Over and over I kept seeing the world "individual" in this book. And it wasn't said in a good sense. In fact, the overarching theme I got from reading of the ancient religions of India was individualism was the enemy we each had to overcome. See this passage about the duty or dharma prescribed to each person based on birth. Dharma - along with karma and rebirth - is one of the key components of Hindu faith. Notice how not individualistic and very traditional this is.
"In ancient India's bustling towns and villages, each squalling infant grew up knowing that he had to mature in the pattern of his parents. To do so was his dharma; he was never to deviate from tradition. Every act of his life, no matter how trivial, was a religious ritual, enforced as a prescribed duty. The way he brushed his teeth, stepped from his house or greeted his neighbor was supposed to conform to his own group's habits or the universe would tremble. The work he did, the tools he used, the way he used them -- his group's ways with all these matters was theoretically part of his dharma, and to tamper with them was to defy the universal order. In this ideal scheme of things, personal inclination was not a major consideration. If a child from a family of cotton merchants liked to nurse sick puppies back to health or to rescue maimed birds and mend their broken wings - signs that, in our own culture, might suggest the family start saving for medical school -- his dharma would nevertheless prescribe that he be trained as a merchant. In the words of the Bhagavad Gita, 'It is better to do one's own duty badly than to do another's duty well,' for only when men performed their hereditary dharma did society function properly as an element of the universe." (pg. 136)
What do you think? Some of this made me think of Muslims who follow the example of their prophet down to the most minute details. Perhaps Muslims think this is their dharma as being part of the Islamic Caste. Same with those who follow Judaism especially the minute details of the rabbinical literature. I used to think Islam - like Judaism - ruled its followers to death, but now I'm beginning to think we Christians are the odd ones with our lack of a gazillion and three rules to micromanage our lives! Are we missing out?!
There were four classes of men - "strictly graded and segregated" - and each needed to perform its set tasks. The castes (this term actually came from 16th century Portuguese travelers and Indians have a different name for this) were interdependent - the warriors would protect the farmers and carpenters and in turn needed food from the farmers and houses built by carpenters - and gave members a sense of security. "The caste assumed all financial responsibility for everyone in it, from the aged to the infant; even an incurably lazy young man was often housed, fed, clothed and protected by members of his caste." (pg.141)
I have a bit more to share, but don't want to make this post too long. So I'll just briefly mention the Mahabharata which speaks "to the universal human condition...Yudhisthira voices the eternal struggle of individual conscience against society as it is ordered, and he shares the universal plight of man powerless against forces he did not create -- forces he may decry but has to reckon with." (pg. 119)
Yudhisthira didn't want to go to war, but it was his dharma as a warrior. He cried out against this "cruel carnage" and was condemned at death with "a stint in hell and further rebirth" because he railed against his duty. His "vain and pompous cousin, whose greed had brought on the war," was "feasting happily with the gods." His cousin had fulfilled his dharma "in going to war without quailing."
Lesson being: if you are a warrior and your duty is to wage war, do it. Even if you have personal objections. It is your duty and your individualistic thoughts do not matter. Leave your conscience at the door and due what duty demands.
At least that's how I take all this.
Yes, being community-minded and duty-minded is good in many ways, but is "the Indian idea of bliss" i.e, "the absorption of individuality in a greater whole" the cure for society's ills? Or should there be some balance?
What do you think of the information presented here? Please feel free to correct my understanding of things if you can shed some light on these topics. How does the idea of dharma and tradition to this degree make you feel? What are your thoughts on individualism? Your thoughts on the caste system's built in interdependence and sense of security? Any thought on Yudhisthira's story?