Friday, November 15, 2013

Does Witzel have the Adhikara to translate Rig Veda? What is Adhikara?

Related posts:


This post follows-up, as a prologue to this note of November 12, 2013.

I suggest that the Witzel workshop should shift its venue to the confines of the professors' classrooms and continue with their life missions to attract students into Harvard South Asia or other schools to study pseudo-Samskṛtam.

It will be sacrilege to hold the workshop in the puṇyabhūmi, Bhāratam because some of the participants denigrate Hindu and Vedic dharma. It ain't no Vedic workshop, it is a-dharma workshop, a hypocritical exercise to use Veda as a cover to continue proselytizing activities.

I question the Witzel-types' adhikāra to self-proclaim their right to teach and preach Veda.

Adhikāra, apart from being a qualification to entry into a particular system as well, is claimed to be different from system to system as per prescribed norms of the system. In Hindu tradition, adhikārarefers to ādhyātmika competence, in particular, ability to perform yajña and related yoga vidhānam. 

The Witzel-types cannot be prevented from exercising the option to read the Veda in their own private languages but when they enter the public domain proclaiming to know the Veda and abuse Vedic traditions and Hindu civilization, they forfeit their rights. The freedom is constrained by the primordial tenet of dharma. Those who indulge in adharmic behavior have denied their responsibility and ceased to lay any claim to make pronouncements, even in aitihāsika style to distort and misrepresent Vedic thought. I am not questioning their buddhi, but accusing them of adharmic, evil intent to impose their ownreligious theology onto the gullible Hindu students the way Roberto de Nobili tried and failed in Madurai.

Adhikāra derives from fulfilment of one's dharma,responsibility. Adhikāra does not inhere in a person, quite unlike a right in jurisprudence but is derived from fulfilment of one's responsibility. Thus Adhikāra has to earned, not claimed as an intrinsic right.

The concept of Adhikāra has been subject of many interpretations.

Richard W. Lariviere, adhikāra – right and responsibility in: Mohammad Ali Jazayery et al, Languages and cultures: studies in honor of Edgar C Polome, pp. 359-364) argues beyond the translation of adhikāra as 'right': "It is my contention that adhikāra has a broader meaning…it also includes the concomitant idea of 'responsibility' or 'obligation'." (p.359)

Katyayanasrautasutra refers to adhikāra as qualification or authority to perform vedic yajnas.

Prasna Upanishad (III.4): yathaa samraaD eva-adhikRtaan viniyunkta etaan graamaan graamaan adhitishthasva-iti This is a reference to a person authorized, who has competence.

adhikāra is a corollary of dharma closely related to vidhi (Vedic injunction) and niyoga (obligation) or kaarya (what ought to be done).

Thus, adhikāra as an obligation refers to duty, and NOT to right. Cf. Bhagavadgita 'karmanyeva adhikāras te).

Dharmo hi niyogah (76)

adhikāra is ownership of the results (phalaswamya) and relates to 'eligibility'. "The Mimamsaanyaayaprakaasha (ed. Franklin Edgerton, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1929) defines an adhikāravidhi as phalasvaamyabodhako vidhir, 'an injunction which indicates the ownership of the fruit (of the sacrifice)' " (loc. cit. p. 359)

Is Adhikra good enough for 'rights'?

Purushottama Billimoria, School of Social Inquiry, Faculty of Humanities, Deakin University, Geelong, Victoria, Australia Published in: Asian Philosophy, Volume 3, Issue 1 March 1993 , pages 3 – 13


The paper considers the question of whether 'rights' as we have it in modern Western thinking has an equivalence within the Indian framework of Dharma. Under Part I we look at purusrthas to see if the desired human goals imply rights by examining the tension between aspired 'values' and the 'ought' of duty. Next, a potential cognate in the term 'adhikra' is investigated via the derivation of a refined signification of 'entitlements', especially in the exegetical hermeneutics of the Mimms. Finally, adhikra's re-emergence in the Bhagavadgit is considered. We suggest that while the boundary is significantly extended, the Git too appears to be circumspect in opening up the discourse in the more abstract and absolute sense which the term 'rights' nowadays enjoys.


Does the concept of rights as we have it in modern social philosophy mean anything in the Indian tradition? Can we meaningfully speak of rights as a framing concept in Indian Dharma? This question has concerned me for some time and I wish to confine my exploration in this paper to some anticipations in Brāhmaņical Mīmāmsā.

Now, how does one even begin to think of rights in the context of ancient and classical Indian moral thinking? Would it be legitimate to speak of rights as some kind of entitlements without reference to fundamental moral conceptions such as rta, dharma and vidhi or to scripturally sanctioned actions and so on? It would appear that just as in contemporary moral discourse it becomes extremely difficult to speak of duties without giving priority to rights, in the traditional Indian context, one cannot speak of rights—if one can speak of rights at all—without giving due priority to duties.

