Mahabharat Episode 13: Dharma – Individual and Universal Laws
Dharma and AdharmaSadhguru: The whole epic of Mahabharat revolves around two fundamental aspects – dharma and adharma. When you say “dharma” and “adharma,” most people think in terms of right and wrong, correct and incorrect, good and bad. There are different ways to look at dharma and adharma. A kshatriya, a warrior, has his own kind of dharma. A brahmana, a teacher, has his own kind of dharma, and so do a vaishya and a shudra. This is a sophisticated way of looking at life. Not only do different groups of people have their own dharma – each individual has his or her own dharma. You will repeatedly hear Bhishma and everyone else say, “This is my dharma.” If everyone has their own dharma, their own law, then one could ask, where is the law? The Kurukshetra war did not happen because everyone had their own law and they became contrary to each other. The war happened because people broke their own dharma. This is a way of looking at life, where everyone can have their own dharma, but still there is a common thread of dharma that no one can break. That way, everyone can live their lives in their own freedom but still not clash with each other. This fundamental thread of dharma allowed the possibility of civilized existence.
Before dharma was established, there was something called as matsya nyaya. There is a story around it. One day, a little fish happily moved around in the Ganga. But then a little bigger fish came from elsewhere. The small fish became a part of the bigger fish, and the bigger fish was happy. Another day, an even bigger fish came and ate up this other fish. Like this, bigger and bigger fish came and ate up the smaller fish. Then the big fish went to the ocean. It started eating up smaller fish and became so huge that if it just wagged its tail, the ocean rose and hit the Himalayas. It became a threat to the world. This story needs to be understood in the right context. Even today it is true that every fish is trying to get bigger than what it is. If all the fish are growing at a similar pace, there will be a civilized society. But if one fish becomes super big, the fundamental laws and civilization of society tend to crash. That big fish’s whim will be the law. From matsya nyaya, which means fishy justice, they strived to get the society to a place where every individual can have his freedom and pursue his own law without breaking the fundamental thread of law in society.
Dharma in the Mahabharat
Mahabharat was a situation where a few fish had grown too big and did not respect the fundamental thread of law that would allow each individual their own freedom. When they talked about law or dharma, they did not just refer to it as a civil code, not just for peace in the society, not just for human beings to find expression to their talent, love, and freedom. Dharma is about organizing life in such a way that everyone is moving towards their ultimate nature. If you are progressing towards your ultimate, original, divine nature, then you are in dharma. If you are not progressing, even if you do not harm anyone, you are not in dharma. This is the context of dharma in the Mahabharat. When someone says, “This is my dharma,” it means, they may not like it, it may not be convenient for them, but this is the way for them to reach their ultimate nature. When Bhishma said, “This vow is my dharma. I will not break it, no matter if the Kuru lineage and the empire fall apart – though I am willing to give my life to this empire.” What he meant is that this was the way he was going to attain, and that he would not give it up. You heard what Vidura said – “For the sake of a family, you can sacrifice an individual. For the sake of a village, you can sacrifice a family. For the sake of a nation, you can sacrifice a village. For the sake of the world, you can sacrifice a nation. For the sake of the ultimate nature, you can sacrifice the whole world.” This is the context in which they looked at dharma. They clearly saw that the ultimate nature is the ultimate goal and of ultimate significance.
Based on this, they formed all the laws. They considered even the simple laws of day-to-day life as a stairway towards their ultimate nature. Bhishma took this terrible vow – we call it “terrible” not because he became a brahmachari, not because he incapacitated himself, not because of his personal discomfort or loss, but because he put the Kuru lineage and nation that he loved so much at stake. He put at stake what meant most to him, saying that this is his dharma and the way for him to attain. As we go along, you will see various situations where Bhishma seems almost superhuman. If a man is willing to transform the seed of life that is within him – a single cell that is able to create another human being – into a life force, then it becomes like a nuclear force. A single atom can create so much energy. At various times, people said they could not fight with Bhishma because he was a brahmachari. They could not kill him because he had transformed every seed in his body into a life force, which made him something like mortal by choice. It is from this background that they said Bhishma had the power to choose the time of his death. He was not immortal, but he could choose the time and place of his death, which is almost as good as immortality. Immortality can only happen if someone curses you. Can you imagine what kind of torture it would be if you had to live forever? Immortality is a curse. The choice of being able to die when you want to die is a boon.
Mahabharat – Way Ahead of Its Time
This is a process of tapping upon one’s own energies, and of tapping upon the energies in nature. Another example in the Mahabharat are the astras – powerful weapons. They said that the smallest particle in existence can be made into the biggest force on the battlefield. That sounds like an atomic bomb, even though they were still using bows and arrows. They also talked about the impact of certain astras, saying things like, “Even if you do not use this astra to destroy the whole world, the babies in their mother’s wombs will still be scorched.” Either they had an unbelievably fabulous imagination, or they actually had this kind of knowledge. Did they have these kinds of weapons, did they witness them somewhere, or did someone come from somewhere else and tell them these things? We do not know, but you need to look at this story with a certain care. It is not just about some people fighting, a guy wanting a kingdom or a wife or a child. There are many dimensions to it.
To be continued...
Editor's Note: A version of this article was originally published in Isha Forest Flower, December 2015.