Hindu dharma speaks about four fold goals of human life termed as ‘chaturvidha purushartha’. ‘Purusha’ means human and ‘artha’ means object or goal. This framework of life wherein each human being has an obligation to pursue the four-fold goals in his or her life is a unique and very important contribution of Hindu philosophy. Human life is considered very precious because when compared to plants, animals and other organisms, it is humans alone who have a fully developed faculty of intellect.
All organisms except humans are invariably driven by natural instincts. Though these naturally developed instincts help organisms in their survival, they also bound and limit them. It is humans alone who are not limited by natural instincts and hence can exert their discrimination and free-will. It is to regulate and provide a guidance for the exertion of this free-will in a righteous and meritorious way that, the scriptures have advised the framework of four-fold goals that a human should strive to attain.
The four-fold goals of human life are- dharma, artha, kama, and moksha. Kama refers to all kinds of worldly desires. Every person has one or the other desires or fantasies that he or she wants to attain. The desire may to look beautiful, or earn money or having a relationship with a person. Every kind of desire can be categorized under kama. Similarly, all wealth, all objects that are acquired in order to fulfil the desires and enjoy a comfortable life is termed as ‘artha’. In short, kama and artha refers to enjoyment of worldly pleasures and worldly objects respectively.
But, it is not desirable to lust after all kinds of desires and objects. If, a person does so, it would surely lead to his fall. A person who kills someone for sake of his money will surely end up in prison. Similarly, a person who is unable to control his sexual urges may end up raping or harassing a member of opposite sex and hence he will also end up in prison. It is dharma or the sense of righteousness and duty that should decide whether an action is desirable or not, whether a desire or property must be acquired or not. Without the principle of dharma, the world will end up in chaos. Hence, the principle of dharma must act as a guiding force in the pursuing of kama and artha.
Now, coming to moksha, it refers to ultimate liberation from the bondage of the world and a permanent establishment in knowledge and bliss. All spiritual paths are aimed at achieving this one goal alone. But, this Moksha cannot be achieved by a person who is completely attached to worldly pleasures.
Shrinivasa Rao in his paper(1) states- “Achieving moksha becomes possible only when a life pursuing desires (kama) and wealth (artha) has been led consistently within the framework of dharma. Dharma thus plays a very crucial role in not only ensuring a good life here and now, but also in enabling one to attain the state of supreme good or liberation, from which there is no lapsing back to karma and rebirth”. That is, only such a person who adheres to dharma in all his actions will eventually develop the purification of mind and dispassion towards worldly pleasures that he will be able to turn his mind towards Supreme Emancipation. Hence, a practice of dharma becomes inevitable in attaining moksha.
Definition of the term ‘Dharma’
The term ‘dharma’ can be variously understood to mean ethics, morality, law, justice, duty, righteousness etc. depending upon the context of its usage. In the context of an individual, dharma refers to the duties and the righteousness of actions. In the context of a society, dharma refers to social harmony and morality. In the context of governance, dharma refers to law and justice and in the cosmic context, dharma refers to cosmic order and balance.
But, none of these terms individually are able to capture the width and depth of the meaning of the term “dharma”. S. L. Pandey in his paper (2) states that- “Dharma is a unique and colourful concept that cannot be adequately translated into any other language and cannot be equated collectively or separately to faith, religion, bhakti, morality, law, duty, customs or mores, because of its synthetic unity on one hand and its transcendence on the other”.
Literally, dharma means that which upholds. Mahanarayana Upanishad (79.7) states that dharma supports the whole cosmos and removes all sins. Similarly, Lord Krishna in Mahabharata (Karna Parva 69.58) says that dharma is that which upholds all created beings. Vaisheshika sutras (1.1.2) describes dharma is that from which causes material and spiritual attainment in everyone.
From Isha Upanishad (verse 8), we can gather that Brahman has ordered the whole universe by allotting to each object their respective duties based on their inherent qualities. It is through these allotted duties that Brahman supports the Universe. Hence, these duties, these allotted actions which sustains the universe by causing material and spiritual attainment in each being constitutes dharma.
