As mentioned in the previous post, the modern conception of dharma does not deny dharma as a set of rules, it insists that dharma is “more” than just a set of rules. This “more” turns out to be some ineffable, mystical, esoteric “cosmic law inherent in the nature of things”.

It appears to me that what modern Hindus would like above all is to consider dharma as some kind of a holistic idea that encompasses the totality of human life; as one usually hears it being described: ‘a way of life’. Even if the expression is modern, the idea I think is ancient. But there is a specific conception of dharma which permits it to inform a whole way of life. I don’t think the modern Hindus uphold that conception any more. That is what makes the holism of the modern conception of dharma so strange.

In this post, I will explain first the ‘way of life’ conception of dharma which is an ancient one but that persists even today. Considering dharma as a complete ‘way of life’ should mean, in my view, that it is the only puruṣārtha required, that it is sufficient to take care of all the ends of human life. Dissatisfaction with this conception, I think, led to the idea that there is not just this one but four puruṣārthas, dharma being only one of them, the other three being artha, kāma and mokṣa.

There is a dynamic of centrifugal and centripetal forces operating here with dharma breaking into a quartet of which it is only a part, necessary but not sufficient, and dharma as striving to rein in all the pieces and projecting itself as the whole which is necessary and sufficient as a way of life. The modern holistic conception of dharma is a recapitulation of that ancient centripetal urge but it overreaches itself by glossing over the tensions and contradictions that exist between the whole and the parts which I will elaborate in this post.

Dharma as a ‘way of life’

As a complete ‘way of life’, dharma lays down the injunctions and prohibitions that assures worldly prosperity – land, cattle, sons and corn – in this life and the pleasures of heaven in the next. In both worlds, it protects the practitioner of dharma from evil. Dharma is an object to be collected through the performance of acts sanctioned by dharma and the happiness a man experiences in this life and the next is a function of the measure of the dharma he has earned. Through wicked acts, the store of dharma can get depleted. In this view, nothing more than the performance of dharma is required: security, happiness and meaning – all three are guaranteed by it.

Traditional Hindus even today believe in the efficiency of dharma and suffer from a genuine fear that transgression would lead them into sorrow. Without such innocent faith, I don’t think this comprehensive account of dharma can work at all. However, enlightened people today, as in the past, would not fail to notice that the performance of dharma does not guarantee worldly success, that heaven – the highest form of happiness that dharma can offer – is mere fiction, and that it is wrong anyway to practise dharma for the sake of profit and pleasure in this world and the next.

I think that in the past it was precisely this failure of dharma to deliver on both temporal and spiritual goods that brought forth the theory of four puruṣārthas in which artha and mokṣa were conceptualised to attain those ends which could not be accomplished by dharma. This is not to suggest that dharma ceased to be important but in both cases it got relegated to the background.

Dharma and Mokṣa

First of all, the puruṣārthas are not a united whole but divided into the trivarga of dharma, artha and kāma, on the one hand, concerned with action in the world, and mokṣa which involves liberation from the world through self-knowledge. The former goals pertain to the gṛhastha (householder) and the latter to the sannyāsin (monk). Dharma, as Jaimini has so succinctly pointed out, is codanā-lakṣaṇa – it directs man to action and binds him to its fruit. Good action leads to experience of happiness, bad action leads to experience of grief. The highest outcome that dharma can produce is the attainment of heaven.

But this traps us into a series of endless births. This birth is the result of past actions and the actions in this birth will in turn produce another one. Actions beget actions. The only escape from actions is by means of knowledge and these two are incommensurable i.e. actions arise from ignorance and knowledge cannot produce any action.

Thus, for example, only if one considers oneself to be a kṣatriya, does one become obliged to perform actions in accordance with kṣatriya dharma. But if the self is in reality brahman, as revealed by the Upaniṣads, then any consciousness of oneself as a kṣatriya can only be false. But it is only from the ignorance of regarding oneself as a kṣatriya (or any other identity) that actions pertaining to the kṣatriya (or to whatever identity) arise.

When one has attained the true consciousness of oneself as brahman, what dharma can apply to such a person? Dharma is concerned with a sādhya-vastu (something yet to be accomplished) for the sake of which it prescribes or proscribes actions, whereas mokṣa is the realisation of a siddha-vastu (something already accomplished). Liberation is not a process but a steadfast abidance in the state of self-realisation in which dharma cannot play any role. Dharma applies to the empirical self which is a limited, worldly, temporal, specific, concrete instance. Of what relevance can it be to the real self which as brahman is a limitless, cosmic, eternal, general and abstract entity?

