We have two faculties which influence our decisions. In any given situation, we will have various options for action. We will have to choose one. One faculty, called manas, evaluates the various options based on likes and dislikes. Another faculty, called buddhi (intellect), evaluates the options based on right and wrong. Animals also make decisions. However, they always make decisions based on likes and dislikes. Only humans have the buddhi, which works through the mirror neurons in the pre-frontal cortex. Using this faculty, we are able to mentally run various simulations of what will be the consequence of the action to us and others, in the near-term and long-term. By this, we can make better decisions. This buddhi is the one that distinguishes between animals and human beings.
Katha Upanishad calls decision based on manas as preyas, and decision based on buddhi as shreyas. It says that following shreyas will lead us towards becoming better people. Following preyas will lead to downfall. A noble human being is one who ignores preyas and acts based on shreyas. (Katha Upanishad, 1.2.1,2) The person would do what is right, even if it is inconvenient or gives pain, and would avoid doing what is wrong, even if it is convenient or gives pleasure. This faculty or capacity is called will power. Exercising the will power is the only way to increase it.
What is right and what is wrong? How do we decide in confusing situations? Can we depend on our gut-feel or conscience? Is there guidance from our scriptures on this? This is a question that is asked very often.
In most of the situations in our life, what is right and what is wrong is quite unambiguous. Only in some situations, things are gray. In the situations where it is clear, if we do not do what is right and refrain from what is wrong, we will be violating our own judgement. The intellect is uncomfortable with this. The intellect starts looking for a justification for the wrong action. This results in indecisiveness in a similar future situation. Over a period of time, this becomes a habit. So, every time we violate our intellectual conviction, we are pushing more situations into gray areas, thus weakening our intellect. We are also weakening our will power. So, where we know what is right and what is wrong, following our intellectual conviction is very important. Without this, mere knowing is of no use.
Now, the next question is, how to strengthen our buddhi to be able to make better decisions and how to reduce the gray areas. Here the Hindu scriptures, especially the Bhagavad Gita give a lot of guidelines.
One guideline that Gita gives is to depend on the scriptures regarding what is to be done and what is not to be done. (16.24) There are several series of verses like prerequisites for knowledge (13.7-11), divine treasures (16.1,2,3) and three types of tapas (17.14,15,16), which enumerate right action and attitude. In general, the lists include truthfulness, non-violence, self-control, absence of arrogance, forbearance, cheerfulness, cleanliness, silence, respect to elders, helping others, etc.
Another guideline that Gita gives is to depend on the words of people of good character. (13.25) The conduct of wise people can be referred to as the standard of righteousness. In fact, Gita says that it is the duty of leaders to set an example to others by their actions. (3.21,25,26) It is helpful to be familiar with the life of saints. Then, when we need to decide something, we can think, “What would the saintly person do in this situation?” Taittriya Upanishad also mentions this in verse 1.11.4. Gita has several lists of the qualities that saintly people possess like qualities of a wise person (2.55-71), qualities of a transcendent person (14.22-25) and qualities of a devotee (12.13-20).
Gita mentions the Golden Rule: “Do to others what you would like others to do to you.” Gita says, “Keeping yourself as the yardstick, seeing others as equal to you, consider what is pleasurable and painful to them.” (6.32) This is often a great way to discern right from wrong.
Another hint that Gita gives is this. After doing the action, would you be comfortable in the presence of God or would you avoid Him? The Lord is the giver of the fruits of all action. He is impartial. So, if you do the right thing, you will not fear His presence. You will feel protected. When Arjuna saw the Lord in the form of Time, he saw that good people were bowing to Him and bad people were trying to run away from Him. (11.36) So this is one means to decide. A variation of this is to think if you can tell, with dignity, to your mother (or anyone whom you revere) about what you did. If you can, then it is right. Otherwise, it is wrong.
The merit of an action can be evaluated from the attitude of mind (to you and to others) that it would create or enable. If the action would pull down the mind to make the person identify with the body, it is bad. If it would make the person identify with the mind, it is better. If it would make the person identify with pure Consciousness, it is best. (18.20,21,22) For example, hunger and disease pulls down the mind to the body. So alleviating these of people is a noble activity. Giving secular education pulls towards identifying with the mind. Giving spiritual knowledge pulls towards identifying with the Self. These define the relative merits of these activities.
Another way is to seek the “greatest welfare to most number of people”. Gita says, an action that is done as a duty (for the welfare of others) without seeking personal benefit is greatest. An action done for only personal benefit is not so good. Action that brings loss to oneself and others is bad. (18.23,24,25)
Every person does any action only if it gives benefit in the short-term or in the long-term. Gita says, an action that gives benefit in the short-term but harms in the long-term is wrong. An action which appears inconvenient in the short-term but gives benefit in the long-term is right. (18.37,38) This analysis can be used in many situations to decide.
Thus, Bhagavad Gita gives several ideas to decide between right and wrong. One or more of these can be used in any situation. When we have decided, it is important that we follow what is right and refrain from what is wrong. Even after all these, we are not able to decide, we can discuss with people. If there is no opportunity for that, or we are not able to decide even after that, we can do whatever we thing is the best out of the various options and pray to God to show more light next time. Following our intellectual conviction will strengthen our intellect and increase our will power.