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The word “dharma” has multiple meanings depending on the context in which it is used. These include: conduct, duty, right, justice, virtue, morality, religion, religious merit, good work according to a right or rule, etc. Many others meanings have been suggested, such as law or “torah” (in the Judaic sense), “logos” (Greek), “way” (Christian) and even ‘tao” (Chinese). None of these is entirely accurate and none conveys the full force of the term in Sanskrit. Dharma has no equivalent in the Western lexicon. Dharma has the Sanskrit root dhri, which means “that which upholds” or “that without which nothing can stand” or “that which maintains the stability and harmony of the universe.” Dharma encompasses the natural, innate behavior of things, duty, law, ethics, virtue, etc. Every entity in the cosmos has its particular dharma — from the electron, which has the dharma to move in a certain manner, to the clouds, galaxies, plants, insects, and of course, man. Man’s understanding of the dharma of inanimate things is what we now call physics. British colonialists endeavored to map Indian traditions onto their ideas of religion so as to be able to comprehend and govern their subjects; yet the notion of dharma remained elusive. The common translation into religion is misleading since, to most Westerners, a genuine religion must: 1) be based on a single canon of scripture given by God in a precisely defined historical event; 2) involve worship of the divine who is distinct from ourselves and the cosmos; 3) be governed by some human authority such as the church; 4) consist of formal members; 5) be presided over by an ordained clergyman; and 6) use a standard set of rituals. But dharma is not limited to a particular creed or specific form of worship. To the Westerner, an “atheistic religion” would be a contradiction in terms, but in Buddhism, Jainism and Carvaka dharma, there is no place for God as conventionally defined. In some Hindu systems the exact status of God is debatable. Nor is there only a single standard deity, and one may worship one’s own ishta-devata, or chosen deity. Dharma provides the principles for the harmonious fulfillment of all aspects of life, namely, the acquisition of wealth and power (artha), fulfillment of desires (kama), and liberation (moksha). Religion, then, is only one subset of dharma’s scope. Religion applies only to human beings and not to the entire cosmos; there is no religion of electrons, monkeys, plants and galaxies, whereas all of them have their dharma even if they carry it out without intention. Since the essence of humanity is divinity, it is possible for them to know their dharma through direct experience without any external intervention or recourse to history. In Western religions, the central law of the world and its peoples is singular and unified, and revealed and governed from above. In dharmic traditions, the word a-dharma applies to humans who fail to perform righteously; it does not mean refusal to embrace a given set of propositions as a belief system or disobedience to a set of commandments or canons. Dharma is also often translated as “law,” but to become a law, a set of rules has to be present which must: (i) be promulgated and decreed by an authority that enjoys political sovereignty over a given territory, (ii) be obligatory, (iii) be interpreted, adjudicated and enforced by courts, and (iv) carry penalties when it is breached. No such description of dharma is found within the traditions. The Roman Emperor Constantine began the system of “canon laws,” which were determined and enforced by the Church. The ultimate source of Jewish law is the God of Israel. The Western religions agree that the laws of God must be obeyed just as if they were commandments from a sovereign. It is therefore critical that “false gods” be denounced and defeated, for they might issue illegitimate laws in order to undermine the “true laws.” If multiple deities were allowed, then there would be confusion as to which laws were true. In contrast with this, there is no record of any sovereign promulgating the various dharma-shastras (texts of dharma for society) for any specific territory at any specific time, nor any claim that God revealed such “social laws,” or that they should be enforced by a ruler. None of the compilers of the famous texts of social dharma were appointed by kings, served in law enforcement, or had any official capacity in the state machinery. They were more akin to modern academic social theorists than jurists. The famous Yajnavalkya Smriti is introduced in the remote sanctuary of an ascetic. The well-known Manusmriti begins by stating its setting as the humble abode of Manu, who answered questions posed to him in a state of samadhi (higher consciousness). Manu tells the sages that every epoch has its own distinct social and behavioral dharma. Similarly, none of the Vedas and Upanishads was sponsored by a king, court or administrator, or by an institution with the status of a church. In this respect, dharma is closer to the sense of “law” we find in the Hebrew scriptures, where torah, the Hebrew equivalent, is also given in direct spiritual experience. The difference is that Jewish torah quickly became enforced by the institutions of ancient Israel. The dharma-shastras did not create an enforced practice but recorded existing practices. Many traditional smritis (codified social dharma) were documenting prevailing localized customs of particular communities. An important principle was self-governance by a community from within. The smritis do not claim to prescribe an orthodox view from the pulpit, as it were, and it was not until the 19th century, under British colonial rule, that the smritis were turned into “law” enforced by the state. The reduction of dharma to concepts such as religion and law has harmful consequences: it places the study of dharma in Western frameworks, moving it away from the authority of its own exemplars. Moreover, it creates the false impression that dharma is similar to Christian ecclesiastical law-making and the related struggles for state power. The result of equating dharma with religion in India has been disastrous: in the name of secularism, dharma has been subjected to the same limits as Christianity in Europe. A non-religious society may still be ethical without belief in God, but an a-dharmic society loses its ethical compass and falls into corruption and decadence.
