By Pramod Kumar
In his recent book titled, Chanakya’s New Manifesto: To Resolve the Crisis within India, Pavan Varma comes up with an absurd theory which seeks to stereotype the Hindu religion and millions of its followers as morally loose and ‘corruption friendly.’ Varma writes, “At least in Hinduism, there is no binding or universal code of conduct that gives unequivocal primacy to the moral dimension… The essential point I’m trying to make is that Hindu tradition, for all its philosophical loftiness, has always allowed for a convenient response to the moral imperative. Ethics are conceptually grounded in a utilitarian framework where there are no uncontested definitions of right and wrong. The only consistent concern is the end result. In the pursuit of the desired goal, morality is not so much disowned as it is pragmatically devalued.” (p.127-128)
What is put forth above is not the Hindu view of ethics but the author’s distorted understanding of it based on the interpretation of British scholar-photographer Richard Lannoy. Varma quotes liberally from Lannoy (The Speaking Tree, A Study of Indian Culture and Society) to justify his theory. Instead, if he had spent some time reading original sources of Hinduism like the Vedas, the Itihasas and the Dharma Shastras with the help of indigenous scholars, he would not have had to rely on second class translations and interpretations of Hindu texts.
It is relevant to ask why Pavan Varma selectively targets the Hindu framework of ethics for his incisive analysis in a discussion on corruption in India. Does he consider India to be a Hindu nation? Does he imply that all other religions have a better framework of ethics and therefore followers of these religions are more moral and less corrupt? For example, how would he account for the fact that a large number of Muslim youth today across the world are involved in violent and criminal activities, including drug trafficking and terrorism? How would Varma explain away the rampant homosexuality and sexual violations amongst the Christian clergy in India, and elsewhere?
The Hindu framework of ethics is unambiguous and brilliantly graded to ensure that people of all walks of life, irrespective of their status, can adhere to ethical and moral norms with conviction. Dharma is not an undefined and ephemeral ideal as the author claims it to be, but a universal principle of morality and ethics based on common sense. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do to you’ is the common denominator of this universal ethical framework. Ahimsa (Non-Violence), Satyam (Truthfulness) and other values are based on this common sense principle. One does not require the aptitude of a rocket scientist to understand and practice Dharma.
However, in daily life one encounters complex situations in which right and wrong will have to be interpreted. A soldier on a battlefield cannot practice ahimsa because his moral imperative as a soldier is to defend his country and his people. A doctor who is called upon to perform a surgery cannot absolve himself of his responsibility in the name of practicing ahimsa because the life and health of the patient is dependent on this surgery. This is why interpretation becomes necessary, but interpretation of Dharma is not a license to subvert ethics. The principle of larger good was applied only in situations where an individual’s personal values came directly into conflict with the welfare of society at large. Our ability to interpret what is right and wrong in a given situation and the choices we make based on this understanding is what defines our character.
For example, Maharishi Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras defines five values – Ahimsa (Non-Violence), Satyam (Truthfulness), Brahmacharya (Continence), Asteya (Non-Stealing) and Aparigraha (Non-Acceptance of Gifts) as ‘Universal Great Vows’:
Jatideshakalsamayanavachinnah sarvabhouma mahavatrah (2.31)
Patanjali emphasizes that these values are to be practiced by every human being irrespective of caste, country, period, time or other distinctions.
Such unambiguous declaration of universal moral values can be found in all Hindu scriptures from the Vedas down to the Puranas. However, the necessity for interpretation of Dharma was recognized and that is why we have a genre of sub-texts called the Dharma Shastras which help us interpret and analyse Dharma. Any injunction or interpretation which was not in consonance with the universal laws or values espoused in the Shruti texts (Vedas & Upanishads) was rejected.
To claim then that Hinduism does not have well-defined framework of ethics and morals or that it encourages a mindset which is conducive to corruption, is not merely an oversight but a gross distortion intended to devalue the Hindu religion.
Pavan Varma goes on to apply his biased vision to the problem of corruption in India and comes up with this amusing theory:
“In such a worldview, corruption is, remarkably enough, equated with a form of morally-neutral entrepreneurship… In this sense, the issue of corruption is entirely removed from the moral domain; it becomes simply a matter of costs, investments, return, tactics and profit… It is for this reason that most Indians find no contradiction between corruption in their personal lives and condemnation of it in public.”
An international experiment in honesty conducted by the Reader’s Digest in 2013 listed Mumbai as one of the most honest cities of the world:
“Reader’s Digest wanted to know how honest world cities are, so it “lost” 192 wallets in 16 cities — that’s 12 wallets in each city — to see how many would be returned. Each wallet contained the $50 equivalent of the local currency, as well as a name, phone number, family photo, coupons and business cards.” (The Lost Wallet Experiment: Finding the World’s Most Honest Cities)
Nine out of the 12 wallets ‘lost’ in Mumbai were returned. 67.39% of Mumbai’s population is Hindu as per the 2011 census conducted by the Government of India. This one sample alone is sufficient to toss Pavan Varma’s theory upside down.
Historically, Indians were respected the world over for their truthfulness and honesty, as records of foreign travellers reveal. The Arab traveller Muhammda al-Idrisi tells us that a large number of Muslim merchants visited Nahrwara (Anahilavada) because the people were ‘noteworthy for their excellence of their justice, for keeping up their contracts, and for the beauty of their character’.
Marco Polo records that “You must know that these Abraiaman (probably a distortion of the word Brahmana) are the best merchants in the world, and the most truthful, for they would not tell a lie for anything on earth… If a foreign merchant entrusts his goods to them, they will take charge of these and sell them in the most loyal manner, seeking zealously the profit of the foreigner and asking no commission except what the foreigner pleases to bestow.”
Paul Johnson, a columnist for Forbes magazine, makes this stunning analysis of the character of Hindu emigrants:
“It is the nature of the Hindu religion to be tolerant and, in its own curious way, permissive. Under the socialist regime of Jawaharlal Nehru and his family successors the state was intolerant, restrictive and grotesquely bureaucratic. That has largely changed (though much bureaucracy remains), and the natural tolerance of the Hindu mind-set has replaced quasi-Marxist rigidity… India’s economy for the first time is expanding faster than China’s. For years India was the tortoise, China the hare. The race is on, and my money’s on India, because freedom – of movement, speech, and the media – is always an economic asset… When left to themselves, Indians (like the Chinese) always prosper as a community. Take the case of Uganda’s Indian population, which was expelled by the horrific dictator Idi Amin and received into the tolerant society of Britain. There are now more millionaires in this group than in any other recent immigrant community in Britain. They are a striking example of how far hard work, strong family bonds and a devotion to education can carry a people who have been stripped of all their worldly assets.” (Want to Prosper? Then Be Tolerant, Forbes Magazine, June 2004)
Corruption in India multiplied by leaps and bounds in the post-Independence era not because of Hindu Dharma but because education and public life in India became divorced from Hindu Dharma in the name of secularism.
It is sad that English educated Indians like Pavan Varma have a poorer understanding of their own roots and ethnic character than neutral observers like Paul Johnson. With all his penchant for moral imperative and transparency, it is curious to observe that the former diplomat, who resigned as India’s envoy to Bhutan in October 2012 to join the Janata Dal United (of Nitish Kumar), chooses to hide this fact in the author’s profile though his book was published later in 2013!