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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Gist of Books I have read - On Dharma 4

This is the final part of essays on Dharma.

What do other traditions say?

In the Christian tradition, there are several kinds of virtues defined on the basis of writings of Greek philosophers such as Plato and early Christian theologians. Pope Gregory the Great codified a set of seven cardinal sins and also seven virtues to replace them. They are: pride (to be corrected by humility); envy (to be replaced by kindness); gluttony (to be replaced by abstinence); lust (to be taken care of by chastity); anger (equalized by patience); greed (to be replaced by liberality) and sloth (to be corrected by diligence). 

There is a comparable set of teachings in the Buddhist tradition. Lord Buddha gave his son Rahula the following  advice when he joined the Sangha: “Rahula, practice loving kindness (maître) to overcome anger. Practice compassion (karuna) to overcome cruelty. Practice sympathetic joy (mudhita) to overcome jealousy. Practice non-attachment (upeksha) to overcome prejudice”.

In another list of virtues according to the Western traditions, three virtues belong to theology – namely faith, hope and charity. The other four are worldly virtues: fortitude, justice, prudence and temperance.

In the Bible, the section of Proverbs has passages which emphasize wisdom, judgment and common sense in human behavior. In one passage, it says: “ for there are six things the Lord hates, no seven. They are haughtiness, lying, murder, plotting evil, doing wrong, false witness and sowing discord among brothers”. It also emphasizes righteousness and justice which taken together is dharma of the eastern philosophy.

Finally, modern schools of morality and ethics that come out of western philosophies are based on reason and emphasize objectivity. (Please refer to my essay on Dharma for the 21st century at, dated  June 16, 2009). In this system, important considerations in making ethical decisions include individual autonomy, individual rights, social justice, beneficience and the concept of “least harm”. All the modern schools of western ethics (dharma) and therefore, of laws, are built on combinations of these principles.

The various schools of ethics are: 1.Utilitarian – greatest good for the greatest number and greater balance of good over harm; 2. Rights of the individual and groups – best to protect and respect human rights; 3. Fairness or social justice – treat all humans equally; if unequal, the treatment should be fair and defensible; 4. Common good – to reach conditions that are important for the welfare of everyone; and 5. Virtue – based on some basic virtues such as honesty, integrity, courage, compassion.

Kakar points out how “dharma is an inherent force in human beings which holds the individual and the society together”. This is markedly different from the individualistic psychology of the west. The primacy of the individual is dominant in western ethics. Individual freedom is emphasized, and in my view sometimes over-emphasized. This gets combined with materialistic happiness, particularly in the modern version.

Materialistic ethics need not exclude happiness resulting from self-realization and connection with the others. If we can expand the meaning of the word happiness to include both material, worldly happiness and spiritual, universal happiness the ethics will be stronger.

The vedic dharma says, if I consider that there is only one Atman in this world, and the Atman of the other person is the same as mine, it is easier to practice charity towards the other. The new dharma (ethics) for the 21st century becomes a metaphysical dharma by including atman as common to all living beings and including both materialistic and spiritual happiness.

Dharma based on the realization of the Absolute Self in one self and in all living forms is subjective and therefore, can be interpreted differently by different individuals and groups. Conclusions arrived at by subjective methods sound arbitrary and unreliable to those trained under Aristotelian logic, objectivity and strict “yes or no” answers. However, when examined carefully, the concept of dharma includes fairness, principle of common good and common virtues and takes into account the fact that same rules cannot be applied to all situations, all the time.

What are the exceptions and how can one arrive at those conclusions? 

This is the subject of aapad dharma.   In a famous passage in the Mahabharatha, a bird advises King Sibhi how to decide between dharma and adharma when there is a conflict. He says: “That is dharma where there is no contradiction. If you see contradiction, look at the relative merits of the action to be taken and the opposite action. Follow the path of duty in which there is no opposition”.  It further goes on to say that one should be able to get proper insight into matters which might not be actually before the eyes or which may be matters of consequences in the future. In modern English parlance, this is Prudence. Prudence is nothing but foresight and providing for eventualities.

In another passage in the Mahabharatha, Draupadi is talking with Yudhishtra. She says that although killing is adharma (NOT dharma) in general, it is not so under the following circumstances: “when someone is trying to kill us, when someone is destroying your properties and possessions, when someone is killing your kith and kin, when someone is trying to poison you and a murderer”.

