Vikramjit Banerjee
The Bhagavad Gita , Dharma and Freedom of Choice
This article originally appeared in CRI content has now been subsumed in The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of

The style of the present piece is completely and deliberately Bharatiya (Indic).It adopts the question answer method between the Guru  (the teacher – the expounder) and the Shishya ( the disciple – the question raiser ) which has been consistently used in Indic treatises , from that of  Bhagwan Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita to Mahatma Gandhi in his seminal work Hind Swaraj . The piece deliberately does not use foot notes as Indic writing believes that any knowledge gained is not static and does not belong to the person who enunciated it and is only an interpretation of the inherited existing corpus of knowledge in its entirety.

Shishya: Why do you say that the Bhagavad Gita advocates “Market Economy or Freedom of choice” values?

Guru: The Bhagavad Gita enunciates that every person acting in accordance with dharma must therefore try to predominate all his actions by sattvika (purity). Since for every atman ( spirit ) to function in the world , it continuously acts under the influences of three gunas ( forces ) namely, sattvika  ( that which is pure  ) , rajasika  ( that which is kingly ) and tamasika ( that which is dark ). Though it is acceptable that every person in every situation will act in consonance with all the above forces, though predominated by one of the above mentioned choices. The Bhagavad Gita enunciates that every entity must in the interests of moksha / nirvana (the escape from the eternal circle of birth and death) try to predominate its actions with the sattvika guna, then the rajasika guna and then the tamasika guna in that order. This is the eternal dharma for every entity in the world.

The Bhagavad Gita then goes on to list out what are the actions arising out of each of the above mentioned forces. The list is large, but it is sufficient that we list some of the relevant ones below to indicate what is being spoken about (in the canto xviii, slokas (stanzas) 29 – 35 :

i)  Sattvika is the mind that knows what should be done and what should not be the difference between right and wrong, bondage and liberation, fear and fearlessness.

Rajasika is the mind that is muddled on the meaning of dharma and adharma.

tamasika, is the mind that thinks vice is virtue, adharma is dharma

ii) Sattvika , is the discipline that organizes the mind ,the life breath , and the senses

Rajasika, is the discipline that leads to wealth, success, and honour

Tamasika, is the discipline that breeds sloth, fear, grief, worry, and conceit

The objective of the Bhagavad Gita is therefore not to restrict any action, nor to bar any choice, it just demands from its actors (as indeed every person is an actor in the web of dharma) to exercise their choices in an enlightened manner in the interests of the preservation of one’s own dharma as well as the dharma of the entire world, an exercise of enlightened encapsulation of the values of “freedom of choice”, if there ever was one.

Shishya: What then is the conception of Karma Yoga and unattached action and why do you say that this is the basis of “free economy” values on Dharmic society?

Guru:  The Bhagavad Gita endorses the ideal of unattached work in canto iii on the subject of Karma Yoga (Yoga of work), but it however cautions every person from being attached to the fruits of one’s work / action / labour. This seems to be a radical departure from the experience of western Europe, which mandates that there cannot be economic free market without the exercise of the right of a person to the fruits of his labour, but in the Indic as indeed in the experience of the non western way of life, such an approach is indeed acceptable and deemed to be an honorable thing to do. It must be noted here that the Bhagavad Gita is clearly emphatic that it is better to work than not to work, since inaction will not keep even the body together (canto iii stanza 8).The Bhagavad Gita says that work is the dharma of every person.The Bhagavad Gita illustrates the point by saying that a wise man must work, even like a work obsessed fool, but he should shed selfishness, and pursue knowledge in the course of his work.

The Bhagavad Gita warns every person against anger and greed as the motivators of their work since greed destroys judgment, and fools the wise and is an inherent part of every person’s mind, intellect and senses. The Bhagavad Gita further repeats it’s oft quoted extract that it is always better to perform one’s own dharma however imperfect, than the dharma of another however perfect. Death in one’s own dharma is preferable than another’s dharma, which is treacherous. The intention of the Bhagavad Gita is clearly an indication that work is better for the normal person in every day society than renunciation which may be acceptable for a certain section who have renounced the world but which is very dangerous indeed for those with obligations to others and the society that is every other ordinary person.

The Bhagavad Gita therefore clearly endorses the individual’s right to work in accordance with what the person is in a position to do, in fact the Bhagavad Gita directs that the dharma of any person is not to renounce work but to work, but the Bhagavad Gita also discusses that such work must be performed without attachment for the objects and unalloyed by desire. In other words, the Bhagavad Gita speaks about a voluntary and enlightened self restraint by the wise from working for the sake of reward or for the sake of merely work itself.

