How Dharma is different from Religion - An Eyeopener

Dharma is often mistranslated as religion. Why ? Because, when the western scholars and the­ ologians tried understanding the Vedas they approached it from their own Sematic point of view, i.e. in sync with Sematic holy books, namely: Koran, Bible and Torah. To understand the concept of Dharma, one needs to know certain concepts. These are

  • Meaning of Dharma as per the different rishis (Vedic sages)
  • The 4 Ashrams (stages) of life vis-a-vis the division of society against which Dharma can be done

According to Mahabharata:

It is most difficult to define Dharma. Dharma is explained to be that which helps in the up­liftment of [all living beings]. Therefore, that which ensures the welfare of all living beings is surely Dharma. The learned rishis (sages) have said that that which sustains is Dharma. Dharma sustains the society, it maintains the social order, ensures well-being and progress of human­ity; Dharma is surely that which offers ways to fulfil these objectives.

]aimini, the author of Purva mimansa and Uttarami­ mamsa, explains :

Dharma is that which is indicated by the Vedas as conducive to the greater good.

Madhvacharya in Parashara Smriti :

Dharma is that which sustains and ensures progress and welfare of all in this world... Dharma is promulgated in the form of advice -positive and negative - Vidhi and Nishedha.

Vidhi is the advice given to suggest positive actions, and can simple acts such as rising early in the morning. Nishedha is advice given in negation form, one must not steal. Both are starting points from which one develops greater consciousness, to lead a Dharmic life. Eventually, the goal is that one moves beyond advice and develops enough insight to decide on action as per the situation.

Dharma, therefore, can also be understood as an individual's moral duty, acts of kindness to the worthy, rightful punishment to the deserving and serving organizations and institutions that is committed to the eternal welfare of all beings without any divide.Dharma is also universal compassion. Therefore, Dharma is verily the root of sustainable peace and prosperity. Dharma is then a noun, from which an action follows. As an adjective, leading a Dharmic life, sustains both the person and society. Having understood Dharma the following questions arise, what is one's Dharma ? How can one best sustain himself and society ?

As per the Vedas, life was divided into 4 Ashrams or stages. An ashram is place of refuge ; similarly, the various stages of life offered an individual refuge and shelter.

States of Life and Vairagya

As per Vedic sages every person went through fol­lowing states of life, namely: Baalya (Childhood), Brahmacharya (Student) and Grihastha (House­holder), Vanasprastha (Renunciation) which lead into Sanyaas. During Baalya (Childhood) an individual went about playing and trying to understand things in its own way.They are attached to their mother, fa­ther and siblings. Brahmacharya (Student) is a phase where a person leaves the comforts of home to seek knowledge and productive skills. After learning he then found avenues for employment to earn his living before getting into Grihastha (Householder, marriage).

After marriage, as it is even today, most people are busy with the nitty-gritties of life. First their spouse, then kids, followed by grandkids -the emotional bonding goes on and on. It was also a phase of making efforts, gaining prosperity and fulfilling desires for the self as well as the dependents. Following Grihastha, was the period of Vanasprastha, or period of retirement. It was a pe­ riod of reflection, introspection, company of sages and books was sought, all with the goal of developing Vairagya (detachment/non-attachment). This in turn lead to Sanyaas (living like a hermit).

Vairagya here implies developing the understanding one is on earth for a certain time to carry out certain duties,Atman is constant while the body is temporary. It does not imply life is meaningless or that one is without compassion, instead it implores an unconditional acceptance of circumstances and people.

Each ashram carried in it, certain duties or responsibilities that one was to carry out. During Brah­macharya, one engaged in learning and the system supported all forms of learning. The student and teachers were both taken care.During Grihastha, one carried out the responsibilities towards home, kin, employee (or as employer), society and country justly and wisely. While in Vanasprastha, advice was given when sought.

The ashrams besides teaching Dharma were also a means of enlarging consciousness. The Vedas understood that all human beings want to enlarge themselves metaphorically speaking; this is done through being a part of a group or through acquisition of material items or both. As a student, one's identity expanded to include skill sets, by the time one was a householder his identity expanded to include family and society. At the Vanasprastha stage, one had experienced the joys of acquisition and family, and is then able to reflect on the larger consciousness and become part of the greater fabric of the universe.Love and concern that was first felt for self, family and society can be extended to the entire universe.

These ashrams sustained a person, since no man is an island, and requires different inputs from society at different points in time. The person by carrying out his Dharma, in turn sustained society. Society was also divided along the lines of occupation. While Hinduism today suffers because of caste, the original idea of caste was based on occupation that one engaged in. This engagement in occupation became hereditary, society unfortunately suffered because this. Yet, the division based on occupation is found in every society even today. The sections were the Brahmins (gurus, intellectuals, advisers,judges, counselors to kings), Kshatriyas (warriors, soldiers, ruling class), Vaishyas (merchants, traders, businessmen) and the Shudras (salaried, labour class). Each section sustained society, and a member of each of these had his obligations towards his profession.

The discussion of Dharma requires this understanding of society, since a person normally plays multiple roles in society. Especially during the Gri­hastha phase, a person is employed in a profession and has obligations towards self, family and kin. There can be a conflict of interest, what do the Vedic teachings must offer in this regard ? The corrupt businessman can argue that money is needed for sustaining the family, especially when talent and hard work is not aptly rewarded. Another issue that can arise is the rigidity of the system, must a person continue to stay in relationship that is de­meaning, just because vows have been taken.

To both issues, there are answers.The corrupt businessman while justifying his argument forgets that he too is part of the system, when the systems fail, they fail for all. While he may place self-interest ahead today, the society will be at stake tomorrow; the children for whom he does his actions might be in jeopardy in the future. But does that imply one takes no action, is Dharma a self-negating concept, built only upon responsibility towards others. Not true.

Living a Dharma life

Dharma implores responsibility but not as a duty that destroys the conscience of the person, anything that places an individual's self-respect (not ego) at risk is against Dharma. What is against Dharma is to be questioned and fought against. There is above all, one's Dharma towards his own self; the body and mind are to be protected. The body and mind form the basis for all action and prosperity; hence they should be taken care of.

Dharma in its most pure sense is to do all actions from love and consciousness. Leading a Dharmic life is then not a reflex action, but a question of consideration and thought. From this consideration, action is then taken. Action here refers to Karma. Karma is then a means by which a conscious being acts out its Dharma.

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