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What is “liberty” for America and “equality” for France, It's “Dharma” for India

Author Gurcharan Das
Some nations seem to possess a code word which, like a key, unlocks the secrets of the country. That word is ‘liberty’ in America’s case; ‘equality’, in the case of France; for India it is ‘dharma’. Some of the best and the worst deeds in these nations can only be understood when seen through the lens of its code word.

provides the underlying norms of a society. It creates obligations for citizens and rulers and brings a degree of coherence to our everyday life. Dharma's approach is not to seek moral perfection, which leads inevitably to theocracy or dictatorship. Dharma’s world of moral haziness and uncertainty is far closer to our experience as ordinary human beings than the narrow and rigid positions that define debate in these post-9/11 fundamentalist times.

Dharma is a frustrating, almost untranslatable word. Duty, goodness, justice, and law have something to do with it, but they all fall short. Dharma is chiefly concerned with doing the right thing both in the private and the public life. It derives from the Sanskrit root dh?, meaning to 'sustain’ or ‘hold up’ like a foundation. It is the moral law that sustains an individual, a society and the cosmos (a bit like maat in ancient Egypt).

From this root, dharma carries the connotations of balance, trust and harmony. At an individual level, it means ‘moral well being’, and was elevated to one of the four goals of the good life in classical India, along with artha, ‘material well-being’, kama, ‘sexual well being’, and moksha, ‘spiritual well-being.’

When individuals behave with dharma they create trust in society and harmony in the cosmic order. ‘The god Indra then showers sweet rain and the seasons follow; harvests are bountiful, and the people thrive.’ (Mahabharata 1.58.14). The ideal that continues to exist in the Indian imagination is that of a ruler guided by dharma. Hence, the outraged reaction of the Indian people to the corruption scandals during the Congress led government between 2011 to 2014 was: ‘Dharma has been wounded.’

Just as America’s founding fathers were obsessed with liberty, so were many of India’s founders attached to dharma, so much so that they placed the dharmachakra, ‘the wheel of dharma’ in the centre of the nation’s flag and the great scholar P.V. Kane, referred to the Constitution as a ‘dharma text’. For these men and women, nation-building project was a profoundly moral project.
Unlike the Abrahamic religions, morality did not originate with God in Hinduism.

Atharva-Veda says that dharma began in ‘the old customary order’ [18.3.1], a view that is not dissimilar to Plato’s belief that morality originated in custom. In the classical dharma texts, no one looks to God as an authority on dharma. If God is not an authority, then who is? In his influential law book from the 2nd c AD, cited plural authorities: ‘The root of dharma is the entire Veda, the tradition and customs of those who know the Vedas, the conduct of virtuous people, and what is satisfactory to oneself.[ 2.6]

But the epic, Mahabharata, in its typically sceptical way, challenges Manu and questions if the Vedas can be arbiters of true dharma: ‘In the opinion of the world the words of the Vedas are contradictory. How can there be scriptural authority over whether something is a true conclusion or not when such contradiction exists?’ [12.34,10] The epic also wonders if the wise can be relied upon to be authorities on dharma: ‘intelligence appears differently in different men. They all take delight in their own different understanding of things. [X.3.3]

If God is not the arbiter of dharma, and if the Vedas are contradictory, and if wise persons cannot agree about right and wrong, where does it leave the ordinary individual? Kulluka, who wrote a commentary in the 15th century on Manu’s verse quoted above, declares that the ‘satisfaction of the mind is the only authority in cases of conflicting alternatives’.

The classical poet, Kalidasa, who lived in the 5th c. ACE, was of the same view: ‘In matters where doubt intervenes, the [natural] inclination of the heart of the good person becomes the ‘authority’ or the decisive factor.’[I.22] In this view, dharma seems to depend more on reason rather than on blind faith. This is why it is sometimes difficult to judge right and wrong actions as the world is not black and white and comes in many shades.

(From : gurcharandas.org)
(Click : Anurag Vats)
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