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What is Dharma?

Monday, June 9th, 2008

Can you explain the concept of “dharma”?
–Wyoming, USA

The most common translation of “dharma” is “duty.” In the West, we tend to think of duty as something like unwanted obligation or drudgery. But in its original Indian context, duty is going along with what is natural or native to us. In doing so, we are cooperating with nature as a whole.

In the Bhagavad Gita, the warrior Arjuna begins to question his role. He stands between two opposing armies, each of which contains his relatives. On the one side is the army of those moving toward Self-realization. On the other, an army that reflects qualities of compulsions and limitation. Arjuna, being human, is related to both sides. It is Arjuna’s dharma, his natural place, to fight to vanquish compulsion and limitation. Yet he resists this. His charioteer, none other than Lord Krishna, urges him to do his duty, to fulfill his dharma and fight for Self-realization. Lord Krishna, in this play of freedom, compulsion and resistance, is Arjuna’s Guru.

The literal meaning of “dharma” is “what holds together.” We could think of this as both “what endures” and “what makes us what we are.”

What endures is Shiva nature. What makes us what we are is Shiva nature. By following dharma, we discover our real nature. This is the true meaning of “duty.” Duty is nothing other than going along with the life process toward Self-realization.

Each one of us goes along with the life process differently, with our own, unique style. Some of us encounter more resistance than do others. Some of us experience more doubt and confusion, or anger, jealousy, self-hatred and other limiting factors. We enter into the world in different circumstances, and we do our best to work with these.

In the West, people do not like to consider that there is anything natural about being in a certain circumstance. We tend to think that we are victims of circumstance if we, or someone else, is having a hard time or has been born into a group of people with a history of being disenfranchised. We tend to think that if someone succeeds, it is due to their own effort and nothing else.

But in the traditions of Tantra, the world is a play of communications of Self to Self. Everything is inter-related and responsive. These communications or responses come in differing languages and styles.

So, for instance, if I am born a woman, I am a certain style of world Self. I am an experiment in the karma and dharma of “woman.”

Of course, “woman” is a huge category with many shades of expression, but also with some shades in common with all women. “Woman” is one of the styles of becoming that has to deal with oppression. Part of the karma and dharma of the total situation of “man” and “woman” is to work with that aspect of inequity and violence to try to relax that and expand.

Stepping down from those huge categories, I am also a teacher. Sometimes I wonder, as did Arjuna about being a warrior, should I be a teacher. Am I a good teacher? Is it ok for me to teach? But the fact is that I am a style of Self that teaches. If I am surrendering to dharma, to natural duty, I realize I can do nothing else. When I get down to basics and encounter this incontrovertible fact, I see that my only choice is to relax and try to be the best teacher I am able to be.

Dharma always relates to what moves us closer to Self-realization.

It is always challenging to follow dharma because Self-realization means being divested of fixation, habit, compulsion and small self concept. One way we can discern if we are moving in the right direction is by noticing how challenged we are. This doesn’t mean that things are always super effortful or exhausting. The kind of challenge I mean is to our way of being in the world and our way of experiencing ourselves.

So, for instance, if you have convinced yourself that your dharma is to be a teacher, but this idea, or the actual enactment of it, only serves to make you feel more secure and egoically self-satisfied, then I assure you that you are on dangerous ground.

Dharma has a feeling of ease and rightness, but it also destabilizes our habits of self-fashioning. We put in effort in our practice in order to overcome the resistance of habit and our fear of change, but simultaneously, we are relaxing more into our natural place.

The real happiness of following dharma is just like being an ordinary flower that opens to do its duty by taking in nutrients and giving back pollen to the bees that fly by. It is being in one’s natural place and unfolding to this life of conversation and exchange, while at the same time, blazing with incomprehensible, undividable beauty.

If you gaze at an open flower in a field, you will see what I mean.

In Ma’s love,
Shambhavi

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