Byline by M J Akbar: The wisdom of Dharma
Wisdom has a great advantage over philosophy. It is simple. Philosophy is so often tortured by the human mind that its meditations become a maze. We become so enraptured by the complexities of the maze, so fascinated by its labyrinths that we forget that we once had a destination. Wisdom is a straight line: it is the shortest distance between question and answer.
Such thoughts were prompted by an email from a friend at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore, who sent a verse from the Mahabharata:
“Dharmam yo badhate dharmo na sa dharmah kudharmkah;
avirodhattu yo dharmah, sa dharmah Satyavikrama.
Any dharma [way of life, or religion], that violates another’s dharma is not true dharma. It is kudharma, or bad dharma. That dharma which flourishes without harming the interest of others is indeed the true dharma, O Satyavikrama!”
Why has this fundamental principle of Mahabharata, an essential text of Hinduism, been ignored by those organisations who seek a political philosophy for the nation in the name of Hinduism? It is possible that politicians are so busy doing their politics that they remain ignorant of the faith that they so readily profess. But that would be a kind interpretation. Most politicians ignore morality because cynicism has made them amoral.
As the swirl continues over ideological and personality clashes among the titans who were born in a colonised India divided into some six hundred pieces, and won freedom with just one division, new questions are emerging from previously silent corners of memory. Incidentally, it is important for our perspective to remember that India was not a single political entity under the British, and even the creation of a federal polity after the Government of India Act of 1935, by which the Princely States sent representatives (nominated rather than elected) to the same legislature in Delhi as British India, did not make them part of a single political unit.
An old query has crept out of the historic woodwork. Mahatma Gandhi framed his concept of freedom around the dream of a Rama Rajya. How could he expect Muslims, who did not believe in Lord Rama, to relate to a Rama Rajya? Was Gandhi communal as well?
It may seem anachronistic now but Gandhi was convinced that politics without religion was immoral. He believed that faith provided the moral compass essential for a lifetime’s journey through public service. Gandhi demanded the highest virtues from his disciples, extending not only to non-violence and financial honesty but also celibacy. There were not many takers for the last; and you might have reason to ask whether he had not confused an ashram with a freedom movement. But Gandhi’s commitment to religion did not mean commitment to a single religion. In his Rama Rajya, every faith had full freedom and complete equality. His prayer meetings were not just about his beloved Gita; there was space for the Holy Quran, the Bible and the Guru Granth Saheb as well. He could never understand why anyone should misunderstand this; and it pained him when opponents misrepresented him, sneered at his gentle idealism and challenged his pacifism with the undisguised threat of violence. Lord Rama was an ideal, an image that communicated easily with the majority of India. But there was no aggression in his concept of divinity, and there was always equal space for the other. The Mahabharata was his favourite text, from which he learnt the true meaning of dharma. Gandhi’s Rama Rajya was a realm of harmony, not a continual battlefield.
The post-Gandhi Congress abandoned “Rama Rajya” for at least three reasons: the term had become a negative with Muslims; Nehru was uncomfortable with a religious idiom; and you needed to be as morally secure as Gandhi to promise a “Rama Rajya”. But why did the RSS and the BJP, who wanted a “Hindu India”, shy away from Gandhi’s formulation? Because their ideal was different from Gandhi’s. Paradoxically, the “Hindutva” forces had modelled themselves on Pakistan: they wanted to treat Indian Muslims and Christians in precisely the same way that Pakistan was treating its Hindus and Christians, as second-class citizens.
Whether such politics gets you votes or not is beside the point. The relevant factor is that such thinking is antagonistic to the idea of India as a modern democracy. Discrimination on the basis of faith is what happens in a theocracy, not a democracy. You have to be extremely stupid to imitate any neighbour with suicidal tendencies.
What Gandhi understood in 1919, when he launched his first major political onslaught against the British Empire, is as valid nine decades later. India can flourish only in a spirit of conflict resolution, and not through conflict escalation, or conflict perpetuation. The young are far more clear-sighted about this than the middle aged or the old, for the young have learnt from the mistakes of their fathers.
A simulated debate has been whisked up about the takeover of the BJP by the RSS: the two were never apart. The issue is not whether BJP will shift gear towards a philosophy of conciliation, but whether the RSS will do so. They could not hope for a better starting point: the Mahabharata.