The central question of human life has
remained the same for as long as we have walked the earth. What should I do?
As humans, we are able to think about our
actions. We are able to ask ourselves about the meaning of these actions,
understand likely outcomes, and grasp how our actions will affect others.
That is an amazing power, but with it comes a
tremendous burden of responsibility.
And we seem to arrive on earth with no idea
what to make of that responsibility. As if we were living life for the first
time, we blunder about, learning hard lessons as we go, and rarely committing
these lessons to memory.
This confusion around what we should do is not
new. And from the earliest moments of human existence, great thinkers have
worked hard to understand the solution.
The Indian subcontinent provides us with
perhaps the clearest answer to our questions. It’s magnificent spiritual
contribution to the human race includes in it the concepts and stories we need
to resolve this confusion and move forward in our lives with clarity.
It is in this tradition that we receive the
concept of dharma, and we get a grand narrative that presents all the examples
we will ever need to understand the role of dharma in our lives and the
universe as a whole.
We just need to listen.
Dharma refers to right action. In every field of your life, there is dharma
to perform. As a citizen, you must fulfill your responsibilities and help
society reach its highest good. Those duties are different in your own home,
your work, your social organizations, and your friend group.
The word comes from the Sanskrit root dhri, meaning to support or uphold. In a
way, one's dharma is simply what makes you the way you are. To paraphrase an
old fable, a scorpion’s dharma is to sting. When we act according to our true
nature, we are following our dharma.
In every aspect of life, there are the right
things to do and the wrong things. Dharma
is a simple word, and yet it can take many lifetimes to fully grasp. It is not
because the idea is filled with esoteric subtleties. Instead, the issue lies in
the human heart itself — are you willing to follow your dharma, or will you
resist it to pursue other pleasures and impulses?
For many, they are not yet ready to give up
those pleasures and impulses to follow their dharma, at least not fully. And
there is a bigger issue today, as it is hard for us to even know what following
our dharma would look like. So, we may begin to wonder what exactly should I be doing? How can I really know
what my dharma is?
This has become especially difficult in our
contemporary society. The rise of industrial capitalism and modernity in
general had a profoundly disenchanting effect on the world (to borrow a
phrase), and that disenchantment has led to a rooting out of spiritual belief.
Today, many who call themselves religious live
lives that are, for the most part, concerned solely with the material realm.
They may go to worship services now and then, but they live in a world without
God, for all intents and purposes.
Still others commit themselves to worship,
make a great effort to learn certain texts and strive to follow certain rules,
and yet they too live in a fundamentally non-spiritual world. For them, it is
merely a matter of doctrine.
We mustn’t be too hard on these people. After
all, it is an affliction in the entire society, the entire world. That means
something much larger is going on.
That lack of the spiritual makes it confusing
to see your own dharma clearly. How many people struggle through hours in therapy,
asking their psychologist in one way or another: What am I supposed to do
We often think that this feeling of emptiness
and confusion is neurochemical. There must be something wrong with my brain,
and so I’ll take a pill to correct it. Of course, in extreme instances this
might be the case. But for many of us, the problem lies somewhere else. At a
certain level, we want our therapist to tell us what to do because we have no
deeply felt connection to life, no driving spiritual urge, and certainly little
to no guidance on how to live.
In a society that thrives off of humans acting
as consumers, the only guidance we are given is what to buy. That guidance
often comes in the form of endless commercials. Buy this, it will make you happy. That is the only good sought
after in consumerism: the fleeting pleasure of acquiring.
But there is nothing you can buy that will
replace the lack of spirituality in your life.
And without that sense of the spiritual, you
can never connect to your dharma, because the dharma in every realm of your
life links your actions to the underlying spiritual nature of the universe.
It’s the way our everyday, normal activities join in the greater pageant of
Blind, we wander the world looking for
fulfillment, lacking that we look for happiness, lacking that we look for
something that will make us feel good, because that is the only guidance we are
routinely given. Feeling good through buying things is the only thing we see
regularly that our society tells us we should aim our sights on. But feeling
good all the time is not the key to happiness, and happiness is not the key to
fulfillment. And though we don’t even know to look for liberation, if we did,
we would not find it through the psychological state of fulfillment.
So many of us can only reach our dharma
incidentally, once in a while managing to do something right. Thus, for the
most part we live in adharma —
actions that cut against what is righteous. As parents, we allow our children
to wallow in the same spiritually dead culture of consumerism. As citizens, we
become entrenched in political viewpoints that have no eye on what is right, if
we care at all. As friends, we let our companions suffer alone. And as pet
owners, we can’t even manage to walk the dog every day.
Sounds grim, right?
But there is hope. In India, sages have
studied these problems for thousands of years, and there are answers if we are
willing to listen
And in the central epic of Indian literature,
perhaps the most ancient tale of humanity, we find a large cast of humans who
must ask themselves the same questions we face today. What should I do? What is
And in these tales, humans both succeed and
fail. They commit acts in line with dharma and out of line with dharma. Over
and over again they struggle; over and over again we see the outcome of that
The epic is the Mahabharata. And when we hear or read its stories, we get an
education in following our dharma.
is an epic written in Sanskrit in ancient India. Composed by the sage Vyasa,
its hundreds of thousands of verses tell the tale of a great war, one waged
between a family broken in two because one side did not follow their dharma.
The Kurukshetra War is fought among cousins in
a single family. On one side are the Kauravas, on the other the Pandavas. By
the end of the epic, the avatar of God dies, the righteous ascend to heaven,
and the earth turns to a fallen period lacking virtue and adharma (called the Kali Yuga).
