Dharma and Moksa
By Daniel H. H. Ingalls

Philosophy East & West
V. 7 (1957)
pp. 41-48

Copyright 1957 by University of Hawaii Press





    IN WRITING OF dharma and mok.sa I shall take as my point of departure the paper which Professor Taubes has written on the conflict of virtue and faith in the European tradition.[1] Taubes' paper is very brief. It makes one point, but it makes it clearly, and it is a crucial one. In the West, he points our, we have a system of ethics, originally a social ethics appropriate to a city state, but one which became more and more desocialized and individualized until under the Roman Empire it became about as egocentric as ethics can become. This sort of ethics was then challenged by various systems of irrational belief or faith which reified the stimulus to virtue not in man but in a power beyond him: in Isis, in Demeter, and so on, but especially in the Christian God. Virtue in its older sense of human-based perfection came to be considered pride, a sort of vice. To quote St. Paul, "Now we are delivered from the law,... that we should serve in newness of spirit and not in the oldness of the letter."[2] Taubes makes out that the history of European ethics since the advent of Christianity has been a contest hack and forth between these two ideals. I dare say he would admit other momenta in the history of European ethics, but he is right in calling this a primary one.

    Now, it may be useful to observe whether the same conflict occurs in India. Our observation may lead us to consider what the Indians meant by dharma and mok.sa, and to understand to some extent how Indian religion differs from that of Europe.

    One can certainly find in India texts which remind us of the text which Taubes quotes: the strictures of Plotinus against the Gnostics. "This school," says Plotinus, "is convicted by its neglect of all mention of virtue.... For to say 'Look to God,' is not helpful without some instruction as to what this looking imports."[3]

    I have been making lately a translation of Bhaaskara's commentary on the Giitaa, a commentary which is highly argumentative and which constantly fights in defense of a social morality against the theories of `Sa^mkara, which




in Bhaaskara's opinion are quite destructive of morality. I shall quote a few passages to show how similar the sentences ring to those of Plotinus. Actually I believe the similarity is superficial, but why I believe this I leave until later.

    Bhaaskara comments on the verse: "He who knows the self to be indestructible, eternal, unborn, unchanging, how should that man cause to be killed anyone or kill anyone."[4]

    After glossing each word in order to give the literal meaning, Bhaaskara turns to refute the religious enthusiast `Sa^mkara:

    Here some philosophers who are too lazy to work for liberation (mok.sa) explain the verse by imputing to the Blessed One the following doctrine: "For the wise man all works ate excluded; such is the Blessed One's intention in this passage. The expression "kills" is used merely as an example. Works which are enjoined in scripture are enjoined only on the ignorant. This is the judgment of the Blessed One."[5]

    This explanation of the Blessed One's intention that pays no attention to the preceding words of the text will not do. Why? Because it is to urge Arjuna on to battle that the nature of the self is here described. Having told him, "Therefore, fight, Bhaarata,"[6] God sets out to establish the rightness of this with the words "It is not born," etc.[7] If the intention of this verse were the renouncing of all work, surely it should not have been told to Arjuna. Just suppose that the Blessed One had stated that works were impossible for the wise man who knows that the self is void of the six organic alterations. The same might just as well hold true of Arjuna, in which case he would cease to act. Furthermore, all the following verses would be improper. Accordingly, one should not cherish a vain hope, nor let one's mind be tempted to forsake one's moral duty (dharma), thinking, "Let us just sit here comfortably and receive liberation (mok.sa)."

    The distinction of good and evil, of bound and released, fits only with our view.[8]
    A just battle, that is, one which does not depart from morality (dharma), than this nothing makes for greater good. For others, too, adherence to their proper code of morals makes for good. In this way the text combines knowledge and works as both making for good.[9]

    One will admit that some similarity exists between Bhaaskara's attitude and that of Plotinus. Both men are incensed at a religious enthusiasm which sets aside the morality of everyday life. What difference exists between the Indian and the European attitude can best be seen by examining the history of Indian ethics. To me, at least, it can best be seen in this way, for I can see no use in comparing two statements out of historical context unless one




suspects that one of them may be eternally true. For myself, I have no such suspicion concerning Bhaaskara or Plotinus.