This is not to say that the seekers of mokṣa ever condemned dharma or counselled people to abandon it. In fact, even a figure such as Ādi Śaṅkara, who advocated knowledge as the sole means of liberation, conceded that dhārmika action produced the sattva-śuddhi that made one eligible for self-knowledge. But the damage was done. The very moment when liberation became a form of knowledge rather than the result of an action, dharma became part of the problem rather than a solution to human suffering. After all, the more one acts according to dharma, the deeper one sinks into self-ignorance. It is matter of common experience that the more one acts in accordance with the dharma of, say, a man or a woman, the more one affirms one’s consciousness of being a man or a woman. The more one affirms one’s worldly identities, the further one moves away from brahman.

This was precisely the objection that Arjuna raised at the beginning of the third chapter of the Bhagavad Gītā. “If you are saying that knowledge is superior, then why are you advising me to act?” I mention the Gītā here only because this is a mokṣa text that commends action while remaining steadfast in self-knowledge. I think Ādi Śaṅkara wrote a commentary on this text precisely to refute the objection that the Gītā envisages a salvific role for action and I think his view is correct.

For all its exhortation to action, the Gītā does not endorse an ultimate role for dharma as such. Firstly, it commends action only for loka-saṅgraha i.e. the stability of the world which is the proper sphere of dharma; secondly, it does not teach any dharma itself but advises the reader to consult the śāstras which are the pramāṇas for what is to be done and not be done; and finally, when it comes to the attainment of the ultimate good, the Gītā advises that the dharmas need to be abandoned:

सर्वधर्मान् परित्यज्य मामेकं शरणं व्रज । अहं त्वा सर्वपापेभ्यो मोक्ष्ययिष्यामि मा शुच ॥

Having abandoned all the dharmas, seek refuge in me alone. I shall liberate you from all your sins, do not grieve.

The dissatisfaction with dharma is to be found in other mokṣa passages as well such as the famous:

नास्था धर्मे न वसुनिचये नैव कामोपभोगे …

Here the poet has lost faith in the entire trivarga of dharma, artha and kāma.

Thus, while dharma was recognised as being of two types, pravṛtti dharma for worldly engagement by householders and nivṛtti dharma for renunciation by monks, it appears from the mokṣa texts that all dharma is merely pravṛtti dharma and nivṛtti dharma is really nivṛtti from dharma itself. It also makes one wonder whether mokṣa is a type of puruṣārtha or is it the cessation of puruṣārtha itself where there is no further willing for any goal.

For a pāramārthika dharma

Basically, the mokṣa tradition did not revile dharma but reduced the whole of the trivarga, dharma along with it, to mere vyavahāra. This would not have been a problem for artha which was self-confessedly a vyāvahārika doctrine but dharma would be damned to admit that it was nothing more than vyavahāra. Dharma and artha have their own issues with each other but they also make their peace with each other, both of which I will talk about shortly. However, with mokṣa there can be no peace because mokṣa banishes the whole of trivarga to the realm of avidyā.

The only way in which the pāramārthika significance of dharma could be restored was by attributing a pāramārthika status to the empirical self with which it was connected. Only if our identities as man or woman, brāhmaṇa or kṣatriya and so on are real in the pāramārthika sense can the dharmas associated with them also carry a pāramārthika value. This is possible only within Dvaita and it is not at all surprising that the proponents of Dvaita denounced Ādi Śaṅkara as a crypto-Buddhist.

For the Brāhmaṇas, the core problem of Buddhism was that it denied the ultimate reality of the empirical self and thereby negated the pāramārthika value of the Vaidika dharma pertaining to the varṇas and āśramas. Ādi Śaṅkara may have thought that he had scored a win for the Vaidika tradition by establishing the ultimate reality of the empirical self as brahman but obviously that was not good enough because the varṇa-āśrama dharmas could never apply to brahman – they do so only to the empirical self. In fact, in the view of the Brāhmaṇas, he would have only made matters worse by upholding the Buddhist position from within the Vaidika tradition. Hence the antipathy of the Dvaitins towards Advaita.

To be fair, the Advaita position is logical for nobody denies that the empirical self is in the pāramārthika sense, identical with brahman. But if that is true than the empirical self can be real only in a vyāvahārika sense for there is no way in which the eternal and immutable brahman could really become limited and contingent in the form of the empirical self. But the Dvaitins have a valid point as well, for in matters of consciousness it is experience and not logic which counts. If one experiences oneself as a kṣatriya, then one is obliged to fulfil the kṣatriya dharma and it is only after one has thus discharged one’s duties should one contemplate sannyāsa.

