Article of the Month - Sep 2021

This article by Manisha Sarade

(Viewed 1903 times since Sep 2021)

What Should I Do: Dharma in the Mahabharata

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.

Krishna Delivering Gita Sermon to Arjuna

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.

What Is Dharma?

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?


Hindu Dharma- Hindi Translation of the First Book of Sanatan Dharma

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.

Principles and Practice of Hindu Religion: Sanatana Dharma Sastra

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.

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Lord Vishvaroopa Revealed To Warrior-Prince Arjun

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 existence.

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.

The Battlefield of Kurukshetra

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?

Rajadharma in Mahabharata with Special Reference to Santi-Parva

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 my dharma?

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 fight.

The epic is the Mahabharata. And when we hear or read its stories, we get an education in following our dharma.

The Mahabharata as an Education in Dharma

The Mahabharata 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).

Mahabharata (53rd Edition)

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 ends.

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 this masterpiece.

Brief Summary of the Mahabharata

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 power.

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).

Mahabharata (The Story of The Great War)

They must make war, and they do so at Kurukshetra, the field of the Kurus. Ultimately, the Pandavas win, but the cost is great.

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.

Understanding Caste

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

Hindu Castes and Sects

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.

Lessons in Dharma

The Mahabharata 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 Duryodhana).

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 As Is - Teachings From The Mahabharata

Life is confusing. Our dharma is not always crystal clear, and we are capable of convincing ourselves to act in selfish ways

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.

Allowing the Wisdom In

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 pleasure.

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 dharma

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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