Virtue and Vice Icon

November 20, 2021

In most countries crime is defined with reference to a sense of pápa [vice] and puńya [virtue].

These have their roots in the religions of individual countries.

For example, English people customarily believe that suicide is one of the gravest sins. According to the customary belief of Indians, suicide is a sin, but not a grave one.

The Japanese do not consider suicide to be a sin at all.

That is why the penal codes of these three countries are different. In Japan neither suicide nor attempted suicide is a crime, and thus neither is a punishable offence.

In India today, the attempt to commit suicide is a crime. But suicide itself is not, hence only the attempt to commit suicide is a punishable offence.

In England, the attempt to commit suicide and actual suicide are both crimes, hence both are considered to be punishable offences.(3)

So those who rend the air arguing about virtue and vice are not usually listened to outside their own countries.

Ideas about virtue and vice are based on one or both of the following factors:

  • different religious beliefs
  • traditional or contemporary social beliefs created by factors other than religion.

These ideas change not only according to place, but also according to time and person.

In ancient India, for example, people used to burn defenceless widows to death without a twinge of conscience.

The thought that this might be a sinful or unlawful act never entered their minds. Indians of that time believed that those who opposed sati were being antisocial, unpatriotic and sinful.

It would not be correct for us to feel hatred or disdain towards those ancient people, living as we do in a different era.

Perhaps those who burnt Joan of Arc to death did not commit a crime according to the concept of virtue and vice prevalent at the time.

Different concepts of virtue and vice may also coexist in one country.

For example, for a Shákta [devotee of Shakti] eating meat is not a sin.

But for a Vaeśńava [Vaishnavite, devotee of Viśńu] even to see an animal being slaughtered is a sin. He or she cannot even think of eating meat.

Since the concept of virtue and vice is completely relative, it is meaningless to loudly support or oppose the views of a particular community or the laws of a particular country as if they were the absolute truth.

Today, therefore, everyone should develop a magnanimous outlook in such matters. Otherwise, their extreme intolerance will result in bloodshed around the world in the name of:

  • spreading religion or
  • protecting virtue.

The state should not blindly follow scriptural injunctions on virtue and vice. It will be impossible for the state to maintain its existence if it commits such an error.

Virtue and vice are psychic expressions which are defined by changes in time, place and person.

Under these circumstances, what should the basis of legal codes be? If legal codes are based on the different concepts of virtue and vice professed by different groups of people, a question will arise: “If two litigants, a plaintiff and a defendant, belonging to two different communities, appear in court, on which community’s legal code will the judicial process be based?”

We can therefore see that crime cannot be defined by legal codes developed according to the concepts of virtue and vice followed by different groups of people.

Society will have to define what constitutes a crime and what does not in accordance with a moral standard.

Immorality is anything that, for the sake of advancing the interest of an individual or group, aims to exploit another individual or group, or deprives them of the right to self-preservation.

Behaviour based on such immoral intentions is a crime.

If the concept of virtue and vice of a particular person or a particular time is taken as absolute, the opportunity to introduce corrective measures into the law will be severely limited and restricted.

This will severely retard the dynamism of that society, leading to chaos and collapse.

This is what happened to the ancient Egyptian, Roman, Greek and pre-Buddhist Vedic societies. If the Indian legal system were not reformed, then sati would still be practised today.

This is because, according to ancient beliefs, cremation by sati was a virtuous act.

Every rational person will therefore support giving scope to alterations and additions to legal codes.

As soon as the social codes of the Vedic Age lost their flexibility due to the intransigence of Aryan vested interests, the Buddhist revolution took place.

This significantly raised the consciousness of the people. In a later period, people of all religious affiliations – Buddhist, Jain, etc. – automatically accepted the idea that changes in the social code were desirable, that the concept of virtue and vice would inevitably change according to the needs of the age.

Thus, the following ages had different social systems:

  • the Paráshara Saḿhitá
  • the Rámáyańa
  • the Mahábhárata
  • the Manu Saḿhitá.(4)

People cannot arbitrarily impose their judicial system or legal codes on people through the state regardless of differences in time, place or person, are mistaken.

A Changing Moral Code

The principles underlying the legal codes will have to be based on people’s social needs and not on the whims of an individual or group or the biases inherent in a particular concept of virtue and vice.