Means for knowing Dharma
Once the definition is clear, the next question would be the means by which one can determine what constitutes dharma. Apastamba Dharma Sutra (22.214.171.124) says that dharma and adharma do not reveal themselves on their own. Further, each person will have different opinion regarding what actions are dharma and what actions are adharma. Hence, if logic and individual opinions alone were to be taken into account then, everyone will defend their own actions as dharmic no matter how much unrighteous it may have been. Hence, Lord Krishna in Gita (16.24) says that the scriptures are the basis which determines what actions should be performed and what actions should be avoided.
Manu Smriti (2.6) that calls ‘vedas’ as the very root of dharma and describes the ‘smritis’, the practices of the noble people who practice dharma and self-conscience as the valid sources for understanding dharma. Yajnavalkya Smriti (1.3) elaborates the list and includes purana, nyaya, mimamsa literatures as well. Hence, a person can determine whether an action is according to dharma or not by first verifying whether such an action is stipulated or prohibited or allowed by the Scriptures (both veda and smriti) and whether any related injunction present in the scripture is relevant to the present situation.
If, there is no clarity, then the advice of saints, teachers, and elders can be sought out. And finally, one must consider whether one’s own conscience is satisfied or not. Only such a process in which the intellect is guided by the tenets of the scriptures and the purity of mind can arrive at a proper conclusion regarding the righteousness of any action.
Classification of Dharma
The scriptures elaborate on the tenets of dharma that different people must follow in different situations. At one place it is said that the dharma i.e. the tenets that lead to ultimate good are different for different yugas. Similarly, they speaks about different duties for people with different temperaments and in different stages of life and duties at the time of calamities or sorrow. Yet, scriptures also speak about certain tenets of dharma that are common to every person.
These universal tenets of dharma like Truth, Non-violence etc. that are applicable to every person irrespective of his class, gender or station in life is termed as ‘samanya dharma’. And those duties, those obligations that are unique to every individual depending on the kaala (time), desha (place), varna (class based on guna) and ashrama (station or stage in life) are considered as ‘vishesha dharma’. An Individual’s sva–dharma (personal dharma) is a combination of both common and special duties.
In fact, without an adherence to samanya dharma, a person can never do justice to his practice of special duties. For example, a Brahmana priest who becomes greedy, and asks hefty amount of money as dakshina for conducting a ritual, becomes ineligible and incompetent to conduct such rituals; as he has violated one of the basic tenets of common dharma– the indriya nigraha (the control of the senses). So is the case with a businessman who is cheating his customers for earning more profit. Hence, a practice of both samanya dharma and vishesha dharma are vital for overall wellbeing of an individual and without the former (common duties), one becomes ineligible to perform the latter (i.e. special duties).
Tenets of Samanya Dharma
Various scriptures speak about various tenets as being applicable universally. Manu Smriti (10.63) gives a list of five tenets; Artha-shastra (1.3.13) mentions six tenets; Yajnavalkya Smriti (1.122) mentions nine tenets; Mahabharata (12.60.7-8) also mentions nine tenets; Vamana Purana (11.23-24) mentions fourteen tenets and Bhagavata Purana (7.11.8-12) mentions thirty tenets as samanya dharma that are applicable to every person. It is important to understand what tenets constitute samanya dharma before understanding their role in spirituality. Hence, we will take up a few important tenets which find mention in multiple lists given by various scriptures.
Ahimsa literally means ‘non-violence’ or ‘non-injury’. But, here the violence or injury referred is not applicable only to the bodily injuries. Instead, ahimsa should be practiced in actions, speech and mind (3). Himsa or violence in actions refer to causing physical harm to others. It may be human, animal, insects, plants or any other living organism. Any physical action that causes harm or imposes pain on any living being is considered as ‘himsa‘ with respect to action.
Similarly, any words that cause mental agony to others or words that are intended to act as curses that create imbalance in the surroundings are considered as ‘himsa‘ with respect to speech. And finally any thoughts about harming others either physically or mentally constitutes ‘himsa‘ with respect to mind. Hence, a practice of ahimsa includes non-injury to other living beings through actions, speech or mind.
