Dharma” is a unique Indian concept, a gift of Indian civilisation to humanity. It has provided the compass for right action and right livelihood. There is no equivalent word in Western languages. The concept of dharma is not limited to religion — as has often been erroneously done — dharma is a concept that runs through the many spiritual threads that together weave our culture. It is the “path of righteousness”.
All religions that grew from Indian soil — Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism — refer to dharma. In Hinduism, dharma signifies the ‘‘right way of living’’, aligned with rta — the order that sustains life and maintains the universe. In Buddhism, dharma means “cosmic law and order”. In Jainism, dharma refers to the teachings of the Jinas, for moral transformation of human beings. For Sikhs, the word dharma means the “path of righteousness” and hymn 1353 of Guru Granth Sahib refers to dharma as duty.
The etymological root of the word dharma is “dhr” — to hold, bear, support, maintain, keep and carry — and its meaning is “that which holds”, “that which sustains” — the universe and all creation, from the microcosm to the macrocosm, from the tiniest microbe to the largest mammal and the entire Earth family (Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam), from the individual to community, and all of humanity. Because dharma holds and sustains the Earth family and within it the entire human family, it embodies the principle of unity — of humans with the rest of nature and of humans across our diversities. Dharma arises from the interconnectedness of all life, and our duty to care for all humans and all species alike.
The opposite of dharma is adharma, the violation of rta, of the ecological laws of the planet, and of the duty to care for fellow humans irrespective of gender, race, caste, age or class. Whatever separates us from nature and each other, every action that leads to the disintegration of societies and ecosystems is adharma.
Dharma guides us in choosing between right and wrong — through ethical assessment, environmental assessment, technology assessment and socio-economic assessment — by assessing the impact of one’s actions on nature and society, using tools and instruments that one shapes, chooses and uses. Tools and technologies are not self-referential. Their assessment and choice is based on higher values. If the choice one makes contributes to “holding together”, to integration, then the choice is a dharmic choice; if it leads to ecological destruction and social displacement, it is adharma.
The dharma and discipline of food in India are in our ancient agricultural practices. Practices that Sir Albert Howard (Imperial Economic Botanist to the Government of India) spread around the world as contemporary organic farming, through his classic An Agricultural Testament. Practices based on the principles of upholding the laws of nature and social well-being that are today supported scientifically in the principles of agroecology.
Jitendra Bajaj, my colleague and course mate at Punjab University, with whom I did my M.Sc. (Hons) in Particle Physics, and M.D. Srinivas, another particle physicist, have together written the best book we have today on the dharma of food, Annam Bahu Kurvita: Recollecting the Indian Discipline of Growing and Sharing Food in Plenty. Their citations from various ancient texts resonate with the latest in the science of agroecology and the best thinking on principles of food justice and food ethics:
Annam Brahma — Food, itself is Brahma, the creator; annamnanindyat tadvratam — Do not look down upon anna annamnaparicaksita tadvratam — Do not neglect anna annambahukurvita tadvratam — Multiply anna many-fold. Ensure an abundance of food all around.
In our dharma of food, anna is creation, the cycle of life is a food cycle, good food is medicine (sarvaushada), and the growing and sharing of good food, in abundance, is the highest duty. The ability to carry out this duty relies on our capacity to know the difference between good food and bad, between systems that hold ecosystems together or completely violate all ethics and dharma for shortsighted greed — pushing annadatas into debt, distress and suicide and destroying our health through disease epidemics.
In spite of the deep civilisational heritage of dharma, the discourse and guidance of dharma has been displaced by an imposition of the toxic tools of war-based industrial agriculture. The imposition of GMOs at any cost violates the dharma of food on many levels. Scientific concerns are being silenced by financial muscle, and dharma is being excluded from any discussion and debate on food. Instead of an intelligent, responsible and ethical assessment of how particular tools of transformation of the seed and our food impact the fabric of life, other species, farmers, our societies and human health, a tool has been put beyond assessment and beyond dharma.
Instead of seeing food as the creator, corporations and scientists developing GMOs are taking over the role of “creator” through “patents” on life. Instead of assessing how the use of toxic chemicals and GMOs are impacting the web of life — the bees and butterflies, the earthworms and soil organisms, the biodiversity of our plants — assessments built into biosafety laws are being blocked through deregulation under the influence of industry in country after country.
The principle of abundance is being violated by turning abundance into scarcity. Scarcity is created by making seed non-renewable through biological tools like sterility creating genes or legal tools like patents and compulsory licensing to prevent seed from multiplying and reproducing freely. Scarcity is created when seed freedom is intentionally destroyed to make farmers dependent on buying seed every year. In India, this intentional creation of scarcity has led to the great adharma of trapping farmers in debt and pushing 300,000 to suicide. The debate on GMOs is primarily a contest between dharma and adharma. It is in this context that the choices about the tools and technologies for food production need to be made. The choice is between right livelihood vs the rule of greed, power, control and human hubris. It is about our duty to care for the Earth and our Earth family, including all humans. A duty we have collectively failed at for the last few decades being violent to our own land by poisoning it.