Dharma – Transcending Biology

Milind K Sharma and Krishen K Kak

This essay reiterates and expands on the postulate that hierarchy in Nature is transcended as order in Dharma (https://krishenkak.wordpress.com/2017/09/21/hierarchy-in-nature-order-in-dharma/).

“Power” is considered an ability, the exercise of which can influence or control behavior, in our context, of people. The term “authority” is often used for power perceived as legitimate by the social structure. The exercise of power is accepted as fundamental to humans as social beings.
The importance of power in a dharmic sense can be observed in –
atidharmad balam manye balaad dharmah pravartate
bale pratishthito dharmo dharanyamiva jangamam
– Shanti Parva 134.6

An analysis of “power” can start with the statement that the origin of power is in biology. All natural beings exist in hierarchies; there is no equality in Nature.

The quest for mundane power since ancient times finds cultural expression through many forms (e.g., birth / wealth / knowledge / physical strength). The world has always witnessed apparent shifts in power structures, and some striking instances are:

  • Politico-military missions (like Alexander’s invasion)
  • Missions with the support base of faith and religion ( like Islamic invasions)
  • Religio-politico-economic expansions (like missionary-colonialism and imperialism)
  • Multi-dynamic power struggles (like the World Wars and the Cold War)
  • Modern geopolitical and politico-economic struggles through institutions of global governance (like the UN and the Bretton Woods system)
  • Identity assertion through universal claims aiming at global intellectual hegemony, rooted in the deracinated individual as the unit of society, irrespective of context (like the “liberal” hegemony over the American intellectual space)

Power finds expression both as soft and hard. An interesting game of power can be observed in how the global socio-politico-economic narratives have been not only designed but also are consistently under the control of a few (e.g., the so-called “Deep State”).
The French Revolution is the genesis for most modern political jargon and discourse like liberty, democratic rights, and so on. The terms Right and Left were first used in the French Parliament, post-French Revolution. Those seated to the right of the chair were cultured, rich and not odorous as they could afford perfumes, whereas those seated to the left were the opposite. Cosmopolitan versus vulgarian today (https://blogs.economictimes.indiatimes.com/et-commentary/president-donald-trump-the-world-prepares-for-a-different-kind-of-audacity-of-hope/), forgetting that democracy is about the vulgus, the praja.

This ritualized arrangement has gained a central role in narratives today through terms like Right Wing and Left Wing, which cut across the political margins of disciplines. However, these terms are used absolutely out of context in civilizations like that of India, because –

  • Dharmic tradition already has a profound and rich collection of literature and terminology which can be drawn on to suit contemporary contexts appropriately. This richness is perhaps because dharmic civilisation is a dynamically evolving one and over thousands of years older to the modern concept of the nation-state.
  • Dharmic civilisation institutionalised a system of checks and balances, including the hierarchy of the purushartha-s and the dynamics between the ruler (representing temporal power) and the renunciate (representing dharma), to ensure the rajdharma.

Therefore, there need be no conflict of right or left wings, as there is space for all hues of belief and this is why, for example, we can recognise communism as a legitimate electoral option, whereas in the USA the communists are devils incarnate.

Today, the so-called right wings and left wings have morphed into positions contrary to the original ones. The Left believes itself to be civilised, learned, and claims to be the saviour of socio-politico-economic rights of the people. The Left trashes the Right as being regressive, obscurantist, and generally money-grubbing for itself. Yet both operate within the overarching hegemony of asuric materialism, a crude form of kama and artha, i.e., sex and money, as the goals of human existence.

Power sometimes is considered superior even to dharma, for it is through power that dharma is sustained. However, power must be exercised in accordance with the dharma, and not arbitrarily, since the objective is to establish order and not to accumulate (matter/wealth), which anyhow is not primary (Shanti Parva 122.40).

Implicitly, dharma not only maintains a check over uncontrolled power, but also ensures that power itself is so utilized that dharma and, therefore, order, perpetuates itself. In our context, the need to understand dharma gains importance. In due process of attempting to explore dharma, a platform would be established upon which further arguments and claims would be constructed, or rather evolve, in this paper.

Dharma for learned ones is whatever is done keeping in view all beings. Therefore, let one do with conscience what is in the best interest of all (Shanti Parva, 193.31). Again, whatever has the characteristic of dharana, that is, upholding, bringing together and sustaining all praja, certainly is dharma. Notably, praja denotes all beings, all living creation.