The central drama begins with a controversy
over the throne of the kingdom of Hastinapura. While there is a rightful heir,
there is enough confusion to give some credence to the other side as well. It’s
complicated and messy, as human affairs often are. And at every point, we look
to the characters to see if they will make the difficult choice to fulfill
their highest duty (their dharma) or be pulled off their path toward other
To understand just how this works, we’ll need
to go through a brief summary of the main storyline, as well as bring up some
important background information that you will need to appreciate the power of
Pandu is the king of Hastinapura. His elder
brother Dhritarashtra did not take the throne due to being born blind, but the
two share power somewhat, with Pandu as the undisputed king.
Being a spiritual man, Pandu retreats to the
forest to pursue solitude, and there he dies very young. Yudhishthira, his
eldest son, is not yet old enough to take the throne. So power is handed off to
Dhritarashtra for a time, until the rightful heir can lead.
But Dhritarashtra has an eldest son,
Duryodhana, and he wishes for him to take power. After all, was Dhritarashtra
not the eldest of his brothers? If he had not been born blind wouldn’t
Duryodhana be the next king? The father and son plot and connive to usurp
There is an argument to be made that
Duryodhana is at least as eligible as Yudhishthira to be the next king of
Hastinapura. But the personal attributes of the two settle things in the minds
of many. Yudhishthira is virtuous; Duryodhana is corrupt.
So the family is split. There are the Pandavas
(sons of Pandu, led by Yudhishthira) and the Kauravas (sons of Kuru, led by
Duryodhana — actually, both sides are sons of Kuru, but the Pandavas are now
considered the rebellious upstarts).
They must make war, and they do so at
Kurukshetra, the field of the Kurus. Ultimately, the Pandavas win, but the cost
Now, this is the briefest of summaries,
foregoing many meaningful episodes that everyone should take to heart. There
are rigged dice games that send Yudhishthira and his brothers into exile, there
are curses, there is the arrival of a God, and so many other scenes and plots
that make up this greatest of literary works.
But in this brief summary, we get the central
tension. We see that there is a kingdom divided along with a family. We see the
difficulties between upholding the bonds of blood while also upholding the
dharma of being a good and just leader.
What each of the characters must do is decide
how to follow their dharma, how to uphold the essence of their duty. As it is
an epic, the stakes are enormous — the future of an entire kingdom hangs in the
balance. For most of us, the stakes of our dharma seem less important, so we need a story of this magnitude to remind
us that dharma is always important.
In the many episodes of the Mahabharata, we have to remember that
the caste system is working in the psychology of the characters. Every complex
society that we know of seems to have some system of sorting people. There are
social hierarchies wherever you go, for good and bad, and in the society of
this epic, that is built around the caste system
Vyasa makes it clear that no matter where you
are in the caste system, you have a dharma, and that dharma is as important for
you to follow as it is for the king to follow his dharma. This is a radically
democratic spiritual idea. By understanding it, we see that it is not enough
for a few important people to make sure they’re following their dharma.
Instead, it tells us that we are all essential, wherever we stand in society,
and a great society is one where everyone is able and willing to follow their dharma
The difference between us, however, is made up
by our different roles, aptitudes, and abilities. A truck driver’s dharma is
not the same as a waitress’s dharma. A graphic designer’s dharma is not the
same as a janitor’s dharma. Nevertheless, we must all follow our own, unique
dharma to create a world at peace.
And if we do not, we generate karma that must
be burned off, if not in this life then the next. Through adharma, we create a
series of cause and effect that must be rectified somehow, someway. We can’t
escape it. And our station is never below or above these demands.
is so beloved because it marries marvellous storytelling with edifying lessons
in how to live. It is both a collection of wonderful tales and also a guidebook
that will serve you for your entire life.
As we struggle to understand our own dharma,
we look to these characters as examples. And Vyasa is wise enough to give us
not only the positive examples (like Yudhishthira) but also negative ones (like
We are only human, we will not always live up
to the highest virtue. Sometimes we look back in horror to discover that we
were the Duryodhana in a given situation. The psychological depths of this epic
remind us that we often can convince ourselves that working in our own selfish
interest is our dharma. If we are not
careful, we become malicious while making grand moral justifications. After
all, Duryodhana had a logical argument for why he should be king.
So the Mahabharata
doesn’t sell us a bunch of feel good nostrums. Instead, it teaches us what we
need to know, including the difficult and hard to swallow lessons.
Life is confusing. Our dharma is not always
crystal clear, and we are capable of convincing ourselves to act in selfish
And so how do we sharpen our minds to discover
our true dharma?
Lord Krishna makes it clear just before the
battle at Kurukshetra, while counseling the Pandava Arjuna. He says that we
must pursue selfless action, without caring for the result. If we fulfill our
duties, not because it will give us something but because it is what we must
do, we are on the right path.
It’s the kind of thing that takes a lot of
discipline and practice, but if we fail, we always get another chance to return
to earth and try again.
In our spiritually vacant times, it can be
hard to let in these realizations. It can be difficult to think that there is
much that an old epic can teach us. It can be easy to turn around and continue
down the path that we are told is the only one: to consume for our own
But there is something in all of us that knows
this is not right. And we must go back to the heights of our spiritual wisdom
to seek an alternative way of being. Where better than the Mahabharata? And what better tool for understanding how to act than
These are the products of the most potent
spiritual, psychological, and philosophical tradition in human history. We
ignore them at our peril.
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