Category Archives: Dharma

Evolution of Dharma (3 0f 3)

Dharma in Mimamsa and Vaisheshika systems

Dharma in the Purva Mimamsa is used in a rather restricted sense;”Codana-lakshnortho dharmaha”. Dharma is the desired goal as per scriptures. Purva Mimamsa (1.1.2) speaks of Dharma as Vedic rituals leading to happiness and heaven; and saves one from degradation and suffering. It also talks in terms of Apurva, which means the subtle effect of actions performed in accordance with the scriptures.

Jaimini defines Dharma as that which is enjoined by the Vedas and which does not lead to suffering.

Kanaada in his Vaisheshika Sutra (1.2) defines Dharma as” Yato bhyudayanih- sreyasa siddhih sa dharmah“, that which leads to the attainment of prosperity (in this life) and eternal bliss (beyond life).Dharma here mean actions approved by the scriptures, religious practices and rituals, unseen results of such actions or the very fabric of ones life.

Compare this with what Krishna tells Arjuna in the Gita: Sacrifices will not lead to heaven if the desire for heaven is the sole motive of such rituals. Sacrifices are effective only when conducted with a sense of duty.

Dharma in Dharma Shastras

Dharma Shastras are made up of a vast number of texts produced over the centuries. There are literally hundreds of Dharma Shastra texts and a far greater number of related commentaries and digests. The principle Dharma Shastra texts include four Dharma Sutras of Aapasthamba, Gautama, Bahudayana and Vashista. Four important Smritis of Manu, Yajnavalkhya, Shanka and Parashara follow them. There are of course innumerable commentaries and digests on these texts. The modern Hindu Law relies on treatment of certain subjects by these texts; of course with suitable modifications and necessary revisions.

Dharma Shastras claim they derive their authority from the Vedas, but hardly any of their contents can be linked to Veda texts. They do, however, accept the authority of the Vedas and stress that moksha, liberation, is the ultimate goal of human life. They also recognize the need for reflective morality. ”The Vedas, Smritis, usages of good men , what is agreeable to one’s self and desire born of deliberation-these are traditionally recognized as the source of Dharma”(Yajnavalkya Smriti-1.7). However, the Vedas enunciated abstract principles and contained little concrete discussions on duties. The smritis were mainly digests of the prevailing practices. Therefore, for all practical purposes custom defined as “what is in vogue and is long standing” was the dominant source of the Dharma.

Dharma Shastras categorized under Smritis, the secondary texts, are commonly described as Law Books. They are however not in the form of the law books that we know. They are not codified substantive laws or legal norms. They are more in the nature of a body jurisprudence, a collection of numerous treaties produced by sages on various subjects such as daily rituals to be observed in each of the four stages life; duties of four varnas, customs, rights and obligations; rules and procedures for resolving doubts and disputes on issues of Dharma; and rules for punishment and penances for violations of the rules of Dharma etc..

Dharma Shastras made extensive use of Mimasa methods to reconcile conflicting texts of equal authority by applying its various rules for interpretation of words, phrases and sentenses.It adopted the Mimamsa style of argumentation. The other disciplines, on which Dharma Shastras relied heavily, were the grammar (Vyakarana) and logic (Nyaya).

Dharma Shastras are an impulsive mix of religion, morality and points of law. It is not easy to separate the one from the other. These texts derived their importance as the sources of religious law describing the life of an ideal householder; and as summations of knowledge about religion, law, ethics etc. It is perhaps because of their heavy religious content and reliance on religion, these texts came to be known as Dharma Shastras.

There is a world of difference between the Dharma of the Rig Veda, Upanishads and the epics on one hand, and the Dharma of the Shastras on the other. Dharma of the Shastras is not the Atman or the sublime cosmic order that governs the universe and sustains our existence, as the Rig Vedic Rishis envisioned. It is also not the universal principle of law, order and harmony as envisaged in the Upanishads. Nor is it the ordained duties or the Sathya, the pristine Truth as in Ramayana. Dharma here is not the one that which upholds the world, as in Mahabharata. Dharma here does not refer to the duties as ordained by the scriptures or even to Atma jnana as propounded in the Bhagavad-Gita.

Bhagavad-Gita viewed moral and spiritual merits as duties of the Brahmanas. The Dharma Shastras construed them as a means of livelihood for the Brahmanas. The old spiritual interpretations of those merits were smudged into dogmatic rules . Imparting instructions , officiating at the sacrifices , receiving gifts , became the special occupation of the Brahmanas.The distinction between spiritual obligations to the society and an occupation for earning a living was lost.

The Dharma these Shastra speak about is not universal. It is not applicable to entire creation or to all human beings. It is not even applicable to all segments and classes that compose the society. Its prescriptions are not valid for all times to come, either. The Dharma of these Shastras has very limited jurisdiction and authority. Their application is very specific and circumscribed by the limitations of Desha (region), Kaala (times) and Achara (valid practices of a region or of a class of people).

The texts viewed the society not as a collection of individuals but as a community of communities. It was articulated into specific castes, each with its economic functions and a place in the social hierarchy. An individuals Dharma was derived from the caste of his birth. One of the purposes of the texts seemed to be to keep the members of the society within their assigned roles.

