Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Treatise on Dharma

1. "Sanatana Dharma" or the "The Eternal Dharma" is how Hindus refer to their system.

2. Dharma is untranslatable into any single English word.

3. "Dharma" most emphatically does not mean "religion"***.

4. The ancient Chinese translated "Dharma" as "Fa".  "Fa" has the meanings of "order", "rites", "human laws" and "control".  I don't claim that the Chinese got it right; just that they got it different, and very different from "religion".

5.  The separation of religion from state is a meaningful concept.  The separation of "Fa from state" or "Dharma from state" is very problematic, if not entirely meaningless.

6. Pointing out this out apparently turns one into a Bill O'Reilly.   This in the minds of those who see religion as a human universal.

7. This leaves one the task of not just demonstrating that Dharma is not Religion, but also to point to what Dharma is.  

8. The Mahabharata of itself says that its discourses on Dharma, Artha, Kaama, Moksha dispel the ignorance of mankind.   The ancient text is thus a good source for describing Dharma.

9. The problem is that the readily available translations use some English word or other for "Dharma", so you do not know when the text is talking about Dharma and when it might be talking about something else.

10. Fortunately for my purposes, Gurcharan Das, high-schooled in Washington D.C., Harvard-educated, retired CEO of Proctor & Gamble, India, has written a book The Difficulty of Being Good: On the subtle art of dharma.  This book is available for $9.99 as a Kindle edition on, and as a Nook book on Barnes & Noble for some pennies more.  Wisdom for cheap.

11. The book has a few defects.  From reading it, you might be misled into thinking that only Westerners and a few Indian Leftist intellectuals had written commentaries on the Mahabharata.   There are some omissions that might be significant, and some one or two things the author, in my opinion, may have misunderstood.

12. The Great Virtue of the book is its unrelenting focus on Dharma.   By explaining what the Mahabharata says about Dharma, only one of mentality parallel to the Tea Party members could read this book and then assert that Dharma means religion.

The other virtues of the book are its instant availability, at least for American readers, and its literary references will be familiar to the Western reader.

The final virtue, for me, is that I do not have to do any work, posting stories from the Mahabharata here or any such.  

My request is, please read the book before engaging in further debate.

***While Dharma is not religion, one could ask, does Dharma include religion?  This merits some discussion, but after understanding Dharma, and from my point of view, the idea of Swadharma, which I shall translate as "intrinsic nature/responsibilities&duties".  Everyone and every group has a Swadharma; I think my ancestors saw Muslims as their Swadharma.  There is certainly in modern days the Gandhian exhortation for Christians to be better Christians, Hindus to be better Hindus, etc., sticking to their Swadharma instead of trying to be something else.   (It should also be clear that Dharma is not normative ethics.)