Bharath being the cradle of civilizations has spun out thousands of such terms which illustrate the culture and value systems of the nation which has a long and hoary tradition. Dharma is one such word which elucidates our culture. This word is taken as an example because it has no equivalent in any other language in the world, which has around 6000 languages surviving at present. This will also exemplify the fact that the culture of our land is unique and peerless.
When Swami Vivekananda was addressing the west he used the term religion to connote Dharma. Since, the culture of those lands were bereft of that value, he had no other option but to rely on the term religion to make them understand the concepts which he was presenting before them. One often sees dharma translated as religion, duty, or even righteousness, but in fact, there is no single direct translation for dharma. Religion, duty and righteousness are not wrong; they are simply included within the idea of dharma. But we must be clear that Swami Vivekananda was NOT referring to religion as understood by us. In the Hindu parlance religion can be equated with ’pantha’.
Dharma literally means the one which upholds. The word "dharma" comes from the Sanskrit root dhri, meaning to "uphold" or to "sustain." From this perspective, the best way to think of dharma is to say, "that which upholds or sustains the positive order of things: the nation, the community, the family and ultimately even the universe." At a social level, every individual has a particular dharma according to their place in life. Children have a dharma, parents have a dharma, teachers have a dharma, the police have a dharma and everyone right from the head of a nation has a dharma. One of the dharmas of a child, for example, is to obey parents and to study. Parents have a dharma to protect and look after children: to make sure they are educated, fed, housed and trained. It is sometimes written on the sides of police cars: To Serve and to Protect. This is a statement of dharma for police. A head of state has a dharma to protect the country and to provide a secure environment for its citizens. If everyone performs their dharma: children obey parents, parents look after children, citizens uphold the laws of the land, the police enforce the law, a head of state protects the nation, then the family, the community and the nation are "upheld" and there can be prosperity. This is dharma, and it all follows from the idea of dhri, to uphold.
The word dharma is also used in a different way within Hindu philosophy that can also be understood from the root dhri. Every constituent of matter: liquids, metals, gases, fire, and so on have different dharmas. For example, the dharma of water is fluidity. The dharma of ice is coldness. The dharma of fire is heat. In other words, whatever it is that makes water as water or ice as ice, or fire as fire; what "upholds" the state of being water, ice, or fire, etc., is dharma. Knowledge of Dharma and Adharma (the opposite of dharma) is knowledge of right and wrong, proper and improper. It is universal truth and it doesn’t require any special education to comprehend these truths. It requires understanding. Understanding of our being and our fellow beings. Our culture which lays a great emphasis on moral and ethical values has these Dharmic values embedded in its every activity. That’s how these ideas occupy an important part of Hindu philosophy, even though they are subtle.
Various facets and Misconceptions.
Dharma takes various meanings and connotations according to the place and person. It is adherence to Dharma which elevates one from vikruti to prakruti. Adi Sankaracharya goes further and says that if we don’t adhere to Dharma, then we will be leading the life of an animal. He says in his sutrabashyah, “Human beings and animals have the same urges. They eat and sleep and copulate and besides the feelings of fear are common to both. What, then, is the difference between the two? It is adherence to dharma that distinguishes human beings from animals. Without Dharma to guide him man would be no better than an animal.”
“Aharanidrabhayamaithunam ca samanyametat pasubhirnaranam
Dharmo hi tesamadhiko visesah dharmena hina pasubhissamanah”
But one simple way to get a grip of this outwardly confusing concept is to know about the various facets of dharma. One must be inclined to do whatever he expects others to do to him. In the same vein, one must desist from acts, which he does not want others to do to him. This simple yet insightful value is called as Samanya dharma. We don’t want to get cheated, hurt, humiliated, robbed or deceived. Hence, our first duty towards our society is not to do these to others. Swami Dayananda Saraswati lucidly explains this, “...all that you do not want others to do to you, and others also do not want you to do to them. You do not want to be hurt, robbed, cheated, or deceived in any manner. On the contrary, you want others to be compassionate, to be giving and loving. This is Dharma. That is why we call the act of giving also as dharma. In no other culture is giving called dharma. Others call it charity. Charity is the most uncharitable word, because you assume a patronizing attitude when you give charity. We lead a symbiotic life. We need each other; we need to help each other. Therefore, giving is dharma. It’s a kind of duty. We expect people to be giving. Definitely, we can be very understanding. We can be accommodative. We can understand others’ limitations, as we need them to understand our limitations. This understanding is something very profound in day to day life……” (Living intelligently – Page 80)
While this Samanya Dharma lays the foundation for harmony in the society, there are some exceptions to it too. For example Ahimsa which is a Samanya Dharma, meant for all in the society to follow. Men engaged in the work of ensuring the safety and security of people, like Police or Security forces, cannot and should not follow this. You should not hurt is a universal value. But at the same time people are to be protected and if use of force against those who are Adharmic , is warranted, to ensure the safety of commoners , then it should be used and any hesitation in this regard will only cause greater harm to those who believe in Dharma. This action which apparently causes Himsa is the Visesha Dharma of Police and security Forces. The hurtful actions of a medical surgeon is another example of visesha dharma. It is the Motive behind the action which will qualify an act whether it is Dharma or not. Varna-asrama-dharma,and kula-dharma, together, are called visesha-dharma, which can be divided in many ways. Visesha-dharma means peculiar or particular dharma, governing certain situations, whereas samanya-dharma applies to all human beings whether a person is a student, a householder, or in any other stage of one’s life. A particular dharma is one that is governed by the structure of a society. For instance, in the Vedic society, the society envisioned by the Vedas, there was a structure called varna and another called asrama. This structure, consisting of the varnas, made it possible to assign particular jobs to particular groups of people. A broad division was thereby created, along with a concept of duty. Because I belong to this varna, this is to be done by me. This is all an integral part of karma-yoga. This structure of assigning specific duties to particular groups of people is called varna-dharma. This is a visesha-dharma.
