9 November 2015

How We Valued Value

Bibek Debroy
6 November 2015

Bibek Debroy is an economist and member of the NITI Aayog. He is the author of Mahabharata in 10 volumes 

Wealth is a neglected domain in our scriptures because they were written by brahmins and that is also why artha is intertwined with dharma

कर्मण्यवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन This is a famous shloka from the Bhagavad Gita. “You indeed have a right to the action, never to the fruits.” In advancing a proposition that Hinduism is concerned more about the world hereafter and is concerned relatively less with material prosperity in the present world, this shloka is also cited.[1] If the fruits are irrelevant, why should I be motivated to do anything? Why should I try to improve my material prosperity? Let me instead focus on the world hereafter. It so happens that this is not a shloka from the Bhagavad Gita, it is half of ashloka, from shloka 2.47, the 47th shloka in the 2nd Chapter. The remaining half of the shloka, often not quoted, is as follows. मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गः अस्त्वकर्मणि। “Never should action originate because of the fruits. Nor should you be attached to lack of action.” With both halves of the shloka taken together, one forms a slightly different impression. In discussing Hinduism, with its immensely huge corpus, and attitudes of Hinduism towards specific topics, one must therefore be careful in quoting selectively. What’s the point of quoting half a shloka, without considering the rest of the Bhagavad Gita? How can one quote from a text, ignoring the context of who it was composed for and by whom? Not to speak of issues about when it was composed.

The word वर्ग (varga) means category or class. Used in the sense of an objective or purpose, the three objectives or vargas of human existence areधर्म (dharma), अर्थ (artha) and काम (kama). These are ”पुरुषार्थs(purusharthas), the objectives of human exertion. Strictly speaking, there are four purusharthas, not three—the fourth being मोक्ष (moksha). Moksha can be translated as emancipation, liberation, freedom, release. There are eighteen पर्वs (parvas) in the Mahabharata. In this context, the word parva means part or section. One of the longest of these 18 parvas is Shanti Parva, the section that is about peace. Bhishma hasn’t yet died. He is lying down on the bed of arrows and Shanti Parva, and the subsequentAnushasana Parva, constitute his teachings to Yudhishthira and his brothers. A sub-section in Shanti Parva is titled Moksha-Dharma-Parva, Chapters 168-353 in the Critical Edition [2]. In this sub-section, there is a conversation between Krishna Dvaipayana Vedavyasa and his son, Shuka, where Shuka asks his father and preceptor about moksha. This is what Vedavyasa says. “A being is bound down through deeds and is freed through knowledge…However, a person who obtains knowledge reaches the spot where there is no reason to grieve. Once one goes there, one does not die. Once one goes there, one is not born. Once one goes there, one does not decay. Once one goes there, one does not increase.” This is the sense in which moksha is usually understood, a state where an individual is freed from the cycle and bondage of death and rebirth and karma. Indeed, this is precisely what happens to Shuka. He is liberated and emancipated in that sense. But if one reads the Mahabharata, is that the sense in which the wordmoksha is used?[3] The Mahabharata was not only about exceptional people like Shuka. It was also about people concerned with this world, people who had to deal with dharma, artha and kama, not only aboutmoksha, interpreted as liberation from the cycle of life. The Bhagavad Gita has 18 chapters and the titles of each of these chapters is qualified by the use of the word योग (yoga).[4] Only one of these titles uses the word mokshaand this is the 18th chapter, titled मोक्षसंन्यासयोग (moksha-sannyasa-yoga). If one reads through this entire chapter, there is not a single instance of the word moksha being used in the Shuka sense. Instead, the entire argument is about detachment, even when one is engaged in dharma, artha and kama. Without deviating from the subject and going off on a tangent on a discussion of moksha, there is a simple point being made. Who has said that Hinduism is about the other-worldly pursuit of moksha in a Shuka sense? That’s a selective and subjective reading of some texts. It isn’t a proposition that should be advanced as a sweeping generalisation.

What about dharma, artha and kama? Kama refers to desire, not necessarily to sexual desire alone. Vatsayana’s Kama Sutra, one in a long line of works on kama, is illustrative. It is often understood to be a documentation of sexual positions. Yet, sexual positions account for only one of its seven major segments. In Chapter 3, there is a reference to 64 kinds of arts an accomplished maiden should be familiar with. This has little to do with sexual positions or even sex and probably has more to do with artha. Dating texts is always difficult and so far, we haven’t said anything about time-lines. Vatsayana’s Kama Sutra could have been anywhere between 400 BCE and 200 CE, though there were similar texts of an earlier vintage. To return to the point, kama is about the senses, not exclusively about sex. Nor doesdharma necessarily mean religion and should never be translated as religion. In different contexts, dharma can mean good conduct, jurisprudence and rule of law and customary practice. It can also mean the metaphysical. Of the three purusharthas, artha is the easiest to pin down. It means material prosperity and wealth.

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