Indian Resilience- Paradox of Dharma

It is debatable as to who will win the ideological and political battle being currently fought in the country but one clear winner which has emerged is the average Indian, who has demonstrated, yet again his/her grit and resilience in dealing with hardship. Over the past few days, many common Indians have been walking long distances, standing in serpentine long queues and that too with no certainty that their efforts will bear fruit. They have felt frustrated, anxious, angry and wondered how they will meet their immediate day to day needs. In spite of all this, at least so far, there have been very few instances requiring intervention from law enforcement agencies. In fact, one could even spot a few smiling faces, some friendly banter, and quite a few expressing their support for the decision which has caused them so much hardship. “It is a problem right now but it will be alright soon and in any case it is for the overall good of the country” is the sentiment expressed by at least a sizeable section if not the majority. This optimism may be misplaced and may not last too long but there is little denying the fact that it is playing a crucial role in sustaining their resilience.

Simultaneously, there are thousands of bank employees, working tirelessly in a a highly demanding and stressful situation. They do not have adequate infrastructure and more importantly adequate cash to meet the requirements of those who have been waiting in front of them for hours. They often have to absorb the ire of the angry and anxious crowds for no fault of theirs. Yet from whatever I have experienced and heard from others, they have handled the situation with exemplary equanimity, maturity and sensitivity. Many of them have gone out of their way to extend help and support particularly to senior citizens like yours truly. And then there are the invisible ones, the ones who are working behind the scenes – printing currency, transporting it to many outlets, crunching numbers, responding to emergencies, devising ways and means to minimise the hardship to different segments etc. etc. The sheer size of the exercise is mind boggling and one can not help but wonder as to where are these people finding their energy from and what is keeping their spirit alive?

Of course, this is not the first time that Indians have shown this spirit. It has been seen on several such occasions like the Chennai floods last year. What is perhaps not appreciated is that  resilience in face of hardship is part of everyday life in India. We may notice it only in moments like this but it is ever present. A couple of years back I had seen a research study which ranked Indians amongst the highest in terms of sense of well being/satisfaction/happiness etc. in spite of the hardships of everyday life in India. Sudhir and Katharina Kakar have talked about the “pervasive presence of hope, even in the most dismal of life circumstances” in their book “The Indians” It appears that resilience in face of hardship is an integral part of the Indian psyche.

What makes the present situation even more striking is the fact that the hardship has not resulted from a natural calamity (like the Chennai floods) or enemy action (like Bombay blasts). The present hardship is a direct consequence of a somewhat controversial decision taken by their own government. While politicians, media persons, activists, financial experts, have screamed and shouted at each other on behalf of the “common person”, the so called “common person” who is at the receiving end of it, has gone about his/her business with minimum of fuss. He/She has expressed helplessness and/or satisfaction with all the commotion around but has simultaneously found ways and means to sustain “life as usual” with the stoic stance of “this too shall pass”Interestingly, no political party has so far succeeded in organising any sort of public action and/or mass protest. On the contrary, most of them have been rather diplomatic in their criticism focussing more on issues of implementation and integrity of intent rather than the step per se. The obvious hypothesis is that they believe that in the eyes of people (rightly or wrongly) “dharma” lies on the side of the government and hence it would be suicidal to make too much noise till such time that people run out of patience or can be convinced of the adharmic nature of the government’s action. A mere appeal to hardship may not suffice.

This brings me to the centrality of dharma in the Indian consciousness and its relationship with faith in cosmic benevolence and resilience to deal with ups and downs of life. Needless to say, I am not using the term dharma in a religious sense but as a perspective and way of life. The core belief on which this perspective is built is that Cosmos/Universe is  orderly, fair and benevolent. All that a person needs to do is to focus on his/her role obligations and not worry about the fruits of his/her endeavour. The cosmic order ensures that in the ultimate analysis each person receives his/her “karmon ka phal” i.e. legitimate due in accordance with one’s actions.

This may sound like Hindu philosophy ,but perhaps is a perspective shared by most Indians irrespective of their religious affiliation. Most Indians believe that the short term vicissitudes of life are beyond human comprehension and hence it is best to accept them with the spirit of “whatever happens, happens for the good and hence the seeming adversity is perhaps also a blessing in disguise”. Recently, I heard a lady talk about a near fatal accident of her husband which has left him with serious disabilities. What was amazing in the tonality of her narration was the complete lack of bitterness and complaint.Instead she seemed full of gratitude and feeling very lucky because “it could have been a lot worse”. One can not help but marvel at this tremendous ability to extract what ever little positive that one can from any situation- an ability which I have sensed in many Indians and which I believe has something to do with the centrality of dharma in their lives.

