In the words of Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, Dharma does not mean religion but commitment to the process of attaining total fulfilment. If the aspect of dharma is not linked into the structure of yoga then it will hold no meaning for the practitioner. There is no equivalent in any other language to the Sanskrit word dharma. It has been variously translated as duty, righteousness, moral law, right samskaras, essential nature, pursuit of truth, etc. but ultimately it is transcendental; it cannot be understood by the intellect, the limited mind. Dharma is an experience which unfolds spontaneously from within as one begins to understand one's place in relation to the rest of creation and beyond.
The word dharma is derived from the Sanskrit dharana which means sustenance. The root is dhri meaning to sustain, uphold or nourish. It is a sublime concept, eternal and immutable, far beyond the reach of morality and social law. Dharma is the great cosmic power which holds everything together in perfect harmony. It is due to dharma that the planets follow their separate orbits without colliding, that the sun rises and sets, the moon waxes and wanes, the seas ebb and flow and the seasons follow one another in perfect order and rhythm. Imagine what would happen if the sun did not rise, the planets decided to follow a different course, winter came instead of summer or autumn in the place of spring? Humankind would be thrown into total chaos. Because of dharma or cosmic order, nature is uniform and well-regulated.
Dharma is the divine principle behind all things and all movement in the universal pattern; the universal code which gives everything its place and determines how every part of creation, from the largest planet to the smallest microbe, should function in harmony with each and every other part. All has been minutely worked out, pre-planned by the master planner. Swami Niranjanananda says, Dharma is letting the master sculptor shape our lives in the way he has envisaged. Even the smallest bacteria, the most insignificant blade of grass, has its dharma. There is a unity behind all of existence and we are all only tiny cogs in the great dharmic wheel, mere waves on the vast ocean. The falling of each leaf, the blooming of every flower, has already happened on another dimension. This is what Christ was referring to when he said, Each hair on your head is counted.
Everything is joined by invisible threads, each of which runs through the centre of our being because everything is totally interconnected. Sufis say, If you shake a flower, the vibrations are felt by the furthest star. Everything has its part in the whole. Without the part how could there be the whole? Dharma is the essence of a thing which makes it what it is. Fire burns, wind blows, water flows, birds fly, the rose unfolds the perfume of its petals, that is its nature, its essential being, its dharma and that is the mystery of life. The sun pours down its light and heat, the tree offers fruit and flowers; nature is always giving, never asking anything in return.
The basic principle of dharma is the unfoldment, the evolution of all the parts within the whole universe; it is the realization of the human spirit which lies within; the dwelling place of the Supreme, the atman, the soul; it is the final realization that we are all one. We are all one and dharma is the great irrevocable law which binds us all together into one whole, one unit, one unity yoga! All in one and one in all. And that one is the abode of satya or truth.
Dharma takes its birth from satya, that which brings about the good of all living beings, despite class or creed, regardless of the stage of evolution one may have attained. According to dharma, truth is our essential nature and essentially we are all divine. According to dharma, the supreme spirit dwells in the heart of every living being and we must, therefore, recognize the right of all beings to live and to grow in accordance with their individual or swadharma, and in relation to the master plan, the great universal Dharma. As Swami Niranjan says, The feeling that we are superior to others is tamasic; the desire to dominate others is rajasic, but the understanding that I have my place and you have yours in the scheme of things is sattwic.
Dharma is that by which we have harmony with God or the universal principle or Nature. To quote Swami Niranjan, The constant effort to channel divine energy into our lives is the process of dharma, for real dharma is linked with God and not with human beings. It is the law of inner growth which unfolds like the rose flower as we evolve in spirit. As we progress in our inner life we come to a deeper understanding of it and of our own dharma in relation to it. Dharma is that which supports one against all odds. Manu the great lawgiver said, Dharma destroys he who violates it and protects he who adheres to it. It has been called not only the seed of life but the fruit also.
To go against the dictates of nature is to suffer a setback, and if we study nature around us we can understand how to be in tune with the natural order. When the sun rises the birds burst into song, forage for food etc. And after sunset they do not eat, but retire to their nests for the night. All their movements are in harmony with the natural cycle. The ants know when to move their eggs, and all animals know instinctively how to play their destined part. Nature supports all life and flows with spontaneity and joy. That is why the great spiritual traditions use symbols of nature for imbibing and teaching spirituality the flowing river, the rose, the lotus, the swan, the tree of life, and so on.
