The concepts herein are based on an illuminating foreword written by Late Shri K. M. Munshi to a booklet on Yaksha Prasna, an episode in Mahabharata with deep meanings, published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.
While treatises are written on the subject, very simply, Dharma is the defining behaviour of a species, a class, a group…by which it sets itself apart from others.
Like a tiger’s is to hunt a prey, a guru is to teach, guide…why, a thief’s is to steal!
It’s a consistent framework that govern a member’s thoughts, actions, beliefs, methods, measures and principles constituting its integrity.
So far so good. Now comes the interesting and complex part:
Dharma by no means is unequivocal. It is also not monolithic or static. There are desha dharma (specific to the place one lives), yuga dharma and kaala dharma (applicable to the times one lives in)… There are role and pedigree based ones too, like raja dharma (for kings) and kula dharma (for lineage)! While these are termed as visesha dharma (special and specific), at the lowest level is saamanya dharma (the ordinary, common, non-specific principles like ‘don’t thieve’, ‘don’t tell lies’…).
It is not difficult to visualize principles of dharma taking contrary positions in a given situation – dharma-sankat’s. A man is never one thing. A raja (a king, a leader) is also a manusha (a man, a human being), a pati (a husband) to his wife and many more with different dharma’s prescribed for each (Dasaratha’s example)! This is not all. Even in the same role, often saamanya dharma could conflict with viseha dharma (rishi’s example). And within in the same class too, saamanya or visesha!
And our lives are full of them and living is negotiating through these conflicts, big and small.
Dilemmas such as this are normally resolved by a Guru by his exemplary decisions/actions in a given context – the one strong function of gurukul education, showing the inadequacy of learning merely from books and not watching its roll-out in real. Also the two great epics – Ramayana and Mahabharata – and the multitude of Purana’s bring up a number of scenarios illustrating the application of dharmic principles. Their very purpose, it’s said. Also from the lives of saints and sages of yore and modern-day enlightened souls.
Time for some examples:
One role (raja) versus another (father): This is from sage Valmiki’s Ramayana, Balakanda, Sarga 19. Here sage Viswamitra is pleading with Dasaratha to send young Rama with him to fight the two demons Maricha and Subahu and protect sage’s penances to fruition. The king, extremely fond of Rama, hesitates. Thereupon the sage in his persuasion tells him not to be blinded by paternal affection, it is his raja dharma to protect his subjects and also not to go back on promises made (earlier the king generously promises to give anything he wanted when welcoming the sage to his court).
Saamanya versus visesha: This is in the well-known parable about the rishi (one who has renounced worldly matters) at his ashram (abode) performing meditation in the forest. A deer comes in running to where the rishi is and quickly gets away taking one of the forest routes available to it. Very soon, a posse of hunters also arrive at the spot and ask the rishi if he saw a deer coming that way and which way did it go. The rishi deliberately points wrong way to them. Here the principle of ahimsa (no cruelty to other living beings) overrides the saamanya dharma’s injunction: ‘don’t tell lies’.
In leadership roles where actions have a much broader impact, the principle of ‘Bahu jana sukhaaya, bahujana hithaaya’ (greater good for great many) is often used in conflict resolution. Not to be confused with tyranny of numbers (majority). For instance, consider capital punishment. Killing someone goes against the state’s visesha dharma of having to prevent cruelty to its subjects, the accused in this instance. On the other hand it is in line with the state’s visesha dharma to protect from or prevent crimes against its subjects, possible victims in future at the hands of this accused if let go or others emboldened by him. How best this could be done provides the answer to the legitimacy of state killing anyone. Or take the project of damming a river to provide water all-round the year versus large tracts of village lands going under water in the up-stream catchment area. Requires a close look at the costs and benefits.
Udyoga dharma (dharma of one’s profession) is a modern broad-based need since profession one takes up is no longer related to one’s kula (ancestral family inherited industries like farmer, potter, soldier, blacksmith…) and also because there are some zillion new professions that have come into being in modern societies. Broadly speaking, udyoga dharma could be that:
‘a) A man must perform a honest day’s work.
‘b) He must sincerely and diligently serve the best interests of his customers (internal including the employer and external including the environment).
‘c) An interesting corollary of b is he must constantly hone his skills so he continues to deliver the best.
Another powerful implication of the above is that the service level (b and c) are not adversely impacted by any grievances an employee may hold, genuine or otherwise, in his job! He is called up on to resolve the same independently to the best of his ability.
The straight and simple inculcation and subsequent reinforcement to keep up one’s dharma is the best self-actualizing motivator on a very sound and stable dharmic base scoring over any scheme conceived so far for this purpose.
In fact, it generally applies likewise to performance under all dharmic frameworks.