In the “4 Goals of Human Life” sub-module we discussed one aspect of Dharma briefly. In this sub-module we intend to give an elaborate explanation of the term Dharma.
We will discuss the following topics:
1. What does Dharma mean?
2. What is human Dharma and what is the basis for it?
3. The 5 types of Dharma.
4. How to practice Dharma Yoga in your life?
5. How to live a Dharmic Life?
What does Dharma mean?
The Multiple Meanings of Dharma
Many others meanings have been suggested, such as law or “torah” (in the Judaic sense), “logos” (Greek), “way” (Christian) and even ‘tao” (Chinese). None of these is entirely accurate and none conveys the full force of the term in Sanskrit. Dharma has no equivalent in the Western lexicon.
Dharma has the Sanskrit root dhri, which means “that which upholds” or “that without which nothing can stand” or “that which maintains the stability and harmony of the universe.”
Dharma encompasses the natural, innate behaviour of things, duty, law, ethics, virtue, etc. Every entity in the cosmos has its particular dharma — from the electron, which has the Dharma to move in a certain manner, to the clouds, galaxies, plants, insects, and of course, man.
Man’s understanding of the Dharma of inanimate things is what we now call physics.
The common translation of Dharma into religion is misleading. Dharma is not limited to a particular creed or specific form of worship.
Dharma provides the principles for the harmonious fulfilment of all aspects of life, namely, the acquisition of wealth and power (Artha), fulfilment of desires (Kama), and liberation (Moksha). Religion, then, is only one subset of Dharma’s scope.
Religion applies only to human beings and not to the entire cosmos; there is no religion of electrons, monkeys, plants and galaxies, whereas all of them have their Dharma even if they carry it out without intention.
Dharma for Humans
Because the struggle for Artha and Kama is not instinctually controlled but guided by changing personal likes and dislikes, it becomes necessary for the human society to have a set of standards which is independent of any individual’s subjective values.
Since I have the faculty of choice, I must have certain norms controlling my various actions (Karma). Not being pre-programmed like animals, for me the end cannot justify the means. I have a choice over both ends and means.
Not only must the end chosen be permissible, but the means to gain the end must also confirm to certain values. This special set of values controlling the individual choice of action is called ethics.
The human struggle for security and pleasure, Artha and Kama, must be in accordance with an ethical choice. For animals the question of ethics does not arise. They have little unprogrammed choice over action. Actions controlled by instincts, not subject to choice, create no ethical problems.
The human being with his faculty of choice on the other hand, must first choose the end he wishes to pursue and then the means to gain that end.
The Source of Ethics is Commonsense
I do not want others to use deception or other unfair means to take away from me what I want. Therefore non-deception becomes a value to observe with reference to others even as I pursue my ends.
The ends and means I want others to choose because of the way such choices affect me establish a standard in me by which I judge the propriety of the goals and the means I choose myself. A standard which takes into consideration the impact of my choices upon others.
Such values comprise commonsense ethics, which are recognized and confirmed spiritually in a more comprehensive ethical doctrine – religious in nature – called Dharma.
To Be Ethical Is To Be Fully Human
A human being with his highly developed, self-conscious mind has the capacity to make unprogrammed choices and to reflect upon the consequences of his choices. This capacity has given rise to ethical guidelines.
To be fully human is to utilize these guidelines in the exercise of choice.
What Religious Ethics Add
Religious ethics conform to commonsense ethics and add a few more. Religious ethics generally say: you may deceive others, you may escape the hands of the law, but you really cannot get away from the results of your actions. The results will catch up with you in some way, sooner or later.
The intangible result of good (Dharmic) actions is Punya, which is a pleasurable or positive experience in future. The intangible result of bad (Adharmic) actions is Papa, which is a painful or negative experience in future.
Dharma is not concocted by some given minds. We all commonly sense dharma, and therefore, it is universal. When we commonly sense something, what is sensed is already there. I can commit a mistake in what I sense, and you can commit a mistake in what you sense, but if we all sense it, universally, correctly, then that thing exists.
