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Human Nature and The Foundations of Moral Life as Explained in The Bhagavad Gita and Mencius

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What constitutes human nature? What is being human mean? How to lead a good life, a moral life? What constitutes being moral? Philosophy and philosophers have helped us find answers to these questions and tried to guide us for centuries. There are few texts and philosophers from centuries past that still are relevant and held to a high standard even today. The Bhagavad Gita by Vyasa and Mencius by Mencius are two such writings. The Bhagavad Gita is an extract from Mahabharata, an elaborate and extensive epic from India. The Mahabharata was composed between 500 BCE-500ACE. The Bhagavad Gita is used by millions of Hindus and others as a spiritual guide, revealing the way of being and behaving. It is the dialogue between Arjuna, a great warrior in the Pandava army and Krishna, his charioteer and later revealed as incarnation of God, the infinite in human form, as narrated by Sanjaya, a server of Dhritarashtra, the blind king of the opposing Kaurava’s. The dialogue takes place at the beginning of a battle between the Pandava and Kaurava armies and relays Krishna’s philosophy. The Mencius is a collection of sayings and preachings of Mencius and contains various conversations he had with kings, lords and contemporaries of his era. Mencius’ lifetime is estimated to span most of 4th Century BCE. Mencius was believed to have travelled throughout China to confer his view of man and morality to various princes and kings. Mencius is considered second only to Confucius in development of the Confucian school of thought. The Mencius as a part of four books was read by every school boy in China for a thousand years. The Bhagavad Gita and Mencius will be discussed through a prism of human nature and foundations of moral life in this paper.

“Greater is thine own work, even if this be humble, than the work of another, even if this be great. When a man does the work God gives him, no sin can touch this man.” The Bhagavad Gita repeatedly gives doing one’s own work high reverence. “And do thy duty, even if it be humble, rather than another’s, even if be great. To die in one’s duty is life: to live in another’s is death.” So how do you know what is your work or duty and how is this given to you by God? As mentioned in Bhagavad Gita and in previous Vedic texts, there are four varnas (castes), and one is born in the given caste due to their nature and has to carry out duties related to their caste. Krishna, the supreme one makes this decree. “The four orders of men arose from me, in justice to their nature and their works. Know that this work was mine, though I am beyond work, in Eternity.” The four kinds of men are Brahmins, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra. Brahmins works are based in peace, wisdom, faith, righteousness, austerity and purity. Kshatriya’s, which Arjuna’s caste is, are warriors and excel in resourcefulness, courage in battle, generosity and noble leadership. Vaisya’s are suitable for trade and agriculture while the Sudra’s for service gita. This model dictates a person’s place in society, their suitable profession, their duty, their acceptable behavior in society and as a result dictates their actions. Further, Krishna states that an individual is selected into a certain caste based on three powers of nature. “There is nothing on earth or in heaven which is free from these powers of Nature. The works of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas, and Sudras are different, in harmony with the three powers of their born nature.” These three powers (Gunas) are Sattva, Rajas and Tamas, these make up the substance of all things. These three strands intertwined are the parts and the changing conditions of nature. Sattva is pure and it gives light and is the health of life which binds one to earthly happiness and lower knowledge. Rajas is the fire of passion, the cradle of thirst and attachment. It binds one’s soul to action. Tamas is darkness, and is based in ignorance and muddles the soul and binds one to dullness, unproductiveness and lack of vigilance. It’s the interaction and connectedness of these powers that sets change and action in nature and in humans this defines their nature. These gunas co-exist; the dominant guna produces the individual’s character. For example, if Rajas is dominant a person can become greedy, in turmoil and has multiple undertakings. When Sattva is governing, the light of wisdom shines. When Tamas is abundant a person will be negligent, lazy and delusional. All actions in a mortal are derived from these powers of nature. So in The Bhagavad Gita, the three powers (gunas) formulate nature and a person’s character; based on which one is born in the most suitable of the four castes. While the Bhagavad Gita does give an individual some control of his own destiny by following teachings, devotion and yoga which will be discussed soon; the emphasis in development of nature and human nature is on divine intervention while actions and morality is placed on carrying one’s duty, and not simply carrying one’s duty but working without expectation of reward; this ultimately leads to salvation, the way to Brahman, the supreme one, the end goal of a human.

Work done in each guna is also looked upon differently. “Any work when it is well done bears the pure harmony of Sattva; but when done in Rajas it brings pain, and when done in Tamas it brings ignorance.” So this makes Sattva the most desirable. The three powers seem to be fluid though as they are interwoven and one can be more dominant than the other in different times. So how can man control which guna his work is based in – Sattva, Rajjas or Tamas? How does one control his own destiny? As per Krishna, ideal is a man who understands that he is not an actor in nature; and understands the relationship between forces and their actions but does not become their slave. One needs to offer all their works to the supreme one, Brahman without selfish thoughts, with inner peace and rest one’s mind in the supreme. Krishna introduces the idea of yoga, although yoga is used to confer deeper and far ranging ideas in the text, the simplest way to describe it would be – it is a way things are done. Following the path of yoga, leads to individual moral development whilst it is also favourable in maintaining social harmony and sustaining community. 