I.                   Dharma's Duty

Duties, it is often said, are the primary concept in Indian social and ethical thought. Even so, there is almost no possibility of considering or determining duties and obligations with regard simply to the natural entitlements of the individual, for a human being is only ever so conceived in the total context of the social order sanctioned by tradition (with the possible exception of the sannyasin). An isomorphism is supposed between rta (the cosmic or natural order, later referred to as sat,'existence') and the right as righteousness (satya) and actions of human beings which promote this harmony. This isomorphism is expressed in the comprehensive conception of dharma, which gradually becomes the touchstone of Indian life and the transcendental framework for determining the legitimacy or otherwise of the normative culture—of the gods, kings and subjects alike—at any point in time. As the root dhr suggests, dharma is that 'law' that sustains and gives cohesion to the three worlds of nature, society and human beings. The discourse of adharma does, however, with time shift more towards the human dimension. Henceforth it provides the trajectory for a comprehensive system of social and moral regulations for each of the different groups, and even vaster subgroups, that comprise the broad Hindu fold, as well as specifying certain universal norms incumbent upon all human beings (in the horizon of the three worlds). What appears to give coherency to the conception is its appeal to the organicunity of being or existence (i.e. sat), to the 'just' (just-ice) where it is due, and in its promise to minimise the burden of karma (individually and collectively). [1]


Within the broad framework of dharma is traditionally placed the purusārthas (literally, 'the ends of human persons'), which have been understood as delineating the ultimate goals of human life that provide significance to human existence in all its modalities. There has, however, been some debate recently articulated by a number of scholars, in particular Daya Krishna, [2] over whether the purusārthas should be understood descriptively or prescriptively. The question raised underscores an ambiguity in the term purusārthas as it is generally used: does it simply describe what human beings naturally aspire to achieve, and what would therefore seem to be 'good', or does it suggest what human beings ought to aspire to, i.e. the right that has to be pursued as though it were an obligation? A recent writer, Kamalakar Mišra, has averred that there is no reason why purusārtha need not be taken in both senses, i.e. descriptive and prescriptive. He aligns the Sanskrit purusārthas with 'values', which encompasses both 'what man aspires to achieve but also what he ought to aspire to, or, in other words, what is also good or right to do'. [3]

The four goals of human life represented by the purusārthas scheme, therefore, take on the shade of positive virtues, having been sanctioned by dharma, which give te human person not only an incentive but also, in a sense, a right to pursue these.

Understood in this sense, the purusārthas, it may be argued, circumscribe certain rights, or better, entitlements to the human person, albeit within the context of a tight-knit social relationship, whose due accomplishment or fulfilment prepares one for the ultimate freedom (the 'end' of ends). Again, given the synthesis of 'is/ought' under one deontological term (not unlike the s'reyas and preyas of the Upanisads ), and while certain values in an instrumental sense and interests are secured, it is also the function of the purusārthas to commend appropriate means or instruments for their proper accomplishment. In other words, the purusārthas specify duties and obligations (kartavya) through which these values are to be realised, or realised in more 'dharmic' and fulfilling ways, particularly in respect of artha and kārna which, as Daya Krishna rightly points out, people will pursue anyway without having to be told to do so. [4]

The category or goal of dharma in the purusārthas scheme is intended to be more specific and sets down relevant duties according to one's station in life or relative social status in the broader community (āsramadharma). Thus there are duties and obligations specific to the stations, let us say, of the student and the householder. But do these duties, particularly of the householder, supercede any rights (other than, say, the right of the youth and the adult to enter their respective āsramas)} It would seem that these duties and obligations neither entail nor are they entailed by any correlative rights on the part of another. Assuming that there is a hierarchy within the ends such that the 'higher' ends check and determine the contents of the 'lower' ends, would it not follow that kārna would prescribe a duty of pleasurable enjoyment in the station in which it is most applicable, i.e. in the householder's life} But how can one speak of duties in respect of enjoyment? Is it the householder's duty to enjoy? Does one have an obligation to enjoy, or does one have a right to enjoy?

The response to this question is again straightforward: one is not to think of 'duties' and 'rights' as being opposed to each other, or related only by a reciprocal twain, at least in the context of the purusārthas. In other words, the absence of a sharp dichotomy between descriptive and prescriptive has ramifications for the ordinances of dharma as well, in as much as an 'ought' implies an 'entitlement' to a value or the right thing to do. However, the traditional caveat is that one is free (i.e. predisposed to exercise one's right) to enjoy as long as the substantive duties encumbent under the other 'ends', namely artha or livelihood (which includes welfare of one's family) and dharma (which determines social duties and community obligations) are being concurrently discharged. Hence kārna is not something to which one has, as it were, an automatic or unqualified 'right' at the expense of other pursuits, including the duty towards one's own health, well-being and fortitude. The question, then, need not be strictly about ordering the 'ends' in a hierarchy, but about establishing their correct relationship and interdependence.

