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Dharma in the Bhagavad-gita

The Sanskrit word “dharma” has joined “yoga” and “karma” in common English usage. dharma is often taken to mean “religion” or “duty.” But these meanings are incomplete. In the Gita, Lord Krishna refers to dharma in progressively deeper ways, shedding light on the meaning of the term and its importance for personal spiritual growth.

In life we all encounter ethical conflicts, although perhaps less dramatically than Arjuna. As we shall see, the Gita helps us make intelligent decisions by showing how ordinary piety fails to deliver the endless satisfaction of service to God.

Dharma is the first word in the Bhagavad-gita. The great work begins when the blind old king Dhritarashtra asks his secretary, Sanjaya, about the battle that was to take place at “the field of dharma” (dharma-kshetra). Dhritarashtra, knowing his sons to be evil, worried that the spiritual influence of the dharma field would favor the pious Pandavas. As the Gita’s first chapter unfolds, Arjuna also grows wary of the influence of dharma. He fears that his, and Krishna’s, participation in the war will lead to a violation of dharma and perpetual residence in hell.

In the name of dharma, Arjuna argues for nonviolence by assuming that to attack and kill so many leading men, nearly all of whom are fathers and husbands, will destabilize the important families and communities for which these men are responsible. The families themselves are vital to the peace and virtue of society. Arjuna’s argument, literally translated, proceeds as follows:

On destruction of the family, the perennial family dharmas perish. When dharma perishes, adharma [the opposite of dharma] overwhelms the entire family. From the predominance of adharma, O Krishna, the family women are polluted. When the women are polluted, O Varshneya, a confusion of social orders arises. This confusion leads only to hell both for the destroyers of families and for the family. Certainly the forefathers fall [from heaven] since the ritual offerings of food and water are suspended. By these crimes of the family killers, who propagate a confusion of social classes, community dharmas and the everlasting family dharmas are devastated. We have always heard, O Janardana, that those men who devastate family dharmas have their residence fixed in hell.
—Bhagavad-gita 1.39-43

Arjuna has sounded a familiar theme from many Vedic books, namely that dharma protects when it is protected, but injures when it is injured. Arjuna would be killing kings in the battlefield, virtually all of whom protected at least the basic rules of dharma in regard to ethics, social order, and traditional, worldly religious rites.

Lord Krishna is about to teach His friend Arjuna that above even dharma is God, who, for His own reasons, desires this battle. Lord Krishna rejects Arjuna’s argument as mere “weakness of heart” (hridaya-daurbalyam) and “impotence” (klaibyam) and urges Arjuna to fight.

Despite his previous arguments on the basis of dharma, Arjuna now admits that he is actually “confused in mind about dharma” (dharma-sammudha-cetah).(Bg. 2.7) Arjuna then gives up his arguments and surrenders to Lord Krishna as his spiritual master, and Lord Krishna begins teaching the Bhagavad-gita in earnest.

First Some Lessons on the Soul

Lord Krishna does not at once address Arjuna’s argument about dharma, as we would expect in a typical debate. Rather, the Lord first reveals to Arjuna, in twenty verses (Bg. 2.11- 30) the eternal nature of the soul. Then the Lord comes back to the topic of dharma, to show that it is Arjuna who is neglecting his dharma by refusing to fight: “And even considering your personal dharma as well, it is not right for you to hesitate. There is nothing better for a warrior than a fight based on dharma.” (Bg. 2.31)

It is significant here that after a thorough explanation of the eternal soul, the Lord mentions dharma as an additional point to consider. From other scriptures one may get the impression that life is meant to practice dharma. But we find in the Bhagavad-gita that dharma itself is meant to assist the real goal of life: understanding the eternal soul and its relationship with the Supreme Soul, Krishna.

