Thinking Dharma

by Keerthik Sasidharan - Oct 23, 2016 02:04 PM +05:30 IST
Thinking DharmaA Mahabharata scene by Raja Ravi Varma (Wikimedia Commons) 
  • The promise of Dharma in our age as a concept is perhaps, more evaluative than prescriptive.

    Lives are not as much to be led in a Dharma compliant manner as evaluated in retrospect for having allowed for greater Dharma in society.

    This isn’t a bland means to whitewash the past or defer judgments, rather, it’s a recognition that as an evaluative tool, Dharma allows greater density in the assessments of our actions.

Over the past two odd years, I have been working on a book that pivots off the Mahabharata (the ancient Hindu epic that is part myth and part juridical). My efforts weren't concerned, at least not directly, with the philosophical nuances and complexities of the Mahabharata’s one constant object of enquiry: Dharma. A word that, by early 21st century, is used in modern India to indicate both 'religion' and 'sect'. But like the dog that never barks in a Sherlock Holmes story, my thoughts on writing this book have often returned to this concept’s presence as seen in the Mahabharata. Dharma, not as some transcendent idea upon which individual and social fates are to be determined, but more like the way in which one thinks of one’s ancestral house (a theravadu) if you will; as both, a spectral and all too real presence in one's imagination, with its many doors and windows, through each of which one can enter and hope to see some part of a moral architecture, but no more.  In its capacious dwellings, this ancestral house or this Dharma, generations have lived generations, thrived, died, and vanished.  Some were born oblivious to the robustness of this concept, the difficulty of charting them in the first place and so, oblivious to it all, many eagerly seek to abandon this moral space and seek pastures beyond.  All the while others cleansed and washed each corner of this construct with devotion and care in hopes of seeing it for what it is. As a result, they occasionally misread it and sometimes intuit the freedoms possible within this idea.  Irrespective of our attentions, this behemoth construct of Dharma stands there in the Hindu and Buddhist consciousness, watching, silent, knowing very well that having seen generations pass by, nothing new is really possible now.  Before long, as families grow and relations fray on the rocks of self-interest and distance, someone proposes to either turn this moral dwelling space into a tourist home, where tourists can rent out a spiritual experience; or some even more radical minds, incensed by Dharma's inscrutability when life showered obloquy on the weak, propose to tear it all down, sell what remains to the highest bidder, and let each - even the weakest - fend for themselves. All this is said - the proposal to traduce Dharma into a playful object or to destroy it completely - while standing in the warmth of a space created by this behemoth idea, a life giving cove that now no one fully inhabits, uses, and even understands. We begin to speak of Dharma in the abstract, like some old and real intellectual idea, say the Ptolemaic model, that had its use and has now fallen on hard times. All who reflect on Dharma are now to be pitied for being out of step with modernity, even as the intellectual fashions of our age slip away freely, like sand in a fist.

The Mahabharata, when the tenor of the text is reflective, says Dharma is that action which contains within itself satya (truth), ahimsa (non-violence) andanrishamsya (compassion). Beyond this definition by describing its constituents, what Dharma is in of itself remains unclear. Does Dharma as a concept suffer from an aggregation problem - i.e., when the parts come together, the whole behaves in counterintuitive ways? Can one scale Dharma from an individual to a society? For what it is worth, the more I have thought about Dharma, the harder it has seemed to reduce it to an identifiable matrix of cause and effect.  When faced with the question: what is practicable Dharma really all about, much like when asked what is the Mahabharata really about, the answers proffered can only be approximate, often contingent on one’s station in life, and situated within contexts well beyond the powers of the individual. Dharma, as an idea, comes into sharp relief when investigated at the level of an individual. For larger units - society, caste, historical epoch - Dharma is indistinguishable from survival itself. In theory, at the level of an individual, we may even reduce Dharma to an aphoristic definition: righteous conduct. But in practice, much like the theory of evolution through natural selection, the answers to the question of what set of actions constitute righteousness or are seen as righteous in the Mahabharata, we can only see imperfect moves as a consequence of circumstances.  There are no “perfect” responses to the question of what is Dharma. The Mahabharata, then becomes, a catalogue of second best responses that are elevated in the narrative and in our eyes solely by the powers suffused in them by the context.

The closest philosophic analogue to Dharma - i.e., wherein a complex array of ideas are compressed into a singular word - is the Greek idea of eudaemonia, or thriving, or the welfare of human life thanks to the benevolence of ‘good’ Gods.  This idea of thriving, like Dharma, is born to very many factors coming together and some other factors after one is dead.  Aristotle thought that a life can be assessed as fulfilling, as filled with blessings of the Gods, only by seeing the life one’s grandchildren lead.  My father often reminds me that the etymology of the word putrah (child) reveals that next generation is our deliverer (TRAnanaH) from hell (PUnsa). A child is one's deliverer from hell. Viewed thus, wealth, welfare, and wisdom of our present can only be seen by how the future unravels. The actions of one’s descendants are therefore what offers meaning to our present. It is not we who endow meaning to the future, but the future that grants meaning to our lives today.

In this sense, welfare is intimately tied to the evil or good that men do, which transmits down the generations and allows for one to assess lives over a longer period.  The promise of Dharma in our age as a concept is then, perhaps, more evaluative rather than prescriptive. i.e., lives are not to be lead in a Dharma compliant manner (whatever that may be), but to be evaluated in retrospect as having allowed for greater Dharma in society, i.e., allowed for the possibility of greater welfare in our public and private lives. But this isn't a bland means to whitewash the past or defer judgments. But rather, it a recognition that as an evaluative tool, Dharma allows greater density in the assessments of our actions: it is premised on the idea that no action lives in isolation, no virtue is absent of a sliver of vice when viewed from a different perch. Dharma thus becomes, like a kaleidoscope, a mechanism that refracts reality into actions and intentions, a tool that allows no one person to appear greater or lower than the circumstances in which he finds himself in. A narrative, like the Mahabharata, that situates this ineffable idea of Dharma at its core, which has its protagonists struggle for Dharma’s sake, which has situations that offer up clashes between non-self-regarding behavior and religiously prescribed dogma, opens itself to many readings. Readings that may even allow us to abandon traditional narrative unity.  So, when the author Mahashweta Devi’s ‘Draupadi’ stands naked, caked in menstrual blood - it may seem radical for the middling and gendered sensibilities of modern day India. But the real radical is, like an old ancestral home, this very textual tradition and its relentless advocacy of a technique of reading the world that allows for a multiplicity of voices.

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Keerthik Sasidharan was born in Palakkad; was educated in Canada and lives in NYC. His writings have appeared in The Hindu, The Caravan and other publications. He is working on his first book, to be published by Aleph Book Company.

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