Think Free



Ideas machine

Ideas machine (Photo: yesyesnono via Flickr)

Dharma is the idea of sacred duty in Hinduism. The concept originates from India’s ancient legal texts, so it’s not surprising that “doing the right thing” within this belief system is usually bound up within specific caste and gender biases, which many today would see as backward and oppressive.

Having said that, Hindus point out that dharma is of said to be very “subtle.” In other words, there’s a lot of room for flexibility and compromise within Hinduism, especially for the mid- to upper castes. The lowest cast of Sudras usually doesn’t enjoy the same degree of flexibility that the upper castes do.

Sound familiar?

Here’s what John D. Smith has to say, in the introduction to his translation of the Hindu epic, The Mahabharata.

Finally, dharma is not rigid: it may change with external circumstance. The Mahabharata devotes 39 chapters (12.129-67) to ‘dharma in times of trouble,’ and the topic is touched on at many other points too. Thus at 12.283 we are told that a Brahmin in need may follow the dharma of a Ksatriya or Vaisya, though the line is drawn at the slave-like status of the Sudra; and at 12.139 we even learn that the Brahmin seer Visvamitra, starving, considered it no breach of dharma to steal a piece of dog meat from a man of the severely degraded Candala class.

So dharma is not a simple thing; indeed, the Mahabharata repeatedly insists how ‘subtle’ (suksma) it is. This subtlety offers storytellers great opportunities for the development of narratives focusing on personal or existential dilemmas, for situations can arise – or be imagined – in which the demands of a person’s dharma seem to be mutually contradictory.¹

The Buddhist equivalent to dharma is dhamma but this differs in that the Buddha rejected many of the older Hindu ideas from which the new Buddhist religion emerged.

As a Hindu ideal, dharma is doing one’s divine duty in an (apparently) impersonal manner. In essence, the mind is said to be fixed on God while correct action is performed without care for the personal “fruit” of those actions.

Image via Tumblr

The belief that one’s actions may be entirely untainted by personal biases and desires seems questionable. And this is no scholarly quibble. Orthodox Hinduism, for instance, advocates killing as the appropriate dharma for members of the kshatriya caste. And in domestic affairs, the dharma of the wife is often marked by servitude to her husband and family, a position widely held to be sexist.²

The idea of surrendering to God is nothing new but each religion tends to define the idea of “appropriate surrender” differently. Despite the obvious problems with the idea of dharma, recent social movements within India are compelling the middle classes, especially, to become increasingly aware of the often conflicting distinction between the idea of universal human rights and this ancient Hindu view of religious duty.

Related Posts » Just War

¹ John D. Smith (trans.), The Mahabharata (abridged), Penguin Classics, 2009.

² India, where 80.5 % of the population say they’re Hindu, has recently been labelled the worst place to be a woman, with Canada being the best.


Leave a comment


English: A diagram showing the Nestorian view ...

A diagram showing the Nestorian view of Christ: Containing both a human and divine person. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dyophysitism is the religious doctrine, defined in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon, declaring that Christ possesses a dual nature, one entirely Divine and the other entirely human.

The term has also been applied to Nestorian beliefs, although theologians continue to debate whether or not this is justified.

Related Posts » Monophysitism

Leave a comment


taking oath, on abdicating his right to the th...

Bhishma taking oath, on abdicating his right to the throne, in order to get the fisher girl married to his father Shantanu.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In ancient Hinduism Dyaus is a sky god, later incarnating in the form of Bhishma in the epic called the Mahabharata.

The celebrated Romanian scholar of religion Mircea Eliade suggests a linguistic relation among the Indo-European noun deiwos (“sky”) and terms denoting a deity (Lat. deus, Skt. deva, Iran div as well as names of the primary gods: Dyaus, Zeus and Jupiter).

Eliade and G. Parrinder suggest that the idea of deity is usually related to transcendence and light, this often having paternal connotations—e.g. God “the Father.”

Non-Christian examples of a paternal theme relating to a deity are found in the Indian Dyauspitar, Greek Zeus Pater, Latin Jupiter, Scythian Zeus-Papaios and the Thaco-Phrygian Zeus-Pappos.

Leave a comment

Émile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) was an innovative French sociologist who taught at the university of Bordeaux and the Sorbonne. He’s usually upheld in introductory Humanities courses as as one of great three “classical” sociologists, and one of the founders of sociology as a discipline in its own right. This academic honor also includes Karl Marx and Max Weber.

Among his many achievements and insights, Durkheim is seen as a pioneer in the use of scientific method. Durkheim focused on society instead of the individual. He believed that “collective representations” emerged from many minds that interact in a social environment. Depending on their character, these collective representations had variable but statistically demonstrable effects on society.

In addition, he tended to view society as a doctor would look at a patient. This is often called Durkheim’s “organic metaphor.” His outlook predates what would come to be called structural functionalism. As such, he believed that some social forms were healthier than others.

Durkheim sought to create one of the first rigorous scientific approaches to social phenomena. Along with Herbert Spencer, he was one of the first people to explain the existence and quality of different parts of a society by reference to what function they served in maintaining the quotidian (i.e. by how they make society “work”). He also agreed with his organic analogy, comparing society to a living organism.[9] Thus his work is sometimes seen as a precursor to functionalism.[6][29][30] Durkheim also insisted that society was more than the sum of its parts.[31]

English: Cover of the French edition of The Ru...