But then one enters the vicious circle that the more one fulfils the kṣatriya dharma, the stronger becomes one’s identity as a kṣatriya. How does one escape it and take the path of self-realisation? This is why, I suppose, the Upaniṣads declare that the knowledge of Brahman arises of its own accord. This is also the message of the Gītā: unlike action, self-knowledge cannot be willed. But then, the Advaitin would argue, when one does attain nirveda or vairāgya (disillusionment) with regards to worldly goods and relations, should not a man be permitted to take sannyāsa, at whatever stage of his life he may be, instead of forcing him to go through the other āśramas as dharma requires? And so the debate goes on endlessly.

Summarily, the Advaitins identified the ultimate reality of the empirical self with brahman, of which the empirical self was only a reflection in vyavahāra and thereby reduced dharma itself to the status of vyavahāra. The Dvaitins, on the other hand, argued for the pāramārthika status of the empirical self and thereby attributed a pāramārthika value to the dharmas associated with it. Both these positions sound internally consistent to me. What is baffling is only the position of the modern Hindus which upholds Advaita, on the one hand, and yet insists on the pāramārthika significance of dharma, on the other.

Dharma and Artha

Although as constituent members of the same group of trivarga, the rivalry between dharma and artha is not as fraught as that which prevails between dharma and mokṣa, it is not altogether absent. For, it would be wonderful if material prosperity could be assured simply through the practice of dharma but unfortunately that is not the case.

For the attainment of worldly success, the discourse on artha, also called as nīti (prudence), relies entirely on industry (udyama) and intellect (buddhi). It expounds on a host of principles including:

  • the four expedients (sāma, dāma, daṇḍa, bheda)
  • the six expedients (sandhi, vigraha, yāna, āsana, saṃśraya, dvaidhibhāva)
  • the qualities required of a successful master (svāmin-dharma) and of a successful servant (bhṛtya-dharma)
  • practical skills such as strategic and tactical thinking (upāya and buddhi), intolerance of injustice (amarṣaṇa), collective opposition (mahājana-virodha), and so on.

Nowhere does the discourse on artha directly rely on dharma for the achievement of its goals. Even the rāja-dharma as it is articulated in nītiśāstra texts like the Pañcatantra is based on the quid pro quo relation between kings and subjects in which the former provide security and welfare in return for which the latter pay taxes. A king who failed to uphold rāja-dharma may incur losses in the after-life but even more importantly, in this life, he would be deserted or killed by his subjects.

This does not mean that artha denigrates the practise of dharma, any more than does mokṣa, while asserting its own superiority. Thus, artha claims that it makes dharma possible in the first place as suggested by the dictum dhanād dharmaṃ tathā sukham ‘dharma arises from wealth and from that happiness’. Indeed, without wealth it would be impossible to practise the ritual and social obligations ordained by dharma. It is interesting to note that the hero in the Pañcatantra narratives is either the merchant or the Kauṭilyan minister while swindlers are most commonly teachers of dharma or mokṣa who parade their learning and asceticism to deceive their victims.

Based on what I have read of the artha texts, I would be very surprised if its authors genuinely believed in the efficacy of dharma. This is not to say that artha-śāstra thinkers did not believe that the practice of dharma yielded the specified fruits but rather that the entire process was unpredictable. This is fully borne out by the apūrva theory which claims that the practice of dharma only guarantees the specified fruit but there is no surety about when the promise will actually be resolved. For example, if you perform a ritual for begetting a son then all you will get for your troubles is an ‘entitlement’ that you will in the future beget a son. That much is guaranteed but the future could be next year, a decade later or ten lives later. This is a neat way to justify the infallibility of Vaidika dharma but obviously no shrewd thinker of artha is going to fall for this trick.

Yet, there are two ways in which artha does accommodate dharma:

Firstly, just as mokṣa keeps dharma relevant as the means of sattva-śuddhi, so in the view of artha, there is a role for dharma to play as a form of political aesthetic. Who knows whether the yajñas and pūjās really deliver on the promised rewards or not, but the circus is necessary as a source of legitimacy and to lend an aura of cosmic auspiciousness to worldly power.

Secondly, artha is well aware of its own limits and knows that even the best of industry and intellect can fail at times. This failure it ascribes to fortune (daiva, bhāgya) and while it does not explicitly suggest dharma as a remedy for adverse fate, it does open the scope for it. There is no harm in keeping dharma going on in the background to ward off a bad fate and to keep the gods smiling at us while we adopt practical means to ensure our success.

