H.G. Matsyavatar Das

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Dharma, the essential foundation

By Matsya Avatara Dasa

(From the book "Vedic-Puranic Cosmogony")

Modern man is confused, without precise and stable reference points that allow him to sail peacefully through the waves of life. He is full of anxieties and fears that seem impossible to overcome, fragile and unstable in his psyche, and pitifully exhausted by neurosis of various nature and origin, that drain much energy from him, by secretly absorbing them. He is also sadly isolated and constantly tossed around and dragged to unknown directions by tragic and uncontrollable events and aberrant ideas imposed on him by stronger and violent individuals who, like a storm of powerful winds, sweep him away and his fragile ship wrecks... its unrecognizable remains drifting away at high sea.

The Man of Tradition, who builds his life on a traditional set of values, had and has a cosmogonic vision: he sees and understands the universe, and is therefore able to point out, precisely and safely, his own position in the vast expanse of the cosmic manifestation. The so-called modern man, on the other hand, has lost these references and paradoxically, although he made giant steps in the field of technology and especially in the sector of communication, finds serious, indeed, almost insurmountable, difficulties in communicating with others and even with himself.

Having gradually lost the organic vision of reality, the consciousness of its solid wholeness, of the connections between the parts and the whole, he engrossed himself in an obstinate and repeated study of fragments, of micro-realities cut off from the whole. Although he has become capable of inventing microscopes and other very powerful instruments of research1, he finally has to acknowledge, with surprise, dismay and even a bit of frustration, that material nature keeps escaping from his futile efforts to know it, as if mocking him. In fact, Nature is comparable to a series of Chinese boxes: as soon as we discover one aspect we immediately see another, contained inside the previous one.

Modern man, therefore, risks suffering an overwhelming confusion, full of anxiety, a subtle and pervasive “malaise” that is becomes increasingly bitter and deep (especially in the youngest generation). His condition becomes more serious as it becomes apparent that there are no satisfying answers that can explain his vast reality. Certainly the various religions are not giving such answers, as often they are employing their enormous energies and resources more in search of wider popular support than in giving satisfactory answers to the painful questions on the meaning of the entire cosmic process. In fact they focus most of their interests on the mere anthropological sphere - on man and his problems. In their reductively anthropocentric attitude, they try their best to elaborate a policy for man, down to the smallest details and with complicated (and often unrealistic) economic and social plans, while neglecting the simple basic truth that man, when he is not able to locate himself in his socio-cosmic context and does not know himself because he is not able to perceive himself in his essence or transcendental reality, will not be able to trace a feasible project for his own development and growth2. It is therefore necessary to indicate with the greatest precision possible the cosmogony or universal design, and the escatology or ultramundane goal of existence.

The Vedas offer an extremely wide picture of the universal project, starting from the description of the four objectives of evolved human life3; dharma, artha, kama and moksha. To attain these goals, a good quality person organizes in the best possible ways his efforts and resources. The art of life consists in attaining these goals and living them in a balanced way, making them all - one after the other or simultaneously - a successful realization.

Dharma is the Cosmic Order, God's Law, the Will of the Lord, the harmony and tuning of and with whatever vibrates, the force that sustains all, the life principle and the laws that support it. Without dharma, the planets could not remain in their orbits, and we would not even be able to breathe without a connection with dharma.

Dharma is also religiosity, without which it would be impossible to execute any action; it is the acquisition of a minimum level of piety and good sentiments enabling us to face life, and that will be expanded at the utmost; anyway, it is necessary to have at least a minimum quality for an individual to be able to live amidst people, in creation and all creatures.

The Sanskrit word bhuta, in this context, indicates the created being; in fact the root bhu means both ‘being’ and ‘becoming’, but if we add the suffix ta it comes to mean ‘created’. Since the soul is immortal4, who is created? The bodies are created, while the life principle, the atman, is not created: it is not born and it does not die.

