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At the Feet of The Mother

Sri Aurobindo and the Sanatana Dharma 3: Dharma

If spirituality is the master key of the human mind, then dharma is guiding light. The word has little to do with religion and applies across board to believers and non-believers. It refers to the basis of our action whose real script is in the heart of the doer, in his secret motives and intentions, the idea that stands behind his actions and the force that moves him. Here too there are no standard formulas to be applied to all from a rule-book with a column drawn between black and white with no grey shades. Nor is it enforced by the fear of hell and a reward in heaven. The seat of Dharma is in the heart of man and not in any book outside us. What the book tells us is how to unlock the doors of the heart and listen to the voice of dharma within as a prompting from the Divine as we see beautifully revealed in the Mahabharata especially through the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna.    

‘Dharma is a word which has an ethical and practical, a natural and philosophical and a religious and spiritual significance, and it may be used in any of these senses exclusive of the others, in a purely ethical, a purely philosophical or a purely religious sense. …

Dharma in the Indian conception is not merely the good, the right, morality and justice, ethics; it is the whole government of all the relations of man with other beings, with Nature, with God, considered from the point of view of a divine principle working itself out in forms and laws of action, forms of the inner and the outer life, orderings of relations of every kind in the world. Dharma is both that which we hold to and that which holds together our inner and outer activities. In its primary sense it means a fundamental law of our nature which secretly conditions all our activities, and in this sense each being, type, species, individual, group has its own dharma. Secondly, there is the divine nature which has to develop and manifest in us, and in this sense dharma is the law of the inner workings by which that grows in our being. Thirdly, there is the law by which we govern our outgoing thought and action and our relations with each other so as to help best both our own growth and that of the human race towards the divine ideal.

Dharma is generally spoken of as something eternal and unchanging, and so it is in the fundamental principle, in the ideal, but in its forms it is continually changing and evolving, because man does not already possess the ideal or live in it, but aspires more or less perfectly towards it, is growing towards its knowledge and practice. And in this growth Dharma is all that helps us to grow into the divine purity, largeness, light, freedom, power, strength, joy, love, good, unity, beauty, and against it stands its shadow and denial, all that resists its growth and has not undergone its law, all that has not yielded up and does not will to yield up its secret of divine values, but presents a front of perversion and contradiction, of impurity, narrowness, bondage, darkness, weakness, vileness, discord and suffering and division, and the hideous and the crude, all that man has to leave behind in his progress. This is the adharma, not-Dharma, which strives with and seeks to overcome the Dharma, to draw backward and downward, the reactionary force which makes for evil, ignorance and darkness. Between the two there is perpetual battle and struggle, oscillation of victory and defeat in which sometimes the upward and sometimes the downward forces prevail. This has been typified in the Vedic image of the struggle between the divine and the Titanic powers, the sons of the Light and the undivided Infinity and the children of the Darkness and Division, in Zoroastrianism by Ahuramazda and Ahriman, and in later religions in the contest between God and his angels and Satan or Iblis and his demons for the possession of human life and the human soul…..

The Dharma is therefore the taking up of all human relations into a higher divine meaning; starting from the established ethical, social and religious rule which binds together the whole community in which the God-seeker lives, it lifts it up by informing it with the Brahmic consciousness; the law it gives is the law of oneness, of equality, of liberated, desireless, God-governed action, of God-knowledge and self-knowledge enlightening and drawing to itself all the nature and all the action, drawing it towards divine being and divine consciousness, and of God-love as the supreme power and crown of the knowledge and the action. The idea of companionship and mutual aid in God-love and God-seeking which is at the basis of the idea of the saṅgha or divine fellowship, is brought in when the Gita speaks of the seeking of God through love and adoration, but the real saṅgha of this teaching is all humanity. The whole world is moving towards this dharma, each man according to his capacity,—”it is my path that men follow in every way,”—and the God-seeker, making himself one with all, making their joy and sorrow and all their life his own, the liberated made already one self with all beings, lives in the life of humanity, lives for the one Self in humanity, for God in all beings, acts for lokasaṅgraha, for the maintaining of all in their Dharma and the Dharma, for the maintenance of their growth in all its stages and in all its paths towards the Divine. For the Avatar here, though he is manifest in the name and form of Krishna, lays no exclusive stress on this one form of his human birth, but on that which it represents, the Divine, the Purushottama, of whom all Avatars are the human births, of whom all forms and names of the Godhead worshipped by men are the figures. The way declared by Krishna here is indeed announced as the way by which man can reach the real knowledge and the real liberation, but it is one that is inclusive of all paths and not exclusive. For the Divine takes up into his universality all Avatars and all teachings and all dharmas.

