Saturday, 20 September 2014

Dharma, Artha, Kāma, Mokṣa - XXII

Dr. Bibek Debroy
Dharma, Artha, Kāma, Mokṣa returns in a new avatar. And as becomes an avatar, it has a mission. The column will feed into a book planned by Bibek Debroy. He invites you to be part of this process - a truly exciting opportunity. Read the columns meaningfully, share your opinions, comment, feedback. Engaging with this column makes you part of the creation of Bibek's book - a unique opportunity indeed! Interact with Bibek on Twitter @bibekdebroy and/or leave a comment on the blog.

After a break, dharma, artha, kama, moksha is back under a different garb.  But there is a background I need to explain.  I am writing a book on “artha”.  This is work in progress and these are bits and pieces from that.  Hence, two requests.  First, since this work in progress, give me feedback and comments.  That will make the book better.  Second, please do not look at one DAKM in isolation.  It is a series (from the planned book) and needs to be looked at through that lens of continuity. 
कर्मण्यवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन।  This is a famous shloka from the Bhagavad Gita.  “You indeed have a right to the action, never to the fruits.”  In advancing a proposition that Hinduism is concerned more about the world hereafter and is concerned relatively less with material prosperity in the present world, this shloka is also cited.[1]  If the fruits are irrelevant, why should I be motivated to do anything?  Why should I try to improve my material prosperity?  Let me instead focus on the world hereafter.  It so happens that this is not a shloka from the Bhagavad Gita, it is half of a shloka, from shloka 2.47, the 47th shloka in the 2nd Chapter.  The remaining half of the shloka, often not quoted, is as follows.  मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गः अस्त्वकर्मणि।  “Never should action originate because of the fruits.  Nor should you be attached to lack of action.”  With both halves of the shloka taken together, one forms a slightly different impression.  In discussing Hinduism, with its immensely huge corpus, and attitudes of Hinduism towards specific topics, one must therefore be careful in quoting selectively.  What’s the point of quoting half a shloka, without considering the rest of the Bhagavad Gita?  How can one quote from a text, ignoring the context of who it was composed for and by whom?  Not to speak of issues about when it was composed.
            The word वर्ग (varga) means category or class.  Used in the sense of an objective or purpose, the three objectives or vargas of human existence are धर्म (dharma), अर्थ (artha) and काम (kama). These are पुरूषार्थs (purusharthas), the objectives of human exertion.  Strictly speaking, there are four purusharthas, not three - the fourth being मोक्ष (moksha).  Moksha can be translated as emancipation, liberation, freedom, release.  There are eighteen पर्वs (parvas) in the Mahabharata.  In this context, the word parva means part or section.  One of the longest of these 18 parvas is Shanti Parva, the section that is about peace.  Bhishma hasn’t yet died.  He is lying down on the bed of arrows and Shanti Parva, and the subsequent Anushasana Parva, constitute his teachings to Yudhishthira and his brothers.  A sub-section in Shanti Parva is titled Moksha-Dharma-Parva, Chapters 168-353 in the Critical Edition.[2]  

In this sub-section, there is a conversation between Krishna Dvaipayana Vedavyasa and his son, Shuka, where Shuka asks his father and preceptor about moksha.  This is what Vedavyasa says. “A being is bound down through deeds and is freed through knowledge..…However, a person who obtains knowledge reaches the spot where there is no reason to grieve.  Once one goes there, one does not die.  Once one goes there, one is not born. Once one goes there, one does not decay.  Once one goes there, one does not increase.”  In Sanskrit, the last two sentences are as follows. यत्र गत्वा न म्रियते यत्र गत्वा न जायते। न जीर्यते यत्र गत्वा यत्र गत्वा न वर्धते।[3] This is the sense in which moksha is usually understood, a state where an individual is freed from the cycle and bondage of death and rebirth and karma.  Indeed, this is precisely what happens to Shuka. He is liberated and emancipated in that sense.  

But if one reads the Mahabharata, is that the sense in which the word moksha is used?[4]  The Mahabharata was not only about exceptional people like Shuka.  It was also about people concerned with this world, people who had to deal with dharma, artha and kama, not only about moksha, interpreted as liberation from the cycle of life.  The Bhagavad Gita has 18 chapters and the titles of each of these chapters is qualified by the use of the word योग (yoga).[5]  Only one of these titles uses the word moksha and this is the 18th chapter, titledमोक्षसंन्यासयोग (moksha-sannyasa-yoga).  If one reads through this entire chapter, there is not a single instance of the word moksha being used in the Shuka sense.  Instead, the entire argument is about detachment, even when one is engaged in dharma, artha and kama.  Without deviating from the subject and going off on a tangent on a discussion of moksha, there is a simple point being made. Who has said that Hinduism is about the other-worldly pursuit of moksha in a Shuka sense?  That’s a selective and subjective reading of some texts.  It isn’t a proposition that should be advanced as a sweeping generalization.
            What about dharma, artha and kama?  Kama refers to desire, not necessarily to sexual desire alone.  Vatsayana’s Kama Sutra, one in a long line of works on kama, is illustrative.  It is often understood to be a documentation of sexual positions.  Yet, sexual positions account for only one of its seven major segments.  In Chapter 3, there is a reference to 64 kinds of arts an accomplished maiden should be familiar with.  Here is a listing of the 64. This has little to do with sexual positions or even sex and probably has more to do with artha.  That’s the reason it is worth giving the listing.

