28 January 2008

Freedom, Happiness and Order

Amidst all this talk of Dharma and society and order, one may ask: What about individual happiness? What about personal freedom? Is my job only to follow the rules of society (Dharma)? Don't I have any right to pursue my own happiness?

For the answer, look at any river. It is a body of flowing water, bound on both sides by its banks. As long as the banks are strong, the river flows properly. But when the banks become weak, the river spills over and floods. Its own flow is disturbed. It also causes grief to the people living near it. Such is the relationship between freedom, restraint and happiness.

Freedom does not mean absolute freedom, or the right to do whatever we like. Freedom is meaningful only when it comes with certain limits. As we long as we respect these limits, we can be both free and happy. Once we cross these limits, there is neither freedom nor happiness.

It was keeping this in mind that the rishis of ancient India developed the code of Dharma. Individual happiness can be pursued only in a stable society. If society starts falling apart, how can the individual be happy? The rules of Dharma were so designed as to strike the right balance between personal freedom and social stability.

But, as noted before, Vedic society gradually decayed. With the various invasions and conquests, Hindu society became reactive and defensive. It went into a shell. Dharma – once a living and dynamic tradition that nourished the greatest civilisation in the world – became ossified and rigid. In the name of stability and order, freedom and happiness were buried.

But that was yesterday. Today is different. After a thousand years of slavery and foreign rule we are free again. Free again to reclaim our lost Dharma. Free again to pursue happiness, virtue, beauty and Truth. This pursuit, to be successful, has to be based on our age-old tradition – one that balanced the needs of the individual with the needs of society.

Our Western-style liberals don't understand this. For them, individual liberty is everything. Dharma, society and order mean nothing to them. They fail to see the harm that excessive focus on individual liberty has done in Western societies. If we follow that path, we shall surely come to grief.

But I am an optimist. I am confident that Dharma will prevail. I am confident that Indians will achieve not only personal freedom and happiness, but also a stable and harmonious society.

24 January 2008

The Varna System

My previous post might be interpreted as a defence of the caste system. Nothing could be further from the truth. My comments were about Vedic society – which was very different from today's society. The caste system that exists today bears no resemblance to the Varna system of the Vedic age.

1. During the Vedic age, there was no sense of high or low among the different Varnas. All Varnas had the same status in society. Every person was treated with dignity and respect, irrespective of which Varna he/she belonged to. This is only logical. A chair needs all four of its legs to stand properly. So all four legs are equally important. There is no sense in saying that one leg is 'superior' to another.

2. In general, a person followed his father's Varna/occupation (This is what happens even today). But if he so wished, he could always shift to another Varna. There was complete freedom to move from one Varna into another. There are plenty of examples in ancient Indian history of individuals, or even entire groups, changing their Varna. Social mobility was not just an empty slogan; it was a fact of life.

3. Ancient India was a prosperous society. Even the humblest occupation could provide a decent living – by the standards of those days. So it is not true that the Shudras were 'condemned' to a life of poverty.

A society has two conflicting needs: stability and dynamism. Too much stability will result in stagnation and collapse. Too much dynamism will result in chaos and disintegration. The ideal society is one that balances these two needs. The Varna system was a brilliant form of social organisation that succeeded in doing exactly this. Sons usually followed their fathers' occupations. This preserved knowledge, and ensured continuity and stability. But freedom of occupation was also allowed, ensuring dynamism and creativity.

Unfortunately this happy state of affairs did not last forever. Gradually Vedic society began to decay. The notion of 'high' and 'low' came into the Varna system – people were discriminated against based on their Varna. The system also became rigid and inflexible – people could no longer change their occupations. By the 7th century AD, the decay was clearly visible. The invasion and conquest by the Turks, and later the Mughals, only accelerated this decay. And the British rule was the final nail in the coffin. With the result that the caste system of today is a perversion of the original Varna system. There is no justification for it. The sooner it goes, the better.

21 January 2008

What Is Dharma? - 2

Now we can consider what is Dharma for a human being. The macro unit for human beings is society. So a man's Dharma is that behaviour which maintains the order of society. Now what is this behaviour? Firstly there are certain simple and obvious rules: don't kill, don't steal, don't tell lies, etc. Not following these basic rules will lead to the collapse of society. These rules apply to all members of society – regardless of class or age – and are called Sadharana Dharma.