In another story on Vishvamitra, the sage does not find food for many days. He steals meat from a thief’s house and gets caught. The thief asks Vishvamitra how this situation came to be. Vishvamitra says: “ It is important to maintain life. I can repent and pay amends for this sin once I live”.

In more modern times, Bernard Gert has suggested that the definition of moral rules acceptable to all “rational, impartial” individuals should depend on the ability for most people to agree explicitly on conditions under which these rules may be broken, violated.  ( Morality: A new justification of Moral Rules. Oxford University Press, 1988) (

These explanations sound naïve and simplistic on the surface. But the point is that one cannot live a life in this imperfect world with rigid ideologies. Even dharma cannot be applied as written in scriptures all the time. Dharma implies context. Scriptures themselves tell you that there may me occasions when the rules may have to be superceded. Rules of Dharma have to be re-casted for each period in history, for each geographical area and for each society. The problem is that it can lead to everyone doing their own thing and using their own justification for doing so. Only those who spend time to reflect can develop their own internal policeman and follow dharma. Others need rules of law.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Gist of Books I have read - Dharma 3

What  are the components of Dharma

A simple and practical summary of what dharma should mean to ordinary folks is given in Mahabaratha Shanti parva 261:9. Jajaali is one of many characters in the story of Mahabaratha and this is addressed to Jajali and states:
               Sarvesham yah suhrit nityam sarvesham cha hithey rathah
               Karmanaa manasaa vachaa sah dharmam veda jajaaley.
It says: “That man, who by his actions, words and mind is continuously engaged in the welfare of others and who is always a friend of others, has understood what dharma is”.

The essence of dharma common to all human beings is given by Bhishma in the Shantiparva 6,7,8 of Mahabharatha. It is as follows:
Akrodhah satyavachanam samvibhagah kshamaa thathaa
Prajanah sveyshu daareyshu showcham adrohah yeva cha
Aarjavam bhruthyabharanam navaaithi saarvavarnikaah
This lists the nine rules of dharma as consisting of absence of anger, truthfulness, sharing of wealth, forgiveness, children from wife only (why not husband only), purity, absence of enmity, straightforwardness, and caring for those who are dependent on us.

Manu smriti lists the following five rules of dharma applicable to everyone:
Ahmisa satyam astheyam showcham, indriyanigrahah
Yetham saamaasikam dharmam chaathurvarnye abraveenmanuh  Manu X – 63
These five are non-violence, truthfulness, not coveting other’s property (this includes material property and wives), purity, and control of senses. This set is also called saamanya dharma, since it is meant for all common folks and help control the mind.

Uddhava Gita (12:21) lists the following dharma for all classes and people: ahimsa,satyam, astaiyam, kāmakrodhalobhata, bhūtapriyaheta. These are non-injury, truthfulness, non-coveting others property, control of desires and anger and doing whatever is beneficial to all creatures, respectively.

 In the Bhagavatha purana,  there are several sections that  give details of dharma for all stages and all walks of life. There is also a section on adharma – the opposite of dharma.

These are similar to the teachings of Buddha who gave a set of simple rules of dharma for his followers in the general public. These are called Śīla (Sanskrit) which in English may stand for "virtue" or "good conduct”, "morality", or "precept”. It refers to overall (principles of) ethical behavior. There are several levels of sila, which correspond to "basic morality" (five precepts), "basic morality with asceticism" (eight precepts), "novice monkhood" (ten precepts) and "monkhood" (Vinaya or Patimokkha).

Laypeople generally follow the five precepts which are common to all Buddhist schools. The five precepts are: 1.To refrain from taking life; 2.To refrain from taking that which is not freely given (stealing); 3. To refrain from sexual misconduct (improper sexual behavior); 4.To refrain from lying and deceiving and 5. To refrain from intoxicants which lead to loss of mindfulness. The more elaborate set of rules including celibacy are meant for those who want to become monks.

Why do we need dharma?  Dharma is for acquiring wealth and happiness in this world using proper means and for acquiring proper karma for the next birth, say several sources. Sage Vyasa is quoted as saying: “Oordhvabahuh viromi yeshah na cha kashcha shrunowthi maam; dharmaath artthah cha kaamashcha sa dharmah kim na savyathey”. With raised hands, I am trying to reach all of you; but no one seems to listen. When both wealth and desires can be acquired through dharmic methods, why can’t you do so?  In other words, why use unethical means at all?

