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DWT 1: What is Dharma?

sa vai puṁsāṁ paro dharmo
yato bhaktir adhokṣaje
ahaituky apratihatā
yayātmā suprasīdati

The supreme occupation [dharma] for all humanity is that by which men can attain to loving devotional service unto the transcendent Lord. Such devotional service must be unmotivated and uninterrupted to completely satisfy the self.

—Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 1.2.6

In this statement, Śrī Sūta Gosvāmī answers the first question of the sages of Naimiṣāraṇya. The sages asked him to summarize the whole range of revealed scriptures and present the most essential part so that fallen people, or the people in general, might easily take it up. The Vedas prescribe two different types of occupation for the human being. One is called the pravṛtti-mārga, or the path of sense enjoyment, and the other is called the nivṛtti-mārga, or the path of renunciation. The path of enjoyment is inferior, and the path of sacrifice for the supreme cause is superior.

The material existence of the living being is a diseased condition of actual life. Actual life is spiritual existence, or brahma-bhūta [SB 4.30.20] existence, where life is eternal, blissful, and full of knowledge. Material existence is temporary, illusory, and full of miseries. There is no happiness at all. There is just the futile attempt to get rid of the miseries, and temporary cessation of misery is falsely called happiness. Therefore, the path of progressive material enjoyment, which is temporary, miserable, and illusory, is inferior. But devotional service to the Supreme Lord, which leads one to eternal, blissful, and all-cognizant life, is called the superior quality of occupation. This is sometimes polluted when mixed with the inferior quality. For example, adoption of devotional service for material gain is certainly an obstruction to the progressive path of renunciation. Renunciation, or abnegation for ultimate good, is certainly a better occupation than enjoyment in the diseased condition of life. Such enjoyment only aggravates the symptoms of disease and increases its duration. Therefore devotional service to the Lord must be pure in quality, i.e., without the least desire for material enjoyment. One should therefore accept the superior quality of occupation in the form of the devotional service of the Lord without any tinge of unnecessary desire, fruitive action, or philosophical speculation. This alone can lead one to perpetual solace in His service.

We have purposely denoted dharma as "occupation" because the root meaning of the word dharma is "that which sustains one's existence." A living being's sustenance of existence is to coordinate his activities with his eternal relationship with the Supreme Lord, Kṛṣṇa. Kṛṣṇa is the central pivot of living beings, and He is the all-attractive living entity or eternal form amongst all other living beings or eternal forms. Each and every living being has his eternal form in the spiritual existence, and Kṛṣṇa is the eternal attraction for all of them. Kṛṣṇa is the complete whole, and everything else is His part and parcel. The relationship is one of the servant and the served. It is transcendental and is completely distinct from our experience in material existence. This relationship of servant and the served is the most congenial form of intimacy. One can realize it as devotional service progresses. Everyone should engage himself in that transcendental loving service of the Lord, even in the present conditioned state of material existence. That will gradually give one the clue to actual life and please him to complete satisfaction.

We are all hankering for complete self-satisfaction, or ātma-suprasāda, but first we must know what the real self is. The word ātma, or "self," refers to the body, the mind, and the soul. Actually, we are the spirit soul covered by two kinds of "garments." Just as a gentleman is covered by his shirt and coat, so I, the soul, am covered by a gross body consisting of the physical senses and a subtle body consisting of mind, intelligence, and false ego. A person covered by false ego identifies with his body. When asked who he is, he will answer, "I am an American," or "I am an Indian," etc. But these are bodily designations; they are not his real identity.

The Vedic literature teaches that one begins to understand his real identity when he thinks, ahaṁ brahmāsmi: "I am Brahman, or spirit soul." Therefore the Vedānta-sūtra says, athāto brahma jijñāsā: "Now one should inquire about spirit." The human form of life is meant for advancing in knowledge of spirit, and this knowledge is the beginning of real happiness.

Everyone is hankering for happiness because by nature we are happy: ānandamayo 'bhyāsāt (Vedānta-sūtra 1.1.12). As spirit souls we are naturally happy, blissful. But we are suffering because we have been covered by five gross material elements—earth, water, fire, air, and ether—and three subtle material elements—mind, intelligence, and false ego. Materialists, identifying themselves with these coverings, seek satisfaction through these gross and subtle elements of the body. In other words, they simply seek sense gratification, the happiness of the body. In the material world everyone is working hard only for this happiness. Some people try to be happy by gratifying the physical senses, and some try to be happy by gratifying the mind in such pursuits as art, poetry, and philosophy. But neither gross nor subtle sense gratification can give us real happiness, because real happiness belongs to the soul. And we actually see that although people are endeavoring throughout the whole world for bodily comforts, for sense gratification, they're not happy. They cannot be happy, because the basic principle of happiness is missing.