Dharma Shastras are principally concerned with the rights and privileges of upper castes, consecratory rights (samskaras), stages of life, rules of eating, duties of the kings, legal procedures, eighteen titles of law, categories of sin, expiations and penances, funeray and ancestral rites(antyesti and shraddha) and atonement rites(Prayaschitta) etc. They are thus mainly occupied with the religious rites of a certain class of people and to an extent with the personal laws of marriage, inheritance etc; and they generally aim to induce ‘appropriate behavior’ of human beings.

Let me quote from Patrick Olivelle ‘ book on Dharmasastra :.

Dharma includes all aspects of proper individual and social behavior as demanded by one’s role in society and in keeping with one’s social identity according to age, gender, caste, marital status, and order of life. The term dharma may be translated as “Law” if we dp not limit ourselves to its narrow modern definition as civil and criminal statutes but take it to include all the rules of behavior, including moral and religious behavior, that a community recognizes as binding on its members.

In short, these unique documents give us a glimpse if not into how people actually lived their lives in ancient India, at least into how people, especially Brahmin males, were ideally expected to live their lives within an ordered and hierarchically arranged society.”

The subject-matter of the Dharmasutras, therefore, includes education of the young and their rites of passage; ritual procedures and religious ceremonies; marriage and marital rights and obligations; dietary restrictions and food transactions; the right professions for, and the proper interaction between, different social groups; sins and their expiations; institutions for the pursuit of holiness; king and the administration of justice; crimes and punishments; death and ancestral rites.

Many concepts of the Dharma Shastras might look, today, rather grotesque and outdated; and are therefore not acceptable in their entirety. That is not surprising at all; since those texts were addressed to a people of a particular time who lived their life in the context of their times. Those laws were also not meant to cater to the needs of all people at all times. The texts themselves emphasized the need to revise their prescriptions to keep in tune with the changing needs and demands of the individuals and the society. It is to the credit of the self-balancing genius of Hinduism that it has discarded the inconsistencies and anachronisms of the Dharma Shastras, in a dignified way and tried to retain the best the texts have to offer; while at the same time assimilating new currents of thought and transforming itself into an evolving and an expanding religious tradition.

Dharma Shastras are not of much practical significance today, as its secular aspects dealing with marriage, right to property, inheritance etc. have since walked into the modern Hindu Law, through an indirect route. How that happened is rather interesting. The early British in India tried to dispense law according to local customs.The process was hastened with the establishment of Supreme Court in 1774. For the benifit of the English Judges ignorant of Sanskrit , ancient Sutras relating to civil matters of person and property( Vyvahara) were translated into English. The one text that received greater attention in that context was Jagannatha Pandita’s Nibhanda on Vyvahara. Its translation was completed during 1794. Thereafter the English scholars attempted to codify the Shastras and to establish the chronological sequence of the texts in order to trace the authority to a single original source. Their attempts were not successful and an agreed – on authoritative chronology could not be established. However, by 1864, the long years of these exercises yielded a peculiar kind of case law in the form of a chain of interpretations by the English judges based on what they thought were the authoritative portions of the Hindu texts. This completely transformed the “Hindu Law” into a form of case law. What we have today is a forest of citations referring to previous judges decisions- as in Anglo Saxon – derived legal systems; and it is left to the skills of the judges and lawyers to find the precedent and to make the law. Those precedents are again those that were set up by the English judges. What started as a search for the “ancient Indian Constitution” ended up with English law for India and Indians -just what Indians would have wanted to avoid.

Further , the case-law was compiled without understanding the basic fact that in the Sutra the ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ aspects of Hindu -life are not strictly seperate; but, they are closely interwoven in the Hindu motives and actions. In the ancient Indian criminal-law too the  religious and secular punishments were intermixed. An offence was treated both as a sin and as a crime.

In addition , by the time the British took to applying the ancient Dharmasastras to the Hindus of the 18-19th century , the Indian society had moved much further away from the society of the Sutras. For instance, the Sutras viewd human life as one continuous span stretching from the womb to death and even beyond to the next birth. There was much emphasis laid on purification cermonies  (shuddhi) and on sacraments (samskaras). But , by the time the British took to administering  civil and criminal laws , the Indian socity had passed through Muslim rule. Many of the old beleifs and rituals had vanished and a certian amout seceptisim and ‘irreligious’ attitudes had crept in. The ancient Sutra injunctions were no longer relevant in most cases.

These limitations and lack of proper understandin of the Indian context  have led to narrow and restrictive interpretations of codified statues, especially in matters relating to family law and law relating to religious endowments. The rulings at times fail to serve the cause of Dharma or of justice. Therefore, the Hindu law, as we have today cries out for a re- look. However, unfortunately in the present socio-political environment in India, reform of religious law is a contentious swamp that legislators generally try to avoid. Further, the study of Hindu law is neglected due to the combination of declining knowledge of its classical foundations; and the pressures of modern political correctness. Studying Hindu law is often looked down as a regressive activity, threatening the minorities in particular, and the women.

In any case, in the present context, the secular functions of the Dharma Shastras have to find their survival in the personal law and civil law books. There is no other way.

