Ethics for Personal and Social Transformation

PROUT founder P.R. Sarkar believed that morality is the foundation upon which a better society and economic democracy must be built. He pointed out that traditional rules-based morality, expressed in terms of absolutes, is inadequate to the task of solving most moral questions in the relative world. If a deranged gunman is shooting innocent people, the Biblical commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” is inappropriate to the immediate need to stop him as fast as possible at any cost, in order to save other lives.

It is natural that people may react if morality is imposed on them. When people are coerced to obey dogmatic rules, some respond by rejecting all morality whatsoever.

Sarkar appealed for a moral framework based on “practical wisdom.” He drew a subtle distinction between what he termed “simple morality” and “spiritual morality.” He pointed out that throughout history, most moral values have reflected the interests of the rich and powerful. Each ruling class has exploited other classes through force and cunning, creating rules and justifications for those rules to suit their interest. Human history is a chronicle of exclusion and power.

Instead of simple do’s and don’ts, Sarkar insisted that in choosing the correct way to act in different situations, the intention behind each deed is of great importance. Spiritual morality is based on Neohumanism and cardinal human values, which include kindness, honesty, courage, mercy, humility, self-restraint and compassion. These qualities are considered virtues in every society and religious tradition because they give meaning and enhance the beauty of life, transforming people and society. Cardinal human values challenge us to protect the weak, avoid harming others, overcome selfishness and denounce the lies of those who abuse their power.

PROUT recognizes the existential value of every being; this value supersedes the social value or utilitarian value of a being. Hence every life has spiritual potential and should be preserved and encouraged as far as possible.

Throughout history, a gradual trend has emerged to establish a more permanent set of moral values based on the intrinsic value of human life. The struggles against slavery, tyranny, injustice and poverty reflect this. Ultimately, all cardinal human values arise from the evolution of consciousness and the spiritual urge to discover oneself.

One important contribution Sarkar has made to the ethical debate is his emphasis on balancing individual and collective interests. He proposed ethics and the sense of justice as the basis of idealism and inspiration in spiritual life, and that they are indispensable for the creation of a better society. Sarkar emphasized that while morality is the beginning of both the individual and collective movement, in itself it is not worthy of being the goal of life:

The morality of a moralist may disappear at any moment. It cannot be said with any certainty that the moralist who has resisted the temptation of a bribe of two rupees would also be able to resist the temptation of an offer of two hundred thousand rupees… It cannot be said that the ultimate aim of human life is not to commit theft; what is desirable is that the tendency to commit theft should be eliminated.[1]

To restore pramá (dynamic equipoise) in our communities and in our personal lives, we need a clear code of moral conduct. We need to broaden our sense of right and wrong to include “right living” in the world.

Ten Universal Principles

Sarkar adopted ten ancient ethical principles of yoga. The first five are called Yama, which means, “controlled contact with others”–they show us how to live in peace with others. The second five principles are called Niyama, which means “controlled conduct for self purification”–guidelines for how to be at peace with oneself.

These two sets [ext. link] are complementary, and they are both constructive and positive. Because Sarkar viewed ethics as tools for liberation and not for suppression, he re-interpreted these principles, discarding old dogmatic interpretations. Universal in nature, they can be an effective guide to choose wisely one’s actions in any time, in any place, and with any group of people.

The first five principles of Yama, or social values, are:

Ahim’sá: Not to intentionally harm others with one’s actions, words or thoughts.

Daily life involves struggle and the use of force–the mere acts of breathing and walking result in the unintentional deaths of thousands of microorganisms. Sarkar differs with some fundamentalist religious interpretations of ahim’sá by teaching that this principle does not preclude the use of force for survival, for self-defense or to defend others.

PROUT insists that ahim’sá includes a people’s right to resist foreign invasion as well as structural or institutional violence. It does not mean literal nonviolence at all times (as some, including Mahatma Gandhi, have interpreted it) because that is both impossible and impractical.[2]

The most important part of ahim’sá is one’s intention. Individually, it means striving to avoid hurtful thoughts, words and actions. In fact, every violent act begins with a thought, so if thoughts of anger or hatred arise, one should intentionally substitute positive thoughts until the angry ones fade away.

Ahim’sá recognizes certain actions as so inimical they must be stopped at any cost. Individuals or organizations that threaten murder with a weapon, kidnap someone, steal or burn another’s property, or poison someone are “human enemies.” So in the example mentioned above of a deranged gunman killing innocent people, in order to save lives the killer must be stopped as quickly as possible. Ahim’sá would not preclude killing the gunman in this case if it was the only way to save others.

A nation needs an armed police force and military for its security. Appropriate training and discipline are important to instill this principle of ahim’sá in protectors of the peace. They must resist the temptation to use their authority or their weapons to punish or kill someone out of anger, hatred or a lust for power; rather, their intent should be to protect everyone.

