24 October, 2015

Understanding Dharma

That Hinduism is grossly misunderstood in the West (which still wield a lot of influence and power in India) is an understatement. Given that a significant percentage of the population in India practice some form of Hinduism, this often leads to controversies and skirmishes that captures and polarizes popular opinion.

The most recent episode is the recent controversy around a ban on cow slaughter and consumption of beef in several parts of the country.

This post is not about the particularities of the above controversy -- it is about how the controversy is understood and interpreted in the two different parts of the world.

I remember several years ago in Europe, when someone asked me to explain "Manu Smriti," I asked him, "What is Manu Smriti"? I was not in denial; I had never really heard of it till then. Neither had I heard of Paneer Tikka Masala, which according to them was our favourite food.

After listening to my story of how we practiced Hinduism in our homes, his next question was, "So, who is a true Hindu"?

Even that question made no sense to me, and I vaguely answered using the standard boilerplate template that "Hindu is a word that was coined by the Arabs" and "Hinduism is not a religion, but a way of life." I was not sure myself what that meant, and I could see that my European host lost any respect he had for this "religion" and came to believe that Hinduism is nihilistic, and that anything goes. "After all, there are millions of Gods in this strange religion," he must have thought.

Over the next several years I tried to learn as much as possible about my cultural moorings -- not specifics in terms of particular sayings, but in terms of trying to understand the underlying thought process. And some time ago, I'd provided this answer to a question on Quora about Hinduism, that captures essential elements of what I'd learned.

At the core, Hinduism is a philosophy (described in the Vedas) that tries to ask questions about the source or the root of everything -- and pretty much gives up right in the first paragraph of the first Veda. Essentially, the idea is that any description of the root, forces the question, where did that feature come from, hinting that this is not the root. It goes on to say that this root entity "that which is" cannot even be said to "exist" because it is the creator of existence. It cannot be described, because it created the framework in which descriptions are given. "That which is" cannot be explained -- it can only be realized. In other words, "that which is" becomes us.

And then, the texts go on to provide a number of heuristics or pathways (called "marga") to help the seeker realize that "that which is" that is being talked about. There are different pathways like knowledge (jnana), devotion (bhakti), harmonization (yoga), etc. none of which by themselves will guarantee realization, but make it easier for the seeker when they follow such a path.

So fundamentally, Hinduism as a practice is deeply personal. It is up to the seeker and his/her chosen pathway that determines what they practice and how they approach the pursuit. The millions of "Gods" of Hinduism are actually "deities" that act as pathways in our pursuit of the ultimate realization. There is the Oneness of "that which is" that is behind the millions of the deities.

Social elements like rituals, festivals and ceremonies that are commonly associated with Hinduism come from the evolved practices in ancient India that were fundamentally based on the above paradigm.

An important element of the social practice in these societies is the concept of "dharma" -- something that is again widely misunderstood.

In our English medium school education, we were taught that dharma meant "religion" or "faith". In some other contexts we were told dharma means "duty" or "ethics" or something else.

Wikipedia rightfully declares that the concept of "dharma" has no exact translation in English.

However, I recently realized from a friend that there is a word that comes quite close: sustainability.

The notion is dharma is based on designing systems in a way that they are "sustainable". Dharma is attached to just about every element in life. There is Raja dharma or "sustainable administration," there is Vrutti dharma or "sustainable business" and so on.

What is normally associated with Hinduism was what was earlier known as "Sanatana dharma" or "sustainable co-habitation." As the name suggests, this refers to principles and guidelines that help in making co-habitation sustainable, essentially including elements like inclusiveness, tolerance, celebration of diversity, etc.

The way dharma was practiced also has specific characteristics that are alien to the Western framework of thinking. Here are some of them.

  1. By definition, dharma is holistic in nature -- it addresses the system as a whole and tries to harmonize between the different interests that cohabit the system. This is in contrast to the process of articulation that is central to Western thought, where we study each element in isolation to understand its characteristics. 
  2. Since it is difficult for the human mind to process very large systems holistically, dharmic traditions were practiced in clusters that were loosely knit between themselves, within each of which, a dharmic framework could be reasonably managed. 
  3. While the underlying purpose is the same (sustainability), dharmic principles differed from one cluster to another based on the physical and social context in which it was situated. Hence, there are Hindus who eat meat and there are Hindus who are strict vegetarians. There were Hindu societies that had strict social and family norms, while there were Hindu societies that had very liberal outlooks on issues like marriage. There is no contradiction. Because, dharma are not edicts or commandments, they are guidelines and principles towards a deeper goal called sustainability.
  4. Dharmic knowledge were managed in two broad ways called Sruti and Smriti. Sruti means "that which is heard" and pertains to knowledge that are managed by word of mouth. Smriti refers to knowledge that are written down and communicated. The "Manu Smriti" that is often considered by the West as the "holy book" of Hindus, is just one of the several Smritis generated in one of the different dharmic contexts. (I always thought our holy book was the Bhagwad Geeta.. no wait, it was the Vedas themselves.. no.. it was the Puranas.. or was it the epics.. oh well!) Which is why, where we lived, we had never heard of it. As noted earlier, Smritis are not commandments and are not binding rules -- they are guidelines and heuristics. The only "binding" goal is sustainability. 
Between 2500 to 500 years ago the above mode of thinking permeated almost a third of the world's population which dwelt in South Asia. Most of the "religions" that were born in this framework have a similar "holistic" approach towards managing society -- be in Buddhism or Jainism or Vaishnavism. 

Sustainability does not imply lack of conflict, and indeed there were several conflicts and wars in ancient India. However, the interesting thing was that these wars often had their own dharma (yuddha dharma) or were fought in order to uphold dharma (dharma yuddha). 

What is interesting to note here is that, the reason for war was upholding of dharma, rather than to conquer and rule over the opponent (this is not to say that this never happened). This is very different from say, the wars described in the Illiad and the Odyssey that were fought for values like honour and pride. 

The Indian paradigm is also sometimes thought to be the manifestation of the so-called "feminine" energy that upholds characteristics like nurturing, harmonizing and sustaining life; while the Western paradigm is thought to be the manifestation of the so-called "masculine" energy that upholds characteristics like defeating an adversary, taking charge and control of our lives, and upholds order and law.