I was going to do a piece with the Yoga Sutras, but after some events that have dotted my life I thought a good piece describing dharma would be better. Mainly I wanted to explore the different aspects of dharma, and see if there was a conclusion that would match not only the views of dharma of the old ways but also mesh the modern life style.
To start the word dharma has many different meanings, thus is the subject of many different discussions. According to the driest definition, dictionary.com, dharma is:
–noun Hinduism, Buddhism .
2. Conformity to religious law, custom, duty, or one’s own quality or character.
5. Law, especially religious law.
6. The doctrine or teaching of the Buddha.
It is also defined as one’s ‘job’ in life. In the Bhagavad Gita dharma is something that one must live and accomplish, also it is usually something that one is passionate about but that is very difficult for them. Further Krishna says that one can work out their karma better by living there dharma, but if one gives up their dharma and lives a life devoted to the Higher Power—they must go and live in a monastery or something of the like—then their karma is worked out faster; and is not harmed.
Two particular events lead me to ponder the question of dharma. The first one being that I am reading the Ramayana right now. It is the story of the incarnation of Vishnu, Rama, and his quest to find and recover his wife Sita. The story is an illustration of dharma, showing examples in both plain words as well as in events that take place. At one point of the story Rama has met Hanuma—the monkey God of devotion—, and his master, Sugriva. Sugriva has asked Rama to kill his brother Vali; on the premise that Vali has committed crimes against him; including chasing him into exile. The plan between the three of them was that Surgiva would go to the gates of the city and call out a challenge to his brother to fight. Rama would hide in the bushes; he would then shoot Vali with an arrow when Sugriva tired from fighting.
All went according to plan, and upon the dieing breath of Vali, Rama went up and spoke to him. Vali tried to tell Rama he would be cursed,
“You are the worse kind of sinner: the one who pretends to be dharma itself. You are a dark well covered with green grass; treacherous prince, no one knows what you really are until it is too late. I have done you no wrong. Did I come to your kingdom and insult you? Sugriva and I are not even of your human kind. We are vanaras, monkeys of the jungle, living here and took it upon yourself to string your bow with my death and strike me with it from hiding. Why Rama?”
Vali goes on about the wrongs that Rama has committed; including that he struck down someone with whom he had no quarrel with, he was fighting another’s battle, finally that he hid in the bushes and did not fight him in a fare fight. Yes were all characters of bad dharma, Rama knew this. But then Rama answered:
“I fear you don’t understand everything about dharma. Lakshmana [Rama’s brother] and I belong to the House of the Sun. It is our dharma in the name of the king, my brother Bharata in Ayodhya, to punish those that sin. We are kshatriyas of the earth: the solemn power to judge is vested in us.
“You speak of Dharma. But you don’t seem to know that by dharma a man has three fathers in the world: his own father, his guru, and his older brother. In this world, an older brother should treat his younger brother like a son. Sugriva was a loving and obedient brother to you. But you drove him from your kingdom; worse still, you took his wife Ruma for yourself.”
In this long story, Rama brings up a point that always seems to catch me, the idea that to live a virtuous life one must follow the wishes of their parents.
The second event in my life which brought me to ponder this happened at an off chance gathering of people I did not know. While there I found myself caught between two different groups of people, separated by age. One group, and the one I originally knew, was between 30-35, good people who now knew where they wanted to go in life and were working on ways to get them further than where they were. The second group was between 19-21; they are on the verge of finishing college, trying to find every excuse to postpone their entry into the ‘big scary world’. One of the younger crowd who had just turned 21, looked at me—drunk—and began telling me how hard he felt it was to live up to the expectations of his family. While he relayed his story to me, I immediately gave the answer I gave to myself when in this same thought process. “DO IT! Follow your heart! Don’t live for anyone else, only for yourself! At the end of the day you are the one who has to look in the mirror and be okay with the person staring back!” Granted, and I admitted this to him, it was the free-love, free-spirit, hippy answer; still I felt that it was more true to him than was the path he was on. He was following what he was told to do by his father, and according to Rama, following his dharma; and it made him miserable.
Soon after this conversation, I left and went home. I made the car ride silent and pondered the advice I had given to this person. The thoughts that filled my head were different parts of the Ramayana as well as different parts of the Bhagavad Gita. The question of dharma began to fill my mind and I wondered if I served my student of the moment correctly. In the Ramayana the mere thought of defying his father was a heartbreak and unthinkable to Rama. In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna often says that one’s dharma is the harder path to follow, not the easy one. In both a person’s identity was still held in their lineage, and by their parents. Yet it is often the case that there are more and more stories like this one, people dissatisfied with their lives, following the path of their father’s wanting, often breaking down midway threw life. So then which is the right path, that of the family, or that of the heart?
This begins the discussion on dharma. Is it then alright to say to someone who is looking at you in pain at following their father’s wishes to tell them that they should give up that path and follow their own heart? Or is it better to tell them to walk down the path set before them by their father? Further when is it the family that interferes with the dharma of the child? Where is it that the dharma of the old world crosses with that of the new?