Think Twice Before Abstaining

It is often the case when sitting in a meeting and confronted with tough decisions to be made, that some of us will choose to abstain. Perhaps we are related to the persons or problem being discussed, or maybe we don’t want the back lash that will naturally come to those responsible; or it may even be the case that we just don’t know what to think. In some cases it may be best to abstain, while in others—not. When sometimes the answer seems so obvious and some abstain, we may think the situation absurd.
In the Mahabharat, when Queen Draupadi was dragged by the hair before the royal assembly of the Kauravas, she asked all her superiors to honestly decide her fate. Whatever they deemed to be dharma, moral and good, Draupadi was prepared to accept. As is well known, the entire assembly fell silent due to the political tensions and alliances that were present among the royal classes. Even Bhisma, the noblest and eldest, fell silent unable to speak or decide. In eventuality, few spoke out and in their speeches there are some unblunted words directed towards the abstaining side of ourselves.

Vikarna: ‘If we do not judge a matter referred to us, all of us will assuredly have to go to hell without delay’.
Vidura: ‘Knowing the rules of morality, and having attended an assembly, he that doth not answer a query that is put, incurreth half the demerit that attacheth to a lie.’

Vidura also quotes Kasyapa as follows:
Tell me, I ask thee, what regions are obtainable by them who upon being asked a question, answer it not, or answer it falsely. Kasyapa thus asked answered.--'He that knoweth, but answereth not a question from temptation, anger or fear, casteth upon himself a thousand nooses of Varuna. And the person who, cited as a witness with respect to any matter of ocular or auricular knowledge, speaketh carelessly, casteth a thousand nooses of Varuna upon his ownperson. On the completion of one full year, one such noose is loosened. Therefore, he that knoweth, should speak the truth without concealment. If virtue, pierced by sin, repaireth to an assembly (for aid), it is the duty of every body in the assembly to take off the dart, otherwise they themselves would be pierced with it. In an assembly where a truly censurable act is not rebuked, half the demerit of that act attacheth to
the head of that assembly, a fourth to the person acting censurably and a fourth unto those others that are there. In that assembly, on the other hand, when he that deserveth censure is rebuked, the head of the assembly becometh freed from all sins, and the other members also incur none. It is only the perpetrator himself of the act that becometh responsible for it.

However, having considered these wise words, we may still reflect on the confusion and the resolve to remain silent of Yudhisthira, and feel that where some should speak out: others should remain silent. There is no simple answer or perhaps—no one answer. From the text itself, it would appear that deliberation, respect for elders, knowledge of history and the revelations of the wise, and a gut feeling while free from all passions and animosity, is the means to decipher dharma or moral good. As repeated again and again within such epics: dharma is very subtle and it exists within the pure hearts of those possessed of great wisdom. So during the next decision making moment in our meetings, we will do well to reflect on the potentially irresponsible form of abstaining, which will not end with the meeting, but bear its fruit in due course.

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