Dharma & a-Dharma, Cosmic Law
The word Dharma comes from the Sanskrit dhri which means “to hold, to support or bear”. In Induism this is the cosmic law, which “supports or holds” social order and rightful behaviour. In buddhism it is the nature of reality as the universal truth taught by Buddha.
The word has many meanings but “sacred duty” or highest purpose is a very useful translation for the individual. The scholar Eknath Easwaran defines dharma as “the essential order of things, an integrity and harmony in the Universe and the affairs of life that cannot be disturbed without courting chaos. Thus it means rightness, justice, goodness, purpose
rather than chance. Chaos used here means disorder, disarray.
In greek mythology, Chaos, a divinity, emerges from nothingness. He does not have a body or a personality; he is just a black hole within which nothing has an identity. In this absolute darkness, only total disorder may be found and if one happened to walk into it, one would fall indefinitely.
However, out of this chaos appears Gaïa, which means Earth in Greek. Gaïa is the first element that allows animals and plants to develop, rivers to flow and human beings to walk on its surface. Earth is the first piece of nature. It is solid and able to support us. It is the original matrix from which all beings develop.
In order to sustain this life, a second divinity emerges from Chaos and this is Eros. Eros at that point is not the angel-like god that get humans and gods to fall in love with each other. It is in fact a powerful source of energy that gets beings and creatures to manifest themselves. These are the three primordial entities from which the universe is progressively getting organised. Gaïa generates from herself other divine creatures; amongst them Ouranos, the starry sky and Pontos, the sea water.
Finally a fourth divinity called Tartarus appears in the depth of Gaïa. He reigns over a dark, terrifying realm far into the depth of the earth and hold part of the cosmos. He is associated with hell and death.
In the Yoga symbolism, derived from Induism, there is also this idea of a divinity with 3 aspects: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Siva the destructor, who also allows changes. They are supported by Shakti (the equivalent of the greek Eros), this powerful source of energy who sustains Pranā or life force. Representations of Shakti are generally goddesses. All of them originate from the equivalent of chaos, which holds a non-manifested universe. This is Brahman. Brahman is divine and so is the greek Chaos. Their divinity is expressed through a divine intelligence or supreme consciousness, which allows the creation of an harmonious universe. Brahman is One and manifests itself in the multiplicity of its creation. As such, everything is Brahman, everything is sacred. This sacred component is Atman, our individual souls.
- Finding our dharma
The concept of Dharma versus a-dharma is better illustrated through the “Baghavad Gita”. The Baghavad Gita is part of the Mahabharata and contains 18.000verses. It is a conversation between Arjuna, who is a skilful warrior and Krishna, the Lord, who takes the face of Arjuna’s charioteer. This conversation takes place on a battlefield in Northern India. This war is between two parts of the same family, the Pandavas, who are the rightful rulers, and the Kauravas, who have usurped the power from the Pandavas. The purpose of the battle is to restore rightfulness.
Krishna reminds Arjuna that as a warrior prince and soldier, his dharma is to fight for justice and protect the Kingdom. Arjuna’s heart is torn. Should he go into battle against his own family, his cousins and uncle? However, his place in the Universe is dependent upon his ability to carry out this duty. Krishna goes on to state that everyone will die or be born but to relinquish your sacred duty is a fate worse than death for the honourable man. Lord Krishna concludes this brief reference to dharma as one’s personal duty by saying, “Now if you do not execute this battle, then having given up your personal dharma and reputation, you shall incur sin.” (Bg. 2.33)
We can apply this concept of individual purpose or sacred duty to our own lives. We all have a need to find our reason for being alive. The question we may ask ourselves is: “What is our individual dharma?” Are you living your own dharma or following someone else’s path? Krishna has some advice for us:
“It is better to strive in one’s own dharma than to succeed in the dharma of another. Nothing is ever lost in following one’s own dharma. But competition in another’s dharma breeds fear and insecurity.”
Dharma is the path to righteousness and harmony. Ultimately it is the path we need to follow to protect ourselves from harm. In contrast a-dharma is the path to unrighteousness and confusion. We might know the difference between right and wrong; but it is sometimes easier, quicker and more pleasurable to do something we know is wrong, rather than acting rightfully, which often implies delayed gratification, if any. This is the battle between head/intellect and heart/emotions. Emotions make us human and loving; we are not robots. However, the power of emotions (pleasure, anger, greed) tends to throw intellectual discernment out of the window. We cannot ignore our emotional needs; but the expression “follow your heart” might be flawed: we cannot be guided only by our emotions.
In the BG, Krishna is Arjuna’s charioteer and represents the intellect. The chariot itself is the physical body and the wheels, the arms and the legs. The horses are the emotions and the road, the path through life. Our destination is the choice of roads we make. The owner is Atman, our true Self, our soul and is there to enjoy the ride.
Now if the horses are thirsty, the duty of the charioteer is to lead them to water. If the horses are tired, he should let them rest. If the charioteer keeps driving his horses with a whip and never le them drink, he will make them sick and unwilling. However, imagine that the horses see a pond of water, just on the other side of a ravine. The horses want to get to it and forget the ravine. The duty of the charioteer/the intellect is then to use his skills to pull the horses/the emotions back and keep us on the path of dharma, away from disaster and possibly death. But if the charioteer/the intellect is too weak and the horses/emotions too powerful, then mistakes are made. A-dharma prevails, and mistakes have consequences.
Three concepts emerge from these stories:
1. Life cannot be sustain in chaos
2. Out of chaos/Brahman, the supreme consciousness or intelligence, comes harmony and this harmony is manifested in the creation: in the cosmos; but primarily for us, on earth. We call it the “natural” world. In nature, survival relies on a fine equilibrium; all species, plants are interconnected and depend on each other.
3. Human beings have developed an incredible power over nature. This is where the concept of Dharma versus a-dharma is essential to preserve harmony and avoid going back into chaos.
Dharma is a response to the urgent need of the moment. Each of us feels some aspect of the suffering linked to the present pandemic acutely: the illness itself, unemployment, poverty, depression, a feeling of claustrophobia, isolation. It tears at our hearts. Others do not seem to see it or do not care. They do not seem to see the human misery behind the statistics. Their only concern is how much less they might get in their already full pockets. But, on the whole, we feel it. And we must pay attention in the hope that mistakes with dire consequences will not be made.
As an historian I know that destruction is always followed by recovery. However, we must act. Someone (one of these countless videos I have received in the past 3 weeks) compared our present duty (dharma) to the one of a gardener: planting the seeds for a better future. Our outer garden, the earth, is like this little corner of the universe which is ours to transform, which is ours to save. We might not be able to travel physically, but we may make many interesting discoveries on our present journey. There are already a lot of observations on how much less pollution there is in the world, now that cars, planes, ferries have become pointless for most people. Some countries have opened more streets and roads and banned cars, so pedestrians and cyclists can use them safely and keep their 2 metres distance. There was a call recently for opening private schools grounds, so people living in flats could enjoy a bit of exercise and open air. Now that we are under “house arrest” we might also observe changes in the way we relate to ourselves and to others. In yoga we often say: “live in the present moment”. Sometimes the “present moment” only translates into mindless, speedy living. Now is the time to repeat after Voltaire “cultivez votre jardin,” the earth and its inhabitants. Look after both your gardens, the inner garden and the outer garden. Both are equally important, and tightly interconnected.
Luc Ferry: La sagesse des mythes
Dr. Sanj Katyal (positive medicine): Dharma and the Meaning of Life: Lessons from the Bhagavad Gita
www.yogalite.co.uk, Dharma and a-dharma
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