The question that often arises is, if ahimsa is non-injury to every organisms, every living entities, then does ahimsa translate into the attitude of pacifism? The clear answer is a No. The practice of non-violence and non-injury refers to not causing harm or violence out of selfish, and self-serving intentions. It does not include the use of violence for the purpose of dharma. A soldier’s (Kshatriya’s) special duty is the protection his subjects from attack from hostile enemies. Hence, he does not fight and kill in a war for attaining some selfish desires, but he lays down his own life for the sake of country.
Hence, such a self-less violence committed in wars are considered as dharmic himsa and hence they do not violate the tenet of ahimsa (4). Similarly, the sacrifice of certain animals in some of the yajnas (5). The purpose of the yajna is the well-being of the whole society. The priests who conduct them do not do so for their selfish desires, instead it’s done for spiritual and material welfare of whole society. Hence, such a violence cannot be termed adharma as well.
Hence, ahimsa as an absolute duty is not applicable to every person. It is only the samyasins who have renounced all desires and actions, take the samkalpa (oath) of practicing absolute non-injury because they have renounced the world to attain Atma-jnana. For, such renunciates all activities such a cooking, fire-sacrifice, etc. that involve even a little himsa are prohibited. For all other people, though absolute ahimsa is the ultimate goal to be cultivated, they are permitted the limited use of violence during the performance of their special duties as prescribed in the scriptures.
A practice of satya as a dharma entails truthfulness in mind, speech and actions. A person must practice what he preaches and preach what he practices. A person must speak only that which he knows as truth i.e. the thoughts, the speech and the action must be in line with reality. Further, such a truth which is in line with reality must be spoken only when it is proper in a particular context and is useful to the listener (6). The scriptures describe gossip and useless speech without a context as a sin (7).
Another important aspect of the practice of satya is that truth must be spoken in a pleasant manner. Hence, a person must utter only truths that are pleasant and he or she must never resort to falsehood just because it is pleasant (example- flattery) (8). If there is a situation that an unpleasant news must be conveyed someone, then it should be done at a proper time and in as subtle way as possible so as to minimize the pain caused to the listener. Such, an austere practice of truth in every word uttered, in every action performed and in every thought that crosses the mind constitutes satya dharma.
Any thought, speech or actions that amounts to stealing or misappropriation by force or fraud is steya. Therefore, a person practicing asteya should never take away any property or objects that belongs to someone else. Further, he must not even entertain desires or thoughts to possess them. He must never speak about something which is not his own understanding. He must never steal or misappropriate other’s ideas and discoveries and claim them as his own. It should be noted that, steya does not only refer to stealing others property. It may even refer to taking away (i.e. kidnapping) of other’s family members. Hence, a practice of asteya involves a strict control of mind and senses such that one does not even entertain any ideas of stealing others ideas, property or family members.
It refers to both external cleanliness and internal purity. The external cleanliness constitutes cleanliness of the body through bathing etc., cleanliness of the various objects that are used by using water, mud and other materials and cleanliness of the surrounding environment includes keep the ground, water and air in healthy condition. The internal cleanliness refers to purification of the mind by removing the impurities like lust, anger etc.
- Indriya nigraha:
It refers to control of mind and the senses. A person who is in the grip of his senses is ever running behind worldly pleasures and hence will end up committing sins that results in sorrow. For such a person it is said, neither veda, nor renunciation nor yajna or any austerity will ever bear fruit (9). Hence, without a control of mind and senses, there is neither material happiness nor spiritual bliss. Hence, indriya nigraha is very vital.
But, the question arises, how should a person restrain the mind and the senses? The scriptures again answer that it is not possible to restraining of the senses is not possible through gratification as desires are never satiated by gratification (10). At the same time, proper restraint cannot be achieved even by suppression of desires or abstaining. The indriya nigraha is only possible through constant awareness and vigilance. It is through the viveka (discrimination/ knowledge) about the futility of pursuing sensory objects that one can attain indriya nigraha (11).
