The Dilemma of Dharma

The Dilemma of Dharma

Why should one follow the path of being a good human being? What is the point of being good and righteous when it brings a lot of suffering? Why do bad people who indulge in wrongdoings seem to be rewarded while those who choose to be good suffer hardship?

I think these questions have likely entered the minds of almost every human being at some time. The dilemma of unnecessary suffering puts all of us in conflict with our inherent desire to be good human beings. I believe every human being has an intrinsic capacity to be good. And who does not want to be considered and regarded as a good human being?

Nobody wants to be considered a bad person. Then why do people refrain from doing good? Why is it so difficult to be good?

The answers are obviously not easy and, since time immemorial, philosophers have been trying to find an appropriate answer to such questions. Over time, I started to understand that there is no clear cut answer to such complex questions. Our worldly experiences often lead us to the conclusion that bad people flourish and prosper while goodness is not rewarded generously as well as tangibly in this world. And thus human beings choose to be good or bad according to their own self-interest.

In fact, moral goodness or moral values are based on human self-interest and are followed because of our need to live with others. I think people rarely choose to be good as a duty, without any concern for consequences or rewards. But still consequences matter. Even if the path of goodness is chosen with some expectation of rewards, it is still better than choosing to be bad.

However, it is important to understand that good and bad is different from right and wrong. Right and wrong are absolute categories whereas good and bad can be placed on a continuum. Such questions pertaining to the realm of good and bad, or right and wrong conduct are discussed in relation to the concept of “dharma” in Indian philosophy.

The word Dharma comes from the Sanskrit root “dhr” which means to “support” or “uphold”. Indian philosophers and scholars link the concept of Dharma to Dharana, which means maintaining or supporting the eternal laws of the world.

The word Dharma and the idea that flows from it has evolved over centuries and has been enriched through an intense process of contesting and then adapting it. Various scholars of ancient India interpreted the idea of Dharma differently and eventually moulded it over time.

At one point in time, according to orthodox tradition, the term Dharma was considered as the practice of rituals and the only way to know Dharma was through the Vedas, which are ancient Indian religious scriptures.

However, over time, the meaning of Dharma shifted from the practice of rituals and the ethics of deeds to more of a personal virtue, based on the conscience. So Dharma began to be understood as the cultivation of an ethical self, which would determine one’s character.

But during the nineteenth century, the term Dharma was again interpreted and used to identify the Hindu faith and denoted Hindu Dharma. It is interesting to note that the term Dharma has been continuously contested and so its meaning and significance kept changing over time. The religious connotation was soon contested and the term Dharma was secularized later in the nineteenth century and was interpreted in a humanistic manner. Thus the concept of Dharma began to be understood as conforming to the laws of nature and became an ethical code which is applicable to mankind as a whole, rather than just followers of the Hindu way of life.

In simple terms Dharma can be understood as the moral law that sustains society. The word has to be understood in relation to the concepts of duty, justice, law, custom and mostly goodness. It can be interpreted as keeping a balance between all of the above mentioned ideas. However, the meaning of Dharma cannot be limited to these ideas alone. I am merely trying to provide a glimpse into the complexity of the concept of Dharma and how one can glide smoothly through the irrationalities of this life by making Dharma its sail.

We are often told that we should act, not in the hope of any reward for our action, but just because there is a duty to act. In other words, we should act from a deep sense of duty of what we are supposed to do. If we understand this philosophy, then we would understand that following Dharma is its own reward. All questions and grievances regarding the irrationalities of life would stop bothering us. However, it is understandable that it is quite difficult to act in a completely selfless manner, not expecting any reward for our actions.

In this context, I would like to mention the idea of doing that which is good. Is it possible to be a good human being and choose the path of goodness, just because we should be good? Can one ever relinquish the expectation or hope of being rewarded for one’s goodness?  Our grievances regarding unfair treatment stem from our expectation of being rewarded for our acts of goodness. Nobody expects to be rewarded for being a bad person.  And when we find that, after all our acts of goodness, we are still suffering, we become confused. Our confusion stems from the fact that we understand “karma” much better than the idea of Dharma.

The idea of karma is based on the laws of cause and effect. The laws of karma are deeply rooted in the innate human belief, as well as assumption, that human deeds or actions will inevitably have consequences. Most people follow the virtuous path with a deep-rooted belief that virtue will be rewarded eventually. So, humans often act in a particular manner, with some desires for the consequences.

Moreover, an act is also judged based on its consequences or results. This is the utilitarian way of looking at actions. An act is good only if it leads to positive consequences. And an act is bad if its consequences are bad. People also behave with such considerations in mind. Many a times, people choose to be good or engage in a good act with the belief that it will promote the goodness of others. Therefore, one can say that one should act according to Dharma as it has consequences for society as well. Dharma is not only about personal well-being but it is also a way to bring harmony at the level of society.

The actions of humans are usually based on a complex amalgamation of intention and consequentialism. The latter is easy to comprehend and so most people behave, bearing in mind the laws of karma. Focusing on intention, i.e. the desire to be rewarded for our actions, seems more self-centered behavior to many people who get stuck in the quandary of choosing goodness.

People usually choose to be good for consequentialism based on utilitarian values. And that is the very reason why they get confused when they don’t see the positive consequences emanating from their good actions.

But my understanding is that we cannot ever become immune to the irrationalities of life. There is no-one whom we can blame for untoward consequences of our good actions. But I firmly believe that one should be good because it is good to be good. When we choose the path of goodness as an end rather than a means, we need not be concerned with any consequence. We can at least remain immune to the grievances that result when the consequences of our actions are not in tune. Then there will be no difficulty in being good. Then we will never refrain from doing good.

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The Dilemma of Dharma The Dilemma of Dharma Sumana Singha CC BY-SA 4.0