Coming back to the connotation of the term, Dharma in the Dharma Shastras broadly meant ‘appropriate behavior’ of human beings in a given context. The term also had religious and caste overtones. With the metamorphosis of Dharma Shastras into Hindu Law, the elements of caste and gender have largely disappeared. In order to ensure fair and equitable dispensation of justice,Dharma now needs to be interpreted in terms of universal non-hierarchical norms for right conduct.

A question that is often asked is, whether Dharma is relevant today. The answer is; yes, it is.

Because man is free to select his options, he needs to think and understand that any human activity, including inaction, has the potential to cause a chain of consequences. It is therefore important to choose an appropriate path. One has to therefore look within oneself, judge the situation and act in the best interests of the self and of the fellow beings. That which guides us along the right path and elevates us is, in reality, the Dharma.

One of the strengths of Dharma is that it is preventive rather than punitive. It prevents us from going down the path of degradation and decay. It safeguards the values of life, the quality of living and the wellbeing of us and of our coming generations. Dharma is therefore relevant at all times.

The Rig Vedic concept of Dharma as Atman or as an all-pervading cosmic order is sublime; but is ethereal and beyond the ken of a common person. Similar is the Upanishad view of Dharma as a universal principle of law and harmony. That is also not easy to grasp. If one has to appreciate a concept, one necessarily has to relate it to ones experiences in life. One can relate to the trials, tribulations and dilemmas faced by the men and women of Ramayana and Mahabharata .That is the reason for the immense popularity and adulation for the heroes of those epics. Generations of Indians in their quest for right answers to their problems , moral dilemmas and to a meaning for their life, have sought guidance and inspiration from the illustrations of Dharma as demonstrated in Ramayana and Mahabharata. They have grown up in amazement, reverence and appreciation for the equanimity, fair dealing and dignity, displayed by the epic heroes in their hours of distress. It also helped to strengthen their faith that right means will eventually lead to the right end.

The Dharma of Ramayana teaches honouring ones ordained duty, in the context; and adherence to Truth amidst temptations. That is relevant today too.

The Dharma of Mahabharata asks you to see through the evil and devise appropriate approach and action to safeguard the larger interests of Dharma and to perpetuate a living Dharma, at any cost. That is still relevant. Its call to put Dharma into practice and to experience it in life is also relevant.

The message of the Bhagavad-Gita to discover you true potential, to explore it with skill and diligence; and to live an authentic life, is relevant forever .Its emphasis on commitment to work, ethics and detachment is very relevant in today’s world.

Dharma Shastras’ concern for an orderly, peaceful and harmonious living of a person with his family, his society and the world, is relevant today too. Its statement that Dharma as a source of law and consciousness should influences the functioning of the State in its day-to-day governance is also relevant.

Dharma is not a stagnant concept; but it is a living experience. It is evolving itself all the time, constantly interacting with the challenges, demands and needs of the times. At each stage of its unfolding, it acquired a newer interpretation in the context of the life and events of that period while retaining all its other interpretations accumulated over the ages. What was amazing was that each one of its interpretations was as valid as the rest of them. Dharma is a many splendored thing. It is ever fresh and inventing itself all the time. That is because, Dharma is fundamentally related to life and its essence is in living it, practicing it and experiencing it. Dharma, in whatever form, will be relevant at all times.



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Posted by on September 6, 2012 in Dharma, Indian Philosophy


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Evolution of Dharma (2 of 3)

Dharma in Mahabharata

Ramayana, basically, is a story of chaste love between a husband and wife; and their unwavering adherence to Dharma throughout their trials and tribulations. The main characters in the story are not many in number; and the story covers a period of about fifty years. The evil was easily identifiable with its grotesque exterior and it had its base in far off lands. Ramayana demonstrated that a person of steadfast faith established in Dharma would eventually vanquish evil and ignorance. Fundamental to the defense of that Dharma was the sanctity of a Sati, a pure woman. Indeed the entire nature, its elements and animal world made common cause with Rama in re-establishing the Dharma. What characterizes the Dharma in Ramayana is its innocence, purity and nobility.

The canvass of the Mahabharata on the other hand, is much wider; the subject matter is rather sullied and its characters are too many in number, spread over several generations. They have a very complicated mental makeup too. The evil is neither easily identifiable nor is it far away. The evil in fact had entered the hearts and minds of almost all of its men and women, who came from the common heritage. The most brazen act of evil by the Kauravas was threatening a woman’s chastity; and with that, the Kauravas sank to the lowest level of adharma. The conflict that eventually took place was not between the absolute right and the wrong; but between two groups of cousins and their supporters; with a sprinkling of the noble among the crowds of not- so- noble. Pandavas themselves were not perfect, either. The stepping in of Krishna alone rescued the epic from degenerating into internecine family feud; and elevated it into a conflict of great significance to uphold Dharma. He taught the world that the ultimate conflict was not about land, riches or power but about the human spirit , the Dharma.

Vyasa says the purpose of writing Mahabharata was to ” engrave Dharma on the hearts of men”. Mahabharata , among other things, makes some great statements on Dharma ; such as :

”Our bodies are short lived, wealth does not last long, death is constantly knocking at the door; therefore accumulate Dharma”

(anityani sarirani vaibhavo naiva sahvataha, nityam sannito mrtyuh kartavyo dharma-sangrahah)

“It is Dharma since it upholds. Dharma is that which upholds the people of the world.”

