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What exactly is dharma? – Part 1 of 2

This is probably one of the hardest questions to answer. Not because the answer is hard to find. But because there are so many answers and so many perspectives. We may have to assimilate all of them and apply to our lives if we truly wish to transform ourselves. Let us look at them.

The most common contemporary definition of dharma is ‘duty’. The question then becomes, what is my duty? If I hate my job, should I continue doing it, because that is my duty and that I have to provide for my family? Or is it my duty to then put all my efforts into finding myself a new job? How about my duty as a son, a father, a husband, a friend, an employee?

A more nuanced definition then is, whatever you are doing right now, that is your dharma. If I am driving, my dharma is to drive with full attention on the road, and not to listen to some meditative music that might put me into a trance. Ditto for any of the myriad roles we each assume everyday.

In Sanskrit, dharma is defined as dhaarayate iti dharma. Which means, “that which stabilises, is dharma”. We see this in the world around us – when one dictator becomes all too powerful and begins to oppress those around him, there is eventually a people’s revolt that brings him down. Or when the earth is too polluted, a cascading negative impact is felt on its citizens, leading to some cathartic upheaval (like Covid19 brought down pollution for a while).

Another way of looking at dharma, is from the viewpoint of decision making. While the Mahabharata was chock-a-block with the world’s greatest warriors, none of them were able to make the right decisions, as observed by Lord Krishna himself. He says, given the circumstances, grandpa Bheeshma should have broken his vow, while Pandava leader Dharmaraja should have never gambled with dice. So it is possible, the action itself (like killing the Kauravas) may not appear dharmic, but that the decision (to kill the Kauravas in order to uphold justice) behind them is dharmic.

More definitions, and how to apply these to our lives – coming up in part 2 tomorrow!

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