The mahavakya of the Shikshavalli says, Dharmam Char: ‘Follow Dharma’ or ‘Keep moving on the path of Dharma’.
Since the verb determines the movement and quality of the subject, so the word ‘char’ needs our attention first. ‘Char’ means ‘keep moving on’ or ‘move along’.
Let me contextualize this a bit.
India speaks through subtle symbols. One of the significant Indic symbols is the chakra. Chakra is a ‘wheel’ or ‘circle’. The character of the wheel is movement. Life is nothing but a series of movements, continuous, in different forms. It is the opposite of stasis. The wheel symbolizes the perpetuity of movement, the character of life. It came to be associated with time and life as the kala chakra, time-cycle and jivan chakra, life cycle. This wheel found its way into the Indian intellectual and cultural psyche through various schools of Indian thought and manifested in multiple tangible emblematic forms as in the chakra in the Sun temple of Konarka which, after Independence, found its way into the Indian flag and the Ashok Chakra.
The mahavakya celebrates the primacy of movement in the cosmos that Aitareya Brahmana elaborates through the narrative of Harishchandra and his son Rohit. In the narrative, Indra explains to the wandering Rohit the importance of motion with the metaphors of the bees, birds and the Sun —
Charanbai madhu vindati charantsvadu mudambaram Suryasya pasya sreemanam yo na tandrayate charan
(Charaiveti, Aitareya Brahmana, 7.15)
Loosely translated, this means that the honey bee, by its motion, collects honey, and birds enjoy tasty fruits by constant movement. The sun is revered, by virtue of its constant shining movement; therefore, one should be constantly in motion. ‘Keep moving, keep moving on!’
Every being in the cosmos follows the principle of moving on. So should human beings. By moving on, one gathers new experiences and every new experience adds to consciousness and one moves on from finite to infinite, and becomes a little less incomplete.
Now the question is — if one has to keep moving on, what should one be doing while on the move? Moving on aimlessly without knowing what is to be done would be futile. So the sage qualifies that movement should be oriented to Dharma.
Of the four purusharthas — inherent values of the universe or goals and obligations of human life — Dharma is the first. Artha, Kama and Moksha are the other three. Dharma, however, does not mean religion. There is a deeper meaning — dharayate iti ya sa dharmah: Whatever is worth ‘upholding’ or ‘worth doing’ in any given situation for an individual or a community, is dharma.
Can Dharma be practiced in isolation? The answer is no. Just knowledge of dharma is not enough; dharma must be lived, practiced. While acquiring material well-being, artha, and fulfilling one’s desires, kama, one must remain oriented to dharma, mindful of dharma and practicing dharma.
The pursuit of dharma does not entail renunciation of the world, nor does it mean that one cannot follow it while leading the life of the householder (grahastha) and engaging in worldly work. Janaka followed dharma while being a king, and the Vyadha in the Mahabharata was a humble hunter. In simple terms, it means that artha and kama, unattended by dharma, become anartha and dushkama — the antithesis of artha and kama. However, if artha and kama are pursued in alignment with dharma, the fourth purushartha, Moksha, is inevitable.
Moksha, freedom from the cause of suffering (of one’s own and of others), is the natural consequence of adherence to dharma while pursuing the other two goals of human life. Moksha is not a faraway metaphysical goal but a state of being that is attained here, and here alone, in this life and in this world.
If one wishes to follow the path of dharma, one needs to know and understand dharma. But would it not be a very complicated process to know dharma before practicing it? Yes, if one takes the philosophical or intellectual route; and no, if one takes the route of loka or wisdom.
Taking recourse to the shastra mode, the academic or intellectual mode, could be abstract, unpleasant and even cumbersome. Knowledge without understanding and experience is never a source of happiness. Wisdom helps in discovering the path of life to be chosen, as stated in the answer that Yudhishthara gave to Yaksha:
Shruti vibhinna smratyopi bhinnah
Neko muniyasya vachah parmanam
Dharmasya tatvam nihitim guhayam,
Mahajano yen gatah sah panthah.
(The Mahabharata, ‘Vana Parva’, 3.13.315)
The essence of dharma is hidden. So what is to be done? There are two ways: either one can find the path of dharma with one’s experience and observation or just follow the path of the great souls or wise men. The former is a longwinded, time consuming and cumbersome process while the latter is simple and straight.
Just knowledge of dharma is not enough; it needs to be practiced and lived. Every individual and every particle in the cosmos has its own dharma. But some, or many, would deviate from dharma. Then what would correct and balance out the deviation? Right dharmic action by those who adhere to their own dharma, swadharma, even when others do not. That is why the Gita asks us to follow our own swadharma — Swadharme nidhanam shreyah pardharmo bhayavaha. (Geeta, Chapter 3, Sloka 32)
Major philosophical schools and cultural texts like the epics, the puranas and the folk narratives of India explained various aspects of dharma by using drishtanta as a mode of construction and dissemination of knowledge. The Ramayana was enunciation of dharma as an ideal that was practiced by Rama, and the Mahabharata about the dharma in real life. With the shift in social behavior from the ideal (in the Ramayana) to the realistic (in the Mahabharata), the latter is a subtler study of dharma, as it tries to shed light on it from different standpoints by bringing in diverse characters, and sometimes even the same characters in different situations in multiple ways in various narratives. Dharma is not absolute but contingent.
