Dharma in principle is no ethical wasteland: A rejoinder to Mr. Pavan Varma

November 25, 2022

Rohit Dhankar

This little piece is an initial rejoinder to Mr. Pavan K. Varma’s article in Asian Age. (https://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/030922/pavan-k-varma-whither-dharma-in-an-ethical-wasteland.html )

I am no scholar of Hindu-dharma, and Mr. Varma certainly understand these issues much better than I do. I am also not sure if Mr. Varma is writing this in full seriousness. But his piece actually tells us that our civilization is at best amoral if not completely immoral. Presently I do not believe that. However, will try to check proper sources in next week or so if his analysis is rationally sustainable. As it stands, it justifies nepotism (kuladharma), and power play (one’s station). One does not know what “conduct right for one’s age” (ashram-dharma) means? It we take producing children as dharma of a grihastha, it may result in particularly obnoxious conclusion of marital rape if the wife is unwilling!

The problem with his piece is not its claim that too many Indians today seem to behave in a manner that violates dharma, they of course do, and that is condemnable. The problem with his piece is that Mr. Varma claims that ‘that is our civilizational morality’. The puerile question whether a starving to death man taking an apple from another’s orchard is guilty of theft or not, ignores fundamental nature of moral dilemma. A moral dilemma by its very nature is a situation in which a moral agent is forced to choose one of two mutually contradictory values in that situation. In his example these values are ‘preservation of human life’ and ‘not stealing’ (asteya). One has to judge which value is of higher order in the moral code and conduct oneself with minimum transgression of that code. Preserving life here is of greater importance, therefore, the man certainly committed theft, and is guilty of theft in this example. But maybe he saved the greater value ‘human life’, therefore, his conduct is morally justified. It is not justification of theft; it is justification of conduct in a moral dilemma.  

All example he takes from Mahabharata can be explained with the use of ‘preserving dharma’ (let’s say ‘rule of law and righteous conduct by the king’) in the society and telling lies (Yudhishthira), breaking rule (Krishna in killing Karna), and so on. The preserving dharma in the society is higher value than one emergency instance of telling lie or breaking a rule. It is something like shooting a terrorist before he presses the trigger to kill hundred innocent people by a bomb-blast. This is everywhere in the world, not only in Indian civilisation. It is higher duty of a kshatriya to protect innocents from injustice than following a rule which itself is formulated as a practical guide to preserve the same higher duty.

As I said, I am no scholar of dharma, and will try to investigate the issue further. But Mr. Varma’s understanding of dharma in this piece as ‘that which achieves success’ in whatever goal one might have set is not rationally sustainable. The goal itself has to pass the test of dharma. “Preserving right conduct by the king” in case of Mahabharata examples and “preserving human life” in the case of stealing an apple in his example of a starving man, constitute higher order values than the values which were violated. That does not sanction any which goal in the name of kuladharma, varna-dharma or ashram-dharma etc. This is a flowed interpretation.

Similarly, the conclusion that “means need not be morally sanctioned” to achieve a “morally sanctioned goal” is flowed. The means which have lesser degree of moral transgressions that the ‘adharma’ likely to result from a failure in achieving the goal can be justifiably used; according to the same principle of resolving moral dilemma by choosing preservation of higher value. It does not sanction all means. Only those which have lesser moral transgression than the non-achievement of the goal.