Lord Krishna concludes this brief reference to dharma as one’s personal duty by saying, “Now if you do not execute this battle, then having given up your personal dharma and reputation, you shall incur sin.” (Bg. 2.33)

Arjuna previously argued that if he and Krishna were to fight the Battle of Kurukshetra, they would be destroying dharma and incurring sin. Now Lord Krishna tells Arjuna that the truth is just the contrary. By not fighting, Arjuna would be rejecting dharma—in fact, his personal dharma—and thus incurring sin.
Throughout the rest of the Gita, Lord Krishna speaks of dharma in terms of His own teaching of spiritual knowledge and not directly in response to Arjuna’s argument about dharma as ordinary religious and moral practices.

Having explained the soul as distinct from the material body, Lord Krishna now states (Bg 2.39) that what He has just taught Arjuna is “real intelligence or understanding”(buddhi), and that He has taught it “in a philosophical sense” (sankhye). Now, says the Lord, He will talk about the same buddhi, or spiritual intelligence, but “in practice” (yoge). And it is precisely this applied spiritual understanding (buddhir yoge) to which Lord Krishna now gives the name dharma: “Even a very small amount of this dharma saves one from great danger, for there is no loss in such an endeavor, and it knows no diminution.” (Bg. 2.40)

One’s Own Duties

Lord Krishna’s next reference to dharma reinforces his earlier statement that Arjuna must perform his own dharma, and not neglect it in the name of dharma. Arjuna can neither protect dharma nor keep himself on the spiritual platform if he abandons the duties born of his nature. Thus the Lord says: “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)

In the fourth chapter Lord Krishna reveals that He appears in this world to protect the principles of dharma and curtail the destructive influence of adharma: “Certainly whenever a decline of dharma occurs, O Bharata [Arjuna], and an uprising of adharma, I then manifest My Self. To deliver the saintly and vanquish the evil-doers, to reestablish dharma, I appear in every age.” (Bg. 4.7- 8)

It is clear in this context that a sadhu, a saintly or good person, is one who follows dharma, whereas an evil-doer, duskrit, is one who practices and promotes adharma. So Krishna Himself vows to reestablish dharma, upholding those who support dharma and vanquishing those who oppose it.

Thus the complete picture begins to emerge. An effective government must not only create laws but enforce them as well. Similarly, the Supreme Lord brings forth His law as dharma. When obedience to His law collapses and human beings propagate instead their own illicit “law,” the Lord descends to protect the good citizens of His kingdom, vanquish the outlaws who practice adharma, and reestablish in human society the prestige and power of His will.

We can now see why Arjuna’s initial argument, that to obey Lord Krishna and fight would go against dharma, cannot be correct. dharma is nothing but the Lord’s will. For Arjuna to fight, then, is true dharma.
As further emphasis of this point, Lord Krishna later states that even activities that appear to be most mundane, such as fighting or sexual intercourse, can be performed on the spiritual platform if done according to dharma: “And I am the strength of the strong, devoid of lust and attachment. O best of the Bharatas, I am sex not contrary to dharma.” (Bg. 7.11)

dharma and Spiritual Knowledge

Lord Krishna again speaks of dharma in the ninth chapter when he declares that spiritual knowledge of Himself is dharmya, or conducive to and consistent with dharma: “I shall speak to you, who are free of envy, this most confidential knowledge, together with its realized discernment, knowing which you shall be freed of the inauspicious. This knowledge is the king of sciences, the king of secrets, and the supreme purifier. Understood by direct perception, it is conducive to dharma, very easy to perform, and everlasting. People who do not place their faith in this dharma, O burner of the foe, do not attain Me but return to the path of death and material existence.” (Bg. 9.1- 3)

It is significant that Lord Krishna here repeats the words “this dharma” (asya dharmasya) noted earlier: “Even a very small amount of this dharma saves one from great danger, for there is no loss in such an endeavor, and it knows no diminution.” (Bg. 2.40)

Clearly Lord Krishna reserves the phrase “this dharma” for discussions of Krishna consciousness, pure devotion to the Lord. In Chapter Nine “this dharma” refers to the supreme process, which Lord Krishna calls “very easy to perform” (susukham kartum): the devotional service of the Lord—the only process praised in the chapter. In marked contrast, Lord Krishna criticizes the ordinary Vedic dharma by which one seeks residence in Indra’s heaven:

