Please visit Thinking Skills for the Digital Generation by Athreya and Mouza at

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Gist of Books I have read - On Dharma 2


There are two major divisions. One is Sanaatana dharma (Sanaatana meaning  eternal) and this term is applied to the entire Vedic,  Hindu religion. This is Moksha dharma, leading to release from this birth and death cycle called Samsara.  This may be pravritti dharma with focus on karma or action aimed at the house-holder or nivritti dharma with focus on the sannyasin, one who has renounced worldly duties.

The other is Saadhaarana dharma when applied to matters dealing with worldly affairs. This is pravritti dharma and varies depending upon the person, place and time and therefore differentiates into raja dharma, ( for the rulers, kings); praja dharma ( for the citizens); desa dharma (appropriate to the region);  jathi dharma (appropriate to the sect); kula dharma (appropriate to the family); varna dharma (appropriate to each of the four varnas,  mistakenly called the castes), and ashrama dharma (appropriate to the stage of life – childhood, bachelorhood, family life and life of renunciation).

Interestingly, there is another category called  aapad dharma, dharma during times of distress and danger. This allows breaking some of the other rules of conduct at times of danger. This is unique among systems of ethics. This is humane and takes into account the facts that dangers are inevitable in life and that even the best of men will behave differently under threat. If the system is strict, people will break the rules and feel guilty all their life. If given a way out, it is much more in line with nature, since every living creature tries to save its own life. This flexibility is not understood by those who grow up under strict systems of black or white philosophy in which there is no place for shades of grey. This subject will be dealt with again later in this essay.

Saadhaarana dharma includes saamanya dharma, vyavahara dharma and raja dharma.  Saamanya dharma is applicable to everyone and includes general obligations and common duties of every individual to be followed when dealing with the realities of this world. Virtues such as kindness, telling the truth, not coveting other’s properties are included. Vyavahara dharma deals with the citizen and obeying the civil and criminal laws of the society. Raja dharma is applicable to those in executive and judicial power.  This classification should make it clear that dharma is always relative to one’s position in life. It is not fixed for everyone and for all times.

Saadharana dharma is flexible. Therefore it is also divided into several categories to denote the importance of one’s station in life. Varna dharma is one’s specific duty based on his or her family origins, the caste. Svadharma is one’s duty depending one/s nature and on one’s role in the family and society such as that of a father or mother, or child, a policeman or a doctor. Aapad dharma is that one can follow at time of adversity. This may contradict rules of conduct applicable under normal circumstances. Yuga dharma is currently accepted law in the society, the current social norm.

Another source calls the saadharana dharma by a different name: vyaavahaarika (practical) dharma or neethi (ethics) dharma. This definition includes duty (karthavya), ethics (neethi) and 
morality (neethi dharma). You can see how the same word has several meanings and several words are used to denote the same thing. Also note that in the English language ethics means
 “the study of standards of conduct and moral judgment” whereas morality means “relating to, dealing with or capable of making the distinction between right and wrong in conduct”.

It appears that in ancient times neethi shastra (books on ethics) included both the rules of conduct for the kings (raja dharma) and the rules of conduct for the common people (saadharana dharma). Obviously the words neethi and dharma were used interchangeably. You can now see why the saadharana dharma got divided into subsets depending on when and where these rules are to be applied.

Before we leave this section, let me document what I have read in the texts regarding varna and varna dharma. By dictionary definition, varna means caste, social classes. This is meant to be a functional division based on the principle of social economy. It is started further that this division is based on one’s nature and aptitude and not just on the basis of birth. However, caste and social classes are not the same. Varna is not the same as caste either.

Bhagavat Gita states that this division comes out of qualities born of the three basic gunas, namely sattva, rajas and tamas. Let us first understand these words before we proceed further.  Guna is defines as quality or attribute. The three basic qualities which determine all the created things are: sattva meaning pure, harmony, rajas meaning activity and passion and tamas meaning ignorance and inertia. According to the Samkhya system of philosophy, all created things have all three of them. However one of them is dominant in each individual thing or life and this dominant quality determines the characteristic of that thing or being. For example, in Ramayana, Ravana represents rajas, vibhishana represents sattva and kumbakarna represents tamas.

