Pavan K. Varma | Whither Dharma in an ethical wasteland?

The Asian Age.  | Pavan K Varma

Opinion, Columnists

Are Indians moral by choice, or do they do the correct thing only under compulsion or fear?


Atal Behari Vajpayee had once wondered if Indians suffer from an “ethical deficit”. In other words, are they moral by choice, or do they do the correct thing only under compulsion or fear? 

Corruption is, of course, not unique to India. What is unique is its acceptance, and the “creative” ways in which it is sustained. It appears that Indians do not subscribe to antiseptic notions of rectitude, as for instance in the Scandinavian countries. For us, corruption appears to be like litmus paper, it changes colour: bad if done by others, good if it is for oneself. In general, our behavior is far more related to utility than to absolute notions of morality.

Morality is diluted by an ingrained inclination to be worldly wise.  The world is not inherently fair; it does not guarantee a level playing field. In such a situation, where opportunities are scarce, competition is tough, and malpractice is pervasive, success is the consequence of a well-understood transaction: give to the world what is unavoidable, in order to get from it what you want. Perhaps, only direct online transactions where human interface is limited — can ensure some probity, for voluntary ethicality is practiced by very few of us.

Mahatma Gandhi believed that the means are as important as the end. His high morality was admired, but failed to attract many followers. Is that because the concept appears to be alien to Indian tradition? Kautilya’s Arthashastra wastes little time on the moral underpinnings of power. On the contrary, it advocates a compellingly unsentimental recipe on how to seize and retain power through means fair or foul: sama (reconciliation), dama, (blandishments) danda (superior force) and bheda(sowing dissensions in the enemy’s camp). 

The Mahabharata clearly reveals that the end goal of defeating the Kauravas was far more important than the morality of the means employed. Drona, the guru of the Kauravas and a formidable warrior, was killed when Krishna persuaded Yudhisthir to tell a lie. Drona was extremely fond of his son Ashwathamma. If he was told that Ashwathama had died, Drona would, Krishna knew, lose all desire to fight. It is true that an elephant called Ashwathama had died in battle, and Yudhisthir did not utter a complete lie when he said that Ashwathama had died. But Yudhisthir, known for always telling the truth, was aware of the deceit he was playing. Drona, on hearing what Yudhishthir said, laid down his arms.

Karna was killed when during his fight with Arjuna he got down from his chariot to lift its wheel which was sunk in the ground. It was against the rules to attack a man when he was unarmed.  But Krishna was clear that fair play had no application to those who did not respect it themselves. “Kill Karna now, before he returns to his chariot,” he pressed Arjuna.  The next moment Karna lay dead on the battlefield. 

Duryodhana was killed in a duel with Bhima. Krishna, who was watching the fight intently, confided to Arjuna that Bhima would never be able to win in a fair fight. It was then that Krishna drew the attention of Bhima to Duryodhana’s vulnerable spot — his thighs. It was against the rules of war to hit below the navel, but Bhima broke the rules at Krishna’s urging. The Kauravas symbolised adharma. To defeat them, the end justified the means.

Dharma, in the Hindu worldview, is a highly sophisticated concept.  It lays down a moral order, a normative framework for correct behaviour, but allows, pragmatically, for this to be judged in context.  We have, unlike in Christianity, no absolute ten commandments.  In the Mahabharata, when Draupadi tells Yudhisthir that the decision to share her among the five brothers is against dharma, Yudhisthir’s reply is significant: “Dharma is sukshma — subtle — o’, Draupadi. Who has defined it?”

This highly cerebral approach to dharma is based on a deep study of human behaviour. Can final judgment be pronounced on what is right or wrong? For instance, if a starving man on the verge of death takes an apple from an overhanging branch of a rich man’s orchard, is he guilty of theft or merely doing what is essential to save his life? This understandable relativism has allowed us, in everyday life, to accept exemptions from what would normally be defined as right conduct. A man can do no wrong if he acts to protect his svadharma, conduct that is right for one’s jati or station. He cannot be held accountable for actions that are a part of his ashram dharma, conduct that is right for one’s stage of life. He cannot be penalised for transgressions made in the interest of kuladharma, conduct that is right for one’s family. And finally, almost anything he does would be justified in a situation of distress or emergency, when he would be guided by his appadharma, conduct that is right in moments of crisis. 

Such deviations dilute a universal code of ethics. The law does not recognise them, but even the law operates in a social milieu, where people need to be convinced. The essential point is that our tradition has always allowed for a conveniently fractured response to the moral imperative. The only consistent concern is the end goal.  In the pursuit of the desired goal, morality is not so much disowned as it is pragmatically devalued. The consequence is a down-to-earth relativism, a flexibility of approach, and a willingness to prune absolutisms in the interest of a “larger” purpose.

Today, the intellectual nuances of dharma, and the high-minded stratagems of Krishna, have been reduced to their lowest common denominator. The end goal — status, power, money — has completely demolished all notions of morality. That is why we see parents colluding with their children to get a leaked copy of a question paper. Or political parties pursuing power with no thought to what is right or wrong. It is an ethical wasteland for which all of us are responsible.