The principles of a good life: Dharma, Adharma, and Swadharma
Distraught over the chaotic state of planet Earth and it’s inhabitants, Poornima Coontoor engages in an enlightening conversation with her Vedantin uncle, who clearly delineates the spiritual principles that are supposed to govern human life to ensure peaceful co-existence of all species on this globe
You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. People are suffering, dying. Entire eco-systems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
–Greta Thunberg, UN Climate Action Summit, 2019.
The Universe is a delicately balanced, finely tuned class act that has been running with clockwork precision on its own volition for millennia. Each and every entity in this cosmic machinery at the micro and macro levels has a specific purpose and is subject to physical laws. The human being is but a tiny, miniscule part in this unimaginably vast, complex, intelligent, self-governing and self-regulating phenomenon. Miraculously, this marvel has been handed to us on a platter and unfortunately, we take it for granted. Earth is our only home—the ecosystem that sustains and protects us and is critical to the survival of our species. Yet we plunder its forests, dig up its bowels, sow poison into its soil and spew toxins into its water and air, all for the sake of unbridled materialism and mindless consumerism. How dare we!
Even a single-celled organism like the amoeba, which simply goes about its business without creating havoc, seems to have better intelligence than us. So do the rose bush and the banyan tree, the parrot and the tortoise, the earthworm and all the stars and planets across distant galaxies. They do not flout universal laws. We do. 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 at his favourite armchair, cleaning his spectacles. Uncle 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 busy zipping around the world and visiting universities to give talks on Indic philosophy. Providentially, he was now staying with us in Bengaluru to attend a wedding in the family. 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. “Man?” I laughed at the now obsolete expression. “Prof, the world has moved on to gender-neutral terminology in recent times!”
“Hmm, but the older epithet lends itself better to expression so I continue to use it. Does your feminist heart squirm in protest?”
“Not at all, as long as I know where you are coming from,” I said. “Tell me more. What is Manushya dharma? The duties and responsibilities of a human being? Is it documented somewhere in best-practices manual of sorts? And why are we not aware of it; or have we forgotten it?”
“Not so fast! This is a vast subject and my favourite as well. So, I’ll try to answer as briefly as I can, but only with the background of Vedanta which is familiar to me. But before that, coffee!”
I was excited as I brewed coffee for us two. It was always a pleasure to engage in a conversation with Prof as I invariably ended up learning something new and gaining a fresh perspective on just about everything on earth.
“First, tell me, what do you understand by the term dharma?” said Prof, as he sipped his coffee.
What is Dharma
“The apple tree never asks the beech how he shall grow, nor the lion, the horse how he shall take his prey.”
– William Blake
“Dharma is a term generally used to refer to various facets of life like religion or faith, nature, righteous action, goodness, piety, responsibility, duty, principles, morality and suchlike.”
“Partially correct. 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 the neem bitter and the mango sweet? Why are planets spherical and their orbits elliptical? Why is someone noble while another, a rascal? Science explains most of the ‘How’s of the Universe but cannot answer the ‘Why’s. Only in our ancient scriptures can we find an explanation for all the physical and metaphysical phenomenon under the sun and beyond.”
“The root of this Sanskrit word is ‘dhri,’ which means ‘to hold together, to support, to bear.’ Dharma is that which holds something together, gives it integrity. An even more accurate term which was used extensively in lieu of dharma in ancient times is ‘Rtam.’ Rtam simply means ‘Truth.’ It’s a word that appears several times in scriptures like the Rig Veda. Rtam is the answer to all the ‘why’s of life. Why is milk white in colour? Because that’s the truth of milk, it’s very character that makes milk, milk. Rtam or dharma is that eternal principle that does not change with time; it is kalaateeta, beyond time. It is also deshaateeta, beyond physical distances.”
“Meaning, for instance, that there never was and will never be a time when fire wouldn’t burn and water wouldn’t boil at 100 degrees anywhere on earth.”
“Very good! It is dharma which maintains equilibrium in the world, ensuring that there’s a place for everything and everything is in its place. It is the very principle that holds the Universe together. 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.
“To answer that, you have to know where man is coming from, to use your fancy phrase,” said Prof. cheekily. “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 or cosmic consciousness, is Ishwara. Let us examine the dharma of each of these entities first.”
