What is dharma during the pandemic?

Speaking of dharma, one might think of the Bhagavadgītā, which narrates Kṛṣṇa’s teaching to Arjuna before the beginning of the great war at Kurukṣetra. Although Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna are not facing the pandemic, the conversation between them is about life and death of countless warriors and the wellness of the whole universe. 

I am teaching a First-Year Writing Seminar for undergraduate students at Cornell this Fall semester. My course focuses on the Bhagavadgītā and its various perspectives like religious, philosophical, spiritual, political, social, and so on. Some questions that students ask me in the class are: What is dharma during this pandemic? What is the right thing to do? How can we protect ourselves and those we love? 

Re-reading the Bhagavadgītā with the students, I have understood that one of its essential issues is how to make a decision. With the help of Kṛṣṇa, Arjuna is trying to decide if he should fight his relatives and people he respects or not. The wellness of everyone and everything involved is at stake. Now, the question is, how can one know what dharma is in that situation? 

One of the most common terms used to translate this word is “duty.” It is also widely interpreted as “detached action” (niṣkāmakarma) based on the translations and commentaries of influential people like Mahatma Gandhi. One example of the key verses on detached actions is Bhagavadgītā 2.47. Here is Gandhi’s version of the verse in English translation: “Action alone is thy province, never the fruits thereof; let not thy motive be the fruit of action, nor shouldst thou desire to avoid action” (2011, 19).

However, how can we follow such a detached action? Does it mean performing one’s own action regardless of the result? Is it all about “doing your duty no matter what”? Or, should we care about the results of what we are supposed to do?

In this regard, I bring in Sandeep Sreekumar’s “An Analysis of Consequentialism and Deontology in the Normative Ethics of the Bhagavadgītā” (2012) to give us some ideas.

In his article, Sandeep Sreekumar proposes that Kṛṣṇa’s teaching of dharma should not be reduced to a deontological theory which justifies a duty regardless of its consequence. On the other hand, the teaching in the Bhagavadgītā is intent on good consequences through detached actions. Through the analysis of the text, Sreekumar characterizes the teaching as rule-consequentialism based on the consequences of liberation from the cycle of births (mokṣa) and the wellness of the world (lokasaṃgraha). In other words, Kṛṣṇa, in his teaching, highlights the consequences of Arjuna’s fighting, both the consequence that is not directly related to Arjuna and the one that affects Arjuna personally. The first consequence is the world’s wellness, which is indirect or “agent-neutral” for Arjuna. The other one is liberation, which is “agent-relative” since Arjuna is the one who would attain liberation if he acts without attachment. The twin consequences can be accomplished through the performance of dharma or “detached action” according to Sreekumar (2012, 310): 

Moreover, the two consequences of lokasaṃgraha and mokṣa can be brought about only if the agent performs in a detached fashion the particular duties assigned to him or her by the rules of the caste-system: rules which are themselves justified by the fact that, if they are performed in the right, detached fashion, they will bring about, simultaneously and inevitably, the beneficial consequences both of lokasaṃgraha for the world and mokṣa for the agent’s ātman. This means that the theory assumed by the Argument from Detached Action [of Kṛṣṇa] is a rule-consequentialism. 

What I gather from Sreekumar’s argument is that our actions result in consequences. If we perform our actions without detachment, they create good consequences for ourselves and others. We are indeed living under different rules, and to perform detached actions is not the same as in Arjuna’s context. However, when in doubt, we may think about the consequences of our actions. Without attachment, we can perhaps be aware that our actions can bring about wellness for ourselves and the world even in difficult circumstances and then decide what dharma is.


Gandhi, Mohandas. 2011. The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi. Translated by Mahadev Desai. Blacksburg, Wilder Publications, Inc.

Sreekumar, Sandeep. 2012. “An Analysis of Consequentialism and Deontology in the Normative Ethics of the Bhagavadgītā.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 40 (3): 277–315. doi:10.1007/s10781-012-9154-3.

