Dharma and Swadharma

N Balasubramanian

What is Dharma? Word Dharma has acquired different connotations and meanings depending on the context and usage. Most commonly, however, it is used to mean duty. There is no equivalent word in English language for what dharma represents in Sanskrit. Duty has a certain no-option compulsion element in it, while dharma is restricted to mean only the righteous duties and conduct flowing from its nature without the compulsion element implied in duty. Duty-for-duty-sake conveys an “end in itself” attitude whereas Dharma is a means to spiritual progress.

Man is inalienable from actions. Lord Krishna says: “This world is bound by actions”. Ch III – 8. “Not possible by embodied being to abandon actions entirely” CH XVIII – 10. Throughout our life time we are engaged in some action or the other. Driven by desire we continually seek to meet not only our basic needs for existence viz. food, clothing & shelter, but also the various other perceived needs, for our comfortable & happy living. All these actions we undertake not only for ourselves but also for the happiness of our family members. We also seek to provide for future needs of our family members. Thus we spend our lifetime by engaging in actions to meet all our mundane needs, basic & perceived. But the question for introspection is what are we doing now in this lifetime to secure blissful experience in life after death. By mind, speech, senses and organs of action, impelled by desire, forcibly as it were, we commit sinful actions during our lifetime. Therefore, reining mind, restraining speech and subduing senses, we must engage these in righteous actions by aligning our thoughts, words and deeds with inner voice of conscious so as to merit and secure peace and happiness in our life after death. Dharma shastras (Code of Conduct) are the only valid means of knowledge, prescribing injunctions and prohibitions, handed down to us by the venerable maharishis for our emancipation. Our scriptures recognize Dharma (righteous duties as a means to gaining Artha (things) no doubt, but insist that Dharma & Artha together are not end in themselves, but are just the means to our salvation (Moksha) which is the goal of mankind. Or Dharmasastras, codes of conduct guide us, by its injunctions & prohibitions, towards our salvation. How do we make Dharma & Artha as a means to salvation is the subject matter of all our scripture. By nature, forced to be engaged in actions, we have two options to go about: 1) We should perform ‘Nishkamya Karmas’ (Unselfish desireless action without attachment to fruits of action) 2) Egoless, we should perform actions & either submit the fruit of actions to God or accept whatever the result of action as the divine’s prasada or will.

Three Gunas viz. Sattva, Rajas and Tamas born of nature, bind the embodied declares Lord Krishna. These three inhered qualities in various proportions bind every individual during one’s lifetime and even thereafter. Sattva represents purity, knowledge, merit etc… It is the fruit of good actions. Rajas represent nature of passion, attachment to action, valour, ambition etc. It is the fruit of pain of exertion in life. Tamas represents inertia, dullness, laziness and heedlessness. It is the fruit of Ignorance. All our experiences flow according to the preponderance of one of three gunas namely Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. The three gunas bind all human beings. The traits of Sattva are: cheerfulness, peacefulness, contentment, love, faith, devotion, compassion, humility, purity, truthfulness, non-violence etc… Traits of Rajas are: activism, attachment, excitement, anger, greed pride, egoism, ambition etc…, Traits of Tamas are: Ignorance, dullness, delusion, indolence, sleepiness, foolishness, heedlessness, inertia, etc …

What in our modern society is called aptitude is determined by the predominance of one of the three gunas talked above. A society’s needs can be divided into four types: Spiritual upliftment, Peace & protection, Production of sustenance needs, trade and commerce, and finally the service man, worker & labourer. Thus we have different people with different aptitudes and we also have different callings of society with different requirement of duties. This need to match aptitude with calling is very crucial for societal harmony and its progress. Search for solution to this complex task gradually evolved itself, the culminating in the very controversial “Varna Dharma”. The underlying principle viz. division of labour in sync with one’s aptitude was well-intentioned and well meant. The system worked admirably for centuries and enabled harmonious societal progress even amidst periods of chaos due to mis-governance and virtual no-governance. Aptitudes and matching works alone determined the caste of a person. “The four-fold caste has been created by Me according to the differentiation of Gunas and Karmas”… says Lord Krishna sanctifying the division of labour prevailing at the time.

Predominantly satvik were Brahmins, engaged in scriptural and secular trade & crafts learning, teaching & training, guiding society on moral and spiritual code of conduct; Predominantly rajasik were the Kshatriyas engaged in occupations requiring special skills of valour and bravery for protection of society and peace of land; Lesser proportionate were the Vaishyas with special skills in agriculture, cattle rearing, trade & commerce, wealth creation & distribution while the fourth varnas were skilled in service activities and bodily labour.