Dharma is determined by the three conditions of desha, space or location, kala, time and karma, action. As these conditions change, dharma may also accordingly change. That is why it is not absolute or fixed but contingent and variable. But it is variable with qualification, as the following narrative suggests:
Yudhishthara, who was also known as dharmaraj or an apostle of Dharma, did not have a monopoly on the understanding of dharma, even he was perplexed. Bhishma Pitamah illustrated the complexity of dharma to Yudhishthara with the narrative of Vishwamitra in the ‘Shanti Parva’ of the Mahabharata.
In a certain rather long and extreme drought, the Sage Vishwamitra, starving for days, reached a Chandala (untouchable, of a lower caste) hunter’s hut in search of food. He saw a fresh piece of thigh of a dog. Vishwamitra wanted to have the dog meat but the Chandala pleaded that by doing so the sage would desecrate the dharma of both of them and it would lead to the committing of a sin. The sage Vishwamitra stated that dharma can be observed only if he were alive, and life is preferable to death. Hence, whatever sustains life — right or wrong — was acceptable to him.
Vishwamitra rejected all arguments of the Chandala by stating that the highest dharma is to save life at any cost, for life is higher than any other principle. He would be able to seek dharma by leading his life in a pious and righteous manner. The Chandala ultimately agreed to part with the meat. But the sage did not eat it alone. He, in consonance with the tradition, divided it in different portions for the gods, the ancestors and all living beings. Lo and behold! It began to rain, and the period of drought was over.
This narrative astonished Yudhishthara, for according to him, how can one be a sage and a pious soul after committing the most despicable act and defiling the dharma? Bhishma resolves his dilemma by saying that the dharma cannot be determined in absolute terms. Also, it cannot be defined by the feeble minded. Its awareness can be developed by following the scripture and the essence of the scriptures. In other words, the epic states that even Yudhishthara, who is supposed to be an incarnation of dharma, is not able to fathom the depths and manifestations of dharma. Further, it underscores a point that life is the highest value, as it is an indispensable instrument for observance of dharma. In this sense, life is superior to dharma. Life is dynamic, ever in flow, and the truth of life must have a practical value, truth as value or rit.
Tulsidas’s Ramacharitmanasa describes dharma in terms of dharma-ratha, a chariot of dharma. During the war between Rama and Ravana, after the death of Kumbhakarna and son Meghanada, Ravana comes to the battle field riding a Yuddha-ratha (war chariot), well protected by armour, and equipped with sophisticated weapons, while Rama is barefoot without chariot or armour. Seeing this Vibhishana gets distressed, and asks Rama how he was going to win over Ravana. Rama tells him that the ratha (chariot) that helps in winning the war in life is not the one that is owned by Ravana but the dharma-ratha, the chariot of dharma.
Rama describes the the Dharmaratha (the chariot of dharma or righteousness) to Vibhishan, thus: Its wheels (chakra) of the chariot are valour (shaurya) and fortitude (dheeraj). Steadfastness in truth and good character are its flag and banner respectively. The horses of that chariot are strength (bala), discrimination (viveka), self-control or restraint (dama) and care for others (parahita). Its reins are made of the ropes of forgiveness (kshama), compassion (krpa) and equanimity (samata). Devotion to God is the intelligent charioteer. Dispassion (virati) is the shield, and contentment (santosh) is the sword. Charity (dana) is the axe, intellect (buddhi) is the potent missile (shakti) and knowledge of the self (vijnana) is the relentless bow.
He further adds that a pure and steady (amala achala) mind (mana) is like a quiver, while tranquility, calm (shama) and the various forms of abstinence (yama) and religious observances (niyama) are a sheaf of arrows. Worship and homage to the Brahmins and one’s own Guru is an impenetrable armor. There is no other efficacious equipment or weapon other than the dharma-ratha that is needed for victory, and a person possessing this strong chariot of dharma can conquer even the most mighty and invincible foe, attachment to the world.
Tulsi’s illustration of the dharma-ratha shows the engagement of the Indian mind with the mahavakya dharmam char in different ages through the metaphor of the chariot that represents cyclicality, continuity and movement. So one must keep moving on the path of righteousness.
Last but not the least, in the Indian tradition, as mortal beings have to follow the path of human dharma (manav dharma) so too the gods have to follow their dharma, (deva-dharma). Even in human form, they need to subscribe to their own dharma in every incarnation. In brief, every human being has to know one’s dharma (swadharma), and keep following it in accordance to desh, kala, and karma.
[This article was given by the late Sri Avadhesh Kumar Singh for publishing in Satyameva as his first contribution to the work of Satyameva. We are now reprinting this article with deep gratitude to him — Ed]