Poornima Coontoor engages in an enlightening conversation with her Vedantin uncle, who clearly delineates the spiritual principles that govern human life
The Universe is a delicately balanced class act that has been running with clockwork precision for millennia. Earth is our only home—the ecosystem that sustains and protects us and is so critical to the survival of our species. Yet we plunder it for the sake of mindless consumerism. How dare we!”
“We dare because we are arrogant and ignorant,” said a deep voice from behind me. I hadn’t realised that I had spoken these words of despair aloud and was startled to hear this response. I turned around to see my uncle sitting in his favourite armchair. He was a Vedantic scholar, recently retired as the dean of a premier Sanskrit college in Kerala. (Vedanta is a part of ancient scriptures called the Vedas, on whose tenets is based Sanatana Dharma—or Hinduism, as it is commonly known). Prof, as we referred to him, was now staying with us in Bengaluru to attend a family wedding. He continued, “Man is arrogant because he thinks he is superior to other species and is ignorant of manushya dharma, because of which he brings about his own devastation.”
I eagerly pulled up a chair and sat near him. “Tell me more. What is manushya dharma?”
“This is a vast subject, so I’ll try to answer as briefly as possible, with reference to Vedanta. First, tell me, what do you understand by the term ‘dharma’?” asked Prof.
“ ‘Dharma’ is a term generally used to refer to various facets of life, like religion or faith, righteous action, morality, and suchlike.”
“Dharma is all this and more. What is it about the universe that keeps it going the way it does? Why is the sky blue and the grass green? Why is someone noble, while another, a rascal? Science explains most of the hows of the Universe but cannot answer the whys. Only our ancient scriptures can explain all the physical and metaphysical phenomena.
“The root of this Sanskrit word is ‘dhri,’ which means ‘to hold together, to support.’ Dharma is that which holds something together and gives it integrity. It maintains equilibrium in the world. Dharma is upheld and preserved when all entities are spontaneously in tune with the Universe.”
“All entities except human beings, it seems. Why is that?” I came back to my original angst.
“For the purpose of understanding the Universe, the scriptures classify the whole system into three entities: jiva, jagat, and Ishwara. Man, the individual consciousness, is called jiva. The entire creation is called jagat, and the energy behind the whole of creation, call it Creator or God, is Ishwara. Let us examine the dharma of each of these entities first.”
The dharma of jagat
“ The manifest universe or creation, jagat, is all about order, regularity, discipline, and justice, as we clearly observe in nature. All entities function not only for their own survival but for the survival of the entire universe. This coexistence ensures that the natural order and balance is protected, sustained, and perpetuated. Such a phenomenon is called yajna (a ritualistic sacrifice) in the scriptures. In this cosmic yajna, when something perishes, something is nourished. This is the dharma of jagat.
The dharma of Ishwara
“Who, or what, has the infinite patience to create something so beautiful and complex as the universe? Who can paint each little leaf in its own pattern, colour, design, as well as galaxies? Who prompts an ant to store up on supplies when it’s time?”
“Only an infinitely loving, just, compassionate universal intelligence?”
“Right. This universal consciousness is called Ishwara in Vedanta. The dharma of Ishwara can only be Love, isn’t it?”
The dharma of jiva
“The dharma of jiva is greed and selfishness,” I exclaimed in anger.
“Agreed. But we are also capable of compassion and love, isn’t it?”
“Love for I, me, myself,” I snorted.
“True, but between the black and the white is a vast range of colours which make each individual unique. Both qualities are present in everyone in different degrees, and hence the constant conflict between good and evil.
“Man is an evolved animal bestowed with a thinking mind (manas), intellect (buddhi), memory (chitta) and ego (ahankara). Unlike in animals, in man, these faculties are highly pronounced. Because of this, man assumes an individual identity and feels separate from the Universe. Thus man acts in ways that harm his society and environment—and ultimately, himself.”
I sighed. “So how can we play a constructive rather than destructive role in this cosmic yajna, like other entities who do it effortlessly?”