Three principles governed the working of the system. They were: 1) Actual conduct and occupation to determine one’s caste and not vice versa. 2) Caste should not be assigned as a birth right. 3) All occupations to be treated as equal in importance and contributing to society’s common welfare & necessity. As long as society’s needs were simple, the three principles were easy to abide by and so the system worked for the common good of all members of society. That such a complex system worked efficiently for so many centuries is itself a tribute to the strength of the value-based living of the times. With society’s needs becoming more and more diverse and complex and occupations becoming more and more varied-skill demanding, and with money becoming the measure of man, the Varna system gradually de-generated because of deviating from the principles on which the system depended for its successful working. With birth becoming the determinant of one’s caste and the varied occupations getting graded as superior and inferior, the system became un-workable in the changed value system. It would have been perfectly alright had the system been given up as non-workable in the changed times. However what happened was that they conveniently persisted with the system giving a go bye to the principles which governed the system’s working. This distorted working of the Varna Dharma led to entrenchment of caste as the main identity and status in society. Casteism led to divisions and disharmony and further decayed to a system of exploitation, suppression and oppression of the fourth varna by the upper castes. From a classless society envisaged by the “ Principled Varna dharma” the system took a plunge downhill to bear the terrible blot the practice of un-touchability on a huge mass of people of the fourth varna brought upon Hinduism, This blot has remained unerased completely even today , shaming us to-date. That a large mass of people to be kept out of dignified living is most condemnable and any attempt to justify will only amount to “devil quoting the scriptures”. Earliest reference to castes is found in “Purushasuktha” hymns in the Vedas. The Hymns clearly enunciates the four castes as emanating from four different organs of a Cosmic Purusha thus emphasising the integral nature of castes and how equal in importance each caste is for societal progress and survival. Face symbolising knowledge power of society, arms symbolising valour power required for keeping peace of land and protection of people, thighs symbolising the muscle power i.e. trade & commerce and legs symbolising the leg power of society - clearly the choice of organs is linked to the skills required for respective occupations in a society and nothing to do with superior and inferior differentiation. References in Manu smriti and Upanishads also explicitly convey that conduct alone should determine ones caste ruling out mere birth as a right of determining ones caste.In the Gita also, Lord Krishna declares that He created the four castes in accordance with Guna and Karma. It should be noted that all these spiritual references support the Principled Varna Dharma and not the un-principled distorted version of caste system exploited by vested interests in much later times. Lord Krishna’s insistence and advocacy to follow one’s Swadharma should be understood keeping in mind “the Principled Varna Dharma” He authored and which was in practice at the time of MahaBharata.

Here are some quotes from Bhagwad Gita about swadharma:

“Looking into your swadharma also, you ought not to waver. Indeed for a kshatriya, there is nothing higher other than a righteous war”

“But if you will not wage this righteous warfare, then abandoning swadharma shall incur sin.”

“For protection of the people (as a kshatriya) thou should perform.”

“Devoted each to his own duty, a man attains perfection engaged in his own duty.”

“Better is one’s own dharma, though performed imperfectly than the dharma of another well performed. Doing actions by his own nature incurs not sin.”

“One should not abandon action, O Kaunteya, to which you are born for, even if done faultily.”

Why Swadharma? Swadharma calls for a spirit of unselfish social cooperation. Actions conforming to swadharma promotes sense of duty and a feeling of love for the community and society at large. As his mind’s space is filled with sense of un-selfish duty and a feeling love for others of his society, he is not attached to fruits of action; he is desireless and egoless and is thus free from bondage of samsara chakra. Adherence to swadharma protects one from getting uprooted from his community and culture promoting harmony in society. Furthermore, duties enjoined on him by swadharma are usually the duties best suited to his natural capabilities and aptitude and therefore best performed by him. When one breaks rank with his own dharma and joins rank with another’s dharma he is said to be motivated by desire , envy and covetousness for certain mundane selfish advantages he perceives in another’s dharma. Such cultivation of desire, envy etc will only incur for him sin. Says the Lord: “Better is one’s own dharma, though destitute of merits than the dharma of another well performed. Doing action by his own nature incurs not sin.”

Swadharma which prescribes code of conduct differently for different castes keeping in mind the requirements for efficient performance of their respective occupations, should not be judged in isolation. There were two other classes of duties namely 1) Ashrama dharma, i.e those of the four stages of life: ( studentship, house-holder, withdrawal from mundane and stage of renunciation and 2) Sadharana dharma, meaning the universal human values applicable to all castes and at all stages of life. The values are: Purity, Self-control, Non-covetousness, Truthfulness and Non-violence. All the three classes of dharmas are supplementary and also complementary to each other. They were the pillars on which the superstructure of social life and value system had been erected. Distinguishing the dharmas between “the Fundamentals for All” and the “Non-fundamentals differently for each caste and stage of life” has been a unique feature of Hinduism. This differentiation ensured clarity and facilitated voluntary adherence by all, besides setting up ideal standards of perfection for people to look up to and strive for.

Whether a society is most modern or most ancient, is there not a need for orderly and efficient performance of various tasks by appropriately equipped and competent people? Is not an egalitarian approach better for social harmony and social equity? Is not the spirit of un-selfish social cooperation an ennobling ideal to strive for, be it the most modern or ancient society? This is not a defense for varna dharma or a plea for its resurrection. Admittedly, varna dharma has lost its relevance long ago since the time of monetisation of economy, not to speak of its irrelevance in today’s globalised economy when supply-demand of skills determines price of labour which in turn ensures a rat race for acquisition of those highly priced skills instead of ideally building on one’s own natural talent and aptitude – a blue print for building a society of mediocracy rather than of perfection and excellence. To be historically correct and fair, it must be said that the terrible blot on Hinduism has been majorly due to the practice of the distorted and un-principled varna system and not due to the original and principled Varna system which successfully delivered harmonious social progress for several centuries. This differentiation is necessary to not only set the record right but also and more importantly to be clear about what went wrong and why it went wrong.

N Balasubramanian is an old time honours graduate in economics and has vast experience and expertise in human relations and resources development. A devotee of Sage of Kanchi - Maha Swamigal, N Balasubramanian is living a quiet and meditative life based upon the Guru's teachings. An avid reader of philosophy in his younger years, he wholly devotes his energies presently, in discovering insights and practical wisdom from ancient Indian scriptures. Based upon his understanding of Acharya's discourses and writings on spirituality, N Balasubramanian shares these thoughts on IndiaNewsBulletin.com to just provoke your thoughts and kindle your interest in spirituality and philosophy.

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