    Ancient Indian concepts of morality, and by this I mean the concepts seen in most of the Vedic, epic, and early Buddhist literature, the literature, that is, composed before the time of Christ, were fully as anthropocentric as the Greek concepts. The virtues of firmness, courage, forbearance, discipline grow from within the man himself; they are not given him by God. Such prayers as we find to a god are requests that he intercede in the material world, granting wealth, cattle, protection from snakebite or a long life in heaven. Such concern as is shown with a divine principle--with sat (the Existent), vij~naanam (wisdom, consciousness), or brahma--indicates a desire for revelation, for a statement of a fact, not for guidance in one's metal life.

    Europeans who write on Indian religion and philosophy greatly under-estimate this ancient Indian concern with individual, practical morality. In the Sanskrit epics, for example, this concern is omnipresent. Take the Raamaaya.na the Second Book dealing with the events at Oudh, and observe how much of all this poetry is concerned with moral decisions. We have Kaikeyii's decision to hold the king to his promise for her own advantage and that of her son, and the king's decision to keep his promise to the detriment of himself and his kingdom rather than break his word. With Raama the decision is immediate, but chapter after chapter is concerned with the grief of Kausalyaa and with Siitaa's problem: to maintain her purdah status or to expose her face to common men and the sun and follow her husband into exile.

    To speak of this concern with metal judgment as it appears in the Mahaabhaarta would soon furnish material for a folio volume. I shall spare the reader this, but point out just one peculiarity of the Mahaabhaarata that is often overlooked by non-Indians. The value of the Mahaabhaarata to Indian readers, the joy they have taken in it, derives not from its encyclopaedic character, and not much from the garbled accounts of politics and metaphysics. in the 12th Book, but from a series of moral problems to which there ate usually three answers given: the answer of Bhiima, which is the answer of materialism, egoism, brute force; the answer of Yudhi.s.thira, which is the answer of piety, of social virtue and tradition; and the answer of Arjuna, which falls between the two, and so reveals the finest moral qualities of man: courage, energy, pity, self-discipline.[10] Whenever a crisis arises the three brothers deliver their parts: at the gambling match, the insult to Drau-




padii, in banishment, when planning the war, in the incidents of the war, and finally at the time of victory. The Mahaabhaarata would really be a mediocre production if it were not for this. The verses run constantly to doggerel; there is none of its science or theory that cannot be found more clearly expressed in other texts. But the moral situations and the human response to them are unique.

    The virtue of virtues in the Sanskrit epic is what one might call discipline. The favorite Sanskrit word is yoga, a putting of oneself under the yoke, a personal training very like the Stoic askeesis to which Taubes refers. One disciplines the senses by the mind, the mind by the judgment, judgment by the very self. Other words also are used: apramaada, non-carelessness; dhiirataa dhairyam, which have the double meaning of firmness and wisdom. One must always be on the lookout; one must do nothing carelessly. In Jainism this term apramaada is a favorite one. The true Jaina must be a man of enormous energy, never relaxing his attention for a moment. To return to the epic, a man who has so disciplined himself that this carefulness comes to be what one might call second nature to him is called aatmavaan literally a man with a self. The term is used like other idiomatic expressions, for example, hastavaan--a man with a hand: it is said of a perfect bowman that he handles his weapon naturally, as though it were a part of him. The man with a self acts always with the highest virtue of which a man is capable. It has become his nature so to act. He is a mahaatma, that is, he is great.

