An Epistemology of Dharma as a Scientific Law – I
by Come Carpentier de Gourdon on 01 Aug 2015 2 Comments

Abstract: Dharma is a normative empirical concept derived from the observation of nature and the contemplation of the individual and collective self (inner nature) for the regulation of society in accordance with the laws of the universe. Further Dharma is the essential, non-material or “noumenal” character, sign or number (in the pythagorean-platonic sense: onoma-nomos, related to skt nama (rupa) of both the whole and each one of its parts. As such it is the identity of every phenomenon which is a process and not an object, perceptible only in its interaction with other processes, including our own sensorial perception rooted in our own ends (our dharma).


In that way, every dharma is a mathematical theorem and sanatana dharma can be described as an axiomatic meta-theorem, allowing us to describe the unified field of manifestation in its specifics and operating laws. Just as quantum physics describes atomic objects either as particles or as waves, dharmic epistemology regards all things as distinctive and yet as dynamic products of interactions between all other things - like the fractal quasi-crystals of physics and biology - in an indivisible web of being, the brahmajala.



Superficially Dharma and Science, at least in its “western” modern understanding, have very different meanings. Even in the Indian context, science in the traditional translation is vidya or jnana, while Dharma, from the root Dhru: to hold together, support or sustain (whose latin version is dur/us( - a), found in the roman maxim: Dura lex:  viz. the law is strict or hard, has both a biological and a moral significance, applying to the universe as a whole as to the human being in particular.


Further illustration of the semantic connotations of Dharma is provided by the latin words: firmus (firm), root of firmamentum (heaven or sky which holds all things) and frenus, hence ‘frein’ in French (brake) and ‘rein’ in English (1). In Avestan, the Iranian language akin to Samskrit the equivalent word is daena (whence the Arabic Deen) whereas Asha is the cosmic law (rta in Samskrit).

As Alain Danielou wrote: “For the Hindus, the world... is the realization of a divine plan in which all aspects are interconnected. Hindu society is the result of an attempt to situate man in the plan of creation” (2).

There is a relationship or organic link between Dharma and the Vedic cosmic law of rta (or ruta), a sanskrit cognate of the greek rythmos and the latin Ars and ratio in both arithmetical and moral senses: rate and reason, particularly if we think of the 17th century Classical European understanding of it as a divine regulatory principle as well as the highest human faculty and the Enlightenment notion of reason as the supreme law of society which the French Revolutionaries  promoted as a substitute for the Christian Biblical God. The eminent jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes referred to that notion when he spoke of “The path of law… (as) a trace of universal law…an echo of the infinite”.

As an additional illustration of Dharma’s semantic family, we can contemplate the relationship between the sanskrit dhru and the English verb “to draw”, from the common Old Indo European source. The very ambivalence of the term which denotes both the act of producing a graphic and the  extraction of water or any other substance or being (as in “drawing out) is manifested in the abstract use, as in “to draw a parallel” which can be interpreted either way.


Likewise Dharma is extracted from the observation of natural laws, as revealed to rishis in a state of samadhi in the form of Sruti but it is also drawn or mapped according to a transcendent archetype, as Plato’s nomos, related to the Sanskrit nama, the name which qualified and defines a thing, i.e; its law and role and also its numerus: number (both rational and irrational), the Pythagorean language of God related etymologically to numen: what is perceptible only to the mind and not directly by the physical senses.


For Pythagoras as for Plato their number is the ultimate being of things as such; their ding an sich. Dharma is thus not promulgated but discovered in nature and in the mind that is a reflection of the former (as when the Buddha “set in motion” - in the minds of his disciples - the wheel of Dharma). As such it is axiomatic and may be called “the Divine Plan” and it is also comparable to the greek Ethos, the law and status of all beings and things decreed by Fate (Ananke) or by the gods.


