Dharma is commonly expressed as “the eternal law of the cosmos, inherent in the very nature of things.” I have never quite understood the meaning of that statement but I find many Hindus in the social media, who, having taken this definition to heart, speak of protecting and spreading dharma as if it were some kind of an esoteric, mystical, ineffable, fabric-of-the-universe goodness that can lead us to a perfect society.
Therefore, based on my own study of the ancient Hindu texts in which, fortunately, I found dharma being discussed in far more sensible and logical terms, I tweeted the following recently –
Dharma is only a set of rules. To say that you want to live by dharma just means you want to live according to rules. That is not saying much since most people want that except for anarchists. What you need to explain is: which rules?
So if you say (1) Everyone should be treated equally. That is dharma.
Or if you say (2) The strong should rule and protect the weak. The weak should obey and respect the strong. That is also dharma.
These two dharmas are contradictory to each other but they are both dharmas for their respective adherents and the opposite is adharma. So there is no point in going dharma, dharma all the time.
Almost everybody upholds dharma in principle. “Which” dharma do you want to uphold? That is the question. Specify the rules by which you want society to be organised. That is the real challenge.
The general response I got for this thread was that it made an “interesting” point but dharma was “more” than just a set of rules. I found it disappointing but not surprising. The problem I find with such a view of dharma is that it permits one to avoid the challenge I mentioned in my twitter thread. In concerning oneself with dharma, one is not obliged then to address the vexing debate, say, between equality and hierarchy, or between left-wing and right-wing ideologies, and such like, as it can be claimed that these are Western notions and dharma is something more cosmic and fundamental than such matters.
In this post, I want to elaborate on the idea of dharma as a set of rules and contrast it with the modern Hindu conception of the term. I should point out that by “modern” I do not mean the deracinated, new-age, spirituality seekers. I am talking about Hindus who follow traditions but their understanding of dharma is at odds with the way the term appears to be used in the ancient texts.
In this post, I will explain the modern Hindu conception of dharma as I understand it, followed by the references in the ancient text which interpret dharma as a set of rules, and then the contrast between the two.
Modern Hindu Conception of Dharma
Fortunately, I came across a twitter thread by @yaajushi that sought to explain dharma as more than a set of a rules and though it is a series of tweets, I think it quite accurately sums up the modern Hindu conception of dharma. I paraphrase it here:
धारणाद् धर्म That which sustains, upholds, nourishes and nurtures is Dharma. It pervades the whole being of the person and is concerned with survival, continuity and sustenance. So the dharma of a mother is to take care of her baby, of the soldier is to fight, of the student is to learn and so on.
The binary rules of right/wrong, good/evil, come subsequently. Rules are superficial, constructed and applicable on the firm basis of dharma. The right and wrong of rules makes sense only on a dhārmika background. Even if these rules are stripped away, dharma will remain upholding/sustaining you from within.
After reading this thread, it became clear to me why modern Hindus would have a problem with the interpretation of dharma I gave. By reducing dharma to rules, I made it something external, worldly and imposed from without while the modern Hindu conception of dharma is that of something inherent, cosmic and arising from within. Dharma in the sense of upholding or sustenance is interpreted as referring to something that is natural and intrinsic to the person, which upholds/sustains the person, drives him to act and maintain himself.
Now, while it is true that there are some contexts in which the term ‘dharma’ is used in the sense of the fundamental quality of objects – the dharma of fire is to burn, the dharma of the lion is to hunt, and so on – such a meaning does not make any sense in the context of human societies. This should become evident from some of the important references to dharma found in ancient Indian texts which show that dharma is best understood as a set of rules aimed at governing human behaviour in society.
