As promised to Yossarin, I hereby add, clarify, and (hope to) correct some items in Yossarin’s elucidation of Dharma. I’ve adopted his question-answer format because it offers a nice readymade template.
What is Dharma ?
Dharma is about righteousness of actions. It is about righteousness which is universal and eternal i.e. it is invariant of time (when the action took place), place (where the action took place) and context (why the action took place).
The etymology of Dharma is derived from the root Dhr, meaning to sustain, to uphold, to protect, to preserve, etc. As I have mentioned earlier, this ties in neatly with the conception of Rta or the force that sustains the Cosmic Order. Accordingly, when we say a person has attained Brahman or Ultimate Realization, it simply means he is perfectly in tune with Rta and understands how the entire universe is ordered, and has transcended the limitations of space and time. A person who intensely aspires to reach this state is also known as Mumukshu or one who aspires for Moksha. The goal of Dharma therefore, is Moksha (liberation from the constraints of space and time). How a particular action or deed constitutes Dharma needs to be measured against this yardstick. However, this is a very high ideal to attain and the constraints of space and time are loaded against it at every step. Which is why we have two broad divisions of Dharma as Saamanya Dharma (Universal or generic) and Vishesha Dharma (special, contingent). From this we can conclude that Dharma is an universal umbrella of values, or more fundamentally, Dharma is both a conception of, and a criticism of values as we shall see.
Yossarin’s post elucidates Dharma without making this crucial distinction. Most if not all commentaries and interpretations on Dharma speak of Vishesha Dharma. Saamanya Dharma deals with universal values like Satya (Truth), Shaucha (cleanliness), Brahmacharya (celibacy, also a vow of doing the right thing always), Asteya (non-stealing), Ahimsa (non-violence), Aparigraha (not coveting others’ wealth), and so on. Evidently, strict adherence to these values is aimed at purifying a person step by step till he transcends them. As we can see, these universal values are self-explanatory. However, some or all of these are exempt under special circumstances, which is where the Vishesha Dharma assumes great significance. I have dwelt on Vishesha Dharma at some length earlier, so it is superfluous to repeat it here.
Yossarin’s definition of Dharma as an invariant of time and space is right only insofar as Saamanya Dharma is concerned. However, the definition of Dharma unambiguously states that Dharma is fluid, and should also take into account time and place, which are ever-changing. The symbolic representation of Dharma as a Wheel makes this clearer. The wheel as an indicator of the change shows that Dharma needs to be continuously adapted to this change, again with Moksha as the yardstick. It is interesting to observe how this translates to everyday, or practical life. Does the conception of Dharma of the current time ensure that a person can earn a living without compromising on the universal values? The conceptions of varna (Caste) and ashrama (stage of life) were devised to solve this. By delineating Dharma for each varna, this ensured that every person, irrespective of his varna, could aspire to attain wealth, and Moksha by following the Dharma set down for his varna. A celebrated story is that of a butcher who developed mystic and spiritual powers simply by following the Dharma set for his varna. This leads us to conclude that Dharma–in the words of Hiriyanna–is an intrinsic value to be adhered to for its own sake with no external impetus or force. However, if a society exists on the basis of Adharma, then the conception of Dharma lays down that, to uphold Dharma, one can use any means. Most of Krishna’s “adharmic” actions in the Mahabharata are good examples of this point.
I stress on this because Yossarin wants to consider Dharma as a determinant of political philosophy. If he means this in the historical sense, then Dharma was the guide of politics in ancient India, and not merely one of the determinants.
Is Dharma the same as a set of doâ€™s & donts codified in scripture by a religion ?
No it is not. Dharma is independent of faith or belief systems
This is on shaky ground because Dharma does impose a set of dos and don’ts and they do stem from religion (philosophy is the accurate word), not defined in the way the West defines religion. As I have explained earlier, these dos and don’ts are applicable within a certain framework and are flexible (refer the distinction between Saamanya and Vishesha Dharma).
How is Dharma different from religious doâ€™s and donts ?
Dharma does not concern itself with â€œWhatâ€ you do it only concerns itself with â€œHowâ€ you went about doing it. On the other hand religious doâ€™s and donts concern themselves with â€œWhatâ€ you do as well. Let us take an example to better understand this.
