By: Radha-Krishna Das (Roozbeh Foroozan)
Hidden at the dead-end of an alley in Culver City, between a vegetarian restaurant and a temple, lays the The Bhagavad-gita Museum: A Treasure House of Spiritual Knowledge, an artistic masterpiece that brings an ageless spiritual wisdom to the aural and visual reception. Henry Thoreau sees our modern world and its literature as puny and trivial in comparison to the Bhagavad-gita and George Harrison, who visited the museum in the late 70s, compares it to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington and finds it more attractive than the Disneyland.
What do the Bhagavad-gita and its museum have to offer? Is another theology and philosophy the answer to our brutally conflicting world of –isms?
SETTING THE SCENE
A blind king is anxiously listening to his minister who clairvoyantly is reporting live from miles away of the greatest trial-of-arms in the history of man. Ninety nine sons of the king, with allies from all over the universe are going to fight till death with their five cousins, headed by Arjuna – the mystical archer. But Arjuna, son of the Wind-god, is despondent seeing his friends and family on both sides ready to lay down their lives. His body is trembling and he can not bear the weight of his mystical bow, which he had seized from Indra, the king of gods.
In his anguish, he turns to his intimate friend, Krishna– the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who has assumed the role of Arjuna’s chariot driver.
And thus Krishna begins to explain the first instruction of the Bhagavad-gita; that the perishable body and the eternal soul are not the same: that we are not this body; we are a spiritual spark that illuminates and drives the dead body and it is this spirit soul that differentiates a dead body from a living.
There are quite a few Sanskrit words that are part of English vocabulary nowadays. No one would need a dictionary to understand phrases like “bad karma” or “political pundit”. Dharma is another one of these words interwoven into the English fabric maybe as early as Jack Kerouac’s 1958 novel “Dharma Burns”. But what does dharma exactly mean? Many casually translate dharma as “religion” or sometimes “duty”. But there is no exact translation for this word in English. According to Oxford dictionary, dharma is “the eternal law of the cosmos, inherent in the very nature of things.” In other words, dharma of something is its inherent quality. For example, the dharma of fire is heat; the dharma of water is wetness. The dharma of something is the setting in which that something exists naturally and effortlessly.
One may ask why a word may not have an equivalent among more that one million English words? The answer lies in vastly-different philosophical, social, and cultural setting of Sanskrit and English (or other western languages). For a member of classical Vedic society, a society following the Vedas–books of knowledge, “religion” is observing the socio-economical regulations which are based on one’s nature and qualities. Such regulations are delineated in dharma-shastras (religious “weapons” -books) and are implemented by the government which in turn is supervised by the priests. In this setting, the difference between one’s “religion/duty” and someone else’s “religion/duty” is due to differences in their nature and qualities. It is meaningless to say somebody’s “religion” is better that someone else’s and there is no meaning in “conversion” from one dharma to another.
The dharma-shastras recognize four social roles and four economical classes based on the qualities of an individual. The four social roles include: celibate studentship, married life, retired life, and renunciate life. The four economical classes are priests, managers or warriors, merchants or farmers, and workers. Depending on one’s socio-economical nature, a “religious” person follows his/her dharma or duty and as such he materially benefits in this life and in future. For example, a family man has to provide for his family, be truthful and righteous, maintain internal and external cleanliness, be merciful and charitable towards others, and be in control of his senses and mind. Following dharma, qualifies one gradually to receive spiritual knowledge which ultimately leads to liberation from the cycle of life and death (moksha).
Even in such a liberal setting, the Bhagavad-gita culminates in its final word of its final chapter (BG 18.66), as if stepping into anarchism:
sarva-dharmän parityajya mäm ekaà çaraëaà raja
ahaà tväà sarva-päpebhyo mokñayiñyämi mä çucaù
Abandon all varieties of dharma! Just surrender unto Me! I shall deliver you from all sins. Do not fear!
To make sense of this revolutionary instruction which dismisses all the Vedic principles, we yet need to have a deeper understanding of dharma.
ABANDON ALL VARIETIES OF DHARMA
As already discussed, dharma is the intrinsic quality of something and the conditions by which that something exists naturally and effortlessly. We are born into certain bodies and have been trained and conditioned into certain qualities and as such we have certain socio-economical duties. But ultimately we are not these bodies and spiritually speaking, none of the bodily designations, qualities, and duties applies to us. But what is our spiritual dharma? What is the condition in which the soul is naturally, effortlessly and happily situated? What is the duty of a spirit soul? That would be our real religion —not the Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim religion and so on.
His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada writes in Journey of Self-Discovery:
“Your essential characteristic is that you want to love somebody, and therefore you want to serve him. That is your essential characteristic. You love your family, you love your society, you love your community, you love your country. And because you love them, you want to serve them. That tendency to engage in loving service is your essential characteristic, your dharma. Whether you are a Christian, a Mohammedan, or a Hindu, this characteristic will remain. Suppose today you are a Christian. Tomorrow you may become a Hindu, but your serving mood, that loving spirit, will stay with you. Therefore, the tendency to love and serve others is your dharma, or your religion. This is the universal form of religion. Now, you have to apply your loving service in such a way that you will be completely satisfied. Because your loving spirit is now misplaced, you are not happy. You are frustrated and confused.
sa vai puàsäà paro dharmo yato bhaktir adhokñaje
ahaituky apratihatä yayätmä suprasédati [SB 1.2.6]
That religion is first class which trains you to love God. And by this religion you will become completely satisfied. If you develop your love of God to the fullest extent, you will become a perfect person. You will feel perfection within yourself. You are hankering after satisfaction, full satisfaction, but that full satisfaction can be obtained only when you love God. Loving God is the natural function of every living entity. It doesn’t matter whether you are a Christian or a Hindu or a Muhammadan. Just try to develop your love of God. Then your religion is very nice. Otherwise it is simply a waste of time (çrama eva hi kevalam [SB 1.2.8]). If after executing rituals in a particular type of religion throughout your whole life you have no love for God and your fellow human beings, then you have simply wasted your time.”