Dharma, artha, kama and moksha—these are the four objectives of human existence, known as purusharthas. Moksha dharma is about adhyatma, meaning the jivatman and knowledge about the jivatman, leading to emancipation (moksha) from samsara, the cycle of worldly existence. Often, when we use the word dharma, we really mean moksha dharma. Kama is the pursuit of pleasures, a broader notion than sexual pleasures alone. Dharma, as used in the purusharthas, is the daily practice of dharma, rites and sacrifices—nitya (performed every day), naimittika (performed on specific occasions) and kamya (performed with a specific desire in mind). Artha is the pursuit of wealth and prosperity. Commonly, Hinduism is equated with texts on moksha dharma, suggesting an approach that is otherworldly. This isn’t true. There are plenty of texts on dharma (as I have used the word), and I don’t have in mind only the dharmashastra texts. There are plenty of texts on kama and I don’t have in mind only Vatsyayana. There are plenty of texts on artha and I don’t have in mind only Kautilya. These texts on artha indicate a template on (a) what ordinary citizens should do; (b) what the community should do; and (c) what the king (the counterpart of today’s government) should do.
But this is in normal situations. What happens when there is a calamity or catastrophe? The word apad or apat means an unforeseen calamity. Such calamities can be of three types—adhidaivika, adhibhoutika or adhyatmika. An adhyatmika calamity is one caused by an individual, because of physical or mental reasons. An adhibhoutika calamity is caused by the elements, by nature. But it is a regular or expected occurrence. Since the days of Frank Knight, economists have distinguished between risk and uncertainty. Risk is a situation where the probability is known, even if it happens to be a subjective, and not an objective, probability. For example, climate change, or excessive heat during the summer and excessive cold during the winter, or perhaps even stubble-burning and consequent deterioration in air quality, can be called an adhibhoutika calamity. It is characterised by risk. In contrast, an adhidaivika calamity is characterised by uncertainty, where the probability is not known. It is a bolt from the blue. Or if one prefers the term, it is caused by destiny. A sudden earthquake or cyclone, or the Covid pandemic, will be an adhidaivika calamity. Let’s not get into the business of splitting hairs about whether we precisely know whether a specific catastrophe is adhibhoutika or adhidaivika. Apad dharma is about dharma in either of these two situations, less so about adhyatmika calamities. There will then be a deviation from the standard template of pursuing artha.
It is rare to find a text specifically on apad dharma. There will be a line here, a line there. In a text on artha, a single line will be thrown in on what one should do when such a catastrophe strikes. Take for example the word bandhava, slightly different from the word bandhu. These days, we often translate both words as ‘friend’. That’s not incorrect. But bandhu is really a relative, one from whom one cannot sever a bond (the etymology is based on the word for bind). Bandhava is typically a more distant relative, more like kin. A fairly common shloka, loosely translated into English, reads as follows. When a person suffers from a disease or calamity, when there is a famine or a threat from an enemy, when one is hauled up before the king (for a transgression), or when one is at a cremation ground, the person who stands by you is a bandhava. (This is one specific version, there are variants.) This is nothing but—a friend in need is a friend indeed. The true test of friendship is when there is apad. Alternatively, there are recommendations for a king. When a king’s possessions have been lost and his life is in danger, to save his life and his remaining wealth, he should prostrate himself before the enemy. There is a time for fighting with the enemy and a time for concluding an alliance. When the time is adverse, even an enemy must be carried on one’s shoulders. Then, when the right time arrives, the enemy can be shattered, just as one breaks a pot. When there is a calamity, a king must conclude alliances with anybody. There are several similar recommendations. As I said, these figure in texts on artha, with the odd shloka added for catastrophic situations.
But there is an exception to what I have said, about there not being any texts specifically on apad dharma. This exception is in the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata is classified into Parvas. Today, the classification we are familiar with has 18 Parvas and Shanti Parva, where Bhishma instructs Yudhishthira after the war is over, is one of the longest of these 18 Parvas. Most long Parvas have sub-Parvas and Shanti Parva has a sub-Parva known as Apad Dharma Parva, the dharma in the time of calamities. Earlier, in the columns of Open, I have citied two stories from Apad Dharma Parva, Vishvamitra and the chandala and Palita, the wise rat. Those examples apart, for each of the four varnas, there were certain acceptable means of subsistence, in the pursuit of artha. (There are references to these also in the 18th Chapter of the Bhagavat Gita, shlokas 41-44). In addition to several other texts, these acceptable means of subsistence are listed in Manu Samhita, especially Chapter 10. For example, a brahmana can earn a living through performing sacrifices for others (receiving dakshina in the process) and receiving donations. Don’t misunderstand what I have said. A brahmana can teach, but without receiving artha in return. A kshatriya earns a living through bearing arms. A vaishya earns a living through agriculture, animal husbandry and trade. (There was no manufacturing then.) A shudra earns a living through servitude. As a functional classification of the socio-economic system, the vaishya creates wealth (in the sense of artha) and the other three varnas live off this wealth. However, this is in normal situations. The texts (not just the Apad Dharma part of the Mahabharata) tell us that in time of calamities, the varnas can deviate from what they are normally expected to do. A brahmana should first try to earn artha through what is acceptable for a kshatriya. If that doesn’t work, he can resort to what a vaishya does and so on. There is a hierarchy of sorts. A shudra can become an artisan and so on.
What about a king’s behaviour at the time of apad? From the Mahabharata, ‘Medium people serve the dictates of the ordinary sacred texts, without any discrimination.’ (Quotes are from my translation.) That is, the sacred texts are meant for normal situations, not for apad. Apart from the principles of avoiding oppression in taxation, I find little on reducing taxes at the time of a calamity. ‘Dharma results from the treasury and establishes the foundation of the kingdom. Therefore, the treasury must be generated and once it has been accumulated, it must be protected.’ No yielding on revenue flowing into the public exchequer, but there are stated principles on spending this. ‘The wealth must be used for the sake of the army, or for the purpose of performing sacrifices.’ To state the obvious, sacrifices lead to multiplier benefits on income and employment, without having to invoke Keynes. Two words are often used together, but they have different meanings. The first is ishta, sacrifices performed with a specific objective in mind. The second is purti, more like civic works. There is an emphasis on both ishta and purti. ‘People who are learned in the Vedas say that wealth that is not used as offerings for the gods, the ancestors and mortals comes to no useful end.’ One can almost detect a strand of MGNREGA.
At the time of a calamity, ‘To ensure the best for himself, the king must act like a cuckoo, a boar, Mount Meru, an empty house, a predatory beast and an actor.’ He must be like a cuckoo in sweetness of speech, like a boar in destroying enemies, like Meru in loftiness, like an empty house that offers refuge to everyone, like a predatory beast in causing fear and like an actor in adopting different disguises. Isn’t this the normal raja dharma template for the king? It is, but it becomes accentuated at the time of apad.