Orient and Occident – IV Principle of Action and Righteousness

Orient and Occident – IV   Principle of Action and Righteousness

Hindu knowledge is consciousness-centric. Most of the concepts underlying Hindu institutions are also based on the Hindu conception of truth or more importantly the consciousness of truth, most precisely worded by Sri Aurobindo as Truth-consciousness. Therefore presenting a Hindu view of the world or reversing the gaze at occidental worldviews should happen ideally from consciousness perspective.

One of the central points of difference between Hindu and western worldviews as many scholars including Rajiv Malhotra note, is the notion of Dharma. But a proper understanding of Dharma and western life can come not by comparing the moral frameworks of East and West, but by comparing the consciousness frameworks from where the human conduct (ethical or otherwise) is understood and explained.


Nature can be understood through two of its primal aspects – consciousness quality (guNa) and action (karma). Dharma or natural righteous order is determined by these two aspects. This is one of the foundational notions in Dharmic systems, and is visible in the society, language, culture and view of life.

For instance Sanskrit as a language, has very few proper nouns – most of its nouns are indicative of quality or action. The minority of nouns which are not grammatically so, are formed by the combination of beeja-s that are in turn indicative of subtle natural phenomena. This just reflects the Hindu worldview. Quality/nature and action (guNa and karma), the two primal phenomena form the bases for the entire understanding of world in Hindu traditions.

Dharma as the goal of life is the fulfillment of dharma the natural order. Dharma or righteousness is not an imperative, but a purpose of life. Goals of life are four-fold, and fulfillment of being and attainment of complete happiness can happen through their attainment. Since dharma is the aligning principle of the nature of a being and its actions and thus its fulfillment, dharma is itself the first and foremost goals whose fulfillment leads to the fulfillment of the remaining three.

Fulfillment of purposes of life, attainment of happiness through the different faculties of consciousness (senses, mind, intellect, ego and the entire being) in a graded way is the basic theme in Sanatana Dharma. Attainment of happiness of the highest order (ananda) is the end to which all human aspiration is, according to all the worldviews (darsanas).

Dharma, Kant and Maslow

There is a misconception that the imperative in Kantian morality is universal and objective, and that Dharma’s imperative is subjective. Many buy into this by making a superficial comparison. Categorical imperative says that an action should be such that it can become a universal law. However how to judge if something is a universal law, what is it subject to, and how can something not be subject to anything when actors and actions are always bound by subjective factors is not something many care to talk of. In short, the imperative only tells you what can become a moral fact and what cannot in the general sense – and it does not in itself relate morality to actors, actions, conditions and consciousness.

Dharma is natural righteous order which manifests in all beings, something existent and learned from nature. It is not an imperative but is the law which determines the experiences of beings and fruits of action. It is the basic law of cause and effect, on which the theory of Karma is based. Dharma is thus the intrinsic nature of beings. And dhArmik acts like speaking the truth and being nonviolent, is the intrinsic nature of beings.

What becomes a “law” in dhArmik framework is something that is in the intrinsic nature of beings. Thus an “imperative” in Dharma traditions if one has to state, would be as simple as– “realize your true nature, be true to your nature”. This actually relates directly to actors, actions, situations and consciousness, and is not limited to stating moral facts. When there is a cosmic order that is pervasive and whose micro manifestation is the intrinsic nature, the order can hardly be subjective – it is universal by definition, while at the same time keeping in tune with the phenomenal diversity.

Nature and action are both rooted in consciousness. Thus a proper contrast between Dharma and Kantian morality cannot be made unless a more fundamental contrast can be made between the consciousness frameworks. Even for the west to understand the eastern concepts, they need to approach it through consciousness study of Hinduism, since that explains the continuity between many of the apparently unconnected concepts.

Consciousness study in Hinduism is a well-developed subject and influences most of the subjects, metaphysical as well as physical. Understanding consciousness qualities and consciousness layers/sheaths helps us understand the bases for concepts like Dharma too. In Hinduism the source of morality is consciousness itself, and manifests differently at different levels of consciousness. The dhArmik behavior or morality is in the intrinsic nature of beings, and how dhArmik or adhArmik an action is, is determined not just based on a moral law but on the basis of the consciousness quality and the sheath to which the being belongs.