Even so, moksa appears to be something of a 'wild card' in this scheme. First, as several scholars have noted, moksa appears to have been added later to the three preexisting normative ends. Second, moksa is a non-instrumental value, meaning that it is not a means to some other higher end, but is an end in itself. In this respect, moksa is sui generis. Third, moksa appears to be opposed to kārna, not least since kārna is centred on desire, usually of more earthy and sensuous kinds, while moksa implies the overcoming, or at least bracketing, of desire and egocentric pursuits. Fourth, all duties and rights alike that lead to action are terna-generating and hence tend to perpetuate bondage, while moksa is supposed to be Äanwa-transcending, non-active, yet requiring rigorous self-effort. More importantly for our purposes, where does moksa stand in relation to the issue of whether it is an 'ought' or a 'value' which human beings naturally pursue and have a right to pursue? Empirically, there seems little evidence that people naturally
pursue the end of moksa. But when moksa becomes an integral part of a normative moral system (such as of dharma), and there is no doubt in the minds of the community tied to this morality about the intrinsic virtue of this particular pursuit, then of course, it is taken for granted that moksa needs no metaethical legitimation.

Seen in this light and situated within the schema oīpurusārthas, moksa, construed as absolute inner freedom, appears to be the only 'absolute right' one has any claim to, meaning that this 'end of ends' comes without any residuum of duty or obligation attached to its pursuit, other than the prior fulfilment of duties and obligations implied in the preceding stations or āsramas. Interestingly enough, the activities that might be engaged in once having attained the lofty heights of moksa, are said to arise spontaneously and they are not produced via the execution of duty, nor for that matter as a result of a just and proper exercise of one's right or entitlement within this state, for all such considerations appear to have been transcended. Whatever other problems the category of moksa raises, besides this paradox, it at least stands apart from the other categorical ends and in so doing suggests the possibility of a totally obligation free right, which too is rescinded the moment one enters it.

I wish to spend some time exploring the duties and obligations incumbent especially obligatory rites prescribed in the sastras (scriptures), but in terms of what is owed (or in old English 'ought1) to them for their contributions towards the continuing welfare of human beings. In addition one has the obligation of making gifts (dāņa) and offering libations Qiomd). Duties and obligations, in this cosmic perspective, are what make the world go round.

The king too has certain obligations, namely to protect the citizens and their interests and to do right by them. Whether the law-makers, such as Manu and Kautilya, who laid down these particular regal obligations had in their mind the correlative rights of citizens (as distinct from their interests) remains a matter of interpretation. For, if dharma sets the limits and constraints on the action of citizens and kings alike then one cannot say that obligations are entailed by the corresponding rights of others. In Kautilya's case it is more likely that he was concerned to build up the kingdom of the prince, by the rule of daņda ('the rod'), if necessary, than that he was concerned with the rights of the citizen. Nevertheless, Kautilya does grant certain rights to the citizen in order to protect the people against the king's Machiavellian tyranny. [5]

It may also be argued that the ordinances of Manu set down certain rights for the brahmin, for are not his entitlements and privileges protected and do they not entail correlative duties on the part of non-brahmins? It should not be overlooked here, however, that the brahmin claims his entitlements qua being a brahmin, not qua being a human being per se (which others are also); it is simply his good fortune to have been born a brahmin. Besides, these entitlements are set down by positive law, or if one wants to stretch the metaphor, by a natural law which was applicable in that particular epoch or yuga (for Manu does confess that dharma may take different operative forms, or 'visions', in different epochs). [6] It may be that Manu was merely giving assent to the status quo in the interest of some higher end that he alone could (fore)see. But the lowly social status and servility of the südra is quite categorical in Manu. The südra is literally the 'child of misery', though he has a few more entitlements relative to people of mixed castes and untouchables. At least the šūdra has a certain desert in virtue of his duties that cannot be easily forfeited. One may rightly argue however that this has nothing to do with natural rights, for the duties are really those of the marketplace, or in the interest rather of his master.

One may nevertheless ask, how is it that the brahmin has claimed or appropriated certain rights with respect to the performance of rituals? Rituals have to be performed in certain prescribed ways for them to be binding and effective. But this is a procedural requirement, i.e. the claim is that whoever is qualified should perform them according to the rules. It is therefore an impersonal entitlement, although later literature fixes the brahmin as the most qualified instrument or agent for the task. And this entitlement soon becomes a matter of inheritance. For the law-makers like Kautilya and Manu, the vārnas (vocational groupings, or 'castes') are arranged in a descending order and it is this scale that determines the claimable entitlements, privileges and obligations, as well as punishments and violations, incumbent upon each member of the group.