Then, there is asrama-dharma,which provides guidelines as per the stage in one’s life. For example, a brahmana, as a student, had to follow a certain order. When he or she married, certain changes occur and additional dharma is included. As a student, one was not supposed to pursue certain activities. You could follow politics, but you should not participate in politics. If you do, you cease to be a student. You become a politician, instead. Thus, there was a structure with reference to one’s asrama. Asramadharma - what was expected of you, depending on the stage of life you were in, is also visesha-dharma.
Another example of visesha-dharma was stri-dharma or purusa-dharma, based on whether a person was male or female. There was also kula-dharma, dharma applicable to a particular family or clan. The Kuru clan, for instance, had its own dharma. If there is any conflict between the Samanya Dharma and Visesha Dharma, Visesha Dharma will override, since all these are duties meant for a harmonious social order. Wrong understanding of these Samanya Dharma and Visesha Dharma have led to serious mistakes in our history. Swami Vivekananda expounds this complex phenomenon in a rather perspicuous manner. He says,
“ .. The Bauddhas were confounded just there and brought about all sorts of mischief. Non-injury is right; "Resist not evil" is a great thing — these are indeed grand principles; but the scriptures say, "Thou art a householder; if anyone smites thee on thy cheek, and thou dost not return him an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, thou wilt verily be a sinner." Manu says, "When one has come to kill you, there is no sin in killing him, even though he be a Brahmin" (Manu, VIII. 350). This is very true, and this is a thing which should not be forgotten. Heroes only enjoy the world. Show your heroism; apply, according to circumstances, the fourfold political maxims of conciliation, bribery, sowing dissensions, and open war, to win over your adversary and enjoy the world — then you will be Dharmika (righteous)…”( East and West 8 &9)
All these will make it clear that Dharma is always intertwined with Karma, which means action or Duty. Dharma can only be established through practice and this is where the present day society’s lacunae lie. Due to the several decades of Alien rule which was followed by rulers who are plagued by the educational system introduced by the Imperialists, practice of dharma has taken a back seat. Understanding clearly that the bedrock of this nation is Dharma, the British rulers planned to do away with the system of education which introduced these concepts to the students. It was replaced by an education system which denounced our Vedic concepts and Dharmic approaches to life. The society started believing in the myths rolled out by the western academics as true. Many even got converted thinking that it is the real path for salvation. Bhagavad Gita denounces such attrition by people of their own Dharma thus,
” Svadharme nidhanam shreyah, paradharmo bhayavah.” (Ch: 3.35)
Following the path dictated by one’s own tradition/nature is always Superior to following another person’s path, even though it may well lack financial gain, fame, or approval. Working out the law of one’s own nature, even though it may lead to our demise, is superior to the folly of attempting to follow the path of another person is certain to turn out badly.”. But the rot was slowly setting in and as a result the national scene saw a vacuum. A nation of more than 300 million people were unable to rise themselves united against a few hundred English Officers.