The four goals of human pursuit
“We have to learn to live a balanced life. ‘The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.’”
“Not bad! So, in order to regulate man’s unbridled pursuit of his desires, the Vedas have clearly delineated certain codes of conduct.”
“Tell me a little more about the Vedas.”
“The four Vedas are ancient scriptures which are the repositories of the wisdom of evolved souls. They give a roadmap to human beings to live in tune with the Universe and achieve the purpose of human birth.”
“Liberation. To be free of misery while going through the journey of life— jivanmukti. The pursuit of liberation should go hand in hand with a life well lived in harmony with all beings. The scriptures, therefore, recognise four purusharthas or goals of human pursuit as legitimate. Two of them are the basic ones: kama, the pursuit of pleasure; and artha, the pursuit of wealth and worldly achievements. The foundation of these two is dharma, righteousness. By all means, go ahead and fulfil your human desires, but see that you are within the framework of morality. The fourth is moksha—the pursuit of eternal happiness, the desire for which arises only when all else is seen as futile.”
Rituals for a noble life
“ Is the framework of morality also detailed in the Vedas?”
“Absolutely. The Vedas abound in directives specifically meant for human beings, so that we may uphold dharma. The major portion of the Vedas, called the Karma Kanda, prescribes five yajnas or ritualistic sacrifices that need to be performed to help man gradually lose his individual identity and feel oneness with the whole.
“Bhoota Yajna is to feed and protect animals and birds, and to care for the environment. These practices were traditionally inculcated in every household. For instance, houses were constructed with small niches on the outer walls for birds to nest.
“Deva Yajna is to show gratitude to nature. The five elements—earth, water, fire, air, and space—are metaphorically depicted as devas or gods in Sanatana Dharma. Thus Deva Yajna is to offer oblations of ghee and uncooked food grains to fire. This is said to nourish the environment. Greta Thunberg’s message refers to this yajna—to not pollute our rivers, air, and earth.
“Manushya Yajna is to treat guests with respect and offer them the best hospitality at your disposal.”
“Atithi devo bhava (Guest is God)!”
“Indeed! Also, any kind of service to alleviate the suffering of humanity.
“Pitr Yajna is to express love and respect to elders by taking care of them, and to express gratitude to our ancestors by observing their death anniversaries with austerities—Pitru devo bhava (Father is God).
“Finally, Rishi Yajna is to study the scriptures and pass on the knowledge contained in them to others and the next generation. This is the only way we can pay homage to our sages who revealed cosmic truths to us—Acharya devo bhava (Teacher is God).”
“There are plenty of us across the globe who do perform all these ‘yajnas’ with small and big acts of selflessness, yet the world suffers, both collectively as well as individually. Why is
“What is your dharma as you see it? Explain!” commanded Prof.
“There are too many hats that I wear!” I exclaimed. “Each role of mine has its own dharma!”
“Exactly. Therein lies the conflict, which arises when one mistakes one dharma with another and fails to prioritise when they clash. To make it clearer, I can give you the classic example of Arjuna.”
“Of Mahabharata fame?”
“Yes. On the battlefield of Kurukshetra, the warrior prince fell into such a dilemma that he was ready to lay down his arms and flee, rather than fight his kinsmen. What, do you think, was the hat he was wearing when he did that?”
“The hat of a cousin, nephew, disciple, son?”
“Correct. Whereas, what was the hat he was supposed to wear?”
“Of a soldier whose duty was to fight the enemy to the best of his ability.”
“Exactly. Arjuna was in conflict because the dharma of relationships got mixed up with the dharma of a soldier. At each stage and situation of life, an individual has a specific dharma to uphold. This individual dharma is called swadharma.”
“But Prof, most of us are bound to face Arjuna’s dilemma when two or more of the roles we play clash. How will we know which swadharma to uphold?”
“Simple. Uphold that dharma which is beneficial to the larger demography—the higher dharma.