Commenting on verse 1.2 in which the sages ask Manu to expound the dharmas of the varṇas and āśramas, Medhātithi explains the term ‘dharma’ as follows:
धर्मशब्दः कर्तव्याकर्तव्योः विधिप्रतिषेधयोः अदृष्टार्थयोः तद्विषयायां च क्रियायां दृष्टप्रयोगः।
“The word dharma is found to be used in reference to the injunction of what should be done, the prohibition of what should not be done, both these bearing upon transcendental purposes and also action in accordance with the said injunctions and prohibitions.” (trans. Ganganath Jha)
तत्राष्टकाकरणं धर्मो ब्रह्महत्यादिवर्जनं च धर्मः अष्टकानामकरणमधर्मो ब्रह्महत्यायाश्च करणमधर्मः अयं धर्माधर्मयोर्विवेकः।
“The performance of aṣṭaka is a dharma as also is the avoidance of brāhmaṇa-murder. The non-performance of aṣṭaka is adharma as also is the performance of brāhmaṇa-murder. Such is the distinction between dharma and adharma as described in the scriptures.” (trans. Ganganath Jha)
Bhagavadgītā-bhāṣya of Ādi Śaṅkara
Ādi Śaṅkara’s commentary on the Bhagavadgītā begins as follows:
स भगवान्सृष्ट्वेदं जगत्तस्य च स्थितिं चिकीर्षुः मरीच्यादीनग्रे सृष्ट्वा प्रजापतीन्प्रवृत्तिलक्षणं धर्मं ग्राहयामास वेदोक्तम् ।
ततोऽन्यांश्च सनकसनंदनादीन् उत्पाद्य निवृत्तिलक्षणं धर्मं ज्ञानवैराग्यलक्षणं ग्राहयामास ।
“The god, having created the world, and desirous of its stability, created first the Prajāpatis, such as Marīci, and taught them the Vedic dharma characterised by pravṛtti (engagement).
Then, have produced others such as Sanaka and Sanandana, he taught them the dharma characterised by nivṛtti (disengagement) which is concerned with jñāna (knowledge) and vairāgya (renunciation).”
द्विविधो हि वेदोक्तो धर्मः प्रवृत्तिलक्षणो निवृत्तिलक्षणश्च जगतः स्थितिकारणम्। प्राणिनां साक्षादभ्युदयनिःश्रेयसहेतुर्यः स धर्मो ब्राह्मणाद्यैः वर्णिभिः आश्रमिभिः च श्रेयोऽर्थिभिः अनुष्ठीयमानः।
“The dharma expounded in the Vedas is two-fold: characterised by pravṛtti (engagement) and nivṛtti (disengagement). It is the basis of the world order. What is the visible cause of the अभ्युदय (worldly prosperity) and निःश्रेयस (ultimate good) of living beings is dharma. It is practised by the varṇas and āśramas beginning with the brāhmaṇa who are the seekers of श्रेयः (good, virtue).”
While dharmas are a set of injunctions and prohibitions according to Medhātithi, Ādi Śaṅkara suggests that there are two radically different kinds of dharmas meant for two completely different purposes, one for worldly prosperity and the other for the ultimate good, and they are to be practised by the two different kinds of peoples who seek these divergent goals, one interested in maintaining the world order i.e. householders, and the other for seekers of self-knowledge i.e. monks.
The phrase धारणाद् धर्म occurs in the following verse in the Mahābhārata and it does not mean at all what was given in the twitter thread paraphrased above:
धारणाद् धर्मं इत्याहुः धर्मो धारयते प्रजाः ।
यत् स्यात् धारणसंयुक्तं स धर्म इति निश्चयः ॥४.६९.५८॥
“The term ‘dharma’ arises from ‘upholding’. Dharma upholds the people. Whatever is concerned with upholding that is dharma for certain.”
This verse occurs in the context of two stories, one in which Balāka, a hunter, commits a virtuous act by killing a blind creature, and the other in which Kauśika, a sage, commits a sinful act by telling the truth. The point is that dharma is not merely abstention from killing or telling the truth. It is about doing what leads to the good of the people; that is what धर्मो धारयते प्रजाः means and sometimes this can involve killing and lying. That is also why dharma is regarded as sūkṣma (subtle) because it is very difficult to determine at a given moment what will lead to the good of the people – truth or falsehood, killing or non-violence.