    Now, this discipline, this training, comes from within the man himself and from nowhere else. This notion is universal in ancient India. It is as common in Buddhism as in the epics. "By ourselves we do evil; by ourselves we do good. The Buddha only shows the way."[11] Early Buddhism actually carries the implications further than the epic; it insists on free will. But even in the epic free will has the upper hand. Only when a man's effort is frustrated or when he is overcome with grief does he become a predestination. The blind Dhrtaraastra, foreseeing defeat, may say, "I think persistent time must make its round, nor can I more escape it than the rim can leave the wheel,"[12] and similar remarks are frequent with Dh.rtaraa.s.tra,[13] as they are with others who are faced with death or who lament some grievous loss.[14] But the successful man or woman is always an upholder of free will. Yudhi.s.thira's mother says to him, "Kings are the cause of the times, not the




times the cause of kings."[15] This association of success with the doctrine of free will or "human effort" (puru.sakaara) was felt so clearly that among the ways of bringing about a king's downfall is given the following simple advice: "Belittle free will to him, and emphasize destiny."[16]

    In the foregoing remarks I have considered dharma only on the human plane, as an ideal or goal of human morality. The word has a much broader meaning and can be applied to cosmological regularity as well as human-Since this aspect of the term is well created in Dr. van Buitenen's paper,[17] there is no need for me to discuss it at this point.

    The notion of mok.sa is a much later one in the history of Indian thought than the notion of dharma. If one looks at the various schemata which the Indians have made of life and experience, mok.sa comes as one of the Hindu fourths that were added on to Vedic triads. There were the three Vedic stages. of life: studentship, householdership, and retirement. Hinduism added a. fourth: complete abandonment. There were three Vedic modes of experience: waking, dream, and deep sleep. Hinduism added the turiiyam, the stage beyond deep sleep. There were three phonemes of om: a,u, and m. Hinduism added the fourth, the sound which is not heard. So also to the three goals of man: kaama, artha, and dharma, mok.sa was added as a fourth.

    The notion is first expressed verbally. One is mucyate: freed, released. The noun mok.sa comes later. A rival term is apavarga: removal, separation. In the Vedic-Hindu tradition we do not meet these nouns until the late Upani.sads (`Svetaa`svatara, Maitri) and the second layer of the epic. What: is more, there were orthodox schools which refused to recognize mok.sa for many centuries. The Miimaa^msaa denied the goal of mok.sa until well into the medieval period, until the eighth century with the coming of Kumaarila. The central concern of the Miimaa^msaa was the Vedic ritual. If they thought of what lay beyond this world, the concept of heaven was enough to satisfy their curiosity and desire.

    Mok.sa means freedom, liberation. Freedom from what? From suffering, from the frustrations of desire, from change. Characteristically mok.sa has. been conceived as a goal, not an attitude, although there ate digressions from the main trend of Indian religious development where the latter interpretation is offered. To those who accepted the goal of mok.sa it was a goal beyond dharma. In the epic texts, however, and in most orthodox literature, mok.sa was not thought to be gained by any radically different means or technique from that by which one gained dharma. By self-discipline one attains dharma: a just, firm, unwavering position with regard to the world and society. By mok.sa one becomes even more firm. There is now no pos-




sibility of alteration. The history of Saa^mkhya is instructive in this respect. In the oldest texts the reader is urged to magnify his sattvam (altruism, dispassion). He should slough off his passion and folly until he is instinct with sattvam. This is the oldest Saa^mkhya. The Giitaa goes a step farther. The pupil should get beyond all three strands. He must slough off even sattvam, for that too can bind him to worldly life. How is he to do this? The Giitaa offers evidence enough. The method is precisely the old method of discipline; it simply goes a step further.

    Now, if this harmonious concept of moksa had remained unchanged there could have been no real conflict between dharma and mok.sa. Dharma would still envisage society; mok.sa would be irrefragable. But the two could be regarded as points along a single journey, a journey for which the viaticum was discipline and self-training.

    I have spoken here of mok.sa as it appears within the epic and other orthodox literature. There is good evidence that the concept originated in circles far removed from this area, among practitioners of trance and ecstasy, that is, among sorcerers, medicine men, and yogis, taking the word in its popular rather than its literary-philosophical sense. These origins are treated in some detail in van Buitenen's paper. Again, one sees within the literature, within the main traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism, that the harmony of dharma and mok.sa has been challenged more than once, Or, if I were to make use of van Buitenen's framework, I might say that more than once in the great traditions dharma and mok.sa have been pulled apart to resume their original antinomy. For purposes of simplicity, one may speak of three types of challenge.

