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Friday, June 8, 2018

What is Dharma? - Maha Bharata Series 79

In Book 12 Section 251, Yudhistra asks Bhishma: "what is Dharma?". Bhishma says that dharma consists in good conduct and following the teachings of Śrutis and those of the Smritis. Dharma is also determined by the purpose of one’s actions (motive). The translator uses the word righteousness for the Sanskrit word dharma. In explaining this, Bhishma says:

यद अन्यैर विहितं नेच्छेद आत्मनः कर्म पूरुषः
     तत्परेषु कुर्वीत जानन्न अप्रियम आत्मनः. 

This is exactly the same as the Golden Rule of the Bible. “Therefore, all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets” says the King James Bible.
 Yudhistra challenges Bhishma and says that none of those four indicators of dharma (good conduct, following teachings of Sruti, following teaching of smriti and intent of action) are valid. His arguments are worth listening to. Bhishma had said that dharma (righteousness) and its reverse arise from one’s acts causing happiness or misery and they affect one’s future life. But, Yudhistra says that living creatures are born, exist and die as part of nature’s course.  Nature is the cause of their births and deaths and not the consequences of their dharmic acts. Therefore, the study of Vedas alone cannot lead one to dharma.

The duties of a person who is well of is of one kind; and that of one in distress is another. Duties also change according to the time. How can one know dharma by reading the Śrutis? Since the Smritis follow the path of the Śrutis, they cannot be relied on either.

Besides, Bhishma says that the acts of the good is righteousness. Then he follows by saying that the good ought to be ascertained by their acts. “Is this not circular reasoning?”, Yudhsihtra asks.

Also, people who act with passion (anger, ignorance etc) sometimes do righteous deeds. And, people with good intentions act in sinful ways. A dharmic action sometimes interferes with another person’s way of life and happiness. So, “how are we to know what dharma is?” asks Yudhishtra.

Given all these questions, Yudhistra says that the path of dharma is extremely difficult to ascertain and says something special:

विद्म चैवं वा विद्म शक्यं वा वेदितुं वा
     अनीयान कषुर धाराया गरीयान पर्वताद अपि  (section 252)

The meaning is that the path of dharma is difficult to understand. It is very narrow, narrower than the edge of a razor and grosser than a mountain.

There is a similar passage in the Bible. “But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:14).

This idea of comparing the narrow path leading to dharma and enlightenment to a razor’s edge goes back to Katha Upanishad 1:iii;14. That passage became an inspiration to the title of a book by Somerset Maugham called “The Razor’s Edge”. Somerset Maugham was a big admirer of Vedic philosophy.


Anonymous said...

This posting brings out the difficulty for most of us in following our "Dharma" and Yudhistra has posed this well. It seems that this discussion is not complete and we may have to relate all this to other chapters, to fully understand "Dharma". For now, I can munch on these thoughts.

Balu said...

I agree. The discussion on Dharma is incomplete in this blog-post. However, it ends with Bhishma's remark on the difficulty in understanding Dharma, which is a good place to start reflecting on our own.
Discussion on Dharma can take a whole book and indeed there are several books on that subject. I am confining myself to the conversations in Maha Bharata and a few personal comments. Therefore, I know that this entire series is disjointed and incomplete.
Thanks for your comments