Another verse in the same context declares that some determine dharma by use of tarka (logic) and others by śruti (scripture). Both of these sources – reason and revelation – are fine but the important thing about dharma is that it is not something that is “given” by the nature of the thing. Ultimately, it is whatever that leads to the well-being of society and this can only be achieved by determining and upholding the proper rules by which society is organised.
In these two stories both the characters are following their nature. The nature of the hunter is to hunt but his killing of the blind animal did not become a dharmic act for that reason. The blind animal had received a boon that it would be able to kill all creatures and that is why its killing became an act of dharma. In the same way, the nature of the sage is to speak the truth but in this case by acting in accordance with his nature, he acted contrary to dharma.
Let us also consider that oft-quoted phrase on dharma – धर्मो रक्षति रक्षितः। The full verse is:
धर्म एव हतो हन्ति धर्मो रक्षति रक्षितः। तस्माद्धर्मो न हन्तव्यो मा नो धर्मो हतो वधीत् ॥८.१५॥
“Justice, blighted, blights and justice, preserved, preserves. Hence, justice should not be blighted lest blighted justice blights us.” (trans. Ganganath Jha)
This verse occurs in the eight adhyāya, which deals with the setting up of the civil and criminal justice system. Having explained the process of setting it up, the text advises that witnesses should speak truthfully and the investigation of the cases should be carried out with integrity. It is in this context of the proper discharge of its duty by the judiciary and not with regards to any cosmic law that Manu reminds his readers that धर्मो रक्षति रक्षितः।
As a final example, here is a verse from the Hitopadeśa that nicely brings out the idea that dharma is not something that just springs forth from the nature of being:
आहारनिद्राभयमैथुनञ्च सामान्यमेतत् पशुभिः नराणाम् ।
धर्मो हि तेषामधिको विशेषो धर्मेण विना पशुभिः समानाः ॥
Here dharma is understood as a quality that is uniquely human, not something shared with the animals such that without dharma, humans are reduced to the state of animals. This difference lies in the fact that humans act out of a sense of obligation and not just in response to their nature. These obligations are precisely the dharmas, the rules that become imposed upon us and bear an oblique relation to our natures.
Comparing ancient and modern conceptions of dharma
What becomes evident from the texts I have quoted above is that dharma was understood in ancient India most significantly as a set of rules by which society was to be organised so as to bring about the welfare of those living in it. I don’t think modern Hindus deny this conception in its totality. What they insist upon, however, is that the set of rules is grounded in something called as “the eternal law of the cosmos, inherent in the very nature of things”. This foundation together with the rules are what constitute dharma in their view: the rules can change while the foundation is eternal.
While I have alluded to the ancient texts to justify my interpretation of dharma as essentially a set of rules, my disagreement with the modern Hindu conception of dharma is not a philosophical one. Rather, my argument is a practical one. More than logically unsound though precisely for that reason, the modern Hindu conception of dharma is completely hopeless and leaves us woefully inadequate to deal with the pressing issues of our times.
For all this spiel of dharma as the all-pervasive foundation of being that exists like gravity, whether we believe in it or not, the reality is that we are all of us born into rule-based societies and our daily lives are shaped by these rules. Now it so happens that in our times the rules that govern the Hindus happen to be based on Western liberal philosophy. And so, while we may reflect and talk about this all-pervasive dharma, we are, in reality, pervaded by these rules.
This grand vision of dharma permits us to employ such phrases as the dharmic perspective or the dharmic gaze or the dharmic awakening and so on but none of that leads to an examination of the rules that are shaping our world but rather into talking about some kind of spiritual realisation and universal religion.