Society is a dynamic entity. It has to progress by endlessly struggling to break through ever-changing barriers.

It has to equip itself in different ways to respond to changing conditions and new challenges.

Society should remember that:

  • the struggles it had in the past will not be the same as those of the present
  • the struggles of today will not be the same as those of the future.

Thus, as the environment changes, newer and newer codes of justice will have to be formulated on the basis of the moral code.

The duty of those who frame legal codes is to fully recognize the essential characteristics of life and not violate the interests of individuals, groups or society as a whole. Otherwise the codes will be seen as unnatural and will not be accepted, which means that the state will have difficulty in implementing them effectively.

For example, during the British rule of India, the Sarda Act (5) was not properly enforced due to a lack of education. If a large section of the society is confronted with the possibility of being considered criminals in the eyes of the law, they will engage in deceitful conduct and other antisocial acts to avoid punishment.

Thus, the standard of morality will decline considerably. Therefore, if such codes are ever formulated, the state will lose its credibility and become the laughing-stock of society.

If somebody commits a violent crime, generally he or she will not receive any sympathy from the public.

But if somebody chooses the path of violence to protest against practices which are abhorred by his or her fellow citizens, he or she will, in all likelihood, enjoy popular support.

The Judicial System

Capital punishment is morally unacceptable. Yet people sometimes resort to it under specific circumstances.

It does not contain any corrective measures. It only aims to instil fear into people’s minds.

Therefore, the practice of taking a life out of anger cannot be accepted in a civilized social system.

Even if somebody is a genuine criminal who has no public support (no matter how notorious a criminal he or she may be, he or she is still a human being), he should have an opportunity to become an asset to society?

It is possible that although the person fails to evoke our sympathy because of the seriousness of his or her crimes, he or she may sincerely repent and be prepared to dedicate the rest of his or her life to the genuine service of society.

If criminals are afflicted with a mental disease, our duty is to cure them instead of sentencing them to death.

Most civilized countries reason that criminals who commit a crime on the spur of the moment are to be given more leniency.

Some people argue that if criminals who commit serious offences are not given capital punishment, they will have to be sentenced to life imprisonment, because few countries have the facilities to cure them of their mental disease.

But such a decision may cause overcrowding in the prisons. Is it possible for the state to provide so many people with food and clothing? Rather I would ask, “Why should such criminals live off the state at all?”

The state will have to see to it that it receives suitable work from them. And after the completion of their sentence, the state should sincerely make arrangements to find them employment so that they will be able to earn an honest living.

A prison should therefore be just like a reform school. The superintendent should be a teacher who is trained in psychology and who has genuine love for society.

Hence a jailer should possess no less ability than a judge.

To appoint a person to this post on the basis of a degree he or she has earned from some university or according to his or her capacity to please a superior, would be most detrimental.

If those charged with antisocial activities and sentenced to prison experience daily injustices, feel a lack of open-heartedness from others, or receive less food and poorer-quality food than that sanctioned by the government, their criminal tendencies and maliciousness will develop and manifest all the more.

If a criminal is imprisoned for a serious crime, his children might join a gang of pickpockets and his daughters might take to prostitution.

In other words, by trying to punish a single criminal, 10 more criminals may be created.

Thus when sentencing a criminal, one will have to take into consideration the financial condition of the members of his or her family. The state will have to provide them with the means to earn an honest living.

If the judicial system is to be totally accessible to the public, ordinary people will have to be able to afford it. Therefore one of the most important things to do is to increase the number of judges.

It is true more or less everywhere in the world that judges, due to pressure of work, are often compelled to adjourn cases. I do not completely oppose the practice of adjournment, because at times an adjournment can be advantageous to innocent people.

But it can be of equal value to criminals who get the opportunity to tamper with evidence, to influence witnesses and to find false witnesses. This cannot be denied.

Experienced judges know if and when it is necessary to adjourn a case in the interests of the public, but if the public interest is not served by this measure, no judge in all conscience should adjourn a case simply due to pressure of work. It is therefore essential to increase the number of judges.

It is not easy to increase the number of judges. It requires a thorough examination and careful selection of candidates. Relatively simple and ordinary cases can even be entrusted to responsible citizens.