(Dharanath dharmam ityahuh dharmo dharayate prajaah)

“Dharma, cultivated, preserves; Dharma, violated, destroys.”

(Dharma eva hato hanti, dharmo rakshati rakshitaha);

“Where there is Dharma, there victory also is”

(Yato darmah thatho jayaha);

Yet, the Dharma pictured in Mahabharata is ambiguous, uncertain and often disputed. For instance, Draupadi after the dice game, demands to know whether Yudhishtira had a right to stake her in the game after he had staked and lost himself. It was so difficult a question that even Bhishma, the recognized authority on Dharma, when pointedly challenged by Draupadi, confessed his inability to decide the issue.

“What a strong man says often becomes the only dharma. A weak man may have dharma on his side, but who listens to him? To tell you the truth, I do not know what to say” (Sabha Parva. 69.15-161).

”I am unable to answer your question because Dharma is subtle”, he says

(na dharmasaukshmyat subhage vivektutm shaknomi te prasnam imam yatthaavat).

Dharma is subtle (sukshmam) because its essence is concealed in a dark cavern

(dharmasya tattvam nihitath guhaayaam).

On another occasion, Draupadi wonders why they have to suffer so, if they were the righteous ones. If everything happened by the will of god, why then do the virtuous suffer? She exclaims, it seems only the powerful escape harm, not the righteous. Yudhishthira tries to explain: “None should ever perform virtue with a desire to gain its fruits.. … Do not doubt virtue because you do not see its results. Without doubt, the fruits of virtue will be manifest in time, as will the fruits of sin. The fruits of true virtue are eternal and indestructible”.

Years later, Yudhishthira has similar doubts. Soon after the war, he was overwhelmed by a sense of horror and melancholy; and was much troubled by the death and destruction caused by the war. His grief was inconsolable. Bhishma lying on his deathbed consoles him by teaching Dharma and the duties of a king, which includes rightful violence without greed. He also talks about Dharma in abnormal circumstances; and the absolute perspective that transcends the duality of good versus bad, right versus wrong, pleasant versus unpleasant. Yet Yudhishthira is unconvinced and decides to perform Rajasuyaga as penitence for the acknowledged wrongs of the war.

Mahabharata introduces the concept of Apad_Dharma, a sort of safety valve in an emergency when every other normal measure seems to have failed. It relates to stressful times of extreme distress or calamities, which threaten to endanger Dharma. In such circumstances, it might become necessary for Dharma to abandon its usual course, for self-protection. Apad_Dharma is that deviation from the normal. What is Adharma in normal circumstances might be deemed Dharma in Apad_Dharma. That is in the larger interests of the Dharma and for the benefit of others (loka) but not for personal gain. The logic behind this principle is, the ultimate Dharma (larger picture) has to be protected at any cost. That is why Dharma is profound and subtle. It is context sensitive.

Krishna guided the Pandavas to victory on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, often by miraculous intervention, avenged Draupadi and restored Dharma. Unlike Rama, Krishna did not adhere to conventional exterior of the Dharma. Rather, he judged the gravity and significance of each situation; and devised innovative methods to preserve and protect the essence of the Dharma. This often put him on a collision course with the conventional adherents of Dharma. Nevertheless, he justified his actions by insisting that the intense desire to protect the larger interests of the Dharma was at the core.

Pandavas, under his guidance, eventually broke each rule of the war: Arjuna shoots Bhishma when he lays down his arms before Sikhandin; Arjuna kills Jayadratha at “night” when Krishna simulates darkens; Arjuna shoots Karna when unarmed and Bhima crushes Duryodhana’s thigh (hitting below the waist).

On one occasion,  Krishna tells Yudhishthira: “Sometimes one protects dharma by forgetting it.”

Duryodhana accuses Krishna of unfair conduct; Krishna responds with two defenses: that it was his own deceit at dice that began this conflict, and the apparent unfair conduct was meant to defeat a greater evil: “The gods destroyed demons in the past in this way to protect Dharma”

Duryodhana bitterly replies that the Pandavas could never have won without cheating, to which Krishna agrees; right does not always triumph by ideal and unsullied means. “There are limits to the extent an individual can be moral in an immoral society”.

Karna laments as death nears him; his righteousness did not make him victorious: “Knower’s of dharma have always said, ‘Dharma protects those devoted to dharma.’ But since my wheel sank today, I think dharma does not always protect.”

Krishna taunts Karna, asking him whether he was referring to the same Dharma that prevented him from rising above his sense of obligation to Duryodhana, despite being aware of his evil designs; terming Draupadi a harlot and ordering her to be stripped in public.

That is precisely what the epic is about: the replacement of the dharma of a lower understanding by one of a higher level. It was that outdated, severely limited view of Dharma that Krishna was trying to root out and replace with a pragmatic Dharma. He emphasized, as he did in Gita that Dharma was in living and experiencing it; and not just in talking about it.

It is a validation of this fact we find in Bhishma who from his bed-of-arrows advises Yudhishthira on the duties, responsibilities of a king and the need to protect Dharma. Bhishma in fact had not practiced what he preached. He remained a mute witness to the aggression of Adharma. His inaction illustrated that Kshatriya’s “witness” stance brings about the destruction of the kingdom and of the Dharma. The Kshatriya must fight to protect the weak, for that is his dharma, the truth of his nature. Not being true to his Dharma because of inaction, brought destruction and misery to not only himself but also the society of which he was a pillar. Had Bishma acted in the true spirit of his Dharma, Mahabharata would have been a different epic.