“However, the swadharma of a person is also determined by two major parameters: profession and the stage of life. Status based on profession is called Varnashrama Dharma, and status based on life is called Ashrama Dharma. People traditionally followed the varnas or professions of their forefathers. For us, the message of Varnashrama Dharma is to follow your aptitude, do what you are trained to do, and do it with sincerity. The outcome of such an action will benefit you as well as society.”
“Makes perfect sense. Imagine having disinterested or unskilled doctors, engineers, pilots—all-round disaster!”
“Ashrama Dharma tells us what dharma to follow at every stage of life: as a brahmachari (student), grihasthi (householder), vanaprasthi (retired person,) and sanyasi (renunciate),” continued Prof.
“This means, one should know when to let go and be at peace with the ageing process, delegate work, relinquish control, and engage oneself in pursuits that uplift one’s consciousness.”
“Very well put,” said Prof. “A tree is healthy, only if it has strong old roots and fresh new shoots. Elders should take on the role of guides and leave the young to lead and bring innovation in society. That’s the only way to progress, and the natural order in the cosmic yajna.”
“Extremely interesting,” I said, “but a little confusing. Can you please sum it up?”
“To go about our roles and duties with honesty and integrity is the best we can do to keep the cogs in the wheel of dharma greased. Unless one is called upon to act beyond the call of their normal duties. When you see an accident victim on the street, you drop the very urgent meeting you are headed for and rush him to hospital. This is called Aapat Dharma or your duty during an emergency.”
“But Prof,” I continued, “all that you have said is really just common sense. Why doesn’t man just follow the natural order?”
“Duryodhana (in the Mahabharata) went on sinning the way he did because he did not let his good sense prevail; his thirst for power was so compelling that he would stop at nothing to get his way.”
“And that’s how most of us lead our lives—as slaves to our senses rather than our common sense,” I said.
“Correct. And that,” said Prof, “is adharma.”
“Man engages in pursuing his ego-driven goals and desires because these tendencies, called vasanas, are carried over lifetimes. The degree of his ignorance depends on the degree of the three gunas or qualities present in him: Satva (purity), Rajas (activity) and Tamas (inertia),” continued Prof.
“But why is it adharma to be dictated by our gunas? They are very strong impulses, and so they must be natural?” I asked.
“They are, but man has been designed to rise above his lower nature and seek to attain to his real nature dictated by the spirit, which always prompts man to pick the right course of action. And God gives man that choice every moment. When Krishna gave Arjuna the choice of picking Himself or his mighty army to side with him at Kurukshetra, Arjuna picked the spiritual, and Duryodhana was overjoyed to have the material. Arjuna chose dharma; Duryodhana, adharma.”
“To choose the physical is adharma?”
“To feel that the physical is all there is and lead life only in enhancing it is adharma. Transcending the transient physical reality and abiding in the ultimate reality is dharma.”
“What is the ultimate reality?”
“That you are not individual matter but the Universal spirit. To realise your true identity is the purpose of human birth.”
“Isn’t it enough to live by the axiom ‘Be good and do good’?” I cried.
“Well, to be good and do good takes a lot of effort, isn’t it?”
“Oh yes, it does!”
“Good and evil coexist, and that’s how the Universe maintains its balance. Only a person who has transcended this duality can bring about a better world.”
“Yes” laughed Prof, “because his expanded consciousness would include the whole of the Universe, and hence his thoughts and actions would be dharmic.”
“ Please tell me in simple terms, ‘What is my dharma, in totality?’ ”
“Atmano mokshartham, jagat hitaya cha. Self-realisation and service to society: these are the twin dharmas of the jiva to be accomplished parallelly during one’s lifetime,” Prof concluded.
The next morning, Prof handed me a book, Who Am I?, by Ramana Maharshi. “Go on doing your little yajnas for the sake of society like before,” he said gently, “and meanwhile, this book will set you on the path of atma vichara (Self-enquiry.) Follow it to be free from bondage in this very lifetime. Godspeed!”
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