Shishya: Why do you say that the conception “Svadharma” allows choices for oneself in accordance with social interests?

Guru:   Every person has a certain individual Dharma in the world that is their inherent nature which is their Svadharma (Own Dharma).Every person by following their Svadharma confirms to the larger path of Dharma of the society as indeed the universe and the world. These actions are not imposed on any individual and the Bhagavad Gita clearly says that they are merely prescriptive for those inclined to follow the path of Dharma and the individual does not follow these prescriptions at their own peril of committing Adharma ( a fall from Dharma ). The choices are left on the individual and never imposed.The Bhagavad Gita suggests and prescribes only certain courses of actions for individuals but never attempts to regulate the course of life ( unlike the common misconception perpetuated by a large number of”secular” scholars of the Bhagavad Gita )  of that individual person.

Svadharma arises from the place of the person in the world, and is dependent on the Varna-Ashrama (Position and Age) of the person. The Bhagavad Gita says that the dharma of every Varna is different , whether they be the Brahman ( the intellectual ) , the Kshatriya ( the imperial ) , the Vaisya ( the commoner ) or the Shudra ( who serve ).  The Bhagavad Gita also clearly states that the position of the person in this hierarchy is dependent on one’s own Karma (actions committed in the present world ) and inclination and not on any position attained by the virtue of one’s birth.

The Bhagavad Gita endorses the conception therefore of unfettered individual action made in accordance with the interests of the society and social order which is the root of Dharma of the world. The Bhagavad Gita asks the person making choices in the world to remember his position and his obligations to the society while making his decisions.The Bhagavad Gita clearly enunciates that it is not incumbent on the society to impose its values on individuals but it is the obligation of individuals to chose the best path keeping in mind the interests of the world and society exemplified in Dharma.

The Bhagavad Gita says that one’s own Dharma , however imperfect , is a safer guide than another’s Dharma however perfect and it is one’s own conscience which decides on which is the best dharma to be exercised ( canto xviii , stanza 47 ). The Bhagavad Gita says that there are no dictated choices , but merely paths which are surer and it is safer to follow one’s inherent inclination dictated by one’s own inherent capabilities than following another’s  which may be relevant for someone else. The conception of Svadharma or the right to choose one’s path based on the inherent capabilities and inclinations of each person is which makes values of the Bhagavad Gita closely resemble those of a “ free economy ”.

ShishyaIs there an inherent obligation to be “self restrained” in action and where does “ rights” fit into all this ?

Guru : The  Dharmic society works on an inherent code which is built in it’s social system. It is built on unfettered action, where the ruler does not interfere in the lives of the people, but where self regulation promoted by social sanction is the key to social governance.  The idea of self regulation is an inherent part of the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita. The Bhagavad Gita stresses time and again that self restraint is the only way to achieve detachment from the material world without removing oneself from it. The Bhagavad Gita says that while it is important for men to work in the world ( since otherwise chaos would engulf the world and all beings will perish ) –  an example which Bhagwan Sri Krishna gives is of himself – though he is a manifestation of the “Supreme” he still works since not working would set a bad example for the rest of the world ( canto iii stanza 24 ) – such work should be governed by detachment from the fruits of action and self regulation so as not to be a slave to the idea of work itself ( canto iii stanza 25 ) and the person’s ego and greed.

The Dharmic does not see the world in terms of entitlements and rights; he sees the world in terms of Dharma, a mixture of the spiritual and temporal system as explained above. The formation of the classical Dharmic conception of “an economic model” is therefore not articulated through the rights paradigm but through a completely different paradigm of social governance. This method is uniquely Dharmic, and its vision of the world envisages an order of “free choices”, that includes the entertainment of different ideas of pathways to the “Supreme” and a system of governance which governs the least but exercises moral authority over its people.

The economics of a government which follows Dharma or a Dharma Rajya would have a vision resembling a “free market economic” model, but which would use dharma or the inherent moral understanding of every constituent to regulate those who get overtaken by greed and work and are unable to regulate themselves. The power of regulation is therefore the exercise of the Raj Dharma (the ruler’s Dharma) to assist its people to follow their own dharma. The Bhagavad Gita clearly endorses the idea of minimal interference by the ruler in the lives of the people , coupled with the responsibility to all the members of the society to act in accordance with social good and the obligation of the ruler to assist every individual to act for social good if need by punishment ( Danda).

Shishya: What then should be the basis of the fiscal and financial management of the projected Dharma Rajya?

