Articles and Commentaries |
July 2, 2022

The Dharma-Dhamma Paradigms in the Indic Traditions and the New World Order: A Cross-Cultural Interface with China

Written By: Prof. Priyadarśī Mukherji

The geopolitical and geostrategic dynamics at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century — have transformed the world in the light of the pandemic-stricken scenario. It would be inappropriate to call the current scenario as post-Covid. With widespread destruction of human life — accentuated by a covert biological warfare unleashed by the wildly ambitious Chinese hegemons — has put before mankind the basic question of Dharma.

Dharma is a key concept with multiple meanings in the Indic system of beliefs, as in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism etc. With no equivalence in the Western languages, the word Dharma is commonly translated as righteousness, merit, or moral duties governing individual conduct. Its most inappropriate rendition has been in the sense of religion or religious faith.

The word Dharma has roots in the Sanskrit धृ which means to hold, to maintain or to preserve, and is related to the Latin word firmus (firm, stable). From this it takes the meaning of ‘what is established or firm’, and hence ‘law’. The Sanskrit word Dharma is rendered as Dhamma in Prakrit and Pali. The word Dhamma refers to the Buddhist doctrine and is often interpreted to mean the ‘teachings of the Buddha’.  This doctrine, according to King Aśoka, was based on religious tolerance, respect for elders, and care for the old ones, kindness towards the needy; purity and truthfulness; and compassion for all sentient beings.

The word धर्म or धम्म carries a wide range of connotations:  (1) Faith, creed, piety, virtue, e.g., अहिंसा परम धर्म ;   (2) Scriptural laws or directions, e.g., धर्मसम्मत ;   (3)   A form of worship, e.g.,  तान्त्रिक धर्म ;   (4)  Theology, e.g., धर्मग्रन्थ ;  (5)  Natural quality, or behavior, or disposition, property or function, e.g.,  मानवधर्म, कालधर्म, पावकधर्म ; (6) Virtuousness, righteousness, morality, e.g.,  धर्महीन आचरण ;   (7)  Law, e.g.,  धर्मपत्नी ;   (8)  Justice, e.g.,  धर्माधिकरण ;   (9) Yama,  धर्मराज यम ;  and (10) Chastity, e.g.,   धर्मनाश |

Out of the varied connotations of the word, we find Dharma or Dhamma as natural quality, or behavior, or disposition, property or function — when we deal with the Pañcabhūta (पञ्चभूत) or the Five Elements, the basis of all cosmic creation, according to Hinduism. These are क्षिति, अप्, तेज, मरुत, व्योम; in other words, Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether.  In Mahābhārata, the five Pāṇḍavas represented the Pañcabhūta. The hundred Kauravas who represented the malevolent human desire — were vanquished by the five elements of Nature. Thus, through the ultimate victory of the Pāṇḍavas, Nature has been depicted as invincible.

But when we explain Dharma in terms of human conduct, we invariably emphasize the moral obligation of treading the path of righteousness. This path of Dharma is often termed as Tao (道) in Chinese philosophy of Confucius and Taoism. Tao has been explained as the highest state of spiritual enlightenment — imbued with a just cause. However, Dharma and Tao are not the same — though some scholars have vaguely sought to paint them both with the same brush. Tao can be translated as मार्ग,   though it is quite unclear whether that मार्ग or path is of Dharma (morality) or Adharma (immorality).  In this context, धर्म निरपेक्ष often becomes equivalent to अधर्म सापेक्ष |

For imparting a value-oriented education, stories from the Mahābhārata, Kathāsaritsāgar, and Pañcatantra ought to be incorporated in the curriculum so as to imbibe ethical values among children — as Thirukkural of Thiruvalluvar is taught in schools in southern India.  The lessons in Dharma are essential in fostering social harmony, imparting righteousness and providing an urge to attain the collective objective for an anthropocentric development.

In the book Demystifying Leadership: Unveiling the Mahabharata Code[i], the authors reiterate that Dharma has been used to denote a normative action or an abstract quality of compassion, righteousness, justice and truth in the Mahābhārata. It is linked with norms, law, ethics as well as righteous execution of obligations, responsibilities and duties. The underlying expectation is that the person following Dharma will operate within the boundaries of justice, and will in word and deed, act with honor and propriety. Alternatively, the word Adharma can be understood as an action that violates the norms.

