What Is Dharma?

What Is Dharma?

Dharma: The Perennial Truth

Swami Rama

Dharma has been a great force in uplifting the human race. Dharma can help us today as it did in ancient times, but only if we start living the truth, not merely believing in it. Turning away from dharma and distancing ourselves from the truth takes away our peace of mind and leads to misery. In the practice of dharma, we are advised to shed the veil of ignorance and practice truthfulness in our thoughts, speech, and actions.

The word dharma has multiple meanings. According to some scholars, the performance of actions is dharma. According to others, actions upheld by righteousness alone are dharma. According to the Bhagavad Gita, karma or action has brahman (supreme truth) as its origin. This indicates that by performing actions rightly, we can attain brahman. Any action can become a part of dharma so long as it is truth-oriented. Dharma refers to what upholds, sustains, and ultimately leads humanity to the sublime heights of worldly and spiritual glory.

Having love for all human beings—including all and excluding none—is dharma. Helping others ahead of personal gain is the dharma of those who follow the path of selfless service. Defending nation and society is the dharma of soldiers and warriors. However, the highest dharma is when we perform our duties for the welfare of humanity lovingly and selflessly and, most of all, dedicate the action and its fruit to the divine. One who has attained this highest form of dharma performs his duties in the world and yet remains above it. All his thoughts and actions become a part of dharma. His whole life is a field of dharma.

The highest dharma is performing our duties for the welfare of humanity and dedicating our actions to the divine.

Instead of following commandments under the pressure of fear or guilt, the aspirant commits himself to discipline and self-transformation. He welcomes eternal dharma, the dharma that has as its architect none other than the divine force—the ultimate truth. The followers of dharma welcome and incorporate only those rules and laws in life that do not interfere with the growth of others, and at the same time are helpful in enhancing their creativity and helping them fulfill their purpose in life. In the history of civilization, never did a prophet or an incarnation of God introduce a “new” dharma. Rather, the sages served as channels for the perennial dharma, keeping its high ideals ever before mankind. Whenever the dharma taught by the great sages seemed eclipsed, a great soul would incarnate to re-inspire the masses with enthusiasm for dharma.

The awakening of dharma can be initiated by proper education. Today’s formal education, based on mere information, is incomplete. In modern educational systems, we are taught as many mundane things as possible, but this education does not offer any method for self-evaluation and inner exploration. Present education does not teach us how to make the best use of our heritage. Independent, critical thinking is not encouraged. That has resulted in leading people to confused and, at times, contradictory conceptions, and to then imitate one another blindly. As a result, some people erroneously believe that practicing a religion means either renouncing the world and chanting religious hymns and songs, or observing penances alone.

We attain the goal of life by following a balanced path of discipline and compassion.

The Upanishads, however, do not advocate any of these ideas. In the Upanishads, we find universal dharma that includes both action and morality. These are the two great pillars on which the mansion of human virtues is erected. The goal of life can be attained by following a balanced path of discipline and compassion. Such a dharma helps us live in peace and harmony while upholding justice and truth. It helps an aspirant attain the right goals through right means. The aspirant can help himself without harming others. Such a person can attain his personal goals and at the same time inspire others. His every action is directed toward defending dharma, supporting virtue, and inspiring others. The greatest scriptures, like the Vedas and Upanishads, set forth such an eternal dharma.

The intellect is superior to physical strength, but we must not forget that a sound mind dwells in a sound body. The body and mind interact and influence each other, and become great instruments only if they work in harmony. As a means, they are of utmost importance in attaining the goal of life. Without proper means, dharma cannot be defended. Shakti—strength and power—is the key factor in undertaking any project. Without this strength, human beings can neither uphold dharma, nor can dharma uphold human beings. Shakti implies mental and physical strength as well as worldly resources. The Upanishads repeatedly state, “Live long and help others to live long.”

The tradition of the Vedas was handed down by illumined seers and sages who realized the truth within. They did not simply think about religious values, but experienced them directly. Their direct experience is the foundation of their teaching. There is a vast difference between a scholar and a sage. A scholar tries to understand the truth through the intellect, while a sage experiences it through a pure heart. A sage’s direct experience is not based on sense perception or mental faculties. The information received through the intellect is like the waves rising on the surface of the ocean. On the other hand, true experience is received from the depth of the ocean of bliss, atman. Truth lies not on the surface but in the depths of consciousness. Truth cannot be the object of mere perception; it is a matter of inner experience and a source of bliss. The illumined heart can easily experience what the intellect fails to grasp. Once there is direct realization, the door of knowledge opens forever and forms the basis of dharma. Philosophical debates, exhibitions of pedantry, and organizational drives cannot nourish the inner virtues of the perennial dharma.

Source: Spirituality: Transformation Within and Without by Swami Rama

About the Author

Swami Rama

One of the greatest adepts, teachers, writers, and humanitarians of the 20th century, Swami Rama (1925–1996) is the founder of the Himalayan Institute. Born in northern India, he was raised from early childhood by the Himalayan sage, Bengali Baba. Under the guidance of his master, he traveled from monastery to monastery and studied with a variety of Himalayan saints and sages, including his grandmaster, who was living in a remote region of Tibet. In addition to this intense spiritual training, Swami Rama received higher education in both India and Europe. From 1949 to 1952, he held the prestigious position of Shankaracharya of Karvirpitham in South India. Thereafter, he returned to his master to receive further training at his cave monastery, and finally, in 1969, came to the United States, where he founded the Himalayan Institute. His best-known work, Living with the Himalayan Masters, reveals the many facets of this singular adept and demonstrates his embodiment of the living tradition of the East.