Question: Babaji, can you tell me in brief the essence of dharma? I have read books on dharma, but there are so many principles that sometimes it is difficult to decide what is proper behavior.
Answer: The purpose of dharma is to maintain discipline in an individual and in society so that the individual can peacefully strive for the ultimate goal of life.
Exactly how to do this is a complex subject. There are different dharmas for different classes of people, such as brahmanas, ksatriyas, etc, and different dharmas according to one’s stage of life, or ashrama, such as brahmacari or grihastha. Also, there is general dharma and dharma applicable in emergency situations. To have knowledge of dharma one has to do an elaborate study. There are volumes and volumes of books available on dharma besides the twenty smritis. It is not possible for most people to study them all. Moreover, most of it may be irrelevant to one’s own class, stage, situation, etc.
Sri Krsna, however, gives a very simple formula (sutra) for dharma. In the sixth chapter of Bhagavad Gita, verses 10-31, He shows the practical steps of raja yoga, explaining how a yogi should discipline himself/herself. Concluding this, He explains how a yogi should behave toward others:
“O Arjuna, in My opinion, the person who, by comparison to his own self, sees the happiness and distress of all living beings as identical to his own, that yogi is considered the topmost.” (6.32).
This verse expresses, in a very succinct manner, the essence of dharma. A similar statement is found in Padma Purana (Srsti-khanda 19.336):
“Listen to the essence of dharma, and after listening, put it into practice: Do not perform acts towards others that you find displeasing to yourself.”
This one statement captures the essence of dharma.
If you want to be respected, trusted, helped and protected by everybody, then you should respect, trust, help, and protect everyone. If you do not want anyone to be jealous of you, then you should not be jealous of anyone. If you want others to be truthful to you, then you should be truthful to others. If you do not like others criticizing you, then you should not criticize others. If you do not like to be cheated, then you should not cheat others.
By studying your own feelings you can learn how to behave towards others, and thus understand the principles of dharma. Then you will become a pious, righteous person, even if you have not studied any dharma sastra. This everyone can do.
I cannot fully control if others will harm or cheat me, but I can control whether I will harm and cheat others. I cannot force others to help me but I have the freedom to be helpful toward others. I do not want to be known as a wicked person, but that is not up to me. It is up to me, however, to think of others’ good qualities and not brood over their negative aspects. I should be aware that others are also under the influence of their karma and nature, and are thus not entirely free to act as they like. Conditioned by the gunas of prakriti, they follow their nature habitually. Thus, if they make mistakes or misbehave, I should be forgiving and tolerant.
To act according to one’s capacity is dharma. Everyone has the capacity to be truthful, straight-forward, kind, respectful, humble and tolerant.
Proper Mood to Perform Seva
Greatness lies in possessing these dharmic qualities, and not in being proud and intolerant. This is Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s very practical instruction, tṛṇād api su-nīcena taror iva sahiṣṇunā, amāninā māna-dena kīrtanīyaḥ sadā hariḥ. If you are humble, respectful and tolerant, then you can engage in seva peacefully. You will not waste time in unnecessary bickering and back-biting.
These days, some devotees waste a lot of time just arguing and counter-arguing over the net. Maybe their ego feels gratified by doing so, but I do not know how it benefits their spiritual life. With such a mood, we will only be disturbed by others’ behavior and arguments while sitting down to do japa.
Our tendency is to be influenced by others’ negative behavior. If someone is jealous of me, it is natural to act unfavorably toward him and criticize him. But such behavior is not dharmic. Nor does it help him. Nor does it help me, it only degrades me to his level. If I am on his level, how can I criticize? If I am truly above his level, then also, how can I criticize him without exhibiting the same flaw as he? But the material ego, which always wants to feel superior to others, even when it is not, uses criticism as a tool to experience an illusion of superiority. There is nothing great about taking revenge. Being tolerant and forgiving is great. Seeing good in others will improve my own character, but brooding over their negatives will only degrade myself, since we become like what we focus on.
