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How Do I Know My Dharma?
Suzanne: In one of your videos James talks about that you just should keep doing what you always did. And also, that you should live as your life is your spiritual path. In the video of Vivekachudamani Dec 2011 James says: “So how do you do this? By doing karma yoga! Follow the rules. Your dharma will change when you work out stuff. Listening to your heart. What is right? Service that voice inside of you. Lifestyle changes are wise, otherwise you will not be able to discriminate all the time in this apparent reality between you and the sheaths.”
Sundari: First off, you must take what James said in the video you quote in context. Apart from making necessary lifestyle changes, what he is saying is that self-realization does not confer a special or different status or that enlightenment means you transcend your life circumstances. You will still be the same person doing the same things, only with a very different understanding. Self-realization or self-inquiry may change your life karma, but only indirectly over time in that you will make the lifestyle changes that are in keeping with your svadharma. Self-realization is not about improving the person, but because you understand the person in the light of self-knowledge and know that they are only apparently real, you will become a happier person because you will love yourself unconditionally, as you are. You will know that nobody makes themselves the way they are and you will stop beating up on yourself. You also will unfailingly follow dharma, not to make yourself a better person, but for peace of mind only.
Suzanne: Okay, fine and clear in theory, but I have a question about the implementation due to my ignorance. How do I know what my dharma is, because apparently, things seem to change, and fast? How do I as a jiva determine what is right?
Sundari: As I said above, everything in the mithya world is always changing, therefore dharma is always changing. Dharma is a very difficult topic, and it’s impossible for one person to tell another what their personal dharma is or what is right for them in any situation. What is right for you will not be right for me. Generally, when you feel happy and at peace with what you are doing, you are following your svadharma. When there is a nagging, unhappy or guilty voice in your head, you are most likely contravening dharma, either by what you are doing or not doing. Ultimately, the highest dharma is to commit to self-inquiry into your true nature using the scripture as your means of knowledge, which you apply to everything in your life. What is the use of self-knowledge if it does not translate into the life of the person? Vedanta is a valid means of knowledge which dispels ignorance in every situation, if it is properly taught, assimilated and applied. It is never fails – and if it does, it is not the fault of the scripture but our failure to grasp its true meaning for us.
The universal laws, or dharmas, are built into the nature of the Field of Existence and cannot be avoided or contravened without consequence. Although dharma is one, because reality is non-dual it can be understood in three ways.
1. Samanya dharma, or universal values, are twofold: (1) the moral laws governing the Field of Existence that apply to everyone personally, like non-injury, honesty, fairness, etc. (2) the macrocosmic laws of physics, like gravity, electricity and thermodynamics, etc. These laws behave the way they behave whether you are aware of them or not and cannot be changed, only understood. Universal laws work the same way for everybody and cannot be contravened without consequence.
2. Visesa dharma is how the individual interprets universal laws and applies them to their lives in the apparent reality with regards to everything: lifestyle, diet, money, work, family, sex, marriage, how one relates to people and the environment one lives in, technology, etc. Visesa dharma will vary for everyone depending on their life circumstances and svadharma.
3. Svadharma with a small “s” is an individual’s conditioning. This is the nature and the predisposition with which each person is born. To be happy the individual needs to act in accordance with his or her inborn nature or he or she will not be following dharma. For instance, if it is an individual’s nature to be a businessperson, it will not serve them to be in the healing professions or vice versa. Svadharma is different for everyone.
All dharmas are based on common sense and logic. Our personal svadharma includes our conditioning, or vasana load, which will be governing how we see and act on all levels. The binding vasanas must be seen and dissolved for peace of mind to be experienced. We all have a given nature that we need to be in harmony with, and unless one understands what it is, we can make decisions that cause great agitation, suffering and discomfort to the mind and body.
It is possible that on the personal level, to be true to our svadharma we must sometimes take actions that cause agitation and distress to ourselves or “others.” For instance, because I am afraid to hurt my parents and feel duty-bound to them, I could decide to do what they want for me knowing it does not support who I am. Or conversely, I decide that my need to be true to myself trumps making my parents happy. Another example is people who decide to leave unhappy marriages even though they pay a high price emotionally to do so. There is no fixed rule when it comes to “right and wrong” actions. There is just the law of karma – cause and effect, appropriate action, and that we are never in control of the outcome of any action. If we do decide to go against our nature for good reason, then we do so with a clear mind and heart, without complaint and with the karma yoga attitude.
