Redefining Morality. The Concept of Dharma in Aravind Adiga's "The White Tiger"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2016

24 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Morality in India and the Concept of Dharma

3. Breaking moral conventions - Balram's illegal acts

4. Redefining Morality
4.1 Negative portrayal of fellow humans
4.2 Heroic self-image
4.3 Breaking out of the Rooster Coop

5. Conclusion

6. Works Cited

1. Introduction

There are many novels published in the first decade of the twenty-first century which aim at drawing attention to existing inequalities, criticizing the political and economic system in India. The White Tiger (WT), published in 2008, is “praised in particular for its gritty characterization of a subaltern rebel and its investment in bringing to light the sordid underbelly of India's recent economic boom” (Anjaria, 2015:116). Despite the development and progress in modern India, the caste system still has a lasting impact on Indian society. The novel tells the story of Balram Halwai, who belongs to the lower caste, but rises to a successful entrepreneur in India. Starting off as a worker in a tea shop, he manages to acquire the position of a driver and eventually murders his master, steals an enormous amount of money and opens his own taxi company in Bangalore. Balram's success is only achieved due to the killing of Mr. Ashok, which appears to be a cruel and immoral act, seemingly ignoring existing moral virtues and codes of conduct. Nonetheless, the protagonist portrays himself as a hero who defies the caste system, trying to convince the readers to believe his hopelessness.

The guiding question of this paper is how Balram justifies his criminal acts and on which moral concept he bases his decisions. In the course of this paper, I will attempt to show that the protagonist is a gritty anti-hero who does not act in accordance to dharma and reinvents his own concept of morality. The first chapter will give a brief explanation of dharma, one of the four purushartas, a significant concept in Indian philosophy, especially in Hinduism when talking about morality. “Dharma is inextricably linked with the ethos of India and the entire personal, social, ecological, and spiritual life is guided by it for ultimate liberation” (Mathew, 2015:131). In the following chapter, the criminal acts committed by the protagonist and the circumstances and reasons leading to it will be analyzed in terms of morality, taking the concept of dharma into consideration. This chapter underlies the difficulty of how to cope with the paradox issue of the protagonist being a murderer and a victim at the same time. Subsequently, the strategies employed by the protagonist to justify his immoral acts will be discussed in detail, attempting to find out how Balram distinguishes between right and wrong. Firstly, the depiction of other humans in the novel will be examined since the narrator strategically portrays them as being immoral and corrupt in order to comparatively put himself on a higher level. Secondly, his heroic self-image will be analyzed, considering his name 'the white tiger'. The third subchapter will focus on how the protagonist employs the metaphor of the rooster coop as a justification for the murder, taking the consequences of the murder into account and discussing Balram's ultimate aims.

Relevant criticism on the White Tiger include the articles “Breaking Out of the Rooster Coop” by Schotland and “Redefinitions of India and Individuality” by Waller, both of which analyze Balram's transformation into a murderer and search for an explanation for his crimes. An important groundwork for understanding dharma is the anthology The Concept of Duty in South Asia, edited by Doninger O'Flatherty and Derrett, on which the second chapter of this paper is based. Both Mathew's “Re-establishment of Dharma” and Carbone's “A White Tiger in the Indian Law Jungle” draw a connection between Balram's criminal acts and the values intended by dharma.

2. Morality in India and the Concept of Dharma

In an attempt to identify prevailing moral rules in India, it is inevitable to contemplate the concept of dharma. The traditional Indian ethos is relevant for the understanding of moral values when it comes to deciding what is right and what good behavior is in everyday life. However, one cannot expect dharma to give explicit rules to follow or clear instructions to live by. Dharma rather makes it possible to extract guiding principles that form the basis for life.

The ambiguity of dharma becomes clear when attempting to agree on one specific, single definition: “Dharma is a problem rather than a concept, vague, indeterminable, impossible to define without broadening it into useless generality or narrowing it to exclude valid instances” (Doninger & Derrett, 1978:xiv). Thus, gaining a proper understanding of dharma entails difficulties of accuracy. One aspect that remains clear is the disappointment concerning expectations of clear moral rules: “The enunciation of explicit absolute rules is a sin, […] there is always opposition against instruction in explicit rules of behaviour, resistance against explicit codification” (Doninger & Derrett, 1978:xv). However, it is possible to derive non-explicit rules based on exemplary behavior - focusing on how Indians make sense of the world - as well as myths or literary texts that apply dharma, reminding us to listen to dharma (Doninger & Derrett, 1978:xvi-xvii). These given examples will thus help to derive personal guidelines that can be applied in a specific context. “Since dharma is hidden, it must be found and activated by a dialectic process, by a context, by each new situation” (Doninger & Derrett, 1978:xiv-xv). Therefore, the adoption of moral principles based on dharma depends on each individual situation.

