that it can shine in its pristine purity, perfection and divinity.

According to Vashista Sutras, to live by the rule of conduct is the highest duty. Good conduct leads to spiritual merit, wealth, beauty and removal of evil marks. “He whose soul is defiled by vile conduct perishes in this world and in the next.” He whose conduct is vile and who has strayed from this duty can be redeemed by neither austerities nor the Vedas nor sacrifices nor lavish gifts. A man of bad conduct is blamed by all. He is constantly haunted by evil and afflicted with disease and a short lifespan.

Manusmriti prescribed a tenfold law for the householders. The ten virtues are resolve (dhriti), forgiveness (kshama), self-restraint (dama), non-stealing (asteya), cleanliness (saucha), restraint of the sense-organs (indriya-nigraham), mental brilliance (dhi), right knowledge (vidya), truthfulness (satyam) and freedom from anger (akrodha). Those householders who practice these ten virtues qualify to become ascetics or attain liberation.

Apastamba declared the following qualities, which are universal and can be cultivated by people of all castes, “Freedom from anger, from exultation, from grumbling, from covetousness, from perplexity, from hypocrisy and hurtfulness, truthfulness, moderation in eating, silencing a slander, freedom from envy, self-denying liberality, avoiding to accept gifts, uprightness, affability, extinction of passions, subjugation of the senses, peace with all created beings, concentration of the mind or the contemplation of the Âtman, regulation of one's conduct according scriptures, peacefulness and contentedness.”

Vashista identified five mortal sins (mahapatakas) namely “violating a teacher’s bed, drinking sura (spirituous liquor), slaying a learned Brâhmana, stealing gold from a Brâhmana, and associating with unworthy people.” He also lists a few minor offences (upa patakas) such as a Brahmana who forsakes the sacred fires after initiating them, who offends a guru, who becomes an atheist, who takes up atheism as a profession, and who sells spurious liquor or intoxicating substances.

The Bhagavadgita (chapter 16) identifies the following as qualities that are born out of divine nature (daiva sampatti), "Fearlessness, predominance of sattva, well established in the yoga of knowledge, (engaged in) charity, self-restraint, self-study of the scriptures, austerity and simplicity, non-injury, truthfulness, freedom from anger, self-sacrificing, peaceful, non-slandering, compassion towards all beings, non-covetousness, gentleness, modesty, unwaveringness, vigor, forgiveness, fortitude, cleanliness, freedom from treachery, absence of self-importance.” On the other hand, qualities such as "Vanity, arrogance, self-pride, anger, harshness and even ignorance” are result of demonic nature. Divine qualities lead to liberation, and demonic qualities to bondage and suffering.

Mention may also be made of Yamas (abstentions) and Niyamas (observances) which form part of many Hindu spiritual practices, including Yoga. They are transformative practices which are meant to remove the impurities and afflictions of the human mind and facilitate its absorption in the transcendental Self. Nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing, celibacy, and non-covetousness constitute the five Yamas. The five Niyamas are cleanliness, contentment, austerity (tapas), recitation of scriptures, and devotion. The practice of the Yamas and Niyamas along with the other limbs of Yoga such as withdrawal of the senses, breath control, concentration and meditation lead to purification, suppression of the modifications of the mind and latent impressions, which in turn culminate in unified awareness or Samadhi.

Everyday ethics

The following are few important everyday ethics which are practiced by many Hindus in today’s world, with a few exceptions and divergences.

  1. Respect for parents, elders, teachers, guests, pious people, saints and seers.
  2. Oblations and sacrifices to gods and goddesses, ancestors, and other living beings either at home or in temples or in sacred places.
  3. Celebration of festivals and religious events such as the birth or death of a saint or seer or the beginning of a new year or season.
  4. Performance of rites and rituals associated with important events in the life of an individual such as conception, birth, initiation, marriage, death, etc.
  5. Charity for the poor, the weak, the disabled and the needy.
  6. Compassion towards animals such as the cows, bulls, elephants, monkeys, etc.
  7. Fasting and penance on specific occasions to overcome adversity or earn merit.
  8. Seeking parental and family guidance in matters of education, marriage, profession, etc. A majority of Hindus still prefer arranged marriages.
  9. Public distaste for extra marital relationships, promiscuity, premarital relationships, nudity, love marriages, inter-caste and interreligious marriages, homosexuality, etc.
  10. Preference for vegetarian food to avoid the sinful karma of violence towards animals.
  11. Bathing in the sacred rivers and temple ponds for spiritual cleansing and purification.
  12. Going on pilgrimages to pay homage to gods or earn merit (punyam).

Suggestions for Further Reading

Translate the Page