Sunday, 22 December 2013

Dharma, Artha, Kāma, Mokṣa – XV

Once more Bibek Debroy forces us to think beyond the obvious, and plumb the depths of central concepts like 'good' and 'bad', 'right' and 'wrong' The Mahabharata tells us that 'dharma' is subtle and complex. But Dr. Debroy's article brings that idea to life for us with contemporary examples that compel us to stop being simplistic; to meditate on the meaning of words we take for granted.
To share your views and responses, you can follow Bibek on Twitter @bibekdebroy and/or leave a comment on this blog.

Recently, I spoke to a group of CEOs in Udaipur.  While I have spoken to CEOs in the past, it’s always been about economics and policy-making.  This is the first time I spoke about “dharma”.  Since I have made the point in earlier blogs that the word dharma is over-used, I should clarify that in Udaipur, I used the word “dharma” in the sense of emancipation/liberation, not in the sense of duty or good behavior (sadachara). Understandably, CEOs and the corporate sector react in a particular way, not necessarily representative of the general populace.  Since I spoke extempore, there is no presentation or text I can share.  But I made the kinds of points I have been making in these blogs.  

Dr. Debroy was recently at Lake Pichola
Let me now report three kinds of contrary reactions that were common.  (1) How can you say that food and dietary habits represent sadachara and have nothing to do with dharma?  It’s important to be vegetarian.  Eating non-vegetarian food causes injury to life.  (2) How can you say that there is no absolute notion of “good” or “bad”?  What about a murderer?  (3) How can you say that we are powerless to change the world, as opposed to changing ourselves?  If that’s the case, there would be no reason to do anything.  My reactions were along predictable lines.  Obviously, I failed to convince the CEOs, or some of them.  Otherwise, I wouldn’t have reported these three kinds of general contrary reactions.  Nor is it my intention to convince you, or even attempt it. I can only give you my take.
This vegetarian non-vegetarian business is as old as the hills and you will find extensive discussions in the Mahabharata.  Let me mention the sage Koushika to you.  I have spoken about a sage Koushika earlier, in connection with speaking the truth.  We don’t quite know whether this was the same sage Koushika.  After all, Koushika was a family name, rather than a proper name.  Koushika meditated in the forest and obtained a lot of powers.  A bird happened to soil him.  Koushika was angry.  When he glared at the bird in anger, it burnt down and was reduced to ashes.  Later, Koushika went to beg for alms at a house and the lady of the house kept him waiting, because she was tending to her husband.  Koushika was enraged, but was surprised to see that the housewife knew all about his powers and the incident concerning the bird.  His rage was also powerless on her.  When he asked her in surprise, she explained that she was doing her own “dharma” of tending to her husband and that brought her more merits than any austerities.  She directed him to a “vyadha”, a hunter cum butcher.  

Enraged Koushika reduces a bird to ashes
What the hunter cum butcher taught Koushika has come to be known as “Vyadha-Gita” and is a remarkable exposition of dharma.  In the process, there is a discussion on vegetarianism versus non-vegetarianism too.  My points are the following.  First, food and dietary habits are a function of society, history and culture and nothing more.  Second, dharma is about the atman and controlling the senses, the mind, intelligence and consciousness.  This becomes easier when the body is physically fit, one of the functions of some elements of yoga.  Good food habits make for a healthy body.  Therefore, restraint in food is good.  Third, why should we make a fetish about vegetarianism?  Imagine a person who is a vegetarian, but is frightfully obese, thriving on fried food and sweets and contrast that person with someone who eats non-vegetarian food, but is Spartan and controlled in diet.  Does dharma become easier for the former?  I don’t think so.  We are confusing the means with the end.  Fourth, there are societies where non-vegetarian food is customary.  Are we implying that people who live in such societies will never be able to attain dharma?  That seems like a very dogmatic position to take.