The brahmin, for instance, who keeps a non-brahmin woman will jeopardise the inheritance rights (to property) of his sons born through the woman; but a südra's infringement of a brahmin's prerogative could lead to the dispossession of all that he has courtesy of the brahmin master (VII.417). The brahmin's prerogative extends to cover his control over his own wife, son and any servant or slave, their property, earnings and so forth. The brahmin has no calling to serve anyone other than himself (and perhaps the gods), while it is a s'ūdra's natural and normal duty to serve the brahmin and established householders, which is not something that can be enforced on the other vārnas. The king and his ministers (and a band of clandestine spies in Kautilya's state) are under obligation to safeguard these prerogatives, privileges of the 'twice-born' vārnas, and indirectly those of the monarch, although this latter calling is not strictly an entailment of a further entitlement claimable by the 'twice-born'. But the question still remains, can we speak in terms of the brahmin's rights, even if in a derivative sense? For if we can, then we might be coming close to finding a traditional Indian counterpart to the (Western) concept of rights. I will return shortly to the specific issue of the brahmin's 'natural' entitlement(s) on which the derivation of the idea of rights would seem to depend.

II. Adhikāra

So far, we have not been able to discern a semantic field in ancient Indian thought that corresponds strictly to the sense in which 'rights' has come to be understood in Western thought. The broad contours that we have mapped suggest a number of approximate usages and diffused analogues which are further restricted by any number of qualifications and dependencies, not least on the all-pervasive emphasis on duties and obligations, or 'rites' in the more specific ritual context. Nevertheless, this should not preclude us from asking the following important question: Is it possible to locate a term in Sanskrit that is perfectly cognate with the modern term 'rights'? We shall tread cautiously in discussing this question.

Austin Creel cites B. N. Chobe in saying that there is no Sanskrit word that means rights, and makes the following observation: "Rights are present in the system, but as the obverse of duties, the reciprocal duties of groups and individuals to each other, and never in any sense separated in status. To the extent that one not only owed duties to another but was owed duties by others, rights are bound up with duties, any duty involving a corresponding right or claim." [7] The observation is fair as far it goes and reinforced by the foregoing analysis. However, there is another route towards an answer to this question which writers like Chobe, Creel and others commenting on the issue have not considered. And for this we turn to Mīmāmsā ethics and the enormous impact they have had on Hindu jurisprudence over the centuries (to the present).

We find in Mīmāmsā literature recurrent use and refinement of a term which has importantly become a bearer of a precise signification for the more specific analogue to 'rights' that we are seeking. This development can be mapped from the early, rather inadequate and unsophisticated references to the modern adoption of the notion of rights in India. The term in question is adhikāra.

A word or two on the multivalent significance of the term adhikāra in the wider literary and philosophical parlance is apposite before we move on to the more specific derivation at the hands of the Mīmāmsā scholastics.

A standard Sanskrit lexicon (e.g. Apte's Sanskrit-English Dictionary) is apt to list the following meanings and usages for the term 'adhikāra': prerogative, privilege, title, authority, position, dignity, office, rank, sovereignty; as well as qualifications that deem one fit to be initiated into... or to perform certain specific duties, civil, sacrificial, religious, etc. Thus, depending on the context, adhikāra can have the nuance of being qualified, competent, authorised, deserving, having the title or trusteeship in respect of property, territory, ethereal rewards, and so on. Apart from a certain ambiguity that the term adhikāra trades, or perhaps plays, upon, none of these senses betrays the exactness of the nuance transparent in the form 'having right to'. Of course, the latter does appear in a related term, viz. 'arh, arhati'; however, there appears to be no corresponding nominal or gerundive form from this particular root that would yield the equivalent of (the English term) 'right'. When pressed to extract a predominant ethical nuance from these various senses, the best that I believe we can come up with—and this is a significant point—would be the equivalent of the Western term 'desert', as when we say, 'a peaceful death is X's just desert having suffered intolerable pain from a terminal condition'. (Two relevant points on desert need to be noted: a desert is not a 'trumps down' universal claim, i.e. it is contextually negotiated, and is more usually voiced by another on behalf of X, i.e. it lacks its own assertability, quite unlike a right, whose universalist form and much less its content marks its particular forte. Gandhi, following an erstwhile tradition, was moved to reintroduce the notion of 'trusteeship' and 'desert' in place of 'ownership' and 'right thereto' in his mature social thinking.)