In Hindu metaphysics there are five sheaths of consciousness, which are grouped into three bodies of the being. The outer sheaths have to do with physiological needs, inner/deeper ones with psychic plane and still deeper ones with impersonal knowledge. Human evolution is defined in terms of increasing manifestation of the intrinsic nature and decreasing manifestation of outward nature. An easy way to understand this model is by mapping sheaths these to Maslow’s pyramid of hierarchical needs. Thus the outward nature of a being is driven more by needs (of the lower layers of Maslow pyramid or the outer sheaths of consciousness) and the intrinsic nature is driven more by urge for knowledge, aesthetics etc. (corresponding to upper layers of Maslow pyramid or inner sheaths of consciousness). So when we say the being’s intrinsic nature is to be truthful, it is because the object of consumption of intrinsic nature is truth-beauty (self-actualization and self-transcendence layers of Maslow pyramid) and not food-sense pleasure-ego gratification (physiological, survival, self-esteem layers of Maslow pyramid). So to speak the truth is the default intrinsic nature, which can be distorted by lower needs of man. We can apply the same logic to another moral fact – of nonviolence. While violence is an extrinsic natural fact and a basic survival method, and life sustains by consuming life, nonviolence still becomes a default in intrinsic nature.

So it turns out that the categorical imperative hardly compares with Dharma as a subject. It covers a part of what Dharma actually deals with. Maslow’s social psychology indeed comes quite close to the Hindu scheme of consciousness and identifies the source of morality in human consciousness as the plane of self-actualization, though it does not get into the theory of morality much. However Maslow also comes close to identifying the levels of fulfillment of beings, which correspond to the different sheaths of consciousness and different goals of life according to Hindu thought.

The different aspects like morality, purposes of life, consciousness, happiness and excellence, epistemology and cosmic philosophy form part of a complex concept like Dharma which acts as the main guide of life in Hindu worldview. In contrast hierarchy of needs, categorical imperative etc. form different subjects and guide different institutions in the west. This again, substantiates our observation of the main difference between Hindu and western worldviews: that there is a common structure of knowledge and society in the east that reconciles and develops the several aspects of life and different forms of knowledge; and that the different facets of life develop from different concepts and different institutions in the west.

Nature as Teacher and the Trustee

The notion of Dharma brings us to an important theme in Hindu thought – of seeing Nature as the ultimate teacher. It is not just about understanding Nature and Her workings, but about basing the design of the most evolved human institutions on such lessons.

The philosophical schools see matter and consciousness as the two primal principles of creation, and nature to be the primal mother of all beings – the sustainer, the giver of upAdhi-s or faculties of experience, the provider of phenomenal experiences that beget beings the three-fold experiences of life. In the capacity of the primal giver, She is also the primal teacher, the giver of the most instinctive to the most sublime knowledge. Thus the knowledge that man gains from his experience of nature, forms the basis both for the knowledge system and the social institutions that he creates and keeps refining.

For instance the principle of complementarity as learned from nature, from phenomena like day and night, male and female, matter and consciousness. It is then articulated as nyAya-s like pangvandha and daghdhAswa-dagdharatha, and applied at all levels of the Hindu knowledge. At the level of epistemology and spiritual philosophy, it is employed for deductively establishing the premises of philosophical schools like sankhya. At the theological level it is seen as the complementarity of head and central deities. At the micro-society level it is seen as the complementarity of head and center of family.

What changes and what does not change, and what should be the basis for a permanent institution and what not, is something that is learned from the transient and intransient phenomena of nature. The longevity of Hindu institutions is owing to the fact that they are based on unchanging principles of world such as consciousness and not on ideals. This is precisely the reason it is called the eternal order or the Sanatana Dharma. Hinduism reposes trust in Nature and the intrinsic nature of beings. So the Hindu institutions are fashioned after nature – to be self-sustaining, self-regulating and evolving.

Hindu worldview not only sees nature as a teacher, but sees human as an indistinguishable element of nature. Evolution of human society is a fact learned from the bigger system – evolution in nature. Natural order is inherently just, although means employed are just and unjust, moral and immoral, fair and unfair – towards the ends of serving the evolutionary and ultimately just cause. Thus Hindu worldviews trust human nature as much, and assume that if founded on principles close to nature human society is capable of evolving itself into the highest possible civilized order. Collective morality is a consequence of this, and builds from the individual.

In stark contrast, the occidental institutions inherently distrust nature. They primarily believe in envisioning a human system that makes use of and exploits nature rather than trusting its inherent fair or moral nature. Ideals like fairness, freedom and equality are sought to be achieved in the western institutions by controlling the society and running it with those ideals. This precisely is the reason why state in the west assumes so much of control over the nation while a Hindu state merely kept facilitating the nation. Thus regulation in occidental societies is imposed by state and not through society’s inherent self-regulation. Ideals are temporal manifestations of the dynamic principle of truth. Western institutions are based on evolving ideals, hence remaining only temporally applicable and valid. So we see new ideologies and institutions emerging, one to fix what the other broke.