Hence, every person must practice constant observation of their thoughts, speech and actions; so that they can monitor their desires and control their indriyas. Every object towards which the mind or one of the senses gets attracted to must be observed and examined by the intellect. The intellect must question itself whether the object is useful; whether possessing it has any real benefit for oneself and the others; whether possession of such an object is according to dharma or not. It is only by such a practice of constant awareness and restrain that a person will be able to attain complete indriya nigraha.
Shandilya Upanishad (1.1) defines dayaa as kindliness to all creatures at all places. Hence, a person who adheres to dayaa is always kind and compassionate towards all beings. He will never perform any action that can harm any being. He will never utter anything that would cause pain to someone. He would not even think about hurting others. His thoughts, speech and actions will be full of kindness for everyone and towards achieving wellbeing of everyone.
It refers to the act of giving charity. Shandilya Upanishad (1.2) says that only ethically earned money or object must be given in charity. Bhagavad Gita (17.20-22) speaks about three kinds of charity- sattvika, rajasika and tamasika. Sattvika charity is that which is given with an attitude of duty and without any expectation in return to an eligible person at a proper place and time. Rajasika charity is the charity given grudgingly or with an expectation of some returns. The Tamasika charity is the charity given to undeserving person at an improper time and place without proper treatment and with disdain. Sattvika charity is best form of charity and tamasika charity must be completely avoided.
Asuya means ‘jealousy’. Hence, anasuya is ‘absence of jealousy’. A person must never be jealous of another person’s knowledge, wealth or prosperity as jealousy leads to frustration and anger that in-turn leads a person to commit various sins. A jealous person will entertain the thoughts about stealing other’s wealth or causing some harm to another person. Hence, jealousy will result in mental confusion and social discord and ultimately take a person to spiritual fall. Therefore, the tenet of anasuya has been prescribed as one of the common dharmas.
It means ‘forgiveness’. Shandilya Upanishad (1.1) describes kshama as an ability to bear patiently both pleasant and unpleasant things like praise or blow. A person whose mind is unsteady and is affected by praise or criticism, will bear grudge when he is not praised or when he is criticism. Such a person can never forgive those people who appear to cause real or imagined harm to the person. This holding of grudge gives rise to frustration and anger which in-turn deludes the intellect. It is for this reason that Mahabharata Vana Parva (30.32) says that a person should show forgiveness under every injury.
It refers to ritualistic study of various scriptures like shruti, smriti, dharma–shastra, itihasa, purana, etc. based on one’s inner temperaments and obligations. It specifically refers to chanting of Vedanta , shatarudriya, pranava, etc. (12). Those who do not have competency for chanting of veda, they should undertake a parayana (ritualistic study) of Mahabharata (13). Svadhyaya results in purification of mind and attainment of sattva (14).
It refers to a practice of celibacy. Shandilya Upanishad (1.1) defines brahmacharya as the renunciation of sexual intercourse through mind, speech and actions at all places and in all conditions. A total celibacy is prescribed for the students and the renunciates. For the householders, celibacy is prescribed only on those days that are not fit for copulation (15). Brahmacharya leads to control of mind and senses and ultimately results in cessation of desires.
Samanya Dharma and Yoga
Yoga literally means ‘Union’ and Patanjali (Yoga Sutra 1.2-3) describes yoga as “a state wherein the patterns (vrittis) of the mind has been removed or stilled, so that the ‘seer’ (i.e. Atman, the Witness) abides in his real nature”. Hence, yoga is a state of samadhi, wherein the Self or Atman has been isolated from the limitations of Non-Self entities like body and mind so that the Atman alone shines.
This state is achieved by stilling the mind by causing all the various thought-modifications of the mind to cease. Just as various thoughts and dreams are due to the various vrittis of the mind, so also the physical universe is considered as a product of particular vrittis of the cosmic mind. Hence, by removing these modifications of the mind, one removes the superimpositions of false identities of Non-Self entities on the Self.
The Yoga Sutras (1.12-13) further states that, the thought-patterns can be removed and the mind can be stilled only by constant practice at stilling the mind and dispassion. The mind is continuously distracted by various factors like sickness, apathy, doubt, carelessness, laziness, over indulgence in worldly pleasures, delusion, lack of progress and instability and such a person is exposed to pain, depression, trembling and difficulty in breathing (Yoga Sutra 1.30-31).