Bhagavat Gita lists the varna dharmas ( specific or peculiar duties of castes) as follows. Slokas 40 and 41 of Chapter XVIII state that there is no being on earth who is free from the three gunas born of nature and that the duties of Brahmans, kshatriyas, vaisyas and sudras  (although the word caste or varna is not used)  are divided according to the dispositions born of their own nature (svabhavaprabhavaih gunaih). It does not say that this division is based on birth although this is how the division has been perpetuated in spite of the best efforts of noble souls from Gauthama Buddha to Mahatma Gandhi!

According to Gita, the varna dharma for the Brahmins (not by birth but by qualities of nature) consists of peaceful nature, self-restraint, cleanliness, quiet, straightforwardness, spiritual knowledge and a belief in the future world. For the kshatriyas, it includes bravery, brilliance, courage, not running away from battle, generosity and exercise of authority. The dharma of vaishyas includes agriculture, tending to cattle, and trade and for the sudras it is service (paricharya) to all the other three castes. 

A word about varna and jaathi. The English word “caste”, as used today, stands for both these words. But they are two separate ideas. Varna was the original word and stands for the four major groups based on the role in the society – the priests, warriors, merchants/farmers and the menials. This is no different from what existed in other early civilizations such as in Persia and Greece  (pistras/classes) except that this system became rigid in India.

But  varna is different from jaathi.  Jaathi defines social class. In later Hinduism, this was defined by rules of marriage (legitimate only when within the social group), eating arrangements (food may be received from and eaten with members of the same or “higher” group) and craft-exclusiveness (can take only a trade or profession of his own group, not take up that of another).  Megasthenes noted seven classes (jaathi) in the India he visited in 300 BC! When the Portugese came in the 16th century, they found hundreds of classes based on endogamy (marriage alliances within the group only) and trade, and  used the word caste which meant class. The word stuck and is used now to lump both the varnas and the classes into one word “caste”. 

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Gist of Books I have read - On Dharma 1

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi, Ariana, Roma….

I have been reading several books from the Vedic religions, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Native American traditions. This does not make me a scholar. My intention is not to become a scholar either. My journey through these books is driven by curiosity.

When I started reading these spiritual and philosophical books, I was an atheist! Yes, I was. During those two years, I came across two books accidentally. They were The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley and Sankara’s Teachings in His Own Words by Swami Nikhilananda. They made me reflect on the following questions:
1.       What do the seers, saints and philosophers from different cultures have to say about man’s (woman’s too) perennial questions?
2.       How similar are the answers?
3.       What are the differences in answers to the same question among different traditions? What is the most important of them?
4.       Do these answers give clue to differences in cultural beliefs, practices and rituals?

I kept reading whenever I got a chance. During the working years, I did not progress much. Now that I have more time, I am getting deep into these texts. As I was reading, I kept notes on what I read. These notes included the actual passages and my reflections on them. Obviously, these notes were chronological – not logical. Therefore, these were hodgepodge of ideas. I decided therefore to organize them according to topics such as Dharma, Karma, Atma etc. The following essays are based on these notes according to topics.

I hope you will read these and benefit by them. In addition to quoting passages on various topics, I give the sources in the hope you will go to them, read them for yourself and make your conclusions.  I will also give my personal conclusion on these questions at the end. 

I wish to share one other recent insight. When you read the original (some of them are translations), you will find how simple, honest and direct the answers are. The early seers and saints were able to go straight to the point because their minds were not cluttered by all the accumulated “information” (knowledge?) which is nothing but interpretations and interpretations of interpretations. When you start thinking on your own, you will find how convoluted our thinking has become and how encumbered we have become because of the so-called accumulated wisdom.  In fact, most of it consist of “brain-washing” and “mental manipulation” by the intermediaries. 