Satya: To use one’s words and one’s mind for the welfare of others; benevolent truthfulness.

PROUT is based on this spirit of benevolence; encouraging the physical, mental and spiritual development of everyone. This collective outlook is considered the most important of all the ten principles, because it directs one’s life for the goal of others. Satya directly opposes the lies of convenience and hypocrisy of those in power.

However, situations do arise when the truth can hurt others: for example, if a fugitive from a violent mob seeks your help, benevolent truthfulness would probably indicate hiding the victim and lying to the mob when they come hunting for that person. In other words, instead of simple truth, this principle aspires to a higher sense of morality based on benevolence.

One who continually thinks for the welfare of others will develop great inner strength and mental clarity that will enable that person to inspire others and realize his or her hopes and dreams. In interpersonal relations, the truth should be communicated with gentle and loving words.

Asteya: Not to take what rightfully belongs to others, and not to deprive others of what is their due.

In all societies, human beings have created systems of ownership and laws to avoid conflicts. Prout recognizes the need to question and col- lectively struggle to redesign unjust laws for the welfare of everyone. Yet when one breaks the law or steals for self-interest, the mind becomes crude–greed, lust and habitual lying bring about one’s downfall.

This principle rejects corruption and cheating, which are especially destructive in economically undeveloped countries. From the very inception of the Ananda Marga and PROUT movements in India, their members have maintained strict honesty in their personal lives. Sadly, this has often resulted in persecution. For example, when a member who was an employee of the police, customs or tax department informed fellow officers that he or she would not accept bribe money, this moral stand was commonly viewed as a threat to the rest of the department, and punitive recourses against the moralist were often taken.

The mental desire to steal must also be overcome, otherwise greed, jealousy and anger can poison the mind and cause constant frustration and disappointment.

Personal integrity and trustworthiness are essential qualities of an activist. One with ideal character is respected by all good people.

Brahmacarya: To respect and treat everyone and everything as an expression of the Supreme Consciousness.

Our welfare is entwined together. This is an attitude that is both spiritual and ecological, accepting that every being has profound physical, mental and spiritual potential. We are each a part of the whole. We are each consciousness. Thus we have the right to object to one’s actions, but we do not have the right to hate that person.

At the end of a yoga class in a prison in Great Britain, the instructor announced a homework assignment: “To everyone you see this week, think, ‘I love you’.” One prisoner thought it ridiculous, but decided to try it anyway, as no one would know, it was all in his head. It was hard for him not to laugh when he thought ‘I love you’ as the meanest prisoners and toughest guards passed by. Within hours people were asking him why he was grinning all the time. By the end of the week, both convicts and guards asked him what had happened, because he wasn’t getting into arguments or fights anymore, and he always seemed cheerful and friendly. He wisely decided to continue the exercise. What worked for him can work for anyone.

Aparigraha: Not to accumulate wealth or indulge in comforts which are unnecessary for the preservation of life.

This is a principle of ecology, living simply with only as many material belongings as is necessary. It is a mistake to run after worldly objects in one’s search for happiness. A materialistic lifestyle restricts one’s love and concern to a very limited circle of friends and family, and causes feelings of jealousy, envy, and vanity to increase. Everyone longs for inner peace and love; no physical object can provide that.

This tenet echoes the words of British economist E.F. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered: “An attitude of life which seeks fulfillment in the single-minded pursuit of wealth–in short, in materialism–doesn’t fit into this world, because it contains within itself no limiting principle, while the environment in which it is placed is strictly limited.”[3]

Aparigraha is based on the idea of Cosmic inheritance, that we do not own the wealth of this planet. Instead we are its caretakers, and only have the right to use and share resources for the welfare of all. Unfortunately, in North America 5 percent of the world’s population is consuming 30 percent of the world’s resources and creating 30 percent of the world’s waste; if everyone in the world copied this lifestyle, we would need five planets![4] Ecologists prescribe personal recycling, home energy conservation, reducing automobile use and changing one’s diet to consume organisms lower on the food chain.

Each of these steps requires some amount of personal sacrifice, inconvenience and time. Education is the best way to awaken consciousness about the need to reduce our consumption to help restore ecological balance.

The five principles of Niyama are about positive self-control, which lead to personal strength:

Shaoca: To maintain the cleanliness of one’s body and the environment, as well as mental purity.

The cleanliness of our body and our environment is critical to our physical and mental health. Likewise, our social environment–family and society–also has a positive or negative effect on us. Unfortunately, modern society bombards us with messages about violence and sex that have a very disturbing effect on our minds. Pornography pollutes our thoughts and corrupts our behavior.