Basically, both artha (gain) and its nemesis, vighna (calamity), can be dṛṣṭa or adṛṣṭa i.e. foreseeable, calculable, etc., or not. That is how artha makes its peace with dharma: you take care of the adṛṣṭārtha and the adṛṣṭa-vighna, I will manage the dṛṣṭārtha and the dṛṣṭa-vighna. Don’t step on my turf and we can be friends! With mokṣa, on the other hand, there can be no truce. Sannyāsins can be useful as spies but other than that one must remain wary of them for bhikṣukā gṛhamedhinām ‘monks [feed upon] the householders’.


As explained in the previous post, dharma was understood in the ancient times as the hetu (cause) or the sādhana (means) for abhyudaya (worldly prosperity) and niḥśreyasa (ultimate good). It laid down the rules for leading a happy, prosperous life in this world and the next. But subsequently, abhyudaya became the goal of artha through intellect and industry, and niḥśreyasa was seen to lie in mokṣa through self-knowledge. So where did that leave dharma?

Very neatly, dharma had entwined paramārtha and vyavahāra under its own auspices, prescribing action that would be fruitful at the mundane level as well as meaningful in the cosmic sense, till the narrative began to unravel itself. Mokṣa claimed paramārtha for itself and made dharma relevant only in vyavahāra, of which artha claimed dṛṣṭa-vyavahāra for itself, leaving for dharma only the irrational world of adṛṣṭa-vyavahāra.

Two points we may note about this in the end. Firstly, these complications and debates about what is paramārtha and what is vyavahāra, and within vyavahāra, what is the role of dharma and what of artha, were all happening within Brahmanical circles and that is what makes Brahmanical thought so much richer and interesting than the other tradition of India. If Brahmanical thought ultimately dominated ancient India, I think it was because of the sheer breadth of its scope and the wide range of subjects that it brought under its scrutiny.

Secondly, it is impossible for dharma to sustain itself in modernity as mere adṛṣṭa-vyavahāra because that would fall in the category of superstition and magic. Hence, modern Hindus prefer the holistic conception of dharma that includes paramārtha and vyavahāra but that is not the same conception of dharma as prevailed before mokṣa and artha carved out their independent spheres from it.

Whether we may agree with it or not, the ancient conception of dharma as rules of action that lead to welfare in this world and the next, is sensible as a claim. Equally sensible is the claim that ultimate welfare can arise only from self-knowledge and not from action. Equally sensible also is the claim that the rules of action prescribed by dharma are not sufficient to guarantee welfare in this world and practical knowledge is required for that purpose.

But the modern Hindus have packed all these contradictory claims into one great conception of dharma that, far from making any sense, cannot even be properly expressed in a sentence. The ease and confidence with which Ādi Śaṅkara or Medhātithi or Jaimini defined dharma, you rarely find that in modern Hindu texts. This is so because modern Hindus want dharma to deliver on both pāramārthika and vyāvahārika goals but in the same sophisticated manner as mokṣa and artha understand them, and without having to resort to that simple, gullible faith that promises its adherents land, wealth, sons and corn in this world and heaven in the next.

To understand this problem, we must first note that dharma did not become superfluous because its terrain was captured by mokṣa, on the one hand, and artha, on the other. Both of the latter require as their foundation, a civilised society governed by laws. This, in my view, is the core function of dharma. Neither worldly prosperity nor worldly detachment is possible without the prior existence of a stable world order and that is what dharma provides.

It is only in modernity that the discourse of dharma has become superfluous because that foundation has been eroded and got supplanted by socio-political arrangements based on Western liberal philosophy. It makes no sense to articulate a discourse of dharma perched atop another foundation when dharma itself is to serve as a foundation. What else can be the result of such an exercise but modern Hindus cherry-picking those ideas from the mokṣa-śāstras, dharma-śāstras and artha-śāstras, which comply with the underlying foundation, and labelling that potpourri as “dharma”?

Thus, it appears to me that while the scope of dharma may expand or contract over time, at its core it is a set of rules that become foundational to an ordered human society. It is this foundation that makes possible artha and kāma i.e. the attainment and enjoyment of worldly success, as well as the eventual disillusionment that compels one to seek mokṣa from it. No foundation, however, remains stable by itself and needs to be constantly managed to keep it functional.

The foundation of Indian society today is based on the principles of equality, liberty and fraternity. Inasmuch as they form a foundation, they ought to be recognised as dharma and managed accordingly. If we are not able to work with such a foundation and, instead, if we think that we can do better with a foundation consisting of hierarchy, despotism and kinship communities, then that is the dharma we should strive to establish. But I do not see any point in what the Hindus are doing today i.e. living in one kind of an world order and not recognising it as dharma while rambling on and on about dharma as an eternal tradition beyond any world order.