The subtle art of Dharma

In the present political spectrum, a popular Sanskrit phase that has been appropriated by those identifying themselves on right of the aisle is  “धर्मो रक्षति रक्षितः” (dharmo rakṣati rakṣitaḥ).  When literally translated, the phrase means – “Dharma protects those who uphold or protect Dharma”.

The irony is lost on them when they insist on hanging on to the quote but not touch the book where it is found – Manusmriti.

dharma eva hato hanti dharmo rakṣati rakṣitaḥ |
tasmād dharmo na hantavyo mā no dharmo hato’vadhīt ||

Justice, blighted, blights; and justice, preserved, preserves; hence justice should not be blighted, lest blighted justice blight us. – Manusmriti 8.15

But this post is not about wisdom of Manu Maharaj that is lost on present generation. Instead, it is to highlight the arrogance of those who claim to be rational, thanks to a post-modern western education which results in taking a shortcuts such as picking and choosing verses as per liking and discarding the uncomfortable portions. The same, when applied to determine Dharma, reduces it from the “Truth that sustains the world” to “Right way of living” or “Doing your duty”, where, what is right or duty is defined as what one’s intellect conjures up at that particular instant.  We have seen how oversimplification leads us away from truthful understanding towards a distorted view of things. It is a pity that despite the vast ocean of Hindu scriptures available at our disposal to explain dharma, dharma has been mapped to truthfulness, non-injury and generosity, among other virtues. The reality is that it is difficult to follow the path of truth because at times truth looked like untruth and vice-versa. As Sri Krishna explained in “Karnaparva” of the Mahabharata a person who did not know the essence of dharma was bound to get confused.

satyasya vacanaṃ sādhu na satyād vidyate param
     tattvenaitat sudurjñeyaṃ yasya satyam anuṣṭhitam
bhavet satyam avaktavyaṃ vaktavyam anṛtaṃ bhavet
     sarvasvasyāpahāre tu vaktavyam anṛtaṃ bhavet

One who speaks truth is righteous. There is nothing higher than truth. Behold, however, truth as practised is exceedingly difficult to be understood as regards its essential attributes. Truth may be unutterable, and even falsehood may be utterable where falsehood would become truth and truth would become falsehood.  – Mahabharata, Karnaparva , Translation by Kisari Mohan Ganguli
Dacoits question Kaushika

About this, Sri Krishna narrates a story of great moral value. There was a Brahmin by name of Kaushika who had vowed to speak the truth. One day, Kaushika was sitting in his home which was in the outskirts of village. He saw some people taking shelter in the nearby jungle because robbers were pursuing them. The robbers followed them and came to Kaushika. They asked Kaushika the whereabouts of the people who took shelter in the jungle. Kaushika wanted to speak the truth and didn’t think twice before disclosing the location of the people to the robbers. The robbers searched them and killed them in cold blood. Thus, by speaking the truth Kaushika was responsible for the killing of innocent people. Hence he earned bad karma and was taken to hell after death. 

Consequence of Kaushika’s actions

If we are to avoid meeting the same fate as Kaushika we cannot afford to be ignorant of subtilties of moralities or Sukshmadharma. Sukshmadharma means the deep analysis of a case in which the apparent justice is contradicted by the subtle justice, which is hidden at the outset. In case of Kaushika, higher grade justice consisting of preservation of life should have superseded the lower grade justice of speaking the truth. However the same cannot be generalized. Lets say instead of innocent people, you see a murderer running from the police has hidden himself in a secret place. If you are to disclose the location of the murderer to police, he will get arrested and hanged to death. Here too life of the murderer is harmed.  But if you go by the reasoning in previous case and decide not tell a lie you have incurred a grave sin. You have saved a murderer that can potentially kill several human beings in the future. Hence in both cases, danger to life is common. But in second case it is not the life of murderer but that of his future victims, Thus you should save the lives of the people running away from robbers but not the life of murderer running away from police.

It is imperative to distinguish these two cases and understand that Sukshmadharma is not applicable in second case. Violation of justice mentioned in certain contexts should not be accepted in general unless every specific case is deeply analyzed before drawing the conclusion. In Mahabharata, Sri Krishna states that sometimes high and unattainable knowledge may be had by the exercise of reason. While scriptures indicate morality, they do not provide for every case. For the growth of creatures have precepts of morality been declared. That which is connected with inoffensiveness is Dharma. Dharma protects and preserves the people. So it is the conclusion of the learned that what maintains is Dharma.

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