The reason for this is that the west sees nature primarily as a form of matter rather than a form of consciousness. Hence only the cruder and physical aspects are learned from nature, as a physical mother. This concept does not permeate the deeper layers of consciousness, since they are not sought to be seen in the nature.

In fact what Rajiv Malhotra calls out as the difference between “synthetic and integral” applies to order more than unity or Truth – the very premise of order being synthetic or integral. What he calls “disembodiment”, is a consequence of seeing body as void of consciousness and treating it as an object. To trust the instincts of body, to subordinate it to those of subtle body is not a thing that the occidental institutions base themselves on. This is because they do not acknowledge the principle that nature acts through man – they believe man is the operating principle. In Hindu worldviews man is intelligent because of the natural intelligence principle that flows through him.

Social Order and Morality

As mentioned, Maslow’s hierarchy rightly identifies the consciousness layers and identifies the deeper ones as the source of morality. However this layering is not really a hierarchy translatable in a society or even an organization, which is where Maslow’s relevance gets constrained. For instance if morality’s source is the plane of self-actualization, how would you propel someone working for survival needs to stick to morals? This brings us to the need for an arrangement envisioned from the highest layer, but applicable to all layers. This is why ideals in the west flow from the top.

In the Hindu scheme on the other hand, these layers do not present a hierarchy but concentric layers of being, and goals of life being four-fold and orthogonal to these sheaths. Thus dharma or righteousness forms the bottommost and first to be achieved, based on which any other goal or fulfillment is made possible. This makes dharma an obligation for every fulfillment, for all the pursuits corresponding to all the layers of hierarchy.

Secondly, Maslow hierarchy does not form the basis for social organization in the west, nor is it actually reconciled with a moral scheme (Kantian or otherwise) to form the basis for a social organization. It is used mostly as a theory of psychology and as a means to achieve excellence in businesses. Western moral notion is not the basis for a social structure in the west. In India, the consciousness quality and moral scheme actually form the basis for the social design.

This explains why Hindus call themselves a dharmik society and why the west is not called a “moral” society. It has nothing to do with how many individuals are morally upright, it is whether at the macro level the social design is itself based on a well-established scheme of morality and consciousness of morality. There are many who argue that if Hindus have their value system the west has its own. But they miss this crucial point. The westerners have values, not the western social design. The society is not stratified on the basis of a theory of consciousness qualities or morality associated with those.

Dharma is not based on ideals but on nature, and thus defines the functions of each role that beings involve in at different levels of collectivity. As an individual, as a member of a family in different capacities, as a member of society, as a sustaining element of several institutions, he has varied roles, and through all these he is ultimately fulfilling himself and bringing completeness to his being through his experiences. Thus dharma builds from the individual, and does not flow from top as ideals like freedom and equality do.

While needs are hierarchical according to Maslow, it does not really mean human pursuits are hierarchical – they are constrained by several factors, situational or otherwise. What ensures the fulfillment of these needs, is the stratification of pursuits corresponding to these needs and creation of spheres where such pursuits are possible. This happens with the definition of goals of these pursuits – which in the Hindu context are the four-fold purposes of life, three-fold experiences, three-fold states and the one experience that underlies all this – happiness.

Goals of Life

Dharma aligns the being, his aspiration and capability with the infinite possibilities of fulfillment of potential of the being. The fulfillment of Dharma results in striking rhythm with one’s true nature. Striking rhythm with the individual’s true nature is the way to uncover the immense potential of the being. Hence Dharma is the first goal of life, whose fulfillment forms the basis for fulfillment of higher goals.

It positions people for the tallest goals by aligning with the evolution of beings, as they assume less personal and more impersonal pursuits the more evolved they are. Maslow attests this fact too when he says “self-actualizing people are interested in things beyond their skin”. They are driven by needs in early stage, then by ego, and then by truth-consciousness.

However the most essential aspect where the very model of hierarchy fails is that it does not depict is the two-fold pursuits involved in life, or the two main phases. The first phase is a growth phase – which is essentially materially enriching. Artha and kama, the two goals contingent on Dharma, are the ones pursued in this phase. This is the pravritti phase. In this phase man not only caters to his self-esteem and other desires, but primarily contributes to the creation of wealth/resources and sustenance of social institutions.

