Dharma, generator of Indian Ethics

Two of India’s longest texts, Mahabharata and Ramayana, are nothing but attempts to capture dharma’s meanings and nuances.

Published: 31st January 2019 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 31st January 2019 06:24 AM   |  A+A-

Behind most master ideas of Indian civilisation we have been exploring in this series, one underlies all others or strings them together. It can be summed up in a single brief word, perhaps unrivalled in the history of human thought and ethics for the sheer number and complexity of practices it has encompassed, articulated, discussed and defended. Dharma—“that which upholds”—is a universe in itself. Indeed, it is supposed to uphold the whole cosmos, as also society, communities, families and individuals.

And yet dharma is delightfully ungraspable. Two of India’s longest texts, the epic Mahabharata and Ramayana, are nothing but attempts to capture its meanings, its nuances, its applications, its conflicts. They constantly create situations forcing the reader—the listener, in those days—to sit up and wonder: Was it dharmic for Rama to kill Vali treacherously? For Yudhishthira to deceive Drona and lead him to his death? For Arjuna to shoot his arrow at a disarmed Karna? And what happens when two dharmas collide in a single person, such as, in Rama’s case, the ruler’s dharma against the husband’s?

One conclusion, thankfully, is clear: Dharma cannot be absolute. It is variable according to the situation, the epoch, the region, sometimes the social level—the context, in other words. And yet, relative and changing though it may be, dharma generated in India what we would today call systems of ethics, guidelines for the individual and the collective on how to live a well-ordered and meaningful life. The term may elude an intellectual definition, but something in us knows.

The purushartha system we saw earlier (“India’s Take on Individual vs. Collective”, 4 October 2018) gives ample space to the acquisition of wealth and to life’s enjoyments (both of them heavily culpabilised in early Christianity), provided they are regulated by dharma. Wealth is supposed to be used for the welfare of the society at large, initiating a long tradition of philanthropy which remains visible at many levels, from semi-traditional business groups funding schools and hospitals long before the CSR concept, down to a beggar donating to people more destitute than himself.

More innovative is the Bhagavad Gita’s concept of nishkama karma, in which karma, action, is to be impelled by dharma regardless of the consequences: They are not ours, the effort and the sincerity of our action alone are. Accepting success and failure with perfect equanimity, which is what the Gita asks us to do, is no easy task and runs dead against today’s culture of success at any cost, of cut-throat competition, of “winners” and “losers”—there is no room for such notions in Indian ethics: If success serves to inflate our egos, we are necessarily losers. It is the inner growth that matters, not outer success, and that can be achieved just as well, indeed often better, through what goes by the name of failure.

The Gita’s ethical message, rooted in a spiritual vision of the human being, does not stop there: It insists on the need to take sides for dharma. The Pandavas are to fight and kill not for their own sake, not to recapture an usurped kingdom, but to prevent the victory of adharma embodied by a heroic but self-centred and unscrupulous Duryodhana.

Dharma, both in concept and practice, has been common to Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, with minor nuances. We see Ashoka boasting in his edicts about having his subjects follow dharma throughout his empire; numerous kings followed suit in inscriptions; we read Shivaji and Guru Gobind Singh trying, in their letters to Aurangzeb, to teach him the meaning of dharma. India’s ecological traditions rest partly on the dharma of non-hurting, simple living and quest for beauty. In the early stages of the freedom movement, Tilak, Bepin Pal and Sri Aurobindo equated nationalism with dharma. Tilak, in fact, explicitly borrowed the Gita’s philosophy when he declared: “Let us then try our utmost and leave the generations to come to enjoy that fruit [of India’s freedom]. Remember, it is not you who had planted the mango-trees the fruit whereof you have tasted. Let the advantage now go to our children and their descendants. It is only given to us to toil and work. And so, there ought to be no relaxation in our efforts, lest we incur the curse of those that come after us.”

This philosophy goes beyond mere selflessness or detachment. It is a whole programme for the individual as for human society, one that independent India did not attempt to follow, despite well-meaning pronouncements and official mottos—such as the Supreme Court’s Yato dharmastato jayah (“Where there is dharma, there is victory”), borrowed from the Mahabharata. India, instead, chose the external apparatus left by her colonial masters, with a few tweaks here and there. As Tilak also said (in 1906), “We have grown so stupid owing to our idleness that we are required to be told by foreigners that our treasures conceal gold and not iron.”

And yet we shall see with our next master idea that dharma was not regarded as supreme in ancient India: There is something beyond, greater and more essential.

Michel Danino is a French-born Indian author, scholar of ancient India and visiting professor at IIT Gandhinagar.

Email: micheldanino@gmail.com.

This is the ninth part in a series on Master Ideas of Indian Civilisation; earlier articles in this series:

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