These distractions can be removed by various methods that include a person practicing friendliness, compassion, delight and equanimity towards both joy and pain or concentrating on one’s breathing, or concentrating on the sensory activities or meditating on any object of one’s liking etc. (Yoga Sutra 1.33-40).
Patanjali has systematized these various methods and have chalked out an eight-limbed process that slowly leads a person towards the ultimate state of samadhi. These eight limbs are- yama (external discipline), niyama (internal discipline), asana (posture), pranayama (breath regulation), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (one pointed concentration), dhyana (meditative absorption) and samadhi (Ultimate Union).
Among the eight limbs, the yama and niyama are foundation limbs without which no practice of Asana or pranayama will ever bear fruit. This is so because, the tenets of yama and niyama are the tenets of samanya dharma. These tenets are universal and applicable to every person. They form the very foundation of human life and well-being.
‘Yama’ includes ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truth), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (celibacy) and aparigraha (freedom from avarice). ‘Niyama’ includes shaucha (cleanliness), santosha, tapas (austerity/control of mind and senses), svadhyaya (self-study) and ishvara pranidhana (devotion to God).
The practice of these tenets of samanya dharma will regulate lifestyle habits, build character, remove the mental distractions and purifies the mind. This purification of mind will in-turn lead to stillness of the mind. Hence, when a person who is established in his yama and niyama and who has attained considerable steadiness in them, practices asana and pranayama, he or she will be able to withdraw the senses and attain ‘dharana’- one pointed concentration which will ultimately lead to samadhi. Therefore, samanya dharma is an inseparable aspect of yoga , without which any practice of yoga will be fruitless.
Samanya Dharma and Bhakti
‘Bhakti’ literally means devotion, and Narada Bhakti Sutras (verse 2-3) defines it as ‘parama-prema-rupa amrita-svarupa cha’. ‘Prema means ‘love’. Every person has loved someone or experienced love in one form or the other. But, in most cases love between two people creates a bond, an attachment between them. But, ‘bhakti’ is not normal love. It is ‘parama-prema-rupa’ – ultimate form of love because it creates no attachment. Instead it is liberating. It liberates a person from this never ending cycle of happiness and sorrow, this cycle of birth and death and grants immortality. Hence, it is described as ‘amruta–svarupa’– the very nature of immortality.
The path of bhakti, is the path of service to God, the path of taking refuge in him. A devotee may consider God as a master, as a parent, a lover or a sibling or even as an offspring. A devotee may also worship God in his hridaya/heart as his own Innermost Atman. Whatever may be the manner of worship, a devotee aims to first attain nearness (sameepya) and finally attain complete oneness (sayujya) with his Ishta Devata– his personal deity of worship.
But, this attainment of complete absorption into God is only possible when a person renounces his limited ego-based identity and his attachment to his body and mind. But, renouncing one’s ‘ahamkara’ and ‘mama-karah’- I-ness and Mine-ness is not easy as one is completely filled with internal impurities like lust, anger, pride etc. Hence, a person can succeed in bhakti only when one is able to purify one’s heart by destroying these inner impurities.
This destruction of inner impurities is only brought about by the practice of tenets of dharma. It is for this reason that, Narada Bhakti Sutras (verse 78) says that a practitioner of bhakti is ever indulged in the practices of tenets of samanya dharma like ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truth), shaucha (cleanliness), dayaa (compassion) and astikya (conviction in God and vedas).Therefore, even in the path of bhakti, a constant practice of samanya dharma is inevitable.
Samanya Dharma and Vedanta
The tenets of samanya dharma are very vital in the path of jnana as well. Vedanta means “end of vedas” and it refers to the Upanishads that teach the end goal of all spiritual practices i.e. attainment of moksha (ultimate liberation) through jiva–brahma–aikya jnana (the Knowledge of oneness of jiva and Brahman ). The liberation from this cycle of birth and death results from the direct Knowledge of Atman-the innermost Self which is realized as being Brahman itself.