Guru: The conception of any decision in  Sanatan Dharmic thought is based on the conception of a triad which forms the basis of any person’s actions in the world. This triad is the eternal options for actions dictated by Dharma (that which protects the eternal order), Artha (that which is profitable) and Kama (that which is pleasurable). To enunciate the Dharma and the ideal choices , there were the Dharmashastras ( the texts on Dharma ), for Artha ,there were the Arthashstras ( the text on Artha ) and for Kama , there was the Kamashastras ( the texts on Kama of which the now famous Kamasutra bases its ideology on  ) . Each and every one of the above mentioned paths had deep philosophical reasoning for the choices that they brought along with them, and in each category the nature of the texts differ, in Dharmashastras the rules are prescriptive, since they are idealized, in Arthashstras, they are binding on the authorities who run the government and in Kamashastras, they are justificatory of the choices which every person makes in their lifetime.

There is great dispute as to which one of the paths are the best but the large consensus seems to be a combination of all three, or at least two and never one in disregard of the other two.

It is therefore the Kamasutra of Vatsayana, which justifies most vociferously the idea of social freedom of choice and “free market” as a philosophy, even though it never proposes an unfettered socially liberal state in a classical sense.

It is the Arthashstra of Kautilya which indicates clearly the nature of actual political economy of the Dharmic state. The Arthashstra of Kautilya itself while not endorsing the right of social liberalism per se espouses the benefits of a “free market” economy.

The Arthashstra of Kautilya stresses on community and people participation in state projects in order to ensure that the projects are successfully executed. It enjoins on the ruler to ensure protection of trade routes and to free such routes from harassment by courtiers, state officials and frontier guards amongst others.

The Arthashstra of Kautilya puts the responsibility of the protection of trade clearly on the government officials and casts an obligation on them to protect trade traffic being carried under their auspices. The failure in their duties brings in very strict punishment including total compensation to the traders for the value of the goods lost in the area of the government official

The Arthashstra of Kautilya also encourages exports for profit and for strategic reasons (as well as imports since it helps the economy of the country.

The Arthashstra of Kautilya even suggests methods to protect the consumer in the free market in a very detailed and elaborate manner, as also fair trading practices and the right of private property and the ruler’s obligation to protect it, and, contractual and labour rights.

The Arthashstra of Kautilya actively encourages charity and asks that the ruler to do the same in order to increase people participation in the government of the state.

The Arthashstra of Kautilya therefore in compliance with Dharmic philosophy of governance and life also clearly espouses a regulatory government, where the government is ideologically oriented towards the protection of the market and freedom of trade but a state which also keeps a keen and strict eye towards the misuse of the freedoms given above.  The method by which the Arthashstra of Kautilya regulates such economic freedom is through a very detailed and specific list of fines and punishment. It almost seems that the Arthashstra of Kautilya also talks about an ideal Rajya (territory) which is governed by a “free market” tempered by inherent self restraint.

This self restraint does not arise out of state control per se but from the obligation on every person to act in the interests of the society. The ideal role of the state i.e. Raj Dharma is to merely to facilitate ,  regulate and assist the process through both rewards and penalizations through the use of Danda a conception which is more fully described in the Dharmashastra of Manu and the Kural of Thiru Valluvar.

Shishya: People say that creation of wealth and Dharma are opposed to each other since Dharma encourages renunciation and poverty. What is the relationship of Dharma to individual wealth and poverty?

 Guru: Poverty is something which is not considered in Dharma to be per se a bad thing. However it must be understood that renunciation and poverty is not the same thing. Alternate Dharmic literature whether they be the Dhammapada , Akaranga Sutra or the Guru Granth concentrate on extolling the virtue on non attachment and even deliberate poverty as a way to avoid the bondage of attachment and spiritual realization. Even the Bhagavad Gita promotes non attachment to wealth as indeed to everything since attachment results in the failing of a person to act in terms of his dharma. The Dhammapada however clearly a state that spiritual realization does not mean poverty itself and it is possible for the wealthy to achieve spiritual realization as long as the person does not injure others in the process.

The Dhammapada also stresses on generosity and says that generosity is a laudable thing and should be praised and those that are stingy do not go to the world of the gods. Guru Nanak Devji in Jupji in the Guru Granth also says that hunger cannot be satiated by mere piling of worldly goods …and charity brings merit however insignificant ….but that mere self imposed poverty does not make a person a true believer, the mark of the faithful is that they are bound to Dharma but in Siree Raag he clearly says that wealth is not bad per se but the object of every individual should be a higher purpose and not mere collection of wealth. The Bhagavad Gita speaks little about wealth but it clearly states that creation of wealth is not bad for those inclined to do so as part of their own material nature in accordance with the varna-ashrama- dharma as long as they fulfill their duties diligently ( Canto xviii , sloka 41-46 ).