In his book on Gita Rahasya, Tilak says that Dharma indicates : “ the rules of morality which have been laid down by revered persons with reference to various matters for the maintenance of society”. (Gita rahasya Book 1 Page 94).  In other words, if everyone practices his or her appointed dharma there will be harmony and welfare for all. This is said to be the origin of the varna (the caste) system together with the varna dharma.

Manu puts it this way (Vol 5; Sloka 56):     “Na mamsa bhakshaney dhoshah, na madhye, na mithuney, prakrithi yesha bhuthaanaam” meaning that there is no inherent sin in eating meat, drinking liquor or having sexual union; these are the natural tendencies. However, we need dharma to place proper limits on an otherwise unrestrained human behavior resulting from passions and to assure general welfare. Without dharma, man becomes equal to animals. This is stated in Sanskrit as follows:
               Aahaara nidra bhayamaithunam cha
               Saamanyam yethath pashubih naraanaam
               Dharmo hi theyshaam adhiko visesho
               Dharmena heenah pashubhih samaanaah
The last sentence means “man is equal to animals without dharma”.  I find this the most  honest reason for the creation of the dharma concept.

Justice Jois  comes from a different angle. He says that “dharma” is immunization against the six inherent enemies in man which he calls the “antigens” of the mind. They are: kama (desire), krodha (anger), lobha (greed), moha (infatuation), mada (pride )and matsarya (jealousy). He quotes Manu (XII 3-7) who traces all wicked and evil actions of man to lack of control of the mind, speech and action.  How do we immunize against these “antigens” of sin? Based on this understanding of the causes of evil actions, Manu recommends the following immunizations: manodanda (control of the mind) , vakdanda(control of speech) and kaayadanda (control of actions).

What is the source of Dharma?  Manu (2:12) says that the fundamental sources of dharma are the Vedas, the Smritis, good behavior and the satisfaction of one’s own conscience as noted in the following sloka:
Vedah smritih sadhaachaarah svasya cha priyam aatmanah
Ethath chaturvidam praahuh saakshaath dharmasya lakshanam.
This shows that unlike the laws of the land, dharma is internally driven, an “internal policeman”.

In a passage from Vanaparvam in Mahabhaaratha, dharma is said to be born of the customs and rules of conduct laid down for the general welfare of the people by inspired elders with insight. In a discussion that follows, a genie (yaksha) tells Yudhisthtra that this statement of the source of dharma does not help in any actual situation. He says: “Logic is uncertain. The sacred texts give conflicting advice. The teachings of learned rishis differ. How do I know whose teaching is more true than that of others?”  Yudhistra replies: “mahaajano yena gatha sa pantthah” which means that the path of venerable wise men is dharma.

In another passage in the Anushaasana Parvam of Mahabharatha, morality is said to be born of customs (aacharaprabhavo dharmah). Obviously, this refers to the practice of the wise leaders of the society. This also suggests that the norms will change according to the society and the times.

What are the do’s and don’t’s?  This, as mentioned earlier, depends on the place, time and one’s situation. Therefore, it is variable. However, some general statements are possible. For example, in one passage, a bird is advising King Sibi as follows:  “That is dharma in which there is no contradiction; if there is contradiction, then come to a decision as to the relative merits of the action and the opposite action, and follow the path in which there is no opposition”.

Manu says: “Doing good to others is meritorious; doing harm to others is sinful. This is the substance of all 18 puranas”. In Sanskrit, this sloka states
                              Ashtaadashapuraanaanaam saaram saaram samudhrutham
                              Paropakaarah punyaya paapaaya parapeedanam 

In another statement, Manu says that one for whom other’s interest becomes the self-interest is the best of men. The actions of such a person will fall under the concept of Dharma.

Vidura nithi says: na thath parasya samdhadhyath prathikoolam yath aathmanah which means “do not unto others what is undesirable from one’s point of view”.

According to Manu, there are TEN actions that are prohibited as part of Dharma. Three are of the mind – coveting other’s property, thinking of undesirables and adherence to false doctrines. Four are of speech: abusive language, speaking untruth, detracting from the merits of others and idle talk. Three are of action: taking what is NOT given to you, injuring without sanction of the law and adultery ( Manu XII – 81 and XI: 3-9 and 11). In essence, these are controls of the mind, speech and action (thridhanda). (The three sticks carried by the sannyasis represent this point)