All creatures are born and die only apparently; in fact what is born and dies is the bodies, those wrappings made of matter (prakriti) inhabited by the immortal beings, and which always remain distinct from the being in all circumstances. In Bhagavadgita Krishna states that the eightfold matter5, that we perceive as forms and names, is separated from Him6; and we could add, from us, too: organs, tissues, cells are in fact aggregates of matter that is separated from our real being. Dharma is absolutely required to bring clarity in this alienated environment where confused masses, overwhelmed by a terrible crisis of identity believe they are bodies, and totally identify with prakriti.

Dharma offers some fundamental directives called yama and niyama7, to live consciously in any place, but especially in those places where the atmosphere has become “incandescent” due to passion (rajo-guna) and darkened by ignorance (tamo-guna)8.

When the consciousness of the self is developed in the proper way, according to dharma, the individual becomes dharmya, a bearer of dharma or supporter of dharma, and at the same time he is also ‘supported’ by dharma

In a passage of Mahabharata9 it is strongly stated that one who supports dharma is supported by dharma, while one who tramples upon dharma becomes crushed by dharma.

The support of dharma enables us to attain the second goal: artha or economic prosperity, which does not have any negative meaning in itself10, unless it involves a gross behavior that drags its author into brutishness and makes him forget his prescribed duties that are supposed to lead him to spiritual realization. The shastras11 recommend to pursue this goal, because it is necessary to earn the resources required to take the path of perfection. When the union of the Divine will be stable and final, only at that time we will not need any specific efforts to pursue artha: the Lord will provide directly.

Everything depends therefore on building one's existence on the principles of dharma, the celestial rule, the divine law, the highest Order that supports all. By careful observation of the natural cycles, we can detect the presence of this divine Order: trees blossom again and again each spring; days and night follow each other regularly; the sun never leaves its orbit - because if it changed it, deviating of even a small distance, everything would catch fire, water would evaporate, all plants would disappear and all living entities who depend on water for survival would also die, including the human beings. It is dharma that supports the sun and all stars and planets in their orbits and makes life possible on the planets. The source of dharma is the Supreme Being who, through dharma, stipulates a rightful pact with all the creatures, without favoring or disfavoring any of them. It is in fact only according to the way we relate to dharma that we will have to face the positive or negative consequences of our good and bad actions. This is the fundamental principle regulating the law of karman, the strict eternal law of remuneration of actions.

Therefore the man of Tradition pursues the tangible and practical development of the fundamental principles of dharma, constantly and sincerely striving to apply its theory in daily life, as he does not recognize any real importance to the philosophical activities in themselves, when they are separated from reality and unable to deliver the living being from the fundamental problem of bodily existence -- his own suffering. He thus seeks an intimate and genuine internalization of the laws of dharma and their genuine expression in thinking and in speaking to others, in commenting on events and changes that happen in society and nature, and in his own actions as well.

After attaining artha on the basis of dharma, we attain kama, a term that indicates in this context the search for pleasure and joy. If these pleasures are developed from artha, pursued with one's own means instead of others' means, and through means based on dharma, or moral, ethical and spiritual rules12, we attain joy, a sense of satisfaction that follows the experience of pleasure. To be more precise, we should say that the research of pleasure ceases to be an obsession and he then becomes free from the mental conditions that pushed him to make wrong choices in the pursuit of sensory stimulations. When they are obtained in harmony with the Divine Order, the so called pleasures are potentially able to make him thoughtful and reflective, leading gradually to detachment from material attachments, allowing him to dedicate himself, serenely and lucidly, to pursue the fourth goal that is characteristics of the evolved man: moksha, the final liberation from illusions, from identification with matter and mundane attachment, the sources of suffering13.

Therefore, giving man a wide, universal frame of knowledge, not only on the spiritual dimension but also on the variety of the cosmic manifestation, is necessary to reveal to him dharma and its fundamental laws. All this immediately offers him the essential instruments to determine, plan and build, day after day, his own future. Offering such instruments constitutes the highest humanitarian activity that benefits not only man, but all creatures and well as the environment, as micro and macro sphere.

