I grew up around the concepts of dharma and karma. Dharma is one’s utmost righteous duty in life, but it extends to every action we undertake, every motivation we have, and every outcome of our karma. The words dharma and karma were thrown around since I was just a babe, I probably first really heard these words by the time I was 5 years old. 31 years later, these are daily understandings. Dharma is a primary principle by which my life is lived. The path is not only narrow, but sometimes razor sharp. So, righteous duty. What does that even mean? It has a religious tone to it, doesn’t it? You know that saying, “A man’s word is his bond” ? Right, you probably don’t even remember it, but if you do you’ll recognize that this saying is hardly ever met with reality. If someone says their ‘word is their bond’, you rarely take them seriously. Because hardly anyone ever lives up to their sworn promises anymore. To do so, to say so, and to genuinely follow through–even if it ends up hurting you a little or a lot, that is dharma. When you have made a promise (not even a vow) and live up to that promise, you are acting in accord with dharma. Yet it’s not that cut and dry. Honoring your word is one thing, honoring other people you bitterly dislike (maybe even hate) and knowing there is room for them in this world, that is also dharma.
This world presents infinite opportunities for us to struggle with opposition and intense moments of discomfort. In the end, it is all very fleeting–we’re here for a blip of time, and then we die. I’ve been reading this fantastic rendition of a book called The Mahabharata, by Ramesh Menon. This epic tale is about families, about friendships, about the light and about the evil in the hearts of humankind vying for domination. It is also an epic tale of how a war begins and ends, but more importantly, this is a tale about dharma. It begins and ends with dharma. In this story princes become the lords of the world, to have it all taken away from them in a high stakes game of dice. They get exiled into the forest for 12 years, and for their last year, their 13th, they must live in any city of their choosing in disguise. And if these princes who suffer so much at the fate of a dice game (believe me, there’s a lot more to this story than I share here) they can be attacked and killed.
At the end of their 12th year the Pandava princes (the exiled ones) go on a special mission for a Brahman priest to find some special items for his special ceremony. A deer had stopped the priest and accidentally took one of his important items by getting it tangled in his antlers, the priest couldn’t complete this special ceremony without these sticks (which have strings on them). These princes are bound by their word of dharma (the only reason they agreed to live in exile at the end of a badly played, and unfairly played game of dice) to get those items back for this priest. As they run through the woods they get very tired.
In fact, these woods are enchanted, and as strong as they are, as powerful as their weapons and skills are, they are tired and thirsty. One of the brothers climbs a tree to search for water. Remember, they’re looking for this deer who interrupted the priest by accidentally stealing his sticks. He sees the water off in the distance and tells his prince brothers he’ll go and fetch some water for them all. They wait for an hour, and realize something amiss has happened. One by one they all go down to the water until the last, the eldest prince, Yudhishthira, the very son of dharma, blearily makes his way to the water. When he arrives he sees his four brothers all dead and blue, laying in a slump by the water. He feels panic, but then thinks, I should drink this water so I can figure out a way to save their lives. When he bends over and scoops water into his hands a voice cracks out of the air, “Stop! You cannot drink this water, or you will die like your brothers. You may only drink my water if you answer these riddles. Your brothers thought I was a hallucination, and so each of them has died for not listening to me.”
Yudhishthira lets the water go and answers many of the riddles. Skipping ahead through many of these riddles, the lake spirit asks Yudhishthira, “What is truly amazing in this world?” Yudhishthira pauses and thinks for a moment, then responds: “Every day thousands of people die.” Then, smiling, he continued, “Yet, those who stay alive in this world think that they’re immortal. What could be more amazing than that?” The spirit has a chuckle at that. In the same way, each day people experience and undergo tremendous difficulty, challenges, pain, and the ones who don’t think they’re immune. Until it happens to them. I am no stranger to thinking this way myself.
Each of us undergoes what we consider to be a life event (large or small) that is very challenging. So how would we ever decide to ‘suffer it cheerfully’? When we really get it right now that untimely things happen–people we know and care about pass away, one of our closest friends moves across town or across the country. We experience loss, we experience inconvenience, we experience every kind of challenge–and we always will until we take our own last breath. Knowing this, and intending right now to greet our challenges with a smile, with an open and soft heart, with as much curiosity and humility as we can open to, then we can begin to (as Pema Chodron might say) lean into the pain and difficulties that arise in our day to day lives. I find that when I maintain my awareness in this moment and do not get dragged into fantasies about ‘later’, that I am content and even joyful, despite the ongoing challenges I face every day.
This, to my understanding, is dharma. Living with a strong sense of dharma, of right-self-action and discernment, moment to moment, day to day, gives me a sense of cheeriness that otherwise vanishes when I veer into self-serving habitual tendencies and allow myself to get lax in my principles and values. We all know what this is like: “oh I’m going to just eat pizza for lunch again, I don’t need to make a salad, I can do that tomorrow!” The problem with tomorrow is that when it comes, it’s always today. Lazy thinking begets “stinkin’ thinkin'” begets loss of principles and values, equals lessening of dharma, darkening of karma. Or so that’s how I’ve come to think of it.