Nobody has seen gravitational force. It is not visible. Yet, we all know it exists, including every monkey. When it jumps from one branch to another, it makes sure that its leap is just adequate to reach its target; and it does not need to learn from anyone. Even a baby monkey knows to hold on to its mother. That means we all commonly sense gravitational force.
Similarly, we all sense dharma. It is required for the human being.
The human being has to make choices. When I make a choice and if I conform to the common norm, it does not hurt anybody. When I conform to the norm, I conform to Isvara. The jiva, the ego, which is a spinoff from Isvara for the time being, tries to subserve dharma, Isvara; one surrenders to Isvara.
When I conform to dharma, then I do not get estranged from Isvara. The popular saying, ‘thy will be done’, would mean that Isvara’s will which is dharma will be done. Conformity to dharma is being in harmony with Isvara, being imbued with the presence of Isvara.
You allow Isvara to rule your life through adherence to dharma; the more the dharma, the more Isvara there is in your life because the Lord is manifest as dharma.
The 5 Types of Dharma
1. Svadharma – Your Relative Nature
This implies that something other than discrete Vasanas (Vasanas discussed here) condition us. Why don’t all newborns turn out the same way? One becomes a scientist, another a musician, a third a politician. Some deeper force seems to be determining the choices we make and the actions that flow from them.
The creation itself is one vast program within which are millions of conscious beings created by Isvara with unique programs intended to serve the needs of the total. As long as every being follows its program, life works nicely.
A tree puts out oxygen and consumes carbon dioxide and everything is fine. Birds follow bird nature and flies do what flies do and life goes on. Humans, it seems, have been given various natures according to the needs of the total and are meant to perform certain functions necessary for the smooth functioning of the whole.
Svadharma means your relative nature, the type of person you are. If you don’t know what your relative nature is, you will not behave in harmony with it and your mind will be very unsettled. If your mind is unsettled you will be unable to practice Self-Inquiry.
Humans make an otherwise beautiful but monotonous creation interesting because we have somehow been given intellect, self consciousness. Cows are not self conscious. They do not know they are cows. They are just consciousness, Isvara, in a particular body acting out a particular program.
They are not going to write symphonies, teach the Vedas and invent airplanes and the internet. The intellect is responsible for culture and also makes it possible to choose one thing over another, otherwise called “free” will.
Of course we are not free when you look at it from Isvara’s point of view, because Isvara creates and controls everything. But as apparent human beings in the apparent matrix of life we apparently have free will.
Free will can be a blessing but it can also be a curse because it means that we can chose not to go with our relative nature and act out of an idea that is contrary to it. It means that we can break the rules if we so desire.
If you have the nature of an accountant and you try to become a poet it will not work for you. If you have the nature of a saint and you try to become a criminal it will not work. If you have an entrepreneurial nature and you pump gas for minimum wage you will be going against Dharma, your nature. To be happy you need to follow your nature, your Svadharma.
2. Samanya Dharma – Universal Values
This means that there is only one conscious being here, appearing as many, and that built into the creation are certain mutual expectations, all of which derive from the most fundamental Dharma, non-injury. These universal expectations or values are called Samanya Dharma
I don’t injure you, because I know how it feels to be injured. I don’t lie, because I don’t like to be lied to. I don’t steal, because I value what I have and appreciate the fact that you value what you have.
Samanya Dharma is built into our human program. It is a Dharma that you violate at your peril. It is sometimes called “conscience.” It is often argued that criminals don’t have this programming, but they do. Every thief locks up his loot. Hit men carry guns to protect themselves.
Adharmic behaviour is actions that run contrary to the physical, moral and psychological laws operating in the Dharma field. Svadharma is Isvara and Samanya Dharma is also Isvara. If you go against it, it will go against you. And this is not a battle you will win because Isvara is the will of the Total.
3. Visesa Dharma – Situational Ethics
When an unpalatable truth will cause needless emotional harm, sometimes a white lie is the way to go. How we interpret Samanya Dharma is called Visesa Dharma. You could think of it as situational ethics.
4. Ordinary Dharma – Everyday Dharma
Contravening them is not the kiss of death but you will usually suffer in some way if you do. Sometimes, however, following man-made Dharmas, which in general – but not always – are based on non-duality, can run counter to your Svadharma, requiring considerable thought before venturing to act.
