Does Hinduism connive at corruption

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In  his recent book titled, Chanakya’s  New Manifesto: To Resolve the Crisis within India,  Pavan Varma comes up with an absurd theory which seeks to stereotype  the Hindu religion and millions of its followers as morally loose and  ‘corruption friendly.’ Varma writes, “At least in Hinduism,  there is no binding or universal code of conduct that gives  unequivocal primacy to the moral dimension... The essential point I’m  trying to make is that Hindu tradition, for all its philosophical  loftiness, has always allowed for a convenient response to the moral  imperative. Ethics are conceptually grounded in a utilitarian  framework where there are no uncontested definitions of right and  wrong. The only consistent concern is the end result. In the pursuit  of the desired goal, morality is not so much disowned as it is  pragmatically devalued.” (p.127-128)

What  is put forth above is not the Hindu view of ethics but the author’s  distorted understanding of it based on the interpretation of British  scholar-photographer Richard Lannoy. Varma quotes liberally from  Lannoy (The  Speaking Tree, A Study of Indian Culture and Society)  to justify his theory. Instead, if he had spent some time reading  original sources of Hinduism like the Vedas, the Itihasas and the  Dharma Shastras with the help of indigenous scholars, he would not  have had to rely on second class translations and interpretations of  Hindu texts.

It  is relevant to ask why Pavan Varma selectively targets the Hindu  framework of ethics for his incisive analysis in a discussion on  corruption in India. Does he consider India to be a Hindu nation?  Does he imply that all other religions have a better framework of  ethics and therefore followers of these religions are more moral and  less corrupt? For example, how would he account for the fact that a  large number of Muslim youth today across the world are involved in  violent and criminal activities, including drug trafficking and  terrorism? How would Varma explain away the rampant homosexuality and  sexual violations amongst the Christian clergy in India, and  elsewhere?

The  Hindu framework of ethics is unambiguous and brilliantly graded to  ensure that people of all walks of life, irrespective of their  status, can adhere to ethical and moral norms with conviction. Dharma  is not an undefined and ephemeral ideal as the author claims it to  be, but a universal principle of morality and ethics based on common  sense. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do to you’ is the  common denominator of this universal ethical framework. Ahimsa  (Non-Violence), Satyam (Truthfulness) and other values are based on  this common sense principle. One does not require the aptitude of a  rocket scientist to understand and practice Dharma.

However,  in daily life one encounters complex situations in which right and  wrong will have to be interpreted. A soldier on a battlefield cannot  practice ahimsa because his moral imperative as a soldier is to  defend his country and his people. A doctor who is called upon to  perform a surgery cannot absolve himself of his responsibility in the  name of practicing ahimsa because the life and health of the patient  is dependent on this surgery. This is why interpretation becomes  necessary, but interpretation of Dharma is not a license to subvert  ethics. The principle of larger good was applied only in situations  where an individual’s personal values came directly into conflict  with the welfare of society at large. Our ability to interpret what  is right and wrong in a given situation and the choices we make based  on this understanding is what defines our character.

For  example, Maharishi Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras defines five values –  Ahimsa (Non-Violence), Satyam (Truthfulness), Brahmacharya  (Continence), Asteya (Non-Stealing) and Aparigraha (Non-Acceptance of  Gifts) as ‘Universal Great Vows’:

Jatideshakalsamayanavachinnah  sarvabhouma mahavatrah (2.31)

Patanjali  emphasizes that these values are to be practiced by every human being  irrespective of caste, country, period, time or other distinctions.

Such  unambiguous declaration of universal moral values can be found in all  Hindu scriptures from the Vedas down to the Puranas. However, the  necessity for interpretation of Dharma was recognized and that is why  we have a genre of sub-texts called the Dharma Shastras which help us  interpret and analyse Dharma. Any injunction or interpretation which  was not in consonance with the universal laws or values espoused in  the Shruti texts (Vedas & Upanishads) was rejected.