    First, there is the challenge of Naagaarjuna (2nd century, A.D.). Naagaarjuna points out the discrepancies between the world in which we live and the nirvaa.na we wish to attain. The two things are so different that there really can be no relation between them. The area of discrepancy to which Naagaarjuna most often refers is an intellectual one. The way in which we train ourselves to think within the workaday world simply cannot help us to attain nirvaa.na. There is in Naagaarjuna no new, unworldly morality, no fiat from God to supersede the old categories of virtue. In fact, Naagaarjuna's school, the `Suunyavaada, was very wary of applying its dialectic against the virtues. Actually some of the most appealing expressions of Buddhist morality appear precisely within this school, as, for example, in the `Sik.saasamuccaya of `Saantideva. The dialectic is directed rather against the laws of pre-mok.sa thought. The steady path to mok.sa has been broken in two, but the cleavage is not that of Philo or St Paul: individual morality here and divine morality there.




The cleavage is in respect to understanding: worldly thought here and unworldly understanding there.

    After Naagaarjuna's time the ideal of the steady path continued in other Indian schools. It seems to have continued in the Vedaanta except for occasional doubts until the time of `Sa^mkara (8th century, A.D.). `Sa^mkara also broke the path in two, in a way rather different than Naagaarjuna's, but still not after the manner of Philo or St. Paul.

    `Sa^mkara, like Naagaarjuna, points out the discrepancy between the world in which we live and mok.sa, which we hope to attain. Incidentally, mok.sa to `Sa^mkara can in no sense be called an attitude. He is very specific on this point. Brahma is as unalterable by our way of thinking about it as is a post. It is a goal, not something which one can do or not do, or about which one might think this way or that way.[18] To return, though: the area of discrepancy which `Sa^mkara points out between this world and brahma includes action as well as thought; his emphasis is perhaps even mote on the area of action. Everything in worldly life, in vyavahaara, as he calls it, implies action and plurality. One object works upon another, changes the other, is changed by the other. Moksa is a state where there can be no change, where there can be no plurality. Accordingly, mok.sa excludes action. This means that the techniques by which we attain the first three goals of man can be of no use in the attainment of this fourth and last goal. One must get rid not only of immorality (adharma) but of morality (dharma) also. This is the position which Bhaaskara criticizes in the passages quoted at the beginning of this paper. I said that the passages bore a superficial resemblance to Plotinus' charge against the Gnostics. This is why in my opinion the similarity is superficial. Both Plotinus and Bhaaskara object that their opponents have thrown morality overboard. But the opponents have really done two quite different things. The Gnostics exchanged one set of virtues for another, an anthropocentric set for a theocentric set. `Sa^mkara has thrown out the virtues without substituting virtues of any sort,[19] and he remains just as anthropocentric as the Vedaanta was from the beginning.

    Finally, in fairly recent times the conflict of dharma and moksa appears in India in something very close to its European form. Incidentally, it is my conviction that there is almost no ingredient of European religion or philosophy that is entirely absent from India and that this proposition also holds true the other way. The Vaisnavas from early times laid great emphasis on




the worship of God,on singing his name, anointing his image, keeping him in mind constantly: as Raamaanuja puts it, so constantly that one comes to feel that one cannot live without this loving presence. When the priests of the Vai.s.nava began to rationalize their religion, they accepted the orthodox texts of Vedaanta but emphasized the elements in those texts that were compatible with their own religious experience. They emphasized love and adoration rather than works and knowledge. They emphasized prasaada, the Grace of God, rather than the anthropocentric virtues. In fact, according to the doctrine of these philosophers, one can attain to virtue only through the grace of God. Here we find almost precisely the Christian position. Accordingly, in the nineteenth century, when European Sanskritists for the most part were still Christians, it was the Vai.s.nava philosophers on the whole whom they preferred--so Thibaut, Grierson, Max Muller, and others.

