Gained in Translation: Whatever happened to dharma

What is called rajadharma has always existed in India. But somehow it has been giving us the slip recently. Secular is the word that stands as the English translation for rajadharma.

Written by Devanoora Mahadeva | Updated: July 22, 2018 8:29:10 am
(Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

My wife Sumitra often says that (Shivarama) Karanth is like a high-tension wire. Karanth’s blinding brightness was in fact like a high-tension wire. I saw his style once at a book release function. Karanth opened the bundle containing the book he was going to release, showed the book to the audience and said, “The book is released.” He didn’t speak a word about the book. But then, that day, he spoke about the problems that were tearing away and eating up the nation. Those words were like red hot burning coal.

I don’t know to speak like that. Hence I will take shelter in a children’s story. It’s probably something I read in Chandamama. Ages ago, at a time when kings ruled, it was said that there was a frightening dacoit gang in the country. I assume I don’t have to elaborate on the kind of work they did. The leader of that dacoit gang dethrones the king and ends up becoming the king himself. The dacoit gang dances with sheer joy. “When the king himself is one of us then there is no one to stop us,” they rejoice. They start to loot and plunder anywhere and everywhere without the fear of punishment. They take what we today call law and order into their own hands. But the former dacoit who now sits in the place of the king cannot bear the gang’s disruptiveness, neither can he continue to project himself as a king while signalling secretly to the dacoits to carry on. So he captures his former gang and jails them. He punishes them, educates them and arranges for employment for all of them. If this transformed king hadn’t done that, the dacoit gang would not have lived on as human — they would have become sickles, they would have become swords, they would have become scythes, they would have become guns. Respecting the place he occupied, the king, by providing employment to his former gang of goons, makes them human. Perhaps this is what is called “rajadharma”.

What is called rajadharma has always existed in India. But somehow it has been giving us the slip recently. Secular is the word that stands as the English translation for rajadharma. Indian languages have translated the word secular based on their own needs. In Kannada, it is “jaathyaatheetha” (roughly meaning casteless/beyond caste and religion). In India, we do need the idea of jaathyaatheetha in order to transcend the caste system’s higher-lower wretchedness.
But jaathyaatheetha is not an apt translation for the word secular. I too, troubled by this, chose the word “sahanadharma (dharma of tolerance)” and put it into circulation. This garnered some acceptance. But I myself felt some intolerance about it. Even though we are in dire need of the notion of sahanadharma, it started to feel like it couldn’t voice the meaning of the word “secular”. Therefore, prioritising meaning, what maybe more suitable now, I think, is an Indianised version, “dharmanirapeksha rajadharma”.

Today dharmanirapeksha rajadharma is in distress. It’s as if there is no dharma within the heart of dharma itself. What is the dharma that lies in the proclamations of a reward of one crore rupees for chopping off someone’s head, one lakh rupees for chopping off a hand or the tongue? What lies within such dharmas is Khomeinism. What pains me personally is that even within the Buddhism that I desire, Khomeinism has slinked into, in Burma. Khomeinism is also bellowing in Islam. Why only that, after the stage entry of the ghost of the disease of purity of Hindutva into an India that was constructed through tolerance of all religions, Khomeinism is thundering in all of India’s religions, including Hinduism. Khomeinism is eating away the core of all religions without discrimination. Dharma today is a word only in name. The breathing of dharma within dharmas is being heard as a whimper as if the very bird of life is ready to take flight.

Anyway, where did I stop? The one who had been a dacoit, after becoming king, catches his dacoit gang, punishes them, educates them, gives them employment and rehabilitates them till then. This is the work that needs to be done immediately. The root of today’s devastation can be said to be unemployment. Without employment, without direction, the youth are angry. They are taking up the sickle, they are taking up the gun. There is also the stench that all this probably has the acceptance of those in power. History tells us that those who do not have the capacity to come face to face with problems, the rulers, rake up the emotional ghosts of caste, creed, language, borders etc. to misguide people into forgetting their problems. What is happening today is the same.

Excerpted from a speech made by Devanoora Mahadeva on receiving the Shivarama Karanth award. Mahadeva’s classic novel Kusumabale won the Sahitya Akademi award in 1990. Translated into English by Rashmi Munikempanna

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