Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Dharma, Artha, Kāma, Mokṣa – VIII

In this blogpost, guest writer Bibek Debroy expands on the complex nature of dharma. It isn't a monolith. In fact it varies substantially depending on one's stage of life, one's occupation, one's location and even one's circumstances - to name a few parameters! Begin to explore this tenet of the Hindu tradition, so deeply complex, that even the great sire Bhishma was left speechless by it on occasion

धर्माधर्मौ सुखं दुखं मानसानि न ते विभो। 

न कर्तासि न भोक्तासि मुक्त​एवासि सर्वदा॥

This is 1.6 of the Ashtavakra Gita.  “O lord!  Dharma, adharma, happiness and unhappiness belong to the mind. These aren’t yours.  You are not the doer.  Nor are you the one who enjoys.  You are always free.”

न त्वं विप्रादिको वर्णो नाश्रमी नाक्षगोचरः।
असङ्गोऽसि निराकारो विश्वसाक्षी सुखी भव​॥

This is 1.5 of the Ashtavakra Gita.  “You do not belong to the brahmana and the other varnas, nor to the ashramas.  You cannot be perceived by the eyes.  You are without attachment.  You are without form.  You are a witness to the universe.  Be happy.”

These quotes are getting into terrain we will examine later.  The limited point I wish to make is the assertion that dharma (or adharma) is a state of the mind.  And “you” are not brahmana and the other varnas, or the (four) ashramas. We go back to the various definitions of dharma as religion, ordinances, precepts of good conduct, law, duty, custom and all or some of these.  In a loose sense, if we are asked to translate dharma, we will probably pick religion.  But, in the context of our texts, it seems to me that dharma is not religion.  

Dharma is ordinances, precepts of good conduct, law, duty, custom – anything but religion.  If you read the Mahabharata, you will find sections titled “rajadharma” (the dharma for kings), “danadharma” (the dharma for donations), “apad-dharma” (the dharma for times of catastrophe) and “mokshadharma” (the dharma for liberation).  In other words, dharma is not to be equated with moksha.  Dharma needs the qualifier of moksha.  That is the reason, in the title of this blog, moksha figures separately.  In our sacred texts, dharma, artha and kama are stated to be the three categories/objectives (वर्ग​) of existence.  But it is also abundantly clear that pursuit of these three categories/objectives leads to gains that are transitory or impermanent.  Permanent bliss results from moksha.
                                                                                                                                                        That is the reason I am skeptical of the Dharmashastras being mechanically applied.  While I am no scholar of the Dharmashastras, reading them (say the first chapter of Manu Smriti), I get the feeling that they were not meant to be prescriptive or normative.  They were more descriptive, collating the practices of the day.  That’s true of the various elements of आचार​ (good conduct), व्यवहार​ (legal procedure) and प्रायश्चित्त (atonement).  They were society-specific and are therefore, relative.  They are thus not meant to be taken in any absolute sense.  Both varnashrama dharma and food habits belong to that good conduct category.

Take food habits.  Manu Smriti 5.14 will tell you विड्वराह​ should not be eaten.  This is a village-pig.  However, wild-pigs can be eaten.  Similarly, a village-fowl should not be eaten.  But you can eat wild-fowl.  This can be on grounds of health, since village-pigs and village-fowl eat offal.  It can certainly not be on grounds of dharma, understood as religion.  Let me go off on a tangent.  It has now become fashionable for people to say they will not eat red meat.  That’s because of studies, which have themselves been questioned, linking red meat consumption with various health ailments, including cholesterol problems.  But those studies are all based on domesticated red meat (beef, lamb, whatever). Domesticated animals do not have to run around.  They, and the people who eat them, become obese.  A wild animal, if one were to eat such an animal, is likely to be lean, with less fat.  Therefore, it should not contribute to any cholesterol problem.  There is a logical reason for the wild variety to be the preferred alternative.  But as I said, this is a tangential issue. 

Dr. Bibek Debroy
 I have no explanation why Shanti Parva of Mahabharata (rajadharma section) says that brahmanas must not eat red ants, suggesting that black ants are fine.  There must have been some historical reason.  I personally think that some kinds of food facilitate yama (restraint) and niyama (restriction).  Most people know that yama and niyama are the first two elements of the 8-fold ashtanga yoga.   I don’t wish to get into the difference between yama and niyama now.  One way to understand it is as follows.  Yama is precepts regarding behaviour towards others.  Niyama is internal to the individual.  But this doesn’t mean that one should make a fetish out of food, or out of any of the other dharmashastra principles.

These things remind me a bit about CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) syllabi, text-books and examination systems.  They are terrible and involve nothing but mugging.  Given a quadratic equation, ax2 + bx + c = 0, the student will mechanically have mugged up the solution to x and later forgotten the formula.  However, if he/she had understood the principles instead, deriving the result many decades down the line should constitute no problem.  

I think the sacred texts that set out achara, vyavahara and prayaschitta are no different.  Not knowing what the individual will use the knowledge or the practice eventually for, they set out a universal and standardized template.  We mug this up. Mugging this up and practicing it doesn’t take us any closer to moksha.  And not mugging this up and not practicing it doesn’t take us further away from moksha.  The answer depends entirely on the individual.  Reading the earlier blog, someone commented that I might have used the expressions “samanya dharma” and “vishesha dharma”.  I deliberately don’t want to use words and expressions and burden all of us with jargon, unless there is use for that word or expression. 

Having said that, “samanya dharma” is a template for universal good conduct, while “vishesha dharma” is specific to the individual, sometimes linked to varna and ashrama too.  I think moksha is an individual objective, nothing to do with collective templates.  As layers in dharma (not moksha) we have the dharma indicated in the Vedas, the dharma of the Dharmashastras, the dharma enforced by the king, the dharma of the varnas and the ashramas and the individual’s dharma.  Of these, I think the last is the only one that matters.

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