The dharma of Jagat
“I love geometry because it’s the study of how the whole universe is structured.”
Prof was so used to lecturing that I felt I was back in class. “The science of the Universe is called the supreme science. The manifest Universe or creation, Jagat, is all about order, regularity, discipline and justice, as we clearly observe in nature. The entire system is expertly fine-tuned with all entities working in perfect coordination with each other which implies interconnectedness. All entities in the Universe—sentient and insentient, animate and inanimate—exist and function not only for their own survival but for the survival of the entire universe. It is a continuous exercise of give and take. This cooperation in co-existence ensures that the natural order and balance is protected, sustained and perpetuated all the time. The processes are spontaneous and unbroken, happening day and night over millennia. 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
“Love is the only reality . . . the ultimate truth that lies at the absolute heart of creation.”
“What is the dharma of Ishwara, the Creator?” I asked.
“You tell me. The Universe is scientific but also an exquisite work of art, isn’t it? Who, or what, has the infinite patience to create something so beautiful and complex, down to the minutest detail? Who can give the same attention to atoms and vast galaxies alike while creating them? Who can paint each little leaf in its own pattern, colour, design as well as galaxies?”
“God is indeed in the details!”
“Who feeds the frog that lives trapped inside a hollow rock and who prompts an ant to store up on supplies when it’s time?”
“Only an infinitely loving, just, compassionate universal intelligence which drives everything under it?”
“Right. That’s why universal consciousness or energy is referred to as a mother and worshipped as Shakti, Devi, in the Eastern and other ancient cultures. This cosmic energy, however, is called Ishwara in Vedanta. The dharma of Ishwara can only be Love, isn’t it?”
The dharma of Jiva
“The only good human being is a dead one.”
– George Orwell
“The dharma of Jiva is greed!” I exclaimed in anger and selfishness. That’s the reason we mercilessly loot and plunder, and chop down entire forests to make way for our concrete jungles where we can engage in our thoughtless, selfish, short-sighted, and insatiable pursuit of power and money.”
“Agreed. But we are also capable of sacrifice and compassion and love and selflessness, isn’t it?”
“Love for I, me, myself,” I snorted.
“Essentially true, but not as hopeless as you make it sound. Between the black and the white is a vast range of colours which makes each individual unique. Both qualities are present in everyone in different degrees and that’s why it is difficult to expect uniform behaviour from each individual of the species. Hence the constant conflict between good and evil.”
Prof explained, “Man is an evolved animal bestowed with a thinking mind (manas), intellect (buddhi), memory (chitta) and ego (ahankara). In animals, these faculties are rudimentary, but in man, they are highly pronounced. Because of this, man assumes an individual identity and feels separate from the Universe. The oneness and interconnectedness of all entities in the cosmos completely escapes him. Even if he demonstrates the feelings of love, compassion, sacrifice, selflessness, and the like, it will be within his limited circles. Thus man acts in ways that harm his fellowmen, society and the environment—and ultimately, himself.”
I sighed. “So how can we be made to fall in line with the Universe? 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
“Morality is not the doctrine of how we may make ourselves happy but how we may make ourselves worthy of happiness.”
– Immanuel Kant
“The answer is obvious. We have to learn to live a balanced life. The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”
“Mahatma Gandhi!” I replied.
Prof peered at me through his spectacles. “Not bad! So, in order to regulate man’s unbridled pursuit of his desires, the Vedas have clearly delineated certain codes of conduct, which have become a part and parcel of Indian culture over thousands of years.”
“Tell me a little more about the Vedas.”
“There are four Vedas. They 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. Sanatana Dharma recognises that material possessions and human passions have their own legitimacy when one lives a balanced life. The pursuit of liberation should go hand in hand with a life well lived in harmony with all beings on earth. The scriptures therefore, recognise four purusharthas (endeavours) or goals of human pursuit as legitimate. Two of them are the basic ones that all of us invariably engage in: kama, the pursuit of pleasure; and artha, the pursuit of wealth and worldly achievements. The foundation of these two material pursuits is another purushartha—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.”
“I took those vows with my husband on the day of my wedding. We promised each other that we will together uphold dharma while pursuing our life goals. They are a part of the Vedic rites of marriage!”