4 Replies to “What is dharma during the pandemic?”

  1. Dharma has to approve both the hoped for results of action and the means of achieving those results.When one is in the dharmic path he need not fear any karmic consequences of that action.
    But the path of dharma is not a well defined normative path.Dharma gives guide lines and leaves scope for judgements based on them.So the best way to overcome this contingency is to go for detachment while in the process of achieving the results,so that karmic consequences can be definitely avoided.

  2. Thank you, Manasicha, it is quite interesting to see how you are using the BhG in class, connecting it with disinterested action (perhaps: wearing a mask and refrain from travelling = helping others even though others might nullify your efforts by gathering together…).
    Concerning Sreekumar’s argument, one can see Kant’s paradox in the background: You get liberation if you are able to act in a detached way, but how can you act detachedly if you know that in this way you’ll achieve liberation?

  3. As Elisa raised the “paradox” of the relation between mokṣa (or mukti) and non-attachment or ‘desireless action’ (I prefer this to ‘detachment’ because I think the latter has a connotation of indifference or aloofness which does not work in Gandhi’s case, given his immersion in many-things-political), I would like to comment on a few facets of Gandhi’s understanding of this apparent paradox (Perhaps we can speak of ‘tension,‘ ‘conflict’ or even ‘contradiction’ in some instances, but paradox can do for our purposes). First, we might note that for Gandhi, non-attachment was part of a triad of concepts integral to political praxis that were mutually reinforcing or complementary, hence the companion notions of self-control and mental equilibrium (all of which bring to mind Stoic ideas), a triad on behalf of renunciation (vairāgya) and in the service of self-realization (the latter in keeping with his quite idiosyncratic interpretation of the Gītā, as Gandhi did not believe in the conventional or traditional concept of the avatāra, perhaps helping to account for a notion of mokṣa that is not ‘salvific’ in a theological sense). This spiritual triad is also bound up with tapas (‘specific austerities and prolonged contemplation’), which I will not address here. For Gandhi, mokṣa is thus not conceived in the typical or crudely instrumentalist fashion but is understood as the highest form of spiritual self-realization by the individual (a gradual purification of the ātman). The means of self-realization being everything, so to speak, the notion of mokṣa becomes functionally or practically irrelevant, as means and ends are for Gandhi, according to Raghavan Iyer, convertible terms. This entails, for Gandhi, three fundamental propositions:

    • “We always have control over the means but not over the end.
    • Our progress toward the goal will be in exact proportion to the purity of our means.
    • Instead of saying that means are after all means, we should affirm that means are after all everything. As the means so the end.”

    This is intimately compatible with or supportive of the endeavor to practice non-attachment for a couple of reasons. For example, “[r]ecognition of the interdependence of ends and means implies that we have some knowledge of the moral and political quality of the chosen end, whatever the complex consequences turn out to be.” Furthermore, “… the individual’s capacity to determine what he can do in any specific situation at any given time is much greater than his power of anticipation, prediction, or control over consequences of his actions.” Given Gandhi’s belief in karma, we might speak here of a “causal connection between the extent of moral purity (detachment, disinterestedness, and the degree of moral awareness) of an act and the measure of individual effectiveness in promoting or securing a morally worthy end over a period of time.” Thus,

    “Gandhi’s own view of the morally legitimate means to be employed in furthering political ends was deeply affected by the doctrine of dispassionate action in the Bhagavad Gītā. Intense concentration upon the task at hand can and must be combined with a degree of detachment, a freedom form anxiety about future consequences [notice that this does not mean a lack of consideration of possible or probable consequences or even a lack of concern for same, nor does it ‘mean that we may dispense with a clear conception of the end in view’].”

