By Swami Harshananda
Āpad-dharma literally means ‘conduct permitted during calamities’.
If there is any word which is repeatedly and most extensively used in the religious works, it is the word ‘dharma.’ Out of the several connotations that have evolved over the centuries the two which has been widely accepted are :
- ‘Code of conduct’
- ‘Duty and responsibility’
This interpretation has been almost universally applied to the varna-dharmas and āśrama dharmas. Members of each of the four varṇas have been allotted their respective duties and responsibilities as follows :
- Brāhmaṇas - Vedic studies and preaching
- Kṣattriyas - Fighting and administration
- Vaishyas - Trade and agriculture
- Śudras - Cleanliness and serving the first three varnas
They are normally expected to follow these avocations. However, in times of great calamities like war, floods or famine, when the whole social fabric becomes disturbed, or during a period of severe crisis in the individual’s life, it may not be strictly possible for them to do so. During such periods of āpad or calamity, the dharmaśāstras allow people to take to any dharma or avocation, even the ones allotted to others, as an emergency measure, to sustain themselves.
Thus a brāhmaṇa can take to fighting or trade, or a kṣattriya to agriculture or commerce.Both may accept menial service under others. However, even in dire calamities one is advised not to accept service under evil persons. As soon as normalcy returns they are expected to go back to the original way of life.
Since life is most precious, to save it in times of grave danger, one can transgress all normal rules. Viśvāmitra’s readiness to consume the flesh of a dog after stealing it from the house of an outer cast during a severe famine is the classic example quoted in Manusmriti to illustrate this point.
- Manusmrti 10.98-118
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore