Dharma and Artha: Chicken and Egg?

The length of the hiatus between this and my previous post is testament to the rigours of a term at Cambridge. To say that we’re a little pushed for time is an understatement.  In the UK, both Sangh and NHSF have done a very good job of putting the idea of sewa (selfless service) across. Initiatives such as Sewa Day, Cycle 4 Sewa, and in fact the very nature of the work done have resulted in a far greater awareness of sewa, and hopefully a development of the sewa bhaav within individuals over time. In a climate where lapsing into self-interest is not all that difficult, the idea of selflessness is refreshing. The idea which I wish to discuss, however, is altogether more nuanced and academic.

The central idea which I wish to consider is whether there are any limits on our capacity for selflessness. The orthodox position of putting the needs of others before the needs of oneself is also considered to extend to those who have nothing. A almost pure form of sewa is that where someone who has nothing nevertheless puts the needs of others before their own and goes and helps them in some way. This is caught by our encouragement of all selfless action; what we have shouldn’t in theory matter to us, but instead we should be focused on what we can do for others. In theoretical terms, this is largely unproblematic. But consider the following example: a homeless and destitute person puts the needs of another before their own and helps this other person, but does so to their detriment.

I think it is very easy to dismiss this as unproblematic on the grounds that it fits the theoretical paradigm that I have set out above. Such an example does, however, raise the question of whether we should in fact be encouraging people to act to their own detriment for the benefit of others. In my view, we would not need to be encouraging sewa if the concepts of selflessness and altruism were already instilled within and acted upon by human beings. This means that a reciprocal act of sewa from the person helped in our example is not the most likely, nor can the homeless person expect reciprocity without blunting their very act of sewa, since central to the concept of sewa is that we expect nothing in return for an act of sewa. In light of this, encouraging sewa where it will be of detriment to the sevak seems a little foolish on a broader view. Paternalistic though this may be, it does not feel quite right to me to allow someone to harm themselves despite the moral righteousness of their action.

This alternate view does, however, present its own issues. Taken to its logical conclusion, it suggests that there is a threshold below which people should be discouraged from doing sewa for their own benefit. This seems at odds with not only individual autonomy, but tenets of inclusiveness, and the idea that anyone can do sewa because it engages a question not of what we already have but what we can do in order to help others. Embracing a more paternalistic view of sewa may therefore be more appropriate on a practical plane, but introduces contradictions on a theoretical one. Unfortunately, I find myself at this point having to sit on the fence between two equally problematic cases. This issue also engages deeper philosophical questions which I think can appropriately be considered at this point.

Hinduism recognises four purusharthas, which can loosely be translated as ‘aims of life’ which seek to create a balance between the spiritual and material within each individual. They are dharma, artha (prosperity and economic values), kama (pleasure and psychological values) and the ultimate aim, moksha (liberation or salvation). The orthodox position is that artha and kama are sought in the earlier and middle stages of life, and dharma sought towards the end of life. This largely accords with what our social responsibilities at different points in our lives: we must be educated, support ourselves and our families through work, and pursue the abstract after retirement. Whilst we traditionally list the four purusharthas as dharma, artha, kama and moksha, this suggests that artha, kama, dharma, moksha seems a more appropriate order.

There are schools of thought which prioritise artha, on the basis that every human being should attempt to make a living for themselves, and those which prioritise kama, in the sense of the aesthetic enjoyment of life. Yet there is a general consensus that both artha and kama must be conducted in conformity with dharma on both normative grounds (for the sake of doing so) and on instrumental grounds in order to achieve moksha. My view is very much that in the absence of dharma, artha can quickly descend into greed and avarice, and kama into the selfish fulfilment of one’s desires. A basis of dharma is essential before even beginning to engage in artha or kama in order to ensure that these two areas are life are being approached in the right way and for the right reasons. This, however, seems to conflict with the social responsibility model above. Surely we are better placed to secure our futures from an earlier point and consider the abstract when we have had more experience of the world?

This creates an almost classical ‘chicken-and-egg’ case: it seems necessary that dharma come before artha, but equally, artha is best placed first. As I have already set out, I am in favour of the view that dharma must come before artha, although I must regrettably sit on the fence on the issue of sewa on which I began. In combination, the two issues which I have considered raise questions over the ways in and time at which certain moral values are to be integrated within our lives. For now, however, it seems there are no clear answers; questions lead only to more questions.


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