A vision of the universe that is based on a strongly and openly anthropocentric conception would be a disconcertingly reductive proposition, implying a drastic limitation on the capabilities and potential of spiritual realization.

Man does not have a central position. The Vedic-Vaishnava conception of the universe is theocentric: God is the motor of the universe, and everything is taken care of due to the supreme and sweet will of God. And if all creatures, and especially man, would put the Lord in the center of their attention and care, of their thoughts and words, whatever they wanted to attain would come almost spontaneously, with much less difficulties in proportion to the concentration on the contemplation of God; and all actions performed in this way would benefit not only humans, but as we mentioned, all creatures.

On the other hand, if by some kind of anthropocentric obsession or other species feticism, man would be induced to consider only his own species as worthy of care and attention, he wouldn't even be able to maintain the health of this planet and would become the cause of continuous and serious ecologic crises, since the environmental balance can only be maintained if we work for the benefit of “all” creatures, allowing each one of them to freely express its own nature.

Usually man is considered the sovereign of creatures, but the real Sovereign is God, who also rules over man. Man has the duty to guide less intelligent and evolved creatures. This means giving a role to each of them without taking undue advantage of anyone, otherwise the result would be exploitation instead of guidance.

It is therefore urgent and necessary to seriously revise the concepts of progress and evolution, sociology, well-being and economy, and even history.

Thinking that human beings are the only rightful citizens of this planets is much too limited a concept; we should extend the habeas corpus to animal species as well. We speak so often about love: why should we limit love to mankind only? Putting mankind in the center of the universe is a typical mistake of modern philosophy.

1 We refer here not only to reductionism, but also to the “specialization” that is so typical of cultural life in the West today.

2 This does not mean that we want to negate the entire ethical and spiritual values preserved and supported by the historical religions (this would be contradicting the need to respect the reference to a traditional knowledge we had already mentioned) or to diminish the importance of their activities on the social level; however we feel the need to complete and refine the fields of action tending to the integration between religious thoughts, starting from the deep knowledge about consciousness offered by the Vedas.

3 In Sanskrit, chatur-purushartha.

4 See Bg II.20: For the soul there is neither birth nor death. Existing, it never ceases to exist. It is never born and never dies; it is eternal, primeval, without beginning and without end. It does not die when the body dies.

5 See p. 74.

6 See Bg VII.4.

7 These rules are found in all astika Schools, accepting the Vedas as revealed Scriptures, especially in the Yoga-darshana, the School traditionally considered to be founded by sage Patanjali, author of the famous Yoga-sutras, fundamental text of that School.

8 Two of the three gunas; see section ‘The three gunas and karma’, p. 83.

9 Adi Parva, chapter 60.

10 Traditionally, money and wealth in general are a manifestation, in the world of elements, of Shrimati Lakshmidevi, eternal consort and internal energy (antaranga-shakti) of Shri Vishnu, the God-Person.

11 Literally ‘precepts, teachings’, especially those contained in the sacred texts, both Shruti (Revelation) and Smriti (Tradition). Shastra is for Shruti what the tree is for its seed. [The main Schools of thought in the context of Vedic Tradition delineate the method to acquire knowledge by indicating three main cognitive instruments (pramana): pratyaksha (sense perception), anumana (deduction) and Shabda (aurally received teachings from a Tradition or Authority). Of the three, the third is traditionally considered the most authoritative method, sufficient in itself to attain knowledge, both physical and metaphysical.]

12 Where ‘moral’ are the actions in the world of elements, while ‘ethical’ is the concept of good and bad, and ‘spiritual’ is the will power that directs action towards liberation (moksha).

13 According to the Gaudiya Vaishnava School of Shri Caitanya Mahaprabhu there is a further stage, even beyond liberation: this is prema, love for God, also defined as param-purushartha (the supreme goal for human beings).

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