This leads us to the obvious question- If Indians are such dharmic or virtuous people, then how does one explain the widespread corruption, nepotism, insensitivity, oppression of the weak etc.? It is tempting to attribute these ills to a handful of evil people, but perhaps, the reality is a lot more complex. I think, the root of this paradox lies in the notion of dharma in the Indian consciousness. To the Indian mind, dharma is not an absolute but only contextual. The same act performed by one person in a certain situation can be regarded as dharmic , but becomes undharmic in another situation and by a different person. I suspect that Indians must rank as the most frequent users of the term “it depends”. As the famous poet and scholar A.K. Ramanujan suggested, Indians have a distinct preference for “context- sensitivity” rather than “context-free” ways of thinking. For us virtually everything is contextualised be it morality, arts, health, day to day living,relationships or any thing else.

Our propensity to be context-sensitive provides us great amount of flexibility, adaptability and resilience. Simultaneously it creates many ethical ambiguities. Take for example, the fact that many shopkeepers and small traders are continuing to accept the old currency notes despite the ban. Their only precondition is that you should not place too much burden on them to return change. Thus they are not willing to accept a 500 rupee note for a 50 rupee purchase but will happily do so for a 400 rupee purchase. Technically speaking their act is “illegal”, but would they regard it as immoral or undharmic? I do not think so. From their point of view, there is a world of difference between laundering large quantities of unaccounted money through purchase of gold and striking an honest business deal by stretching the rules a bit. The issue here is not whether what they are doing is right or not, but only that it is perfectly possible for an Indian to regard his/her act as virtuous and dharmic even if it violates some other standards of legality and morality.

The absence of absolutes in our notion of dharma is both a curse and a blessing. We are all too familiar with its downside viz. our double standards, our “chalta hai” attitude, our insensitivity to oppression of the weak, our lack of systemic discipline etc. etc. While it is important to take cognisance of these and address them, it is equally important to celebrate the positive side of our “context-sensitivity” which enables us to be flexible, adapt to the imperatives of a situation, respect diversity, peacefully co-exist with differences and deal with vicissitudes of life with resilience and equanimity. In other words, learn to celebrate ourselves for “who we are”. Perhaps for far too long, we have searched for our national pride in either our glorious heritage and/or aspirations to become a super-power. It may be more meaningful and productive to look for it in the smiling face of an average Indian who refuses to give up his/her cheerful optimism in spite of all the adversities which life throws at him/her.





2 thoughts on “Indian Resilience- Paradox of Dharma

  1. So true. If I am not mistaken, Modi also referred to what he saw was patience and understanding in people, an acceptance of that this step taken by him, no matter how inconvenient, is necessary, well meaning and therefore acceptable. To which someone remarked that people accept because of choicelessness – that if the government had to call for a vote or referendum tomorrow, the results may reflect a different story. And yet again, there is another survey report – I forget by who – which says that over 80% of the people surveyed support the government’s demonetisation scheme. Difficult to say. But as you say, if mass protests and people taking to the streets, civil disruption could be taken as symptoms of mass ire, then by those indicators, people seem to tolerant of whatever difficulties they are facing.

    I completely agree – that we need to recognise and celebrate our resilience, and this is our cultural and social resource. Resilience is perhaps, often incorrectly seen and interpreted as weakness and of choice-less-ness, If virtues of tolerance, acceptance and resilience are seen as weakness, and only protest, challenge, clash and confrontation is seen as virtues, and the latter is equated with ’empowerment’, then it explains much of the social and political conflict we experience in our families, communities and countries today.


    1. Thank you Roop. I do not know whether 80 percent people support the decision or not, but I do think that it is very difficult to mobilise people in this country on the plank of hardship, unless of course it is manufactured with the help of goons. The only way in which you can mobilise people is by appealing to their sense of righteousness. People may differ about the legitimacy of the righteousness being evoked (e.g. cow slaughter) but that I believe is the only thing that works with Indians. Even the supporters of the decision are perhaps not governed by the rationale of the decision or any great hope of benefit, but for a simple psychological reason that those who are sitting on “Paap ki Kamai” will be made to pay.


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