At the end of a vicious battle against the Kalingas, the Mauryan king Ashoka surveyed the carnage. Stricken with remorse as he surveyed the dead bodies strewn on the field, Ashoka dedicated himself to creating a just kingdom, a regime in which justice would be extended to all beings, human and non-human.
Chances are this story is apocryphal; that the extent of the violence was exaggerated in order to highlight the emperor’s subsequent transformation. It is likely that the promise of justice was greater than the actual achievement. Ashoka’s ideals didn’t survive through the centuries. India remains a country of prejudices and systematic inequality. That said, Ashoka’s actions give us hope. A wheel was set into motion. The framework he was drawing from remains powerful, a leap of the moral imagination that continues to inspire. That imagination revolves around a single term: dharma.
Teachings on Dharma- the order and harmony in nature and commensurately, actions that follow and uphold this universal order- abound in Indian thought and literature. The idea of a universal order tied to one’s conscience isn’t unique to Indian traditions; poets and philosophers have always speculated about the relationship between the inner world and the outer world. For example, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant once said “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within.” Still, few traditions have explored the connection as deeply and as thoroughly as the various Indian traditions and their cousins in the rest of Asia.
What’s the nature of that truth and how should we understand it today?
Perhaps the ancients captured a universal reality unchanging through time and space. If so, our quest has ended; our ancestors stumbled upon a remedy for all of the world’s problems. But we may not want to limit our imagination to the discoveries of the past, howsoever brilliant they might be. It is also entirely possible that today’s reality is very different from any that our ancestors might have imagined. Instead of following the Dharma by accepting the past’s hold on the future, we should reenact it and in doing so make it alive.
If the past is to inspire rather than restrict we should look at our history objectively; not just to uncover the facts, but to discern norms and values that have changed and are no longer acceptable. An uncritical adoption of our past and its lessons is at best simplistic and at its worst, dangerous. While classical texts can act as signposts, ultimately, we have to lean upon our own conscience as a guide to our modern predicament. Our goal is simple to state if staggeringly ambitious to achieve:
How do we bring an ethic of nonviolence and respect for all forms of life on this earth and weave it into our everyday being while making it a part of social policy?
In addressing this question, we have embarked upon a cosmopolitan re-imagination of Dharma, that which offers a liberating vision for all sentient beings. Dharmapolis is an exploration of our collective conscience.
The Dangers of Sectarianism
“Dharma” is a Sanskrit term; its use can easily be construed as tacit support for a particular religious tradition. While Latin terms have become secularized and are safely universalized across nations, Sanskrit terminology still inspires suspicion. We are conscious of that dilemma. While we are clear that dharma transcends specific cultural or religious boundaries, there’s no easy path towards universal values.
We are aware there is immense uneasiness with Hindu majoritarian values taking centerstage in India and we share that discomfort. Apart from the obvious social problems created by majoritarianism, there’s the increasing danger of irreversible harm to an entire intellectual tradition. By very association with a sectarian ideology, it stands to be dismissed by progressives. We worry about making Dharma too narrow, for example, by equating it with any particular religion. There’s a strand of contemporary Hindu discourse that simultaneously tries to construe the entire world as part of one family and to restrict full belonging only to certain people and practices. They aren’t willing to admit the existence of clearly anachronistic elements, including the treatment of lower castes and women. We find this contradiction difficult to sustain. We cannot be universal and partisan at the same time. There is no glorious, unblemished past; only the long history of India, with both good and bad and there are definite lessons in the past that can lend to a framework for our ethical and moral journey in today’s world.
Dharma itself risks this very fate. The pitfalls of letting sectarian elements appropriate Dharma and consequently all Dharmic thought and history are aplenty. Sadly, and almost signalling complicity, the intellectual left has all but agreed to this takeover by the right without a murmur otherwise. Dharmapolis is a direct response to this dilemma; we aren’t ready to surrender these terms to a fractious movement and the only way we know to tackle sectarian concerns is to show how these ideas can be truly liberating.
That said, we aren’t interested in taking a defensive posture vis-a-vis the past. We are happy to admit there there are no easy answers; In fact, we don’t take our role to be that of providing answers at all. Instead, we want to open a space for new questions, which is why we are focusing on the moral imagination rather than moral reality. It is through the exercise of the imagination that we can forge a new path. Our success lies in persuading you that the future of Dharma lies in its vision for the world that’s arising, rather than its evocation of a perfect past. Borrowing another term from ancient India but pleading separation from all religious connotations it holds, we are adopting a Middle Path that we call Dharmapolitanism.