While entering into a discourse on what is Dharma, we would find how Kautilya had visualized it. In the monograph titled Understanding Dharma and Artha in Statecraft through Kautilya’s Arthashastra[ii], the ancient author has been attributed for defining Artha as wealth or power, and Dharma as political virtue or ethical and moral issues in statecraft. Kautilya realized that Dharma regulates Artha in the Indian tradition. Kautilya wanted the policymakers and leaders to be well-versed in the epics. The epics bring clear lessons on morals, both at a personal level and also while relating to statecraft. In Indian traditions, social and political conditions must exist for the pursuit of the four great ends of life — the Purushārthas — ethical virtue (Dharma), wealth and power (Artha), pleasure (Kāma), and spiritual transcendence (Moksha).

By continuing with our national subservience to the alien powers of the West, the leaders in India around 1947 — committed a series of Adharma — that jeopardized our national interests.  In the post-1947 India, there has only been petty politics (राजनीति), and no statecraft, and the least of national or state policy (देशनीति or राष्ट्रनीति). The performing of Dharma can be shown from the lost pages of our contemporary history. Netaji Subhas Bose’s deeds embodied statecraft, and formulation of a robust nation-building policy, combined with astounding foresight and an uncompromising selfless dedication and planning for national reconstruction.  Parochialism, and vested interests detrimental to the cause of national rejuvenation, with least focus attached to national security —both internal and external — deprived India of Netaji’s leadership and thus divided the country —both geographically and politically.  This partition resulted in weakening India as a nation and created a regional environment with perpetual animosity all around the territorial limits of the country. Netaji’s admonition and foretelling thus turned out to be true.

In the ancient Chinese philosophy, the five elements have been different from those of the Indic philosophy. They are Earth, Water, Fire, Tree and Metal. The Chinese do not believe in anything intangible. They are highly materialistic. And therefore, instead of Air and Ether, they got Wood and Metal. These five elements are said to originate from each other, and also said to subdue each other. The principle of the five elements as progenitors goes as follows:  Tree begets Fire, Fire begets Earth, Earth begets Metal, Metal begets Water, and Water begets Tree. Similarly, the principle of five elements subduing each other is reflected thus — Water subdues Fire, Fire subdues Metal, Metal subdues Tree, Tree subdues Earth, and Earth subdues Water. All these formulations are based on the Dharma or the natural qualities or functions of the elements.

The ancient philosophers of China had attached due importance to the spiritual welfare of human beings. This was reflected in the Chinese character 體 meaning body. A human body requires a spinal cord or backbone (骨).  Along with it, on the top, there is music (曲)—representing spiritual attainment; and below is bean, pea, or plant seeds (豆)—representing food.  The human body needs spiritual culture and material culture for its healthy existence.  But music being placed above food, is indicative of the fact that mind ruled supreme over matter— at least till the period when China was a pluralistic society. That is, till 221 BC.  The authoritarian trends in terms of governance brought along an atmosphere, wherein lay the seeds of relegating mind beyond the limits of matter.  Thus, the totalitarian inclinations witnessed an early rise through material aggrandizement in China.

The autocratic despotism and the nouveau-riche styled arrogance with which Communist China seeks to dictate the world what is ‘just’ and what it expects the rest of the countries to follow, so as to take care of its sensitivities, fully contravenes its own actions and behavior vis-à-vis other countries. China’s position is misplaced since China itself never honors sensitivities of other nations. Moreover, they adhere the least to any international law with any sense of parity. While issuing joint communiqués, China invariably makes it mandatory for other countries to recognize the PRC as the sole entity representing the Chinese people. Hence, the mention of ‘One-China Policy’ in multifarious documents. Nonetheless, China itself never agreed on adhering to One-India Policy, or honoring the territorial integrity of India. The biggest question remains—did China ever bother about India’s sensitivities, did China ever attach importance to India’s territorial integrity!  The time today mandates that India must pursue a hard-power policy and must play by the stratagem, advocated by Kautilya or Machiavelli, that China has been good at playing.

China has consistently nibbled away territories of other countries, including India’s. China seeks to harm India’s interests through myriads of means. Now is the time for India to strengthen its own inherent power to counter China by means of becoming a manufacturing nation and by becoming fully self-reliant even in manufacturing the minutest component to produce everything that used to come as indispensable commodities from China. This undoubtedly has to be India’s Yugadharma. The expansionist acts of China along India’s borders and the separatist activities with direct connivance of the Chinese state deep inside India; illegally building the CPEC through a disputed territory— are all examples of China’s flexing muscles. Now it has become quite apparent that China actively seeks to restrict the growth of India by embroiling India in hundreds of problems involving national security, economic engagements, infrastructural development, etc.

India must realize that communist China has never been a friend to India. Therefore, India must play the game of jeopardizing China’s geopolitical and geostrategic interests that underscore creating debt-trap and many other sinister designs that are detrimental to India’s national interests. The essential part of the Yugadharma that India must play so as to usher a new world order— is to actively counter such ominous ventures pursued by the Chinese.

