What is Dharma?
What is Dharma?
sa vai pumsam paro dharmo
yato bhaktir adhokshaje
The supreme occupation [dharma] for all humanity is that by which men can attain to loving devotional service unto the transcendent Lord. Such devotional service must be unmotivated and uninterrupted to completely satisfy the self.
In this statement, Sri Suta Gosvami answers the first question of the sages of Naimisharanya. The sages asked him to summarize the whole range of revealed scriptures and present the most essential part so that fallen people, or the people in general, might easily take it up. The Vedas prescribe two different types of occupation for the human being. One is called the pravritti-marga, or the path of sense enjoyment, and the other is called the nivritti-marga, or the path of renunciation. The path of enjoyment is inferior, and the path of sacrifice for the supreme cause is superior.
The material existence of the living being is a diseased condition of actual life. Actual life is spiritual existence, or brahma-bhuta [Bhag. 4.30.20] existence, where life is eternal, blissful, and full of knowledge. Material existence is temporary, illusory, and full of miseries. There is no happiness at all. There is just the futile attempt to get rid of the miseries, and temporary cessation of misery is falsely called happiness. Therefore, the path of progressive material enjoyment, which is temporary, miserable, and illusory, is inferior. But devotional service to the Supreme Lord, which leads one to eternal, blissful, and all-cognizant life, is called the superior quality of occupation. This is sometimes polluted when mixed with the inferior quality. For example, adoption of devotional service for material gain is certainly an obstruction to the progressive path of renunciation. Renunciation, or abnegation for ultimate good, is certainly a better occupation than enjoyment in the diseased condition of life. Such enjoyment only aggravates the symptoms of disease and increases its duration. Therefore devotional service to the Lord must be pure in quality, i.e., without the least desire for material enjoyment. One should therefore accept the superior quality of occupation in the form of the devotional service of the Lord without any tinge of unnecessary desire, fruitive action, or philosophical speculation. This alone can lead one to perpetual solace in His service.
We have purposely denoted dharma as “occupation” because the root meaning of the word dharma is “that which sustains one’s existence.” A living being’s sustenance of existence is to coordinate his activities with his eternal relationship with the Supreme Lord, Krishna. Krishna is the central pivot of living beings, and He is the all-attractive living entity or eternal form amongst all other living beings or eternal forms. Each and every living being has his eternal form in the spiritual existence, and Krishna is the eternal attraction for all of them. Krishna is the complete whole, and everything else is His part and parcel. The relationship is one of the servant and the served. It is transcendental and is completely distinct from our experience in material existence. This relationship of servant and the served is the most congenial form of intimacy. One can realize it as devotional service progresses. Everyone should engage himself in that transcendental loving service of the Lord, even in the present conditioned state of material existence. That will gradually give one the clue to actual life and please him to complete satisfaction.
We are all hankering for complete self-satisfaction, or atma-suprasada, but first we must know what the real self is. The word atma, or “self,” refers to the body, the mind, and the soul. Actually, we are the spirit soul covered by two kinds of “garments.” Just as a gentleman is covered by his shirt and coat, so I, the soul, am covered by a gross body consisting of the physical senses and a subtle body consisting of mind, intelligence, and false ego. A person covered by false ego identifies with his body. When asked who he is, he will answer, “I am an American,” or “I am an Indian,” etc. But these are bodily designations; they are not his real identity.
The Vedic literature teaches that one begins to understand his real identity when he thinks, aham brahmasmi: “I am Brahman, or spirit soul.” Therefore the Vedanta-sutra says, athato brahma jijnasa: “Now one should inquire about spirit.” The human form of life is meant for advancing in knowledge of spirit, and this knowledge is the beginning of real happiness.
Everyone is hankering for happiness because by nature we are happy: anandamayo ’bhyasat (Vedanta-sutra 1.1.12). As spirit souls we are naturally happy, blissful. But we are suffering because we have been covered by five gross material elements—earth, water, fire, air, and ether—and three subtle material elements—mind, intelligence, and false ego. Materialists, identifying themselves with these coverings, seek satisfaction through these gross and subtle elements of the body. In other words, they simply seek sense gratification, the happiness of the body. In the material world everyone is working hard only for this happiness. Some people try to be happy by gratifying the physical senses, and some try to be happy by gratifying the mind in such pursuits as art, poetry, and philosophy. But neither gross nor subtle sense gratification can give us real happiness, because real happiness belongs to the soul. And we actually see that although people are endeavoring throughout the whole world for bodily comforts, for sense gratification, they’re not happy. They cannot be happy, because the basic principle of happiness is missing.
Suppose you have a nice coat. If you simply show the coat and iron the coat and keep it very carefully, you’ll never be happy. Similarly, now you are trying to get happiness from gratifying the coat of the body, but that is not possible. Happiness comes only when you make the soul happy. Or, suppose you have a bird in a cage. If you simply polish the cage but do not give the bird any food, the bird will never be happy. Similarly, the material body is the cage of the soul, and if we simply care for the body, the soul will never become happy. So, the beginning of spiritual knowledge is to understand that the soul is encaged within the body and mind and that neither bodily comforts nor mental satisfaction will ever bring the soul real happiness.