    I shall not trace the history of this third break in the steady path to mok.sa. The arguments were carried on by many authors whom I know only at second hand: by Vallabha, by the Gosvaamiis in Bengal, by the cat sect and the monkey sect in the extreme south. Rather, I should like to conclude with a few generalities and a caveat.

    If one views the whole extent of Indian religious and philosophical literature, one sees that the conflict of dharma and mok.sa is the exception rather than the rule; furthermore, that where it has occurred it is more often than not different from the European conflict of virtue and faith. One may add that the break in the steady path in India has always been made by monks, that is, by members of a religious order who had withdrawn from society, who withheld themselves from marriage, family, and caste duties, and so had already broken with the path of dharma within their own life-experience, Some of these monastic disharmonizers are important, are among the greatest thinkers and literary artists which India has produced, and their writings deserve close study. But one must be careful, and here comes my caveat, not to jump to conclusions about Indian philosophy and religion from a perusal of their Works.[20]






1.    See above, pp. 19-24.

2.    Romans 7:6.

3.    Plotinus, Enneads, Stephen MacKennas, trans. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1957), II.9,15.

4.    Giitaa 2.22 (Bhaaskara, = 2.21 `Sa^mkara).

5.    Bhaaskara quotes the view of his opponents here almost word for word from `Sa^mkara.

6.    Giitaa 2.19 = Giitaa 2.18 (`Sa^mkara).

7.    Giitaa 2.21 = Giitaa 2.20 (`Sa^mkara).

8.    Giitaa 2.13 = Giitaa 2.12 (`Sa^mkara).

9.    Giitaa 2.32 = Giitaa 2.31 (`Sa^mkara).

10.  It might be suggested that Bhiima, Arjuna, and Yudhi.s.thira are the types respectively of taamasa, raajasa, and saattvika man. It is true that Bhiima has 1 considerable infusion of rajas and Arjuna of sattvam, but the Giitaa calls a man raajasa if only rajas predominates among his strands. This is well: enough. Bur if we accept the typology, we must say that the hierarchy of types as it appears in the action of the epic is very different from that of the reflective chapters of the Mahaabhaarata. Arjuna, not Yudhi.s.thira, is the hero of the epic.

11.    Dhammapada XII. 9; XX. 4.

12.    Mahaabhaarata (Poona ed.) 5.50.58.

13.    E.g., Mahaabhaarata 5.32.12; 6.3.44.

14.    E.g. Mahaabhaarata 1.34.3; Raamaaya.na, Bombay ed., 6. 10.23.25.

15.    Mahaabhaarata 5.130.15; cf. 12.70.25; 12.92.6.

16.    Ibid., Mahaabhaarata 12.106.20.

17.    See above, pp. 25-32.

18.    Cf. `Sa^mkara's comments on the Brahmasuutra I.i.l-4.

19.    His philosophy preserves its orthodoxy and what one might call its respectability by the admission that ordinary morality is binding on those who are not yet ready for mok.sa. The respectable householder may solace himself with the thought that this includes the great majority of mankind.

20.    Dr. van Buitenen and I have used an historical and textual method in papers which bear the same title. And yet we come to different conclusions. van Buitenen finds dharma and mok.sa to be essentially incompatible goals. On the other hand, I find them to have been usually harmonized within a single religious path. In the discussion which followed our hearing of each other's papers it appeared that we were in agreement as to the following facts. The ideals of dharma and mok.sa arose in very different milieus, and these ideals produced sharp differences in the ways of life of their early adherents. Mok.sa, however, became "respectable" at a fairly early period, that is, it was accepted into the Vedic tradition. From this time onward the majority of Hindu society attempted to harmonize the older and younger goals. Always there were some men, and a few of them among India's greatest religious leaders, who insisted on the contradiction between dharma and mok.sa.
    It would seem, therefore, that the difference between van Buitenen's paper and mine is a difference in what we select to typify a long religious tradition. He has selected the innovators, the professionals, so to speak. I have selected the great mass of believers, or, perhaps one might better say, acquiescers. Which selection is preferable depends on one's purpose. The first is useful for the history of the psychological phenomena of religion, the second for its social phenomena. The history of religion, if unqualified, should include both.