The diabolic act that China embarked upon by spreading the Wuhan virus across the world — has been an act of Adharma which the United States of America had funded so as to capitalize from the pandemic. Now with the connivance of the WHO, the various initiatives for global vaccination by India and also some other countries are being undermined through monopoly, protectionism and racism.  The New World Order has been imposed through series of deadly competition for hegemony over the maximum resources of the world. It has not been through the conventional methods of war, but by the covert diffusion of lethal virus and its successive variants.  What we are witnessing today has been resultant of the intense trade war between China and the USA.

The top secret biological weapon plan of China, codenamed as 13579, could not be revealed in the USA in 2017 due to some unexpected turn of events. This was China’s mega plan “to weaken America, to create disorder in America, and to bring massive destruction of human lives in America.”  A Chinese billionaire businessman turned political activist Kuo Wen-Kwei, living in exile in the USA, claimed having exclusive knowledge but unable to make an exposé about the Chinese bio-war blueprint, later lamented in 2020 that “the biochemical weapons came from the Beijing Institute of Chemical Defence and this was the core project of the Chinese Communist Party’s 13579 plan at the time.” [iii]

Initially the complicity between the USA pharmaceutical syndicates— scheming to incur profits by maximizing sufferings, and the Chinese virology institute at Wuhan— turned out to be a miscalculation on the part of the American funding agencies. The world witnessed in dismay how the USA unpredictably got checkmated by China in the Machiavellian game of chess. The exiled Chinese billionaire bemoaned the tragedy behind the plot thus— “The evil acts of the CCP has brought great disaster to the United States. But on the other hand, behind the CCP, there are US dollars from the United States, American technology, the United States facilitated the CCP join the WTO, the funds of Wall Street in the US, and the technology of the US to nourish the CCP.” [iv]

Irrespective of their proclaimed ideological differences, the conspirators from both these countries actively connived in the proliferation of the disease and thus continued contending with each other, or perhaps kept on with their shadow-boxing in the public at the dreadful cost of others. And thus, both these contending hegemons committed a colossal Adharma— that the world would never be able to forget.

In the face of ecological imbalance induced by environmental destruction, causing climate change with unprecedented scale of calamity — we can well conclude that these are all results of human greed, insensitivity, vested interest and selfishness — that come under the purview of Adharma. Here, in this context, the plight of Tibet needs to be highlighted. Peace and tranquility between India and China could be preserved for centuries because of Tibet’s independent entity. India never shared a common border with China. India had been having a common border with Tibet. Once Tibet was occupied by China, the regional and sub-continental harmony evaporated into the thin air. China committed Adharma by enslaving a fellow Asian populace by their sheer proclivity to expansionism but ostentatiously by their proclaimed ‘mission of liberating’ them.  Taking full control of the water resources of entire Asia has been the reason behind China’s full-scale invasion of Tibet. Besides the fountainhead of water located in the Tibetan Plateau, the rich mineral resources, and the diverse flora and fauna of Tibet came under the control of the Chinese communists. Historically, China advanced its territorial aggrandizement through blatant campaigns towards expansionism under the garb of resistance and security. The non-Han Chinese territories were deliberately occupied and annexed to create a massive buffer zone around the central plains (中原) of the Han Chinese.

The true essence of the Chinese Dream needs to be understood clearly in the current scenario of the fast-changing world order that has been evolving following the advent of the hazardous effects of the Corona virus pandemic.  The Chinese under the communist rule since 1949 played the card of being a ‘victim’ of the Western and Japanese colonialism since 1840, and thus sought justification to avenge the ‘historic injustice’ by copying and devising the devious methods of domination. China under Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and now Xi Jinping conceived an elaborate strategy to gain economic and military power with the sole objective of achieving the position of Super Cop of the world, replacing the USA. The American Dream of global domination has actually been the quintessence of the Chinese Dream. It is China’s dream of becoming the sole superpower in a unipolar world. The Tao or the path adopted by China in the process has been the path of Adharma.  Touting its soft power across the world with its so-called Belt and Road Initiative, China has made a mega plan to capture all the main global assets, as well as monopolize the outer space, and create an environment of fear in the minds of the global community by emphasizing China’s primacy in every aspect of life and in every international forum.  None of the countries, that had visualized China as a civilized nation with thousands of years of history, could imagine that China’s Dharma could be to usher destruction to the mankind in a fashion quite incongruous with an Asian civilization.  That China could not cease to be on the collision path with the liberal world even after taking full advantage of all that others could offer, has generated a wave of mistrust across the world that had long reposed faith in the Middle Kingdom.

