Recently, one witnessed an interesting face-off between two diverging set of opinions on how India’s rich cultural and historical past, its epics, particularly the Mahabharata, have come to shape modern ethics and morality in India. A group of students at Wharton authored an opinion piece titled “Business vs. Ethics: The India Tradeoff?” which argued how corrupt ways and practices in India today, are nothing but a reflection of the “deceit and trickery” of the Gods to achieve their “just” ends— and the prominent roles such actions have played in determining the final outcome in the various celebrated epics in India’s history.
The article reads, “Indian literary history fully embraces the concept of noble ends justifying dubious means. Three texts intrinsic to Indian culture and philosophy help to explain the current business landscape: the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata and the economic treatise Arthshastra.
In both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, even gods resort to deceit and trickery to accomplish their ends. In the latter, Lord Krishna repeatedly devises “underhanded” methods to defeat the opposing army – going so far as to encourage the protagonist, Arjuna, to attack and kill an unarmed adversary.”
In a response to this article, Aseem Shukla, co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation, and Rishi Bhutada, member of the Foundation’s executive council argued, “The epics are very clear that the laws of Karma are absolute and relentless. Every action must bear consequences to the deed. Not only do Arjuna and his brothers see the annihilation of all their children during and after the war, but even Lord Krishna’s progeny die out after a spasm of fratricide.”
The first article tries to drive home the point that moral corruption in many ways has a sanction from no less than Krishna himself—that it is perfectly legitimate to participate in rule-breaking if the end is justified. The subsequent response by Aseem and Rishi, on the other hand, seeks to present a more holistic view that emerges from the Mahabharat, laying stress on the importance of Karma. The article focusses on the “costs” of the “chicanery and trickery” of both the Pandavs and Krishna, which helped them win the War. That Arjun and his brothers see annihilation of all their children and Krishna’s progeny die seems to suggest that Karma indeed catches up with one and all, even Krishna- the incarnation of the mighty Lord Vishnu.
Today, in the modern context, the idea of Krishna is often advanced in order to lower the “guilt quotient” attached to an inappropriate action. Simply put, Krishna, the incarnation of Lord Vishnu, provides us “moral and religious cover” to our acts which may not stand up to high moral standards.
Unfortunately, this thought has gained traction and we see an increasing use of religious invocation of texts to justify actions perpetrated to achieve a particular end. Here, the episodes of War and the subsequent victory of the Pandavs, even if it came by breaking rules, are sought to be used as legitimate covers to deviate from moral standards if one is convinced that the final end is good and just, equivalent to upholding Dharma.
This line of reasoning however, paints an incomplete picture. In our enthusiasm to accord moral sanction to the means towards a “just” end, we overlook the huge “costs” of such dubious means. The very fact that the aftermath of the Mahabharat has not found much intellectual interrogation (people only remember the profit derived from the “chicanery” and not the “costs” attached to it) does much injustice to the richness of the text.
The problem with this incomplete understanding of Mahabharata is that Dharma seems to take precedence over everything else. But what is Dharma? What is good and evil? How does one discern between the two? Let’s ask ourselves two simple questions that Ayn Rand asks in her book ‘The Virtue of Selfishness’:
1) What are values (the standard of good)?
2) Who should be the beneficiary of values?
In earlier times, morality and ethics were synonymous with God. Later, philosophers tried injecting a rational, scientific identity to morality by replacing God with society. As Rand puts it, “the avowed mystics held the arbitrary, unaccountable “will of God” as the standard of the good. The neomystics replaced it with “the good of the society” – the standard of the good is that which is good for the society. This meant, in logic – and, today, in worldwide practice – that “society” stands above any principles of ethics, since it is the source, standard and criterion of ethics, since “the good” is whatever it wills, whatever it happens to assert as its own welfare and pleasure. And – since there is no such entity as ‘society’, since society is only a number of individual men – this meant that some men ethically entitled to pursue any ‘whims’ they desire to pursue, while other men are ethically obliged to spend their lives in the service of that gang’s desire.”
So, while contesting the conventional wisdom how good values were all about what was “good for society”, Rand presents an alternative to altruism, arguing vociferously for rational self-interest or rational selfishness, stressing that “the ultimate value is that final goal or end to which all lesser goals are the means – an organism’s life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is evil.”
The reason why I bring up the above discussion from Rand’s book is to mainly shed light on the many loose ends that exist in the debate around morality and that they can vary, quite dramatically, depending on the ideological lens through which you see it. Which is why, on many occasions in the Mahabharata, one is unable to arrive at the right answers to questions and circumstances – instead, one is faced with moral dilemmas and ambiguity that cloud our judgment.
For an altruist, ultimate values lie in what is “good for the society”, but equally, an alternative idea of rational self-interest as argued by Rand could hold its own in a moral contest. And it is precisely because of this unresolved nature of the debate that Dharma loses its sheen. Dharma, which seeks to provide answers to many of these fundamental questions, could still fall short at different times, in different circumstances, with different persons with their unique set of beliefs and ideological biases. My understanding of Dharma could be very different from yours. This brings us to the need for a constant, a Law that remains unbroken – Karma. “What you sow, so shall you reap” – a constant across all men and across time.
This is the real learning from India’s rich literary treasures. But what lessons have we drawn from our epics? We have relegated Karma and given more precedence to Dharma, each individual defining his Dharma according to his convenience. The inability of our civilization to appreciate that there are “costs” involved in employing unjust means even if to achieve just ends, is at the root of moral decay and the culture of corruption that has infested our collective unconscious. The variability of a “just end” across people, circumstances and time leave the ground fertile for wrong actions to flourish—actions that are life threatening, evil.
What modern society needs is not a moral awakening, but a relearning of the more fundamental ideas that reside in our texts – that Karma spares none, not even the Lord. If only this realization were to take shape in our consciousness, our actions would be preceded by restraint and be guided by moral calculations and the retributive effects of such actions, as determined by Karma.
Karma has the power to reconcile the two philosophical strands of moral ethics. Fear of Karmic retaliation would push each individual to participate in actions that further life –that which, in Rand’s worldview, qualifies as good. Such individual actions when aggregated, in turn, would benefit society in ways that the idea of altruism has failed to achieve. It is quite remarkable in that sense, that our scriptures and the ideas they encapsulate—principally the concept of Karma, have the power to bring a grand convergence in the debate around morality and values, and help “society” move towards life enriching thoughts and actions—the good.
Tags: Pure Thought