“Correct. Sanatana Dharma’s uncompromising stand is that you can find happiness for yourself only when you ensure there is happiness all around you. Sarve bhavantu sukhinah (may all beings be happy) is a peace chant that is recited at the conclusion of all auspicious occasions in our culture.”
Rituals for a noble life
“What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal.”
– Albert Pine, American author
“How do we know what is the framework of morality? Is that also detailed in the Vedas?”
“Absolutely. The Vedas are all about dharma and abound in directives specifically meant for human beings so that we may be in sync with and uphold the natural order of the Universe. The major portion of the Vedas, called the Karma Kanda, prescribe certain rituals that need to be performed by householders so that they may express their gratitude to nature and society by whom they are helped and nourished. These are called yajnas or ritualistic sacrifices. The five yajnas recommended to lead a dharmic life are Bhoota Yajna, Deva Yajna, Manushya Yajna, Pitr Yajna, and Rishi Yajna. They are called Pancha Maha Yajnas. Performing these yajnas will help man gradually lose his individual identity and feel oneness with the whole.”
“Bhoota Yajna is to feed and protect animals, birds and other helpless creatures and to care for the environment in various ways. Our ancestors made sure that these practices were inculcated in every household by making them rituals. The rangoli powder used to make pretty patterns in front of traditional Indian households used to be made of rice flour. This was food for ants and other small creatures and also kept them away from getting inside the house! Houses were constructed with small niches on the outer walls for birds to nest. These are just two examples of how love for the environment was nurtured.”
“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.”
“Don’t litter, segregate waste, reuse, recycle, go slow on consumerism and plant trees. Seriously, we need holy scriptures to tell us how to follow such simple practices? It’s a matter of common sense. We have truly become a degraded society,” I lamented. “We have given the rituals a miss in modern times but what a pity that we have lost the very spirit behind these practices!”
Prof. continued, “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, feeding and providing employment to the underprivileged, shelter to the homeless, comforting the distressed and 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).”
“Nuclear families had completely ignored this very basic, human aspect of living. Somewhere, amid the hurly-burly of modern life, we elders have gone horribly wrong in passing our value systems to the next generation.”
I thought sadly. “We were too busy adapting to the ways of the Western world, stressing more on giving ‘space’ and ‘independence’ to each other rather than fostering sharing and caring, even within the family. All we have achieved through this way of life is self-centeredness, intolerance and impatience towards elders by the youngsters, especially on the demands of their time.”
Prof. continued further, “Finally, Rishi Yajna is to study the scriptures and pass on the knowledge contained in them to others and the next generation. Studying them helps in refining the mind and intellect and internalising their eternal truths, leading to the evolution to a higher consciousness. Expansion of consciousness means that one starts identifying less with the limited individual self and more with the entire Universe. This is the only way we can pay homage to our sages who revealed cosmic truths to us by the power of their tapas (intense practice)—Acharya devo bhava (Teacher is God).”
“Love, compassion, kindness, selflessness—these eternal values are preached by all religions. There are plenty of us across the globe who do perform all these ‘yajnas’ with small as well as big acts of selflessness, yet the world suffers in physical and emotional terms, both collectively as well as individually. Why is that so?”
What is Swadharma
“The greatest heroes are those who do their duty in the daily grind of domestic affairs while the world whirls as a maddening dreidel”
– Florence Nightingale
“What is your dharma as you see it? Explain!” commanded Prof.
“Well . . . ” I began, but actually didn’t quite know where to begin! At home I was a wife, mother, daughter, daughter-in-law; outside of the home, I was a friend, neighbour, consumer; at work, I was a colleague, boss, employee; personally, I was a painter, singer, writer. “There are too many hats that I wear!” I exclaimed. “Each role of mine has its own dharma!”
“Exactly. Therein lies the conflict. So the dharma of an individual varies according to the hat one wears at any point in time. Conflict arises when one mistakes or mixes 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 the Mahabharata fame?”
“Yes. In 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 on the battlefield?”
“A soldier whose duty on the battlefield 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. Selflessness, remember? Always, always go for the higher dharma. Bhishma Pitamah too erred when he gave prominence to his swadharma of commitment to ‘protecting the throne of Hastinapura’ and went to war against the Pandavas, though dharma demanded that he shouldn’t be siding with the unprincipled Kauravas.”
“However, if it helps, 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.
