Living according to Dharma

This past weekend I attended a wonderfully inspiring workshop on the Bhagavad Gita, one of the central source texts of yoga. Its compelling story sets the stage for timeless spiritual guidance on how to fulfil one’s highest life purpose as well as how to determine the right choice to make in tricky circumstances. This is known as dharma, and it’s so fundamental it is the very first word in the text.

Dharma has numerous meanings, depending on context and spiritual tradition. One of dharma’s primary meanings is universal law, or the right way of living, which is how it’s used in the Gita. This is known specifically as samanya dharma: the natural laws that apply to everyone. A perfect example of samanya dharma is the Golden Rule, which is the common thread linking all religions: do to others as you would have them do to you, or treat others as you would like to be treated. Simple, non?

These laws continue to apply whether we transgress them in secret or publicly, and regardless of our justifications and behaviour. We know we have acted against samanya dharma when we feel bad about our actions. This is so fundamentally established in human nature that even small children understand, as they instinctively recoil and even hide from the harm they caused.

Dharma is linked to human ethics and virtues that are valued everywhere, such as the avoidance of harming, and which cause suffering when transgressed.  Although empirical laws such as the law of gravity might apply to us on a day-to-day level, the laws of dharma apply at the highest levels, often in invisible ways, and are inextricably linked to the laws of karma.

Karma, simply put, is the result of our actions, which are a consequence of our choices, and has nothing to do with retribution or reward. Karma yoga is the yoga of right action according to circumstance, without expectation of reward or recognition for our acts.

One contemporary definition of dharma is “to act as if holding the world together”. This is not to make us feel guilty if things fall apart, rather it’s a way of remembering that all of our actions matter at some level, because we are inescapably connected to all of life.

Dharma also describes our duties in life. Each individual has a particular dharma, which is is known as svadharma, or my personal duty. We each have a role to play in life, as a piece of a great, invisible cosmic puzzle.

This might include being a parent, or a healer, or a soldier. There are many svadharmas over the course of our lives – as a student our duty is to study, as a parent our duty is to raise our children, as a soldier our duty is to fight when necessary. These things don’t generally last throughout life, and some are only fleeting while others can last for decades.

Some people appear to be more important from a worldly point of view, and our society reinforces this in odd ways. Is a leader more important than a farmer? When we look closely, we can see that each one has an invaluable place in society in the greater scheme of things.

Better is one’s own imperfectly performed dharma that the well-performed dharma of another. Death in one’s own dharma is better. The dharma of another is fraught with fear.

~ Bhagavad Gita, Chapter III, 35.

We should strive to do our best in whatever we do, even if we feel it isn’t significant or inspiring, because we continue to grow along with our world through the small, unseen, everyday gestures of life.

Living in accordance with dharma is a form of right living, and to successfully align with what we want in life we must align with the laws of dharma. There is no standard answer to what is the right thing to do according to svadharma, because each situation is unique. Sometimes killing is justified to avoid further harm, and sometimes turning away is the best solution. But when you remain aware of the higher dharmic principles, you will know how to arrive at the best response to each challenge.

Today’s Capricorn Full Moon is conjunct powerful Saturn, the Lord of Dharma. This is a good time to reflect on the nature of your individual dharma, and how it fits into the greater scheme of things at this moment in our evolution.

We need each other to step up to our unique roles as if holding the world together.

With love and light as always,