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Dharma and adharma during the pandemic

India continues to be rattled with the enormous surge in Covid cases and deaths. Although some friends are gearing up to provide urgently needed help, a few were reluctant to come forward initially. Compared to their slow response, just before the second wave, India led the efforts to distribute the Covid vaccine worldwide. This article discusses some examples of Adharmic responses to Covid, especially during the colonial era, and some dharmic examples rooted in the Indic traditions.

Although India developed a couple of different vaccines against Covid in very little time, it must be remembered that India’s vaccination efforts are not recent. Historians suggest that the European vaccination developed out of the traditional Indian method of inoculation, known as variolation, in the 18th century. According to an article in the Indian Journal of Medical Research, the evidence indicates that smallpox inoculation was practiced in India around 1000 CE. Like other knowledge traditions, vaccination likely traveled from India to China and beyond, as mentioned in Kurt Pollack’s book, The Healers, the Doctor, Then and Now. According to the original research by the noted Gandhian scholar Dharampal, the British Raj stopped the traditional Indian inoculation methods, tikah, even as Indians resisted the colonial push for the European vaccination. Let’s see a few more examples of adharmic actions.

The British Raj was particularly devastating as India suffered several pandemic outbreaks, the earliest being the “Third Plague Pandemic” in 1855 that killed millions. India suffered several more episodes of plague and cholera, with millions of casualties in the colonial period. The British Raj targeted the victims by its authoritarian rule. For instance, during the Bubonic Plague of 1896, the British Raj took away civil liberties by a new law called the Indian Epidemic Act. When Indian leaders such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak opposed these actions, he was imprisoned for 18 months. Chapekar brothers were sentenced to death when they shot two British officers to register their protest against this act. This resistance has been the subject of an award-winning Marathi film, 22 June 1897 (1979).

Similarly, one of the first Indian films, The Catechist of Kil-Arni (1923), was the first-ever portrayal of a pandemic in India. This silent film was sponsored by the Pondicherry Mission to spread Roman Catholicism. The film portrays the missionaries helping a small South Indian village that is struck with cholera. Another movie depicting the heroic effort of an Indian doctor is Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani (1946). V. Shantaram, one of the pioneering Indian filmmakers, directed this film and also played the role of the Indian doctor Dwarkanath Kotnis who went to China at the age of 28. Dr. Kotnis was one of the Indian doctors who was invited to China in 1938 to treat hundreds of wounded soldiers during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

As the world continues to reel under the Covid mayhem, perhaps it is time to take inspiration from Dr. Kotnis and various other medical professionals at the forefront of fighting this pandemic. We urgently need their compassion and not any recurrence of colonialism or racism that rears its head even today. India is blessed to have rich traditions and cultures with role models such as the Buddha and Mahavira. They focused on the world’s issues and preached renouncing worldly tendencies, caring for the living beings, including animals, insects, trees, and nature in general. The world’s oldest tradition of vegetarianism comes from India, one of the most urgently needed practices to prevent future zoonotic pandemics. Buddhism says, Sarvam dukkham, sarvam anityam, i.e., all is pain, all is impermanent. The central tenet of Hinduism is, Vasudhaiva kutumbakam – the whole world is one family. And Jainism preaches Parasparograho jivanam, i.e., souls render service to one another. More than two millennia ago, nonviolence (ahimsa), benevolence (mudita), and compassion (karuna) were taught as the roots of human relations by these Indian traditions. The Buddha remains the earliest global influencer on the human race with the vision to see all beings forming a single interconnected community- treating all other beings in pursuing our common goals. Centuries later, Durkheim’s words seemed to match this vision, “Society has to be present within the individuals.”

The above perspective is reflected in the Indian notion of Dharma (or Dhamma in Pali and Prakrit). Dharma is derived from the Sanskrit root dhr, which means to uphold, support, and sustain. The Mahabharata defines Dharma as Dharanat dharamam ityahuh, i.e., Dharma being the all-sustaining principle upholds the world, making for integrity and harmony in every context. It indicates that it applies towards moral duties for our fellow beings, universal virtues, and appropriate actions. Therefore, it is our Dharma to stand in solidarity with our fellow beings in this challenging time, to think of the wellbeing and safety of all. And it can be done with a slight modification of one’s tendencies. As Buddha taught (Dhammapada 1,2),

Phenomena are preceded by the heart,

ruled by the heart,

made of the heart.

If you speak or act with a corrupt heart,

then suffering follows you —

as the wheel of the cart,

the track of the ox that pulls it.

Phenomena are preceded by the heart,

ruled by the heart,

made of the heart.

If you speak or act with a calm, bright heart,

happiness follows you,

like a shadow that never leaves.

In conclusion, the notion and practice of Dharma can prevent and respond to pandemics. Adharmic actions based on prejudices and violence will only result and exacerbate more pandemics.

(Co-authored with Shikha Sharma, a research scholar in Philosophy)



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Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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