So it would appear that adhikāra, for reasons just pointed out, does not lend itself to being translated or taken as the cognate of 'right' in that specific ethical-legalistic sense in which we are presently interested. Indeed, the Urdu term haq might appear to be a more suitable candidate, and this term has been current in popular Hindustani. (Although those more concerned to Sanskritise spoken Hindi in parts of north India have been wont to substitute the term 'adhikār' where haq had gained currency. Thus a dispute over a first class rail seat allocation, or more controversially over a sacred relic site, between two or three different claimants would, in the course of the argument, variously register three terms: 'haq', 'adhikār' and 'right'.)

But this is not the end of the story, for although a direct translation is not possible the term 'adhikāra' can be construed through a series of derivations which brings it closer than any other term to the current use of the term 'right' or 'rights'. It has its genesis in Mīmāmsā exegetical hermeneutics and its results in the Bhagavad Gitā.

Mlmārņsā on adhikāra

What I hope to show in the rest of the paper is the intriguing use of a hermeneutical device through which the Mīmāmsā scholastic writers were able to fashion a rather more precise and poignant nuance out of the multivalent senses which underpinned the term adhikāra, by focussing on the somewhat specialised requirements and provisions which the Brāhmaņic texts fixed in respect of the performance of prescribed rituals and sacrifices. The Brāhmaņas, as is well known, describe at length the process and instrumentations by which the sacrifices and mantras enjoined in the Veda are to be effected. While the Brāhmaņas begin the task of interpretation and explanation, it leaves unanswered a plethora of questions and assumes an incredible degree of wisdom on the part of a priestly elite concerned with perpetuating the orthopraxy. One of the questions that is left glaringly open concerned the unstated subject, the 'who' in the injunctions, particularly of the form 'Whosoever desires X should perform sacrifice Z'. This, in other areas of ethics and sacrificial exegesis, would open up another Pandora's Box, but we shall confine our discussion to the issue of the implied subject.

In considering the question of who it is that is the proper subject of the vidhi or injunctions regarding sacrificial performances, the master of Purva Mīmāmsā Jaimini, speaks in terms of adhikāra, i.e. the conditions or criteria for eligibility on the basis of which one's entitlement to the act can be stamped. Four major criterial requirements are highlighted, viz. ārthltva, samarthya, agniman and vidvan. [8]

The first criterion opens up the eligibility to anyone who has the desire (kāmana) for such and such a reward (phalārtha), and Jaimini counts women as being eligible on the same grounds as men (though this is possibly restricted to wives, which safeguards the classical (Mahabhārata) ordinance that a woman is not to act independently (na strt svatantryamarhatï), so Sabara opines in his commentary).

The second criterion specifies the fit and able condition of the desirer's body (samarthà) to carry out and complete the performance.

The third criterion specifies the resourcefulness of the performer in terms of obtaining agni (sacrificial fire) and other instrumentations (dravya) in the prescribed way.

The fourth and last criterion supplements the second by specifying the requisite intellectual status of the would-be performer in respect of the knowledge, ritualistic formulae, mantras, and such details as are necessary for taking the sacrifice to its logical conclusion. (Only with the correct performance of any act can the connected fruit be obtained via the apürva or 'unseen potency' long after the yajamana has completed the yajña.) But such knowledge, etc. occurs only in the Vedas and anyone who is to be admitted under this criterion must know the Vedas and have access to Vedic mantras or sarņhitās and Brāhmaņas. In the case of kamya, or optional rites, and naimittika, or occasional rites, all the four criteria must be fulfilled, while in the case of nitya or obligatory rites (such as the morning and evening prayers) the first need not be present (for the phala should not even be an incentive here) and the second may well be deficient.

Now it would appear that just about anyone—who is capable of having or expressing a desire for some phala (such as a heavenly state, cows, progeny, etc.)—can claim entitlement under these terms. But when one looks closely at the fourth criterion, which is a sufficient condition for all variety of rites, it strikes one that the requirement of vidvatva is intended drastically to curtail the scope of the eligibility, by surreptitiously introducing two more strictures which are implied in this criterion.

These strictures are that the subject must be a dvijā or 'twice-born' and an upantta, i.e. one who has undergone the sacred-thread initiation ceremony (upanayanà). It should be obvious to any Indian that not all 'twice-born' persons undergo the initiation rite which is reserved for the brahmin, and it goes without saying that a (ūdra can never be considered eligible under this requirement. (Manu debars the šūdra from as much as hearing the Vedic recitations.) Hence the further strictures serve the purpose of placing constraints on other groups that prima facie meet the eligibility criteria (with the help of the attendant unspoken strictures), thereby protecting the interests of the brahmin and by default naming him as the subject of the entitlement. Note, however, that the limiting conditions are invoked almost as though these were part of a 'natural' order or law, for what determines that a person X is a 'twice-born' and that another is a südra?