A religious belief system may hold Gambling as immoral. So in such a belief system the game of dice between the Pandavas and Kauravas would have been immoral to begin with. However Dharma is not concerned if Pandavas and Kauravas played a Game of Dice. It is only concern is if how that Game of Dice was played. Was the game governed by a set of rules ? Were those rules arrived at with consensus borne out of free will ? Once agreed to were those rules adhered to ? So the Adharma in the Game of Dice in Mahabharat was not the â€œwhatâ€ the Game, but the â€œhowâ€ the Game was played – with loaded dice cast by proxy (Shakuni for Duryodhana).
Another example could be a religious belief system could hold Polyandry as immoral. Mahabharataâ€™s Draupadi would be considered an immoral woman by that belief system. But Dharma views it differently. Draupadiâ€™s Polyandry by itself is not of concern to Dharma. What is of concern is how that arrangement of Polyandry was arrived at and how it was conducted. So there was no Adharma in Draupadiâ€™s Polyandry for it was arrived at by consensus between the Pandavas and Draupadi out of free will. That consensual agreement was based on the rule that Draupadi would be impartial in her love and duty towards all of the Pandavas. But then Draupadi was found guilty of Adharma in the end not because of the Polyandry but because she broke the rule on which the consensus of the Polyandry was based on, by being partial towards Arjuna and by not being truthful about that partiality.
This is based on incorrect understanding and uses a wrong example as well. The example pertains to Vishesha Dharma. From Rg Vedic times, gambling was explicitly recognized as evil. A Vedic verse says that a gambler’s wife is public property. The Arthashastra holds gambling at the most dangerous vice, and prohibits a king from gambling. However, in the time of the Mahabharata, there was a relaxation of sorts in this regard. It was held that a Kshatriya could not refuse an invitation to war or a gambling match, which clearly shows that it falls in the Vishesha Dharma realm. This shows that the “what” portion is equally important. In this case, Yossarin’s explanation of the “how” is also incorrect because the same Vishesha Dharma allowed casting dice by proxy. As for Draupadi’s polyandry, it again is Vishesha Dharma (or according to some historical accounts, there’s still a tribe in North India that practises polyandry, so it was dharma within her community/tribe back then. I recommend reading the preface to S.L Bhyrappa’s Parva on this subject.). As an aside, it’d be interesting to ponder over the question as to why the permission to have five husbands granted only to Draupadi and not to other women?
So how is Dharma different from Contextual Morality ?
Contextual Morality as articulated by A.K. Ramanujan is really about trying to justify or rationalize something which is unrighteous by invoking the context in which that unrighteous act was committed. Let us take an example to better understand this.
Contextual Morality is basically like saying bribery is wrong but I am right in giving or taking a bribe to get a driverâ€™s license because the process of getting it legally is cumbersome and fraught with pain. Similarly another example could be dowry is wrong but I am right in taking a dowry from my in-laws because its money that is for their daughter.
Some more recent examples of Contextual Morality are Bal Thackerayâ€™s justification of suicide squads. Terrorism by Jihadists is wrong but my Suicide Terrorism is right because the Indian State has not been effective in fighting Terrorism.
Or more historically it is wrong to settle a contest based on factors other than merit or by discrimination but Reservations to my community are right because there were historical wrongs in the past.
So Contextual Morality is basically about acknowledging the difference between Dharma and Adharma but then seeking a one time waiver from Dharma on the grounds that my context is different and hence my Adharma in this context is moral.
This a very beautiful explanation but AKR’s understanding/exposition of contextual morality (his own coinage) is flawed. Morever, he distorts the conception of Dharma to arrive at his thesis.
Why do we see a lot of this kind of distortion of Dharma in the name of Contextual Morality ?
On some reflection this blogger has come to the conclusion that this is because unlike other faiths and belief systems which have strict doctrines with codified Doâ€™s and Donts, in India there is no single overarching Hindu Doctrine of Doâ€™s and Donts that everyone adheres to. So what you had in India was a sense of Universal Righteousness (Dharma) which addressed the â€œHowâ€ while leaving the â€œWhatâ€ to be defined by whatever belief system each community, region evolved. So while Dharma was â€œUniversalâ€ the faith based Doâ€™s and Donts were contextual.
Again, I have explained the “how” and “what” vis a vis Dharma so it is superfluous to go there again.
