Dharma or Religion? : Part IV

Having understood the Indian outlook on Religion and the fundamental characteristics of Indian religio-spiritual culture, let us now explore an important question – does the word “religion” as understood in the most ordinary sense of organised religion really make sense in the Indian cultural context, or should we invoke the uniquely Indian word “dharma” to speak of the spiritual nature of Indian culture? Let us understand what is dharma.

Dharma is often mistranslated as religion. But dharma is not same as religion, unless we really understand the word religion in the sense as described in earlier parts of this series – that is, as per the Indian integral outlook on life and human development. This is important to understand because much of the socio-political-cultural conflicts that we see in present-day India arise from this wrong understanding and false interpretation.

If the Infinite or seeking for the Infinite is the major chord of the Indian culture, the idea of the dharma, says Sri Aurobindo, is only second to it. Dharma essentially is the foundation of life, says Sri Aurobindo, only next to the spirit.

Dharma, as Sri Aurobindo summarises perfectly, is that which we hold to and also that which holds together our inner and outer activities. (The word Dharma is derived from the root ‘dhr’ which means ‘to hold’.) Let us read a bit more how Sri Aurobindo explains dharma:

In its primary sense it [dharma] means a fundamental law of our nature which secretly conditions all our activities, and in this sense each being, type, species, individual, group has its own dharma. Secondly, there is the divine nature which has to develop and manifest in us, and in this sense dharma is the law of the inner workings by which that grows in our being. Thirdly, there is the law by which we govern our outgoing thought and action and our relations with each other so as to help best both our own growth and that of the human race towards the divine ideal….
Dharma is generally spoken of as something eternal and unchanging, and so it is in the fundamental principle, in the ideal, but in its forms it is continually changing and evolving, because man does not already possess the ideal or live in it, but aspires more or less perfectly towards it, is growing towards its knowledge and practice. And in this growth Dharma is all that helps us to grow into the divine purity, largeness, light, freedom, power, strength, joy, love, good, unity, beauty, and against it stands its shadow and denial, all that resists its growth and has not undergone its law, all that has not yielded up and does not will to yield up its secret of divine values, but presents a front of perversion and contradiction, of impurity, narrowness, bondage, darkness, weakness, vileness, discord and suffering and division, and the hideous and the crude, all that man has to leave behind in his progress. This is the adharma, not-dharma, which strives with and seeks to overcome the dharma, to draw backward and downward, the reactionary force which makes for evil, ignorance and darkness.” (CWSA, Vol. 19, p. 171173)

Dharma, a Seeking for Right Living

The ancient Indian seers and sages knew very well about the infinitely diverse and complex human nature which comes into play as human beings pursue the different goals of life through different stages or phases of life. So, they came up with the ideal of dharma which would sustain and hold together all this diversity and complexity. The concept of dharma covered basically all natures, all aspects of life, all situations and stages of life, and even allowed for maximum freedom, continuity and greatest possibility of contextualization, adaptation and adjustment.

We find that there is an individual dharma (it varies from role to role – dharma of a son/daughter, wife/husband, mother/father, etc.), group-dharma (dharma of an organization like a guild of craftsmen or a regiment of soldiers or a gurukulam/educational institution or a guru’s ashram, etc.) the kula-dharma (dharma of an extended family lineage), jati-dharma (dharma of a collective of lineages), yuga dharma (dharma appropriate for a yuga or time – which means dharma changes from time to time — what is appropriate today may not be relevant tomorrow), dharma of a king, a leader, dharma of a soldier, an educator, a craftsman, a student, etc. Then we also find dharma varying for different communities, dharma depending upon the stage of life one is going through (dharma of a householder is different from dharma of a social recluse/ascetic or from dharma of a student).

The society was meant to be organized around this ideal of Dharma. The idea was that if people truly acted and lived according to the truth of their dharma they would be able to live harmoniously with others and eventually work towards their own self-fulfillment in life which eventually takes them closer and closer to discovering their true nature – swabhava and discovering their swadharma – the deeper purpose of their life (discovering and living in one’s true self/soul). This gradual progress in one’s life and living by the dharma appropriate to age, station, and place in life and society, helped one grow inwardly and spiritually.

The idea of dharma and the important way in which it is different from the more rigid and mechanical “Law” or imposed by an external authority are deeply ingrained in Indian cultural psyche. Of course, there has also been misapplication of this ideal. Dharma has been used as a way to ensure stability and continuity of the society and at the same time in some cases dharma has also been responsible for stagnation of the society by restricting individual freedom and free expression and by pushing people ‘back in their place’ if they tried to transcend their so-called dharma.

In the Indian view not only every individual but every human activity, even something grossly physical as sex, has its own dharma, its right and natural way of fulfilment according to the truth and law of Nature in that activity. When the activity is performed in a disciplined way according to the canons of its unique dharma then it leads to right enjoyment, success and evolutionary progress for the individual.

To discover the dharma of each activity, and to evolve a system of values, and the art and science for regulating each human activity according to its dharma is one of the major aims of culture. Indian culture insists that even while building a sound socioeconomic and political system to fulfil the artha-kāma needs of the community, the ideals and values of dharma and the cultural life of the community must not be neglected but have to be actively encouraged and promoted so that they cast a refining and restraining influence on the socio-economic life of the community.