Once birth as the determinant of this status is accepted, then could a brahmin help being born a brahmin, and südra a šūdra} Hence within the terms of this framework, a natural process is believed to function that restricts the scope of the eligibility, against which a südra can have no grievance or argument to the contrary.

Here we notice that the notion of adhikāra is utilised in the thinking of the Mīmāmsā for establishing the ground-rules for the privilege, indeed, 'en-title-ment' which a brahmin might legitimately claim in respect of the performance of Vedic sacrifices. It takes a step from here, by moving forward somewhat circumspectly, without yet making this claim absolute in all but an abstract way, towards delineating the morally transparent 'right' of the brahmin. [9] This 'desert' and the dignified office that it carries with it is there by virtue of the special birthright accorded to, or appropriated by, the brahmin; in principle, however, it may be stretched—as in the case of the first criterion above and in Jaimini's own words—to sarvādhikāra (universal entitlement).

On a similar tack, the Mīmāmsā interpret a text in the Mahābhārata, viz. sravayet caturo vornan, stating that the four castes have adhikāra to acquire knowledge of the smŗti scriptures (Itihāsa and Purāņas). This establishes the concessional entitlements which the non-'twice-born' castes can claim in respect of performing rituals which are derived from non-Vedic injunctions. The more liberal procedure of interpretation of moral codes instigated by the Mīmāmsā on the basis of the concept of adhikāra had a far-reaching impact on later jurisprudence and the handling of delicate issues in morality, such that the Mīmāmsā itikartavyata (criterion/precedent) would be invoked on occasions, in Mītāksara and in the Penal Code in this century, to decide on issues that arose, say, in relation to anuloma (the inheritance rights of the son of the s'üdra wife of a brahmin), which effectively overturns Manu (who, if we recall, proscribed such inheritance rights). [10]

III. Bhagavad Gitā's Adhikāra

The Brāhmanical encoding of the discourse of entitlements, nuanced as 'desert', in respect especially of the fruits of religion—such as heaven, moksa, Harī, Brahman, etc.—is challenged from time to time. Jaina and Buddhist critiques rallied against the foreclosure of this discourse, and while decrying the Brāhmanical proclivity towards ritualistic action they continued to place strong emphasis on the necessity of carrying out one's duty in all spheres of life. This srāmaņic critique of the Vedic ideology was to have a powerful influence on the smŗti (the 'recollected' tradition), wherein the seeds of the internal subversion of the brāhmanic discourse get planted. The Bhagavad Gītā embodies perhaps the earliest such critique. [11].

The Bhagavad Gītā seeks to consolidate the myriad petty rewards and fruits promised in the Vedic rites into a single end (here following the Upanisads and Samkhya) of spiritual freedom; but on the orthopraxy side the Gītā takes over the Mīmāmsā groundwork of dharma (and reconciles this with the practice of yoga and emergent bhakti or devotion). This is reflected in its rhetoric of singleness of mind purpose (vyavasayatmika buddhir ekeha 11.42). For the Gitā, as for the Mīmāmsā, the rightful discharge of dharma entails the performance of certain duties. But the categorical imperative we find in the Mīmāmsā is considerably weakened in the Giiā's discourse of niskāma karma or disinterested action, for such a class of actions is still of a type intended variously to purify the mind (sattvas'uddhi), to please the gods (Jsvaraprīti), and to contribute to the welfare of all being (lokasamgraha). These actions are not necessarily prescriptive as Vedic acts are, but they stem from one's own svadharma.

Now the notion of svadharma which in the Gītā receives a gallant endorsement, on the face of it, appears somewhat akin to Kant's notion of moral autonomy. However, the Gitā's notion, while it forms the basis of moral action, is not an abstract consequence that results from its critical method, but a quasi-subjective category referring to the innate characteristics—here termed svabhāva—of the individual, which he has according his nature.

In a sense the above combines both a formal and a material function. Svadharma tells one that one ought to do what one ought to do with regard to whatever is true to one's nature (svabhāva); and this is formal, as Krsna pronounces: 'Better one's duty (though) imperfect, than another's well-performed' (III.35). But the content of this duty with regard to what is one's nature is promptly specified by the Gītā in terms, not of the psychological properties of the individual, but rather of the empirically determined social placement or status of the individual. In other words, svadharma is ascertained by reference to the normative rules of that society, and that may be, as is certainly the case here, the particular class division and what its duties and obligations are. Hence one's svadharma is determined within the web of the dharma-karma dynamics, that is to say, the prescribed role in the interrelated network known as dharma. And this one does without regard to consequences or rewards, that is to say, in a spirit of detachment by rescinding the fruits of the action. Surely again, the Kantian maxim, 'duty for duty's sake' rings true here as well, but the difference is precisely in the way in which these duties are determined and legitimated. (Kant, in the final analysis, resorts to utilitarian considerations, the Gitā to a transcendental telos; in fact, the Gītā's adage would be better restated as 'duty for dharma's sake').

