Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

dharma and guNa
Ranjeet Sankar

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The following is an edited transcript of a discussion on the Advaitin Egroup in March 2004.

dharma is a very complex word. The concept of dharma is verily the core of our religion. In fact, the right name for our religion is 'sanAtana dharma' which means 'Eternal Dharma'. The word 'Hinduism' has become a common word in our country now. The real fact is that words like Hinduism, Hindu etc. never appear in any of our ancient scriptures ! So to know our religion, the first step is to know what dharma means.

Loosely defined, dharma means ' that which we have to wear/follow/practice '. dharma is not something to be preached. It is something to be followed. It can be defined as the sum total of all the values which we should follow in our lives. The RRiShi in the taittirIya upaniShad (1.11.1) advises us - "satyaM vada . dharmaM cara ." (Speak the truth, practice dharma). Now if you want to practice dharma, you should first know what it means.

Q: How is it possible to know dharma ? What is the source of dharma?

A: Here, Manu shows us the way (M.Sm 2-6): "vedo.akhilo dharmamUlam" (veda-s are the source of all dharma). So veda-s become the final authority of everyone following sanAtana dharma. If dharma is just defined as the values to be followed by us, it will lead to too many ambiguities. Thereby comes the need to define the word dharma in the macroscopic and the microscopic levels.

Many AchArya-s have given a definition for the word dharma. But the definition which surpasses all of them in terms of lucidity, clarity and profoundness is given by the great shaMkarAchArya himself. He has given the definition of the word dharma in his introduction to his gItA-bhAshya.

He says,

"jagataH sthitikAraNaM prANinAM sAkshAd abhyudayaniHshreyasahetuH yaH sa
dharmo brAhmaNAdyaiH varNibhiH AshramibhiH ca shreyo.artthibhiH
anuShThIyamAnaH .. "

This is translated as follows - " dharma is that which is meant for the stability of the world and also as the direct means to both secular and spiritual welfare of living beings. That dharma which is so, is followed by brAhmaNa-s and others belonging to the other castes and stages of life, who aspire after the highest. "

This definition given by the AchArya covers both the macroscopic and microscopic levels of the word. It also covers both the secular and spiritual aspect of dharma.

Q: How can dharma be understood as 'that which is meant for the stability of the world'?

A: This can be understood in two ways. Everything in this world, sentient and insentient, has a sva-dharma. sva-dharma can be defined as the inherent property of a substance, in the absence of which the substance ceases to be that substance. For example, sva-dharma of fire is to give light and heat; that of water is to flow; that of sugar is sweetness; that of salt is salty. If any of these inherent properties is taken away from the substance, it ceases to be that substance. Will fire ever be cold? Will you ever come across salt which is sweet in taste? So the sum total of all these sva-dharma-s, which are mysteriously balanced so as to keep the world in the state of perfect equilibrium, is called dharma in the macroscopic level. This is one way of understanding the term.

There is another way of understanding the macroscopic aspect of dharma. Every being in this world is after Happiness. Every moment of our life, all our actions are for acquiring happiness, whether we know it or not. Suppose if everyone in this world start doing actions heedless of the world around them, what would become of the world? It would be total chaos. For example, think of a person who is unable to control his virility assaulting a female in broad daylight. It would be a disturbance to the total equilibrium of the system. Or look at the greedy dacoit cutting down the trees and vegetation so as to increase his wealth. It is disturbing the stability of the entire system. So there are some inherent, underlying, dominant values in each one of us which ensure that the stability of the world is taken care of. These values which ensure the stability of the world are called dharma in the macroscopic level. This is the second way of understanding.

Now that the macroscopic aspect has been examined, let us look at the microscopic level.

dharma is that which is the direct means to both the secular and spiritual welfare of living being. Many people accuse us, saying that our religion talks only of subjective and personal benefits and that the social welfare of the society as a whole is not catered to. They accuse our religion as something which only fuels the ego notion of individuals, a mystic religion parroting words like Atman, brahman etc. All these are just outright wrong notions propagated by people with dubious intentions. Our dharma is not just about retiring to the forest or renunciation. It shows us the way to acquire wealth (in the right manner), acquire name and fame (in the right manner) and obviously to attain the highest puruShArtha which is moksha. This is clearly evident in AchArya's words. In order to pin-point this, He uses the word 'abhyudaya' for secular welfare and 'nisreyasa' for spiritual welfare.

Q: How will dharma bring about the secular and spiritual welfare of living beings?

A: This will naturally happen if the individuals follow the dharma prescribed for their caste and their stage of life. The caste system (varNa vyavastha) and the stages of life (ashrAma vyavastha) as laid down in our religion is very vast. So without going into the details, I will just pen down some quick notes.