    Gandhi was clearly cognizant of the fact that “[i]n the course of time, moksha became in India a largely negative notion of escape, a rejection of this irredeemable world, an intoxicating flight from reality” (and tapas reduced to ‘fixed forms of self-mortification, prescribed penances’ and a rigid asceticism). In fact, he can be said, for all intents and purposes, to have subordinated mokṣa to dharma, in Gandhi’s case, to svadharma. One way to put this would be to state that Gandhi most often focused on the obstacles to mokṣa, not emancipation itself, understood by him as the realization of Satyā or (absolute) Truth (meaning the utter extinction of egoism, which cannot occur without tapasya). An analogy from psychology (after both Leslie Farber and Jon Elster) may be apropos here, since according priority to striving for mokṣa could be said to exemplify the moral psychological fallacy of “willing what cannot be willed.” Focusing on individual mokṣa could be said to be spiritually or psychologically ego-centric or selfish, thus the very desire for same assures its non-attainment. Setting one’s sights on mokṣa is, so to speak blinding, for it precludes one’s full attention and devotion to the sannyāsa of service of others: “The ultimate destination is as hidden from us as the Himalayan peaks are hidden from the hardy mountaineer.” More could be said about the pertinence of this analogy but so as to not tempt the reader’s patience, I’ll leave it at that for now. And insofar as the Kingdom of God could be said to be incarnate or realized to some extent in our world, it is fair to say that Gandhi’s desire to see a polity founded on non-violence is, in the words of Margaret Chatterjee, “far closer to the Christian idea of the Kingdom of God than…the mokṣa concept of the Hindu tradition.” Chatterjee reminds us of the influence of Gandhi’s Jain teacher, Raychandbhai, as we see in Gandhi’s letter to a correspondent in which he states that “mokṣa is liberation from impure thought.” As Iyer concludes, “Gandhi’s interpretation of moksha as the full realization of Truth and his justification of ahimsa as an exercise in tapas, the self-suffering and service needed for the attainment of satya, gave traditional values a new meaning and a fresh relevance to politics and to society.”

    As for Elisa’s question, I would therefore answer that one never knows, definitively, if one will attain liberation, as non-attachment is never assured or absolute as long as one has not achieved emancipation, and non-attachment is subsumed within selfless service of others, focusing on the work at hand, and in this way one is not “attached” to or bewitched by the prospect of liberation. In keeping with our aforementioned analogy, one acts spontaneously or “naturally,” without willing in an egoistic or conscious sense, indeed, there is, as we say, an absence of (self-) consciousness. Just as one cannot will a mental absence, one cannot “will” the attainment of mokṣa. Thus, to further fill out our analogy: “The Zen doctrine of ‘no-mind’ is largely negative, with the stress on the pitfalls [cf. Gandhi’s stress on ‘obstacles’ above] that lie ahead for those who want to achieve or attain the state of [no-mind].” There is an absence of self-consciousness about or preoccupation with mokṣa on Gandhi’s part (of course he cannot avoid speaking about it inasmuch as it is central to Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism). For Gandhi, I would argue, mokṣa is on the order of a “by-product” or “spillover” effect, a spiritual state that forever eludes one to the extent that one is deliberately or consciously pursuing it. The late psychiatrist Leslie Farber was on the mark when he wrote that one can “will knowledge, but not wisdom … religion, but not faith,”… and, I would add, selfless service of others, but not mokṣa.

  4. Here are the references to what I wrote:
    • The Bhagavad-Gītā: A New Translation. Georg Feuerstein, trans., with Brenda Feuerstein. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2011.
    • Chatterjee, Margaret. Gandhi’s Religious Thought. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983.
    • Elster, Jon. Sour Grapes: studies in the subversion of rationality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983).
    • Farber, Leslie H. “Thinking About Will,” in Leslie H. Farber (Robert Boyers and Anne Farber, eds.) The Ways of the Will: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books, 2000: 75-86, originally published in the Journal of the Otto Rank Association 4, no. 1 (June 1969): 13-23.
    • Iyer, Raghavan. The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi. Santa Barbara, CA: Concord Grove Press, 1983 ed. (1st ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).
    • Jordens, J.T.F. “Gandhi and the Bhagavadgita, in Robert Minor, ed. Modern Interpreters of the Bhagavad Gita. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1986: 88-109.

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