“Those who follow the science of the three Vedas and drink the Soma, their sins purified, aspire to go to heaven through sacrifices. Having reached the pious world of the king of gods, they partake in heaven of the celestial enjoyments of the gods. Having enjoyed the vast world of heaven, they fall to the mortal world when their piety is exhausted. Thus those who desire sense gratification, and who have consistently resorted to the dharma of the three Vedas, achieve only going and coming.” (Bg. 9.20-21)

Thus Lord Krishna starkly contrasts the ordinary dharma of the Vedas with “this dharma,” which is pure devotional service to Krishna. Krishna concludes the important ninth chapter by showing the power of this dharma, unalloyed Krishna consciousness, to purify and save the soul: “Even if a man has grossly misbehaved, if he worships Me and is devoted to Me exclusively he is certainly to be considered a sadhu [good person], for he has actually come to a perfect determination. Quickly he becomes a righteous soul [dharma-atma] and attains to lasting peace. O son of Kunti, proclaim that My devotee is never lost!” (Bg. 9.30-31)

It is simply on the strength of devotion to Krishna that even a man of terrible conduct quickly becomes devoted to dharma. There is no corresponding assurance in the Bhagavad- gita that practice of ordinary Vedic dharma will make one a pure devotee of the Lord. Rather, the fruit of trayi- dharma, the religious duties of the three Vedas, is that one goes up to the mundane heaven and falls again to the mortal earth.
Thus for one exclusively devoted to God, Krishna (bhajate mam ananya-bhak), a solid standing on the highest platform of dharma comes automatically.

Everlasting dharma

Now that Lord Krishna has explained “this dharma” (asya dharmasya), which leads to His eternal abode, we can better understand Arjuna’s statement in the eleventh chapter that Lord Krishna is the protector of “everlasting (shashvata) dharma”: “You are the indestructible, the supreme object of knowledge. You are the transcendental receptacle of this universe. You are inexhaustible, the protector of everlasting dharma. I conclude that You are the eternal person.” (Bg. 11.18)

Lord Krishna later declares as much in the fourteenth chapter: “Indeed, I am the foundation ofBrahman[spirit], and of unending immortality, and of everlasting dharma, and of the ultimate happiness.” (Bg. 14.27)

In the last verse of the twelfth chapter also, Lord Krishna indicates that there is a truly eternal dharma: “But those who fully honor this immortal nectar of dharma as it has been spoken [by Me], having faith, taking Me as supreme—those devotees are exceedingly dear to Me.” (Bg. 12.20)

The eighteenth and final chapter of the Bhagavad- gita summarizes the entire text. In this chapter Lord Krishna refers three times to dharma, the first being a reaffirmation of His earlier admonition to perform one’s own, and not another’s, dharma: “It is better to engage in one’s own occupation, even though one may perform it imperfectly, than to accept another’s occupation and perform it perfectly.” (Bg. 18.47)
But beyond this, we have seen that the Bhagavad- gita begins where ordinary Vedic dharma leaves off. Lord Krishna has indicated this in various ways. Here, at the end of His teaching, the Lord most dramatically declares that full surrender to the Supreme Lord stands above the entire range of sacred duties known generally as dharma: “Renouncing all dharmas, take refuge in Me alone. Have no regret, for I shall free you from all sins.” (Bg. 18.66)

Thus, surrender to Krishna, as declared in the ninth chapter, is the highest duty of the soul and therefore the supreme dharma. All other dharmas are preliminary duties, meant to bring one to the highest spiritual understanding of Krishna consciousness. Such conventional dharmas are useful until one comes to the point of utter surrender to God. So there is nothing incoherent when the Lord finally declares that the entire Bhagavad-gita is conducive to dharma, in all its aspects: “And if one will study this dharmya conversation of ours, he will indeed worship Me by the sacrifice of knowledge. That is My opinion.” (Bg. 18.70)