 Since this has little to do with the main topic of discussion, this listing is reproduced from the 1883 Richard Burton translation, though there is some minor variance with the prevalent Sanskrit text.[6]“(1) Singing; (2) Playing on musical instruments; (3) Dancing; (4) Union of dancing, singing, and playing instrumental music; (5) Writing and drawing; (6) Tattooing; (7) Arraying and adorning an idol with rice and flowers; (8) Spreading and arranging beds or couches of flowers, or flowers upon the ground; (9) Colouring the teeth, garments, hair, nails and bodies, i.e. staining, dyeing, colouring and painting the same; (10) Fixing stained glass into a floor; (11) The art of making beds, and spreading out carpets and cushions for reclining; (12) Playing on musical glasses filled with water; (13) Storing and accumulating water in aqueducts, cisterns and reservoirs; (14) Picture making, trimming and decorating; (15) Stringing of rosaries, necklaces, garlands and wreaths; (16) Binding of turbans and chaplets, and making crests and top-knots of flowers; (17) Scenic representations, stage playing Art of making ear ornaments Art of preparing perfumes and odours; (18) Proper disposition of jewels and decorations, and adornment in dress; (19) Magic or sorcery; (20) Quickness of hand or manual skill; (21) Culinary art, i.e. cooking and cookery; (22) Making lemonades, sherbets, acidulated drinks, and spirituous extracts with proper flavour and colour; (23) Tailor's work and sewing; (24) Making parrots, flowers, tufts, tassels, bunches, bosses, knobs, etc., out of yarn or thread; (25) Solution of riddles, enigmas, covert speeches, verbal puzzles and enigmatical questions; (26) A game, which consisted in repeating verses, and as one person finished, another person had to commence at once, repeating another verse, beginning with the same letter with which the last speaker's verse ended, whoever failed to repeat was considered to have lost, and to be subject to pay a forfeit or stake of some kind; (27) The art of mimicry or imitation; (28) Reading, including chanting and intoning; (29) Study of sentences difficult to pronounce. It is played as a game chiefly by women and children and consists of a difficult sentence being given, and when repeated quickly, the words are often transposed or badly pronounced; (30) Practice with sword, single stick, quarter staff and bow and arrow; (31) Drawing inferences, reasoning or inferring; (32) Carpentry, or the work of a carpenter; (33) Architecture, or the art of building; (34) Knowledge about gold and silver coins, and jewels and gems; (35) Chemistry and mineralogy; (36) Colouring jewels, gems and beads; (37) Knowledge of mines and quarries; (38) Gardening; knowledge of treating the diseases of trees and plants, of nourishing them, and determining their ages; (39) Art of cock fighting,
quail fighting and ram fighting; (40) Art of teaching parrots and starlings to speak; (41) Art of applying perfumed ointments to the body, and of dressing the hair with unguents and perfumes and braiding it; (42) The art of understanding writing in cypher, and the writing of words in a peculiar way; (43) The art of speaking by changing the forms of words. It is of various kinds. Some speak by changing the beginning and end of words, others by adding unnecessary letters between every syllable of a word, and so on; (44) Knowledge of language and of the vernacular dialects; (45) Art of making flower carriages; (46) Art of framing mystical diagrams, of addressing spells and charms, and binding armlets; (47) Mental exercises, such as completing stanzas or verses on receiving a part of them; or supplying one, two or three lines when the remaining lines are given indiscriminately from different verses, so as to make the whole an entire verse with regard to its meaning; or arranging the words of a verse written irregularly by separating the vowels from the consonants, or leaving them out altogether; or putting into verse or prose sentences represented by signs or symbols. There are many other such exercises; (48) Composing poems; (49) Knowledge of dictionaries and vocabularies; (50) Knowledge of ways of changing and disguising the appearance of persons; (51) Knowledge of the art of changing the appearance of things, such as making cotton to appear as silk, coarse and common things to appear as fine and good; (52) Various ways of gambling; (53) Art of obtaining possession of the property of others by means of mantras or incantations; (54) Skill in youthful sports: (55) Knowledge of the rules of society, and of how to pay respect and compliments to others; (56) Knowledge of the art of war, of arms, of armies, etc; (57) Knowledge of gymnastics; (58) Art of knowing the character of a man from his features; (59) Knowledge of scanning or constructing verses; (60) Arithmetical recreations; (61) Making artificial flowers: (62) Making figures and images in clay.”
Dating texts is always difficult and so far, we haven’t said anything about time-lines. Vatsayana’s Kama Sutra could have been anywhere between 400 BCE and 200 CE, though there were similar texts of an earlier vintage.  To return to the point, kama is about the senses, not exclusively about sex.  Nor does dharma necessarily mean religion and should never be translated as religion.  In different contexts, dharma can mean good conduct, jurisprudence and rule of law and customary practice.  It can also mean the metaphysical.  Of the three purusharthas, artha is the easiest to pin down.  It means material prosperity and wealth.

