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Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Karma Sutra: Evolution of ‘dharma’ through the ages

Irrespective of our reason for embracing it, we need to know that "wherever there is dharma, there is victory", as has been said in the Bhagvada Gita.

Written by Ritu S | New Delhi | December 14, 2015 5:01:27 pm

The great rishis of India identified fourfold objectives of life. These are – Dharma (duties and obligations), Artha (material well-being); Kaama (pleasure) and Moksha (liberation). The pursuit of these objectives help an individual to fulfil life’s purpose.

The concept of dharma is elaborated up extensively in the Bhagvada Gita by Krishna to Arjuna. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The concept of “dharma”, however, evolved over time. It was generally specific to one’s caste and this concept is called – “sva-dharma” (caste duty). Gradually, the meaning of “dharma” changed and acquired a universal appeal.

It was about the cultivation of an ethical self, with character traits like – being truthful, not harming others, not getting angry, to name a few. These traits or attitudes determine one’s character and is important in maintaining social harmony. This concept of dharma is called sadharan dharma – the duty of conscience.

When the pursuit of the fulfilment of artha (material well-being) and kaama (pleasure) is based on dharma, or the dictates of the conscince, the social order is mainatianed. It allows for an odered existence and gives coherence to one’s desires. Dharma or ‘righteous behaviour’ is upheld for various reasons. For some people it is the standard religious one – that good actions assure a place in heaven, the infinite hereafter; for some it is practised with the law of Karma in mind – that is, with intended goal. And then, there are those who, like Yudhishtra, do not follow “dharma” for any reward but because they think that “dharma” is its own reward.


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Such people may exist in minority but for them the social benefits of moral actions are reason enough to follow dharma. According to Yudhishtra, if people do not cooperate or trust each other, the social order will collapse. For him, non-violence (Ahimsa) and Satya (truthfulness) are, in fact, rules for cooperation and ensure the moral well-being of society.

His laconic statement, “I act because I must”, comes from his instinctive sense of duty. For him, the motive is imortant, not the consequence. He says, “I do not act for the sake of the fruits of dharma. I act because I must. Whether it bears fruits or not, Draupadi, I do my duty like any householder… I obey dharma, not for its rewards but by its nature, my mind is beholden to dharma”.

Our reason for following dharma (righteous behaviour) may vary. To practise “dharma” is a constant challenge, sometimes even a luxury. But irrespective of our reason for embracing it, we need to know that – “Wherever there is dharma, there is victory” (Bhagvada Gita).

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