Sanskrit words have become part of our everyday speech. For example, almost no one would need to crack a dictionary to understand such phrases as "media guru," "political pundit," or "bad karma."
Another Sanskrit word that has established itself in the mainstream of our language is "dharma." Fans of Beat-generation writer Jack Kerouac might recall his novel Dharma Bums, and in 1997 American television viewers saw the debut of a popular sitcom with a flighty new-age heroine named Dharma.
But what is dharma, really? If we consult the teachings of the sages of ancient India, we find there are two main meanings—nature and duty.
Let's first consider nature. Everything has its particular nature, a unique and essential quality that defines its existence. In this sense we can say that the dharma of sugar is its sweetness, or the dharma of water is its ability to quench our thirst with its pure taste.
Each of us has an essential nature, too, and if we live in harmony with our essential nature, or dharma, we feel deeply satisfied. But as human beings, what is our dharma? According to the timeless wisdom of the Vedas, our dharma is a characteristic not of our body but of our soul—the spark of divine consciousness within. Each of us has this spark within. It emanates from the Supreme Soul, Kṛṣṇa, who may be likened to a cosmic fire, the source of all the divine sparks that are our very selves.
And the dharma of each spark of divine consciousness is to dance in harmony around the central fire, Kṛṣṇa, the original supreme personality. We are all unique, individual, and personal manifestations of Kṛṣṇa, but our dharma is to recognize our source, to celebrate our eternal connection with Him through loving service. In short, our dharma, as eternally conscious selves, is to love and serve Kṛṣṇa, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
In material consciousness we lose sight of our real nature. We forget our source and connection with Kṛṣṇa. And our original dharma of selfless service to Him transforms into the false dharma of competitive selfishness. Because we lose touch with our true dharma, we experience frustration and dissatisfaction.
Dharma: The Way of Transcendence guides us back to our true nature, our original position as loving servants of Kṛṣṇa.
Another meaning of dharma is "duty." In the latter part of the twentieth century we've experimented with the abandonment of a sense of duty and responsibility in favor of an ethic of self-gratification—"If it feels good, do it!" But now many of us are sensing that the experiment has failed. People are feeling that they've lost their moral bearings amidst a chaotic sea of hedonism. Duty is once again in favor.
But duty to whom, and for what? We can answer these questions only by understanding the other part of dharma—our essential characteristic. If our essential characteristic is to render loving service to Kṛṣṇa, then our primary duty is to focus our attention on awakening this loving service, or bhakti, in ourselves and helping others achieve the same goal.
Dharma can give us the insight and inspiritation we need. In this book, India's greatest spiritual ambassador to the world, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda, takes us to the very heart of dharma, exploring its meaning in his penetrating commentary on an ancient Sanskrit book called the
There is nothing more important than understanding our dharma. This book thus stands as an enduring literary landmark for humanity as we move forward toward the new challenges and opportunities of the twenty-first century.