Pythagoras will be mentioned on various occasions in the following. As the father of greek “scientific” cosmology and mathematics. The son of a Phoenician father and a Greek mother who studied in Egypt, Babylonia, Persia and probably India according to tradition, he practiced and taught many of the tenets of Brahminical wisdom, such as renouncing violence:ahimsa, vegetarianism, ascetism and fasting, reincarnation, meditation, prayer and communion with Nature which he described in a pantheistic manner as a living being filled with intelligent living forms.


He claimed to receive direct inspiration (sruti) from the gods and from the supreme soul of the universe and to keep the memory of everything (smriti) and he evinced supernatural powers similar to those of the yogis and rishis. He professed all creation to be regulated by the harmonics of sound (sabda, mantra) as the expression of numbers and he equated the dyad, the pair (dvandva in Samskrit) as a symbol of illusion as it is merely an effect of the duplication or self-reflection of the primordial One or source.


His teachings are fully consonant with the Vedic-Upanisadic metaphysics and appear to be at least in part derived from it. There is hence a clear connection between his definition of the cosmic law and the Indic notion of Dharma. He is reported to have said that the number 4 represents the principle of justice and in the Veda, the god Indra, the ruler of the skies, is worshipped as he who holds the four-armed vajra, emblem of his protective and destructive power. The centrality of the quaternary is shown in the fourfold division of the Vedas, Varnas, Asramas, Purusarthas, Vamsas and other foundations of the Indian traditional social order.


Dharma as Truth and Reality 

Because it is the Law, or in other words the framework that makes reality, creation and life possible and durable, Dharma is inherently synonymous with the truth or essence of things (Sat-Satya), the first of the three terms which have been used to define the supreme being, with Cit: consciousness and Ananda: bliss. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (1.4,14) equates both (Dharma and Satya). Dharma is thus the essential characteristic or nature of things, both elementary and composite - a dimension of the word further developed in Buddhist philosophy - as heat and glow and the ability to burn are in the nature of fire or as expansion and gravitation are an essential property of the universe. As such, in grammar dharmin means bearer (of a property) as in the relation: sound is impermanent (i.e. is the bearer of impermanence).


In the human domain, Manava (human) Dharma however is not entirely innate as at least part of it must be learnt and consciously practiced in the form of duties, obligations and rites which characterise full cultured humaneness. Nature and culture complement each other as and when the latter is a faithful but refined reflection of the former in harmony with it. The Jaina religion divides Dharma into wordly (laukika) and unworldly (paralaukika) – for ascetics and renouncers who follow the yatidharma (pilgrim’s dharma) as opposed to the rules of conduct applying to the householders.

Rather early in the course of Indian civilisation, a correspondence was predicated between Dharma and Ahimsa (harmlessness, later interpreted as non violence) which enshrines an evident principle of Indian spirituality as “live and let live”, - rather than the activist and often misapplied notion of “do goodism” highlighted in much of western religiosity - out of the reverent recognition of the innate freedom of all living beings and of respect for the diversity that characterises the created world. Indic wisdom therefore preaches non-interference, unless help is specifically sought in the right circumstances; otherwise, Karma following its course, an intervention, however well meaning, can be a form of violence and a misguided attempt to affect the natural order.


This acknowledgment of a predetermined course of events is no mere blind fatalism although it may be interpreted as such by many. Rather it stems from the awareness of Karma (action) as the manifestation of the Universal Dharma; the immanent activity of all things.


Nature itself (the Cosmos) is the effect of sanchita karma; the sum of all karmas which impact it in its present and previous states and phases. Each being and thing manifests and shapes its kriyamana karma by its behaviour which in turn is largely determined by past formative experiences and circumstances, the prarabdha karma. In this dynamic vision objects are inseparable from the acts that produce them and constitute their existence; being (bhu) and becoming (bhava), life (jiva) and action (kriya) are part and parcel of the whole, being is indeed “interbeing” as late Swami Ranganathananda used to say. The universe is a dharma, as all are its component parts, whether fields, beings or particles. As another Greek “Oriental” sage Heraclitus said: “the One is born from all things and from the One all things are born” (Frag. 10).