There are three main guNa-s, viz. sattva, rajas and tamas. These three guNa-s are present in every human being in varying degrees. There can be millions of combinations of these 3 guNa-s in varying degrees. However, human nature is broadly categorized into 4 major types based on these guNa-s. They form the 4 castes in our religion. They are brAhmaNa, kShatriya, vaishya and shUdra. There are various values to be followed in life by all these castes as laid down in the scriptures. These values are called dharma for the people falling under that category. For example, the dharma of a brahmaNa is to study, teach others and to preserve the Vedic culture and religion. If he adheres to these values, he will attain both secular and spiritual benefits.

There are also various stages of life prescribed in our religion, viz. brahmacharyAshrama, gRRihasthAshrama, vanaprasthAshrama and saMnyAsAshrama. The word 'Ashrama' has come about by combining the root 'shram' meaning 'tapas' (performing of religious austerities) to the letter 'A' which denotes 'complete'. So the word 'Ashrama' verily means 'complete tapas'. These stages of life provides a conducive environment for people to follow the dharma as prescribed for their respective caste system. For example, a brAhmaNa in his brahmacharyAshrama studies the scriptures and the vedic culture and religion. After that in the gRRihasthAshrama, he lives the life of a house-holder while engaged in teaching the scriptures and in other actions like 'yaj~na' prescribed for him. After that in the vanaprasthAshrama, he hands over the responsibilities to the next generation and leads a life of contemplation and reflection. Finally in the saMnyAsAshrama, he renounces everything and dedicates his life to the Truth. So by following the dharma in one's own caste and Ashrama , one will attain secular and spiritual benefits.

The entire system has collapsed in our country because the caste system is no longer formulated as per the inherent guNa-s in an individual. It is now a caste system based on the individual's birth. Even now, if an individual objectively examines his nature, he will come to know of his real dharma. The problem starts when we don't recognize our sva-dharma. When we don't recognize our sva-dharma, we start engaging in para-dharma (the duties of another caste) which will surely lead us to the pit. This is exactly what happened to Arjuna.

Arjuna was saved by the Lord himself. We should save ourselves with the help of His teachings.

Q: Since there are three guNAs, why are there four varNAs?

A: My understanding is that the varNa vyavastha came about from the guNa-s. If all individuals had only one guNa in them, then it would be logical to conclude that there can be only 3 varNa-s. But this is not so. These 3 guNa-s are found in 'varying degrees' in all individuals, be they Indian, American or British. So the ancient seers made a broader classification of the individuals based on the guNa-s present in them.

The guNa-s present in individuals fall under the various varNa-s in the order of predominance as follows:

BrAhmaNa: sattva-->rajas
kShatriya - rajas-->sattva-->tamas
vaishya - rajas-->tamas-->sattva
shUdra - tamas

Q: In the gItA, Arjuna was just confused and confounded. He didn't forsake his kShatriya dharma, did he?

A: The confusion over one's own action arises in an individual when he is not able to identify his sva-dharma. Arjuna was clearly in this jumble. dharma is further classified as mukhya-dharma (Main) and gauNa-dharma (Subsidiary).

These change based on the circumstances of the individual. Take the example of a school teacher. His mukhya-dharma and gauNa-dharma change according to the situation. Suppose his own son is a student in his class. The same person has the dharma of a teacher and that of a father. When he is in the classroom, his mukhya-dharma becomes that of a teacher and gauNa-dharma that of a father. Only then will he be able to conduct the class in an impartial manner as a teacher.

The mukha and gauNa dharma-s for him change outside the classroom. There, his mukhya-dharma become that of a father and gauNa-dharma that of a teacher. So we should be able to identify our mukhya-dharma according to the circumstances we are in.

Now take the case of Arjuna. He is basically a kShatriya whose dharma is to fight. On the other hand, he is also a student, an uncle, a brother and a friend to many in the kaurava army. These are also his dharma in their respective realms. However, in the battlefield his mukhya-dharma is that of a kShatriya and all other dharma-s take a back seat. We can see from the gItA that Arjuna clearly failed to recognize this and this made him to drop his bow and arrow. He forgot his dharma to fight as a kShatriya when confronted with attachments. He was in fact going to resort to beggary (Gita 2.5)!

Then again, isn't Arjuna's desire for the knowledge of the Self a para-dharma infringement? Being a kShatriya, why did he have to thrust his nose into the brAhmin's domain? Lord Krishna and VyAsa are also in the same boat with him having taken on hand the task of teaching Arjuna and generations to come.

It is very clear that Arjuna didn't surrender to Lord Krishna for the desire to know the Self. The fact that Arjuna was not able to comprehend both the highest and the lowest philosophy in the 2nd chapter lead to the detailed explanation by Lord Krishna which runs into 18 chapters. Arjuna would never have dreamed of having such a conversation with Lord Krishna.

Also, we should note that desire to have the knowledge of the Self is not just the Brahmin's domain. Individuals in all the varNa-s can realise the Self. The only hindrance being that shUdra-s should use the itihAsa-s (traditions) and purANa-s, instead of shruti. Moreover, we have several instances in the upaniShad-s where kShatriya-s impart the knowledge to Brahmins. If I remember correctly, in Ch. Up or in Br. Up it is said that this knowledge was known only to kShatriya-s in olden ages.

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