[There is an interesting comparison between Bhishma of Mahabharata and Vibhishana (younger brother of Ravana) of Ramayana.  In either case, the person who occupied the throne they served tried to violate the chastity of a pure and a virtuous woman. Both those kings (Ravana and Duryodhana) had sunk to the lowest level of adharma. Both Vibhishana and Bhishma strongly disagreed with the acts of their respective kings. But, it was Vibhishana who had the courageous detachment to disassociate himself from the immoral regime of his king, his brother, and to join the forces of Dharma which his brother opposed. Vibhishana‘s unpopular decision was open to controversies and even to ridicule. Yet, Vibhishana was steadfast; he stood by his decision which according to him was the right one, by all counts.

In contrast, Bhishma the old-guard needlessly chose to cling to what he did not approve, because of his misplaced sense of loyalty. And, he eventually brought grief on to himself and unto others around him by his indecision and inactivity.His life too ends in a sort of irony with his past haunting to wound him mortally and thereafter prompting him to render lengthy discourses, from his death bed, on the things that he did not practice in life .His listener, too tired, too listless and disillusioned scarcely had time or opportunity to put into use what he learnt from the savant on a death bed of arrows.

Bhishma, it is said, was gifted with a boon to choose the time of his death. The death dare not approach him till he accorded it his permission. Yet, I sometimes wonder why he chose to live so long. It is sad to see a self-sacrificing , almost a god getting bogged in the mire of this world , meddling with everyone’s life and finally living on and on , unwanted and uncared when he could have chosen to end the agony. Bhishma endured so much pain in life and in battle that even the bed of arrows did not hurt him anymore. It was sad for one who didn’t even want to be born.

There is perhaps a lesson here , too much attachment and involvement in where it is not needed is not merely unrewarding but is dangerous too ; while at the same time sheer inactivity renders one irrelevant. Our texts have always talked about a sense of balance that life should have.]

Worse is the case of Drona who abandoned his swadharma and mortgaged his self-respect in exchange for royal patronage. Bhima taunts Drona, pointing out his selfishness and failure in life.

Yudhishthira exclaims, it is extremely difficult to ascertain who the good are and whose conduct could be taken as the standard of righteousness. Bhishma explains that the concept of Dharma is difficult, subtle and defies easy grasp. Bhishma, after explaining the difficulties in defining it, goes on to say, Dharma was ordained for the advancement and growth of all creatures; therefore, that which leads to advancement and growth is Dharma. Dharma was ordained for restricting creatures from injuring one another; therefore, that which prevents injury to creatures is Dharma. It is called Dharma because it upholds all creatures. Dharma is that which is capable of upholding all creatures. That which elevates is Dharma.

That which is called the conduct of the good may at times be stained by some errors. Fools, led by this, give up righteousness itself. On the other hand, wise men, avoiding those errors, take what is good and save themselves.

Bhishma tells Yudhishthira that in the Kali Yuga that had just stepped in, “dharma becomes adharma and adharma, dharma.” Somewhat paradoxically, he continues, “If one fights with trickery, one could oppose him with trickery. But, if one fights lawfully, one should check him with dharma … One should conquer evil with good. Death by dharma is better than victory by evil deeds.”

There is a touch of desperation in the voice of Vyasa as he comes towards the end of the epic. In Swargarohana parva he cries out with anguish, “With raised hands, I shout at the top of my voice; but alas, no one hears my words which can give them Supreme Peace, Joy and Eternal Bliss. One can attain wealth and all objects of desire through Dharma. Why do not people practice Dharma? One should not abandon Dharma at any cost, even at the risk of his life. One should not relinquish Dharma out of passion or fear or covetousness or for the sake of preserving one’s life”

The treatment of Dharma in Mahabharata is remarkable for its erudition, complexity and clarity of thought. The deeper you go into the epic the more you are impressed with its concern for the values of life, quality of living and for the wellbeing of the individual in harmony with the society. It touches almost every facet of human life. Its anxiety to safeguard the virtues and wellbeing of the coming generations is explicit in its every debate. The principle characters such as Krishna, Yudhistira are ever concerned how their actions might be perceived by the future generations; and are cautious not to set wrong precedents. The accent on healthy growth of Dharma and its perpetuation is primary to the unfolding of Mahabharata. This concern stems out of the strong faith that Dharma, the essence of right thinking and right living, is the law of being and is the basis of our existence. Our wellbeing and that of our future generations depends on that Dharma. It has therefore to be protected and perpetuated in the right way for the benefit of all, at any cost.

Because man is free to select his options, he needs to think and understand that any human activity, including in action, has the potential to cause a chain of consequences. It is therefore important to choose an appropriate path. If he had no options or if he was not free to choose, that is another matter. Mahabharata seeks to awaken the essence of Dharma within us, to learn to distinguish Dharma from its opposite. One has to look within oneself, grasp the true intent and spirit of Dharma in order to judge a situation and act in the best interests of the self and of the fellow beings. One may not always find ready answers to the problems at hand, in the external forms of Dharma; one may necessarily have to innovate the appropriate approach and action to safeguard the larger interests of Sathya and Dharma. That was the genius of  Krishna, who was far ahead of his times. It was he who stressed that the essence of Dharma was in living, practicing, experiencing it.