Suppose you have a nice coat. If you simply show the coat and iron the coat and keep it very carefully, you'll never be happy. Similarly, now you are trying to get happiness from gratifying the coat of the body, but that is not possible. Happiness comes only when you make the soul happy. Or, suppose you have a bird in a cage. If you simply polish the cage but do not give the bird any food, the bird will never be happy. Similarly, the material body is the cage of the soul, and if we simply care for the body, the soul will never become happy. So, the beginning of spiritual knowledge is to understand that the soul is encaged within the body and mind and that neither bodily comforts nor mental satisfaction will ever bring the soul real happiness.

Then how can the soul become happy? As stated in the present verse of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, the soul can become happy only when living according to the supreme dharma. A common English translation for the word dharma is "religion," but, as mentioned above, a more accurate meaning is "that which sustains one's existence" or "one's essential characteristic." Everything has an essential characteristic. The essential characteristic of chili peppers, for instance, is to taste very hot. When we go to the market to purchase chili peppers, we test how hot they are. If they are not very hot, we reject them. So the dharma of chili peppers is to be very hot. Similarly, the dharma of sugar is to be sweet.

Then what is the dharma of the soul? When entrapped by the material nature, the soul adopts various artificial dharmas based on his false identification with the body. Someone born in a Hindu family will say, "I am a Hindu," someone born in a Muslim family will claim, "I am a Muslim," someone born in a Christian family will claim, "I am a Christian," and so on. But as I have already explained, one's real identity is the spirit soul—ahaṁ brahmāsmi: "I am Brahman. I am a spirit soul." When we come to that platform of spiritual understanding, our essential characteristic becomes clear. As explained here, sa vai puṁsāṁ paro dharmo yato bhaktir adhokṣaje [SB 1.2.6]. The supreme dharma of the soul is bhakti, devotional service to the Supreme Lord. That is our essential characteristic. Everyone is already a devotee—a devotee of his country, his society, his family, his wife, his children, his senses. No one can say, "I do not serve anyone." You must serve, because that is your dharma. If a person has no one to serve, he keeps a cat or dog and serves it. So to render loving service to someone else is our essential characteristic. But we are missing the point. We are loving cats and dogs and so many other things, but we are neglecting to love God. Therefore, we are not getting real happiness. When we shall direct our love toward the proper object—Adhokṣaja, or Kṛṣṇa—we'll become happy.

When the word dharma is taken to mean "religion," we can understand from this verse of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam that rendering transcendental loving service to the Lord is the highest form of religion. The question asked by the sages at Naimiṣāraṇya was, "What is the best form of religion, by which anyone can become elevated to spiritual emancipation?" Some people may say that the Hindu religion is best, others may recommend the Christian religion, others may say that the Muslim religion is very good, others may say that Buddhism is very good, and so on. But the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam does not advocate the Hindu, Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist religion. It gives a general description of the best religion: "The best religious practice is that which enables you to become a devotee of Adhokṣaja."

"Adhokṣaja" is a Sanskrit name for the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The literal meaning of the name Adhokṣaja is "He who defeats, or 'pushes down' (adha), all efforts to understand Him by means of knowledge gained through sense perception (akṣa-ja)." This name of God—Adhokṣaja—is an answer to the mental speculators who research the question "What is God?" and write volumes of books. To them the name Adhokṣaja says, "You may go on speculating for many thousands of years, but you will never be able to understand God in that way."

Generally people say, "God is great." But they do not know how great He is. God's greatness is indicated perfectly by the name "Kṛṣṇa." If you want a perfect definition of the word "God," then it is kṛṣṇa, because the word kṛṣṇa means "all-attractive." Unless one is all-attractive, how can He be God, the greatest? If one is great, he must be attractive. For example, John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford were considered great men because they were very rich, and their great wealth made them attractive. So wealth is one feature of attraction. Therefore God must be the most wealthy person. Beauty is another attractive feature—so God must be the most beautiful person. Many people, when they see a picture of Kṛṣṇa, are convinced they have never seen such a beautiful person, although He's a little blackish. Similarly, Kṛṣṇa fully possesses the attractive opulences of strength, wisdom, fame, and renunciation. And because these six opulences of infinite wealth, beauty, strength, wisdom, fame, and renunciation make Him all-attractive, God is known by the name "Kṛṣṇa." With these transcendental opulences He can attract the richest person, the most beautiful person, the strongest person, the wisest person, the most famous person, and the most renounced person. Such infinite attractive features are impossible for us to understand through mental speculation based on sense perception, and so Kṛṣṇa is also known as Adhokṣaja, the name used in this verse of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam.