The idea of dharma is linked to the fulfillment of duties and the motivation of one's acts according to a system of beliefs. Dharma can basically be defined as “legal and moral duty” (Wilhelm, 1978:66) and is considered to be “the fundamental aim of life” (Wilhelm, 1978:69), its two main aspects being “prescription and prohibition” (Wilhelm, 1978:72). Doninger and Derret point out differences of Eastern and Western ideas of the concept of duty: “Traditional India regards duty as emanating from one's nature – one can't help doing it – while the Western idea of duty requires a struggle against oneself” (1978:xix). Hence, the Eastern view considers the act of fulfilling a duty to be natural. There is no need for an authority to force people to fulfill their obligations since people listen to an inner voice, having a conscience that tells you what to do. Furthermore, “in India duty is enmeshed in social circumstances, while in the West it is internalized, individualized, a matter of choice and contest” (Doninger & Derrett, 1978:xix). The Western individualistic culture sees duty “as primarily a personal matter” and “provides greater privacy” (Derrett, 1978:21-22). This results in more independence and freedom, regarding decisions as personal, without being exposed to high social pressure. This is a major difference between the East and the West: “The importance which the West places on individualism and on the individual's capacity to change reality does not belong to Hindu tradition” (Carbone 2013, 127). The importance of social values in Hindu tradition becomes clear in dharma literature, when “Respect for parents” and “giving” are listed as duties in the TaittU texts (Kunst, 1978:8). It is crucial to comprehend that these values are not enforced extrinsically, but part of human nature: “Dharma remains as the intrinsic nature of beings, motivating their conduct” (Kunst, 1978:7). The concept of dharma therefore permits to make decisions freely and without constraint: “in psychological terms it allows man the relative freedom to act in accordance with his desire prompted by his 'nature'” (Kunst, 1978:7). This underlies the assumption that natural instincts lead to righteous behavior.

At this point, the freedom of interpretation raises questions of how open the concept of dharma really is. Kunst admits that dharma is contextual and can be interpreted individually, but at the same time cautions not to categorize or over-classify (1978:4). He states that “too much freedom in the interpretation […] may lead to a misrepresentation” (Kunst, 1978:12). It appears that limitations and possibilities of applying dharma remain a controversial issue, striving to find a balance between the two. According to Taber, “Indians, like all people faced with rapid and inexorable change, must learn to read their tradition creatively” (1992:237).

Thus, it becomes clear that innovation and change also effect traditions like dharma. Nonetheless, redefinitions can endanger the central idea behind a concept and lead to deviations. Modern approaches contribute to redefining dharma, constantly changing and developing an ideal of dharma that was formerly viewed as static , whereas a Western influence cannot be denied (Doninger & Derrett, 1978:xvii). Paradoxically, both the continuity of its core idea and the relativity of dharma become evident. Modern Indian thinkers stress today's relevance of basic ideas rooted in dharma: “They saw in dharma not just a culture-specific system of custom, but a real ethics based on universal, rational principles – especially nonviolence, ahims ā – potentially applicable to any society […] and relevant to modern circumstances” (Taber,1991: 234).

In order to give a more concrete idea of dharma, the most central aspects forming the basic principles will be pointed out in the following. Although no specific rules can be identified, literary texts refer to certain guidelines. For example, the dharma books condemn alcohol, theft and murder (Wilhelm 1978: 73). Taber sums up that “'Right conduct' […] includes such things as purity, compassion, detachment, absence of greed, humility, truthfulness, nonviolence, and generosity” (1992:235). In addition, maintaining the social order, fulfilling one's obligations in society, and acting selflessly are crucial aspects to establish dharma (Mathew, 2015:132). This means that acting according to one's assigned role in society is a basic principle of dharma. As a result, maintaining stability and upholding the social order seem to be more important than individual accomplishments. In this context, respect plays an important role: “Duty once included overt respect to the person and authority of a superior – acknowledgement of what some may irreverently but usefully call 'the pecking order'” (Derrett, 1978:18).

