Sunday, May 27, 2007

On Dharma

Dharma derives from the Sanskrit verb root ‘dhri’, which means to uphold, to support, to carry, to bear. The word Dharma thus literally means, ‘that which upholds’. What is it that Dharma upholds? Everything.

Dharma has both the descriptive and prescriptive aspects ti it. In the first sense, Dharma describes the ‘way things are’. It connotes the inherent order and harmony in the nature of all entities that constitute the cosmos. In the prescriptive sense, Dharma sets the standard for the ‘way things aught to be’. It portrays the ideas and ideals that should be aspired for. Implicit in this syncretisation of the descriptive and prescriptive senses of Dharma is the proposition that goodness, harmony, order, etc., are the essential quality or character of the phenomenal world, and evil, discord, chaos, etc., are aberrations.

Dharma, thus, encompasses the concepts described by the English words duty, law, religion, custom-tradition, conformity (to dharma), virtue, righteousness, morality, rule, authority, etc. Dharma, in its entirety, symbolises the positive aspects of the phenomenal world (the universe) since it is a reflection of the fact that the phenomenal world (the universe) derives from, is sourced out of and is grounded on Deity. Dharma, thus, is a manifestation, a symptom, of the immanence of Deity in all existence. Hence, it is Dharma which enables and ensures spiritual progress towards the attainment of the self’s spiritual goals.

In practical terms, Dharma operates on all levels from the microcosm of the individual to the macrocosm of all existence. For the individual, this manifests as conformity to social and ritual duties, to the traditional rules of conduct for one's caste, family, and profession. Such requirements constitute an individual's Dharma (law and duties), and are the part played by the individual in contributing to the broader stability, law, order, and fundamental equilibrium in the cosmos, in nature, and in society. The contextual nature of Dharma is apparent in the different scopes of applicability of the different, often overlapping, levels or layers of Dharma. The individual prescriptive Dharma is defined by its context with reference to the descriptive Dharmas pertaining to ever expanding levels of family, caste, society, nation, human-kind, all life and all existence. Traditional Hindu thought, thus propounds a relativistic outline of morality. The dos and don’ts of ethical conduct would differ for different individuals, under different circumstances, at different points of time.

Returning to the operative levels of Dharma; at the core lies ‘Svadharma’ – the essential quality, nature, character of the individual (‘Sva’ = oneself) and conformity to it. Individual identity is comprised of the ‘inborn nature’ (genes) as well as life experiences, cultural milieu and upbringing – the accretive sum of nature and nurture – that defines who a person is. Svadharma enjoins the individual to be a genuine person, to be true to himself – true to his identity. Hinduism’s rejection of proselytisation is founded in this idea of Svadharma. A person’s religion is defined by his Svadharma; it constitutes of his genes, his heritage, his culture and upbringing, and hence is inherently unchangeable. One can act differently from what one’s Dharma requires, but one CANNOT CHANGE one’s Dharma. Changing ones religion is tantamount to denying ones identity and acting in contradiction of ones nature – something which is not conducive to attaining ones spiritual goals. For this reason, Hinduism does not seek to win converts. No one who is not born to it can become a Hindu. Says the Bhagawat Geeta, “Verily, death itself, (if encountered) in (following) one’s Dharma is admirable; (following) the Dharma of another is fearsome (in terms of its consequences).”

Man is a social animal. The atomic unit of social organisation is the family. The most visible part of Dharma is the one that deals with the individual’s relation with his family and with society. This is level of ‘Varna-Ashrama Dharma’. Varna = colour, and it refers to the individual’s and his family/clan’s place, rank, or position in society, and the duties and professions incumbent upon them. In ancient Hindu society, a family’s profession and place in society was hereditary. For instance, Brahmin families were supposed to engage in education, officiating over rituals and interpreting the scriptures and families would follow these professions generation after generation. The much abused ‘caste system’ of Hinduism is a crude derivative of the Varna Dharma, and the exploitative customs and beliefs that became part of the caste system are examples of the ill-effects of enforcing a rigid dogma and hierarchy on the fluid and relativistic spirit of Varna Dharma. (More on the caste system in a separate entry as and when time permits.)

