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The importance of Dharma

Dharma: our given nature

Everything in life follows its given nature. The bird will be a bird and do what birds do. The snake will be a snake and do what snakes do. The bird is true to its dharma, and so too the snake and all beings. It is only the human being – this beautiful and perplexing creation – endowed with the capacity to be self-aware, that can go against its own given nature, against its own dharma. And go against our nature we do – sometimes even vehemently so.

Dharma: our place in the totality of life

Indigenous people have not lost connection with their place within the totality of life, which is another definition of Dharma. They have an acute sense of the interrelatedness and interdependence of all things. Modern humans though have, as a product of their technologically advanced society, all but lost their intricate connection with the sacred wholeness of life. The results are here for us all to experience. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the stress of our lives brought about by the lie that we have to consume in order to be happy. All have produced a toxic environment from which there is almost no escape. There is no need to elaborate this point, we all know this. The world we are leaving to our children is in need of much mending. And, in a sense, so are we.

“You are the world”, the great J. Krishnamurti declared passionately. The state of our planet is only a reflection of the mental state that humanity as a whole finds itself in, with the ‘developed’ countries leading the way. We have lost touch with nature, we have lost touch with the divine, and we have lost touch with ourselves. We have to regain our connection with nature; our connection with the divine. And we have to regain the connection with ourselves. This is key. And all these three point to one word – Dharma.

Dharma: our innate sense of right and wrong

There is another meaning of the word dharma – maybe best translated as conscience. This is our innate sense of right and wrong. It is innate to all human beings. It is our highest value, or should be, but these days often takes second place to our desires for personal gain. This is apparent on an individual as well as a corporate level. The damage we are willing to inflict on the planet as well as on each other, in order to continue the perpetual cycle of material gain, is a problem the next generations will be forced to deal with.

And yet, also today every child is born with this innate ‘knowing’ of right and wrong, a sense of Dharma that sits quietly in the chest of each human being, like a good, unassuming friend.

The four definitions of dharma in the Indian scriptures

In the Indian scriptural texts dharma is divided into four aspects:

Samanya dharma

These universal values that are written into the structure of reality. There is a universal expectation to not hurt, deceive or slander each other. I don’t lie to you because I do not want to be lied to.


We are all conditioned to act in certain ways in the world. For example, business people might see every situation as an opportunity, empathic people may ask if they can be of help, and criminals will see if they can make some easy money without getting caught. However, some people have a burning desire to seek liberation, free the mind and realise their own nature.

All living creatures follow their nature. As already stated above, only human beings, endowed with introspection and free-will, can and do stray from their given nature. But wanting to be different from how life has formed us is not useful or conducive to success and happiness. The way life has formed us is the set of cards we’ve been given to play in the great tapestry of life. Better to accept and love it, and gently work at those parts that could do with some improvement.

The way life has formed us is the set of cards we’ve been given in the great tapestry of life. Better to accept and love it and gently work at that parts that could do with some improvement.

Vishesha dharma

Vishesha dharma is the appropriate response to a given situation with its particular conditions and circumstances. Here, discrimination is essential, as we need to interpret the circumstances we find ourselves in, keeping in mind the universal values and the propensities of our own nature.

This enables us to respond to a situation appropriately, but this is not always easy. Life can be full of complexity and can ask of us a willingness to adjust and re-adjust ourselves again and again, so we can keep attuning ourselves as best we can to the dharma of each situation.

Dharma – your true nature

Dharma with a capital ‘D’. It is the Self or your real “I” – the silent witness. As spiritual teacher and author, Rupert Spira, says: “The discovery that peace, happiness and love are ever-present and completely available to us at every moment of experience, under all conditions, as our own Self, is the most important discovery anyone can make“.

To paraphrase Vedanta teacher, Christian Leeby, it’s with these four definitions of dharma – balancing your own values with universal values in each unique situation that life presents you with – that is the art of living.

Every eco-system depends on a delicate balance of all of its parts. Observing universal and personal values with a clear sense of conscience is also how we maintain that balance as human beings. We contribute to the whole, rather than extract from it. We play our part that we have been designated to play. And, in doing so, (as the Sufis say) we’ll leave behind us the sweet fragrance of Dharma.


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