 The Gita lays stress upon the struggle of which the world is the theatre, in its two aspects, the inner struggle and the outer battle. In the inner struggle the enemies are within, in the individual, and the slaying of desire, ignorance, egoism is the victory. But there is an outer struggle between the powers of the Dharma and the Adharma in the human collectivity. The former is supported by the divine, the godlike nature in man, and by those who represent it or strive to realise it in human life, the latter by the Titanic or demoniac, the Asuric and Rakshasic nature whose head is a violent egoism, and by those who represent and strive to satisfy it. This is the war of the Gods and Titans, the symbol of which the old Indian literature is full, the struggle of the Mahabharata of which Krishna is the central figure being often represented in that image; the Pandavas who fight for the establishment of the kingdom of the Dharma, are the sons of the Gods, their powers in human form, their adversaries are incarnations of the Titanic powers, they are Asuras. This outer struggle too the Avatar comes to aid, directly or indirectly, to destroy the reign of the Asuras, the evil-doers, and in them depress the power they represent and to restore the oppressed ideals of the Dharma. He comes to bring nearer the kingdom of heaven on earth in the collectivity as well as to build the kingdom of heaven within in the individual human soul.’

Spirituality or Adhyatm Gyan, is the master – key of Indian life, Dharma is its practical application. It is this word that has governed the Hindu psyche for millenniums. The Vedas lay the broad foundation for the dharma. The Upanishads give us the core truths on which provide the basis for dharma. The Gita builds upon this core and gives us many a useful practical hints and suggestions for the practice of dharma in everyday life. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata give us real life examples through archetypes about living a life of dharma. The Tantra and the Puranas elaborate upon the cosmic dimension of dharma and how it is maintained by the workings of cosmic powers. Those not in sympathy with the Sanatan Dharma often wonder as to why there are so many books and scriptures in Hindu thought and philosophy. Apart from the fact that this vastness and catholicity allows for the immense complexity of the cosmic workings, it helps accommodate the real-time unfolding of things in our everyday life. Life is not governed by a simple set of rules and regulations that the mind fancies. An event is the result of a complex interplay of forces and energies due to the interconnectedness of the universe. The Law of Truth is not a Moral Science textbook with a standard list of do’s and don’ts or a permanent and rigidly cast rights and wrongs that would fit all people and for all times. Religions that linger on the borders of a higher Mind may try to do so with an eye to win adherents through fear and favour with regard to obeying the Law. But in reality the Divine Law operates with an immense degree of freedom and plasticity in its actual workings taking into account and in a single sweep, the time and context of an action, the place and the totality of relations with regard to the cause and effect, the individual and his connectedness with the universe at any given moment, his past development, the present evolutionary stage and the trajectory of the future through which he must move. At the same time this Divine Law is not a fixed rigid mathematical equation applying itself faithfully according to unalterable rules of arithmetic. It may seem so to our surface vision or rather we may believe It to be as it may satisfy our conceptions of cosmic justice. But the Law itself allows for an infinite freedom and flexibility that is not arbitrary but has a logic of its own whose primary purpose is not punishment but progress, not reward but encouragement along the lines through which the deeper Intent and the Divine Will is working. 