So, here the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam gives a simple definition of the best religion: That religion is the best by which you can develop your devotion and love for the Supreme Personality of Godhead. How nice this definition is! You may follow Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam—it doesn't matter. But the test of your success is how far you have developed love of God. If you have developed your sense of love for God, you have actually followed religious principles. Religion does not mean that you go to a temple, mosque, or church and as a matter of formality observe some rituals, make some donation, and then come back home and do all kinds of nonsense. That is not religion. Suppose someone is said to be great. What is the proof of his greatness? He must have great riches, knowledge, influence, beauty, etc. Similarly, what is the proof that someone is a man of religious principles? The proof is that he has developed love of God. Then he is religious.

Now, someone may say, "Oh, yes, I love God." But what is the nature of that love? In our experience in this world we commonly see that a man will love a beautiful girl. But for how long? As long as she is beautiful. And a girl loves a boy—for how long? As long as his pocket is all right. This is not love: it is lust. "I love your skin, I love your money"—that is not love. Here the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam states that love of God must be ahaitukī, free of selfish motivation. Not that we say, "My dear God, I love You because You supply me my daily bread." Whether in the church, temple, or mosque, people generally offer the same kind of prayer: "O God, give me my daily bread." In India people generally go to a temple and pray, "My dear Kṛṣṇa, I am in difficulty. Please get me out of it," or "I am in need of some money. Kindly give me a million dollars." This is not love of God.

Of course, this kind of religion is far better than atheism. As Lord Kṛṣṇa states in the Bhagavad-gītā: catur-vidhā bhajante māṁ janāḥ sukṛtino 'rjuna [Bg. 7.16]. Anyone who goes to God and asks for some benediction is a pious man. But he's not a devotee. He may be counted among pious men because he recognizes the supremacy of God, but he has not developed the highest principle of religion, love of God.

Lord Śrī Caitanya describes love of God in His Śikṣāṣṭaka (7):

yugāyitaṁ nimeṣeṇa cakṣuṣā prāvṛṣāyitam
śūnyāyitaṁ jagat sarvaṁ govinda-viraheṇa me

"O my dear Govinda! Because I cannot see You, every moment seems like twelve years to Me." Everyone has some experience of this feeling. If you love someone and you expect your beloved to come at any moment, you will feel as if every second were a full day. Then, because Lord Caitanya cannot see Kṛṣṇa, He says, cakṣuṣā prāvṛṣāyitam: "Tears are pouring from My eyes like torrents of rain," and śūnyāyitaṁ jagat sarvam: "I see the whole world as vacant." And all on account of separation from Govinda, or Kṛṣṇa: govinda-viraheṇa me. When you cannot tolerate separation from Govinda, that is pure, causeless love of God.

The next word used in the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam to describe pure love of God is apratihatā, which means "without being hampered for any reason." Sometimes people say, "I cannot love Kṛṣṇa because I am a very poor man," or "I cannot love Kṛṣṇa because I have no education—I cannot study Vedānta philosophy." No. To love Kṛṣṇa you don't require any material acquisition. You can begin developing your love of Kṛṣṇa simply by bringing some fruit or a flower to the temple and offering it to the Deity form of Kṛṣṇa. That is one of the six signs of love Rūpa Gosvāmī describes in his Upadeśāmṛta (4):

dadāti pratigṛhṇāti guhyam ākhyāti pṛcchati
bhuṅkte bhojayate caiva ṣaḍ-vidhaṁ prīti-lakṣaṇam

First, you must give something to your beloved and accept something from your beloved. If you simply go on accepting but you do not give anything, then there is no love. Then guhyam ākhyāti pṛcchati: You should not keep anything secret within your mind, and your beloved should not keep anything secret within his or her mind. And bhuṅkte bhojayate caiva: One should give the beloved eatables and accept eatables from him or her. When we cultivate these six kinds of loving exchanges with Kṛṣṇa, we develop pure love of God. And that love should be without any material motivation and without impediment.

If you can develop such love for God, you will feel su-prasīdati, complete satisfaction. No more anxiety, no more dissatisfaction. You will feel that the whole world is full of pleasure (viśvaṁ pūrṇa-sukhāyate). So the best religion is that which teaches one how to become a lover of God, and the best welfare work is to distribute this knowledge. These are the purposes of the Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement. Kṛṣṇa consciousness is such a beautiful thing. It does not depend on any material acquisition, nor can it be checked by any impediment. In any part of the world, at home or away from home, you can chant the Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra in ecstasy and attain love of God very quickly.