[1] Since a broader point is being made, there is no need to specifically reference such mentions.

[2] All references to the Mahabharata are to the Critical Edition.  The Critical Edition was published by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poona, between 1933 and 1966.  A soft copy of the Critical Edition is available at

[3] The English translation is for 12.233.11-12, while the Sanskrit is for 12.233.12.  This means 12th parva (Shanti parva), chapter 233, shlokas 11-12.  The English translation is from The Mahabharata: A Translation, Vol.9, Bibek Debroy, Penguin, 2014.

[4] This is a point also made by Chaturvedi Badrinath, The Mahabharata, An Inquiry in the Human Condition, Orient Longman, 2007.

[5] The word yoga means union, but is used in multiple senses in different contexts.

[6] By the prevalent Sanskrit text, we mean  This is from Chapter 3.   The Richard Burton translation is from  The numbering doesn’t exist in Richard Burton.  Once numbered, we have 62, not 64.  We have also changed “muntras” to the more common mantras.


Anonymous said...

"Who has said that Hinduism is about the other-worldly pursuit of moksha in a Shuka sense? That’s a selective and subjective reading of some texts. It isn’t a proposition that should be advanced as a sweeping generalization."
One of the fundamental features of Hinduism is that the teaching should be according to the capabilities and inclinations of those who are taught. Thus the context of Bhagavad Gita is that it is addressed to Arjuna- a warrior prince in a battlefield and not someone like Shuka. Krishna, keeping the capabilities and inclinations of Arjuna in mind, therefore asks him to take up karma-nishta (a path dependent on detached action) instead of say jnana sadhana (a path of knowledge) which might be more suitable for a sage like Shuka. But the ultimate aim I would argue is nevertheless moksha (in one way or other) for all. Or to put it another way, all other "end points" are considered inferior to moksha since they are temporary and not really "end points" at all. This is evident in the Bhagavad Gita itself for example in Ch 2 V 45-46 which talks about going beyond the heavens (and other material benefits) promised by Vedic rituals. All those heavens (even brahmaloka the highest of ritualistic promises) are said to be within the range of the three gunas (qualities/inclinations) which have to be transcended. As for the reason for their existence, it comes back to that principle I started with as explained here:
"If the rewards like heaven are of such an impermanent nature then why do the Vedas which are eternally perfect and beneficial for all beings enjoin practices aimed at achieving heavenly spheres. To answer this Lord Krishna states that the Vedic scriptures deals with the three modes of material nature which are goodness, passion and ignorance and all beings are born into these three modes of material nature. Some beings have a preponderance for goodness, others for passion and others for ignorance while some are mixed. These modes are conditioned within the mind and they typify the three types of created beings. With exception of the Upanisads the Vedic scriptures dealing with the three modes gives prescribed activities and their results. Whatsoever one desires to obtain in heaven the prescription is enjoined for them to achieve it and the description of the various rewards are eulogised as well as the rituals for their fulfilment. If the Vedas were not to reveal and elaborate a way for those within the three modes to benefit themselves according to the three modes of material nature. Then those locked in the cycle of birth and death would forfeit both their opportunities. Firstly unaware of the reward of liberation beyond the three modes and thus being oblivious to it would miss it altogether and secondly if their was no material goal which they could strive for they would lose faith in spiritual knowledge without rituals and practices giving them the means to acquire their cherished goals such as heavenly delights and thus they would lose both chances bequeathed to them with birth into material existence. So it is justly so that the Vedic scriptures deal with the three modes of material nature as they explain the rituals that bring benefits for all those subject to the influence of these modes. But Lord Krishna is instructing through Arjuna to be free from desires of reward and go beyond the influence of the three modes maintaining no faith in heaven and the rituals prescribed for enjoyment therein for these things are temporary even though they are enjoined in the scriptures."

Anonymous said...

I have a doubt for Dr. Debroy. Kama is one of the four purusharthas. Then why 'kama' is also a षड्रिपुs, one of the six enemies?

Unknown said...

Is there any description of the economy in the Mahabarath and is there any text on Artha other than Arthashashta of Chanakya's. After all we were a major world power in the past.

Andre Adams said...

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