A couple of months ago, I had posted an entry titled Dharmayuddha@Kurukshetra.in where I wrote about the rules of engagement in the Mahabharata war. In the penultimate paragraph, I mentioned the following:
One might want to question the validity of terming Kurukshetra war as the “Dharmayuddha“, since both the parties resorted to deviate from the accepted rules, which in itself is a kind of violation of Dharma. But, one can find answer to this question if one looks at these acts of digression by keeping the context of the whole Mahabharata in mind, rather than limiting ones frame of judgement to Kurukshetra war alone. One must also observe that when entering the battle, it was clear to even the elders like Bhishma and Drona that there was no Dharma on Duryodhana’s side. Thus, if the outcome of Kurukshetra was to be the victory of Dharma, then the Pandavas had to win. From this point of view, Kurukshetra is indeed a Dharmayudha, since it evens out the two sides on the scale of Dharma.
Despite writing this, I was not fully convinced with this logic. I felt I was trying to rationalize rather than clarify. Hence looking to gain some more understanding, I read a few interesting discussions on Dharma that were available on the internet. The ones that did raise some interesting points were the Dharma Debates at Offstumped, Sandeep’s critique to Offstumped post on Dharma101, Sandeep’s articles on Contextual Morality, Part1, Part2, and Part3, and the one which I read rather recently, Dr Sitanshu S. Chakravarti’s article titled Bhishma and Sri Krishna. Based on these articles, discussions and books on Indian Philosophy, such as Shankaracharya’s Bhagavad Gita Bhashya, which I am currently reading, I think I am able to understand the reason behind repeated misinterpretation of Dharma by the honest readers who are used to the western system of thought. I don’t want to talk about the deliberate misinterpretations, since they have been voiced out at several other forums.
Before we begin, a few disclaimers: I have no formal training in either Philosophy or Theology. I have only recently started reading the Hindu philosophy, and thus don’t claim the following thesis to be some kind of a final word. What I am presenting below is a more or less an amateur’s attempt to come up with a coherent representation of ideological systems with the help of which I can make sense of whatever I have been reading so far. So, I invite the interested reader to contribute to this discussion which helps bring about more clarity and correct some of the incorrect assumptions I might have made.
Let us begin with the definition of Rta as the “order or course of things” and Dharma as “one which supports, upholds or sustains”. Now, let us consider the two prominent kinds of systems which have been chosen in the past to model Rta, and let us see how Dharma applies in each of these systems.
- Top-Down System: This system is based on the assumption that the “order of course of things” can be expressed by finite means such as an agenda or a set of beliefs or axioms. If you visualize this system as a structure growing downwards, at the top-most node of this system will be the agenda or the set of beliefs upon which this structure is based. When the agenda or the set of beliefs is applied to the different walks of life, we get the different child-nodes and the branches of the system. Depending on the chosen agenda, one might encounter a walk of life where the agenda does not apply coherently. If the system is a rider that it’s agenda is infallible, then such a non-coherent walk of life needs to be outcast in order to maintain consistency within the system.If we assume that this model is representative of the Rta, then in-order that it be sustained, the entities of this system need to abide by the primary agenda. Else there is a danger of the system getting destroyed owing to emanating contradictions. Thus, in this context, Dharma would imply following the book to the last word.
- Bottom-up System: This system is based on the assumption that there are infinite ways to represent the “order of course of things”. Hence the emphasis is on each individual entity’s freedom to choose the representation that suits it’s need. Since the individuals entities will interact at some point in time, there must be a framework which enables them to interact without conflict. Thus this system starts with each individual belief as the several bottom nodes. The non-conflicting interactions between several of these bottom nodes, grows upwards in the form of subsequent top nodes and branches. There is no final “top-node” for the system, since it can grow upwards perpetually.For the sustenance of this system, Dharma must ensure that the freedom of individual entities to develop their own representations, is honoured. Since each entity is capable of introducing a new thought-process into the system, Dharma while it’s role being universal, i.e the sustenance of the system, it’s implementation has to be dynamic, i.e based on the situation at hand because of the dynamic nature of the participating entities.Thus, the spider-man principle of “with great power comes great responsibility” applies very much to such a system. Here’s it’s the individual entity’s responsibility to be tuned into the system inorder to ensure the survival of the system so that it can continue having this great power in the form of the freedom to choose the representation. Hence the statement “Dharmo Rakshati Rakshitah”. The kind of discipline that is required for this type of a system, needs to be enforced from within and not by an external agent.
Dr. Chakravarti in his article Bhisma and Sri Krishna brings out wonderfully the contrast between their respective interpretations of the Dharma. It is well known that Bhishma, despite being a powerful and an influential person in the court of Hastinapura, did not attempt to exercise any of that influence to prevent some of the misdeeds that were happening in the Bharatavarsha. Bhishma, despite knowing that Jarasandha’s gradual increase in power would be a threat to the prevailing democracy, did not bother to take up any efforts to check it, as he reasoned that it is beyond his oath which only tied him to the welfare of Hastinapura throne and nothing else. For the same reason, he failed to check the impudent behavior of the Kauravas, or prevent Draupadi’s Vastraharana from taking place. His idea of Rta and consequently Dharma was based on the top-down model, where-in he was only required to stay true to his oath.
Sri Krishna, on the other hand, believed that Rta was bottom-up, and hence Dharma requires one to ensure that the freedom of individuals is honoured. His idea of Dharma was not limited to following the rules set aside by some book, but was a perennially continuing yagna where the individual needs to be vigilant and must do all within his means to ensure the survival of basic concept of freedom. Hence he convinced Arjuna and Bhima to challenge Jarasandha in a fight, so that the eighty-six kings imprisoned by the latter could be released and order could be restored. This is the reason why in the beginning of the Kurukshetra war, he advises Arjuna to do his karma , which, being a Kshatriya, was to fight when needed for the purpose of upholding the Dharma. This latter part has been captured rather well by Offstumped in its rebuttal to Arun Shourie’s take on Hindutva and Radical Islam.
One might question, hadn’t Bhishma done the same thing what Sri Rama had done in the Treta Yuga? The answer would be, Yes, with the operative phrase being “in the Treta Yuga“. There was a clear difference in the political scenarios that prevailed during Sri Rama’s time and the time of Bhishma. One cannot take the actions of Sri Rama out of context and apply it to every available scenario, without understanding the spirit of those actions.
Now, if we look, majority of western thought-systems, which most of us these days are so used to accepting, are based on the Top-down model. Anyone who looks at the World with this Top-Down kind of a view point will expect the code-of-ethics to come from outside, which he/she is expected to follow. Hence they get entangled in the arguments of “Truth vs Lies” (Yudhishtira being economical with the truth when Drona asks if his son Ashwattama was dead) or “Violence vs Non-violence” (Arjuna not wanting to fight against his brothers, uncles and teachers, while Sri Krishna advising him to fight) and other such dualities. The reason being that their interpretation of Dharma is based on the model which requires a codified set of laws that is expected to be sufficient forever. But the Hindu thought doesn’t seem to have evolved this way.
One of the most important aspect of the Hindu philosophy is the acceptance of the fact that there are infinite ways to reach the ultimate reality. Hence each human being can choose his own path. The emphasis here, is not on what path he chooses but on how he walks that path. This kind of a thought can never survive in a top-down system. But the Hindu philosophy has survived. Thus it’s only too clear that to understand and appreciate this particular system of philosophy, one has to look at it from the point of view with which it evolved, instead of expecting it to fit snugly into the coat of your pre-conceived agendas.