Shrinking from ones moral duty, refusal to act when it is difficult to act,attachment to objects and confusion- these weaknesses hinder the development individual and the society.

Introspection and innovation in order to experience, to protect and perpetuate a living Dharma, at all costs, is the message of Mahabharata and Krishna.

Dharma in Bhagavad-Gita

In Bhagavad-Gita, we find Dharma in a crystalline form. The term is employed in a more definite and clear sense. Dharma here is righteousness; the basis of all purusharthas (18.34).It is ones duty in the context of ones stage and calling in life. By performing his Dharma with diligence and skill, a person attains Abhyudaya, the well-being in this world and Nissreyasa, the highest good (4.8, 18.31, 1.40, 7.11 etc.).Dharma is also a synonym for Atma-jnana, Self-knowledge (9.30 and Karma yoga (2.40).

The Lord proclaims whenever Dharma is in decline and Adharma is on rise, I manifest myself (4.7).Here, Dharma connotes righteousness and the cherished values in life.

Bhagavad-Gita introduces an interesting concept of Swa_dharma, which broadly suggests : inherent aptitude or talent or interest or ability; authenticity or individuality; or that which comes naturally to you or your calling in life. It is the question of being and becoming. It asks you to realize your strengths, interests, aptitudes and call in life; and to develop your potential instead of wasting your time and energy on- things that are unnatural to you; or in imitating others or borrowing someone else’s ideas and goals. That could potentially lead to “fear inside”.

Swadharma underlines the importance of ones individuality, creative ability and authenticity in life; letting your potential to flower into something truly wonderful (Gita 3.33, 3.35).It is a commitment to yourself, to your potential and to your purpose in life. It is the art of living.

One of the ways to perceive your Swadharma is to engage in Swadhyaya, self-analysis, as suggested in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. The Self-analysis is both intellectual and intuitive, with the intuition leading the intellect. The accent is on realizing for oneself, for the sake of ones welfare.

Krishna asks Arjuna the warrior to perform his Swadharma and to fight on. How does a warrior perform his duty without doing wrong, not polluting himself with the blood of his fellow beings? The answer is detachment: do your duty without concern for the personal consequences. “Victory and defeat, pleasure and pain are all the same. Act, but do not reflect on fruits of the act. Forget desire, seek detachment.”

Apart from the way of undivided loving devotion, with mind fixed on the person of the Lord, with supreme faith and surrender, the Gita says there are two paths to liberation : renunciation and performing ones duty without desire. Since most cannot renounce all actions and intents in life, it is better to work without attachment (nishkama-karma). Gita emphasizes pravritti (engagement); and puts work , sense of duty and detachment in the hub of life.

Bhagavad-Gita thus highlights and develops a concept of work, ethics and detachment, as had not been elaborated in the earlier texts. It lays enormous stress on work, on practicing what you truly believe, on authenticity in life and on experiencing that in your life. That is the Dharma. It has scant respect for mere talk and not putting your belief into practice.


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Dharma in Dharma Shastras And  After.


Posted by on September 6, 2012 in Dharma, Indian Philosophy, Mahabharata


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Evolution of Dharma( 1 of 3)

Mr. Rajan in his blog What if Krishna became the Charioteer of Rama?, referred to the issue of the Yuga Dharma and obliquely to the dynamic character of Dharma. The idea of Dharma unfolding itself and acquiring newer interpretations at different stages and in different contexts, as it rolled on over the ages, fascinated me much.

Dharma is not a stagnant concept but a living experience; it is evolving itself all the time, constantly interacting with the challenges, demands and needs of the times. Dharma once visualized as the cosmic order, the eternal principle governing and sustaining the Universe; gradually metamorphosed into duties and responsibilities prescribed for varieties of beings in varied contexts and at different stages in the life of the society and the individual.

Along the way, it acquired an array of meanings and interpretations. At each stage, whatever was its form; Dharma was a point of reference to human existence; and a protection from confusions, delusions and upheavals. It always set an acceptable norm for a life well lived. Its underlying principle had always been the welfare of the society and the individual, leading to progress and harmony.

While talking of Dharma, one has to acknowledge the realities of life. The existence of evil in the individual and in the society is inevitable. It just cannot be wished away. At the same time, it is imperative to secure victory over that evil and injustice. Victory in this context means: a progression towards the greatest good of all, leading to peace and development of all beings; harmony of the individual with himself, with the society and with the universe; establishment of the right values in life; and helping humans to attain their ultimate goal.

Dharma does not necessarily win the battle each time in that ongoing conflict. Dharma nonetheless relentlessly pushes on, striving to restore and maintain a sense of balance, fair dealing and harmony in life. Evil will always be there and will never be completely eradicated. But it is essential that Dharma assert itself over the evil now and hereafter.


Let us take a brief look at some definitions of Dharma and its evolution over the ages.

Dharma is a richly connotative term that stands for a universal principle that is not easy to define but not impossible to outline. Dharma is ultimately the basis for our existence, prosperity and fair dealing in this world. All the other principles and values in life flow from the fountain of Dharma.