Dharma is not about right and wrong, it is about appropriateness to context, i.e., desh, kala and patra, which forms a crucially important constituent in our understanding of dharma. Right or wrong denotes a confrontational or adversarial position connoting a universal prescription of rightness or wrongness, rigidifying what ought to be done and what not ought to be done irrespective of and consideration to context.

This rigidly prescriptive code of conduct generally derives authority from revelations or commandments that are abrahamic. However, dharmic understanding essentially requires considerations of the temporal, of the mundane, of context (desh, kala and patra), in deciding any appropriate course of action.
Such decisions need application of viveka, which is translated as “discriminative intellect”. Viveka is proportionally related to cognitive capabilities sharpened or refined through inherent sattva. Such a penetrating intellect is sometimes referred to as kushagrabuddhi, i.e., intellect as sharp as the tip of kush grass (which has its own symbolism).

Thus, depending on the context, the same act could be dharmic in one instance and adharmic in another. Dilemmas arise when this fundamental relativity is not understood (Shanti Parva 142.8). So, by exercising viveka, one discriminates between dharma and adharma and acts accordingly in this world (Shanti Parva 141.102).

Regrettably, dharma is also one of the most distorted and misunderstood concepts in the modern and post-modern era. It is pertinent that dharma, which is commonly translated as “religion” must be distinguished from it.

In English, the conventional understanding of “religion” is abrahamic – recognition of, obedience to, and worship of an exclusive creator “God”. This has no counterpart in any Indian language, since “God” – let alone an exclusive one – is not essential in the dharma (e.g., Hindu atheists). Anyone thinking in an Indian language will, from the context, readily understand dharma and its nuances. It really is much simpler – and accurate – to call the dharma, dharma (which essentially is about behaviour appropriate to context) and to note that the word we have closest to “religion” is the non-exclusionary pantha (a way, a path) or sampradaya (a spiritual lineage or tradition). Thus, Christians were “ishupanthis” and Muslims “mohammadpanthis” till the colonial translation into English of dharma as “religion”. Then we began to reverse-translate the abrahamisms as “Isai dharma” and “Muslim dharma” and so, in English, we reduce our understanding of dharma to “religion”.

Thus, dharma is representative of dharmic traditions, such that its meaning and application is flexible, dynamic, contextual and ever-evolving, whereas religion is generally understood in its abrahamic application. The major distinctions between dharma and religion, and their traditions, can be categorised as Contextualism versus Absolutism, with the following sub-heads:
” Inherent Unity versus Synthetic Unity
” Non-linearity versus Linearity
” Structural Cooperation versus Structural Competition
” Equity versus Equality
” Beyond Causality versus Causal Reality

Contextualism versus Absolutism

Dharmic understanding evolves from an underlying non-duality, i.e., the inherent fundamental unity which then manifests itself into diversity. These multiple manifestations (nama, rupa) find expression as cosmos (brahmanda) and then nature (prakriti; distinct from the Samkhya prakriti). The cosmos finds expression in the play (lila) of creation, preservation and destruction in an infinite cycle. This is the macrocosm. In the microcosm, this cyclical play finds its expression through the yuga-s and the dharma appropriate to each yuga in the maintenance of order.
In the macrocosmic realm, the order governing the universe is rta. In the microcosmic realm, the mundane realm, rta finds expression as dharma. Thus, dharma is the arrangement in the world deriving from the cosmic one, aiming for order in the world, which otherwise would exist only in the hierarchical identities of biology.

Manifested multiplicity demands contextual understanding since all manifestations are various in expression. Variety needs consideration of desh, kala and patra. Desh is the spatial dimension, which is obviously non-linear. Kala is the temporal dimension which, with desh, is non-linear. Patra is the person, subject or object, in that space-time complex.

The interplay of desh, kala and patra provides a dynamic framework to determine the course of action in the mundane realm. Interestingly, the contextuality developed by the three is not perceived as a threat or conflict for the simple reason that contextual diversity is merely a manifestation of underlying unity.

This unity is not something beyond human potential. The unity can very much be experienced. The experiencing of unity transcends the being from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic realm. One who experiences the unity becomes unity itself. The rising to unity is not by denying the relative, but by transcending it.

Depending on the context a seeker (jijnasu) may chose the path suiting their temperament. The Gita suggests the three main paths as bhakti yoga, jnana yoga and karma yoga. Other paths include raja yoga, kundalini yoga and tantra yoga. The point remains that realising unity requires understanding of context. This is not to claim that without the contextual approach one cannot realise oneself. Realisation even without these approaches may be possible. However, here the concern is about maximising the probability and not merely banking on the possibility.