Another insight is that all cultures asked the same questions. They came to different answers in specifics; but to the same answers in general. In fact, the very fact there are so many answers tells me that there is no one final answer. If all those great seers could not know for sure, how can any one of us be sure?

Looking at the mystery of the cosmos and of Mother Nature is the best religious practice. Humility is the best attitude. Compassion and tolerance are the best prayers.


In my earlier essay on Dharma for the 21st Century (January 11, 2011), I dealt with some of my thoughts on Dharma. In this essay I will summarize ideas from several books on the definition, purpose, components and classifications of Dharma and conditions for exceptions to the general rules of Dharma.

Definitions:  Dharma is defined differently in the Vedic and Buddhist traditions. Dictionary definition of Dharma includes all of the following: religion, customary observances of a caste or sect, law, custom, duty, and morality. (The Practical Sanskrit English Dictionary, V S Apte, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi, 1965)

Philosophical definition of Dharma is “righteousness, merit, religious duty, religion, law and a goal of life”.  Based on the root word “dhru”, it means that which upholds and supports and “what holds together” and is the basis of all moral and social order. (A Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy John  Grimes State University of New York Press, Albany, NY 1996)

Within the Vedic system, there are differences in the definition among the six major systems. In the Mimamsaka system, Dharma is religious duty as enjoined by the Vedas, “the performance of which brings merit and its neglect brings demerit”. This system, the oldest of the Vedic tradition, emphasizes rituals and sacrifices as the most important aspects of the Vedic teachings. According to this school, “ Cchodhana lakshano rtho dharmah” (Jaimini Sutra 1.1.2) which means “ those rules of conduct laid down by inspiring persons and conducive to the highest good” is dharma. This school maintains that these rules of conduct are not amenable to verification and authentication by sense perception and inference and other rules of logic.

According to the Nyaya system, dharma is a specific quality that belongs to the self and is a merit. In the Samkhya system, the word denotes a mode of the intellect.

According to Jainism, Dharma is “the medium of motion and pervades the entire universe”. This is similar to the definition of “motion” by Aristotle. In Buddhism, the word “dharma” denotes cosmic order and also Buddha’s teaching.

One of the original definitions of Dharma is seen in Mahabharatha, Karna Parva 69:59. In this passage, Lord Krishna says:
dhaaranaath dharmman ithi aahuh
Dharmo dhaarayathey prjah
Yath dhaarayathey samyuktham
Sa dharma ithi nischayah”.

The meaning is: “ Dharma is so-called because it supports the well-being of the society and the social order. That which ensures well-being and progress of humanity is certainly worthy of being called dharma”. The same definition is given in Sandilya Sutra also.

Other definitions from ancient scriptures include: “dharma hi shreyah ithi aahuh” and “lokayaatraa cha drahtavyah dharmah cha atmahithani cha” (that is, dharma which is beneficial should discriminate between external factors like usual activities of men, laws of ethics and one’s own benefit). Both are from Maha Bharatha, Anushaasana Parvam.

With passage of time, the definition of the word expanded to include the rules of dharma and its spheres of influence in both this world and the “other world”. This is shown in the definition of dharma by Sri Madhavacharya: “ Dharma is that which sustains and ensures progress and welfare of all in this world and eternal bliss in the other world. It is promulgated in the form of commands (do’s and don’ts)”.

Justice Jois says that dharma “is a collective term for the entire code of righteous conduct, covering every sphere of human activity, and in every capacity or role of the individual, in relation to other individuals” (Dharma,The Global Ethic  M.Rama Jois  Bharatiya Vidhya Bhavan 1996).  Radhakrishnan includes law, moral duty and right action under the word dharma.

Buddhist schools consider dharma to be “conformity with the truth of things”.

Rabindranath Tagore is credited with stating that “dharma is to the individual what its normal development is to a seed – the orderly fulfillment of an inherent nature and destiny”.