24 January, 2016

Understanding Vidhi

Some time ago, I'd written about understanding the concept of "dharma" that has shaped the thought of south and south-east Asian cultures. Common misconceptions about dharma meaning "religion" or "duty" or "ethics" were rejected in favour of an interpretation of dharma as the "principle of sustainability."

This interpretation helps us to maximally explain different characteristics of dharmic cultures -- especially the diverse set of ideas and practices that are considered dharmic in different contexts. Imagine interpreting "dharma" as "ethics" leading us to a flawed conclusion that in Eastern cultures ethics is relative. This explains the misplaced contempt with which other conservative cultures view Eastern thought.

Another similarly mistaken notion is the concept of vidhi. Vidhi is widely translated as "fate" and the central role vidhi plays in Eastern thought, makes our cultures appear to be "fatalistic." This is often used (incorrectly) to portray Indians as lacking initiative and refusing to take charge of situations. This incorrect interpretation is so ingrained and repeated so often (and even taught in "mainstream" schools) that entire generations in India have grown up with such a skewed understanding of their cultural moorings.

In sanskrit, the term "Vidhi" also means "schema" -- and in fact, I would argue that this is the correct interpretation of the term.

So, how did the term for "schema" come to be used for "fate"?

The idea of vidhi is that, our lives are situated within a larger scheme of things made up of the social and physical context in which we live. The scheme of things has its own characteristics, most of which are beyond our control to alter. We can however, operate with free will within this scheme.

In contrast, "fate" as a sense of helplessness or powerlessness to it. If something is in our fate, it is imminent -- it is doomed to happen to us.

In a worldview driven by fate, we are mere passengers in a vehicle that is driven by our fate. We cannot control our fate, while we have to suffer any negative consequences of its actions.

In contrast, "vidhi" is like the contours of the terrain in which we are driving our vehicle. We are in charge of our vehicle -- and it is our actions that lead to consequences for us. The terrain may have its own characteristics. Some terrains may be smooth, while some may be made up of treacherous mountain passes. While we cannot change the terrain, we still have control over our vehicle and it is up to us, how we navigate in this terrain.

We are also not completely powerless against the terrain. We can modify the terrain -- we can build roads, tunnels, bridges and so on to help us navigate our vehicles. But all such actions to modify the terrain will have consequences. Thus, it is important to modify our terrain keeping in mind, the principle of dharma (sustainability).

Vidhi as "schema" and dharma as "sustainability" mix together beautifully.

A more closer term for "fate" is bhagya. But even that is not very accurate. Fate is about the future, while bhagya is about the past. Bhagya is about what happened in our past, because of which we are either endowed or constrained in some fashion. While fate is about what is imminent or inevitable about our future.

In the Mahabharata, Dritharashtra, the prince of Hastinapur was born blind, even though he had all other qualities of a warrior prince. His biggest frustration was about his "durbhagya" (bad bhagya) --  his blindness -- which caused him to go into a life long state of depression.

Several times, the sage Vyasa tries to explain to him that his blindness need not stop him from leading a life of happiness and spiritual fulfillment. He says that his bhagya has only closed one dimension of experience in his life (much like a car lacking headlights), but his life can still be driven by his imagination. It is up to him as to what kind of dreams he dares to dream.

Dritharashtra does not get his point and instead curtly cuts off every such conversation. After his brother Pandu's death, it becomes evident to sage Vyasa that Dritharashtra, who was now crowned the king of Hastinapur, only spells danger for the kingdom. His obsession with his durbhagya will severely impair his sense of dharma and have disastrous consequences on the kingdom and its people. But having no way to substantiate his fears, he is unable to do anything. He simply convinces his mother and her sisters that their time in Hastinapur is now over and they should head to the forest in renunciation, for their next stage of life.