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A Question of Dharma

A core quality of spirituality is the movement from rigid standpoints to a more flexible and open approach


Suma Varughese is the Editor-in-Chief of Life Positive magazine




Take the question of ethics and values, for instance. Many of us pick up our ethics from parents or religious texts who give us a predetermined list of rights and wrongs. In itself this is a valuable exercise and helps us to live according to a minimum standard of ethics.

But somewhere along the way we begin to realise that good and bad are fluid terms and cannot always be resolved using the parental or scriptural value system. Take the case of the dowry-battered bride. Tradition has it that the bride does not retrace her steps from her husbandís house. But those parents who have enforced that rule have often had to face the heartbreak of seeing their daughters go up in flames. 

Even when it comes to seemingly straightforward ethical issues, the answers may be confusingly varied. For instance, to kill is denounced in all religions, yet the armed forces are allowed to do so with impunity. And where does that leave euthanasia? Or abortion? Or capital punishment? 

Situations change and with them, so must we. At the same time, a core value system must surely remain absolute or else life loses its meaning and continuity. So how can we ensure a value system that is both fluid and unchanging? 

The Indian scriptures contain two concepts called smriti and shruti, which distinguish between these two aspects of values. Smriti refers to relative values that change along with time. The role of women, the clothes people wear, lifestyles, belong to this section. Shruti refers to the core values or truths that are unchanging and never die. To be true to yourself is one such value. Honesty, fidelity, selflessness, love, are all eternal values. The unchanging aspect of shruti draws its relevance from a focus on the welfare of the whole. What hurts the whole cannot benefit the part. Smriti and shruti help us to distinguish between areas where we need to adapt and areas where it is best to not compromise. But even they donít give us an infallible index to measure right and wrong with. For that, there is the immeasurably subtle instrument called dharma. What is dharma? Never was a word so tortuous to describe, for dharma is not fixed. It differs from person to person, place to place and time to time. I prefer to call it appropriate action. 

Dharma is to do what is right - for that particular circumstance. It may be dharma to raise Cain in the middle of the night to warn the public of a fire, but it would be most undharmic to do so out of a drunken brawl. It may be dharmic to eschew rich food, but perhaps not quite so dharmic to spurn it as honoured guest at a close friendís house. Dharma means doing what is appropriate to all the circumstances in the situation. No response can be reproduced because each is calibrated to a particular set of circumstances. Dharma means no predetermined response, no stock solution. It requires you to wrest with a particular situation and to arrive at an answer that is appropriate to it. Dharma finally means being present in the here and now.

As we become more spiritually mature, we will become more sensitive to others and to changing circumstances. We see the inadequacy of reacting in the same way to different situations. Above all, as we learn to know more of ourselves and accept ourselves fully, we also shuck off the judgementalism that colours our perspective. Once we see the situation as it is, and not as we think it is, we are in a position to apply the standard of dharma to our ethical issues. 



God save the Malayalee

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