Secondly, society requires some basic functions to be performed: producing food, distributing it, fighting enemies, pursuing knowledge, etc. We can maximise order by distributing these functions among different groups. Each group can then specialise in its own function, not interfering in other functions. Accordingly in ancient India, scholars/priests studied and worshipped, kings/warriors ruled and protected, merchants created wealth and workers did manual labour. These are the four classes or Varnas: Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras.

Thirdly, an orderly society requires people to conduct themselves in a way that is appropriate to their age. Children and adolescents must study and be celibate. Adults must earn a living, marry and have children. Elderly people can retire from household duties. And finally, one can renounce the world and try to attain salvation. These are the four stages of life or Ashramas: Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha and Sanyasa.

Thus, depending on his Varna and Ashrama, a person has to perform certain duties and follow certain rules. Together these are called Varnashrama Dharma. If every individual observes the Sadharana Dharma (common to all) and his Varnashrama Dharma (specific to class and age), society will be harmonious and orderly. Details of both these Dharmas are given in our Dharma Shastras.

Dharma is one of the four goals of life or Purusharthas. The other three are pleasure (Kama), wealth (Artha) and salvation (Moksha). Kama and Artha must be pursued during Grihasthashrama, and Moksha during Sanyasa. But Dharma must be pursued during all four Ashramas (that is, throughout one's life).

17 January 2008

What Is Dharma? - 1

I have only referred to Dharma in my previous posts, without actually defining it. Dharma is such a complex and multi-layered concept that I didn't dare write on it till I had some minimum understanding. This post is also a response to my friend's lengthy comment on the topic :-)

What is Dharma? Though 'Dharma' is untranslatable, we need some equivalent word when discussing it in English. The cliched words like religion, duty, virtue, righteousness, ethics, morals, etc, we can quickly dispense with. All these things are part of Dharma. They flow from Dharma. But they are not Dharma itself. Swami Chinmayananda translated the word as 'law' or 'essence'. These are better words. They take us a step closer to understanding what is Dharma. But even law/essence is a second order concept. The core of Dharma can best be captured by the word 'order'. Dharma is order.

Dharma evolved from the Rig Vedic concept of Rta. The early Aryans observed that nature was orderly: the sun rose in a certain direction and set in the opposite direction at regular intervals, the weather/seasons changed in a certain pattern, the plants and trees shed their leaves, flowered and bore fruit periodically, etc. They used the word 'Rta' (literally 'path' or 'course') to refer to this order in nature. At some point, Rta also came to mean 'right' or 'good'. So Rta no longer referred just to the cosmic order; it now referred to the moral order too. (How the Aryans made this philosophical leap I am not yet sure. Perhaps a study of the Vedas will throw some light)

During the later Vedic age, the word Rta was replaced by Dharma. The root for 'Dharma' is 'Dhr' which means 'to hold'. So Dharma literally means 'that which holds' or 'that which supports'. In the Mahabharata, Bhishma defines Dharma like this:
Dharanat dharmam ityahu; dharmena vidhrtah prajah.
Yat syat dharana samyuktam sa dharma iti nischayah.
'Dharma' comes from 'Dharana' (holding); society is held by Dharma.
That which has the ability to hold is Dharma indeed.
Thus Dharma is the cosmic order that holds the universe together. It is the physical order that holds the earth together. And it is the moral order that holds society together.

Dharma at the macro level means order. And Dharma at the micro level means the behaviour needed to maintain this macro-level order. The Dharma for the part is that behaviour which maintains the order of the whole. For example, for the universe to be orderly, the sun should rise in the east, set in the west and give light and energy. This is the sun’s Dharma. Similarly, for the earth to be orderly, the winds should blow, the rivers should flow, the birds should fly, the fishes should swim, etc – these are their respective Dharmas. Thus the Dharma of an entity is also the behaviour that defines its existence or essence.

If an entity does not perform its Dharma:
1. It will no longer be what it is meant to be. [Chinmaya's law/essence]
2. The order of the universe/world will be upset.
The two ideas of essence and order are intimately tied to each other.

14 January 2008

The Rs 1 Lakh Car

It's here at last! I had thought it was impossible even in 2003 - when Ratan Tata first announced it. And costs would surely increase by the time the product actually came out. So I expected the Rs 1 lakh car to become a Rs 2 lakh car (at least). But wonders of wonders, they did it! Here's the fineprint:

Given the steep rise in the cost of steel, rubber and other inputs in the past few years, it's possible that the entry level Nano might not break even, though Tata made a point of saying the "one lakh" price tag in India will stay because "a promise is a promise". The car, the company says, will make money across its various models.

