Decoding Dharma: A discussion (part 1)

Dharma is a topic I find to be endlessly confusing and contradictory. Various sources site different explanations of what dharma is, which often leads to more questions than answers. Books upon books have been written on trying to explain just this one word. Yet, it seems to be not sufficient to lay the topic to rest, peacefully.

Very loosely, dharma is often translated as one’s duty. Lord Rama is lauded for being the most dharmic in all facets of his life. Does that mean the most dutiful? What does being dutiful even mean? Does it mean being subservient, submissive, quietly accepting even that which is wrong? In that aspect, Lord Rama was not quietly subservient. He did stand up various times, to fight against wrong-doings. He fought Vali because Vali had unjustly banished his brother Sugreeva from the kingdom. He fought Ravana for kidnapping Sita. So with that in mind, we can say that dharma encompasses righteousness. Doing out duty in the right way, in the way that is most harmonious to us and our environments. That can include on occasion being violent, such as the Mahabharata war, which was a righteous war. The Pandavas were not going against their dharma when they fought the war. In fact, not fighting would have been against dharma, and that decision would have impacted not just the Pandavas but all of humanity at that time. Thus, dharma is said to be doing one’s duty righteously. But how do we know what that is?

In different situations, with different people, there are different standards of right and wrong. Even in different cultures, and in different times, the same situation can require different actions in order for it to be dharmic. Unfortunately, there is no dharma handbook that can be whipped out to give specific instructions on how to be dharmic in specific situations. How convenient would that be, to be able to look up ‘how does 30 year old female be dharmic when disagreeing with mom on how to chop onions?’ Maybe Lord Rama would say ‘Mother is always right,’ but then maybe Lord Krishna would say ‘steal onions and run away and make mother chase you.’ Sometimes the situations are a little more dire than chopping onions, such as choosing a partner. Do we go against our parents and marry someone they disapprove of because of caste differences, or do we marry someone we do not love, just to keep our parents happy? Same goes for things like choosing a career, where to live. It seems, many times that dharma conflicts with personal ambition and the quest for success and happiness. In such situations, how to know what is the right thing to do? And what if the right thing to do comes at our own expense? How do we then figure out what is the right thing to do? Share comments and thoughts and stay tuned for part 2.