5. Body Dharma
Consequently, scripture counsels against actions that injure the body: alcohol, smoking, excessive exercise, etc. It also encourages habits that are conducive to health.
Yes, it is true that if my knowledge of myself as the Self is not subject to doubt I will not practice Karma Yoga because all my actions will naturally be in harmony with my true nature. But if my Self-Knowledge is not firm I need to assume the stance of the Self with reference to action and act accordingly.
We call this “faking it until you make it.” It is not really false to act as if I am the Self because I am the Self. It just “feels” fraudulent. So there is an element of awkwardness when you begin to practice karma yoga. It soon dissipates, however, as this yoga gradually produces an incredible lightness of being.
At the same time everyone is blessed or cursed, depending on how you wish to look at it, with a relative nature, with Samskaras, that gives rise to specific tendencies and talents. A Samskara is the result of the clustering effect of several Vasanas. They are responsible for the roles we play and they make up the very fabric of our relative natures.
Some people are inclined to art, some to science, some to sports, etc. Your predominant Samskara is your relative nature, your Svadharma.
Your Samskaras are in Samsara and is subject to change. So what lifestyle you followed yesterday, you will not necessarily follow tomorrow. If you act out your predominant Samskara to Isvara’s satisfaction, it will supply you with another Samskara.
Some individuals are lucky – or not – in that they want to “be something” when they are only five years old – a musician, for example – and happily stick with it all their lives. But others live several lives and play many roles in one life. Others, it seems, never figure out what they are “supposed” to be doing.
If that is the case, consecrate your actions to the Dharma field, take what comes with a glad heart and don’t worry about who you are on that level and what you are “supposed” to be doing.
The Self is straightforward. It is one thing only. It is simple and ordinary and ever-present. It is not the result of an action. It is always and already accomplished. But karma is not simple. It is “nuanced,” to say the least.
It is complex because so many factors go into the production of results. To know it is to know the mind of Isvara. It is a field of laws that are not published in the newspapers or posted on the street corners. So when I act I need to take the field into account. But when I act, it is absolutely necessary to take my Svadharma into account because if I don’t act in harmony with it, I will reap conflict.
The Dharma of a seeker is to apply Self-Knowledge to his or her mind. But there are various levels of seeking. If you are at the upper end of the evolutionary scale, meaning that your desire for freedom is burning, you have the requisite qualifications and have been blessed with conducive circumstances (a proven means of knowledge, the guidance of a qualified teacher and few Tamasic Karmas), you can seek properly.
When you seek properly you do not listen to that voice in your head that asks you when you are going to get real and get a proper job. In other words you are in harmony with your Svadharma as a renunciate. Karma yogis act in harmony with Svadharma.
But if you are not one hundred percent committed to enlightenment you will have a conflict. You will listen as the doer ridicules your spiritual impulse. You will be torn between forgoing the possibility of success in the “real” world and spiritual success, which does not promise to pay the bills.
If you act in harmony with your Svadharma – assuming you know what it is – you will have eliminated one source of conflict. You know if you are acting in harmony with it, if what you are doing in life “feels” right. If you act contrary to it, you will be unhappy.
When you are not clear about who you are as a person, and you do not know you are the Self, you will try to “be” someone that you think is interesting and attractive. Nobody tries to be a phony. People act inauthentically because their Svadharma is hidden from them. The desire for identity is the strongest desire in the human mind and it will not be denied.
In general we say that you need to realize who you are as a person and be okay with that before you are qualified for liberation. This is why Vedanta says that you should stay in the world as the person you are and work out your Svadharma with the Karma Yoga attitude. But what if you don’t know what it is?
In other words, why is your Svadharma hidden from you? It is obscured by your fears and your desires. They extrovert you so much that you never have time to really get in touch with who you are on that level. They keep you looking for something in the world and sap your self-confidence to such a degree that you haven’t got the courage to actually let go of your idea of success. You still really want security or love to come from the outside.
