Dharma in the Bhagavad-gita

Dharma in the Bhagavad-gita
Hridayananda dasa Goswami

The Sanskrit word “dharma” has joined “yoga” and “karma” in common English usage. dharma is often taken to mean “religion” or “duty.” But these meanings are incomplete. In the Gita, Lord Krishna refers to dharma in progressively deeper ways, shedding light on the meaning of the term and its importance for personal spiritual growth.

In life we all encounter ethical conflicts, although perhaps less dramatically than Arjuna. As we shall see, the Gita helps us make intelligent decisions by showing how ordinary piety fails to deliver the endless satisfaction of service to God.

Dharma is the first word in the Bhagavad-gita. The great work begins when the blind old king Dhritarashtra asks his secretary, Sanjaya, about the battle that was to take place at “the field of dharma” (dharma-kshetra). Dhritarashtra, knowing his sons to be evil, worried that the spiritual influence of the dharma field would favor the pious Pandavas. As the Gita’s first chapter unfolds, Arjuna also grows wary of the influence of dharma. He fears that his, and Krishna’s, participation in the war will lead to a violation of dharma and perpetual residence in hell.

In the name of dharma, Arjuna argues for nonviolence by assuming that to attack and kill so many leading men, nearly all of whom are fathers and husbands, will destabilize the important families and communities for which these men are responsible. The families themselves are vital to the peace and virtue of society. Arjuna’s argument, literally translated, proceeds as follows:

On destruction of the family, the perennial family dharmas perish. When dharma perishes, adharma [the opposite of dharma] overwhelms the entire family. From the predominance of adharma, O Krishna, the family women are polluted. When the women are polluted, O Varshneya, a confusion of social orders arises. This confusion leads only to hell both for the destroyers of families and for the family. Certainly the forefathers fall [from heaven] since the ritual offerings of food and water are suspended. By these crimes of the family killers, who propagate a confusion of social classes, community dharmas and the everlasting family dharmas are devastated. We have always heard, O Janardana, that those men who devastate family dharmas have their residence fixed in hell.

—Bhagavad-gita 1.39-43

Arjuna has sounded a familiar theme from many Vedic books, namely that dharma protects when it is protected, but injures when it is injured. Arjuna would be killing kings in the battlefield, virtually all of whom protected at least the basic rules of dharma in regard to ethics, social order, and traditional, worldly religious rites.

Lord Krishna is about to teach His friend Arjuna that above even dharma is God, who, for His own reasons, desires this battle. Lord Krishna rejects Arjuna’s argument as mere “weakness of heart” (hridaya-daurbalyam) and “impotence” (klaibyam) and urges Arjuna to fight.

Despite his previous arguments on the basis of dharma, Arjuna now admits that he is actually “confused in mind about dharma” (dharma-sammudha-cetah).(Bg. 2.7) Arjuna then gives up his arguments and surrenders to Lord Krishna as his spiritual master, and Lord Krishna begins teaching the Bhagavad-gita in earnest.
 

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