If there is one word that encompasses the mystique of Hinduism, the Indic philosophy, the Indian civilization and its approach to the Universe, it is dharma. A term so often misunderstood even by its most fervent adherents, that it now seems equated with religion.
Perhaps an exploration into its nature and roots might be in order. For the word dharma, if correctly understood might give us new insights into who we are and what might be the nature of our journey on earth.
Dharma derives its root from the Sanskrit root word, dhri, which means to hold, to bear, to support. Dharyati iti dharma, as an ancient shloka says. What is it that this so-called dharma is supporting?
Dharma may be considered as the core, the karana, the causeless cause, the invisible scaffolding that holds any entity together. Realizing this truth of the entity or structure gives us its raison d’etre, its cause for being, its meaning, its purpose, etc.
Unique to the Indic world-view is the understanding that as one grows inwardly and spiritually so does one’s understanding of one’s dharma. In a progressive revelation dharma appears self-evident and obvious in an intuitive understanding, that is not just mental, yet not infra-intellectual. For example, the entire Gita is an unveiling to Arjuna of his dharma through the eighteen chapters of instructions by Sri Krishna. If one might say that the Gita is a manual of the progressive unveiling of one’s dharma, one would not be incorrect. But, if I might attempt to reduce this to simple formula, knowing one’s true nature reveals one’s dharma. And the whole journey of India’s spirituality is in finding one’s swabhava or true nature. And the entire set of ethical, moral, social, cultural and religious responsibilities that one endeavors to fulfil is based upon this identification.
If I see myself as a social or family man as Arjuna did, then I might see it as my dharma to eschew violence and preserve the kula or community or vansha, family or tribe. Which is how Arjuna does see himself at the beginning of the Gita. But if he sees himself as a Kshatriya, a preserver of truth and uprightness, rectitude and righteousness in the society, then his role changes. This is what Sri Krishna reminds him of, to take his despondency and confusion right away.
But this is not the end of the journey. To see oneself as just a role prescribed for one by the society, no matter how noble, too is a conditioned journey and there is no self-exploration or learning involved in such prescribed responsibilities for the individual in this day and age. To see oneself as a student, or grihastha, vaanprashtha or sannyasi: all these are impositions until one is truly free by realizing that one’s dharma constantly transcends one’s bracketed and prescribed responsibilities if one grows in consciousness. Thus, one might adapt various dharmas based on one’s identification. Either with one’s ego, one’s social role, family roles, community assignments, national responsibilities, etc. but at some point one starts noticing that one is oneself formed of various constituents.
Whether it is by a preliminary reading of Sankhya or yogic enquiry or through gyana yoga or bhakti yoga, one realizes that one is not who one thought oneself to be, and layers within layers of one’s existence come out that were not so obvious in the past. As one’s true nature is revealed, what happens to the dharma that one had taken as one’s gospel? It necessarily has to change, evolve, adapt, grow, in sync with one’s new insights and understanding.
One example of possible question and answer sessions that might be entertained about dharma. We might call it a digital and modernized analog of an Upanishadic dialogue:
Q: What is the dharma of a flashlight, my child?
A: To give light, I suppose.
Q: Why is giving light its dharma?
A: Because that is its nature. That is what it is supposed to do.
Q: What if the flashlight also had a computer attached to it, along with a calculator and a camera? What would you think its dharma would be?
A: Well, its dharma would be to give light, and calculate and take pictures and compute, I suppose.
Q: Each depending on the component’s nature, right?
Q: What if I added more features to the flashlight, e.g., e mail service, telephone, browsing services, videos, online chats, etc.
A: I suppose more dharmas would be added to its repertoire.
Q: So then what is its main dharma if you have so many features?
A: Difficult to say!
Q: What if I told you that you are now holding a smart phone? What is the dharma of the flashlight now?
A: Ah! Its dharma is to be a smartphone.
Q: Whichever way you define the dharma of a smartphone now, so will it be now? The point was to give you a new perspective on things you take for granted. Or this so-called you that you take as granted by defining your features and nature.
A: Dharma then would be nature, ability, aptitude, responsibility, role, etc.
Q: Until you identify with them too. But you may discard them at will. When you are ready and transcend to a higher dharma. Perhaps you could call it a greater digital ecosystem. So you think you are a flashlight until you realize you are a smartphone with multiple features, abilities, qualities, possibilities, modules, apps.
Then, what are you?
