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Saturday, September 10, 2022

Dharma for the 21st century (revisited) - 1

     I have always felt that morality should be more important than legality and that moral standards are needed to guide legal restraints.  I wrote about developing new set of moral values and ethical standards for the 21st century and applied the well-established Sanskrit word Dharma for defining them. (, June 16, 2009) Later, I made it part of my book on Our Shared Sacred Space. A book I am reading currently (The Digital Republic by Jamie Susskind) stimulated me to update this idea.

Early societies functioned basically on moral values appropriate for the conditions of the societies in which they developed. Since the groups were small, everyone knew everyone else in the group or clan. Since the safety and welfare depended on everyone doing his or her “duties” properly without cheating, and the cheaters and disturbers of peace could be identified easily and ostracized immediately, there was no need for “laws”.

Laws came later when the groups became larger, jobs needed to keep the society functioning became diversified and complicated and particularly when people from outside the group came in as traders, warriors or seeking marital relationships. Before organized religions got established, these were unwritten laws or moral codes. These unwritten laws got codified by religious scholars and became laws sanctioned by religions. Those who broke these laws were ex-communicated or punished.

Written laws became necessary particularly to settle disputes on land, property ownerships, inheritance and bodily injuries.

All human societies have the same basic norms of moral conduct. The Golden Rule is the best example. The focus of this essay is on the Vedic Indian concept of Dharma and how ideas expressed in the book on The Digital Republic have been discussed for centuries in both the East and the West.

The strength of the Dharma concept resides in its foundational principles. Dharma acknowledges that human beings are different in their personalities. Their circumstances are different at different stages of life. Their roles and duties are different depending on their sex and positions in life. They perform different functions at different times in their lives. One rule cannot fit all. Therefore, Dharma allows for variables in setting rules of conduct.

These ideas are expressed in Maha Bharata Book 8, Chapter 69 in the form of a conversation between Lord Krishna and the warrior, Arjuna and later in Book 12 by Bhishma. Krishna points out that it is often difficult to discriminate between what should be done and what should not be in any given situation.  Between keeping one’s words and be truthful and having to kill someone because of that vow, killing is clearly worse. Krishna goes on to say that although truth is a great virtue, there are occasions when falsehood is acceptable as for example when life is in danger, or one is in danger of losing all of one’s property.

After giving some examples, Lord Krishna says: “Wish there is an easy way to know the difference between virtue and sin. Sometimes, scriptures help. But scriptures do not deal with all situations. Sometimes, you can reason it out. Whatever is inoffensive and whatever protects and preserves people is dharma”.

One other feature of the Dharma concept is that it is not rigid, the same for all times. It allows for exceptions to the rule and explains conditions under which assigned rules may be broken. The system also suggests methods to rectify for the lapses.

 Most importantly, the system prioritizes the importance of acceptable virtues. For example, not harming life is more important than telling a lie, if the lie was meant to protect a life. For example, if a helpless girl is running away from someone who is trying to kill her would you not want to help her by protecting her in your house? When the person chasing her comes to your house and asks for her, what is more important – saving a life or lying? Dharma concept says “saving life” takes primacy, by listing ahimsa (non-injury, protecting life) ahead of satyam (truth). 

(to be continued)

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