Move on to the absolute notion of “good” or “bad”.  Who is a murderer and what is a crime?  Notice that crime is always defined with respect to a piece of legislation, conditional on society.  On the matter of murder, what’s the conceptual difference between my killing someone and an executioner executing someone in one of those “rarest of rare” cases, after due process of law?  Both are murder, except that the first is not sanctioned by society, while the second is.  Suppose you live near the Indo-Pakistan border and there is a skirmish.  If you are on this side of the border, the terrorist is someone who deserves to be killed.  But if you are on that side of the border, the terrorist may well be a freedom-fighter.  A difference of less than 10 km on where you reside will determine the difference between “good” and “bad”.  I can multiply examples to illustrate the inherent subjectivity involved.  And because of that subjectivity, notions of “good” and “bad” should not be confused with dharma.  

The Nazis thought they were doing good for society.  That’s also the reason I am skeptical of item (3), attempts to change the world and make it better.  Many undesirable events in the world have occurred because people tried to make the world a better place, “better” being a subjective term too. Thankfully, in the progress of human civilization, these attempts only leave a transient impression.  They don’t last.  Attempts to change the world flow from an over-inflated sense of ego and a bloated idea about one’s own importance.  But we can certainly change ourselves.  If we are able to successfully change ourselves from within, and provided we have been able to bring about that change, we can also make other people change.  That’s the kind of impact many religious leaders have had.  It is through changing people that the world changes, with more of sattva and less of tamas.  That’s it and no more.  But like I said, don’t agree with me.  My intention is only to make you think and find the answers inside.  There is no universal template.


Anonymous said...

Sir, what do you say to this Ramana Maharshi's quote?

"Regulation of diet, restricting it to sattvic (i.e. pure and vegetarian) food taken in moderate quantities is the best of all rules of conduct and the most conducive to the development of sattvic qualities of mind. These in turn help one in the practice of Self-enquiry.""

Anonymous said...

Sir i am posting entire link about Ramana's diet recommendation, please go through it and please have your say on it.. Thanks

Ramdas said...

I too have reservations about good or bad. One is judgmental in prounouncing something as good or bad.

Rajarshi said...

Namaste Sairam,

It is true that many saints, including Sri Ramana Maharishi, had recommended a vegetarian diet for all, however there are and have been other cultures and other saints who were not so strict in enforcing vegetarianism. A lot depends on the place and culture. For example if you study the history of religion in Bengal you may find many spiritually powerful people who were not necessarily vegetarian. Sri Ramakrishna himself, for a long initial period, used to have an omnivorous diet. Basically, in the Indian context, the strictly technical word would be an omnivore for the Indian diet - of those who consume meat, fish or eggs - constitute an admixture of both vegetarian food (which is larger part) and non-vegetarian food (which is the lesser part). Later in his life Ramakrishna would not consume any meat, unless it was a prasad that has been consecrated by offering it to the Goddess. Many of the disciples of Sri Ramakrishna were non-vegetarian, and they had achieved very high states of spirituality.

The important thing, the one abiding instruction that comes from all quarters, is control of food intake. Eat and live like a spartan. Stay away from food that is extreme in taste. Some Yogis for example find pickles and lemon to be far more damaging to the consciousness than a simple non-veg dish. Yes, unlike what many believe, it is possible to cook a light and easily digestible non-vegetarian preparation too.

Find what suits the body-type. Control the intake of food. These help in the long run.

sbharti said...

Very educative blog, specially on "Vyadh-gita" episode. I remember couple of years ago I had a discussion on "what is good or bad" or "is there universal good?". And it turned out that "good and bad" are only subjective to the context and can never be determined universally (just going through wonderful examples in the blog clears this).

Then how should one act? I'm supposed to act "good" but I don't know if it is good or bad! Perhaps Dharma comes rightly into the picture here, that how to determine when an act is "right". I am not using "good" because "good" is usually associated with "nicety" but sometimes one needs to "rightly" act "not nice" or "not good". Therefore, the correct course of discussion could be if an act is "right", ie according to dharma or "wrong", ie against dharma. However, the catch is dharma itself is totally subjective to context and may switch sides with time people gender age region and what not!