The Essence of Dharma

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 Kurma Rupa with calfpractical 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

Sri Caitanya
Sri Caitanya

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 kīrtanīya 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

Jayadeva from:
Jayadeva Gosvami

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

Murti of Haridasa Thakura in Bangladesh
Murti of Haridasa Thakura in Bangladesh

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.




6 thoughts on “The Essence of Dharma”

  1. Pranams Babaji. Haribol, what an amazing article about dharma and the humility, tolerance and forgiveness of mahatmas.

    Stories like churning of milk ocean, niti sastra and hitopadesha teach us how to be smart and not get stepped over by the materialistic world.

    Should we understand that niti is only for those attached to material world? How do we reconcile the two natures?

  2. we need this stories as reminder over n over again. therefore, satsang becomes essential to cultivate humility and tolerance.

  3. Jai Sri Radhe,
    These are inspiring stories. Thank you.
    To me there is always the question of finding a balance between tolerance and humility on one hand, and being protective of one’s own rights on the other.
    If someone is acting wrongly or whimsically, seems that tolerance toward that person may not serve a purpose; rather, it may instigate him to continue acting in the same manner, and thus more people may be exposed to actions of such a wrongdoer.
    I wonder, should we always be tolerant and humble to those who act in an abusive manner (even though we understand that this is the result of our past karma), or perhaps we should stand firm and try to counteract this? Haribol.

    1. Babaji’s general comment to all questions:

      This article is written based on scripture as all as my own experience.
      But I understand that it may not be possible for everyone to apply it in their daily life.
      Therefore, my advice is to just follow your heart. Every situation is different. Every human being is different.
      It is not possible for everyone to follow tolerance and humility in every situation.

  4. “To act according to one’s capacity is dharma. Everyone has the capacity to be truthful, straight-forward, kind, respectful, humble and tolerant.”

    In my understanding , the virtues listed above are a subset of Rules/Rituals enjoined in the sastra. Otherwise it might sound like “The Seven Heavenly Virtues: Faith, Hope, Charity, Fortitude, Justice, Temperance, Prudence.” There is a contrast between virtues based on the Philosophy of Atma/Paramatma ‘with’ laymen emotional inclination.

    Arjuna did exhibit qualities like – truthful, straight-forward, kind, respectful, humble and tolerant when he stopped fighting. The dharma , per krishna,for Arjuna was that He takes his Bow and fight.This fighting is founded on principles like “Truthful, straight-forward, kind, respectful, humble and tolerant”

    Therefore as mentioned in the verse next to BG 6.32 , the virtues are NOT possible for a person whose mind is not fixed on sastric rules and injunctions. Only by repeated practice one starts to follow dharma.

    Also dharma for Jayadeva is not dharma for some other person. Infact why would Mother earth punish those theives by giving them death when Jayadeva chose to forgive them. Was she less tolerant than Jayadeva? Therefore dharma is a very complex subject but starts with adhering to rules of sastra according to varna and ashrama.

    For great souls like King Dushyanta, the mind and dharmic rules are always same . These souls does not have to strive to recollect what is dharma in a situation and then follow it.Their mind does not pose an option between dharma and adharma. Rather their natural thought or likes/dislikes itself is dharma.