Then how can the soul become happy? As stated in the present verse of the Srimad-Bhagavatam, the soul can become happy only when living according to the supreme dharma. A common English translation for the word dharma is “religion,” but, as mentioned above, a more accurate meaning is “that which sustains one’s existence” or “one’s essential characteristic.” Everything has an essential characteristic. The essential characteristic of chili peppers, for instance, is to taste very hot. When we go to the market to purchase chili peppers, we test how hot they are. If they are not very hot, we reject them. So the dharma of chili peppers is to be very hot. Similarly, the dharma of sugar is to be sweet.
Then what is the dharma of the soul? When entrapped by the material nature, the soul adopts various artificial dharmas based on his false identification with the body. Someone born in a Hindu family will say, “I am a Hindu,” someone born in a Muslim family will claim, “I am a Muslim,” someone born in a Christian family will claim, “I am a Christian,” and so on. But as I have already explained, one’s real identity is the spirit soul—aham brahmasmi: “I am Brahman. I am a spirit soul.” When we come to that platform of spiritual understanding, our essential characteristic becomes clear. As explained here, sa vai pumsam paro dharmo yato bhaktir adhokshaje [Bhag. 1.2.6]. The supreme dharmaof the soul is bhakti, devotional service to the Supreme Lord. That is our essential characteristic. Everyone is already a devotee—a devotee of his country, his society, his family, his wife, his children, his senses. No one can say, “I do not serve anyone.” You must serve, because that is your dharma. If a person has no one to serve, he keeps a cat or dog and serves it. So to render loving service to someone else is our essential characteristic. But we are missing the point. We are loving cats and dogs and so many other things, but we are neglecting to love God. Therefore, we are not getting real happiness. When we shall direct our love toward the proper object—Adhokshaja, or Krishna—we’ll become happy.
When the word dharma is taken to mean “religion,” we can understand from this verse of the Srimad-Bhagavatam that rendering transcendental loving service to the Lord is the highest form of religion. The question asked by the sages at Naimisharanya was, “What is the best form of religion, by which anyone can become elevated to spiritual emancipation?” Some people may say that the Hindu religion is best, others may recommend the Christian religion, others may say that the Muslim religion is very good, others may say that Buddhism is very good, and so on. But the Srimad-Bhagavatam does not advocate the Hindu, Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist religion. It gives a general description of the best religion: “The best religious practice is that which enables you to become a devotee of Adhokshaja.”
Sanskrit words have become part of our everyday speech. For example, almost no one would need to crack a dictionary to understand such phrases as “media guru,” “political pundit,” or “bad karma.”
Another Sanskrit word that has established itself in the mainstream of our language is “dharma.” Fans of Beat-generation writer Jack Kerouac might recall his novel Dharma Bums, and in 1997 American television viewers saw the debut of a popular sitcom with a flighty new-age heroine named Dharma.
But what is dharma, really? If we consult the teachings of the sages of ancient India, we find there are two main meanings—nature and duty.
Let’s first consider nature. Everything has its particular nature, a unique and essential quality that defines its existence. In this sense we can say that the dharma of sugar is its sweetness, or the dharma of water is its ability to quench our thirst with its pure taste.
Each of us has an essential nature, too, and if we live in harmony with our essential nature, or dharma, we feel deeply satisfied. But as human beings, what is our dharma? According to the timeless wisdom of the Vedas, our dharma is a characteristic not of our body but of our soul—the spark of divine consciousness within. Each of us has this spark within. It emanates from the Supreme Soul, Krishna, who may be likened to a cosmic fire, the source of all the divine sparks that are our very selves.
And the dharma of each spark of divine consciousness is to dance in harmony around the central fire, Krishna, the original supreme personality. We are all unique, individual, and personal manifestations of Krishna, but our dharma is to recognize our source, to celebrate our eternal connection with Him through loving service. In short, our dharma, as eternally conscious selves, is to love and serve Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
In material consciousness we lose sight of our real nature. We forget our source and connection with Krishna. And our original dharma of selfless service to Him transforms into the false dharma of competitive selfishness. Because we lose touch with our true dharma, we experience frustration and dissatisfaction.
Dharma: The Way of Transcendence guides us back to our true nature, our original position as loving servants of Krishna.
Another meaning of dharma is “duty.” In the latter part of the twentieth century we’ve experimented with the abandonment of a sense of duty and responsibility in favor of an ethic of self-gratification—”If it feels good, do it!” But now many of us are sensing that the experiment has failed. People are feeling that they’ve lost their moral bearings amidst a chaotic sea of hedonism. Duty is once again in favor.
But duty to whom, and for what? We can answer these questions only by understanding the other part of dharma—our essential characteristic. If our essential characteristic is to render loving service to Krishna, then our primary duty is to focus our attention on awakening this loving service, or bhakti, in ourselves and helping others achieve the same goal.
Dharma can give us the insight and inspiration we need. In this book, India’s greatest spiritual ambassador to the world, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, takes us to the very heart of dharma, exploring its meaning in his penetrating commentary on an ancient Sanskrit book called the Srimad-Bhagavatam, renowned as the ripe fruit of the tree of Vedic knowledge. In the portion of the Srimad-Bhagavatam Srila Prabhupada comments on here, the great sage Suta Goswami concisely answers questions on dharma posed to him by an assembly of sages in the sacred Naimisharanya Forest (in present-day northern India).
There is nothing more important than understanding our dharma. This book thus stands as an enduring literary landmark for humanity as we move forward toward the new challenges and opportunities of the twenty-first century.