The abrahamic understanding central to the Western civilisational ethos postulates that the apparent duality is the ultimate reality. Its worldview derives authority and legitimacy from divine revelations to chosen beings or prophets. These revelations form the foundational pivot around which their entire worldview is constructed. Thus, the revelations perform as a rulebook. And the rulebook itself contains the code of punishment for not adhering to conduct as prescribed.

Any questioning of the rulebook is considered blasphemy. This imposes an absolute universalism with no consideration for contextual requirements, i.e., one law to be applied globally. Individual or group experiences contrary to the construction create a space for discontent and frustration and, thus, conflict.

In such a construction, all action is reduced into the binary framework of right versus wrong. This adversarial position of binaries leads to the exclusion of positions that are neither black nor white but are grey. In other words, conflict arises from the split between revelation and reason, and so of an inherently fragmented quality of reasoning and speculation.

Thus, psychological, social and religious conflicts are inevitable outcomes.

Inherent Unity versus Synthetic Unity

Dharmic tradition believes that the entire creation itself is the transformation of energy (which is power) into manifest and un-manifest forms. The energy which powers adi (beginning, creation) by transforming itself into bhootas (panchabhoot – agni, prithvi, aap, vayu, akash) and thus the cosmos. Therefore, all beings and non-beings too are a manifestation of the vibrating energy. Notably, the process of beginning is a cyclical process which actually makes it without any beginning or end. The entire cosmos is brahman. The universe is an expression of brahman; all beings are manifestations of brahman.

Therefore, despite apparent plurality, the ultimate reality is unity, non-duality. Be it human or not, all is the manifestation of unity. Therefore, all being interconnected, caring and compassion for all is the normative ideal.

Abrahamism sees all creation as a synthetic assimilation of incompatible components.[ ] Notwithstanding that “God” created man in his own image, “God” is distinct from the world. All created within the world are distinct from one another. Therefore, God and the world are disjointed entities which must be brought into artificial coherence to suit the synthetic worldview.

Non-linearity versus Linearity

The dharmic worldview is essentially non-linear. Non-linearity here incorporates the cyclical, the multidimensional, and something which finds expression even beyond the understanding of dimensions, whereas the abrahamic worldview sees creation and existence as linear, with a beginning and an end.

The conception of linearity and non-linearity has essentially to do with cognition and cognitive approaches. To make ideas, events and realities comprehensible to itself, abrahamic civilisations reduce everything to linearity. What does not fit their linear model becomes unreal to them. This is one reason why the abrahamic worldview, unlike the dharmic, is not comfortable with uncertainty, complexity and chaos.[2]

Structural Cooperation versus Structural Competition

Within the dharmic belief system, with the group as the unit of society, hierarchy takes the form of structural cooperation, both within and between groups. However, the modern framework of political economy, with the individual as the unit of society, even as it disavows hierarchy, fosters it through structural competition, where the winner takes all.

Homo aequalis is a mythical creature. Homo agonisticus is the centre of the Western worldview, certainly in its American expression. Competition serves as the determinant of human worth. The more successful an individual is in an agonistic encounter, the worthier they are considered as a human being.

The essence of competition has been described as mutually exclusive goal attainment. Therefore, for one to succeed others must fail. What matters is winning, narrow selfish winning, not how that victory has been achieved, not its cost, but winning – the winner takes all. And life itself as a contest (against against other living creatures, against death) is psychological indoctrination that is inculcated very early in this agonistic worldview.[3]

Equity versus Equality

The dharma postulates equity rather than equality. Equity has to do with fairness. The aiming for equity in due process reduces inequality within groups such that the group as the unit within society can thrive.

It is therefore that Louis Dumont and Edmund Leach could point out that, in Dumont’s words, that “the caste system should be seen as less `exploitative’ than democratic society. If modern man does not see it this way, it is because he no longer conceives justice other than as equality”[4]

The modern West aims at creating equality, to make everyone the same without understanding (or acknowledging) basic and sometimes necessary differences. However, given the fundamental design of synthetic assimilation, the result eventually is accelerated perpetuation of inequalities and conflicts and, of course, equity is beyond the scope of the design itself.

We have two contrasting lenses, one through which the perspective is flexible and adaptive, postulates real equity and not artificial equality, and proceeds in a non-linear multi-dynamic set-up; the other through which the perspective is of an absolute universalism, which is artificially constructed to suit the wants of the few (e.g., http://www.dailypioneer.com/top-stories/richest-1-own-58-of-total-wealth-in-india-oxfam.html). It proceeds only in a linear fashion with an inherent core rigidity.