The opposition is not between this religion or that religion, between this ideology or that other ideology, not even so much between this system of governance and that other but between dharma and adharma. Ravana is a Hindu, a Brahmin, the son of a sweet and the grandson of Brahma. He is an accomplished scholar of the Vedas and good in music and song. He provides his subjects with wealth and gold. And yet he is on the side of adharma. It is so because his hyper ambitious nature wants to conquer and control and possess everything that he can lay hold on, be it a woman or a kingdom, if he likes it he must annex it. His self aggrandisation and expansionism know no boundaries for he goes into other realms to imprison the cosmic forces, snatches wealth and the flying chariot from his brother, marries and enslaves women and men, stifles the spiritual aspiration and yagnas, destroys the Ashrams of Rishis since only his ideology and religion must prevail. All who try to counsel him must be crushed while the flatters rewarded. Therefore he becomes the symbol of adharma. Rama, on the other hand is the embodiment of dharma. He ennobles whatever and whoever he touches. He extends a helping hand and support to all who need him. Though a prince and king designate, he is humble enough to embrace the lowly and the fallen and the outcast. He fights without hatred with only one objective, – to establish dharma. He does not crush what he conquers but restores it giving the kingdom of Lanka to its rightful successor Vibhishan. He sets the highest standards of inter-personal and family relationship and yet the national interest and the good of his subjects, Rajdharma is above all else and for which he is willing to make any sacrifices. Courageous and chivalrous he is yet ready to forgive for his compassion and love is never covered by his warrior – self. Therefore he stands for dharma which is so different from religion the way we understand today which is nothing more than a blind belief system where often both humanity and divinity is sacrificed at the altar of the collective ego. It is these thoughts often transmitted by oral history that have nourished the seed of dharma in the Indian heart and soul. The Indian mind, aware of the deep psychic truths behind the visible tangible world does not engage in such futile debates as to the actual historicity of Rama and Krishna so long as their character and personality can provide him with the needed aspiration towards a greater human possibility. It has a penchant for all true greatness and sees in the Vibhuti and the Avatar not just freak human phenomenon but the manifestation of God. Sri Aurobindo writes about the role of these two great epics in shaping the Indian culture and securing its Vedic roots and strengthening its spiritual foundations.

‘The leading idea was the government of human interest and desire by the social and ethical law, the Dharma, so that it might be made,—all vital, economic, aesthetic, hedonistic, intellectual and other needs being satisfied duly and according to the right law of the nature,—a preparation for the spiritual existence. Here too we have as an initial form the aphoristic method of the Vedic gṛhyasūtras, afterwards the diffuser, fuller method of the Dharma Shastras,—the first satisfied with brief indications of simple and essential socio-religious principle and practice, the later work attempting to cover the whole life of the individual, the class and the people…..

One of the elements of the old Vedic education was a knowledge of significant tradition, Itihasa, and it is this word that was used by the ancient critics to distinguish the Mahabharata and the Ramayana from the later literary epics. The Itihasa was an ancient historical or legendary tradition turned to creative use as a significant mythus or tale expressive of some spiritual or religious or ethical or ideal meaning and thus formative of the mind of the people. The Mahabharata and Ramayana are Itihasas of this kind on a large scale and with a massive purpose. The poets who wrote and those who added to these great bodies of poetic writing did not intend merely to tell an ancient tale in a beautiful or noble manner or even to fashion a poem pregnant with much richness of interest and meaning, though they did both these things with a high success; they wrote with a sense of their function as architects and sculptors of life, creative exponents, fashioners of significant forms of the national thought and religion and ethics and culture. A profound stress of thought on life, a large and vital view of religion and society, a certain strain of philosophic idea runs through these poems and the whole ancient culture of India is embodied in them with a great force of intellectual conception and living presentation. The Mahabharata has been spoken of as a fifth Veda, it has been said of both these poems that they are not only great poems but Dharmashastras, the body of a large religious and ethical and social and political teaching, and their effect and hold on the mind and life of the people have been so great that they have been described as the bible of the Indian people. That is not quite an accurate analogy, for the bible of the Indian people contains also the Veda and Upanishads, the Purana and Tantras and the Dharmashastras, not to speak of a large bulk of the religious poetry in the regional languages. The work of these epics was to popularise high philosophic and ethical idea and cultural practice; it was to throw out prominently and with a seizing relief and effect in a frame of great poetry and on a background of poetic story and around significant personalities that became to the people abiding national memories and representative figures all that was best in the soul and thought or true to the life or real to the creative imagination and ideal mind or characteristic and illuminative of the social, ethical, political and religious culture of India. All these things were brought together and disposed with artistic power and a telling effect in a poetic body given to traditions half legendary, half historic but cherished henceforth as deepest and most living truth and as a part of their religion by the people. Thus framed the Mahabharata and Ramayana, whether in the original Sanskrit or rewritten in the regional tongues, brought to the masses by Kathakas,—rhapsodists, reciters and exegetes,—became and remained one of the chief instruments of popular education and culture, moulded the thought, character, aesthetic and religious mind of the people and gave even to the illiterate some sufficient tincture of philosophy, ethics, social and political ideas, aesthetic emotion, poetry, fiction and romance. That which was for the cultured classes contained in Veda and Upanishad, shut into profound philosophical aphorism and treatise or inculcated in dharma-shastra and artha-shastra, was put here into creative and living figures, associated with familiar story and legend, fused into a vivid representation of life and thus made a near and living power that all could readily assimilate through the poetic word appealing at once to the soul and the imagination and the intelligence.