English: Cover of the French edition of The Rules of the Sociological Method (Les règles de la méthode sociologique) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Unlike his contemporaries Ferdinand Tönnies and Max Weber, he focused not on what motivates the actions of individuals (an approach associated with methodological individualism), but rather on the study of social facts. As a result, Durkheim contrasted mechanistic social types (where individuals cooperate less, relying on tradition and punitive authority) to organic solidarity (where individuals cooperate more, working together to satisfy mutual needs). And for Durkheim, the former is inferior to that latter.

Durkheim also wrote on alleged “elementary” forms of religion, building his theories on the anthropological studies available at the time. And he did (secondary) statistical analyses of the sociological facts of crime and suicide, trying to link their frequency to particular social conditions and beliefs.

What makes Durkheim unique to most sociologists is his blending of theory, method and observation. In most cases Durkheim provides a detailed outline and defense of his scientific approach before engaging in a particular study. After completing his research, a theoretical analysis of his data follows. However, most of Durkheim’s observations are secondhand. He used the statistics and case studies available to him at the time, and rarely – if ever – went out in the field to do his own primary research.

While this kind of approach wouldn’t wash today in social psychology, many academic sociologists can still get away with armchair philosophy, making pretty obvious statements and distinctions that hard core philosophers have already covered in far greater detail. The only difference is that the sociologist applies conceptual distinctions to everyday life in ways that are more easily understandable and up-to date.‡

‡ Forwarding simplified versions of existing philosophical distinctions is evident in the works of Peter Berger and Erving Goffman. However, Berger talked about the importance of data collection while Goffman usually went a step further, actually going out into the field and getting his own data.

Functionalism, Lévi-Strauss (Claude), Myth, Saint-Simon (Comte Henri de), Totem

Leave a comment


English: Dancer of Sri Devi Nrithyalaya depict...

Dancer of Sri Devi Nrithyalaya depicting Durga: the right hands holding the trident, while the left hand’s 3 fingers’ mudra represents the head of the trident. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Durga is a Hindu goddess with both maternal and terrible aspects. Often depicted with eight or ten arms, Durga has been worshipped throughout India since at least 400 CE. As the consort of Shiva, some sacred scriptures called the Veda depict her as riding the back of a lion, symbolizing her immense power to confer grace on sincere seekers of God, and conversely, punishment on the ignorant and demon-deluded.

Prior to the annual fall celebration of Durga puja, a Hindu priest may conscript local youngsters to canvass for donations in order to construct an effigy of the goddess. For several days the life-size doll is promulgated throughout cites and towns on a cart, often accompanied with Hindi pop music blaring from a portable sound system. This event epitomizes India’s unique synthesis of the ancient, the sacred and the contemporary.

Related Posts » Great Mother

Leave a comment

Duns Scotus

English: John Duns Scotus (c. 1266 – November ...

English: John Duns Scotus (c. 1266 – November 8, 1308) was a theologian and philosopher. Some think that during his tenure at Oxford, the notion of what differentiates theology from philosophy and science began in earnest. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Duns Scotus (1266-1308) was a Scottish Franciscan theologian, likely born in Duns Berwickshire.

Scotus challenged St. Thomas Aquinas on the relation between faith and reason. Aquinas argued that if one first believed, knowledge of God would follow. That is, reason (a form of conceptual knowledge) followed and supported faith (a set of specific beliefs). Therefore for Aquinas faith and reason were closely related.

Scotus, on the other hand, divorced faith from reason, arguing the two were irreconcilable. His quick mind earned him the title of Doctor Subtilis (the subtle doctor). Along these lines, he advocated the theological idea of something halfway between a mere concept and a reality, an idea of interest to contemporary sociologists (especially non-reductive postmoderns) and philosophers.

Like other realist philosophers of the period (such as Aquinas and Henry of Ghent) Scotus recognised the need for an intermediate distinction that was not merely conceptual, but not fully real or mind-dependent either. Scotus argued for an formal distinction (distinctio formalis a parte rei), which holds between entities which are inseparable and indistinct in reality, but whose definitions are not identical. For example, the personal properties of the Trinity are formally distinct from the Divine essence. Similarly, the distinction between the ‘thisness’ or haecceity of a thing is intermediate between a real and a conceptual distinction.[21] There is also a formal distinction between the divine attributes and the powers of the soul.†

Scotus’ defense of the Papacy was ridiculed by Protestant reformers in the 16th century, contributing to the pun “dunce.”

Related Posts » Evil, Henry of Ghent

† See for citation, and for further reading:



Tibetan Buddhists celebrate Monlam in Bodhgaya...

Tibetan Buddhists celebrate Monlam in Bodhgaya, India, December 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Buddhism dukkha (Pali = suffering, ill, evil, unsatisfactory) is sorrow arising from bondage to maya. As the first of the Four Noble Truths, dukkha includes physical and mental suffering.

Happiness is also regarded as dukkha because of its impermanence. For Buddhists, the inevitable loss of worldly happiness begets unhappiness.

By way of contrast, most Buddhists would argue that the allegedly ‘supreme bliss’ attained from Nirvana is permanent.

Related posts » Eightfold Path