In conclusion, the concept of dharma still has its impact on the understanding of morality in today's India. While basing moral principles on main concepts of dharma, it became clear that the modern development contributed to a changing perception of dharma, as people apply more liberate interpretations.

Core ideas of dharma also appear in the White Tiger. According to Mathew, the narrator describes “how Indians have moved away from dharma in its normative sense which includes practice of religious rituals, family life, social system, state administration, and moral principles” (2015:131). In general, Mathew mentions a “prevailing imbalance of purushartas” (2015:132). In the novel, Balram questions Indian's faith in religion: “What can a poor man's prayers mean to the 36,000,004 gods in comparison with those of the rich?” (WT: 272). This despair leads to the question of whether Balram holds on to the core values of dharma and on what kind of principles he bases his decisions, which will be discussed in the following chapters.

3. Breaking moral conventions - Balram's illegal acts

In the course of the novel, Balram makes decisions that will obviously appear wrong and immoral to the readers. In the following, the crime he commits and the consequences as well as the circumstances that lead to his actions will be discussed in terms of morality. At first, Balram's illicit acts are harmless, for example he drives around paying customers in Ashok's car without his knowledge. Then, he exposes the religion of Ashok's first driver, which was kept a secret, and causes his dismissal, so that he becomes driver number one. Balram's evilness reaches its climax when he murders Ashok, cutting his throat with a whiskey bottle, and robs his money in order to open his own company. As an entrepreneur, he bribes police officers to avoid being prosecuted.

In order to understand what ultimately leads to Balram's crimes and eventually to the killing, we have to take a closer look at the relationship to Mr. Ashok. Being his driver, Balram depends on Ashok; if he lets him alone, he has an existential problem: “The point of your living is that if you die, who's going to pay me three and a half thousand rupees a month? (WT:159). This quote clearly shows Balram's fear of eventually being abandoned by his master. Hence, his crime is “triggered by anxiety that he will shortly lose his relatively well-paying job” (Schotland, 2011:9). Balram realized that his time is limited, so, he acts before he is dismissed. Up until this point, Balram makes great efforts to be a good servant; he does more than his duties demand: cooking, cleaning, massaging feet. Despite his efforts, Balram is treated unfairly by his master. Although being nice on a superficial level, Ashok still sees Balram as being subordinate and inferior. One example for this is the fact that, Balram should take responsibility for the crime committed by Pinky Madam: “The calmness that Ashok exhibits at this suggestion forces Balram into an even deeper frenzy of despair and anger” (Waller, 2012:7). Waller suggests that Ashok is to blame himself: “If Ashok had been able to understand more deeply the difference between his place in society and Balram's, he may have been able to change enough (higher wages, better living space, or more freedom of time) to keep Balram from killing him” (2012:7).

While killing Ashok, Balram thinks about his family, how they were humiliated, how much his father suffered (WT:246). Clearly, “Ashok is not responsible for the misfortunes of Balram's family, but their suffering fuels Balram's resentment against the middle class” (Schotland, 2011:9). Paradoxically his revenge entails a major sacrifice: endangering his whole family. Balram is aware of the consequences of his behavior; despite, he indirectly harms his family. As Schotland states, “Balram is aware that Ashok's relatives will murder his entire family as revenge for the crime but that is no deterrence” (2011:11). In fact, “the protagonist decides to put aside his moral and social duties” (Carbone, 2013:125). Sacrificing his family is not in accordance with dharma, since he ignores social values and does not seem to care for their fate. He assigns more importance to his individual self-fulfillment than to paying respect and honor to his family. This can be understood as criticism on family loyalty in India, suggesting that “the family is the problem, not the solution” (Schotland, 2011:11).

Apart from not respecting his family, Balram also does not respect his social role according to his position in society. As a matter of fact, he belongs to the lower caste, more specifically the group of sweet-makers. By killing his master he endangers the social order, which is not in coherence with dharma in its original sense. Instead, by making use of his right to self-determination, he follows the Western concept of individualism. As Carbone says, “by violating his caste-duties and rejecting the celebration of the holy rites, Balram makes an outlaw of himself” (2013:126). Therefore, he rebels against the social order.