Somewhere along the line as intellectual ferment set into the Indian Society Dharma started to be confused with the contextual Doâ€™s and Donts to a degree that people started to justify Adharma with the contextual Doâ€™s and Donts as the excuse.
I need Yossarin to give one instance of this intellectual corruption before I can fully respond to this.
The bottomline however is that the â€œwhatâ€ of social customs, mores and values can be contextual but Dharma is always universal. One may seek justification for oneâ€™s actions on the basis of oneâ€™s social context (like Gujjar Reservations) but that does not make their actions Dharma. Those actions would still be Adharma.
Same as above, with respect to making the distinction of Saamanya and Vishesha Dharma.
What is the relation between Liberty, Freedom and Dharma ?
Since Dharma concerns itself with the â€œHowâ€ and not the â€œWhatâ€, it is not meaningful to talk of freedom and liberty in isolation. It is only meaningful to talk of freedom and liberty in the context of actions.
If the actions were righteous then there would be no sanction under Dharma for any restrictions on the freedom and liberty to undertake those actions. . This explains why Draupadiâ€™s Polyandry was ok in the Mahabharata.
However if those same actions were unrighteous then they would be deemed Adharma. So any restrictions on freedom and liberty of such actions would have sanction. However Dharma would also apply to how such restrictions were applied asking if righteous means were employed to enforce such restrictions or not.
Again, I’ve to refer you to the distinction between Saamanya and Vishesha Dharma. As for liberty, freedom etc, these were the responses to a civilization that slaved under the Christian/Church-stranglehold for centuries. Liberty and freedom are inherent in the conception of Dharma because it is derived from Rta. Dharma is the conception of ordering practical (human) life on the precept of Rta. Dharma grants freedom to almost do anything. An extreme example is a set of verses dedicated to describing Lord Ganesha’s pubic hair. These verses have survived but no instance of intolerance against its author has been recorded. This explains the reason for the standard Hindu response to someone insulting their Gods/philosophy was one of an indulgent smile, not violence/intolerance or even strict rules of prohibition. The explanation about freedom and liberty vis a vis dharma is incorrect.
What is the relevance of Dharma as a political philosophy for the Right ?
It makes absolute sense for Dharma to be the basis for any political philosophy to the Right because it is about righteousness of actions that are time and place invariant and not about objectives and goals that are motivated by emotions and justified by context.
This is the fundamental difference between what those to the Left believe in and what those to the Right ought to believe in.
For example: While those to the Left concern themselves with Wealth and Poverty, to Dharma wealth and poverty by themselves are irrelevant since it focuses on the â€œHowâ€ and not on the â€œWhatâ€. So where the Left may see vice in Wealth and virtue in Poverty, Dharma makes no such moral distinction. Instead Dharma concerns itself purely with how the wealth was acquired and how the poverty was inflicted. Thus Dharma as a political philosophy for the Right would guide on the â€œhowâ€ of â€œwealth creationâ€ and â€œpoverty alleviationâ€ and not on the morality of wealth or poverty.
This is okay but the overemphasis on “how” is derived from a rather incorrect understanding so I’m uncomfortable because explaining Dharma in terms of only the “how” of an action is both narrow and misleading as I have shown above. The “how” does not exist in a vacuum. It is always preceded by, and in instances (e.g., Yudhishtira’s gambling) dictated by the “what.”
So if Dharma guides only on the â€œHowâ€ where should the political Right go to determine the â€œwhatâ€ of socio-economic choices/policies ?
Its the exact same thing like faith in ancient India. Since there was no overarching doctrine prescribed by Dharma it was left to local communities and regions to make those choices through means that were righteous e.g. social consensus or direct democracy.
Because Dharma is not only about the “how,” the question itself stands invalidated. Even assuming it is valid, Yossarin needs to tell us how was it like in the case of faith? From his answer, does it imply that faith was determined by local communities and regions? If yes, I’d like to see instances of the same.
Yossarin’s effort at explaining Dharma is commendable but based on a–I suspect–confused understanding of Dharma. I strongly recommend a thorough reading of the primary texts that explain Dharma. At the least, M. Hiriyanna’s Indian Conception of Values (part of the Quest After Perfection book), if not P.V. Kane’s monumental History of Dharmashastra .