Rediscovering and re-purposing Dharma

Fast approaching the big 3–0, more recently in life I have become fascinated with all sorts of weird things including:

  1. Gut flora; did you know that there are more neurons in your gut than in either the spinal cord or the central nervous system?! This is where the term “follow your gut” comes from. It is literally a second brain.
  2. Listening to my instincts / “gut”: this is something something I feel I may have lost touch with. Trying to be more still has now lead me to getting back in touch with what I love: martial arts, reading, learning, being smexy etc.
  3. Octopuses: these slimy creatures are aliens. I am obsessed. Seriously look into it.

You get the drift. I am well on my way into experiencing what is known as the Quarter Life Crisis. I use “Quarter” because apparently we are all going to live to 100 now; “mid” will happen later.

Rooted deep amongst all of the above, aside from the octopus, is the guiding light of holding onto an authentic voice or spirituality. After having gone through a deeply spiritual phase earlier in life, I have recently been looking to re-tool my understanding of a concept that has driven me for much of my younger life, Dharma.

Dharma, is a concept that has a fair chunk of a whole Vedic text, Bhagavat Gita, dedicated to it. In it, the warrior Arjuna breaks down after seeing his loved ones on the other side of an epic battlefield and questions what he is doing and why. What follows is one of the greatest conversations ever had. Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer, gives him the laws by which the universe unfolds and by which Arjuna must also act. Central to this is the concept of Dharma, which in the Gita turns into a multi layered D’n’M between Krishna and Arjun.

Seriously this puts any dinner chat I’ve had to shame…

The thought or reminder of the concept of Dharma has driven me in the past and confused me more recently. My prior confusion about Dharma was rooted in the classic definitions I had worked with.

  • Classic definition: literally translated, Dharma means “that which upholds”. In the classic sense, it is the eternal law of the cosmos, inherent in the very nature of things. By extension, it is the Dharma of the bee to make honey, of the sun to radiate sunshine, of the river to flow. To live in Dharma then is to live by your duty, the right way, to live by the way of righteousness. It is also important to note that the classic definition has many more nuances, incorporating Dharma for different stages of life and also seriously outdated nuances such as differing Dharma for different castes.
  • Devotional Dharma: This definition relates to realising God in a more devotional sense. This Dharma is said to be of the highest kind, a more direct path if you will, leading to the same destination of Moksha, which means to become free from the cycle of birth and rebirth. Although I understand this, my stage in life and my nature don’t allow this definition to serve me in any real way either.
  • Buddha’s definition of dharma: “The teachings [of Buddha],” (Dharma) or “The way of all things,” (dharma). Essentially meaning, the law by which the universe operates. Although parallel, the Vedic and Buddhist definitions differ. For my learning, I have mostly stuck with the Vedic term.
Krishna and Arjuna heading into battle at Kurukshetra. Magnificent artwork courtesy of ISKON.

Within the classic definition, the word that stopped serving me was duty. It is very external and can be used against you by teachers and parents about what this actually means. “You must do your duty as [son/student/worker]!”, here social and cultural conditioning begins to creep in. What I had found most alluring about this way of thinking, was its call to action, it allowed me to shut out pain, emotion and my internal voice. If society and elders thought I should do something for my stage in life, then it was my duty to uphold the principle and fulfill my task the right way. This might be O.K. when growing up in an environment that feeds your true needs and with the right people around. However, it is inherently dangerous once we’re through the minimum “hoops” in life such as school, university, getting that first job. The way this core concept of the Vedas has been interpreted in our modern times no longer serves us. Just to research this piece I had to dig deeper than I thought I would have to, to find what mythology is really trying to tell us about a pretty freakin’ central concept.

Despite having studied and seemingly understood this core concept earlier in life, I have found myself back where I was a few years ago trying to (re)define what Dharma meant and if I could use this old gem to help me navigate the next few turns in life.

Redwoods. Reaching for sunlight is their Dharma.

Perhaps I missed some crucial point and I know I am probably butchering these definitions here but I am trying to make a point. We are constantly told of indirect ways to figure out our ‘divine duty’ by things like the stage of life, but never in my past was I ever aware or made aware of the extremely personal aspect of Dharma. That aspect is this; the Gita doesn’t ask Arjuna/us to execute “the divine duty”, it asks us to execute “your divine duty”. This is significant because it is what makes the Vedic philosophy less of a “religion” and more of a philosophy; it is inherently personal. Once you go down the rabbit hole, there are all sorts of clues about the real definition of Dharma, for example when Krishna instructs:

“One’s own dharma, performed imperfectly, is better than another’s dharma well performed. Destruction in one’s own dharma is better, for to perform another’s dharma leads to danger.” (Bg. 3.35)

The very core, the lost core, the misunderstood and little communicated core, of the meaning of this central part of Vedic philosophy (not religion), is this;

To live your Dharma, is to live to your full potential.

To me, this realisation or uncovering, has allowed me to let go of old shackles and come to a new understanding of what Dharma beckons us to do. It does not ask to follow out-dated cultural practices or read the Vedas from a literal perspective, but something much more real.

Dharma asks us to live our best life. To find our edge, and live just beyond it — to live our full potential. To live our own truth.

It is funny and very much deja vu that my weird journey of looking into double blind, placebo controlled studies about gut flora lead me to asking questions about what “following your gut” literally means. In doing so, somehow, I arrived at a familiar old friend, the Gita, and what it was telling me from the very beginning, the very thing I may have lost somewhere along the way.

Of course finding meaning in past knowledge doesn’t ever change anything in the real world or your life. Ultimately it is up to us to do the work. But as in my case, just following instinct can lead down doors which lead to other doors — the doors and rabbit holes we are meant to follow. After all, I’m pretty sure that is the point.