The Gītā, however, is not bound simply to the discourse of duties, for the idea of adhikāra had already opened other possibilities and claims that might run counter to the 'rites' discourse it attempts to rescue, albeit in a broader context of socially beneficial action. In this regard the Gītā presents an interesting variance on the nuance attached to adhikāra in its own rather deceptive and delicate use of that term. I shall illustrate this before drawing the implication for the thesis at stake.

The Gītā invokes the term adhikāra in a single verse (11.47): karmanyevadhikāraraste mā phalesu kadācana. There is reason to believe that the influence of Mīmāmsā is strong in this articulation, as indeed elsewhere (a major observation made forcefully by Kunhan Raja [12]). Given the premise just stated, I believe the verse cited here reads best when translated as: 'You have entitlement indeed to actions, never though to the results'. Arjuna here is being told that since he (Arjuna) belongs to the warrior group his adhikāra is to the act (which a warrior performs), and he has no claim to the results that may or may not follow. He is further told, by implication, that he has no entitlement not to do the act that has to be done, that is to say, he has no right to desist from what is (by his self-nature) incumbent upon him as a ksatriya. While it may appear that the Gītā is confusing the locution of duties with that of rights (understood as entitlements, let us concede), the move is deliberate, because the author(s) here attempts to introduce the idea of 'negative rights', which effectively states that no one, including oneself, can rightfully interfere with what is one's due or desert by virtue of the law (or dharma); if action Z is one's just desert then so be it, this is one's entitlement and nothing should be permitted to stand in the way of its fulfilment. By shifting the focus from results or fruits to action and agency, the weight of the entitlement tilts rather more towards action than towards fruits or result of the action.

It is almost as though the Gītā was tempted to speak of the 'right to duty' (just as we speak of the right to employment).

But the Gītā is not that explicit, possibly because the idea was too novel and the unthought in the looming tradition too deeply concealed for an easy excavation, or that its application to the wider context of action may have met with understandable demur from persistent ritualistic and ascetic critics alike. Moreover, the Gītā wants also to disabuse people of the false belief that one is any more entitled to or deserving of the fruits of action than one is, say, to the fires of hell. This is just the reason for Krsna's asking Arjuna to renounce the fruits (phalatyaga), and not the other way round, i.e. to rescind the action.

Importantly also, the notion of tyaga on which this renouncing (of fruits) is pegged is adopted not, as generally said, from the sannyasa tradition, but in a qualified sense from the Mīmāmsā, which stressed the giving up (or abandoning from one's own hand) of the dravya or substances (such as soma) used in the sacrifice. The discourse of duty which the Gītā wants to legitimate would gain greater strength from the locution of adhikāra which the Mīmāmsā had refined and heralded than it would through any borrowings from the sannyasa directives. But scholars and commentators, especially of the Vedānta-bhakti ilk, have concentrated far too exclusively on tyaga (which does not appear in this verse) than on adhikāra (which has had the same plethora of variant translations and readings as most other difficult or specialist terms in the Gītā).


I would venture to suggest that the Bhagavad Gitā, like the Mīmāmsā before it and from which it draws, came frightfully close to opening up the discourse of adhikāra in its later development towards a notion of rights (for it certainly stretches the erstwhile concept of entitlements beyond the scope intended in earlier Brahmanic texts). It draws its guiding impetus from Mīmāmsā exegetical hermeneutics, even as it seeks to apply the signification beyond the framework of sacrificial and religious rites to the broader context of social dharma (inclusive of war). But beyond this it could not go, perhaps for good historical and 'archaeological' reasons, which means to say that ideas that are historically developed have within their genealogy a certain scope and horizon which are nevertheless delimited by other countervailing historical and social conditions which either check unlimited growth or appropriate the promising trajectory for their own legitimation, perhaps even repression. More specifically, in the case in hand, the Gītā would have had to accept the fundamental idea that all persons are born equal and that nature does not endow differential markings on individuals which immediately translate into social differentiation, and so on.