Occasionally, a small group of evangelists — well-dressed and well-groomed young men and women from a local church — walks around my neighborhood ringing doorbells to spread Christianity. I always like to invite them in, offer them chai and engage in a relaxed conversation. Even though I went to a Catholic school and know the proselytizing game well, I pretend I’m the naive immigrant eager to ask basic questions. After a few minutes of small talk, one of them usually breaks open the topic by asking, “Have you been saved?” I try to look surprised, and respond by saying, “I was never condemned to begin with!” My young, charming guests usually get thrown off. They expect me to claim that I have already been saved, and their training has equipped them with the rhetorical skills to assert that their ability to save me is superior to my present faith. I usually find them taken by surprise by my posture that I do not need to be saved in the first place. Christian salvation is a solution to the problem of Eternal Damnation caused by Original Sin. But that problem does not exist within the dharma traditions. Imagine someone asking you if you have been pardoned from your prison sentence, and you respond by saying that you were never condemned for any crime and, hence, such a question is absurd. The implication here is that for a dharmic person to say he has been saved would imply that he accepts Christianity’s fundamental tenet that every human is born a sinner and remains so until he surrenders himself to Jesus Christ. Even when the church acknowledges other faiths as having merit, no other path can substitute for Jesus when it comes to being saved. The closest the dharmic traditions come to salvation are the concepts of moksha in Hinduism and nirvana in Buddhism, both of which can be loosely translated as “liberation.” But there are crucial differences between dharmic liberation and Christian salvation. Receiving assurance of salvation is the key moment in the spiritual life of most Christians. It comes as a gift of grace and its source lies outside the individual. It does not come as a result strictly of merit, spiritual practice, prayer or asceticism. Although these may be helpful in its attainment, and even necessary in many denominations, they are not sufficient in and of themselves. That’s because the potential to achieve salvation is not innate in us. In Jewish and Christian traditions, death is the consequence of sin. The freedom of the soul in Christianity entails, in the End of Time, the freedom of the body as well: There will be a resurrection of the dead in a “glorified” physical form, and the boundary between heaven and earth will be erased or made permeable. For most people, the full realization of this salvation can come only after death. Dharmic liberation, on the other hand, can be achieved here and now in this very body and in this very world. Moksha is similar to salvation insofar as it is concerned with freedom from human bondage; but the nature of this bondage is quite different. Moksha really refers to living in a state of freedom from ignorance, pre-conditioning and karmic “baggage.” According to the Bhagavad Gita, the state where one is desire-less, ego-less and beyond the drives of human nature is the first major milestone; it opens the door to further evolution and eventual liberation in the fullest sense. Salvation, on the other hand, does not entail expanded awareness or consciousness, esoteric/mystical knowledge or physical practices (though these may attend it). Nor is it necessarily derived from complete renunciation, as is the case in Buddhist nirvana. It can be experienced only by surrendering to the will of God, and God here is specifically the God of the Bible. There is yet another state described in Sanskrit which has no equivalent in Christianity. One who has attained moksha may choose to remain in the world and continue to do spiritual work — that is, free from past actions (i.e., karmic bondage) and yet active in the world. This person is called jivanmukta. He (or she) can, at will, either turn away from the world or turn toward it and deal with it without being touched or limited by it. The Buddhist equivalent of a jivanmukta is a bodhisattva. The New Testament calls this “being in the world, but not of it.” There is an opening here for a potential development of a Christian jivanmukta, and St. Paul says several things about himself that would indicate he had at least tasted this state, as had other Christian saints. But the important thing is that there is no word for it in biblical metaphysics; that’s because the state was not examined, understood or cultivated through systematic techniques. The words “saint” and “prophet” do not suffice, nor even does “mystic.” When Christians experienced such a state, it was not as a result of following a yoga-like systematic process; neither was it seen as bringing salvation. Hence such a person would still be, according to the Vatican document Dominus Jesus, “in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation.” As the evangelists leave my home, I always hope our conversation has challenged their assumptions about the people they are preaching to, and that perhaps they will re-examine the idea that all people outside of their church are in a state of spiritual deficiency. But until they do, I will continue to welcome them into my living room, offer them chai and share with them the good news that there is no such thing as Original Sin. We are all originally divine.