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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”. 

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