The second phase is essentially internal enrichment and outward detachment. Moksha or the state of highest happiness is the goal of human pursuits in this phase. In this phase man continues to contribute in the creation of knowledge. Self-actualization and self-transcendence layers of Maslow hierarchy correspond to this phase, but by depicting them above the lower layers Maslow misses differentiating the very nature of human pursuits at these layers. And this differentiation is what helps a proper stratification of society in a way that it allows the pursuit of these goals for different beings. That is because human life is short and beings start at different layers of needs. People do not start pursuing the same goals, as it requires people to demonstrate their capability and qualify for pursuits. Thus goals cannot be hierarchical, they can only be phased. Hindu society addresses this problem by separating human evolution into two main phases, and making goals non-hierarchical.

The possibility of pursuing goals arises from (1) capability and potential of individual (2) social opportunity. In Hindu arrangement the higher the goal is, the lesser is the dependence of man on external means and social opportunity. Thus there is a detachment of social opportunity which makes higher goals reachable for society regardless of its stratification in terms of power and economy.

While there is a natural requirement of qualification for persons to certain pursuits in the state hierarchy or specialized social functions, the pursuit of highest goals of life does not require any such qualification. Thus unconditional happiness or moksha sAdhana is a birth right of every being, regardless of capability, quality of birth (even species of birth as a matter of fact).

Individual and Society

The way an individual is related to society and state in a dhArmik society is based on an ideal resolution of the vyashti-samishti dichotomy. Man’s concentric life layers are well acknowledged – individual, family, community, nation, state, universe etc. In the form of multiple levels of collectivity, there is a graded guard of individual freedom – both in terms of enabling and constraining it. Power is also accumulated at different levels, thus empowering the society without excessively empowering the state. Thus a more intimate and aware collectivity continuously helps individuals guide their lives, while at the same time enabling them execute social functions with a collective instead of individual capital. The immense social strength that this arrangement gives, can be seen from the resilience of India in the face of relentless attacks on its civilization for centuries – something hardly visible anywhere else in the world. For the most part societies can retain only that identity which the state foists on them – as can be seen all over middle-east and Europe for instance. But in India even after centuries of alien state and a currently prevailing proxy-colonial state, the society’s identity remains what its national and social identity had been for ages.

In the west, the individual is out-powered by the state to an extent that even identities have to be approved by state. As Gurumuthy notes appropriately (though in a slightly exaggerated way), the west nationalizes family and privatizes state. Excessive explicit micro-level legal norms are the primary symptom of this. The norms are also indicative of a non-vigilant and non-self-regulating society that seeks ideals to flow down rather than build from bottom

Case of Inability

The highest goal of life being unconditional happiness, its qualification is only with respect to the ability of an individual to experience it. Therefore in Hindu society most of the descriptions of abilities and disabilities is done with respect to this ultimate ability of experiencing happiness. For instance whether the being can see the world or not (physical blindness), whether a being can enjoy beauty or not (lacking aesthetic sense), whether a being can put aside his ego to realize the truth or not, whether a being can enjoy his sense of ownership or not (lack of self-esteem) and so on. The ability of a being to derive the greatest happiness depends on the layer of pursuits, the involved faculties that are experiencing the state of happiness etc. Disability applies to each of these. Sankhya enlists twenty eight kinds of indriya as Amarthya or disabilities which are impediments in a being’s experience of the world or in other words in the experience of happiness.

In contrast the understanding of disability and the sense of guilt with which the west approaches the issue is rooted very much in the layer of self-esteem. The way disabilities of mind are seen as a stigma and people with such disability are separated from the society, the way people with physical disability are seen with a rather apologetic approach by usage of words like “differently abled” to soothe the self-esteem, demonstrate this. In Hindu society there is no “mental disability” or the notion of lunatic asylum itself. This is because the spectrum of mental activity when seen from the overall consciousness perspective, most are hardly “disorders” – they are correctible within the self-regulatory mechanism of a dharmik society.

In fact the self-correcting ability applies to many aspects of life and not just a disorder. The level of tolerance to individual misconduct apparently, is on one hand high and on the other hand the bar of right conduct is also held very high. This is just because the diversity and range that can be handled and self-corrected within the social framework is high. Individual conduct is tolerated to a bigger degree as well as regulated to a bigger degree in a live and vigilant society that has multiple levels of collectivity. The tolerance arises from the ability to regulate, as well as the awareness of a bigger spectrum of human consciousness.

PS: Whenever the topic of Maslow hierarchy came up with likeminded friends over years, the inevitable question also arose – whether Maslow was really ignorant of the centuries old and celebrated panca-kosa theory? However this is not very relevant to our topic, so we choose not to go into that.


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