To  claim then that Hinduism does not have well-defined framework of  ethics and morals or that it encourages a mindset which is conducive  to corruption, is not merely an oversight but a gross distortion  intended to devalue the Hindu religion.

Pavan  Varma goes on to apply his biased vision to the problem of corruption  in India and comes up with this amusing theory:

“In  such a worldview, corruption is, remarkably enough, equated with a  form of morally-neutral entrepreneurship... In this sense, the issue  of corruption is entirely removed from the moral domain; it becomes  simply a matter of costs, investments, return, tactics and profit...  It is for this reason that most Indians find no contradiction between  corruption in their personal lives and condemnation of it in public.”

An  international experiment in honesty conducted by the Reader’s  Digest in 2013 listed Mumbai as one of the most honest cities of the  world:

“Reader’s  Digest wanted to know how honest world cities are, so it “lost”  192 wallets in 16 cities -- that’s 12 wallets in each city -- to  see how many would be returned. Each wallet contained the $50  equivalent of the local currency, as well as a name, phone number,  family photo, coupons and business cards.” (The  Lost Wallet Experiment: Finding the World’s Most Honest Cities)

Nine  out of the 12 wallets ‘lost’ in Mumbai were returned. 67.39% of  Mumbai’s population is Hindu as per the 2011 census conducted by  the Government of India. This one sample alone is sufficient to toss  Pavan Varma’s theory upside down.

Historically,  Indians were respected the world over for their truthfulness and  honesty, as records of foreign travellers reveal. The Arab traveller  Muhammda al-Idrisi tells us that a large number of Muslim merchants  visited Nahrwara (Anahilavada) because the people were ‘noteworthy  for their excellence of their justice, for keeping up their  contracts, and for the beauty of their character’.

Marco  Polo records that “You must know that these Abraiaman (probably a  distortion of the word Brahmana) are the best merchants in the world,  and the most truthful, for they would not tell a lie for anything on  earth… If a foreign merchant entrusts his goods to them, they will  take charge of these and sell them in the most loyal manner, seeking  zealously the profit of the foreigner and asking no commission except  what the foreigner pleases to bestow.”

Paul  Johnson, a columnist for Forbes magazine, makes this stunning analysis of the character of Hindu  emigrants:

“It  is the nature of the Hindu religion to be tolerant and, in its own  curious way, permissive. Under the socialist regime of Jawaharlal  Nehru and his family successors the state was intolerant, restrictive  and grotesquely bureaucratic. That has largely changed (though much  bureaucracy remains), and the natural tolerance of the Hindu mind-set  has replaced quasi-Marxist rigidity… India’s economy for the  first time is expanding faster than China’s. For years India was  the tortoise, China the hare. The race is on, and my money’s on  India, because freedom – of movement, speech, and the media – is  always an economic asset… When left to themselves, Indians (like  the Chinese) always prosper as a community. Take the case of Uganda’s  Indian population, which was expelled by the horrific dictator Idi  Amin and received into the tolerant society of Britain. There are now  more millionaires in this group than in any other recent immigrant  community in Britain. They are a striking example of how far hard  work, strong family bonds and a devotion to education can carry a  people who have been stripped of all their worldly assets.” (Want  to Prosper? Then Be Tolerant,  Forbes Magazine, June 2004)

Corruption  in India multiplied by leaps and bounds in the post-Independence era  not because of Hindu Dharma but because education and public life in  India became divorced from Hindu Dharma in the name of secularism.

It  is sad that English educated Indians like Pavan Varma have a poorer  understanding of their own roots and ethnic character than neutral  observers like Paul Johnson. With all his penchant for moral  imperative and transparency, it is curious to observe that the former  diplomat, who resigned as India’s envoy to Bhutan in October 2012  to join the Janata Dal United (of Nitish Kumar), chooses to hide this  fact in the author’s profile though his book was published later in  2013!

The  author is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Cultural  Education at Amrita University in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu

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