To deal with such cases, honorary magistrates can be employed. However, these honorary magistrates will also have to exhibit a highly-developed sense of responsibility at the time of discharging their duties.

In countries where they are selected from among businessmen who have made a quick fortune or from among known sycophants, they will be mere liabilities to the people.

There was a learned judge who delivered judgements according to Whoever gave sufficient money.

The Need for a Spiritual Ideal

“Prevention is better than cure” may be applied to all aspects of life.

When the variety and seriousness of crimes increases with the advancement of civilization, the crime-prevention policies should be given greater importance than remedial action.

Civilized people today should be more interested in preventing base criminal propensities from arising in human beings in the first place, than in taking corrective measures to cure criminals’ mental diseases.

People act in order to attain happiness.

We judge people’s actions as “good” and “bad”, “virtue” and “vice”, only after evaluating those actions in terms of a goal and steps to reach that goal.

Most people are not born dishonest.

There are differences among people’s goals and their efforts to reach their goals. These differences are caused by defects in their bodies’ various glands. This can be corrected through collective effort.

If one’s goal is a pure and pervasive one, then the defects in the process of attaining the goal can never transform a person into a sub-human creature.

If these efforts are in harmony with people’s psychology, this will be extremely beneficial.

As a result, many people will harmonize the rhythm of their diverse ideas and ideologies and progress together. It will gradually transform the inherent individualism and disparity of social life into one symphonic chord, one unified rhythm.

This will become the genuine prototype of a healthy human society.

This idea of oneness is fundamentally a spiritual idea.

Individually and collectively, human beings will have to accept the Supreme and the path to realize the Supreme as the highest truth. This will have to be recognized as the highest goal of human life. It is impossible to implement a sound, well-thought-out plan of action for social progress without this.

Without a spiritual ideal, no social, economic, moral, cultural or political policy or programme can bring humanity to the path of peace.

Virtue and vice are both distortions of the mind.

That which may be considered good in one particular temporal, spatial or personal environment may be considered bad in another.

A country generally bases its penal code on the concept of virtue and vice which prevails in that country, and the concept of virtue and vice in turn is based on accepted religious doctrines.

Virtue is that which helps to expand the mind, by whose assistance the universe increasingly becomes an integral part of oneself.

Vice is that which makes the mind narrow and selfish.

A Universal Penal Code

Except for those social problems caused by geographical factors, the solution to all complex social problems is in implementing a universal penal code applicable to all humanity.

Different laws should not bind different peoples, countries or communities.

All human beings:

  • laugh when happy
  • cry when sad
  • mourn when they feel despair
  • need food, clothing and housing.

So why should people be separated from each other by artificial distinctions?

The world constitution should be drafted by a global organization recognized by the people. Otherwise, the possibility exists that at any moment a minority in a country might be persecuted.

Everyone knows that:

  • when a revolutionary is victorious in a country’s political struggle, he will be considered a patriot
  • when a revolutionary is defeated, he will face death and be branded as a traitor despite his or her innocence.

In nearly every country the law is based on the opinions of powerful people, and their autocratic style cannot be questioned. But is such a situation desirable? Does this not undermine civilization?

That is why I contend that laws must be drafted by a global organization, and, further, that the supreme authority to judge or to try a person should be vested in that organization.

If that global organization then refrains from interfering in the internal affairs of countries, powerless groups or individuals will be forced to lead the lives of virtual slaves, in spite of written assurances that they are free.



(1) The ripus, or śad́aripus (six enemies), are underlying mental weaknesses which cause immense harm to people. They are: káma (physical desire); krodha (anger); lobha (avarice); mada (vanity); moha (blind attachment or infatuation); and mátsarya (jealousy). –Trans.

(2) In the Dáyabhága system the heirs’ right of inheritance is subject to the discretion of the father, who has the right to disinherit any of the heirs. –Trans.

(3) After the Suicide Act 1961 was passed by the British Parliament, it was no longer an offence to commit suicide under English law. –Trans.

(4) These books contain mainly stories and codes of conduct. (While they have all provided social and ethical guidance to Indian society in their respective periods, only the Rámáyańa and the Mahábhárata continue to be extremely popular today.) –Trans.

(5) The Sarda Act was intended to prevent the marriage of girls below the age of fourteen. –Trans.