Vedanta can give you a provisional identity – Karma Yogi – that will take up the slack until you have realized your Svadharma, your true nature. And once you are clear about who you really are, who you are on the relative level is no longer an issue.
Your Svadharma does not change, or if it does, it is okay with you because you know for sure that you are not a doer. The beauty of identifying yourself as a karma yogi lies in the fact that your duty is clear and simple: consecrate your actions to the Dharma field with an attitude of gratitude and take the results as a gift. And success in Karma Yoga brings an increasing sense of well being as it neutralizes your likes and dislikes.
How to live a Dharmic Life?
A Dharmic way of life involves two parts:
1. The first one is to try to make sure that your mind is healthy and positive. This involves following Sattvic values in daily life. The list of Sattvic values to be incorporated was discussed elaborately in the Universal Values module.
2. The second part is following the five prescribed Dharmas for a Karma Yogi, also called Pancha Maha Yajna in Sanskrit.
The 5 Prescribed Dharmas For a Karma Yogi
1. Worship Of God In Any Form
Here is a translation of a popular prayer; it should be sincerely spoken with great love daily:
May all humans be well. May the great souls reveal the path of virtue to us. May there be perpetual joy for those who understand who they are. May all beings in all the worlds, terrestrial and extraterrestrial, be happy and free. May all beings be healthy. May they all have good luck and may none fall into evil ways.
2. Unconditional Reverence For Parents
As long as there is no resentment toward your parents and as long as you can see that they did their best according to what they knew and can see the gifts they gave and honour them in your thoughts daily, this is enough.
3. Worship Of Scriptures
You don’t become contemplative all at once. You have contemplative moments throughout the day and insights all along. The progression from an outward turned mind to an inward turned mind is gradual.
One day you will realize how clear and peaceful your mind has become, even in the midst of a busy life. Karma Yoga is for doers who have a strong desire for freedom and who understand the value of knowledge.
4. Service To Humanity
Isvara presents opportunities every day to serve others. Service doesn’t just mean doing what others want you to do, although it might include that. It means being open to others, not shutting them out.
Serving others requires considerable mindfulness because ego, born of a sense of inadequacy and inferiority, looks for opportunities to feel special and virtuous. Service to others should be based on a recognition of the essential oneness of all of us.
5. Worship Of All Sentient Beings
The 10 Commandments of Hinduism
Of the two groups, scriptures consider Yamas (don’ts) to be more important than Niyamas (do’s), so the former is discussed first.
The 5 Yamas (don’ts) are:
1. Non-Violence (Ahimsa)
When we begin to practice Ahimsa, we must first pay attention to physical violence. If we feel we are already free from the weakness, we can concentrate on verbal violence – shouting or using abusive or indecent language.
2. Truthfulness (Satyam)
Satyam is a positive attribute and yet it is listed as a Yama (don’t). So we have to redefine Satyam as something to be given; that is the avoidance of lying (Asatyam). We must emphasize more on avoiding Asatyam, by not telling lies or speaking untruths.
3. Non-Stealing (Asteyam)
4. Appropriate Attitude Towards The Opposite Sex (Brahmacharyam)
Like Satyam, Brahmacharyam is a positive characteristic and yet finds a place among the Yamas (don’ts). So we must understand Brahmacharyam as giving up all indecent and inappropriate attitudes towards the opposite sex.
5. Non-Possessiveness (Aparigraha)
Firstly we give up luxury, pomp, and show. We draw a line and limit our possessions to what is necessary. A simple living is suitable for high thinking.
And secondly we should not develop possessiveness towards the limited possessions we have. This is even more important than owning less. We should remind ourselves that what we have – not only things, even our relationships – belongs to Isvara and is given to us temporarily for us to grow.
We use our possessions with gratitude to Isvara who may claim them at any time, giving advance notice or not.
Therefore I try to own less, and whatever little I own, I remember that it belongs to Isvara. And whenever Isvara wants it back, I am ready to return it with a thank you note.
The 5 Niyamas (do’s) are:
1. Purity (Saucham)
Saucham is not only cleanliness but also orderliness. Our house may be very clean but due to disorderliness we may have to search for anything and everything. A good maxim to follow is “a place for everything and everything in its place.”