The lessons of Bhishma of the Shantiparva of the Mahabharata however clearly states that Dharma , Artha and Kama can only exist side by side when a man amasses wealth always caring to walk in the path of Dharma. Bhishma further states in the Shantiparva in the Mahabharata that wealth arises out of virtue and pleasure is the fruit of wealth but puts a caveat that the object of acquiring of wealth should be to be spent without any desire for the fruits of the wealth.

Shishya : Would this sort of thinking not lead to widening the divide between the rich and the poor. How would the society take into account the interests of the millions of poor in India who exist in India on the present day?

 Guru: This is the most important problem which faces every society today is the division between the rich and poor. There is a danger in a mindless application of Dharmic norms or the norms of the Bhagavad Gita leading to an anarchic economic laissez faire state, which would not be a correct interpretation of Raj Dharma. Swami Vivekananda in his Karma Yoga wrote that a duty of a house holder is to acquire wealth and a householder who does not struggle to acquire wealth is immoral. Swami Vivekananda says that the worship of a householder is to acquire and spend wealth nobly and this act of acquiring and distribution of wealth is on the same level as that of an anchorite praying in his cell. Swami Vivekananda specifically states that the householder by digging tanks , planting trees , by establishing rent houses for men and animals , by making roads and building bridges moves to the same goal as the highest yogi.

Swami Vivekananda in his speech at the Rameshwaram Temple on the 27th January , 1897 said that he who wants to serve Shiva must serve His children – must serve all creatures in this world first. Mahatma Gandhi in his treatise Hind Swaraj discusses the problem of British Rule in great detail but does not ever condemn the creators of wealth in the country. He however enjoins the wealthy to be righteous and charitable. It is essential to note that in subsequent articles and works (as will be discussed later); Mahatma Gandhi dealt with the question of wealth and its creation in greater depth. Mahatma Gandhi on clarifying what Swaraj meant said that Swaraj comes from Vedic word meaning self rule and self restraint. Subsequently clarifying what he meant by Swaraj, he said that ideally Swaraj would ensure that the common people would share the same necessaries and amenities as those of moneyed men.

Mahatma Gandhi envisaged a country where there would be full employment and rich would not indulge in unnecessary expenditure but would use their riches wisely and usefully and since there would be no usurpation there would be no need to remove usurpers by force.  In other words both Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi stressed on the creation of wealth but effectively laid the onus on the wealthy to act for the benefit of the poor and create circumstances for their development and be involved in the development of the Indian society.

They also spoke about wealth as a responsibility to make the life of all other members of the society better and not merely a tool to enjoy a better life. It is surprising that the generators of wealth in India are not involved in the alleviation of poverty in India and the Government of India attempts to do the work of dealing with physical poverty without involving the creators and the generators of wealth. By the said attempts of poverty alleviation independent of the creators and generators of wealth, the Indian state is failing in its Raj Dharma to oversee that the creators and generators of wealth fulfill their obligations to the rest of the society in accordance with their own Dharma and their unique position in society…

Shishya: What is the ideal Dharmic model of a system reflecting Dharma-Artha-Kama for the present day Dharmic society?

Guru :  The ideology of any Dharma Rajya has to be one of enlightened restraint in consonance with the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita and the Dharma , Aretha , Kama triad of life. The Dharmic ideal does not proscribe any action but it prescribes a certain path for the society and depends on the individual to voluntarily follow the prescriptions in the interests of maintaining Dharma. There may be other ways to achieve welfare for the people all over the world but there seems to be at present only two ways which deal and grapple with the economic dilemma which the Dharmic society faces in the world today. Sadly, both these pathways have been much abused and much misrepresented to be of economic control rather than of economic freedom tempered with enlightened self restraint. The two pathways are the ways of Mahatma Gandhi and of the original Constitution of India of 1950.

The Mahatma was proudly and deeply influenced by the Bhagavad Gita in his life and in his social, political and economic ideology. The Mahatma himself wrote his own commentary on the Bhagavad Gita wherein in its introduction he acknowledged that his economic philosophy was reflected in the Bhagavad Gita and that there was clearly no conflict with mercantile activities and the “religion “of the Bhagavad Gita. The Mahatma clearly derived his economic ideology from the “religion” which he practiced and knew, and which was essentially guided by the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita.  In his ideal society the Mahatma enunciated in his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita that while all men are born equal and deserve equal opportunity, all do not have the same capacity.

