06/04/2013 11:47 am ET | Updated Aug 04, 2013

Dharma, Enlightenment and Hakuna Matata

When I was 20, I read "Was ist Aufklaerung?" (What is Enlightenment?) by Immanuel Kant. This essay has helped form my world view ever since. As I've become increasingly involved in community and faith-based work, I've become ever more fascinated by the parallels between Kant and perhaps the greatest literature ever written, the Mahabharata.

The Mahabharata is one of the major Sanskrit epics. Its narrative deals with the Kurukshetra war between the righteous Pandava princes and their cousins the Kauravas. It is about 10 times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey put together.

Recently, a friend and I had an animated discussion about a matter which had much perturbed me greatly over the last few months. A series of events had happened recently, which I had considered morally wrong. I wanted to do something that, in my eyes at least, would go some way to putting the matters right. I said to my friend: Yes, I had considered that there could be collateral damage, but that I considered this my dharma, or my moral duty.

The idea of dharma comes from the belief that there is a natural order of things (rta), and that justice, social harmony and happiness require that people live according to that rta.

My friend, a good and kind Hindu, asked me: "If you're right, then why is it your problem to right this wrong -- why not let someone else fix it?"

My answer was simple: If everyone thought this way, bad situations would flourish. I've increasingly subscribed to the principle that our lives begin to end the day we fall silent on the things that matter. Like Mahatma Gandhi once said, we do not need to wait to see what others do, but we ourselves must to be the change we want to see in the world.

Rta or no rta, I know real life isn't generally as poetic and noble as this -- practicalities sometimes trump principles, and our own fallibilities often trump dharmic sense. If there was a natural order to life, wouldn't that natural order somehow fix the problem? Who made me the guy to determine what was right or wrong? On the train home that day, I thought back to two characters from the Mahabharata, Drona and Karna.

Drona was the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army and a master in advanced military arts. The King, the father of the Kauravas, employed him when he was poor and rewarded him well. Drona was a deeply pious and moral man. Yet, when the eldest Kaurava son, Duruyodhan, insisted on fighting an unjust war against the Pandavas, Drona's sense of loyalty toward his employer overtook his sense of dharma to the world. Karna was a brilliant archer and a huge asset on the battlefield, but his loyalty to Duruyodhan again made him blind to the harm that was being caused to others in the war. Both Drona and Karna viewed their loyalty to Duruyodhan as their highest calling, above their dharma.

Kant approached this from a different perspective. He said man's Unmuendigkeit, or "unfree-ness," was caused not by a lack of understanding, but by indecision and lack of courage to use one's own mind without another's guidance. He said that by outsourcing the difficult decisions in our lives to others, by willing to be led, and by avoiding taking a stand, we were subjecting ourselves to a doctrinal way of living that closed our mind to enlightenment. He said that this process of outsourcing meant we were afraid to stumble even once.

When I first read this, I interpreted it as Kant telling us about our sense of duty. He gave the example of a Minister who teaches his congregation the same doctrine as given to him by the Church. He does not question the doctrine, nor does he seek to find proof that the doctrine is right. And by not doing so, Kant says, he takes himself further from enlightenment.

Both Kant and Krishna argue from similar premises about personal identity and share similar feelings about duty. Kant argues we should free ourselves from temporal desires, while Krishna tells Arjun he should control his senses, and free himself of the feelings of "I" and "mine." He says that Arjun should perform his dharma -- even if it means killing his friends and family on the battlefield. Krishna says to Arjun: "If you refuse to fight this righteous war and shirk from your innate duty, you will lose your reputation as a warrior and thus will definitely incur sin."

In other words, he is saying that collateral damage from performing a righteous task should not be viewed as collateral damage. He is saying Arjun should be unflinching in his commitment, but do so with peace in his soul. Arjun's "innate duty" is his natural mode of being a warrior, and how he expresses himself in the world based on this rta is his dharma.

In other words, I should clear my mind of emotions, and act in a courageous manner, take a stand and not be afraid of being wrong. This was easier said than done -- I knew there were others far more able to resolve the matter who had actively chosen not to. For them, two aspects mattered above all: their unflinching loyalty to one side of a story; and their lack of courage. But this put them in "hakuna matata" land, while I was fraught with self-doubt -- mostly because of the respect I had for my friend and their views. I suppose courage overrides self-doubt, but does not end it.

My take was: Given others had deliberately chosen to avoid the issue, hoping it would go away, it was all the more important I did my duty. My friend's take was: I shouldn't worry, because the natural order of things would somehow fix the issue. In the end, my friend and I agreed to disagree.