Beyond Causality versus Causal Reality

Dharmic traditions have been making a profound use of logic and causality. This finds its roots in the Rig Veda, which later was systematized as anveksikı, nyaya, or tarka. Rig Veda 10.129, the Nasadiya Sukta, mentions a time that was neither existent nor non-existent. This forms the basis of representation of various logical forms that later gained a formal structure in Nyaya logic as the four circles of catuskoti: ‘A’, ‘not A’, ‘A and not A’, and ‘not A and not not A.( https://swarajyamag.com/culture/a-vedic-touch-to-logic-in-the-indian-thought)

Dharmic traditions approached at reality at two levels. In the mundane realm rationality was used and, therefore, it required and created a profound system to describe it; however, at another realm, it is transcendent.

The transcendental nature of reality can be found in paradoxical statements such as the individual self is the cosmic self (atman is brahman), or everything is brahman, it arises from itself, and when subtracted from itself it remains full (Brihadaranyaka Upanisad, 5.1.1).

The transcendental reality cannot be captured through ordinary human cognition and thus is beyond causality. However, it is worth noting that dharmic logic is different from ordinary binary or abrahamic logic. An attempt to explore the ultimate brahman via causality would help understanding the concept better.
Causality in Vedanta uses the clay-pot analogy to explain ordinary causality. The pot is not different from the clay in that it is the manifestation of clay itself, but not vice-versa.

That the pot exists can be claimed with certainty. The pot is manifestation of clay, i.e, only clay provides for the existence of the pot. So clay is the cause and pot is the effect. However, in Vedanta, even clay is an intermediate cause, what is caused by something else. That something else are the panchamahabhoota-s.

However, even panchamahabhoota-s are intermediary as they too are caused by some primordial being. That primordial matter is actually non-matter, which is the ultimate cause. Still, what causes the ultimate cause?

This question itself goes beyond the ordinary cognitive capacity and thus defies the idea of causality itself. Brahman, the ultimate reality, is believed to be uncaused cause. And through realisation one can become the uncaused cause. Following the causal logic, the very existence of the world can be seen as a testimony to the existence of some ultimate cause, brahman, which in turn is transcendental and thus beyond causality.

The Western idea of causality is very much confined to the physical and ontic realm. Any phenomenon which does not fit into the model of cause and effect is considered unreal. Reality has to test the parameters of physical cause and effect.
As can be observed from the above points, forceful, inorganic and artificial assemblage of incompatible building blocks makes both inception and ends of Western civilisation survive in deep internal conflict and contradiction.

Hierarchy in Nature – Order in Dharma

There is ample evidence to suggest that Nature manifests itself only in hierarchies.
“Animals and plants in nature are not after all engaged in endless debilitating struggle…..Nature is arranged so that competitive struggles are avoided…..Natural selection designs different kinds of animals and plants so that they avoid competition. A fit animal is not one that fights well, but one that avoids fighting all together…..Peaceful coexistence, not struggle, is the rule in our Darwinian world. A perfectly fashioned individual of a Darwinian species is programmed for a specialized life to be spent for the most part safe from competition with neighbors of other kinds.”[5]

Such is biology. Its cultural expression, however flawed, in the dharma is ahimsa, structured cooperation, jajmani relationships, and more.

Humans are animals. This is biology. Humans are culture-producing animals. Humans as sapient are the consequence of the interaction between our biology and our culture. Dharmic civilization endeavours through culture to transcend our biology. Asuric civilizations, such as the abrahamic, endeavour through culture to confront or deny our biology. Dharmic civilization sees all creation as interconnected; asuric civilizations see creation discretely, to be subjugated by the human. Power in the former is to be sought ultimately over oneself; in the latter, over others.

Dharmic traditions visualise the hierarchy at the cosmic realm too as in, for example, may there be order in antariksha, on earth, in water bodies, in herbs, in vegetation, among deva-s, in the cosmos (Yajur Veda, 36.17), order within and among all realms which, in turn can be interpreted as reflecting hierarchy.

Perceivable order can be understood to be that which relates human beings to other aspects of srishti. So, in the political realm, in order to overcome the state of anarchy (matsyanyaya) the concept of the rajya, as a worldly grouping, came into the picture. The rajya, which replicates the cosmic order, is for the best interest of all, even those who are left a little behind (in our perception) in the karmic cycle.

