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Dharmacracy in Mental Health

This article is part of the opinion column – Beyond Occident – where we explore a native perspective on the Indian diaspora.

A recent study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that 20% of all teen hospitalizations in the US between January 1 and March 31, 2021, were due to psychiatric emergencies. In addition, a University of California San Francisco study found a “75% increase in children requiring immediate hospitalization for mental health needs” in 2020 over a year before. The study also found a “130% increase in the number of children requiring hospitalization for eating disorders” and a 66% increase in the number of suicidal adolescents (ages 10-17) in the emergency department.  

The Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a ‘State of Emergency’ for youth mental health.

 The last 18 months have been one of the toughest for kids in recent times, no matter how we look at it. However, we can also argue that most of the pain and suffering inflicted upon them during this period have resulted from politics and unscientific policies of school closing. Kids stuck at home; not able to go to school for the whole year; not able to play sports, participate in tournaments, plays, and musicals; not able to visit family and grandparents; not able to see faces hidden behind masks; not able to attend or host birthday and graduations parties —  they all have had a cumulative effect on children’s mental health and overall wellness. 

Add to this the news of socio-political strife; violence; lawlessness; non-stop pictures and videos of burning funeral pyres being played on our TV sets, newspapers, and social media feeds; scarcity of oxygen and other medical supplies for COVID patients, including our friends and family. These combined, present a commentary of a stark, bleak, and gloomy situation of the world we live in.  

How we explain what is going on around us depends on the way we look at the world. Most of our present-day ideas have been shaped by the Western worldview. This worldview is predominantly atomistic that uses binaries such as ‘either/or,’ ‘true/false,’’ ‘left/right,’ ‘for/against,’ ‘liberal/conservative. These antagonistic binaries are in constant conflict with each other. It is also a worldview of excluded middle. 

The ordering of the world, in this worldview, is anthropocentric. Human beings are considered the central entity of the universe where only human life has intrinsic value. In contrast, other entities are resources that may justifiably be exploited for the benefit of humankind. 

On the other hand, dharma is the universal law that connects the individual to the rest of the world in a quantum way — that is, it is the same righteous law that binds each element of the cosmos. The Mahabharata defines dharma in the following manner:

  • dharma is so-called because it sustains and upholds the people: hence whatever sustains is dharma.
  • dharma is propounded to secure the good of all living beings: hence, whatever fulfills that aim is dharma.
  • What comes from the love for all beings is dharma. This is the criterion to judge dharma from adharma.

dharma is the spirit of Indic culture. The very essence of a Dharmic life lies in maintaining the equilibrium of the opposites. The opposites, including good and evil, are seen as complementary. Neither can be denied or completely suppressed without running the risk of creating dissonance, both within individuals and in the world around them. This duality of opposites creates and maintains the equilibrium throughout cosmology.

dharma sees conflicts and dissonance as ‘burdening of the Earth,’ which is the disturbing of the equilibrium at multiple levels.  These conflicts are a product of one’s relationship with oneself (not all conflicts are with others) and other elements of the cosmos. Hence a solution must also arise from that relationship. For inner conflicts, one has to look within oneself. Blaming others doesn’t help. Beyond self, as the dissonance and chaos get louder and stronger, the earth gets even more burdened. When the burden gets to unbearable levels, an avatar takes place to unburden the earth finally. Everything starts again afresh. The Dharmic time is circular (kalachakra), not linear.

The concepts of dharma, karma and klesha form the understanding of the cause of all sufferings. The doctrine of karma is defined as the result of an individual’s intentional action through body, speech, or mind. One of the most potent assumptions of the doctrine of karma is that one is in complete control of his/her destiny. Therefore, whatever happens to an individual is a predictable outcome of his/her own choices over time. The theory of karma also states that life does not end at the death of the physical body, and the result of one’s action can be felt in the next lives to come. 

The ultimate goal of life, according to dharma, is Self-realization — the realization of one’s inner Self.

In the Dharmic tradition– Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism– meditation, yoga, and the interplay of philosophy and life occupy a vital place. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra (2nd century BCE) explains the yogic techniques to overcome klesha (human misery) and achieve the desired union between self and Brahman, the Supreme Consciousness. The source of klesha is raga, the attachment to worldly desires, and dvesh, the repulsion we feel towards objects that give us unhappiness. The two, combined with avidya (ignorance), asmita (ego), and abhinivesh (attachment to life and fear of death), are the sources of all kleshas.

dharma has a lot to offer in every possible field and situation, including mental health. But, unfortunately, we tend to gloss over the basic Dharmic tenets and their profundity. However, these tenets take on new meanings when applied with conviction during extraordinary uncertainty and trouble. 


Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and activist. He frequently writes on the topics of language & linguistics, culture, religion, Indic knowledge, and current affairs in several media outlets.