While Varna Dharma pertained to the hierarchy and ‘division of labour’ associated with social segmentation and occupational specialisation, the Ashrama Dharma laid down the duties, expectations and requirements of individuals in various stages of life. Traditionally, four stages of life were recognised. The first stage was the ‘brahmacharya ashrama’, the preparatory stage of life as a celibate student. This was the phase of life when the individual received an education. After completion of education, which included a period of apprenticeship in the hereditary profession, the individual usually got married and entered the phase of the householder, the ‘grihastha ashrama’. The prime duty of a person in this stage of life was to earn a living and help provide for and nurture the family. In practical terms this was the longest phase in the individual’s life. This long period of productive social life was followed by a phase of retirement known as ‘vanaprastha ashrama’ or the ‘forest-dweller’s phase’. In this phase the individual, after having fulfilled his duties and discharged his responsibilities in the householder phase, was expected to gradually withdraw from this active life and to devote time to spiritual quests. The fourth and final phase was the phase of renunciation, ‘sanyasa ashrama’ which was entered into after the previous contemplative stage had brought about a level of detachment from the material world, was the phase of dedicating ones life to attaining ones spiritual goals. In between them, a person’s Varna or position /profession in society and his ‘ashrama’ or stage of life together gave the complete ‘prescription’ for all the social activities, duties and obligations of the individual.

A level above Varnashrama Dharma is a kind of general ethical code called ‘sadharana dharma’ or ‘samanya dharma’. These are the common virtues that all individuals (irrespective of caste, gender or age) would need to persevere to inculcate. Several such virtues are enumerated in the scriptures pertaining to Dharma, the Dharma-shastras. Most such ‘lists’ include Non-violence (ahimsa), truth (satya), integrity (asteya), purity (saucha), control of the senses, (indriya-nigraha), perseverance (dhriti), forgiveness (kshama), self-control (dama), wisdom (dhi), learning (vidya), and absence of anger (akrodha). This over-arching set of virtues is perhaps the closest analogue Hinduism has to the Ten Commandments.

Rta, is Dharma at the highest level. It represents the cosmic laws and forces by which all things are maintained (upheld). Thus all entities, both animate and inanimate, operate according to the principles of the rta. Often interpreted as the universal truth, the concept of rta exists from the earliest Vedic period (possibly pre-dating the Vedic deities). In the Vedic era, it was believed that the correct performance of the rituals as described (and prescribed) in the Vedas was essential to maintain rta, failing which the cosmic order would collapse into chaos. However, towards the end of the Vedic period, by the time of the Upanishads, the emphasis had shifted from rituals. The idea of the Brahman envisioned the rta, as a manifestation of the Brahman, as sustained in itself. The word, rta, derives from the root verb ‘R’ which has two sets of meanings. It signifies, ‘to move’ and ‘through movement, to fit or to arrange’. Thus, the Vedic concept of rta has ordered activity, or organised movement as its basic element. As a manifestation of Brahman, rta is believed to be one of the primal constituents of the universe. rta sets the ‘ideal’ in place at the cosmic level, in reference to which the distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ assumes some meaning. rta thus implies that there is no caprice or disorder in the realm of morality; and in doing so rta becomes the seed of the doctrine of Karma. Thus rta is the totality of Dharma and anrta (non-rta) as its anti-thesis is adharma. However, the high degree of abstraction in the concept of rta makes it difficult to deduce practical moral dictates from it. This is where the axiomatic de-abstraction of the rta sequentially into sadharana Dharma, Varna-ashrama Dharma and Svadharma comes into play. However, the ‘mandate’ of upholding the universe means that Dharma has to extend beyond morality, to the entire sphere of human behaviour. This is where Dharma extends to embrace such prescriptive and descriptive ideas as duty, tradition, customs, law, virtue, righteousness, etc. Dharma is the ‘right way of living’, and the Hindu Dharma is the Hindu way of life.

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