When this is pointed out, the Hindus warn us that only deracinated cucks, pwned by Protestant memes, jump directly to this path of adhyātma. The smart ones know that adhibhūta must come first, then adhidaiva and then adhyātma. One would assume that at least those who think in this manner would be interested in confronting the worldly rules that govern mundane life. But that is not so. The adhibhūta refers to the customs and practical conduct that is recommended by the traditions. Inasmuch as it is threatened by the dominant framework of rules, it is defended using the knowledge from the tradition but the hegemony of the framework is itself never challenged and it cannot be challenged because it forms the very ground on which the Hindus articulate their discourse on dharma.
The rules which today shape the lives of Hindus are derived from Western political arrangements and Western institutions established in India. These are the pravṛtti dharmas of our time and we should judge them by that standard i.e. will they lead to the stability and prosperity of our society? If they do, then let us recognise them as pravṛtti dharmas and make our peace with them. If they do not, then we need to expose their limitations and seek to amend them.
But these rules are not recognised as pravṛtti dharmas because they are foreign imports arising from Western philosophy and religion, and not from the nivṛtti dharma of ādhyātmika realisation which is native to India. And so we find ourselves in this bizarre situation where we have, on the one hand, all these rules which frame our lives and, on the other hand, a discourse on dharma that is utterly tangential to it.
The root of the problem, in my view, lies in the holistic conception of dharma itself, as consisting of pravṛtti dharma based on nivṛtti dharma. As the tweet by @yaajushi put it: “The rules are constructed and applicable on the firm basis of dharma.” In this statement, as I see it, “the rules” refers to pravṛtti dharma and the “dharma” which is to serve as “the firm basis” is nivṛtti dharma. Or as another tweet, by a different person, put it even more clearly: to realise dharma one needs to awaken to the ātman and “pravṛtti dharma emerges from the soil of the nivṛtti dharma; they are not really separate.” In the ancient view, on the other hand, pravṛtti and nivṛtti dharmas were separate, even contradictory to each other.
It appears to me that by conceiving this holistic notion of dharma, we have completely lost the plot. We are no longer able to recognise pravṛtti dharmas when they are staring at us in the face and we deceive ourselves into imagining nivṛtti dharma as some some kind of an esoteric, mystical, ineffable, fabric-of-the-universe object that can serve as the foundation for all the rules.
This is exactly the reverse of what Ādi Śaṅkara has said. As evident from the passage above, the god who created the world desired its stability and so he created the Prajāpatis and taught them the dharma for this purpose. Dharma was not an intrinsic feature of the world. Dharma had to be externally given by the creator and then it became a foundation for the stability of the world.
Dharma is not some inherent sustaining power that determines the proper conduct for human beings living in a society. To say that it is the dharma of a soldier to fight is a meaningless statement. The fact that a man is a soldier does not tell us when he should fight, how he should fight, whether he should fight in a particular situation – issues that are central to the dharma of fighting.
For example, a question of dharma would be: should a soldier fire at a stone-pelting civilian? To make his soldier-hood a dhārmika foundation for proper conduct would be like saying: “Well, it is the dharma of a soldier to fight, so he should fire.” That is not a proper answer. It is like reducing the soldier to the status of an animal, like saying: you know, he is a dog so he will bite.
It is true that nature constrain and shapes us but nature cannot be the legitimising factor. One cannot say one fights because one is a soldier. One is required to justify the exercise of violence over and above one’s identity as a soldier by showing how the fighting is for the good of society. Then, and only then, does it become dhārmika.
Therefore, it makes no sense to talk about rising and fighting for dharma in itself unless the world has fallen into chaos and disorder. But for as long as one admits that one is already living in a stable and ordered society, organised around a set of rules, then a certain type of dharma is already established as such. If one thinks that the current rules will not lead to the good of society then one must seek to amend them or specify an alternate set of rules i.e. a different type of dharma. I do realise that such a conception of dharma reduces it to mere vyavahāra (practical affairs) and this, I think, is what may bother some people. But dharma is ultimately vyavahāra and I will elaborate on that idea in the next post.