His hopelessness leads to his decision to challenge his destiny and defy expectations concerning his caste. Murder and theft are seen as means to become successful, no other option being available to achieve his aims, namely freedom and success. “Ashok's bag of money [is seen] as the ticket to success” (Schotland, 2011:16). Throughout the novel, “the more Balram becomes violent, the more possible it becomes for him to accumulate wealth and to achieve success” (Al-Dagamseh, 2013:4). In the end, he sets up his own business, being rewarded for committing crime: “yes, it's true: a few hundred thousand rupees of someone else's money, and a lot of hard work, can make magic happen in this country” (WT:258). This attitude towards being able to achieve individual aims through hard work is comparable to the American Dream. “Balram commits homicide claiming his own dignity” (Carbone, 2013:142). The accomplishment of self-determination comes at the expense of Ashok's life (Carbone, 2013:142). Ashok's life is valued less by Balram than the quality of his own life, which shows that his acts are selfish and without compassion, therefore not corresponding to dharma. Balram neglects basic human rights; Ashok is depicted as an obstacle to overcome on Balram's way to a successful life. Anjaria describes the protagonist as “a wily subaltern rebel effecting his upward mobility through an unsavory violent act” (2015:116). Finally, Balram manages to break with the prevailing social order and reaches the higher caste: “Now using his employer's name […] Balram transcends the social, economic, and political status he was born into” (Waller, 2012:7).

In the end, Balram has no regrets, but appears ruthless: Despite of the possibility of being arrested, he says, “I'll never say I made a mistake that night in Delhi when I slit my master's throat. I'll say it was all worthwhile to know, just for a day, just for an hour, just for a minute, what it means not to be a servant” (WT:276). In addition to his remaining unreasonable, his crime is planned in advance. Schotland describes the murder as “cold-blooded” being “premeditated” (2011:9). Balram considers the “real nightmare” to be “dreaming that you haven't done it – that you lost your nerve and let Mr. Ashok get away – that you're still in Delhi, still the servant of another man” (WT:269). The lack of guilt can be explained through his determination to change his destiny. “There is no guilt for his crime, because he sees murder as the only way to realize his Being” (Waller, 2012:7). Balram cannot face the possibility of embracing his life as it is because it involves so many inhumanities and injustice.

So far, we have seen how he breaks the traditions of dharma, ignoring moral values, not corresponding to moral ideals. His evil, criminal act of murdering his master suggests that he is a villain and an anti-hero. However, taking into consideration that he succeeds in the end, entering the upper caste, he still can be referred to as a hero: “From another point of view, the entrepreneurial hero breaks with his past in the India of Darkness and triumphs, despite his unpromising initial station in life” (Mendes, 2010:279). The depiction of the so-called 'India of Darkness' can be explained by the narrator's intentions to portray a gritty image instead of a moral, ideal world. “The Narrator wants to give the Chinese Premier a 'true' picture of his homeland, in contrast to the colorful, moral and saintly country which the Indian Government intends to furnish him with” (Carbona, 2013:123-124). Adiga states: “I wanted things in the book to correspond to reality, but filtered through Balram's views” (qtd. In Sangeta, 2015:1). Thus, Balram's deeds which are considerably evil, are attributed to the unjust system. Ultimately, “he is the product of the system that is discriminatory, biased, inequitable and therefore faulty” (Sangeta, 2015:1). Al-Dagamseh also sees Balram's transformation as “a result of the unjust socioeconomic system that contributes to his family's poverty and misery and enriches him illicitly” (2013:4). The defense and line of argument employed by Balram will be discussed in chapter 4, while criticism of caste system already referred to in this chapter will be elaborated more detailed in chapter 4.3.


Excerpt out of 24 pages


Redefining Morality. The Concept of Dharma in Aravind Adiga's "The White Tiger"
University of Kassel  (Anglistik/Amerikanistik Literaturwissenschaft)
Visions of India
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
537 KB
dharma, morality, the white tiger, india, crime, caste system
Quote paper
Julia Knoth (Author), 2016, Redefining Morality. The Concept of Dharma in Aravind Adiga's "The White Tiger", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Redefining Morality. The Concept of Dharma in Aravind Adiga's "The White Tiger"

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free