Dharma: The Individual And The Social Order in Hinduism

Dharma: The Individual And The Social Order in Hinduism

by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan - Thursday, September 5, 2019 04:31 PM IST
Dharma: The Individual And The Social Order in HinduismFirst vice president and second president of India Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, whose birthday – 5 September – is celebrated as Teachers’ Day.
  • This essay by S Radhakrishnan on Dharma looks at the role of Hinduism in building the substratum of civilisation by weaving the various basic forces of the human individual into society.

The last fifty years have seen the most revolutionary changes of any period in human history.

The inventions of science have put an end to human isolation and provided marvellous opportunities for the realization of the dream of ages, the building of a great society on earth, whose vision has inspired the seers and prophets of all races and nations. The social and ethical issues raised by the spread of science and technology and the new contacts of races and cultures are common to both East and West. We must now learn to live together and understand one another.

The chief obstacle to mutual understanding has been an almost mystical faith in the superiority of this or that race and the historic missions of nations. Napoleonic France felt called to sow the seeds of revolution in the soil of Europe, Imperialistic Britain to carry the white man’s burden of civilizing, for a consideration, the backward peoples, Soviet Russia to liberate the proletariat from bondage to capitalism, and Nordic Germany to save the world from the antichrist of communism. This conceit of the legendary destinies of nations is not confined to the West. There are Indians who believe that true spirituality has never appeared anywhere in the world save on the sacred soil of India. There are Chinese who imagine that they alone are civilized.

Public men in Japan often use the language of the Shinto divine Hirata of a hundred years ago, that the Japanese are the descendants of the gods, different in kind rather than degree from all other nations, and the Mikado, the son of heaven, is entitled to rule them all. If in ancient times the groups claimed to be under special divine protection, they now employ scientific jargon by declaring that they are in line with the development of evolution, with the unrolling of history.

They solemnize their desires and organize their hatreds by propounding the theory of the predestination of races. This pernicious doctrine of fundamental racial differences and national missions is preventing the development of a true human community in spite of the closer linking up of interests and the growing uniformity of customs and forms of life. Science, however, supports the very different view that the fundamental structure of the human mind is uniform in all races. The varied cultures are but dialects of a single speech of the soul.

The differences are due to accents, historical circumstances, and stages of development. If we are to find a solution for the differences which divide races and nations today, it must be through the recognition of the essential oneness of the modern world, spiritually and socially, economically and politically.

Some of those whose tradition and training are limited to the European are apt to imagine that before the great Greek thinkers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, there was a crude confusion of thought, a sort of chaos without form and void.

Such a view becomes almost a provincialism when we realize that systems of thought which influenced countless millions of human beings had been elaborated by people who never heard the names of the Greek thinkers.

The Hindu sages had formulated systems of philosophy and conduct, the Jews had developed a lofty monotheism, Zarathustra had proclaimed the universe to be an ever increasing kingdom of righteousness, and Buddha had taught the way of enlightenment.

The Chinese had records of a civilization that was even then two thousand years old, and the pyramids of Egypt and the palaces of Babylon were antiquities in the eyes of men of that period. If we leave aside the great civilizations of Egypt, Assyria, Knossos, and others whose influence on the modern world is more indirect than direct, the outstanding developments before 500 b.c. were the emergence of the prophetic school in Israel, of Confucianism in China, and of Brahmanism and Buddhism in India.

The present state of the world is largely conditioned by the philosophies of life that had been worked out by then. The opportunities for these different tendencies to weave themselves into the warp and woof of world history are now available.

Even if some of them are unsuited to modern conditions, the story of man’s gradual rise and progress cannot be without its interest to all those who have faith in the solidarity of man. It is, therefore, a matter of significance that in these lectures we are taking up one important problem and viewing it from different historical standpoints.

In dealing with any social organization we must inquire into the essential ideas on which it is founded, the conception of life which inspires it, and the forms which these ideas of life assume. The inspiring ideas are always larger than the historical forms which embody them.

The Hindu view of the individual and his relation to society can be best brought out by a reference to the synthesis and gradation of

(i) the fourfold object of life (purusartha ), desire and enjoyment ( kama ), interest ( artha ), ethical living ( 'dharma ), and spiritual freedom ( moksa)

(ii) the fourfold order of society ( varna ), the man of learning (Brahmin), of power {Ksatriya), of skilled productivity ( "Vaisya ), and of service ( Sudra) and

(iii) the fourfold succession of the stages of life (< asrama ), student ( bhrahmacari ), householder ( < grihastha ), forest recluse ( yanaprastha ), and the free supersocial man {sannyasin).

By means of this threefold discipline the Hindu strives to reach his destiny, which is to change body into soul, to discover the world’s potentiality for virtue, and derive happiness from it.

It used to be said that God created the universe in order that He might apprehend Himself. Whatever we may feel about it, it is beyond question that the world exists in order that we may apprehend ourselves, attaining our full selfhood through response to whatever in it corresponds to the developing personality.

The approach to this goal must not be too sudden and immediate for all individuals. It has to be reached through a progressive training, a gradual enlarging of the natural life accompanied by an uplifting of all its motives. The rule, the training, and the result differ with the type of the individual, his bent of life and degree of development. Life is much too complex for an ideal simplicity.

The Four Ends of Life

1. Moksa. The chief end of man is the development of the individual. The Upanisad tells us that there is nothing higher than the person. But man is not an assemblae of body, life, and mind born of and subject to physical nature.

The natural half-animal being with which he confuses himself is not his whole or real being. It is but an instrument for the use of spirit which is the truth of his being. To find the real self, to exceed his apparent, outward self, is the greatness of which man alone of all beings is capable. ‘Verily, O GargI, he who departs from this world without nowing this Imperishable one is a vile and wretched creature.’

To inquire into his true self, to live in and from it, to determine by its own energy what it shall be inwardly and what it shall make of its outward circumstances, to found the whole life on the power and truth of spirit, is moksa or spiritual freedom.

To be shut up in one’s own ego, to rest in the apparent self and mistake it for the real, is the root of all unrest to which man is exposed by reason of his mentality. To aspire to a universality ( sarvatmahhdva ) through his mind and reason, through his heart and love, through his will and power, is the high sense of his humanity.

2. Kama. Is this perfection consistent with normal living?

There is a prevalent idea that the Hindu view concedes no reality to life, that it despises vital aims and satisfaction, that it gives no inspiring motive to human effort. If spirit and life were unrelated, spiritual freedom would become an unattainable ideal, a remote passion of a few visionaries.

There is little in Hindu thought to support the view that one has to attain spiritual freedom by means of a violent rupture with ordinary life. On the other hand, it lays down that we must pass through the normal life conscientiously and with knowledge, work out its values, and accept its enjoyments.

Spiritual life is an integration of man’s being, in its depth and breadth, in its capacity for deep meditation as well as reckless transport. Kama refers to the emotional being of man, his feelings and desires. If man is denied his emotional life, he becomes a prey to repressive introspection and lives under a continual strain of moral torture.

When the reaction sets in, he will give way to a wildness of ecstasy which is ruinous to his sanity and health.

3. Artha: The third end relates to wealth and material well-being. Though it is not its own end, it helps to sustain and enrich life. There was never in India a national ideal of poverty or squalor. Spiritual life finds full scope only in communities of a certain degree of freedom from sordidness.

Lives that are strained and starved cannot be religious except in a rudimentary way. Economic insecurity and individual freedom do not go together.

4. Dharma: While the spontaneous activities of interest and desire are to be accepted, their full values cannot be realized if their action is unrestrained. There must be a rule, a guidance, a restraint. Dharma gives coherence and direction to the different activities of life. It is not a religious creed or cult imposing an ethical or social rule. It is the complete rule of life, the harmony of the whole man who finds a right and just law of his living. Each man and group, each activity of soul, mind, life, and body, has its dharma.

While man is justified in satisfying his desires, which is essential for the expression of life, to conform to the dictates of his desires is not the law of his being. He will not get the best out of them if he does not conform to the dharma or the rule of right practice. A famous verse of the Mahahhdrata says: ‘I cry with arm uplifted, yet none heedeth.

From righteousness ( dharma ) flow forth pleasure and profit. Why then do ye not follow righteousness?’ Dharma tells us that while our life is in the first instance for our own satisfaction, it is more essentially for the community and most of all for that universal self which is in each of us and all beings. Ethical life is the means to spiritual freedom, as well as its expression on earth.

The dharma and its observance are neither the beginning nor the end of human life, for beyond the law is spiritual freedom, not merely a noble manhood but universality, the aim which ennobles the whole life of the individual and the whole order of society. Man’s whole life is to be passed in the implicit consciousness of this mysterious background.

The four ends of life point to the different sides of human nature, the instinctive and the emotional, the economic, the intellectual and the ethical, and the spiritual. There is implanted in man’s fundamental being a spiritual capacity. He becomes completely human only when his sensibility to spirit is awakened.

So long as man’s life is limited to science and art, technical invention, and social programmes, he is incomplete and not truly human. If we are insolent and base, unfair and unkind to one another, unhappy in personal relationships, and lacking in mutual understanding, it is because we remain too much on the surface of life and have lost contact with the depths.

When the fountains of spirit from which creative life of the individual and society is fed dry up, diseases of every description, intellectual, moral, and social, break out. The everlasting vagrancy of thought, the contemporary middle of conflicting philosophies, the rival ideologies which cut through national frontiers and geographical divisions are a sign of spiritual homelessness.

The unrest is in a sense sacred, for it is the confession of the failure of a self-sufficient humanism with no outlook beyond the world. We cannot find peace on earth through economic planning or political arrangement. Only the pure in heart by fostering the mystical accord of minds can establish justice and love. Man’s true and essential greatness is individual.

The scriptures could point out the road but each man must travel it for himself. The law of karma affirms the responsibility of each individual for his life. ‘The sins ye do by two and two, ye shall pay for one by one, ’ as Kipling called Beelzebub to remark. There is no salvation by proxy or in herds.

In primitive societies, there is a collective responsibility, but on the hypothesis of rebirth, the guilt of an action attaches to its author. The punishment must fall on the individual, if not in this life, then in the next or perhaps in a later. The dignity and responsibility of the individual soul are recognized.

This article is part of the Swarajya Heritage Project titled ‘Radhakrishnan for the 21st century Indian’

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