Many people have criticised the car, saying it will worsen the pollution and congestion in our cities. The Tatas' defence is that the Nano adheres to strict emission norms (Euro 4), and it is the governments' responsibility to provide good public transport systems in every city.

Keep the cynicism aside for now. All said and done, it is quite an achievement. Something Indians should be proud of.

11 January 2008

The Quran Blogs

After David Plotz "blogged the Bible" in Slate magazine, it was just a matter of time before somebody did the same with the Quran.

Robert Spencer of JihadWatch.org was the first off the mark. Spencer is a well-known critic of Islam. He points out that Muslims regard the Quran as the Word of God – true for all time and for all places. So if we really want to understand the Quran (and Islam) we must read it the way Muslims read it: literally. Not metaphorically, not symbolically, not allegorically. Every sentence and every word in the book must be taken literally. This is also, according to Spencer, how mainstream Islamic scholars down the ages have interpreted it. The result is that the Quran comes off as a scripture that preaches intolerance, aggression, hatred and violence.

And now we have the reaction to Spencer. The liberal newspaper Guardian has started its own blog on the Quran, written by Ziauddin Sardar. Sardar is a Pakistani-born British writer known for his moderate and progressive views on Islam. He says that though the Quran is the Word of God, its real meaning can be known only by interpreting the text keeping the context in mind. This is a more sensible view than that of the fundamentalists. But the question is how many Muslims agree with him. Anyway, in the days to come, we can expect Sardar to interpret the Quran as a scripture that preaches peace, compassion and tolerance.

You can check out both the blogs, and decide for yourself which interpretation is correct. Is Islam a religion of the sword? Or is it a religion of peace? But whatever our opinion is, at the end of the day it may be irrelevant. What matters is what Muslims believe. And here the usual argument is that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful, law-abiding and non-violent. True. But it doesn't take a billion people to turn the world into a violent place. All it takes is a few thousand. As long as even a tiny fraction of Muslims believe that God has ordered them to kill non-believers, there will be no peace in this world.

PS: The Guardian says it was inspired by David Plotz. It makes no mention of Robert Spencer. But they are not fooling anyone :-)

09 January 2008


From the beginning, man has been in pursuit of happiness and the good life. Much has changed over the millennia, but not this basic human desire. The earliest men also wanted the same thing (essentially) that we want today. And in this pursuit, they made many mistakes, and learned from them. They asked many questions, and found answers to some of them. They had many problems; they found solutions to some of them. By a painful process of trial and error, they managed to learn a few things. They managed to make some progress.

These people passed on their hard-earned knowledge to their offspring, so that they (the offspring) would not repeat their parents' mistakes. So that they would not face the same difficulties. So that their lives would be safer and easier. And the offspring learnt whatever their parents had to teach them. Thus knowledge was transmitted from one generation to the next. This process of transmitting knowledge continued with every generation. Each generation learned new things and passed on that knowledge to the next generation – in addition to what it had learnt from the previous one. Thus was knowledge accumulated and over time, a store of knowledge built.

Some of this knowledge was explicit and tangible. It could, for example, be written down as a book. Other knowledge was more implicit. People developed many beliefs, practices, customs, habits, values and norms to make their lives better and more meaningful. They gradually built many systems and institutions to help society to function more effectively. This implicit knowledge grew as life and society became more and more complex. The explicit and implicit knowledge together make up a way of life, or what we call culture. Culture is mostly intangible. It improves and enriches our lives – in ways that are not immediately obvious. And when this culture is passed on from one generation to the next, it becomes tradition.

The tradition that we inherit is thus the product of the cumulative efforts of our forefathers in their quest for the good life. It has been developed over a long period of time and with great difficulty. It is good, useful and precious. We cherish it. We preserve it. And we nourish it. Tradition has sentimental value too. It is the bond that we have with our ancestors. It is what connects the past to the present, and the present to the future. Tradition is also a responsibility. It does not belong to us alone. It is given to us to hold in trust, so that we can bequeath it to future generations the way we found it, or in a better condition. This, in a nutshell, is conservatism.

Conservatism does not mean we should keep things the way they are. It means we should build on what already exists.

07 January 2008

Shame on Australia!

I didn't watch the Sydney test match – which was good for my blood pressure. What unfolded over 5 days was not a cricket match but a farce. Both the umpires and the Australian players set new standards of integrity and sportsmanship. The final insult was the three-match ban on Bhajji, for a 'racist' slur that nobody heard.

Australians have proved once again that they are descendants of criminals.