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Ramnath Subramanian

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The Dharma Dilemma: The Challenge of Competing Duties

Posted: 05/13/11 02:02 PM ET

I grew up in a traditional Indian household where lessons on integrity and duty were the norm. The word that encompassed those qualities was dharma. When I first encountered the word through the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita and understood its meaning, it seemed to be the quality that I most sought out in a hero. In my childhood war games I usually played the role of a captured prisoner who would be "tortured" but would not give away "the secret" to the "bad guys" even in the face of "death". At other times, I made up stories in my mind where I would play the role of a friend who would sacrifice his life for his dear companion. It was child's play, but in my mind it was what I wanted to become. As I grew up though, I began to realize that living with dharma meant more than just a romantic notion. Its meaning is in embracing a life of struggle.

Dharma is a topic that has been celebrated through books and talks by philosophers and academics, both from Indian origin and outside. It's meaning surfaces as one delves into the depth of the concept. In its simplest sense, dharma in Sanskrit means that which upholds. It is a concept of central importance in Hindu philosophy referring to a person's duties or obligations based on occupational and situational context tightly intertwined with relationships.

The idea of dharma as duty is found in India's ancient religious texts. It states that there is a divinely instituted natural order governing justice, harmony and happiness. This requires human beings to discern and live in an appropriate manner that fosters order and cordial living. As simple and as socially attractive as the concept may sound, living a life of dharma poses some complex questions for us as individuals living in a world that is in many ways disconnected from these fundamental concepts.

What exactly is my dharma? Is it my daily occupation or my sense of obligation to my family, society and humanity? To answer this question, one has to investigate into the deeper implication of dharma itself. A deeper understanding of dharma is "that which is inherent or essential to." For example, we can state that the dharma of sugar is sweetness. The "sweetening" is the duty of sugar. The sense of duty that is derived from dharma is the acting out of that essential property.

In ancient Hindu or Vedic culture, one's dharma was determined by one's psychophysical make up -- proclivities that stood out in and were inherent to an individual. That aptitude was determined at a young age and nurtured to serve the individual and society at large. This primarily became one's occupation. Other obligations were embedded based on different stages in one's life -- duty towards self, towards family (parents, spouse, kids, etc.) and towards different segments of society at large that also included animals. All of these duties were considered equally important on an absolute level.

The complexity of dharma becomes evident even in current times when our different obligations take mutually contradictory directions. I work as the president of a non-profit organization and recently I found myself in a situation where I was confronted with the decision to let go of a few employees. They are my personal friends, have great integrity and have made significant contributions in the past but for personal and situational reasons were not able to sustain their performance. The decision was a despairing one to make. As the president of the organization it is my primary responsibility to the stakeholders to ensure organizational efficiency. Bad decisions would not only be detrimental for the purpose of the organization, but would also cost me my job. At the same time, my decision would be humiliating and ungrateful to friends whom I truly value and are facing an hour of great need. What about "The friend in need is a friend indeed"?

It is in this type of emotionally ambiguous situation in which the Bhagavad Gita begins. Arjuna, the Pandava prince, facing a life-or-death battle against his unrighteous cousins. In the opposing army he also finds senior and revered members of his own family who raised him and his brothers when they had become fatherless at a very young age. His heart was only filled with gratitude for the stability, care and teachings that they had bestowed upon him. But according to his dharma, Arjuna has to fight in order to establish justice and that means he has to kill the very individuals whom he worships with all of his heart. The result is despair -- a situation where Arjuna feels like "damned if I do and damned if I don't." This sets the scene for a classic conversation on the concept of dharma.

As in any complex or paradoxical situation, there are at least two distinct alternatives -- the path of least resistance with enough justification that our "rational" intelligence and ego can provide, or the hard struggle to find deeper answers, clarity and grounding. It is easy for the head to justify one decision over another when the gut has already made the decision, but that may simply be our refusal to go through the pain of honest introspection. As the renowned Trappist monk Thomas Merton states in his book Thoughts in Solitude, "Laziness and cowardice are the most dangerous of all when marked as discretion." Many Nazis did, in fact, justify their acts against the Jews at the Nuremberg trials on the grounds that they were not acting on selfish grounds: they were doing their duty to their country.

Arjuna, at first, also justifies his gut decision to escape the battle with convincing arguments, but eventually musters up the courage to become vulnerable to the struggle and go deeper in his inquiry. And the deeper meaning of dharma manifests. Krishna, Arjuna's friend and confidante, unravels the profound meaning of dharma as going beyond the psychophysical nature of our existence and its corresponding duties and obligations. Instead Krishna encourages Arjuna to discover his true spiritual identity, for that alone can harmonize the conflicting and temporary responsibilities of this world. Referring back to the meaning of dharma as "that which is inherent or essential to", Krishna tells Arjuna that our essential identity is pure consciousness that is born from the spiritual soul, totally distinct from our psychophysical material nature that we so strongly identify with. Arjuna's ethical crisis transforms into a spiritual renaissance, where he realizes that his true dharma is that which aligns deeply with his spiritual and not his material identity.

Living with dharma can present paradoxical and despairing circumstances where our sense of goodness is severely tested. It has been humbling for me to realize that even with best possible intentions I cannot produce solutions that can satisfy everyone involved in a situation. The struggles have helped me to be less judgmental about other people's actions and understand that pure ethical living and idealism, although very admirable, also has its limitations. I realize that the primary aim for living the life of dharma is not only to ensure a society with high ethical conscience but also to go beyond the ethical into the realm of the spiritual. That is why the ancient Vedic texts encourage us to live by dharmic principles and furthermore struggle through despairing contradictions to seek deeper answers on responsibility, integrity and duty. This is where despair becomes a surpassing excellence and the movement from the ethical to the spiritual begins -- as the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard put it. This is where striving to live by dharma becomes our spiritual emancipation. It has awakened a deeper spiritual understanding into the real purpose of my existence, which I will highlight in my next article.