Social Laws of Dharma Governed Ancient India

How Ancient Indian concept of Dharma differs from Religions of the West

Social Laws of Dharma Governed Ancient India
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The ancient Indian societies developed strong and efficient norms of social conduct, which were called 'dharma', literally meaning 'duties. Ancient Indian scriptures often referred to them as 'Sanatan Dharma' or eternal duties that governed an individual’s interaction with both humans and nature. Rules of dharma were in the nature of broad values and principles that centered on families, and have been embedded in Indian culture and society, even till date.

Every civilization comes into existence on the basis of certain commonly agreed norms of conduct and interaction that all members of the society are expected to follow. These rules may exist in different forms. They could be based on a religious code of conduct, long standing traditions or social values. Typically, such social rules have three components, i.e. the rules, their acceptance by people and social disapproval against their violation. What makes these civilizational rules different from the modern day laws made and enforced by the State, is the fact that they are neither prescribed nor enforced by a King, government or other sovereign authority.

Instead, they are accepted and followed by people themselves.

Thus, in a way, they represent the most democratized and decentralized form of society.

Social Rules of Dharma & their Basis

In ancient India, these social rules governed the conduct of people in an effective manner. They evolved from within the society as part of a broader concept of dharma, which literally means ‘duty’. It can be best understood as a largely unwritten code of conduct that all members of the society were supposed to follow. In fact the term sanatan dharma, used in scriptures, and incorrectly perceived as an Indian religion or the so called Hinduism, actually means ‘eternal duties’, or duties that every individual must abide by.

These duties of an individual were primarily in the context of his relationship with fellow human beings, but also extended to the social heritage, animals, nature, and the almighty powers of the universe that govern it. One peculiar characteristic of dharma in ancient India is that instead of dwelling on the rights of the individual, it gave primacy to the family, which was the primary social unit. This gave rise to the extremely family-centric nature of Indian civilization, which it continues to retain to a large extent, even today, in spite of the assault of modern market based individualistic self-interest and the all pervading State with its laws and procedures.

Understanding Family as the Socio-economic Unit

Ancient Indian family was not only a self sustained social unit, it was also a primary economic unit of production, analogous to the modern day company, except that it derived its economic efficiency more from 'economy of scope' and less from 'economy of scale'. The economy of scope was evident in the manner an efficient family used the limited factors of production at its disposal to produce a vast variety of goods and services, most of which were consumed by the family itself. The limited role of economy of scale could be witnessed in the relatively large size of families, with up to four generations living together under one roof!

Unlike markets, where instant exchange of goods is the norm, family is based largely on an implied inter-generational contract, where an individual receives goods and services during his childhood from parents and other elders and then repays it partly by taking care of them when they are old and debilitated, and partly by taking care of the children in the next generation. These obligations were strictly honored, and their fulfillment was crucial to the survival of the family. No doubt then, that the bulk of the norms that formed part of the dharma or duties of an individual were related to family obligations.

Apart from the family obligations, the norms of dharma also laid obligations on the individual towards all others in society, including neighbors, relatives and all human beings as such. To achieve this, dharma laid a lot of emphasis on compassion, directed not only towards human beings, but also extended towards all living creatures, making it a very important and virtually unique characterizing feature of Indian civilization, that manifested in Ahimsa (non-violence) and vegetarianism. Both of them continue to be a distinguishing feature of Indian society even today.

Unwritten Rules, Conceptual Clarity and Voluntary Compliance in Dharma

Sanskrit, the oldest living language of the world evolved in ancient India, and although it never became the language of the masses, it remains till date, one of the most sophisticated languages ever used by mankind. Vedas, written in Sanskrit, are one of the oldest human texts. However, in spite of the evolution of the written word even during pre-historic times, the Indian dharma is not based on the literal dictates in any of these texts. Instead of written dictates or rigid rules of what can be done and what cannot be done, the emphasis in dharma lies in social values like non-violence, compassion and harmony. There is a great emphasis on self discipline, which forms the core of the social values of Indian civilization and perhaps the greatest reverence was reserved for self sacrifice, in stark contrast with individualistic values of industrialized world today, where selfish interest maximization and greed are considered the driving force for economic sustenance.

Thus, it should not come as a surprise that ancient Indian epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata have always been far more popular than any religious scriptures in India. In particular, Ramayana, the story of self sacrifice and dutiful conduct of Rama, the King of Ayodhya, has inspired more Indians to follow their dharma than probably anything else. This story, which does not lay down any dictates for the people, has actually been far more successful in implementing the social values that it glorifies, than many modern legislatures backed by State force and sanction!