Buddhism originated in India and spread all over the Asian continent. Yet today, China deliberately seeks to obliterate that fact. The books they publish, quite consciously attempt to project China as the sacred land of Buddha and Buddhism and provide an incorrect interpretation that Buddhism is dead in India.  The way the Chinese have sought to portray themselves as the followers of Buddhism and yet carried out mass persecution of Buddhist monks and nuns in Tibet and in the Tibetan cultural spheres along the Himalayas, along with extensive destruction of shrines and monasteries that had taken place in the Maoist era and also being executed during the current era of terror under Xi Jinping, should be a matter of great concern for India. Here India needs to denounce such misdeeds of China and also to highlight that India has been the birthplace of Buddhism and the karmabhumi of Buddha. And that the Tibetan culture has been the most honest and truest repository of the original Buddhist traditions that originated from the Indic civilization.

Despite China’s outright rejection of religion, and adherence to atheism, its ostentatious display of ‘liberal acceptance’ of global religious beliefs — has now fallen flat with its imposition of authority in selecting the next Dalai Lama.  Sinicization of every religious faith entails that all religions in China must first blindly follow the dogma of the Chinese Communist Party. Xi Jinping wants all religious believers to follow the CCP over all else. Sinicizing Tibetan Buddhism, and Islam in Xinjiang (East Turkestan) and even Catholicism in China remains a significant priority for Beijing. Attempting to actively guide religions to adapt to a “socialist society with Chinese characteristics”— is obviously indicative that the CCP dogma must be considered to be supreme over and above all religions.

Following our Swadharma (inherent nature) — based on Dharma which connotes social responsibility, moral law or ethical values based on truth — we need to move swiftly towards performing our Yugadharma (the Dharma in each epoch). So, Dharma has to be followed with Karma.

During our freedom struggle, a large number of youth sacrificed their life while seeking to break the bondage of our motherland. That was considered their rightful Dharma. But theirs were acts of individual heroism. When Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose galvanized individual forces into a formidable army — the Indian National Army, he performed a greater Dharma — due to which the British left India. Those who vowed to remain subjects of a British Dominion by adhering to non-violence and by enforcing pacifism to curb popular upsurge, had been selfishly adhering to personal gain, vested interests — detrimental to national emancipation. That was clearly Adharma. Śrī Krishna initially professed of attaining Dharma through peace. But when peace failed to achieve the goal, he advocated for war. And war is himsā (violence), not ahimsā (non-violence). We got freedom because of the armed struggle by the INA under the command of Subhas Bose. The achievement of Netaji for the country came through his performance of Yugadharma. That is why the British had identified Netaji as their sole enemy, and considered the advocates of non-violence as inconsequential. Hence, adhering to non-violence was not the ultimate Dharma of the era for achieving national emancipation. In this light, non-violence amounted to escapism and treachery that was practically translated into collaborationism. The dichotomy between Dharma and Adharma was quite obvious.

The conflict between Dharma and Adharma keeps permeating our human existence in every epoch. The discourse of Dharma and Adharma takes the centrestage in our great epic Mahābhārata.  Śrī Krishna’s sermons at the Kurukshetra battlefield can be depicted as a reflection of the dialectics and the sufferings in human life in which we exist amidst the constant tussle between Dharma and Adharma. We might continue professing वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम् (The world is but one family), and also यत्र विश्वम् भवत्येक नीड़म् (Where the world is but one abode). This has been our Swadharma. But now is the time to refashion our existence in the new era, in the new world order by adhering to Yugadharma. This world order is the one where the Chinese deceit and expansionism, and the American arrogance, mindlessness and hypocrisy have created perilous effects on the entire world. India must seize the time to embolden her gross national strength index through revitalizing the economy by means of enormous political will. That would amount to our fulfilling of Yugadharma. This Dharma would certainly require a paradigm shift so as to make India truly self-reliant, striving wholeheartedly to create grassroots wealth so that we could become a strong nation in all respect.

Author Brief Bio: Prof. Priyadarsi Mukherji, Ph.D. is Professor in Chinese & Sinological Studies, Centre for Chinese & South-East Asian Studies, School of Language, Literature & Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


[i]  Asha Kaul & Vishal Gupta, Demystifying Leadership: Unveiling the Mahabharata Code, Bloomsbury, 2021.

[ii]  Pradeep Kumar Gautam, Understanding Dharma and Artha in Statecraft through Kautilya’s Arthashastra, IDSA Monograph Series, No.53, July 2016.

[iii]  [Translated by the author from the original Chinese text]

[iv] Ibid.

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