The Mahabharata especially is not only the story of the Bharatas, the epic of an early event which had become a national tradition but on a vast scale the epic of the soul and religious and ethical mind and social and political ideals and culture and life of India. It is said popularly of it and with a certain measure of truth that whatever is in India is in the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata is the creation and expression not of a single individual mind, but of the mind of a nation; it is the poem of itself written by a whole people. It would be vain to apply to it the canons of a poetical art applicable to an epic poem with a smaller and more restricted purpose, but still a great and quite conscious art has been expended both on its detail and its total structure. The whole poem has been built like a vast national temple unrolling slowly its immense and complex idea from chamber to chamber, crowded with significant groups and sculptures and inscriptions, the grouped figures carved in divine or semi-divine proportions, a humanity aggrandised and half uplifted to superhumanity and yet always true to the human motive and idea and feeling, the strain of the real constantly raised by the tones of the ideal, the life of this world amply portrayed but subjected to the conscious influence and presence of the powers of the worlds behind it, and the whole unified by the long embodied procession of a consistent idea worked out in the wide steps of the poetic story. As is needed in an epic narrative, the conduct of the story is the main interest of the poem and it is carried through with an at once large and minute movement, wide and bold in the mass, striking and effective in detail, always simple, strong and epic in its style and pace. At the same time though supremely interesting in substance and vivid in the manner of the telling as a poetic story, it is something more,—a significant tale, Itihasa, representative throughout of the central ideas and ideals of Indian life and culture. The leading motive is the Indian idea of the Dharma. Here the Vedic notion of the struggle between the godheads of truth and light and unity and the powers of darkness and division and falsehood is brought out from the spiritual and religious and internal into the outer intellectual, ethical and vital plane. It takes there in the figure of the story a double form of a personal and a political struggle, the personal a conflict between typical and representative personalities embodying the greater ethical ideals of the Indian Dharma and others who are embodiments of Asuric egoism and self-will and misuse of the Dharma, the political a battle in which the personal struggle culminates, an international clash ending in the establishment of a new rule of righteousness and justice, a kingdom or rather an empire of the Dharma uniting warring races and substituting for the ambitious arrogance of kings and aristocratic clans the supremacy, the calm and peace of a just and humane empire. It is the old struggle of Deva and Asura, God and Titan, but represented in the terms of human life…..

The Ramayana embodied for the Indian imagination its highest and tenderest human ideals of character, made strength and courage and gentleness and purity and fidelity and self-sacrifice familiar to it in the suavest and most harmonious forms coloured so as to attract the emotion and the aesthetic sense, stripped morals of all repellent austerity on one side or on the other of mere commonness and lent a certain high divineness to the ordinary things of life, conjugal and filial and maternal and fraternal feeling, the duty of the prince and leader and the loyalty of follower and subject, the greatness of the great and the truth and worth of the simple, toning things ethical to the beauty of a more psychical meaning by the glow of its ideal hues. The work of Valmiki has been an agent of almost incalculable power in the moulding of the cultural mind of India: it has presented to it to be loved and imitated in figures like Rama and Sita, made so divinely and with such a revelation of reality as to become objects of enduring cult and worship, or like Hanuman, Lakshmana, Bharata the living human image of its ethical ideals; it has fashioned much of what is best and sweetest in the national character, and it has evoked and fixed in it those finer and exquisite yet firm soul tones and that more delicate humanity of temperament which are a more valuable thing than the formal outsides of virtue and conduct.’

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