Dharma has variously been explained as: the principle or the law that governs the universe; individual conduct in conformity with that principle; that which is established or firm or steadfast; what holds together; the essential function or nature of a thing; codes regulating individual and of social conduct; a body of teachings; a sect or a religion, a way of life; righteousness; justice; duty etc. Every form of life, every group of people has its Dharma, which is the principle or law of its being. The failure to observe Dharma would put the individual and the society in peril.

At another plane of consciousness, Dharma is a synonym for Truth, Atman and God.

The essence of Dharma, in any case, consists in living and experiencing it.

Dharma can mean any one, more, or all of those explanations, depending upon the context in which it is referred. That is because; the term was employed in a variety of ways down the ages in different contexts; and the connotation and the scope of the term underwent huge changes over the period. It would therefore be worthwhile to glance at its evolution.

Dharma in Rig Veda

Rig Veda adopts a multifaceted approach to Dharma. At one level, Dharma is the, sublime cosmic order that governs the universe and sustains human existence. At another level, it guides the individual towards harmony with the universe.

Rig Veda does not engage in a systematic exposition Dharma. The seeds of Dharma are carried in the concepts of rta and sathya that Rig Veda refers to frequently. Rta is the natural or universal order and integrity of all forms of life and ecological systems. It recognizes our oneness with our environment and our unity with all life on earth. It is an inviolable cosmic order and Truth. Those were not imposed or created by God; but, in a sense, they are the God.

Rta is also used in the sense of consciousness of Truth; and when expressed through words and deeds it is Sathya. Rta in relation to an individual denotes his right conduct based on truth, the Dharma. Thus, the three terms Rta, Sathya and Dharma almost band together.

Dharma thus is not just harmony; it is pure Reality; it is also the law or right conduct based in Truth, which itself is also Dharma.

The term Dharma occurs in Rig Veda about fifty-six times (e.g.5.63.7, 5.72.2, 9.7.1, 9.25.2, 10.88.1, 10.170.2). In almost all the instances, it is used in the sense of duty or action, which contributes to the support or sustenance of the world. Atharva Veda too describes dharma symbolically: Prithivim dharmana dhritam, that is, “this world is upheld by dharma”.

viśvasvaṃ mātaram oṣadhīnāṃ dhruvāṃ bhūmiṃ pṛthivīṃ dharmaṇā dhṛtām |AVŚ_12,1.17a|


Dharma in Upanishads

The Upanishads continue the two-pronged approach to Dharma.

The Upanishads at one level see Dharma as the universal principle of law, order, harmony and the supreme Truth, Brahman. It is the law of being, without which one cannot exist- “anur esha dharmaha”- (Katha Upanishad 1.21). Dharma denotes Atman. It is Sat, the truth that Rig Veda proclaims in “Ekam Sat” (Truth Is One). It is also the Sat in Satchidananda (Truth-Consciousness-Bliss), the grand imagery of that Brahman.

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad speaks of the identity of truth and Dharma:

yo vai sa dharmaḥ satyaṃ vai tat | tasmāt satyaṃ vadantam āhur dharmaṃ vadatīti | dharmaṃ vā vadantaṃ satyaṃ vadatīti |

Verily, that which is Dharma is truth.

Therefore, they say of a man who speaks truth,
‘He speaks the Dharma,’

Or of a man who speaks the Dharma,
‘He speaks the Truth.’

Verily, both these things are the same

 (Brh. Upanishad, 1.4.14)

Upanishads also speak of Dharma in the sense of duty or course of conduct, which contributes, to the sustenance of the society and its members. Mahanarayana Upanishad (1.4.14) calls it “Dharmo vishvasya jagathah prathista” – that which sustains the world.

Chandogya Upanishad (2.23.1) speaks of “trio dharma skandaha …” the duties in three stages of life as the offshoots or the braches of the Dharma. This refers to the obligations and privileges of a student, a householder and a hermit.

trayo dharmaskandhāḥ | yajño ‘dhyayanaṃ dānam iti prathamaḥ | tapa eva dvitīyaḥ |
brahmacāryācāryakulavāsī tṛtīyo ‘tyantam ātmānam ācāryakule ‘vasādayan | sarva ete puṇyalokā bhavanti | brahmasaṃstho ‘mṛtatvam eti || ChUp_2,23.1 ||

The Acharyaopadesha in Taitteriya Upanishad (1.11.1) instructs “Dharmam chara”- perform your ordained duties.

vedamanūcyācāryontevāsinamanuśāsti / satyaṃ vada / dharmaṃ cara / svādhyāyānmā pramadaḥ / ācāryāya priyaṃ dhanamāhṛtya prajātantuṃ mā vyavacchetsīḥ / satyānna pramaditavyam / dharmānna pramaditavyam / kuśalānna pramaditavyam / bhūtyaina pramaditavyam / svādhyāyapravacanābhyāṃ na pramaditavyam // (TaittU_1,11.1)

Here, in these cases, Dharma stands for righteous behavior based on truth, in accordance with the right conduct prescribed as per law in the context of ones stage and/or calling in life. It is in the best interests of the society and the individual. It shapes and sustains ones existence as an individual and as a member of the society. All other meanings, interpretations and derivations from the term Dharma, in the later texts are corollaries of this central idea.