2. Contentment (Santosha)
So at the Karma Yoga level contentment is at the owning angle, not at the earning angle. Once a person comes to Jnana Yoga level, there should be contentment with regards to both owning and earning.
Contentment at both levels of earning and owning is called Santosha and should be practiced as a Niyama (do), meaning with a positive attitude. We think of what we have rather than what we do not have and give up beggarliness of the mind. We tell our mind that we have plenty. This is the principle of abundance.
A contented person will readily share his wealth with others. Without Santosha, charity cannot take place. Contentment is a prerequisite for a charitable disposition.
3. Austerity (Tapas)
In the olden days the very lifestyle ensured that people were physically fit. Today we can consider some form of exercise to keep ourselves fit.
It is common to hear people say that they do not have time for exercise. Those who cannot spare a few minutes a day for maintaining their health today may have to spend many months later for recovering (lost) health due to sickness.
4. Spiritual Study (Swadhyaya)
Today people do not give much importance to spiritual study. Many think it is for intellectuals and those who want to take to monastic life. At the minimum we must study a few verses of the Bhagavad Gita everyday and reflect upon the teachings.
5. Surrender to Isvara (Isvara Pranidhanam)
Behind every Karma Phalam is the Law of Karma, and behind the Law of Karma is Isvara. Isvara is invisible, the Law of Karma is invisible but when the Isvara and the Law of Karma function, the result is a tangible experience.
So we accept every experience without resistance. And because of this the mind is free of negative emotions and thoughts. This acceptance is called surrender to Isvara. An inability or unwillingness to do so will produce unhealthy thoughts in the mind and lead to bitterness, anger, frustration, hatred, etc.
The ten yamas (don’ts) and niyamas (do’s) should be practiced by all Vedantic students. We have no choice in the matter. Without these attributes, the study of Vedanta will neither be meaningful nor beneficial.
How to Practice the 10 Commandments?
This applies even to our health. Maintaining health requires adherence to a few simple rules neglecting which we may have to face the consequences for a life time.
5. Inquiry and study
Each month we must focus on the commandment chosen for the month. During the Ahimsa month we must collect as much information as possible on this commandment and study the literature for at least an hour a week and try to understand its significance.
Why is Moksha not possible without giving up violence? Why do we resort to violence – physical or verbal? What precautionary measures can we take to avoid violence?
Our analysis will reveal that our violent behaviour is always preceded by anger. We can further analyze, why do we get angry? Is it because of certain people? How can we change our behaviour (rather than expect others to change theirs) to avoid or minimize getting provoked?
|The common translation of Dharma into religion is misleading. The word “Dharma” has multiple meanings depending on the context in which it is used. These include: conduct, duty, right, justice, virtue, morality, religion, religious merit, good work according to a right or rule, etc.
|Since humans are endowed with free will, unlike animals, the pursuits of security and pleasure must be guided by an ethical standard. These ethical values are based on a commonsense appreciation of how one wants oneself to be treated. Such values are part of a more comprehensive ethical doctrine called Dharma.
|Dharma can be broadly classified into 5 categories: Svadharma (your nature), Samanya Dharma (universal values), Visesa Dharma (situational ethics), everyday Dharma and body Dharma.
|Karma Yoga is acting in accordance with my Svadharma with an eye to realizing my true nature. If my Self-Knowledge is not firm I need to assume the stance of the Self with reference to action and act accordingly. We call this “faking it until you make it.”
|The Dharma of a seeker is to apply self-knowledge to his or her mind. If you act in harmony with your Svadharma you will be happy. If you act contrary to it, you will be unhappy.
|A Dharmic way of life involves two parts. The first is to keep the mind healthy and positive by following Sattvic values in daily life. The second part is following the 5 prescribed Dharmas for a Karma Yogi.
|The 5 prescribed Dharmas are worship of God, reverence for parents, worship of scriptures, service to humanity and worship of all sentient beings.
|In addition to the 5 prescribed Dharmas the 5 do’s and 5 don’ts of Hinduism are also a useful guide in living a Dharmic life.