The meaning of the word dharma is “duty,” but it’s that duty which leads you to the realization of your highest Self. There are lower and higher forms of duty, including your worldly duty, but in the highest sense, the word dharma means that action which leads you toward Self-realization.
It’s very important to understand that your dharma is uniquely your own, the things you need to do. There’s a general dharma that’s true for everyone—we all need to love, to forgive, to be in joy, to live peacefully, to be honest and truthful. But there are specific things that are inwardly right for you because they will help you to find God—and they aren’t necessarily the things you’re good at. You may be a good actor, but it may go against your dharma to be an actor because doing so could feed your ego.
It says in the Bhagavad Gita: “It’s better to fail in your own dharma than to succeed in someone else’s.” Whatever is the right way for you, that is your dharma. This principle is very important to understand because it follows from this that there are no more or less important roles in life. There isn’t anything important except knowing God, and the position you hold is totally extraneous.
I met a saint in India who had received a few letters from someone I knew, and he asked me what her work was. I explained that she was the head of an organization and described her responsibilities. He said: “Because of her position, she is able to work out her karma more quickly. It happens to be her karma to do it that way—not good karma, just karma. But it would be a misfortune for someone without that karma to be in that position because it wouldn’t help them to move forward.”
Work is not important for its own sake
People on the spiritual path sometimes make the mistake of thinking that what they do is important for its own sake. They begin to think: “Oh, we can do big things,” or “We can accomplish wonders,” or “We can teach the multitudes, and won’t it be wonderful when everybody in the world is meditating because we got the message across to them in the right way?”
It doesn’t ever happen that way. The world drifts along in its own direction. You do things on the spiritual path with the ultimate purpose of helping yourself. If it’s other people’s karma to be helped, then they will find that help. They’re not waiting for incarnations until you arrive on the scene to help them. They will get what they’re meant to get.
And even if we can do some good in this dream-world, it isn’t good to think so. It’s much better to focus on the deeper purpose for all spiritual activity, which is to bring good things out of yourself.
The key to dharma: doing it for God
Dharma means “duty” but often, when we think in terms of duty, we think of something that’s a burden, something that goes against our desires. And, in fact, there were times in my life when I felt that way.
When I was first trying to build the Ananda Meditation Retreat, I had to leave Ananda for many months to earn the money to pay certain debts; otherwise I would have lost the land. I kept thinking, “Divine Mother, why have you given this to me? I’ve never been interested in money, but now I’ve got to devote nearly all of my time and energy to earning money when I’d much rather stay here.”
But there came a very important lesson. After I’d met the challenge successfully, I realized that my gain wasn’t the money I’d earned. It was a spiritual gain: I felt stronger in myself. And slowly I came to understand that we don’t need to make a distinction between higher and lower duties if we act in joyful surrender to God’s will. When we understand that our joy lies in doing whatever God has given us to do, then what we do is no longer a burden but a wonderful opportunity to grow spiritually. And when we act in that spirit, He blesses us.
Succeeding against impossible odds
A very interesting example of this involved one of my fellow monks at Mt. Washington. When he first arrived at my Guru’s ashram, he had many physical problems. He only had one lung, double curvature of the spine, and there was no cushioning between many of the vertebrae. Every time he walked, it was painful. In the morning he would wake up totally paralyzed and couldn’t get out of bed. By sort of rolling from side to side he’d get up enough momentum to fall onto the floor. His muscles would then slowly begin to move and he could start his day’s work.
Yogananda put him in the kind of work that seemed impossible for a man in his condition. He had him driving the tractor, climbing scaffolding, and plastering the sides of buildings. Yet this monk did it joyfully and eventually did it very well, without difficulty. He transcended all that pain and became a person of great energy and drive.
Unfortunately, his ego later started to get strong and he became out of tune. He began to think, “I shouldn’t be doing this kind of work with a body like this. I’m getting a little older.” (He was only 35.) “I should let the younger men do this hard work.” After he began having a few physical problems, he asked Yogananda to give him a different job. Yogananda gave him a nice room and outfitted it with file cabinets and whatever else he asked for. Later Yogananda said, “No matter how much I do for him, he keeps getting worse because he’s not in tune.”
When people are in tune and work joyfully with the thought of pleasing God, then, somehow, everything seems to go well, even against impossible odds. God gives us the energy we need. Even if we don’t know all the rules, the Divine is always there, supporting us and preventing us from making disastrous mistakes. That’s one of the main lessons of the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna never took part in the battle, but his very presence on the side of the Pandavas insured their ultimate success.
You must act with the right consciousness
It’s also important to understand that unless you act with the right consciousness, your dharma won’t take you any closer to God. You may get good karma but you won’t get divine freedom. The consciousness with which you do your work is the most important aspect of all, not the outward form.
For devotees, the purpose of all work is to put into action those divine qualities you’re developing inside—kindness, love, joy, peace, and calmness. If, when working, you allow yourself to become frazzled and to think, “Oh, I only have a little time to get this done; I’ll think about God later”—then there’s something wrong with the way you’re doing it. While working you should always be reinforcing those feelings of peace, calmness, love, and joy.
Your only responsibility in this drama is to express that divine inspiration as perfectly as possible. This means that you should act with the understanding that this is God’s world, not yours. You should try to do as good a job as possible without involving yourself egotistically. And you should always be trying to express those divine qualities.
Dharma is not black and white
The laws of dharma must be understood on a spiritual level, above all, and secondly, on a relative level, in the sense that there are different degrees of dharma. As it says in the Indian scriptures, “When a lower dharma conflicts with a higher, it ceases to be a dharma.” It ceases to be a right action. This is a very subtle teaching and it’s not always easy to apply.
Take the example of marriage and divorce. One of the great mistakes in this country is that people get divorced for trivial reasons—because it doesn’t “feel” right anymore, because it’s become “inconvenient.” And, of course, divorce, for such reasons, is not right. Divorce in principle is not right.
But there are times when it’s necessary. Suppose you’re married to someone who is holding you back from your spiritual life? Which is the higher duty—to waste another incarnation or to use this incarnation to find God? The Indian attitude is that if a marriage conflicts with the higher dharma of deeply offering your life to God, then it isn’t right.
There are different levels of dharma, and choosing between them is not always easy. How do we know what the right choice is?
To be truly guided by dharma in such situations, you must be able to pull back from your desires and get in touch with your soul. Only from a soul level can you understand dharma perfectly. Otherwise, you can easily come up with all sorts of rationalizations to justify what is obviously a wrong act, and you end up using this teaching as an excuse to get out of a duty rather than as a reason to cling to a higher duty.
You will receive the right inner guidance only when you have developed the inner freedom to be able to say to God in meditation: ”Everything that I have I offer at your feet. If I should die tonight, I will die a free soul because I’m not attached to anything in this world. I don’t need or want anything. I work enthusiastically for you, not for myself.” When you say that with deep sincerity, then and then only will the right guidance come. Otherwise, seek the advice of those more advanced on the spiritual path.
There is only joy
Always remember, dharma is that which leads you toward the Divine. Whatever your dharma is, it’s an opportunity not a burden—a wonderful opportunity to grow. Even if your dharma may initially be difficult because it requires of you a new kind of discipline, once you’ve got all your energies moving in the right direction, there is only joy.
This article first appeared in print in Spring 2010: “What Is Your Highest Duty?,” Swami Kriyananda, Clarity Magazine.
From talks at Ananda Village: Following the Highest Dharma, August 11, 1985; Being and Doing, August 13, 1981; and Reincarnation, Service, and Love, 1979. To order a CD or MP3 of these talks, click here or call Treasures Along the Path (530) 478-7656.