In society everyone appreciates a person who is truthful, compassionate, kind, charitable, selfless, humble, and harmless. Nobody likes a person who is cruel and proud, a liar, cheater, miser, and exploiter. Everyone knows this. We desire to be known as a person of good character. Even criminals want to be known as loyal, trustworthy, and generous among their peers. We all want this because we know that a person who is liked by others is certainly happier than one who is despised by others. Usually people like to help and support such a person and not harm him/her. Thus, by being tolerant and humble, we make our life easy and peaceful.
Keeping the Bigger Picture in Mind
One may argue that criticism is required to correct the wrongs in others, but demonstrating proper behavior is a more effective corrective measure than righteous sermonizing. This is a basic principle of dharma. Acara prabhavo dharma: “Dharma is born of good conduct.”
One may argue, “If somebody has harmed or cheated me, how can I not think negatively about him? How can I not criticize such a person? How can I have the heart to help such a person?” The answer is that you can consider what happened to you to be the fruit of your own karma. It had to happen. If not this particular person, then someone else would have done it. Somebody had to become instrumental in giving you the result of your karma. If it was not meant to happen to you, then it would not have happened. Yadabhavi na tad bhavi bhavi cenna anyatha. If it were not supposed to happen, Paramatma would not have allowed it to happen. Have faith in Him. He is the witness of everyone’s behavior. This is one way you can keep your mind in balance.
Some may object that devotees do not suffer from past karma. In that case you can think, “This unfavorable situation was arranged by Krishna to teach me something. This is His grace upon me to make me advance in bhakti. He knows what is best for me.” This way you will remain peaceful, which is a rare luxury in the present day and age.
Keep an eye on the bigger picture and understand the spiritual benefit of dharma instead of getting involved and entangled in the petty affairs like material honor and dishonor. One of our acaryas said pratishta sukari-vistha – “Honor is the stool of a she-pig.”
When someone becomes instrumental in giving you the result of your karma, you should feel compassionate toward the person who apparently acted against you. To give you the result of your karma, this person had to take some sin on his own head, by implicating himself in your bad karma. If you think in this way, you will save much time and trouble for yourself, and be better able to engage in seva, which will uplift you spiritually. By not reacting, you spare yourself from further karma.
On the other hand, if you take revenge on this person, you will only continue the chain of karma, waste your time and lose your opportunity for seva. Moreover, by taking revenge you push that person to engage in further sinful acts, because he will also seek his own revenge on you and thus perpetuate the karmic reactions. If someone is falling into the pit of bad karma, do not push him further down. Rather, act in a way that will help him rise up from improper behavior. So, by showing an example of being tolerant and not taking revenge, you help the other person advance. It may superficially appear that you are the loser, but ultimately you will gain. You may lose materially but you are rewarded spiritually. Material gain has no value in the ultimate sense. Keep an eye on the spiritual benefit. This is the bigger picture.
Story of Jayadeva
These principles are illustrated by a story from the life of the poet Jayadeva, the author of Gita-govinda, described in Bhakta-mala. Once Jayadeva was invited by a rich man and received a big amount of wealth in charity. Jayadeva was very renounced and did not want to accept it, but the host forcibly tied the golden coins in Jayadeva’s upper cloth (chadar). To return to his village, he had to pass through a forest. On the way he encountered a group of dacoits. They could sense that Jayadeva had money on him, so they started followed him. They approached and introduced themselves, saying they were going to the same village as he. Jayadeva could guess that these people were robbers, so he gave them the golden coins and told them that he did not need the money. He felt that these people must rob others because they desperately need money. He thought they would desist from these wicked deeds if he voluntarily gave them this money, and spare them from the evil deed of robbing someone of their money.
Everyone thinks according to their own nature, so the dacoits thought this fellow must be very clever: “He does not want us to rob him and harm him physically, but when we arrive at his village he will surely get us caught by the police.” So they decided to kill him. However, one of them, feeling somewhat compassionate towards Jayadeva, objected and advised the others to just amputate his hands. They did so, and threw him in a dry well.
While Jayadeva was lying there, his mind was fixed on Krsna. Oblivious of his pain, he began singing.