In the Indian scheme of purusharthas, the word dharma is generally used in the sense of “duty” or, to be more specific, fulfilment of the social responsibility of the individual through an occupation, which is in consonance with his/her swadharma, true purpose. But the word can be interpreted in a broader sense to include the mental, moral and cultural development of the individual and collective. To put it succinctly, dharma is all that lifts man beyond the essentially animal impulses of his physical and vital being towards his true manhood.

Since man in the present status of his evolution is essentially a mental being, his first major accomplishment must be to fulfil his mental dharma which means to develop fully all the powers, faculties and potentialities of his mind – intellectual, moral and aesthetic – and impose a harmonised control of the higher mental will over his lower physical and vital impulses. This is the true meaning and ideal of culture – to realise our highest Manhood. This is the ideal of dharma in the Indian scheme of the fourfold purusharthas; fulfilment of social responsibility and the realisation of a cultured humanity is the dual aspect of this purushartha.

Once the artha-kāma needs of the community are reasonably assured through a sound socio-economic and political organisation, the governing organ of the community must turn its attention, creative energies and resources more and more to the cultural development of the community.

Dharma in the Bhagavad Gita

Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita asks Arjuna to follow his Kshatriya Dharma and later on he also tells him to abandon all dharmas and go into Lord’s refuge. It is a concept difficult to describe. But Sri Aurobindo has surely given a very comprehensive description of it, as we see in the following excerpts from his work, Essays on the Gita:

1. “Dharma is a word which has an ethical and practical, a natural and philosophical and a religious and spiritual significance, and it may be used in any of these senses exclusive of the others, in a purely ethical, a purely philosophical or a purely religious sense. Ethically it means the law of righteousness, the moral rule of conduct, or in a still more outward and practical significance social and political justice, or even simply the observation of the social law.” (CWSA, Vol. 19, p. 169)

2. “Man is not like the tiger or the fire or the storm; he cannot kill and say as a sufficient justification, “I am acting according to my nature”, and he cannot do it, because he has not the nature and not, therefore, the law of action, svadharma, of the tiger, storm or fire. He has a conscious intelligent will, a buddhi, and to that he must refer his actions. If he does not do so, if he acts blindly according to his impulses and passions, then the law of his being is not rightly worked out, …, he has not acted according to the full measure of his humanity, but even as might the animal.” (p. 221)

3. “Dharma in the spiritual sense is not morality or ethics. Dharma, says the Gita elsewhere, is action governed by the swabhava, the essential law of one’s nature. And this swabhava is at its core the pure quality of the spirit in its inherent power of conscious will and in its characteristic force of action. The desire meant here is therefore the purposeful will of the Divine in us searching for and discovering not the pleasure of the lower Prakriti (Nature), but the Ananda of its own play and selffulfilling; it is the desire of the divine Delight of existence unrolling its own conscious force of action in accordance with the law of the swabhava.” (p. 275)

4. “Dharma in the language of the Gita means the innate law of the being and its works and an action proceeding from and determined by the inner nature, svabhavaniyatam karma. In the lower ignorant consciousness of mind, life and body there are many dharmas, many rules, many standards and laws because there are many varying determinations and types of the mental, vital and physical nature. The immortal Dharma is one; it is that of the highest spiritual divine consciousness and its powers, para prakrtih. It is beyond the three gunas (tamas, rajas, sattwa), and to reach it all these lower dharmas have to be abandoned, sarva-dharman parityajya. Alone in their place the one liberating unifying consciousness and power of the Eternal has to become the infinite source of our action, its mould, determinant and exemplar.” (pp. 405-406)

Once we begin to intellectually grasp the multi-layered meanings of this concept of dharma, we begin to recognize that the English word ‘religion’ does not do justice to any of these meanings.

The word ‘religion’ is perhaps not suitable at all when we speak of the Indian spiritual culture and traditions. Dharma, as we have seen above, is a uniquely Indian idea
which can’t be merely translated as duty, religion, code of conduct, ethical rule, moral law, or other such English language words. It is none of these and yet may have something of these. It transcends all these limiting and limited terms and yet includes some things from each of these. It is individual and universal at the same time. It is fixed and evolving at the same time, it is eternal and yet gradually progressive. It is of a person, and cosmic at the same time. It is an inner guide, which must be discovered individually, and yet must be a part of the larger dharma of the group, the nation, humanity to which one belongs.

It may, therefore, be more accurate to say that the essence of Indian social-cultural ideal is to strive toward being a dharmic society, not a religious society

To Be Continued..

Beloo Mehra is a student of Sri Aurobindo and writes on topics related to education, culture and society. Many years of experience in the field of education and research led her to the discovery that the central thing is to constantly un school oneself and become a freer and truer learner. She enjoys playing several roles Life offers a woman – with a hope to learn from all that happens and doesn’t happen, and with a wish to gradually become free of those roles because only then the possibility of the birth of true actor (or the non-actor) within exists

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