Sometimes doing the right thing for us involves tough decisions. But if we do not live in accordance with the rules of life and the nature Isvara gives us, we will not be happy or have peace of mind. Our lives must conform to the truth, not the other way around. When it does, following the truth will always work out for the best even though it may turn our life upside down. In the long run, it is far more damaging to all concerned to make choices that contradict dharma because we are afraid to face the consequences of making the choices that are right for us.
If, on the other hand, we our duty-bound and cannot change our circumstance, then we must accept that this is prarabdha karma playing out, and we attend to it as best we can, as always, with the karma yoga attitude. You know the beautiful prayer: “Lord give me the courage to change what needs to be changed, the strength to accept what cannot be changed and the wisdom to know the difference between the two.”
Suzanne: It seems like it does not really matter what I do, because it is not about doing… and I am not the one doing anything.
Sundari: It never matters what you do from the self’s point of view, because for the self nothing ever happens or changes. But for the jiva who lives in the apparent reality, it matters what you do, assuming you want peace of mind and freedom from limitation. Moksa is only for the jiva because the self is ever-free. There are three main types of doer renouncement: 1. karma yoga – surrendering the results of action to Isvara; 2. karma sannyas – renouncing actions; and 3. karma jnana sannyas, the knowledge that you may act but you are not the doer.
Suzanne: I (as a jiva) will always be doing, and as long as I follow the rules, that is just fine, isn’t it or not quite?
Sundari: Correct, but we need to understand what the rules of life are to follow them properly. See the explanation on dharma above. If you always follow dharma, you will have a peaceful life even though it does not inoculate you from the ups and downs of life.
Suzanne: Furthermore, “keep doing what you were also doing” does no longer seem to apply to me, because dharma is changing, and I agree that lifestyle changes are wise. So this jiva is in a bit of a twilight zone.
Sundari: Without self-knowledge, the jiva is always in the twilight zone because it is a mixture of spirit and matter. As I said above, it is impossible to tell anyone what is right or wrong for them, because only you can work out what is appropriate for you. Everything in mithya is always changing, nothing stays the same – and even dharma is mithya. There is no dharma for the self, because the self is not in mithya. What applies to the jiva today may no longer apply tomorrow. To act appropriately requires that we understand what Isvara is asking of us – and we understand that it is possible to take the right action with the right attitude at the right time and still get a result we do not want because the Field of Existence, or Isvara, considers the needs of the whole before it takes our individual needs into account.
Action itself can never fail us; it only produces results. A given expectation may be said to have failed, but the one with the expectation has not failed. That I have failed or that the action has failed is the wrong conclusion; the expectation is the problem. Nobody fails. It is only a matter of wrong judgment because we are not omniscient and we cannot have the knowledge of all the factors that shape the results of the actions. Action can produce likes and dislikes (vasanas) only if the result is looked upon as a success or failure.
Sameness of mind (towards success and failure) with respect to action is another definition of karma yoga and is the essence of peace of mind, sattva. In cultivating the right attitude towards life, one performs one’s duty by conforming to the pattern and harmony of creation and thus one becomes alive to the beauty of the cosmic order. When the mind becomes clear, we can see the natural order. In the beginning of our spiritual practice, karma yoga is an attitude we must cultivate, but eventually it is simply knowledge because it is obvious that the field runs this way, so becomes natural.
Suzanne: I am doing my best to make some sense in the way I am writing this down. If the writing on the topics is not very clear, is it due to my ignorance, so please do not blame me. Thank you very much in taking the time to read this email.
Sundari: You are asking age-old questions, Suzanne, all of which have been answered in hundreds of ways on our e-satsang section. Have you tried reading it? It has a search function to facilitate answering specific questions, and James teaches values, karma yoga and dharma extensively in his books and videos.
~ Much love, Sundari