He stressed in an article in the newspaper Young India that therefore those with talent will have to naturally earn more than the rest, and that such inequality is good for the society as it encourages talent. He was emphatic in his newspaper the Harijan that he rejected equality for all as it would create a “ dead equality” wherein people would be restricted from living up to their full potential as humans. The Mahatma realized however the problems such a theory can have for the social system in India, and therefore he propounded the “trusteeship” theory, or the conception that it was to be left to the wealthy to realize that they were trustees of the wealth of the poor, a form of enlightened self restraint. He also spoke about the concept of “bread labour” that is every person must work so as to earn his bread so as to avoid a class of the idle rich, this the Mahatma seemed to say in his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita was embodied in the Bhagavad Gita in the discourse on Karma Yoga of Bhagavan Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, which preached work with detachment from the fruits of the labour. Needless to say that this portions of have been variously interpreted in isolation by socialists and communists both to interpret the Mahatma as a crypto- socialist thinker and the Bhagavad Gita as a crypto socialist text.

The socialist interpretation seems to completely miss the point that the entire conception of detached work as exemplified by Karma Yoga in the text of the Bhagavad Gita and the works of the Mahatma is to promote work and deprecate pure and simple intellectualization and / or idleness. The Mahatma in an article in the Modern Review, was emphatically against state sponsored violently imposed socialism in all its forms , going so far as to say that the state represents violence in the most concentrated and organized form and that violence of private ownership is less injurious than the violence of the state. He stressed that moneyed men must be allowed to earn their money but in a manner so as to fulfill social goals – through enlightened self regulation.

The Indian Constitution of the 1950 on the other hand did not have the Bhagavad Gita as its guiding philosophy as India consciously opted for a secularized model of government influenced by socialist thought. The Dharmic ethos was embodied in the Constitution in the principles that it enshrined ( it is another matter that the entire spirit of the Constitution was mangled by the unsuccessful attempt of the legislature of the 1970’s to turn India into a “Socialist” and “Secular” state) without them ever being mentioned specifically as Dharmic .

Yet it is most important to note that the original Indian Constitution of the 1950 did not have the words “socialist and secular” in its preamble and included the right to property as a fundamental right ( Article 19 (f) ). It is another matter that these were amended during the infamous emergency and the amended versions still exist in the Indian Constitution as a reminder of the ghosts of the past. The paradigm suggested by the original constitution is however very interesting. The Fundamental Rights chapter of the Constitution ( better known as Part III of the Indian Constitution ) enumerated a large code of elaborate fundamental rights including the right to property and the right to trade and profession ( which is still present in the constitution in its original format ) which were enforceable in law.

This was balanced by the Directive Principles of State Policy ( better known as Part IV of the Constitution ) which amongst its various objectives of the state also espoused  that the state should direct it’s policy to secure , that the ownership and the material resources of the community are to be so distributed so as to sub serve the common good , and , that the operation of the economic system did not result in the concentration of wealth and means of production to the common detriment (Article 39 (b) and(c). Interestingly, the first part of the article is Gandhian and the next Socialist and therefore obviously contradictory to each other!!

The state was also directed in the same Chapter to strive to promote a social order in which justice social, economic and political shall inform the institutions of national life (Article 38).The Directive Principles were not binding and subservient to the Fundamental Rights until even that balance was also overturned during the emergency of the 1970’s. In other words the conception of the original constitution inspire of some contradictions, as enacted in 1950 was to ensure a state which was based on a “ free market” system , yet governed by the conception of self restraint exercised in the interests of the society –the ideal Dharmic balance of economic interests in a society.

Though these are both valid paths and interpretations of the same conception of economic governance , the former needless to say is more Dharmic in its understanding of the world and therefore much more consistently in accordance with the Bhagavad Gita and Dharma-Artha- Kama.

Shishya: In conclusion don’t you think that the entire exercise is semantic and irrelevant since why should it matter to people as to whether the economic system is Dharmic or not   as long as they benefit from it?

Guru : On the other hand it is the most important debate in the near future in every society for many reasons but most primarily so that a genuine enlightened Dharmic economic model along with a genuine Dharmic economic legal regime can be given shape reflecting Dharmic concerns and Dharmic values in contradistinction to the hedonistic “ greed is good” free market model or the utilitarian “ greatest good for the greatest number” planned / controlled economy model pushed as universal arguments and universal arrangements both of which have been spectacular failures. After all as the Bhagavad Gita says:

“One’s own dharma, however imperfect, is a safer guide

Than the dharma of another, however perfect”

( Canto xviii , sloka 47 )

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