Nature can be our greatest teacher. One who is ready to learn can learn everything from Her. However, one who is not ready cannot learn even from a Buddha, Christ or Mohammed. God can speak to us through any medium, even through a tree or an animal, the sound of the river or the birds flying home in the evening across the setting sun. The twenty-four gurus of Dattatreya were mainly different aspects of nature.
Paramahamsa Satyananda has said, So long as you do not realize your real swaroopa, or form, you will not experience the supreme bliss which is your personal property. This is your first and foremost duty or dharma. He is referring here to swadharma, or the dharma of the individual according to his or her nature, birth, karma etc.
Dharma, on a worldly dimension, evolved as a way of life and a code of conduct by which every human being understands his position in the whole and behaves with love, respect and a sense of responsibility towards each and every other living being. This is summed up by Christ when he says, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. For none is superior or inferior to anyone else in the dharmic vision. Our every thought, word and deed, according to dharma, according to Christ, Krishna and all the great souls, should be conducive to the welfare of all, including the natural environment in which we live. As Paramahamsa Satyananda says, He who lives for others truly lives.
To follow one's own dharma is to unfold the divine within oneself. Not to follow one's own dharma is to be out of tune with existence. The right performance of duty, or right action, in any station of life, provided it is done without attachment, will bring realization, according to the Bhagavad Gita. And duty has to be performed not only in relation to family and friends, but also to society, morality, spirit and the cosmos.
To be an embodiment of dharma is to be an embodiment of God. In this respect, Lord Rama the man, is today considered to be divine on account of his strict adherence to dharma. When adharma prevails, the divine power descends in such great souls as Rama, Buddha, Christ or Krishna. to maintain the dharmic balance, to reinstitute social and moral order. Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita: Whenever there is a decline of dharma and the rise of adharma then I descend in human form. For the protection of the good, for the destruction of the wicked and for the establishment of dharma, I come into being in every age. He was an embodiment of dharma and followed his swadharma to absolute perfection.
When people followed dharma in Satyayuga, the age of truth in which Rama lived, there was heaven on earth. Remember, dharma is not a mere ethical or moral code but covers every aspect of individual existence. It is a divine principle of living which unfolds from within; a flowering of spirit that compels human beings to right thought, right speech and right action in both outer and inner life.
Swadharma is the very law of our being. It is not something imposed by society or decided by God but results from our past actions in previous lives. Our lives are ruled by a moral law. The law of cause and effect is the law of the natural world. Consider the words of Christ: As you sow so shall you reap. The law of karma, the law of rebirth is how the moral order of the universe is worked out in any individual's life until he reaches the state of perfection.
We cannot say what is absolutely good or bad for all people at all times. Everyone's dharma is unique, as the fingerprints are unique, but we can say that a person's dharma is that which helps him/her towards realization. And no one should try to imitate the dharma of another. For example, the dharma of a soldier is to kill, the dharma of a saint or holy man is to lay down his life for others as was the case with Christ, Socrates, Mansoor.
Yuga dharma is the value that unites each individual to form the integral organization which is society. The necessity of having a dharmic base to society is to make as many people as possible fit to survive and grow spiritually, rather than today's concept of the survival of the fittest for the purpose of sensory enjoyment. This is the animal level on which we function today. Dharma means cooperation, not competition. The poor and the weak have as much value as the rich and strong. Greed, over-possession, cheating others for personal gain are unethical because they are completely antisocial, absolutely against dharma adharmic.
We have to go through society in order to transcend it. We have to move from the ever-changing, temporal, social values to the absolute, eternal, spiritual ones. External social life should still have its roots in dharma. Our duties and responsibilities to others in the social context must be regulated in the social context. Swami Niranjan has said, Dharma means duty and obligation to family, society and the environment in relation to the entire evolutionary process. It is beyond all the religions and philosophies of the world.
As a final comment on dharma, Swami Sivananda says, Dharma is that which leads you to the path of perfection and glory. It brings as its consequence happiness both in this world and in the next. Dharma is that which helps you to have direct communion with the Lord. If you transgress it will kill you. If you protect it, it will protect you. It is your sole companion after death and the sole refuge of humanity.