Understanding and applying to your daily life five dimensions of Hinduism’s complex principle of virtue, duty, ambition and livelihood
DHARMA IS A COMPLEX AND COMPREHENSIVE term with many meanings, including religion, divine law, law of being, way of righteousness, ethics, duty, responsibility, virtue, justice, goodness and truth. In its most general sense dharma is that which sustains the orderly fulfillment of an inherent nature or destiny. It comes from the Sanskrit root dhṛ, “to sustain; carry, hold.” Thus we can say that dharma is that which sustains the cosmos, human society and each member of society. Relating to the individual soul, it is the mode of conduct most conducive to spiritual advancement, the right and righteous path. As the meaning of dharma is so broad, I find it best not to translate it into English but rather use the word dharma itself, which works since the term, like so many Sanskrit words, is gradually being absorbed into the English language.
A book traditionally studied at a young age in Tamil schools is Saint Auvaiyar’s ancient work Atti Chudi. It consists of 109 one-line verses that, while teaching the alphabet, provide guidelines on right living. The first verse is on dharma. It says: “Aram (dharma) seya virumbu,” or “Desire to fulfill dharma.” This shows the long-standing importance of dharma in Hindu education. And it sounds so simple! However, dharma has so many subtleties that many youth find it challenging to relate to the concept. In response, we explore here five aspects of the term and their application in life.
1) Right Living Begins with Ganesha: The first and core meaning of dharma is living virtuously and fulfilling duty. It includes all the noble behaviors that we know are right and good. One learns to be selfless by thinking of others first, being respectful of parents, elders and swamis, following divine law, especially ahimsa, which is mental, emotional and physical noninjury to all beings. My guru, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, taught that the worship of Lord Ganesha puts one naturally on the path of virtuous living. “Ganesha sits on the psychic lotus of the muladhara chakra, the ganglia of nerves at the base of the spine within everyone. This chakra governs time, matter and memory. As the spiritual aspirant is lifted up from fear and confusion into conscious awareness of right thought, right speech and right action, the muladhara chakra becomes activated….But the seeker loses one thing. He loses his free, instinctive willfulness. It is lost forever. Yet it is not a great loss. Man’s own personal willfulness, his animalistic free will, is a feeble and insignificant force when compared to Lord Ganesha’s divine will. When beholden to God Ganesha and inwardly awakened enough to be attuned to His will, it is then quite natural that the instinctive will bows down. Personal likes and dislikes vanish. Limited faculties of reason and analysis are overpowered and subdued by a greater will, a cosmic will, the will of dharma.”
2) Two Paths, Two Dharmas: Recently I gave a presentation at a weekend retreat of the Hindu Students’ Association. One of many written questions submitted to me in advance showed a common misunderstanding. “We talk about detachment from maya, but for most of us our career and living is centered around worldly subjects and concerns. How can we reconcile this fact with our larger desire to separate from the material world?” In their pursuit of dharma, these youth were struggling with the Upanishadic concept of self-abnegation, thinking that it applies to all Hindus, thinking they should be more detached from worldliness. I pointed out that it is vital to understand that in Hinduism there are two distinct paths: that of the householder, called grihastha dharma, and that of the renunciate, sannyasa dharma. Self-abnegation and detachment from maya belong to the renunciate path, not the householder path. This distinction of two paths is our second aspect of dharma.
To quickly cognize the differences between the two, take a look at the ancient ethical masterpiece Tirukural by Tiruvalluvar. In Part One, entitled “Virtue” or “Dharma” (aram), Section Two is “The Way of the Householder,” and Section Three is “The Way of the Renunciate.” Scanning the chapter titles immediately reveals the deep distinctions. Chapters in the householder section include: Wife, Children, Love, Hospitality, Gratitude, Possession of Self-Control and Avoidance of Covetousness. The final three chapters focus on giving to others so generously as to achieve renown in the community. Chapters in the renunciate life section include Austerity, The Impermanence of All Things, Renunciation, Knowledge of Truth and Eradication of Desire. Without even reading the actual verses, it is clear that detaching from the materialistic world is a goal for those on the renunciate path but not those on the householder path.
For Hindu monks, the Tirukural stresses renunciation of wealth. For the householder, becoming wealthy is encouraged—with the goal of generously sharing one’s abundance with others. A contemporary example of the latter is a person Hindu youth and young adults readily relate to—Mark Zuckerberg, cofounder and CEO of Facebook. Mark celebrated the birth of his daughter in December, 2015, by pledging to give away 99 percent of his Facebook shares. Money from the shares, currently valued at US$45 billion, will go to projects and charities that advance human potential and promote equality.
3) Which Stage of Life? Our third aspect of dharma is ashrama dharma—the natural expression and maturing of the body, mind and emotions through four progressive stages. This idea was developed millennia ago and detailed in scriptures known as Dharma Shastras to highlight the fact that our dharma, or duty, changes and evolves as we mature from youth, to adulthood, senior years and old age. My guru considered that in modern times each ashrama is a 24-year period, applying equally to men and women, as follows:
4) Four Positive Goals: Our fourth key to dharma is to understand it as one of the four goals of life. The Sanskrit term is purushartha, which literally means “human wealth.” These are four pursuits in which people may legitimately engage. Also called chaturvarga, “fourfold good,” they form a cornerstone of Hindu ethics: 1) dharma, or duty and piety; 2) artha, wealth; 3) kama, love and enjoyment; and 4) moksha, enlightenment and liberation from rebirth. It is vital to note that while dharma is a goal in its own right, it is also the guiding principle of the other three goals, as it defines the proper way to pursue wealth, pleasure and moksha. Do we acquire wealth in a virtuous and honest way? Are spouses faithful to one another? Dharma—virtue and piety—is the steady guide for artha and kama, and ultimately leading the soul to moksha.
5) Your Occupation: A fifth aspect of dharma relates to one’s profession. In Sanskrit it is called varna dharma. As we read in Dancing with Siva: “Varna dharma defines the individual’s obligations and responsibilities within the nation, society, community, class, occupational subgroup and family.” In some professions the principles, or dharma, that guide it are defined in formal declarations. For example, Western medical doctors take the Hippocractic Oath, which includes this promise: “I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures which are required, avoiding those twin traps of over-treatment and therapeutic nihilism.” Lawyers take an oath, one version of which states, “I will employ, for the purpose of maintaining the causes confided to me, such means only as are consistent with truth and honor…” Other professions, such as certified public accountants, have a written code that members are expected to follow. The hundreds of occupations without formal oaths or codes have traditional expectations which constitute an informal understanding of their dharmic ideas. The idea is that when individuals fulfill their respective varna dharma, the whole of society functions smoothly. Pondering this fifth dimension of dharma keeps us reminded of the ethics, goals and guidelines of our occupation.
By meditating on and understanding these five aspects of dharma, youth and adults can unfold a much better sense of dharma’s place in their life and thus strive in an informed way to fulfill the first verse of Atti Chudi: “Desire to fulfill dharma.”