Notwithstanding this limitation, the Gītā does concede another kind of adhikāra to all people (one presumes), and that is in respect of the life-form or practice of bhakti or devotion, for Krsņa promises to heed whosoever comes to him with a flower, a leaf, water, and a mind fixed on him alone, etc. But, again, this overture towards a more universalist reading of adhikāra is constrained in the social context by the overbearing weight of varnāšramadharma ('caste' structure) and an orthodoxy that could barely face reconciling itself with the challenges of the incipient individualism inherent in the systems of yoga-asceticism and Buddhism (through its denial of the caste structure if not of ātman also). Thus the overall response of the Gītā is restrained and calculated; it merely suggests the bare denouement of a discourse of universal human rights [mānava-sarvādkikāra], but of itself it stops short of developing this notion in the way that it came to be in the West, or even in the way that the notion of rights was adopted (with some mutations) in the secular modern Indian Constitution. But to discuss the enigma of the latter adaptation would be to stray beyond the scope of the present inquiry.


[1] See my essay, (1991) Indian Ethics, in: Peter Singer (Ed.) A Companion to Ethics (Oxford, Blackwell),pp. 43-57.
[2] While numerous critical discussions have appeared in recent years on the topic of purusārthas, the most pertinent for the present discussion is a paper entitled, The myth of the purusārthas by Daya Krishna, Journal of Indian Council of Philosophical Research, IV(1), Autumn 1986, pp. 1-14; see page 4 in particular.
[3] Miśra, KAMALAKAR (1986) Comment on Professor Daya Krishna's Paper 'The myth of purusāthas', Journal of Indian Council of Philosophical Research, pp. 167-180.
[4] Krishna, op. cit., passim.
[5] See Kautilya's Arthaśāstra, trans. by R. Shamasastry (Mysore, Mysore Printing and Publishing House, 1960); KRISHNA RAO, H. V. (1979) Studies in Kaunlya, (Delhi: Munshiram Manharlal). See also, KANE, P. V. History of Dharmaśāstras, 1(1), (Poona, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1962) p.225. Kautilya is famous for at least two things: i) justifying the rule of the rod (dandanīti) by the monarch; ii) emphasising the use of ratiocination in deliberations on matters of ethics; he also advocated a system of espionage to check dissent among the king's ministers, his rivals, lovers and citizens alike.
In fact, Kautilya's system of statehood compares somewhat better with Hegel's idea of the State as the 'ethical substance' than it does with Machiavelli's state, as often thought.
[6] Manu 1, pp. 81-86. The Manusmrti (1975) edited by Satya Bhushan Yogi (Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass). Also, TIWARI CHITRA (1963) Śūdras in Manu (Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass). Cf. FREDERICK COPLESTON, (1955, 1976) Thomas Aquinas (London, Search Press), pp. 220-224.
[7] CREEL, AUSTIN B. (1977) Dharma in Hindu Ethics (Columbia, South Asia Books) p. 19. Cf. the equally candid account in CARMAN, JOHN B. (1988) Duties and Rights in Hindu Society, in: LEROY S. ROUNER (Ed.) Human Rights and World's Religions (Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press), pp. 113-128.
[8] From Jaimini Mīmāmsā Sūtra adhyāya 6 pada I. The entire chapter is devoted to establishing who has the adhikāra or 'right' to perform yajñās. I am grateful for discussions of this aspect of Mīmāmsā ethics with Professor K. T. Pandurangi (Padmāśrī) and the very learned Pt P. N. Pattābhirāma Śāstrī (Padmābhūshan).
[9] The expression is Pt Pattābhirāma Śāstri's (personal teachings, Banaras).
[10] Manu VII.416. For discussion see Mimāmsā Jurisprudence (The Source of Hindu Law), by A. S. Nataraja Ayyar (Allahabad: Ganganath Jha Research Institute, 1962), p. 37. Ayyar cites a case from the Full Bench in Madras (Case I L R 41 Mad. 44) on the question of whether an illegitimate son of a permanently kept concubine could legitimately succeed to his father's putative properties, (p. 78). Mimāmsā or principles of interpretation are often invoked to apply Hindu Mītākşara Law that recognises heritable blood between a śūdra and his son. Apparently, the presiding judge of the High Court in Madras during the period, Justice V Krishnaswamy Ayyar, retained in this court a team of Mlmāmsā pandits to pronounce on the likely Mīmāmsā ruling in the cases he dealt with. This shows the
regard he had for Mīmāmsā jurishermeneutic.
[11] See, for example KOSAMBI, D. D. (1965) The Culture of Ancient India in Historical Perspective, (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul).
[12] RAJA, KUNHAN (1946) The Bhagavadgītā and the Mīmāmsā, Adyar Library and Research Bulletin, 10, pp. 9-12. See discussion in P. Bilimoria (1988) Metadialectics of the Bhagavadgītā, Ethics and the Contemporary Milieu, in: S. Parve Wakil et al. (Eds) South Asian Horizon Society, Culture and Literature (University of Saskatchewan, Canadian Asian Studies Association), pp. 103-144

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