In Sankhya, one of the first realizations is that one is the Purusha, the pure consciousness. Thus, one’s dharma arises from that identification, everything focused on living the truth of Purusha. In other yogas, one may realize that one is the jeevatma, the embodied soul, and centering oneself in the jeevatma, one’s dharma then becomes living from that center. And yet, as one’s dharma enlarges, it may not necessarily mean the entire and sudden abandonment of the past but a gradual enlarging. Dharma may not be abandoned without a deeper and higher understanding and insight and a consistent and comprehensive replacement of the less comprehensive truth with the more comprehensive.
For as the nature of things becomes obvious to one, one’s own dharma progressively becomes clear to oneself. This cannot be rushed and any attempt to upstage the way of one’s being might be attended with peril if one does not show enough patience to go right through to the end of the exploration of dharma.
To identify with the divine, to realize unity with the divine in all manifestations, to reach brahmanirvana, this becomes the highest dharma of the yogi who believes in integral realization, as the Gita explains.
Whether as a Vedanti or a Tantric, understanding dharma has been the secret thread through our explorations in Sanatana Dharma. This exploration was fearless, unfettered, though often guided by a mentor or Guru, based solely on Sat and no other prejudices. Dharma is not a religion, a code of conduct prescribed by a prophet, with a book that needs to be adhered to, in a church, with a clear program of reward or punishment afterlife.
Dharma has many definitions. It has been variously called as the cosmic law and order, way of living, duties, laws, conduct, virtues, etc. But the truest definition is from the center of one’s own heart, what one knows oneself as, in the light of one’s own consciousness and truth. And that realization makes dharma a revelation to oneself, as knowledge, pramana, and directly perceived, pratyaksha.
What is sanatana dharma then? That which is eternal, universal, that upholds the universe, which can never be destroyed. The final dharma then is to find the core that holds the individual and the universal, the causal and the acausal, the momentary and the timeless, the form and formless together, in one seamless unity. That is who we are in truth, that is our true nature, our swabhava, and our swadharma flowing out of our swabhava. Fulfilling that to fullest, living that in entirety, experiencing the Truth and Existence of the Self and the Universe, is thus our truest dharma. Living in unity with That, the Ineffable, the Unknown, that is yet Real and Present, is our highest calling, achievement, possibility and duty.
Another aspect of dharma is yuga dharma, the dharma of the age, the spirit of the times, the zeitgeist. We can see this beautifully depicted in the lineage of the dasha avatars, each yuga avatar bearing the dharma of the globe and incarnating the manifestation of Truth in a radically new and progressively unfolding spiritual shift.
Dharma evolves too as the earth evolves. We see that Parshurama’s dharma is transformed, negated, even pushed back by Sri Rama when he takes over the new avatar. Sri Rama resists Parashurama’s when he tries to impose his old standards and eventually Parashurama relents when he realizes his work and time is over.
Similarly, Sri Rama’s dharma of establishing a rule of Sattvic righteousness, mental harmony and rule, order, harmony, the Ram Rajya, is transcended by Sri Krishna when he brings down the light of an even higher plane than that of the mind. Sri Krishna expands Sattva into the light of a higher Truth, harmonizing the truth of Sri Rama in a vaster and more dynamic Truth that encompasses the ideal of Sri Rama.
Sri Krishna thus continues the manifestation of the higher Truth, and pushes back on those who are yet stuck in the world of kula-ahankar (pride of the clan) and Kshatriya pratigya (vows of the Kshatriya), without realizing that the dharma of those standards too has been surpassed. Thus, Bheeshma, in following his vow which is of an old order, is no longer being a loyal protector of the rashtra (nation) or his Kshatriya dharma and has become adharmik. Similarly, Drona, despite his adherence and loyalty to the throne, failed to see that his dharma was also to create a future lineage that would help in sustaining the rajya or kingdom in accordance to the dharma of the age.
Dhritarashtra, of course, being blind to everything except the love of his own son, is the biggest adharmik and loser. For not only does he lose the kingdom of the earth for himself but also for all his sons, leading to their destruction, while also losing the kingdom of the new rajya that we may call Sri Krishna Rajya.
But even as yuga dharma changes, what does not change is the requirement of the nara to have complete devotion to Narayana, to surrender to the Divine completely and to fulfil his part by opening his being entirely to the new teaching. We see this is what Hanuman does and later what Arjuna does. And this leads to the success of the yuga avatar in fulfilling his mission.
In our own modern times, we see the foolishness of personages like Gandhi in insisting on old ideals of sattvic harmony while the world had moved on to a new dharma requiring a new set of standards. How many countless lives were lost due to his sattvic ahankara and stubborn ignorance that insisted on being right always. It has taken us decades to recover from him and his side-effects and the damages would have been near-fatal were there not other greater spiritual personalities in India to neutralize his pernicious influence.