Oral tradition, by which social values were transmitted from elders within the family to the next generation, and thereby get enshrined as family values, has been the strongest cementing force for these norms of dharma. The concept of family tradition, of family honor and family values also get enshrined by this process of transmission. Together they gave rise to a set of conduct that became part and parcel of the social life. The rules of dharma have been embedded in the Indian culture, and continue to be, even in case of those individuals that may have adopted another religion in recent times.

Enforcement by Informal Social Sanction

Generally, no rules can survive without a credible deterrent against their violations. In modern laws made by the State, it is the threat of prosecution and conviction that enforces compliance. In social rules of dharma, the compliance was achieved largely through peer pressure within the society, and the social outrage and disapproval that followed aberrant conduct. Counter-intuitively, this somewhat unscientific methodology has been very effective in enforcing compliance, even till the twentieth century, though the norms are fast diluting now in a globalized world, where every individual is governed by commercial interests and the recognition of his legal rights take precedence over social duties.

To illustrate how ancient Indian society enforced compliance of social norms, one can look at its approach towards sexual discipline, which attracted some of the most stringent norms within family relationships, and anyone violating them could expect the strongest of reprisals from the society. In extreme cases of violation, such social reprisals could even take a violent form, though in common violations, they usually resulted in a non-violent disapproval, consisting of social boycott, and loss of social respect for the individual and his family.

Acceptance of Dharma as Pragmatic Rules of Harmonious Living

The rules of dharma were observed on a voluntarily basis. What differentiates them from the rules of Western religions is a clear conceptualization of the broader objectives along with a characteristic lack of detailed prescriptions. Duties of an individual depended on the role he took upon himself in a society. The dharma of a soldier was different from that of an ascetic intellectual. The dharma of a wife differed from that of a mother. The dharma of a poor differed from that of a rich. These rules broadly indicated how an individual is supposed to conduct his or her life in the given circumstances, but did not go to the extent of making any literal dictates.

With social values of respect for fellow human beings, compassion for all, non-violence, suppression of greed and self-sacrifice, broad norms of dharma enables their practice in a pragmatic manner. The observance of these norms were perhaps most crucial for the family sustenance and survival, making it important for their adoption as family values. The norms of dharma were thus a set of rules, following which made a lot of common sense for the people. Not surprisingly, people accepted and abided by them as if their very life depended upon them.

May be, it actually did!

Without Invoking Communal Identities

An important feature of the ancient Indian concept of dharma is that it is not aimed at creating community identities. Dharma relates to one's interaction with the society and universe, and does not display any anxiety or threat from other groups. This non-communal nature of dharma is one of its defining features, and remains so till date, even though the contact with Western religions have gradually instilled a component of communal identity in its followers. The evolution of the so called Hindu community is a relatively recent development, and is largely a reaction to communal stress and tensions that faced India in more recent times, beginning with some overzealous Muslim rulers in medieval period who indulged in communal persecution. However, these communal sentiments have peaked in an unprecedented manner during the communal riots associated with Partition of India in 1947.

Ironically, some of these reactions, aimed at strengthening Hinduism, actually undermine its very basic non-communal characteristic. Dharma is different from religion because it focuses on duties of an individual rather than the communal identity. On the contrary, religions stress a lot more on the communal identity, its competing interests with other communities and one's loyalty to the community. Religion is only for the followers, dharma is for everyone in the society. Religion gives one a communal identity, dharma is about the social duty of every member of society, and not about identities.

To a large extent, these reactions aimed at communalizing dharma are also an inevitable outcome of a globalized world. When everyone else is obsessed about his or her communal identity, it often becomes difficult for anyone to think otherwise. It is not surprising then that many Indians fail to appreciate the defining features of their dharma and how it differs from other religions.

Ironically, as this process begins to strengthen further, these very distinctive characteristics of Indian dharma can easily get forgotten and lost, unless of course, those who have inherited it, appreciate them and take a conscious decision to preserve their real dharma instead of converting it into a clone of some other religion.


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Thank you very much for such an amazing and important article. I think it is necessary for every child to read and understand their past and for this your article is an awesome one where evey aspect is touched and explained.

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Thanks a lot for the encouraging words. I fully agree with you on the need for us to be able to understand our past and our culture. I feel that somehow, we have fallen into a habit of trying to see ourselves from the eyes of foreigners, which prevents us from knowing ourselves.

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