Beyond the apparent ceaseless activity of nature, the steadfast, constant, stable character of Dharma is evoked by the term dharana, the first of the three highest steps according to Patanjali’s yoga sutras, which defines concentration in a seated position as the foundation of meditation and union with the Whole or Absolute.


Dharma in Buddhist Epistemology 

For Buddhism, the doctrine in its abstract normative dimension is Abhidarma which, together with the Buddha’s discourse, sutra; and the rules of conduct, vinaya, cover all aspects of the teachings of Sakya Muni. In his fundamental teaching, the Buddha discloses and expounds on the Four Noble (or Cardinal), Truths, the fourth of which is Dharma: the way of Liberation or second ratna (jewel) and saranam (refuge) of the seekers, described as the Eightfold “Aryan” (arya astanga marga) Path, attained by observing and practicing truthfulness, clear sightedness  and righteous action in order to break out of the vicious circle of interdependent origination or pratitya samutpada that keeps all beings in thrall to suffering, illusion and death. Therefore, for many Buddhists, Dharma is inseparable from the Buddha and can be seen as another, formless aspect of his ultimate reality: tathagathagarbha.


As in Hindu doctrines, Dharma has three aspects, morality or ethics (sila), wisdom (prajna) and mental concentration (samadhi) in order to achieve unity with all things through control of the senses, emotions and mind which are all impermanent and ultimately unreal.


Further, especially in Buddhist metaphysics and epistemology of the Great Vehicle or “Broad Way” all objects and events in space and time (phenomena) are called dharmas because they manifest as and are contingent upon their respective inherent laws of being and becoming, so that they are indistinguishable from the essential principle that accounts for their appearance and persistence.


Beyond the apparently material realm, there are momentary mental states or conscious elements which may or may not be real, depending upon which school of Buddhist psychology one follows. Dharmas therefore arise out of the chain of dependent origination and are indeed called pratityasamutpadadharmas so that they are also artha (results)(3). There is hence a substantial nuance in the interpretation of the term although it may be noticed that various currents of Hindu philosophy have undergone similar evolution, probably under the influence of Buddhism.

The natural law is in the mind where it reveals itself: Justice, the motionless axial notion that regulates all things has its symbol in the Dharma chakra which was Vishnu’s emblem and which the Buddha sets in motion. It is the axle and also the spokes and the circumference: chakra = kuklos = the cycle. All its parts are also the wheel and are nothing when seen in isolation. All things derive their identity from their relation to the whole even if they are apparently separated from it. Otherwise they lose their leaning and become unidentified fragments; only their positions and roles give them a name and a meaningful identity: namarupa (name and form). According to the Pali canon, the Dharma is non-speculative, non-arbitrary, testable in practice, immediate in its application, universally valid and accessible only to the spiritual elite (the Aryas) and as such it is defined as scientific if we wish to use this modern notion.


Vishnu, the original Dharmaraja, has among its emblems, the shankha or conch whose shape is based on the logarithmic spiral, expressing the Golden Ratio (so named in the West by Fibonacci who brought to Europe the Indian numeral system from North Africa) and whose sound creates the universe, and as we said earlier, the chakra or wheel whose rotation symbolises the cosmic spheres and perpetuates the created world.


Various schools of Buddhist philosophy and cosmology define in great details a number of concepts and metaphysical domains related to the notion of Dharma. One of them is the Dharmakaya, the body of Dharma which is the supreme or essential being personified as Vairocana, beyond form, matter and senses (respectively Nirmanakaya and Sambhogakaya). Another is the Dharmadhatu: the domain or realm of Dharma, the highest heaven, the Empyreus of Hellenistic cosmologists, lying beyond both the form and the formless, beyond all created beings, including the gods, and where only dwell the Dhyani Buddhas, or transcendent principles.


(To be concluded…

Paper presented at inaugural seminar of Bhopal Dharma-Dhamma University, July-August 2012

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