This principle also refers to internal cleanliness. For example, eating excessively leads to indigestion, mental dullness, obesity, and, in most cases, unhappiness. Self-restraint is important for mental purity and peace of mind.

Santosa: To maintain a state of mental contentment and peace.

The dominant modern lifestyle in developed countries is extremely hectic, stressful and often superficial. Materialism and consumerism stimulate greed, causing even wealthy people to feel frustrated and unhappy. People often shop to escape boredom or loneliness. Investigative journalist Duncan Campbell observed, “Americans have more time- saving devices and less time than any other group of people in the world.”[5]

It is profoundly important to stop and spend time with children, family and friends. Despite all the problems we encounter each day, we should keep our patience and sense of humor. This is the attitude of an optimist, who always sees the bright side of everything, without closing one’s eyes to the pains and sufferings of others. This principle instills a profound sense of gratitude for all the blessings of life, and instills hope in others.

Mental peace also comes from the deeper understanding that, spiritually, everything has a purpose. This is articulated by Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

Tapah: To alleviate the suffering of the needy through personal service and sacrifice.

Giving one’s personal time to help those who are less fortunate, perceiving them as members of our human family, profoundly enriches one’s own life. Volunteering in this way is only considered tapah when it is done without the thought of reward or publicity. This type of true service develops mutual respect and instills humility.

Fear and ignorance prevent many people from serving others. By confronting our fears and reaching out to others in need, we overcome artificial barriers that divide people and learn to listen and identify with the problems of others. Service is essential for activists who want to change the world, because it creates a bond of friendship with the common people we want to help.

Albert Schweitzer, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said, “You must give some time to your fellow men. Even if it’s a little thing, do something for others–something for which you get no pay but the privilege of doing it.”

Svádhyáya: To read and endeavor to gain a clear understanding of spiritual books and scriptures, and listen to wise teachings.

To gain such a clear understanding, it is imperative that we use our rational, questioning minds. This practice gives the reader contact with great personalities and daily inspiration to begin and continue the per- sonal path to self-realization.

While it is important to respect the spiritual traditions and paths of others, it is also important to oppose irrational and superstitious practices which cause harm to others. Blind obedience to religious dogmas results in fanaticism, a socio-sentiment. An example of this is the outlook: “Only the followers of my religion are the chosen children of God. Only we will go to heaven when we die, while everyone else will be condemned to eternal hell.” This type of intolerant attitude has led to the Crusades, the Inquisition, the justification of slavery and untold religious wars and persecution throughout history. The principle of svádhyáya asks us to question internally what we read and hear as we search for truth and wisdom.

Iishvara Pran’idhána: To accept the Cosmic Consciousness as one’s shelter and goal.

This principle offers an answer to the ancient mystical question, “Who am I?” We are more than our physical body, more than our mind, we are pure consciousness, a drop in the infinite ocean of the Cosmic Mind.

This is also an attitude of surrender to a higher purpose. The famous Prayer of Saint Francis, which begins, “O Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace,” is an example of this spiritual tenet.

The late Jennifer Fitzgerald, in her extensive analysis of Sarkar’s ethics, wrote:

Sarkar straddles the absolute and the relative with a powerful combination of love and wisdom. He builds his ethical discourse on the simple, homegrown and sustainable base of wisdom. He has a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of all things in the world, of the essential forces which drive all those things, of basic needs, of essential nature, and of aspirations.[6]


1 P.R. Sarkar, “Introduction”, A Guide to Human Conduct (Calcutta: Ananda Marga Publications, 1977).
2 P.R. Sarkar, “Social Defects in Gandhism”, PROUT in a Nutshell Part 21 (Calcutta: Ananda Marga Publications, 1992). For a most interesting comparison, see Sohail Inayatullah’s “interview” with the two beyond the bondages of time and space, “Gandhi and Sarkar: On Non-violence, Rural Economy and the Indian Independence Movement,” Global Times, No. 3, May/Jun., 1998,
3 E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful (London: Abacus, 1973) p. 23.
4 “USA is the country with the largest per capita footprint in the world — a footprint of 9.57 hectares. If everyone on the planet was to live like an average American, we would need 5 planets.” from “Much Ado About Nothing”, October 11, 2006. See also John L Seitz, Global Issues: An Introduction (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2001) and Frances Harris, Global Environmental Issues (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2004).
5 Quoted in Bo Lozoff, Deep and Simple (Durham, NC: Human Kindness Foundation, 1999) p. 65.
6 Sohail Inayatullah and Jennifer Fitzgerald, Transcending Boundaries: Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar’s Theories of Individual and Social Transformation (Maleny, Australia: Gurukula Press, 1999).

Excerpted from After Capitalism: Economic Democracy in Action by Dada Maheshvarananda (Puerto Rico: Innerworld Publications, 2012):

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