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Coping with Environmental Challenges: The Importance of Evolving a Balance between Artha, Kama and Dharma

March 23, 2016

It took billions of years for fossil fuel to form, but humans are likely to consume it all within 400 years. The pace of consumption today is leading to excess carbon in the atmosphere, which is exacerbating the process of climate change. It is common knowledge that, if the entire humanity was to consume according to the standards of developed industrial economies, it is unlikely that the available resources will be sufficient to even satisfy the minimal basic demands of all. The earth’s shrinking biosphere will not be able to satisfy the human needs. In other words, the ecological footprint due to rising population and expectations will be more than what the planet can support. That is to say, mankind may need resources of more than one earth to support itself. This is shown in the following picture created by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) for the 20th century.

In Indian philosophy there is a concept known as Trivarga, which deals with the notion of Dharma (moral ethics), Artha (material well-being) and Kama (desire). Artha is basically about growth and development, the fulfilment of material and economic needs, at least the meeting of the minimum needs of the poor and to an extent those of the rich. Kama is desire and expectation of a good life. But there seems to be no end to human desire, with frugality and simplicity losing their value. It is in this context that the concept of Dharma needs to be invoked as a new moral ethic for creating awareness and some form of regulatory mechanism that could balance both Kama and Artha. If we control our desires to manageable levels, resources can support mankind in a sustainable manner. This is also understood as want limitation.

The Rudolphs, in probably their last essay, point to what Mahatma Gandhi in   his book Hind Swaraj had argued and what they feel and think about it today:

“Chapter XIII of Hind Swaraj is about a positive version of civilisation, a version lived in India but available as well to Europeans in his time and ours. That civilisation was characterised by the “good conduct” that makes it possible “to attain mastery over our mind and our passions,” a view based on Gandhi’s reading of the Bhagavad Gita. The main fault of modern civilisation is that it pursues world mastery rather than self-mastery. It sets no limits on desire and on growth. One hundred years after the publication of Hind Swaraj, it is becoming increasingly apparent that limiting growth has become a condition for global survival. More production of goods and services means more pollution, more global warming, more climate change and the exhaustion of resources, not least land and water.”1

Gandhi and the Rudolphs are right. But the question is how does the balance of Kama, Artha and Dharma play out? Anthony Parel, in his edited volume of Hind Swaraj, refers to Gandhi’s postulate to ensure the continuity of Indian civilisation: “artha and kama should be pursued within the framework of dharma. In modern civilization artha and kama, according to Gandhi, assert their autonomy from dharma.”2 Gandhi clearly urges that Dharma must reassert itself and not be overpowered by Artha and Kama. It is to the credit of Gandhi that he explained the whole issue in such simple terms using the ancient Indian vocabulary derived from the concept of Trivarga.

At the international climate change negotiations in October 2015, India rightly evoked a moral argument in its submission to the United Nations by referring to climate justice (or we can say Climate Dharma) and Mahatma Gandhi. To be specific, the submission made two fundamental moral references to Mahatma Gandhi, thus making both Gandhi and the moral argument or Dharma relevant today. The first reference was: “Much before the climate change debate began, Mahatma Gandhi, regarded as the father of our nation had said  that we should act as ‘trustees’ and use natural resources wisely as it is our moral responsibility to ensure that we bequeath  to future  generations a healthy planet.”3 The second reference was on an equitable global architecture based on climate justice, the principle of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities: “Such an approach should be anchored in the vision inspired by  Mahatma Gandhi’s famous exhortation: Earth has enough resources to meet people’s needs, but will never have enough to satisfy people’s greed.”4

Gandhi may not have invented these ideas, but possibly reworked it to make it relevant by taking some aspects from Indian traditions. One such concept is referred to in Kautilya’s Arthashastra.  Kautilya, while arguing that Artha is his top concern, does not ignore the balance with Dharma (moral) and Kama (desire/pleasure). In Book Nine, Chapter 7, Sutra 60 (9.7.60), Kautilya writes:  “Material gain, spiritual good and pleasure: this is the triad of gain.”

There is a new concern on how the international community would be able to cope with problems or risks that are inter-linked and often feed into each other. The first major problem is growing population and along with it an aspiring and consumption-oriented middle class. How can limited resources, both renewable and non-renewable, meet the rapidly growing demand for consumption? The second problem is resource scarcity, compounded by environmental degradation (some of which may be irreversible) and the looming threat of the adverse impact of climate change. Geoengineering technologies such as carbon capture and storage and solar radiation management are yet to be tested. While research on the technological options must be pursued, what is also important is simultaneous demand-side management and   want limitation as part of lifestyle changes.

It is time that an understanding and balance between the concepts of the trivarga be used to address lifestyle changes by making the concept of dharma central to the matter.  Through such an approach, environmental and developmental issues can be balanced with ecological sustainability. At the national level this can be part of our education system, which should emphasise upon the need to curtail and regulate excess want. Concepts such as trivarga where Dharma is supreme can be integrated in school text books on social and environmental science. Simultaneously, the government should take steps to advocate and publicise at the global level dharma’s centrality in the trivarga as part of a campaign to evolve a new global norm for coping with climate change.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India

  • 1. Lloyd I. Rudolph and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph, “Gandhi and the Debate about Civilization,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. 50, No. 30, July 25, 2015, pp.78-82.
  • 2. Anthony J. Parel, ed., Gandhi: Hind Swaraj and Other Writings (New Delhi: Foundation Books, 1997), p. 66. See editor’s note 122.
  • 3. “India’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution: Working Towards Climate Justice,” Submitted to UNFCC on October 1, 2015,  p. 1.
  • 4. Ibid, p.3.