  5. From these stories we can learn what type of conduct the Lord expects from his devotees.”Mahatmanas daivim prakritim asritah”-the great souls always embrace the divine nature-.”Vicetasah prakritim mohinim sritah”- But those who are bewildered always embrace a materialistic and delusive nature-.In his Manah Siksa,Sri Raghunatha says:”Although I managed to give up lust anger and so ,the shameless dog-eating woman of the desire for distinction is still dancing in my heart.How can beautiful love ever touch my heart then? In my opinion the root cause of all this useless arguing,counter arguing, gossiping, and taking revenge on the net or anywhere else is just identification with the material body and mind and a strong desire for ‘prathistha’ -distinction- born out of a deep inferiority complex. Actually the motive behind is to auto assign the center.But the center are the Premika Bhaktas and Krihsna..Let us not upset anyone,s bhajan.
    These stories are striking.It is mentioned that the ways of Prema are beyond the scope of all scriptural knowledge.It is practically imposible to understand the inner feelings of devotees who have attained Prema-Bhakti by the yard- stick of the knowledge of the scriptures.Visvanatha Cakravarti explains in Madurya Kadambini that at the appearance of ‘asakti’ -deep attachment-absortion of the mind in the Lord is automatic,without effort.Even at the stage of ‘nistha'(steadiness) a devotee is unable to detect how and when his mind withdraws from topics of the Lord,s forms,qualities,and so on and fixes itself on material affairs.On the contrary,at the stage of asakti one doesn,t know how and when his mind withdraws from material topics and spontaneously absorbs itself in topics of the Lord.One below the level of asakti can never experience this.Only a devotee on this level can know what is asakti.Therefore, what to speak of the devotees who are on the level of prema! ”Though previously the countless emotions of the devotee were tightly bound by the ropes of attachment to body, family,relatives,home,and wealth,prema now effortlessly sunders those bonds.Then Prema by its own power takes the same emotions,though material,and dips them into a well of divine nectar whose mere touch completely transforms them into spiritual emotions.Then it firmly binds these spiritualised emotions to the sweetness od the Lord,s name,form and qualities.This is Prema,the brilliant rising sun that immediately puts the hosts of starlike human ideas to shame!The Lord says,”O My best devotee,many birhs you have given up wife,house and wealth to attain me.For the sake of My service you endured untold miseries such as cold,wind,hunger,thirst,and pain.Maintaining your life by begging,you tolerated countless insults and abuses from other men.In return for all your sacrifice,I,m unable to give you anything.I,ve simply become your debtor.Rulership over the whole earth,lordship over the heavens,and mystic powers are unsuitable for you.Though I,m unconquerable,today I,ve certainly been conquered by you.Now I,m taking shelter of the creeper of your excellent character and gentle conduct.”Bhaktera prema cesta dekhi krishnera camatkara”(c.c)”Even Krishna is astonished when He sees the loving activities of His devotees”Krishna is Rasika Sekhar,the topmost relisher of rasa and prema.It is explained that Prema by its very nature is full of discontent.It is never satisfied with itself.The more prema one has the more one aspires for it.This discontent is not an indication of its imperfection,but of embellisment.Narada Muni said to Bhagavan,”Give me the boon that no one may ever be satisfied with prema”Bhagavan said,”Narada,this is the very nature of prema.Have you ever seen my bhakta satisfied with his prema?
    Adikesava Das prabhuji writes:’Bhagavan is perfect in all respects,fully self-sufficient and self-satisfaied.Still He yearns eagerly for the loving service of
    His devotees.The happiness He derives from their loving service is superior to the happiness inherent in His own Self.Therefore He loves them more than He loves His own Self.Love by its very nature is incomplete and restless.The more love one has the more one feels the want of it.Bhagava,s love is infinite.Therefore His want and need of love are infinite.He wants infinitely to love and be loved.He enjoys loving and being loved by millions of His devotees,yet His thirst for love remains unsatiated.Therefore He is also anxious to inspire love in the hearts of those,who do not love Him,so that He may satisfy His ever increasing desire for love through them.This means that He is mercifully inclined even towards the people,who are averse to Him and He does their bhajana,even though they do not remember Him’ This is a great mystery.What a wonderful Lord!.Sastra explains that Krishna, who is a slave to His devotees,confers His power of granting grace to His pure devotees.The grace of God is secondary;The Lord does not offer grace directly.The Lord,s grace is offered through His devotees.The sages distribute mercy in accordance with their own will.Therefore Guru and the Great Sages may be considered as independent agents in showing grace to others.When a man has the good fortune of obtaining the grace of these Holy Ones,then the Lord also shows grace on such a person.The Lord inspire the devotees to act specifically in accordance with their own will.The Lord acts according to the will of His devotees.”I am under the control of my devotees”.Visvanatha says that if one rejects the path of bhakti,the scripture deems him not a human being.Only a non human would refuse to serve the Lord.Therefore all these stories are instances of the misterious glories of sat sanga. The sage Jadabharata teaches to king Rahugana B.5.12.12.’ Vina mahat-pada rajo-bhisekam’ without anointing one,s self with the dust of the feet of the holy ones ,that is to say,without the service of the Great Ones one can not attain the supreme goal.Therefore satsanga is the highest means of reaching God easily.

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