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Friday, June 26, 2009

Definition of the Dharma for the 21st century - An Explanation

Why do we need a new Dharma now? Why give a name for well-known precepts?

For several centuries, societies struggled under the tyranny of kings, despotic rulers, and dictators who claimed supernatural powers and direct communication with “God”. After renaissance and the French and American revolutions, individuals got liberated from the twin yokes of political and religious powers. Individual liberty and autonomy are flowering, at least in parts of the world.

Exercising the powers of questioning and reasoning has made it possible to study the cosmos we live in and study ourselves on a scientific basis. Scientific developments have spawned several new tools and materials that have become indispensable for everyday living. Science has also spawned several dangers threatening to destabilize societies, other species and the world itself.

The power of reasoning and questioning has liberated individual human beings to develop to their fullest potential. Scientific and industrial developments have increased quality of life in some parts of the world. But they have also increased the materialistic needs of individuals, inequalities and competition for limited resources.

Individuals endowed with liberty to do what they please and cash to get what they want (not necessarily what they need) tend to forget that others also have similar aspirations. When individual achievements define what you are, what you can get and get away with, competition becomes a part of the societal fabric.

When individual needs and roles intersect the needs and roles of others, we need boundaries and acceptable rules of conduct. We develop laws for this purpose. Laws are necessary for a civil society. But laws can also be corrupted, misused and circumvented. Laws can be used for power and privilege. There is also a risk of all relationships including parent-child relationship becoming legal relationships, as is happening already. Legal relationship has also the disadvantage of being an adversarial relationship.

When primacy of the individual is overemphasized, each one tries to defend his or her boundary. Each one becomes an island. We forget that we are interconnected. Yes, individual liberty and autonomy exerted in a lawful, law-abiding society is much better than the whimsical rules by kings and dictators. But, emphasis on individual freedom without any expectation of assuming associated responsibilities and emphasis on legal relationship at the exclusion of moral relationship lead to conflicts. Recognition of the common web of life and of interconnectedness is more likely to lead to a harmonious life.

Add to this the emergence of commerce and industry. One enters business to make money. If that is not the motive why would anyone want to do business? There is nothing inherently wrong with business, commerce and reasonable profit. Indeed we need them for a complex society. Businesses serve the needs of people. But the problem is when the owners and leaders become greedy. They forget that by greediness they cheat and thus lose the trust of the people. Profit motive is not the problem. Greed and misuse of trust are the problems. This happens because business owners sometimes forget that they are part of the fabric of the society and they have a social contract with the people.

The focus, in the past two or three centuries has been on individual liberty, social control and social contract (social compact as the British call it) and reliance on legal contracts. Now we have come a full circle and recognize the importance of personal virtue, morality and individual responsibility. If every one of us develops our own “inner policeman” we will have less need for outer policeman. We need a new set of guidelines for developing inner controls. These guidelines should be acceptable to people of all faiths and cultures. This is where the new Dharma comes in.

The word Dharma is a Sanskrit word. The root word is “dhru”, to support. Support what? The word Dharma represents virtues that support living in harmony with oneself, with others and with nature. The root word “dhru” also means “That which sustains” (law and order) and “that which controls” (human weakness). Dharma is a “collective term for the entire code of conduct, covering every sphere of human activity and in every capacity or role of an individual in relation to other individuals and the world we live in”.

Dharma is a “public system of morality”, with rules of conduct, which supports human virtues, sustains law and order and controls human weakness. Dharma includes justice, morality, duty, righteous conduct, charity and law, all rolled into one.

Practice of Dharma requires selflessness. It is virtuous, based on altruism, not on personal needs, personal rights, loyalty or legality.

Dharma is flexible. There is no one fixed dharma for everyone and for all times to come. It represents one’s virtues and morality depending on time, place and one’s station in life and natural human qualities. Therefore what is “norm” for you in one country may not be for someone in another part of the globe; what is “norm” now may not be applicable in the next century.

Exceptions to applications of rules of conduct of Dharma can be explicitly stated and debated. A remarkable example can be found in the India epic, Mahabharatha. Draupadi, the wife of the Pandavas tells Yudhishtra when it is acceptable for a king (ruler) to break the rule of “Do not kill”. They are: “when someone is ready to kill you or one of your people; one who is trying to poison you; one who kills others for no reason and one who is trying to take away your wife”. Remember that these exceptions were spelled out for a ruler in the remote past.

This example of definition of exceptions to the rules and referred to in the earlier essay is an important aspect of dharma. It is obvious that this will vary from society to society and from time to time. But they can be defined and agreed on by “reasonable, impartial” people.

Yes. I suggest re-introducing the word, DHARMA to the English lexicon with a new emphasis and definition. This word is already in the English dictionary.

I suggest the new Dharma for the 21st century to balance the freedom of the individual with responsibility for others; to balance the needs of the corporate world with their social responsibility; to balance the freedom for celebration of our unique cultures with the need for others to celebrate theirs; to develop a set of universal guidelines which all cultures and religions can accept; to liberate the individual from the tyranny of dictatorial rule and ..isms of all kinds.

There are noble documents already in existence that recognize the inherent dignity and individual rights of all human beings and emphasize freedom, justice and peace for all, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Constitution of several democracies. These documents define the role of the governments in relation to their people and vice versa. These documents do not adequately emphasize responsibilities of the citizens to each other and to the world we live in. Dharma as proposed is intended to correct this deficiency.

Also, there is no mechanism to prevent people from creating in-groups and out-groups and excluding a few on the basis of religion or sex, or age or language. Dharma as proposed is universal and excludes NONE.

Premise of new Dharma

Desire for physical comfort and avoidance of pain are two basic characteristics of all living beings. Humans are also hard-wired for self-preservation and formation of groups.

Desires for comfort, acquisition of wealth and possession drive us all. In the process, our selfish needs come in conflict with those of others. Ideally, before we secure our comfort, satisfy our desires and acquire wealth we have to make sure they are done within the boundaries of Dharma. Values enshrined in the rules of conduct of Dharma come first; then acquiring comfort and wealth. This is best stated by the sage Vyasa, the author of the Indian epic, Mahabharatha.

OOrdhva bahuh viroumi eeshah na cha kah cha shrunothi maam
Dharmaath artthah cha kaamah cha sa dharmah kim na sevyathey.


The meaning is : I am shouting to all of you with both of my arms raised and waving. But no one seems to listen. When both wealth and desires can be acquired using proper means (following dharma), why can’t you follow such a path?

In a complex society, conflicts are bound to occur between individuals since we all seek the same comforts and share the same resources and work to acquire wealth to satisfy our needs. To prevent, and to minimize the conflicts we need preventive and curative methods. Punitive, curative method is Law. Preventive method is Dharma.

Guidelines I sought to arrive at the new Dharma

The rules will have to be simple, self-evident and flexible.

The new Dharma should not elicit resistance from any group. It should be acceptable to established thinking.

It should appeal to the common person. It should not need interpretation and interpreters.

People come with different personalities. Some work well with knowledge. Some need faith. Some have a need for action. (mesomorph, endomorph and ectomorph in the west; satva,rajas and thamas in the east) The guidelines should be simple enough for the faith – oriented and the action – oriented to follow. The knowledge – oriented can get into the depth of morality, virtues, ethics, theology and mysticism on their own.

The new Dharma should not perpetuate the “inside – outside” dynamics and tolerate violence towards the outsiders.


Reference: Morality: A new justification of the Moral Rules. Bernard Gert. Oxford University Press. 1988.

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