It was at this crucial juncture Swami Vivekananda emerged on the scene. When the entire nation was reeling under complex of guilt and timidness foisted by the academia, Swami Vivekananda, a product that very same English education gave the much needed succor to the Indian psyche by firmly re establishing the role and importance of our Hindu Dharma. He had the knowledge of both Eastern and Western philosophies and hence was able to see things in proper perspective. He realized that his life’s mission was not just attaining Moksha but the liberation of the masses who are reeling under ignorance. After the 3 day Tapas at kanyakumari, he hit upon a grand plan to resurrect this nation to her past glory by re establishing Dharma as the undercurrent of all activities, personal, social and national. He urged our countrymen not to ape the west and get goaded by their materialistic pursuits. He felt that dharma, being unique, should be the soul of our nation. He says,
“…With every man, there is an idea; the external man is only the outward manifestation, the mere language of this idea within. Likewise, every nation has a corresponding national idea. This idea is working for the world and is necessary for its preservation. The day when the necessity of an idea as an element for the preservation of the world is over, that very day the receptacle of that idea, whether it be an individual or a nation, will meet destruction. The reason that we Indians are still living, in spite of so much misery, distress, poverty, and oppression from within and without is that we have a national idea, which is yet necessary for the preservation of the world…. With every man, there is an idea; the external man is only the outward manifestation, the mere language of this idea within. Likewise, every nation has a corresponding national idea. This idea is working for the world and is necessary for its preservation. The day when the necessity of an idea as an element for the preservation of the world is over, that very day the receptacle of that idea, whether it be an individual or a nation, will meet destruction. The reason that we Indians are still living, in spite of so much misery, distress, poverty, and oppression from within and without is that we have a national idea, which is yet necessary for the preservation of the world….”( East & West 3-4)
These words are refreshing and reassuring for a society drenched with the western ideals. Swami Vivekananda urges our people to believe in the system which has carried the national boat so far, instead of castigating it. He says,
“..The powerful men in every country are moving society whatever way they like, and the rest are only like a flock of sheep. Now the question is this, who are these men of power in India? — they are giants in religion. It is they who lead our society; and it is they again who change our social laws and usages when necessity demands…” ( east & west 23).
Swami Vivekananda, while asking people to follow the age old principles also cautions them about being dogmatic. Being dogmatic is another confounded position which has led to several decay in our society. He says,
“..Now, this Jati Dharma, this Svadharma, is the path of welfare of all societies in every land, the ladder to ultimate freedom. With the decay of this Jati Dharma, this Svadharma, has come the downfall of our land. But the Jati Dharma or Svadharma as commonly understood at present by the higher castes is rather a new evil, which has to be guarded against. They think they know everything of Jati Dharma, but really they know nothing of it. Regarding their own village customs as the eternal customs laid down by the Vedas, and appropriating to themselves all privileges, they are going to their doom! I am not talking of caste as determined by qualitative distinction, but of the hereditary caste system. I admit that the qualitative caste system is the primary one; but the pity is qualities yield to birth in two or three generations. Thus the vital point of our national life has been touched; otherwise, why should we sink to this degraded state? ..”( East & West)
He clears the air about the misconceptions of Jati Dharma by further saying,
“..Remember always, that there is not in the world any other country whose institutions are really better in their aims and objects than the institutions of this land. I have seen castes in almost every country in the world, but nowhere is their plan purpose so glorious as here. If caste is thus unavoidable, I would rather have a caste of purity and culture and self-sacrifice than a caste of dollars. Therefore, our solution of the caste question is not degrading those who are already high up, is not running amuck through food and drink, is not jumping out of our own limits in order to have more enjoyment, but it comes to every one of us fulfilling the dictates of our Vedantic religion, by our attaining spirituality, and by our becoming the ideal Brahmin…” The age old fallacies and misconceptions which are clogging our national vein are thus cleared by this wonderful exposition of Dharma by Swami Vivekananda. Swami Vivekananda has reiterated the role India has to play to resolve the crisis which Humanity is facing. The role is spreading Dharma, and he says that it is Viswa Dharma. If India doesn’t play her destined role the loss and suffering will for the entire Humanity. He says,
“..Shall India die? Then from the world all spirituality will be extinct; all moral perfection will be extinct; all sweet-souled sympathy for religion will be extinct; all ideality will be extinct; and in its place will reign the duality of lust and luxury as the male and female deities, with money as its priest, fraud, force and competition its ceremonies and the human soul its sacrifice. Such a thing can never be. The power of suffering is infinitely greater than the power of doing; the power of love is infinitely of greater potency than the power of hatred.”
To achieve this ideal Swami Vivekananda gives us this call,
“Lay down your comforts, your pleasures, your name, fame or positioin, nay even your lives, and make a bridge of human chains over which millions will cross this ocean of life. Bring all forces of good together. Do not care under what banner you march. Do not care what be your colour - green, blue, or red - but mix all colours up produce that initense glow of white, the colour of love. Ours is to work. The results will take care of themselves. I do not see into the future; nor do I care to see. But one vision I see clear as life before me, that the ancient Mother has awakened once more, sitting on her throne rejuvenated, more glorious than ever. Proclaim her to all the world with the voice of peace and benediction. “
Swami Vivekananda urges people to be inquisitive and at the same time earnest in their search. It’s not mere questioning but questioning to get more refined in our walk and make the society a better place to live. With a society deeply mired in corruption and moral degradation, one may be tempted to pray for an Avatar to descend and set the things on right order. But we must remember that, Lord Krishna, Swami Vivekananda and many other seers of this Holy land will work with us if we allow them to work within us.
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