The Veda and the concept of Dharma
The Veda has been regarded as the foundation of Indian Culture and the Rishis of the Veda have been revered throughout the ages in India as having heard the truth and revealed it and thus given perennial wisdom to guide the development of the future.
One of the most dominant ideas of Indian culture has been that of Dharma, and this has been a consequence of the Vedic discovery of the Rita, the Right. According to the Vedic Rishis, there is, at the summit of consciousness, a power of action which arranges forces and activities of the universe by an automatic harmony of relationships, movements and results. The right law of this automatic harmony is the Rita. The Rita itself is founded in the truth of the Reality and of the universe, (satyam), and its field of action is the totality which is the infinite vast (brihat). It is by the discovery of the Rita that, according to the Vedic Rishis/ the human consciousness is delivered from the crookedness of the ignorant mental action. The actions of truth are direct and straight and the law of this directness and straightness is the Rita. There is no groping in the Truth-consciousness, and there is no attempt at inventing devices for initiating and accomplishing any action. Thus, when the Truth-consciousness is achieved, there is automaticity and spontaneity of action as also the right rhythm of action. Since the action of Truth-Consciousness is automatic and spontaneous, it cannot be fixed by any arbitrary rule of the mental intelligence or by any pragmatic or utilitarian necessities of individual or collective life. The Rita, therefore, cannot be prescribed or circumscribed by any legislation or any man-made law. Rita is, indeed, the right law of action, but it issues from the vast consciousness of the truth, and it is thus superior to any human standards of action or any laws of the individual and collective life.
It is this idea of Rita which lay behind the governing ideas that determined the organization of the varied aspects of life in India. Fundamentally, it gave rise to the predominant tendency to place
the law of the truth as the sole law to which the individual and the collectivity are called upon to give their ultimate allegiance. Thus there came about in India an organization of human life in which each individual and collectivity was given the freedom to develop in accordance with the law of the truth; even the state authorities could legislate, but the legislation itself had to be in accordance with and in subservience to the law of the truth. This is what is meant by the law of Dharma and this is significance of the superiority that was ascribed to Dharma in determining the individual and collective life.
It is true that, according to the Vedic Rishis, Rita had to be discovered by each individual and that Rita could not be formulated in the form of rigid law. There are, however, certain universal harmonies, which once discovered, could become guidelines of action for those who had not yet directly experienced the Truth Consciousness. These guidelines were to be found in the Veda itself, and they were expressed, tacitly or explicitly, as revelations and given to people in their varying capacities of receptivity as direct lines of approach to the truth either through a discipline or spiritual practice or through symbolism or through significant ritualism of the sacrifice. Thus there was no one uniform formulation of the law of the harmonies, and yet, there was a kind of coordination and an ascending gradation laid down for a progressive approach to the right law of action.
It is from this complex scheme and formulation that the later idea of Dharma grew and developed. As the original idea of Rita could never be rigidly fixed, even so, there could not be in India any one fixed formulation of Dharma. In a certain sense, Dharma has always remained some indefinable thing. Thus although Dharma has been upheld as the highest non-legislative law which even the highest state authorities had to obey, there is no where in India one fixed and uniform formulation of Dharma. Indeed/there have been several formulations and in many respects these formulations themselves have been in conflict with each other, and there are attempts even to reconcile this conflict resulting in some new flexible and synthetic formulation of law. From this complexity of the situation, there has arisen in India some universal and general idea of Dharma and certain recognized variations of the formulations of Dharma. The great Smritis of Yajnavalkya and Manu are attempts to codify this Dharma, and although these two are
themselves in conflict with each other in many respects, they have provided a general background of a common formulation of the basic idea of Dharma. But this codification itself was never regarded as absolute, and although in later times they came to be applied rigidly, there were always supervening claims of the unformulated Dharma. In fact, we find in most catholic teachings such as those of the Gita an injunction to transcend all Dharmas and to surrender to the highest Truth and to the Supreme Divine.
Dharma is indeed a law or a guideline to prevent human beings from falling into crooked ways of the ordinary and unbridled demands of impulses, desires, ambitions and egoisms. That is why, Indian culture enjoined upon individuals to restrain the life of desire for enjoyment and for personal profit under the control of the uplifting law of Dharma. Thus we find in India, the prevalent idea that Kama and Artha, passion and personal gain are only the first elementary motives of life for the ordinary man and that they are not to be ends in themselves. Kama and Artha. are to be superseded by Dharma. The individual is asked to grow out of passions and impulses and his selfish and egoistic interests to reach the life of ideal law of Dharma.
But even Dharma is not, according to Indian culture, the highest stage or motive of human life. For Dharma itself is not something fixed or rigid. And even if the initial stages of the pursuit of Dharma are guided by some fixed and acceptable code of conduct and action and behavior, the individual has to discover Swadharma, one's own specific law of the right rhythm of self-development. For Indian culture recognizes that every individual has his own specific dharma, the peculiar and individual law of the rhythm of his growth appropriate to his own individual functions and special combinations of his qualities and capacities. Thus the life of Dharma has to be a life of inner search, a life of self-knowledge. And when one begins to deal with himself, he discovers series of rhythms and ascending lines of Dharma. The individual is asked and allowed by the Indian culture to follow his swadharma to its own extreme limit, and at the height of this pursuit the individual discovers the real truth of himself, the true spiritual stuff of himself and also the true spiritual way of action, which cannot be bound by any previously formulated law of Dharma. This is the inner meaning of spiritual liberation, or moksha, which is placed before the individual as the superior or supreme aim of life.
There was a period in Indian history when the insistence on Dharma and the insistence on spiritual liberation as the higher and highest motive of life was at its peak. Such was the period that we find described in the Ramayana and Mahabharata. In later period, this insistence became weakened. But it was never entirely lost. It is true that the idea of Dharma itself became distorted and ill-conceived, and came to be imposed rigidly upon people and upon castes with some kind of brutality and intolerance. Thus, the inner kernel of Dharma, its inspiring force, its subtlety and its flexibility—all these suffered. But there always remained a deeper idea of Dharma available to individuals and communities who dared to revolt against the limiting and falsifying impositions of ill-conceived Dharma.
It must be admitted that the concept of Dharma although derived from the Vedic concept of Rita, was nonetheless its diminution, and it was inevitable that it could not remain for long a dynamic ideal. It broke down much earlier in the field of collective life, and even though it still continues to be respected and even practised to some extent by individuals in their individual life, it has betrayed its weaknesses and self-contradictions since the last several centuries. And under the impact of foreign invasions, particularly since the British introduced and imposed upon India the commercial scheme of values, there has arisen a tremendous confusion. In the renascent India there has been a new search and even attempts to revive the old scheme of values and of Dharma, but they are not found to be relevant and applicable to the present conditions.
This is where India is today. It is able neither to leave its old image nor to cast itself perilously in the image of the modern West. It is a state of suffocation, and yet the inertia inherited by it since the last several centuries is so great that there is not even a sufficient effort emerging from this suffocation.
This condition cannot last long, and we are forced to ask if the solution lies, not in return to Dharma, but in returning to the original Rita. But there is also a deeper question as to whether there was any special reason which necessitated the deviation or diminution of Rita at early stage of our history into Dharma, and later on into its fall. The question is if this special reason does not hold good even today. Or else it could be that the Vedic Rita itself was not sufficiently explored and fixed in life with sufficient knowledge
and force. If so, there is an urgent need not only to rediscover the Rita but also to explore some new lines which still remained untraced in the past. In some such effort seems to be an answer to the smothering crisis of the present-day India.