The Rigveda rishis concerned themselves earnestly with ethics, which belong to the social sphere of how a person should treat his fellows. A caring and generously sharing attitude was commended, along with the values of truthfulness, keeping one’s word, and living in harmony. This was seen as necessary for social health as well as the strength to offer united resistance to an external threat.
In addition to the social, there is another sphere in which the individual, in the privacy of his being, relates and responds to God or the Cosmos or Brahman. This distinction is important. Reinhold Niebuhr says in The Self and the Drama of History, that there are “two dimensions of self-hood: the social and the transcendent. The self must both be related to a community and an inclusive historic process, and have the freedom to transcend every social process to seek after unique fulfillments of its own.”
Post-Vedic thinkers, of the period of Braminism, employed the concepts of Dharma, Artha and Kama while discussing social ethics. Dharma initially meant caste duty. Over the years, it acquired the meaning of righteousness. The word is used, confusingly, in both senses in the Mahabharata. Krishna, in the Bhagvat Gita, tells Arjuna not to run away from his caste duty, as a Kshatriya, of fighting the Kauravas. Bhisma in his dying discourse uses the term in a higher sense. He says that he has been asking people, with uplifted hands, to follow dharma but few paid heed. In the scheme of Dharma-Artha-Karma as the ‘Three Ends of Man,’ Dharma or righteousness was expected to regulate the pursuit of profit and pleasure.
Moksha was a later addition, as the ’Fourth End of Man.’ The word has carried various meanings: death, as release from the pain and fret of life, as release from the Karma-driven cycle of rebirth after every death; and as attainment of supreme bliss, or transcendence, even while living.
(Edited extracts from Discovering the Rigveda by G.N.S. Raghavan)