Dharma of Food

By Vandana Shiva

Dharma is a unique Indian concept, a gift of Indian civilisation to humanity. It has provided the compass for right action and right livelihood. There is no equivalent word in Western languages. The concept of dharma is not limited to religion: it runs through the many spiritual threads that, together, weave our culture.

All religions that grew from Indian soil – Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism – refer to dharma. In Hinduism, dharma signifies the ‘right way of living’, aligned with rta, the order that sustains life and maintains the universe. In Buddhism, dhamma means ‘cosmic law and order’. In Jainism, dharma refers to the moral transformation of human beings. For Sikhs, the word dharm means ‘path of righteousness’.

The etymological root of the word dharma is dhr – ‘to hold, bear, support, maintain, keep, carry’ – from which it derives the meaning ‘that which holds’, ‘that which sustains’ the universe and all creation, from the microcosm to the macrocosm, from the tiniest microbe to the largest mammal. Because dharma holds and sustains the Earth family and, within it, the entire human family, it embodies the principle of unity – of humans with the rest of Nature, and of humans across our diversities. Dharma arises from the interconnectedness of all life, and embodies our duty to care for all humans and all species alike.

The opposite of dharma is adharma, the violation of rta, of the ecological laws of the planet, and of the duty to care for fellow humans irrespective of gender, race, caste, age or class. Whatever separates us from Nature and each other, every action that leads to the disintegration of societies and ecosystems, is adharma.

Dharma guides us in choosing between right and wrong by assessing the impact of our actions on Nature and society, using tools and instruments that we shape, choose and use. Tools and technologies are not self-referential. Our assessment and choice of them should be based on higher values. If the choice we make contributes to ‘holding together’, to integration, the choice is a dharmic choice; if it leads to ecological destruction and social displacement, it is adharma.

In India, the dharma and discipline of food are the same practices Sir Albert Howard, Imperial Economic Botanist to the colonial government of India, spread around the world as contempor­ary organic farming through his classic book An Agricultural Testament. They are based on the principles of upholding the laws of Nature and social wellbeing that are today supported scientifically in the principles of agroecology.

Jitendra Bajaj, my colleague and coursemate at Punjab University, and Dr M.D. Srinivas have together written one of the best books we have today on the dharma of food: Annam Bahu Kurvita: Recollecting the Indian Discipline of Growing and Sharing Food in Plenty. Their citations from various ancient texts resonate with the latest findings in the science of agroecology and the best thinking on principles of food justice and food ethics:

Food itself is Brahma, the Creator.

Do not look down upon food.

Do not neglect food.

Ensure an abundance of food all around.

In dharma, food is creation, the cycle of life is a food cycle, good food is medicine, and the growing and sharing of good food, in abundance, is the highest duty. The ability to carry out this duty relies on our capacity to know the difference between good food and bad, and between systems that hold ecosystems together and those that completely violate all ethics and dharma for short-sighted greed, pushing farmers into debt, distress and suicide and destroying our health through disease epidemics.

Despite its deep civilisational heritage, the discourse and guidance of dharma has been displaced by an imposition of the toxic tools of industrial agriculture. The imposition of genetically modified organisms violates the dharma of food on many levels. Scientific concerns are being silenced by financial muscle, and dharma is being excluded from any discussion and debate on food. Instead of an intelligent, responsible and ethical assessment of how particular tools of transformation of the seed and our food impact on the fabric of life, other species, farmers, our societies and human health, a tool has been put beyond assessment and beyond dharma.

Instead of ensuring that food is the source of health and wellbeing, all consideration of growing healthy, safe, nourishing and healing food is being banished by a technological fundamentalism that promotes GMOs. The human capacity to choose between healthy and unhealthy food is being taken away. Instead of seeing food as the creator, corporations and scientists developing GMOs are taking over the role of creator through patents on life itself. Instead of assessing how the use of toxic chemicals and GMOs is affecting the web of life – the bees and butterflies, the earthworms and soil organisms, the biodiversity of our plants – assessments built into biosafety laws are being blocked through deregulation under the influence of industry in country after country.

The principle of abundance is being violated by turning abundance into scarcity. Scarcity is created by making seed non-renewable, through biological tools, such as sterility-creating genes, and legal tools, such as patents and compulsory licensing, which prevent seed from multiplying and reprodu­cing freely. Scarcity is created when seed freedom is intentionally destroyed to make farmers dependent on buying seed every year. In India, this intentional creation of scarcity has led to the great adharma of trapping farmers in debt and pushing 300,000 to suicide. Scarcity is created in our fields when biodiversity-rich farming systems that produce more nutrition per acre are replaced with monocultures of commodities that are not food. Scarcity is created when toxic chemicals transform food into poison.

The debate on GMOs is primarily a contest between dharma and adharma. It is in this context that the choices about the tools and technologies for food production need to be made. The choice is between right livelihood on the one hand and the rule of greed, power, control and human hubris on the other. It is about our duty to care for the Earth and our Earth family, including all humans, a duty in which we have collectively failed for the last few decades. We need to show respect to our food, to those who nourish us and recognise our duty to shun bad food and the peddlers of poison. Let us not forget that dharma protects those who protect dharma.

Vandana Shiva is the director of Nav­danya.  www.navdanya.org

This article featured in Resurgence & Ecologist issue 294, January/February 2016, and has been reproduced here with the kind permission of The Resurgence Trust. All rights to this article are reserved to The Resurgence Trust. To buy a copy of the magazine, read further articles or find out about the Trust, visit: www.resurgence.org

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