Dharma’s a Bitch

Ghandi and Oppenheimer Read This

Photo by Yeshi Kangrang on Unsplash

Dharma, or Duty is sometimes the last thing you want to do.

The Bhagavad Gita is an ancient Indian text written in Sanskrit. My copy was translated by Barbara Stoler Miller in 1986 and includes an introduction by Huston Smith.

  • The Gita is part of a huge epic story called the Mahabharata.

The Mahabharata is about two groups of cousins at war, competing for the family throne. Arjuna is the protagonist and he’s a member of the ruler and warrior caste.

The Battle Begins

The setting of The Bhagavad Gita is a battlefield and the action begins just before the battle. Arjuna rides onto the field in his chariot where he sees old friends and family in the other army.

Arjuna has a crisis of confidence and decides he can’t fight.

He feels that the throne is not worth killing his family. He knows he will have to do it if he goes into battle, so he decides to withdraw. He tells his driver to stop the chariot.

The rest of the story is the conversation between Arjuna and Krishna (the chariot driver) told through the words of Sanjaya, the bard.

Spoiler alert:

  • Krishna (an avatar of Vishnu) persuades Arjuna to stay in the fight and perform his sacred duty (dharma) as a warrior-king.

Krishna makes the following points as to why Arjuna must do his duty as a warrior in the battle.

  • 1. Atman (self) is eternal. Krishna argues that no one can actually kill another person. The person just moves to the next life in samsara, the cycle of life and death.
  • 2. Life is an illusion, so Arjuna’s concern about killing his relatives is misplaced. If he kills anyone, they aren’t destroyed. They move on to the next phase of their existence.
  • 3. If a person acts to serve God, then they can work off their karma. This eventually leads to the achievement of enlightenment and an end to the cycle of samsara. If they act selfishly, then they move further and further into karmic debt.
  • 4. As a warrior, it is his duty to fight. It’s his dharma and it’s a sin not to fulfill your sacred duty in life.
  • 5. Not choosing is still a choice. Inaction is a choice to ignore his sacred duty. The ideal way is the release of his desire for the fruits of his action.
  • 6. The source of evil is not in our actions but in our desires, our intention and our attachments.

Krishna then reveals a basic Hindu doctrine which reveals different disciplines (yogas) or ways to act in devotion to God:

  • An individual should make a choice depending on what type of spiritual person they are.

We should act according to Our Nature.

The following are four different disciplines identified in the Gita.

  • Bhakti yoga (devotional or emotional nature) Loving God is a way to draw closer to him. The goal is pure love of God for loves sake alone.
  • Karma yoga (action or serving nature) Being of service to God is a way to draw closer to him. By working in service of God as an instrument, or working in a detached way, you remove yourself from the outcome of the work. The goal is to perform action without thought for self, which lightens the ego and draws you closer to God
  • Raja yoga (meditation or a mystical, experimental nature) Knowing God through physical and mental control is a way to draw closer to him. The goal is to achieve direct personal experience of the deepest level of the Being that exists within you.
  • Jnana yoga (knowledge or an intellectual nature) This yoga requires reflection, the love of God and strength of body and mind. The goal is to distinguish between the surface self and the self that endures beyond this body and lifetime.

Your dharma is your true duty which should be followed in your own way.

No matter which yoga you choose, the proper way is to act without attachment to the outcome of your action.

Arjuna doesn’t want to do his duty

He realizes that he can’t escape it by not acting.

He has to be disciplined in order to reach liberation and discipline requires him to make a choice.

He weighs his options and decides to go into battle.

His duty is to serve and protect his subjects and so he fights and wins the throne for the Pandavas.

  • Krishna also gives the reader guidance to use when considering philosophical questions about the nature of God, the role of man and the meaning of life. He uses the battleground as a metaphor for the struggle within our mind.
  • He describes ways to discover and understand our desires and attachments so that we can use action and dharma to move away from them.
  • Each person has to fight his own battles and make his own decisions about how he will live his life. (The mind as the battleground is discussed in sloka 13, The Field).

Change is Inevitable

The words in The Bhagavad Gita remind us that change is inevitable and whatever happens will happen. We came here with nothing and will leave this world with nothing; in the meantime, all is illusion.

The Gita has been read and used as a spiritual guide and a source of inspiration for many.

Some of the people who used The Gita as a spiritual guide:

  • Ghandi -He adopted social change through non violence as a method to overthrow the British occupation of India,
  • Thoreau -He wrote that every morning he read and was inspired by the words in The Gita,
  • Oppenheimer -Perhaps he related to Arjuna and the concept that many would perish in the war, whether he participated or not. His duty as a physicist of the time was to create the atomic bomb.
  • Carl Jung -He is said to have been influenced by the concept of individual differences described in The Gita when shaping his theory of personality types.

Each of these people took something unique from The Gita.

That’s consistent with the Hindu belief that each person decides how to live their lives. There is no ‘correct’ way to act, only a person’s dharma and their choices.

As I read more of The Gita, I realized it can help us integrate spiritual values into our everyday lives.

If we act with the inner peace of God in our thoughts, rather than the attachment of the fruits of our actions, we can achieve the balance that Krishna describes.

This book provides spiritual direction that is as relevant today as it was when it was first written, as we strive to become better individuals in the world.

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Notes on the text and the translator:

  • Miller was born in 1940 and holds a doctorate in Sanskrit and Indic Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. She has successfully translated many Sanskrit poems and plays and has received many awards and grants.
  • The title of the book translates as “The Song of the Lord” and was thought to have been composed between 400BCE — 200CE.
  • It is comprised of 18 slokas or chapters, each focusing on a teaching of the Krishna.

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