“It is better to strive in one’s own dharma than to succeed in the dharma of another. Nothing is ever lost in following one’s own dharma. But competition in another’s dharma breeds fear and insecurity.” – Sri Krishna, Bhagwad Gita
The warrior asked his charioteer to pull up the horses to a vantage point in middle of the two armies, so he could study how the two armies were arrayed and plan the course of attack. The efficient charioteer did as per his bidding, and now the warrior could clearly see both the armies arrayed in battle formation. As he looked closely at those whom he had been set out to fight against, he felt a sudden rush of anxiety and anguish.
He saw placed before him all the people he had known and loved since childhood. There, standing in the middle with white flowing beard, was his teacher who had taught all that he knew to date; whatever skills he had of battle were learned under his loving care. He had been his favorite student and he doubted whether he could even in his dreams lift his hand to hurt him, let alone kill him in actual battle. Then he saw his loving uncle under whose firm care he had grasped all that was to be learned of the values of life. To be arrayed in battle against him seemed like some sort of a joke, something like a game they would play as children in mock battles. Next to him he saw his many brothers and childhood friends, all ready for battle against him, ready to kill him as he was ready to do the same.
Suddenly, the seriousness of the situation dawned upon him; he felt helpless and could not understand how such a situation had come to pass. He felt the entire world reeling around him. He knew he was losing his resolve to conduct this battle; he felt thoroughly confused and just sank down to the floor of the chariot in complete despair and told his charioteer: “I will not fight”.
This indeed is the beginning of the Bhagwad Gita, one of the greatest spiritual discourses ever written in the history of mankind. While Arjuna (the warrior above) and his brothers had been wronged and unjustly treated in various situations and various ways, they continued to try to maintain harmony with the family of their cousins. But as injustice upon injustice is heaped upon them, the breaking point comes, and the war of Kurukshetra is the outcome. This is the beginning of that war, and Arjuna, the great archer, is guided by his charioteer who is none other than God himself, in the avatar of Krishna.
As Arjuna sinks to the bottom of the chariot, he slowly starts to enumerate all sorts of plausible reasons as to why he should not join this battle and how this entire act was fundamentally wrong. He reaches the point of almost concluding that it would be better if he became a recluse and left for the forest, rather than to indulge in this battle where he would have to kill his gurus, uncles and brothers. In getting back the kingdom, even though it was rightfully due to him, if he had to indulge in such bloodshed, it seemed completely pointless.
At this point Krishna, his charioteer, friend and spiritual guide starts his discourse on why Arjuna needs to join this battle. By any spiritual standards, killing and bloodshed is to be avoided, but here, God himself is guiding Arjuna toward killing his own kinsmen. It is primarily for restoring justice and upholding righteousness that Arjuna, the great warrior, must battle as an extended arm of God. Only he is capable of carrying out this onerous task, i.e., defeating the unjust and power-maddened Kaurvas led by Duryodhana. No one else has sufficient expertise and capability in warfare to manage this feat. If Arjuna loses heart and goes away to the forests, injustice would reign supreme; even from Arjuna’s personal point of view, people would make fun of his cowardice. He needed to do this work and do it without any expectation of victory or loss, just as a sacrifice to God.
This is one of the greatest discourses on dharma and one only a very few people deeply understand. The question of what is one’s dharma or duty in life and how one should devolve it, is the core question this series of articles examines from different points of view. This brings me to the topic of discussion of this article.
What is our dharma? This is the biggest dilemma which faces modern man but one which we are least conscious of. As we are lost in the day-to-day struggle for survival, and we go about accumulating to protect our future, there is no time for us to reflect on such high-flown spiritual thoughts and idealistic utopias. Some of us also may feel that discussion on such a question holds nothing of value in this highly commercial world.
This reality is that the question is not only relevant to the highly intense moment that Arjuna faced during the battle of Kurukshetra, but something which faces us every day as we make our day-to-day decisions and choose one path over another, even in the most mundane settings. The very fact that we decide to spend our time on one type of activity versus another is a decision we make. Most times we behave similar to robots just acting out our lifelong conditioning without ever questioning ‒ with a high level of awareness ‒ all our assumptions and looking for other more beneficial uses of our time. Like a robot fed by a series of commands, we keep fulfilling those blindly, whether they are beneficial or not.
It is not difficult to relate to this state – we smoke, drink, overeat and continuously stress ourselves more than required. We know this is very harmful to our health, but then, as if a self-destructive command has been fed into us, we continue to execute the same, unable to stop. Unlike a robot, we may be aware that some actions not actually good for us, but we are unable to exercise our will and go against the commands. Many times, we are in the midst of a self-debilitating activity, like losing our temper (which we may not be fully aware of at the time it is happening). After the heat of the moment, we come back to our “senses.” In other words, we become aware and are remorseful about what we have done. There is a constant process of moving in and out of such states, and some of us consider this activity as the essence of life.
As we begin the search for out dharma two primary objections can be raised which need to be resolved. The first one is this belief that this Universe is just a random outcome of interaction of matter and forces within it. Some may argue that this whole Universe is mere happenstance, and that everything in it does not necessarily have to have a purpose. They say that this is a purposeless and meaningless Universe, and events occurring by pure chance have been coupled with the principle of the survival of the fittest, giving rise to the world as we see it. There is no inherent intelligent design at work here, they say. We are a species with a very high sense of self-importance which wants to create purpose out of nothing. Well, if this worldview is true, then Dharma or purpose is our imaginary and arbitrary but inherently meaningless viewpoint, not to be given any weight. This question needs to be resolved first before we start our search for our dharma.
The second question is – Are we really free to act? If all our thoughts and beliefs are conditioned by the forces of the past, then all our action is fully predetermined by past forces. “As we think, so do we act,” and if all our thinking is conditioned, then so is our action fully conditioned. This idea is called determinism. Many scientists believe that we are in a deterministic Universe. In the moment there are all the forces (physical and mental) relentlessly pushing us into the next moment. If there is nothing other than the past forces entering the current moment, then the outcome as we move to the next moment is also fixed and predetermined, they contend. And this is true for all moments, whether we look billions of years into the past or billions of years into the future. If this viewpoint is right, then everything is fully predetermined from the time of the big bang to the end of the Universe (if there is anything like that at all!). Then it does not matter what our purpose or dharma is ‒ we have no choice but to live out our conditioning ‒ it’s a done deal.
In the next part of this series of articles, I will look into these two very important objections in our attempt to search for our dharma. I welcome you on this journey with me as we explore these very fundamental questions of our lives.