Order at large sets a normative ideal towards which the dharmic traditions strive. This does not necessarily imply that groups live in perfection, but implies that the average degree of order (in comparison to abrahamic traditions) is significantly higher. An analogy to understand this claim could be that moksha exists as the ultimate goal in the purushartha-s; however, not all realise it, yet it serves a direction and ideal which in turn facilitates transcendence of the human level.

The abrahamic traditions claim to present the equality of humans as created beings, and use this to denigrate dharmic traditions as discriminating between humans. Their reality is the reverse.

Hierarchical structure in Islam and Christianity

In Islam the first and the primary hierarchy is between a momin and a kafir, i.e., the believer and the infidel, and the kafir by definition can never be equal to the momin. Momins are the superior and worthy of the grace of Allah, whereas kafirs are worthy only of Allah’s wrath, finding expression in jihad. Basically, this translates to the duty of the momin to convert or kill the kafir. (https://krishenkak.wordpress.com/2006/09/27/107-the-worst-of-created-beings/)

Kafirs do not deserve to live, such is their inferiority. Now, within the momins, the momin male is hierarchically superior to the momin female. However, the momin female is still superior to the kafir male. The lowest of all amongst humans is the kafir female, whose primary utility is as a sex slave to the momin male. And there are hierarchical differences too amongst momin males or their sects.

The ideal social order in Islam has the cleric, the alim, at the top. The primary function of the ulema is the execution of the sharia in all socio-politico-economic realms to ensure that this hierarchical structure is maintained and each constituent lives their position in it.

Then Islamic sects have internal hierarchical class divisions of momin males – men of pen, men of sword, men of business, and husbandmen. Basically, these four divisions represent the learned, the warriors, the artificers and merchants, and husbandmen and labourers. Rulers are to preserve this social order ordained by Allah. Islam acknowledges the necessity of inequality [6].

In India, these Islamic inequalities find further expression in the difference of status between the ashraf (descendents of the invaders) and the ajlaf (indigenous converts) and there is inequality within the ashraf and ajlaf too derived from their pre-conversion status, with the arzal at the very bottom.

Hierarchy in Christianity parallels that of Islam. The Christian male is superior to the Christian female. The former is in Jehovah’s image; the latter is made from a bone of the former. The Christian, male or female, is superior to the heathen and, amongst Christians themselves, the White is superior to the Black, with the Yellow and the Brown lower than the White but outranking the Black. Basically, this translates too to the duty of the believer to enslave, “save” or, if both fail, kill the heathen. (https://krishenkak.wordpress.com/2006/11/02/108-slay-them-before-me/)

In India, these Christian inequalities find further expression in the difference of status derived from their pre-conversion status.


Nature is hierarchical. Place in the hierarchy is through an expression of power which, in Nature, is primarily biological. The human expression of power, and therefore place in the human hierarchy, is primarily cultural.
Cultures valorize different forms of power.

In a dharmic civilization, biological power is sought to be transcended through a normative ideal of an ordered process to attain power over oneself. Hierarchy in Nature is endeavoured to be transcended, through an ordering understood as dharma, intended ultimately to be power over oneself.

Abrahamic civilizations confront biology and Genesis 1.26-29 is explicit that the normative ideal is the conquest of Nature. This includes all biological beings, all human beings not of the abrahamism, the attainment of power over others and, indeed, has evolved to include power and control over all srishti (e.g., the “conquest of space”).

An abrahamic civilization is, therefore, inherently himsak. A dharmic civilization is, therefore, inherently ahimsak. It is not the case at all that it cannot be violent.[7] But the violence is conditioned by the normative ideal –

ahimsa satyavacanam sarvabhutahitam param
ahimsa paramo dharmah sa ca satye pratisthitah
satye krtva pratistham tu pravartante pravrttayah
– Vana Parva 198.69


[[1]]  Rajiv Malhotra, “Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism”, HarperCollins, 2013.

[2]  ibid., pp. 8, 167.

[3]  https://krishenkak.wordpress.com/1990/06/30/enucleated-universes/ Part 2, pp.73-108.

[4]  ibid., p.79.

[5]  Paul Colinvaux, “Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare”, Princeton, 1979:136-149.

[6] Ainslie T Embree (ed), “Sources Of Indian Tradition”, vol. 1: “From the Beginning to 1800”, Penguin Books India, 1992: 430-436.

[7]  dharma himsa tathaiva  cha –  http://www.hindupedia.com/en/Ahimsa_Paramo_Dharma