The most easily understood meaning of the term is right conduct, duty, virtue, goodness, compassion, law and custom
At the Times Literary Festival last week, I participated in a discussion on Swarajya chief editor R. Jagannathan’s new book, Dharmik Nation: Freeing Bharat, Remaking India. The other panelists were authors Ashwin Sanghi and Sudheendra Kulkarni, and the moderator, Rahul Shivshankar. The subject of the debate was: “Why fear a Dharmic nation?” My view was that a Dharmic nation is fine provided Dharma is not interpreted solely as religion, because in the Hindu worldview — the focus of Jagannathan’s book — it is a remarkably complex and sophisticated concept, and much more than just religion.
Dharma is derived from the root word “dhr”, which means to support, to uphold and to sustain. The word occurs frequently from the time of the Rig Veda, and is specifically dealt with in the Dharmashastras (600-300 BCE), and the Dharmasutras (200 BCE to 900 CE). These claimed to be based on shruti (Vedic texts), smriti (commentaries on shruti texts) and a general notion of shishtachara, correct behaviour. The most famous of these was the Manusmriti (c. second century CE). The most easily understood meaning of the term is right conduct, duty, virtue, goodness, compassion, law and custom. But none of these convey the full meaning of the term.
Dharma is at the core of the Hindu notion of ethics. What is right conduct? Is there an infallible touch stone to judge what is right? Who has the authority to pronounce what is correct behaviour? Is there a set of unchanging rules which are universally applicable? Does ethical conduct vary with context and circumstance, or is it absolute in all situations? In other religions, right and wrong are absolutely defined. Most civilisations believe that certain things are absolutely right and wrong. In Christianity, for instance, we have the Ten Commandments. Islam also categorically lays down what is permissible and what is not. The Hindu approach is, however, highly nuanced, both emphasising certain virtues, and simultaneously providing derogations from that ideal, based on context, situation and circumstance.
The lack of judgmental diktats is because all rules in the Hindu worldview fall into two broad categories. There is the paramarthik reality, where a person in the realisation of brahmanubhav, has spiritually evolved to a level where he or she is beyond strictly conventional categories of right and wrong. Such people are recognised for their wisdom and contemplative transcendence, nivritthilakshana dharma. The second level is vyavaharik, the empirical world of everyday life, where privrittilakshana dharma prevails, prescribing a code of behaviour. But is this code unanimous? Even a cursory examination of societies would show variations in custom and social usage. What is considered ethical for one set of people is considered unethical by another. The Hindu mind was thus reluctant to accept an unequivocal set of universal moral imperatives.
This does not mean, of course, that Hindu society lacks moral compass. Hindu texts are replete with recommendations for ethical conduct. The Manusmriti lays down ten elements of dharma: Dhritihkshama, damosteyamshauchamindriyanigrahadhirvidya, satyakamkrodhodashakamdharmalakshanam: Steadiness, forgiveness, self-control, abstention from unrighteous appropriation, purity, control of the sense organs, discrimination, knowledge, truthfulness and absence of anger. Other texts stress on dana, charity, daya, compassion, and dama, restraining one’s passions. In a luminous stanza, the Mahabharata says: “Anger must be controlled by forgiveness; fear by vigilance; inclination and aversion by patience; greed by contentment; adharma by generosity; dharma with careful thought; attachment to objects by meditation on their passing nature; the tendency to talk too much by periods of silence; ill-effects of material prosperity and wealth by sharing.” The Mahabharata repeatedly emphasises ahimsa paramo dharma, the paramount importance of non-violence. In the epic, Bhisma says: “Whatever has its beginning in justice that alone is called dharma; whatever is unjust and oppressive, is adharma.” He further adds: “If one dharma is destructive of another dharma, then it is wickedness in the garb of dharma, and not dharma. Only that is dharma truly, which is established without denigrating and opposing another dharma.” The Buddhist ideology of Dhamma (the Pali word for Dharma), which was widely disseminated by Emperor Ashoka, highlighted non-violence, toleration, kindness and compassion towards others.
Thus, the normative framework of ethical conduct is not lacking. But Hinduism has also had the courage to accept that human behaviour can have mitigating contextual factors. Idealism is not jettisoned, but is tempered by realism, taking on board the basic fact that howsoever noble the ideal may be, human behaviour could be conditioned by contingent circumstances, that may not be mala fide, but are factors in evaluating the extent to which ethical conduct deviated from an inflexible — and impractical — absolutism. For instance, if a starving man about to die, breaks one apple from an accessible tree of a rich man’s orchard, is it stealing, or a justifiable act of survival? In practice, therefore, Dharma — as commonly understood — may be influenced by several factors. These could include desh dharma or conduct in different regions; ashram dharma or stage of life; kula dharma or family and community fealties; jati dharma or caste considerations; svabhava dharma or personal nature; svadharma or choice of conscience; and, appadharma, action taken in times of dire emergency.
That is why, Yudhishtara, also known as Dharmaraja, is unable to answer the question posed by the Yaksha — “What is Dharma?” “Reason is of limited use for it can be questioned,” he answers the Yaksha. “Neither are the sacred texts helpful as they are at odds with one another; nor is there a single sage whose opinion could be considered authoritative.” Throwing up his hands in despair, Yudhishtara’s final answer is: “The truth about Dharma is hidden in a cave.” Interestingly, he gives a similar answer when confronted by Draupadi about how, as Dharmaraja, he could agree to five men marrying the same woman. Yudhistara’s reply is telling: “O, Draupadi, Dharma is sukshma, subtle. Who has defined it?”
If, therefore, Dharma cannot be exactly defined, the only supreme Dharma in today’s India is to follow the principles and values laid down in our Constitution. If we do that, we will, indeed, become a Dharmic nation.