Mencius above all else, believed in benevolence, goodness of the human nature. “A great man is one who retains the heart of a new-born babe.” The importance of retaining one’s heart is mentioned again “A gentleman differs from other men in that he retains his heart. A gentleman retains his heart by means of benevolence and the rites. The benevolent man loves others.” So what is about the heart and that too of a new-born that makes it treasured? Mencius believed that the organs of earing and sight can mislead a person, as they are guided and attracted by external things. But “the organ of heart can think. But it will find the answer only if it does think; otherwise, it will not find the answer. This is what Heaven has given me.” So the heart is the key to our nature and therefore morality. Mencius believes that every man’s heart is filled with compassion and is moved by the suffering of others. He uses the example of suddenly seeing a young child on the verge of falling into a well. Mencius argues that our first reaction is such an instance would be compassion and without any ulterior motives. If one choses to follow this initial feeling with action, it will be based on our developed tendencies. With this example Mencius introduces the four germs or sprouts of natural moral tendency. “The heart of compassion is the germ of benevolence; the heart of shame, of dutifulness; the heart of courtesy and modesty, of observance of the rites; the heart of right and wrong, of wisdom.” Mencius compares the four germs to the body’s four limbs. If we deny the development of these germs we are in essence crippling ourselves, we will not be wholly human. If we fully develop these germs, we can reach our potential. Further, we learn why the new born babe’s heart was important. Mencius states that humans are fundamentally good because people can become good. People can become bad as well, but this is due to circumstances and experiences, not due to a natural inclination to be bad, they are so because they were prevented from developing. Mencius recalls the idea of four natural germs; the four hearts are possessed by all men. “Benevolence, dutifulness, observance of the rites, and wisdom do not give me a lustre from the outside; they are in me originally. Only this has never dawned on me. That is why it is said, “Seek and you will get it; let go and you will lose it.” So all of these qualities are hardwired into us when we are born, it is only when we don’t seek to develop or progress them we lose them. Mencius uses the example of comparing the germs to barley seeds to further prove this. Like the seeds have a natural tendency to grow, so do these moral germs. If the seeds fail to grow or not fully develop, it is not because of a problem with the nature of the seed but there is a problem with the condition of the environment and the amount of human effort spent on it. When questioned further about this, Mencius uses Ox Mountain as an example to make the point that external factors play a part in natural and moral tendencies deterioration. Ox Mountain was full of trees but due to its proximity to a nearby city, the trees were constantly axed. When the mountain gets respite it naturally and continuously sends up new shoots, but even these are consumed by the grazing livestock. Anyone looking at the mountain will think that it is barren, but that is not the true nature of Ox Mountain. Mencius compares the mountain to humans; the letting go of one’s true heart is comparable to trees and axes. Human nature is not neutral or bad by nature. Humans become morally infertile when their moral germs are attacked and are not properly developed. Whatsoever is deprived will wither away and whatsoever is nourished will develop. The focus of Mencius in understanding moral life and actions was through understanding human nature, heart and benevolence, which are bestowed by heaven.

Both the Bhagavad Gita and Mencius try to help us with our individual and social development, however, the focus and process of attaining those goals is different. The two texts have differing beliefs, for example for Mencius there is no mention of reincarnation and division of man into soul and body, man is an organic whole. The Bhagavad Gita, believes in atman, dehin or soul, one which cannot be killed and takes another body after death. It witnesses whatever takes place physically and mentally in one’s lifetime. But the soul does not affect actions or emotions of a person; but it is the soul that one needs to liberate, it’s our connection to Brahman. The Bhagavad Gita is spiritual in nature, focus is both on this worldly and other worldly life, centered on the supreme one, Brahman. Krishna himself is God. Mencius does mention Heaven and decree of Heaven but this a minor theme. Mencius’ gentleman is in the same stream as Heaven above. Heaven sets up the ruler for the benefit of the people. It is heaven which planted the moral heart in man, the central theme of Mencius’ work, because man thinks and gets their sense of right and wrong from the heart. This is a minor theme in The Bhagavad Gita, “they say that the power of the senses is great. But greater than the senses is the mind. Greater than the mind is Buddhi, reason; and greater than reason is He- the spirit in man and in all.” The focus is on, Brahman, the spirit in man and all. One of the central themes that lay down The Bhagavad Gita’s path to morality is carrying out one’s duty and work without expecting rewards. Mencius similarly to The Bhagavad Gita also holds duty and work in high esteem. Mencius says that given an option between choosing dutifulness and life, he would choose dutifulness rather than life. Mencius remarks that for society to function, people need to be engaged in different kinds of work. Work governed by the heart is more important than work governed by only his muscles. He who does higher work, nurturing one’s heart is a greater man who just focuses on work carried without thinking. As per Mencius, nurturing the four germs is central to developing our morality. Mencius believes we are provided with elements to develop morality; apart from optimal external environment as ideal internal environment is also needed. We need to be self-reflective, place ourselves in the right state of mind, and have control and sense of peace and calmness. Self-control, introspection, discipline, self-harmony and calmness are praised repeatedly in the Bhagavad Gita. “A constant yearning to know the inner spirit, and a vision of truth which gives liberation: this is true wisdom leading to vision. All against this is ignorance.” 


  • Lau, D. C. (2003). Mencius, rev. ed. Toronto, CA: Penguin
  • Mascaro, J. (1962). The Bhagavad Gita. London: Penguin Books 

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Human Nature And The Foundations Of Moral Life As Explained In The Bhagavad Gita And Mencius. (2021, August 06). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 16, 2021, from
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