Some time later, the local king, who was hunting nearby, heard Jayadeva’s sweet voice from a distance. His servants found Jayadeva in the well. The king got him out and asked how he had lost his hands. Jayadeva did not want the culprits to be punished by the King, so he simply replied that it was the outcome of his karma. Even after being asked again and again, he did not say anything about the robbers. The king took Jayadeva to his palace and dressed his wounds. When he came to know that the man was the great poet and saint Jayadeva, he did not want him to let go and made arrangements for Jayadeva to stay in the palace.
Jayadeva was fond of association of sadhus. So while staying at the palace, he requested the king to feed sadhus so that he could get a chance to meet and converse with them. The king readily agreed. When the robbers heard that the king was feeding sadhus and giving charity, they also came in the garb of sadhus. Jayadeva used to sit near the feeding area, and they recognized one another. The robbers were shocked and feared that their lives were in danger. Jayadeva, however, had no malice towards them. Additionally, he thought, “If I inform the king that these sadhus are robbers in disguise, the king’s faith in sadhus would suffer. He may stop respecting even genuine sadhus, doubting their character.” Thus he did not reveal their identity. Rather, he called the king and said, “These are my godbrothers. Please take special care of them.”
The robbers thought they would surely be hanged, but the king honored them and made arrangements for them to spend a few days in the palace, thinking that Jayadeva’s godbrothers must also be great sadhus. The robbers, however, remained terribly fearful. They tried to find an excuse to leave, but could not. Jayadeva had never before demanded anything from the king, but now he asked the king to give the robbers a lot of charity and let them go. Jayadeva thought, “These robbers are always committing sin for the sake of money. If they get enough wealth, they might refrain from committing more atrocities.” The king generously gave them riches and sent his guards for their protection on the way.
On the way, the guards asked the robbers, “Swamiji, Jayadeva had so much respect for you. He requested the king to honor you and give so much wealth. What is your relation with Jayadeva?”
The robbers replied, “This is a big secret. Do not tell this to anyone. Previously, we and Jayadeva used to work in the palace of our king. Once, he stole some money from the king’s treasury and was caught. The king ordered him to be killed. We were delegated to take him to forest and behead him, but we took compassion on him, and merely cut off his hands, which we presented to the king as proof of his death.” As soon as the robbers spoke such a blatant lie, there was a crack in the earth and all four of them fell in it to meet their death. The guards were amazed to see this. They returned to Jayadeva to give him this news.
Jayadeva became sad, and started rubbing the stubs of his hands, at which they reappeared! Such was the great character of the poet Jayadeva, the author of Gita-govinda, which Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu loved to hear.
Forgiveness of Haridas Thakur
There are many similar examples of great devotees. Haridas Thakur, an associate of Mahaprabhu, was another great example of humility, compassion and tolerance. Haridas was publicly chanting Krishna’s Holy Name in Muslim-ruled Bengal, so the Kazi ordered him to be publicly executed, by flogging in 22 marketplaces. Several infantry men dragged Haridas from marketplace to marketplace, flogging him cruelly with a cane in each one.
Protected by Caitanya Mahaprabhu, however, Hardas did not die. At the end of the day, the soldiers were so exhausted they couldn’t beat him anymore. Haridas Thakur didn’t think of revenge. Rather, he looked at them with compassion. He prayed: “O Bhagavan, be merciful to all these poor souls! Though they treat me like an enemy, do not consider this to be an offense.”
When his torturers saw that he was still alive after being beaten in 22 marketplaces, they began to worry. “We do not understand who you are. We have been beating you, hurling abuses toward you in public, and yet you are not showing any sign of pain. In fact, you are looking at us as if you felt sorry for us. We cannot kill you. But if we are not able to kill you, the Kazi surely order to kill us.”
When Hari Das understood that they were inconvenienced by his remaining alive, he uttered the Maha-mantra went into a deep state of samadhi, seeming dead. On the Kazi’s order, his body was thrown into river Ganga, where it floated to the other shore, and Haridas walked onto shore, loudly chanting the Holy Names, to everyone’s amazement.
This is how the love and grace of Bhagavan manifests in His devotees. So it is up to us to decide if we want to be dear to Krsna by being compassionate and humble like Jayadeva and Haridas Thakur or if we want to be honored by materialistic society by trying to be the strongest and most powerful.