Practical Vedanta

Jaldhar H. Vyas jaldhar at BRAINCELLS.COM
Tue May 18 02:32:50 CDT 1999

On Mon, 17 May 1999, Sankaran Panchapagesan wrote:

> Hi.
>         I'd like to present my own thoughts and doubts on what I think was
> the original issue, since I don't think Ramakrishnan and Jaldhar objected
> to the original topic of discussion. Hope people will forgive me if I say
> anything "off-limits" for the list and point it out to me in that case.  I
> request people to correct me if I am wrong anywhere.

No the subject is important and deserves to thought about carefully.

>         From what I can see, Anand Hudli's main point was that the first
> and foremost thing is to do our own dharma. Even if by neglecting our
> dharma, a lot of (what is commonly perceived as) good might result (as in
> Lord Rama's case)  or a lot of (what is perceived as) bad might be avoided
> (in Arjuna's case)  we should not neglect our own dharma.
>         But since most of us are not in such cases as Arjuna and Rama
> were, where we have to make a critical decision, it seems to me that the
> problem here is, more basically, what is our dharma? Is social service
> included in it or not?

>         I think after the advent of Christianity/Christian missions in
> India, there was a feeling among our national leaders like Gandhi & co.
> and is many educated people that our dharma system was deficient in that
> it did not emphasize social service. There is a feeling that this is
> something that is worthwhile adopting from Christianity.

The ironic thing is that historically this hasn't been much of a Christian
idea either.  Missionaries have been in India since the time of Vasco Da
Gama etc.  (The Malabar Christians are even older of course but they
didn't proselytize AFAIK)  Those missionaries saw their job as simply
spreading the Gospel of Jesus rather than reforming society.  It was only
in the 19th century when Christianity was going through its own crisis of
faith (due to agnostic/atheistic progressive philoophies) that this kind
of missionary work became a religious ideal.

 > The only sort-of
> relevant duty of brahmins which might be termed "social-service" seems to
> me the performing of yajnas etc. for the general well-being of the people
> (not for personal gains).
> It all I think depends on whether you believe
> this is going to help or not.
>         Our whole dharma system depends to a large extent on faith, which
> I think people no longer have too much in. One is born into a certain
> varNa, one does one's duty without any questioning, and basically believe
> that if one does one's duty and lives virtually, one will obtain a better
> birth conducive to getting moksha. Firstly, people no longer have definite
> belief in this kind of reasoning, and secondly, it is no longer clear what
> one's dharma is.

In both cases, the reason is mainly ignorance rather than some sea change
in the human condition.

>         Also, the varNASrama system really has not much relevance to most
> of us right now. For e.g.:  According to the smRtis (Manu?) is it not part
> of brahmin law that they are supposed to live only off begging, should not
> accumulate wealth, etc.?

The Mitakshara and other Dharmashastras list four different ways of life
for a Brahman which I can't list off the top of my head but I'm pretty
sure at least some of them involve accumulation of wealth.  Of course this
wealth should be used to Dharmic ends but not necessarily to the extent
that one is reduced to penury.

In the Brhadaranyakopanishad King Janaka offers a 1000 cows to the person
who will explain Brahmavidya and Maharshi Yagnavalkya gladly takes them.
We have many examples of Rshis and Pandits who were wealthy householders
as well as those who were forest hermits.

> I believe so. In that case, I don't think any
> brahmin is valid in arguing like Jaldhar did (please don't get pained, I
> am mentioning your name since you explicitly stated it, not that peple
> like me are any different), asking why we should not seek comfort, etc.
> If I am right, smRti explicitly asks a brahmin to set an example by following
> the various vows strictly, and trying to minimize his wants by learning to
> live with as little as possible, and then devoting his life strictly to
> the study of the vedas, scriptures or a few other permissible occupations.

As I said before I believe you are only partially right and there is scope
for seeking pleasure.

If you look at what specifically is laid down as nitya karma for Brahmans,
you find it doesn't take more than an hour-hour and a half per day.  Add
an extra hour or so for daily svadhyaya and you still have enough of
what the shastras would consider "spare time" left over to do a job and
make some money.

And what can you do with that money?  You can subsidize the sanyasi and
other who truly renounced.  You can support maths, pathshalas and mandirs.
I don't know if you saw it but earlier in this thread I gave the example
of my growing Sanskrit library.  If I had no money I would have remained
ignorant.  If I'm not, it is because I have the purchasing power to be
able to get Sanskrit books and the leisure time to read them.

> When very few brahmins are doing that today, most brahmins of modern India
> (or the world) don't qualify at all to be called as brahmins.

But they can do it.  They just need to make the effort.

>         Actually, this is not a recent issue, and is one of the objections
> the Buddha raised against the caste system of the time, when a number of
> brahmins were wealthy and corrupt. I know Buddhism is not to be discussed
> on this list, but the Dhammapada the basic buddhist book of morals and
> guidelines has a section on who a true brahmin is (in the Buddha's eyes),
> which I believe is not far from what our own smRtis say, and is worth
> reading.

Actually it is pre-Buddhistic.  There has always been a certain tension in
Indian culture between te worldly, and ascetic lifes.  What is new is all
these uninformed modern types who try and make a hodge-podge of the two.

>         Regarding Ramana Maharishi's views on AtmavicAra, can the
> interpretation be that one should indeed give an important place to
> AtmavicAra, but should in fact, devote one's entire life to it, without
> any regard for comfort, wealth, and even food (living on begging or on
> chance, etc.). I think Sankaracharya is strict on this issue, right?

Well He is very clear that Moksha is the exclusive province of the
sannyasi and the best a grhastha can do is the preliminaries.  But that
doesn't make the grhasthashram invalid or even inferior, just designed for
a different type of person.

>         Certainly, one should not live comfortably in America, try to
> increase one's wealth and comfort, and when asked whether one should not
> contribute positively to the society, answer and say one is doing
> AtmavicAra? Is it not that these (social works) are essential social
> obligations of the present age, which must be forsaken for AtmavicAra only
> if at the same time the "good" things of social life, like comfort,
> pleasure, etc. are aso forsaken? Is trying to use Ramana Maharishi's
> philosophy as a justification for not doing social service while enjoying
> the benefits of the society, not a form of escapism as Madhavan Srinivasan
> argued?

The problem with the argument as formulated above is that it makes a false
oposition between Dharma and social service as if they were north and
south poles. A good deal of Dharma is concerned with other people and a
good deal of "social service" is injurious rather than helpful to society.

Jaldhar H. Vyas <jaldhar at>

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