Dharma as Purushartha

The Rig Veda talks of another concept, that of rna which underlines the responsibility of man to his family, his community, his environment and to himself as a human being. Rna aims to set values in a normal day-to-day life. The fulfillment of three purposes of life (dharma, artha and Kama) acquires meaning only in the context of felt obligations (rnas). It is essential the pursuit of Artha (wealth or power) and Kama (desire or pleasure) is guided and restrained by Dharma. It is the violation of this requirement that sets apart the not-so-virtuous from the virtuous. Rig Veda (8.1.6) gives a call, “Man, you must reach upward, not go down below”.

If moksha is the goal, then participate fully in the affairs of society, raise a family, enjoy the good life, and serve the community … all within the framework of Dharma.

Dharma in this context is characterized by human values like truth, compassion, self-restraint, non-enmity, forgiveness etc. It sets proper priorities for human achievements, lends a sense of direction to human aspirations and rationalizes the relationship of the individual with the society and the world at large. It also provides ample scope for individual conscience and to exercise options.

We see here a logical progression from Rta a cosmic order to a code of conduct prescribed for the individual in the light of righteousness, commitment and a sense of balance in life.

Dharma in Ramayana

Valmiki presents his view of ideal conduct through Rama and his approach to life. Valmiki portrays Rama not as a supernatural being but as a rational human who in his life encounters several moral dilemmas and deals with each of them in accordance with the Dharma that was relevant in the context of the event and with reference to the stage of life he was then placed.

Valmiki says, ” Honour the duties of one’s stage in life”. To him Dharma is neither stagnant nor an abstract concept but a dynamic living experience. “Whichever Dharma you follow with steadfastness and according to the principles, may that Dharma protect you.”

Valmiki demonstrates the dynamic nature of the Dharma through the stressful events in the life of Rama, and by depicting how Rama reacted to those events in accordance with the Dharma then appropriate.

For instance, when the question of his exile came up, Rama was not a king, yet. At that stage in his life, the relation between him and the people of Ayodhya was not that of a king and his subjects. His station in life, then, was of a dutiful son. His primary duty, then, was to his parents and to his family. He rightly respected his father’s wish, obeyed him and saved him from the danger of breaking his solemn promise. By accepting the exile without hesitation or any ill feeling, Rama protected his Dharma, that of his father and that of his nation too. He acted with great sense of responsibility and set an ideal for the coming generations to follow. That is the reason Rama is regarded the upholder of the right conduct and as the epitome of virtue.

At a later stage in his life, after return from exile and crowned as the king, his Dharma as the king took precedence over all other concerns in his life. He placed the interests of the kingdom over that of himself and of his family.

As if to demonstrate the contrast, Valmiki also brings out in relief the ill effects of pride, greed, lust, jealousy, distrust, deceit etc. to highlight the virtues of Dharma, and to show how they could lead to degradation and destruction.

Another aspect of Dharma that Valmiki highlights is its equation with Sathya, truthfulness. To him, Sathya is Dharma and it is established in Dharma. Accordingly, Rama is entirely committed to truth; he is true to himself in spirit, word and deed. He not only follows the path of truth but also helps others to be truthful and to follow their Dharma.

Ramayana delineates the Dharma of a father, son, a brother, a king, a wife, a friend and a follower with illustrative examples. Valmiki in this context presents three contrasting sets of brothers.

Rama and his brothers idealize the brotherly love, affection and regard.

The relationship of Vaali and Sugreeva, in contrast, is a case where communication between the brothers has broken down. Whatever brotherly affection was there has since vanished. Each does not hesitate to kill the other or usurp the woman and kingdom.

The relationship among the brothers Ravana is of a different kind. Kumbhakarna is aware that his elder brother Ravana clearly trespassed Dharma and he tries to dissuade Ravana from pursuing the wrong path. After he fails in his attempts, Kumbhakarna decides to go along with Ravana, regardless; because of brotherly affection, allegiance, loyalty and respect for his elder brother.

Vibhishana on the other hand is clear in his mind that lending support to the righteous takes priority over loyalty to the family and to the brother. Vibhishana was perhaps the earliest instance of a whistle-blower. Dharma in these cases was a question of choosing the right priorities.

It is also a picture of three types of societies, each with its own set of values, mores and structure. One is the kingdom of man; the other is of the Vanaras while the third is of the Rakshasas. They are also pictures of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas gunas.

In all the three cases, the elder brother is denied the throne; each for a different reason. Eventually the Sattvics come to throne, but again in three different ways. It is virtually a demonstration of Dharma in action.

The principle characters – Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Dasharatha , Kumbhakarna , Vibhishana et al – each exercises his/her judgment and acts in accordance with what he/she considers is the right or righteous in the context of the then society, his/her Dharma in the circumstance. Ramayana thus sets in motion a context sensitive dynamic interpretation of Dharma, evolving itself all the time. It means that the broad principles of Dharma are translated into applications for use in specific situations; just as in the relation between science and technology.

This context sensitive theme, innovative treatment, and dynamic interpretation of Dharma gains greater significance in Mahabharata.

Read Next:

Dharma in Mahabharata


Posted by on September 6, 2012 in Dharma, Indian Philosophy


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