The previous article in this series (Dharma, Generator of Indian Ethics, 31 January 2019) attempted to circumscribe the central yet elusive notion of dharma, which bundles together law, truth, duty, right thinking and right action, virtue, honour and a few more values.
In many ways, it may be viewed as the foundation of Indian culture and civilisation. As Kapil Kapoor, a fine scholar of Indian knowledge systems, once remarked pithily, “Dharma is the one-word unwritten constitution of India.”
In other words, it would be a serious mistake to equate dharma with “religion”. India’s two epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, whose central purpose is to expound and discuss dharma, are not, in that sense, religious texts.
Sharing the same purpose are texts on governance, warfare, administration, the collections of wise sayings called Subhashitas, or even historical chronicles such as Rajatarangini, as the historian of Kashmir Shonaleeka Kaul brilliantly demonstrated in a recent work. So is it with traditional historical or semi-historical ballads still sung across India, such as the rasas of Gujarat and Rajasthan, which do not stop at praising a noble ruler or narrating some military campaign or heroic deed, but go on to draw moral lessons that reaffirm dharma as the one cement of society.
From this mass of literature in all languages of India, it would appear that dharma is the be-all and end-all of our human quest. Yet India’s search for meaning, if I may adapt the title of Viktor Frankl’s celebrated and poignant psychological study on Nazi concentration camps, refused to stop anywhere.
The Bhagavad Gita is a case in point; at the start of the Great War, Arjuna, asking what purpose will be served by all the impending bloodshed, in effect preaches ahimsa, albeit without the word. His charioteer, Krishna, at first reminds him of his swadharma (or specific duty) as a warrior, then proceeds with his sublime teaching on the nature of the human soul and the need to renounce all attachments—not to action, but to its fruits, to ego and its whole pathology.
Chapter after chapter, concisely yet systematically, the Teacher explains the means of self-exploration and self-fulfilment, erecting in turn each of them—self-knowledge, devotion and action—as the supreme method of realisation. The last chapter is an appropriate climax, when he destroys the very argument he started from: the warrior’s dharma. Now that Arjuna has been enlightened, Krishna asks him to “abandon all dharmas” (in the plural) and “take refuge in Me alone”.
The supremacy of spiritual knowledge is perhaps the most significant master idea of Indian civilisation and will remain one of its most enduring legacies. That knowledge—paravidya—is beyond all dharmas, all human conventions, all moral codes.
So are its seekers, in principle at least, although one might argue that they should be so only after attaining their goal. Be that as it may, this explains India’s “God-mad” men and women, sadhus, sannyasins, Bauls and renunciates of all ilk, and their often unconventional behaviour; perhaps it also explains some apparently offensive Tantric practices designed to radically decondition the mind.
All that is the outward, often exotic side of India’s spiritual quest, which has delighted all manners of less-than-genuine seekers. Behind it, however, lies one of the most important statements humanity could ever make: the supreme consciousness or truth is beyond the mind and its grasp; therefore, “mind cannot arrive at truth”, in Sri Aurobindo’s words, and “Yoga is not a field for intellectual argument or dissertation.”
It does not mean that India shunned intellectual life; quite the contrary, she built theories for every field of life, including the philosophical, while recognising their limitations as part of aparavidya (“non-supreme knowledge”). And whether it is polity, art, architecture or Ayurveda, even astronomy at times, the spiritual (for lack of a better word) influence perceptibly works behind them.
In the old system of the purushartha or four-fold objectives of a well-ordered human life (“India’s Take on Individual vs. Collective”, 4 October 2018), moksha is the last, after artha, kama and dharma. The word is not to be understood as the cessation of reincarnation, rather as the liberation from ignorance, much like the Buddha’s goal.
The mind cannot work out that liberation; it is too much in love with itself and its endless somersaults, and too convinced that it is the sole judge and arbiter of the truth. It is India’s greatness to have shown the mind its place and allowed full expression to other regions of consciousness and to practical means to access those—the many systems of yoga. Indeed, realisation of the truth beyond mind and dharmas even broke through rigid caste barriers, producing enlightened beings from all social layers, even today. If social freedom was curtailed, spiritual freedom was not.
All human life ultimately seeks meaning. India’s answer, or rather answers, do not claim finality and are not dogmatic; they effectively reject all exclusive claim to the truth, since no text, no teaching, no prophet can do more than imperfectly grasp and express a small portion of the truth. They are for the unblinkered, unfettered mind. If humanity journeys on, they will remain part of the journey.
(Michel Danino is a French-born Indian author, scholar of ancient India, and visiting professor at IIT Gandhinagar. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
This is the tenth part in a series on Master Ideas of Indian Civilisation; earlier articles in this series:
Defining Indian Civilization, 11 June 2018
The Universal in Indian Culture, 11 July 2018
Consciousness, the Key to Indic Thought, 6 August 2018
Sacralising the Cosmos, Nature and Life, 3 September 2018
India’s Take on Individual vs. Collective, 4 October 2018
India’s art of simple living, 29 October 2018
India as a Knowledge Creator, 29 November 2018
Was India’s Knowledge Elitist?, 31 December 2018
Dharma, Generator of Indian Ethics, 31 January 2019