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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.

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