“Varnas or professions were divided into four categories in the times of Lord Krishna when people traditionally followed the profession of their fore-fathers. They grew up in that atmosphere and therefore knew all the tricks of the trade. For us, the message of Varnashrama Dharma is to follow your aptitude, do what comes to you naturally, do what you are trained to do and do it with sincerity. The outcome of such an action will benefit you as well as the society. That is dharma.”
“Makes perfect sense. Imagine having reluctant, disinterested or unskilled doctors, engineers, pilots—all-round disaster!” I replied.
“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 in very few words,” said Prof and I beamed. “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, infuse energy and bring freshness and innovation in the society. That’s the only way to progress and the natural order in the cosmic yajna. That is dharma.”
“Extremely interesting,” I said, “but a little confusing. Can you please sum it up?”
“Krishna says, ‘Swadharme nidhanam shreyah . . . ’ It is best to live and die doing one’s duty without being distracted or discouraged by looking at others’ superior roles. Remember how a small squirrel was of help in building Rama’s bridge? 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 until and unless one is called upon to act beyond the call of their normal duties. For instance, during the independence struggle, millions of Indians —young and old, women and children—left their homes, offices and fields to heed the call of Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent struggle. Or when you see a victim of accident on the street, you drop the urgent meeting you are headed towards 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? It sounds so simple!”
“This is exactly what Lord Krishna asked Duryodhana at the end of the Mahabharata, and the latter had a very interesting answer.” said Prof. “When Krishna asked Duryodhana why he went on sinning the way he did, the Prince said, ‘Janami dharmam na cha me pravruttih (I know what dharma is, yet it is not in my nature to follow it); janamyadharmam na cha me nivruttih (I know what adharma is, yet I cannot get myself to desist from it); kenaapi devena hridi sthitena (O Lord of the senses, you dwell in my heart); yatha niyuktosmi tatha karomi (and I will do as you impel me to do).’
“Duryodhana did not let his good sense prevail because 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.”
What is Adharma
“Our own Self-realisation is the greatest service we can render to the world.”
– Ramana Maharshi
“Man engages in pursuing his ego-driven goals and desires, a very unconscious way to live, 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). You do know about them don’t you?” continued Prof.
“I know that they dictate our thoughts and actions. But why is it adharma to be dictated by our gunas? As Duryodhana said, 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 evolve to the higher nature all the time; to leave his animal instincts dictated by biology and seek to attain to his real nature dictated by the spirit.”
“Dictated by the spirit?”
“Man does not live by bread alone, right? His spirit, aided by the intellect which is capable of discriminating between right and wrong always prompts him to pick the right course of action. And God is so kind that he gives man that choice every moment, on every occasion. When Krishna gave Arjuna the choice of picking himself or his mighty army to side with him in the war of 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 and enriching it is adharma. To understand that the physical is a transient reality and transcend the same to abide in the ultimate reality is dharma.”
“What is the ultimate reality?”
“That you are not an individual matter but a Universal spirit. To realise your true identity is the purpose of human birth.”
“But it seems such a tall order,” I cried. “Isn’t it enough to live by the axiom ‘be good and do good’?”
“You asked earlier, ‘How can man fall in line with the Universe effortlessly?’ Well, to be good and do good takes a lot of effort, isn’t it?”
“Oh yes, it does!”
“There can never be enough good one can do for the world because we live in a world of polarities. Joy comes with sorrow; disease, with health; death follows birth. There can never be Rama Rajya forever. Ravana will always be waiting in the wings to make his entry. Good and evil co-exist, and that’s how the Universe maintains its balance. Only a person who has transcended polarity—or duality as we call it in Vedanta—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 spontaneously be as per the natural law—dharmic.”
“That’s a lot to take in right now, Prof,” I sighed. “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 (individual consciousness), to be accomplished parallelly during one’s lifetime. There are many methods to do both but make sure you find an authentic guide for your spiritual pursuits,” Prof. concluded.
The next morning, as I accompanied Prof. till the cab which was taking him to the airport to catch his flight back home, he handed a little book by Ramana Maharshi to me titled Who Am I? “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!” Overwhelmed, I touched his feet in reverence and waved goodbye. That evening, after all the chores were done, I eagerly sat down with my precious gift. The Sage of Arunachala had beckoned.
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