Indic Visions 6: DHARMA

dhritih kshyamā  damosteyam shauchama indriya nigrahah

dhīr vidyā  satyam akrodho dhakshakam dharma lakshanam

        Manu stated that these constitute a dharma system. One might say that these elements of dharma could be relevant for any day and age. Let us therefore consider these one by one. I take them up in an order different from Manu’s.

  First there are three principles for the development of our spiritual capacities :

  Dama is temperance or self-control. It is through moderation and the habit of foregoing what seems most desirable that we can enhance the spiritual dimension of life.

  Shaucha is purity of body and mind. This is an important principle which has had much impact on Hindu society. Bodily cleanliness through regular bath, especially prior to religious rites, is an important feature of Hindu life style, to the point of seeming obsessive to outsiders.

  Indriya nigraha is control over one’s senses. One underlying theme in many Hindu religious precepts is that the sense organs are the major hurdles in the attainment of spiritual progress. If one indulges in world­ly pleasures one is likely to be drawn more and more into them at the expense of the spiritual quest.

  In so far as intellectual life is concerned, Manu prescribes the following three principles as part of dharma :

  Dhī is adherence to reason and logic. It is remarkable that in the context of expounding religious duties emphasis is laid on reason and logic. The fact is, many ancient Hindu thinkers did lay great stress on a logical analysis of problems. Unfortunately, in the absence of a well developed empirical framework, their analyses often tend­ to be purely rationalistic and speculative.

  Vidyā  is pursuit of knowledge. The aim of intellectual life must be search for knowledge. But knowledge implies more than useful information. It means a recognition of that which is real and everlasting as against that which is only illusory and impermanent. It was in this sense of the apprehension of spiritual truths that the word is used here.

Satyā  is steadfast adherence to truth. This is regarded as a most basic element of dharma. Satyā  is not just truth, but adherence to it. Truth is not simply that which is true, but what is moral and pro­per also. It has an epistemological as well as an ethical component. What is morally right is also truth. Hence it ought to be pursued rather than what is simply convenient and advantageous to one’s own self. To be righteous is even more important than to be right. So we have the aphorism :

nā satyāt paro dharmah

There is no dharma higher than Truth.

Already in the Rig Veda (X.85.1) we find the phrase :

satyanottabitā  bhūmih

The earth supported by Truth.

Such reverence for Truth has always been a central theme in Hindu thought. It has exerted enormous influence on the evolution of Indian culture. We find it conveyed in the epics and in Puranic literature also.

Next we mention Manu’s three prescriptions as regards our interactions with other people. These may be taken as the ethical components of his dharma.

Kshamā  is the forgiving of the faults of others, In our dealings with others we detect, consciously or otherwise, their shortcomings. Often we tend to judge a friend or new acquaintance in terms of his or her negative characteristics. Manu suggests that even if we are right in our appraisals, we must learn to forgive their faults. Such an attitude is likely to lessen unpleasantness, and also make us feel much better.

Akrodhā  is angerlessness. When we perceive that we are not get­ting something that we desire because of what someone else did or did not do, we are apt to get angry. In such moments we tend to say and do things that we may regret later. Angry reactions increase the unhappiness and disharmony in the world. Hence its avoidance is important in dharmic behavior.

Asteyam is the non-appropriation of what belongs to others. The economic life of human societies involves mutual exchange of goods and services. In this process, everyone gives certain items and gets others in return. If what A gives B is of precisely equal value to what B gives A, then there is economic justice in the transaction. Now A may give back more to B than what he received. If this is done voluntarily, it becomes an act of love or charity. Its effect will be to increase the net happiness in the world. However, if A takes more from B than he gives without the latter’s wish or knowledge, it becomes a case of economic exploitation. This usually occurs when A is in some way more powerful than B. This is unjust and its effect is to cause pain and unhappiness in the victim. Hence it is against dharma.

There is one more item on Manu’s list. It is dhriti or perseverance. In fact, this is first on Manu’s list. Manu recognized that the basic principles of dharma, however congenial they may be for ensuring individual and societal happiness, cannot be followed.

We may note that the Jaina system of ethics also prescribes many of these principles.


Published by:

Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.

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