Dedicated to learning Sanskrit, the cardinal aim of this blog is to give the reader direct access to ancient Scriptures, Śāstras, Literature, Philosophy and so on. The approach is primarily grammatical, but opinion pieces will inevitably feature. I approach the Scriptures with respect, but from a historical, social and mythical point of view. If you are looking for swooning devotion, this is not the blog for you.
Sunday, 14 July 2013
Dharma, Artha, Kāma, Mokṣa – VII
In this blogpost, Bibek Debroy explores the parameters of 'dharma' a term notoriously difficult to translate into English. Is it posible to pinpoint its meaning? Is it absolute? Is it sadācāra? What do the dharma texts and the epics have to say about it? Please read on, and leave comments!!
What does the word धर्म (dharma) mean? I have used it in the title of this blog, without having defined it so far. We do tend to use the word dharma indiscriminately. Because the world dharma has multiple meanings, we often talk at cross-purposes. It means religion, ordinances, precepts of good conduct, law, duty, custom and all or some of these. It is derived from the Sanskrit root √धृ, - to hold things up. Dharma is often defined as something that upholds, holds things up, bears them. Holds what up? Good conduct also holds society up. But good or virtuous conduct is सदाचार (sadācāra) and there are problems in equating it with dharma.
Can there be any absolute notion of what is “good” and “bad”? Such notions are context, culture and society-specific. Take something as basic as telling the truth. Is this an absolute principle of good conduct? सत्यं ब्रुयात्प्रियं ब्रुयान्न ब्रुयात्सत्यमप्रियम् । प्रियं च नानृतं ब्रुयादेष धर्मः सनातनः॥ Most people have heard this. It is a famous quote from Manusmriti, 4.138, Chapter 4 of Manusmriti being devoted to codes of conduct for brahmanas. The translation is as follows. “Let him (the brahmana) speak the truth. Let him speak what is pleasant. Let him not speak a truth that is unpleasant. Let him not utter a pleasant falsehood. This is eternal dharma.”
The Mahabharata has a story about a sage named Kauśika. He had taken a vow of always speaking the truth. Kauśika was meditating in a forest and some travellers were being pursued by a band of bandits. Those travellers fled and the bandits asked Kauśikaabout the direction in which they had fled. Having taken a vow of speaking the truth, Kauśika told them. Consequently, the travellers were assaulted and killed by the bandits. Since he mechanically spoke the truth, even when it caused injury, Kauśikawent to hell. (Karṇa parva section 69)
In the core stories of the Mahābhāratathere are several instances where people are asked not to speak the truth, and even to lie, when such a course of action is deemed to bring benefits. There is a section in the Mahābhārata titled “āpad dharma”, the dharma to be followed in times of distress. Stated simply, in times of distress, there can be deviations from dharma. Extending the argument about speaking the truth, one takes vows or pledges. Must one always stick to these vows?
Let us take Bhīṣma and Arjuna. Bhīṣmatook a vow of perpetual celibacy (brahmacarya), so that his father, Śantanu, could get married to Satyavati. As a result of this vow, Devavrata came to be known as Bhīṣma. All of us know this. At one point, Ambā (abducted by Bhīṣma) wished to marry Bhīṣma. Bhīṣma refused, citing his vow. All of us know the subsequent story of Ambā becoming Śikhaṇḍi. Bhīṣma took a vow of perpetual celibacy. Arjuna took a temporary vow of celibacy for one year. During this period, he was approached by Ulupi. Ulupi wished to marry Arjuna and said that, if he did not marry her, he would kill herself. Protecting his vow was “dharma”. Preventing a maiden from killing herself was also “dharma”. Faced with this dilemma, Arjuna decided to marry Ulupi. Both Bhīṣma and Arjuna were kshatriyas and faced with similar situations, they took different decisions. My intention is not to discuss the Mahābhārata and that epic is replete with instances where people confront conflicts over what “dharma” is. My simple point is that सदाचार (sadācāra) is a specific aspect of dharma and it is different from dharma in a broader sense. We must be clear about what we mean when we use the word dharma.
Is dharma वर्णाश्रम, with codes of conduct for the four varṇas and the four āśramas? At
one level, varṇais nothing but what economists would call specialization and division of labour, though there were problems when it became hereditary and there was also problems because śudraswere discriminated against. Perhaps we will revisit this later. For the moment, on the āśramas, we have four – brahmacarya, gārhasthya, vānprastha and sannyāsa. Brahmacarya is described as a period of celibacy, when one is a student. gārhasthya is when one is a householder. Vānaprastha is a period when one retires to the forest and sannyāsa is described as a period of renunciation. These are often regarded as silos, to be progressively traversed as one passes through life. But ब्रह्मचर्य really means to follow a code of conduct that leads one towards the brahman. Why should it be reserved for the first 25 years of one’s life? It is a lifelong pursuit. संन्यास really means to devote oneself to the path of the truth. Why should it be reserved for the last 25 years of one’s life? These aren’t silos at all.
Let me give you another story from the Mahābhārata. It occurs in Śanti parva. There has been a drought for twelve years and there is no food to be had. There is a famine and the sage Viśvamitra is in trouble. He is starving and doesn’t know how to feed his wife and children. He roams around here and there, looking for food. Finally, he arrives at a village of चण्डालs or श्वपचs. There are differences between canḍāla, śudra and śvapaca. But here, in this particular section, the Mahābhārata uses the words canḍāla and śvapaca synonymously. So let’s ignore those differences. Śvapacha is someone who eats dogs. In this village, Viśvamitra comes to the house of a canḍāla. In the courtyard, slung on a rope, there is the carcass of a dog the canḍāla has slain. Specifically, it is the hind quarters of a slain dog. Viśvamitra waits for the canḍāla to fall asleep and then decides to steal the dog’s hind quarters as food. The canḍāla wakes up and a long conversation ensues between the canḍāla and Vishvamitra. The canḍāla does his best to persuade Viśvamitra not to eat dog-meat and Viśvamitra is adamant. Finally, Viśvamitra comes up with a question to which the canḍāla has no answer. “Is my body eating the dog-meat or is it my ātman? I am my ātman and not my physical body.” Read the account for yourself. (Śanti parva section 141)
I will leave the argument dangling and pursue it again in the next blog. But let me leave you with Bertrand Russell, the great philosopher. Not too many people know that he also wrote some short stories. They weren’t particularly good, that wasn’t his forte. Read a story by him titled “The Boston Lady”, published in 1972. Is incest bad? What if the entire world has been destroyed by a nuclear holocaust and the only way to ensure the survival of the human race is to have intercourse with one’s own son? Other writers of fiction have also explored this theme. I picked on Russell because it is a famous name.