At the dawn of jnana, all the objects of the Universe which was previously perceived as being different from Brahman is realized as being non-different from Brahman in reality. This direct knowledge of the reality that Atman alone exist liberates a person from the bondage of birth and death because, the bondage itself was rooted in avidya-ignorance about the true nature of Atman. Hence, the Vedanta declares that by attaining knowledge of Brahman , one attains moksha.
But, for a person to become eligible to practice Vedanta , the Upanishads laid down few requisite competencies. Katha Upanishad (1.2.23) says that a person who has a bad conduct and character, a person who has no control over his mind and the senses cannot attain Brahman through knowledge. Taittiriya Upanishad (1.11.1) says that a preceptor after teaching vedas to a student instructs him to practice truth, practice tenets of dharma and practice study of scriptures without any mistake. This has been done so that a person will slowly gain competency to practice moksha sadhana.
Adi Shankarcharya in his Vivekachoodamani (verse 17) elaborates on the basic competencies that are required to practice Vedanta . They are termed as ‘sadhana chatushtaya’. They are- viveka (discrimination), vairagya (dispassion), shatka sampatti (a collection of six qualities- shama/control of mind, dama/control of senses, titaksha/forbearance, uparati/withdrawal of senses from external objects, shrddha/faith and samadhana/one-pointed meditation on Brahman ) and a burning desire for moksha.
These competencies are either tenets of samanya dharma themselves or those that are attained through a practice of samanya dharma. Svadhyaya leads to viveka and asteya leads to vairagya. Shama and dama are nothing but indriya nirgraha which will lead to uparati and samadhana. This clearly shows that the tenets of samanya dharma like satya, indriya nigraha etc. are very much necessary in the path of jnana also.
The importance of samanya dharma in spirituality irrespective of the path used, is in the fact that it leads to purification of the mind. The mind is afflicted with various impurities and the scriptures categorize them under six headings and collectively call them ‘shad–vikaras’-six passions of mind. They are kama (lust), krodha (anger), moha (attachment), lobha (greed), mada (pride) and matsara (jealousy). These impurities lead a person to commit various sins which will in-turn tighten the karmic bondage.
As long as a person is under the influences of these mental passions, he or she cannot make any spiritual progress. Hence, purification of mind by the destruction of these internal enemies is the very first stage in any spiritual path. And this is possible only by a constant practice of various tenets of samanya dharma. It is for this reason Manu Smriti (12.104) says that one destroys sins through austerities (i.e. practice of dharma) and attains immortality through knowledge (of Self).
Therefore, the role of samanya dharma in any spiritual path is foundational in nature. It acts as a basic requisite that imparts required qualities to a practitioner that make him eligible to practice any genuine spiritual path that ultimately leads to moksha.
1. Srinivasa Rao. Sadharana Dharma– The Indian Doctrine of Universal Human Duties. National Seminar on Dharma, Virtue and Morality: the Indian Ideal of Human Perfection (2005, Kanpur, India). Compiled in a book: Dharma and Ethics, Edited by D.C. Srivastava and Bijoy H. Boruah
2. L, 1993. Freedom, Rights, and Dharma. Social Philosophy Today, Vol 9. http://www.pdcnet.org/pdc/bvdb.nsf/purchase?openform&fp=socphiltoday&id=socphiltoday_1993_0009_0000_0043_0054
3. Kurma Purana, Uttara- Bhaga, 11.14
4. Manu Smriti 8.349 says that the violence used for self-defence or when someone is forcibly stealing the dakshina money from a priest or when protecting women and Brahmanas does not cause violation of dharma
5. Kurma Purana Uttara- Bhaga, 11.15 says the violence committed according to rules of scriptures (e.g.: in yajnas) is considered as ahimsa.
6. Shandilya Upanishad 1.1
7. Manu Smriti 12.6
8. Manu Smriti (4.138) says-‘satyam bruyat priyam bruyat na bruyat satyam apriyam; priyam ca nanrutam bruyat esha dharmah sanatanah’-Speak truth, speak pleasant. Do not speak unpleasant truth. Nor also pleasant falsehood. This is the eternal law.
9. Manu Smriti 2.97
10. Manu Smriti 2.94
11. Manu Smriti 2.96
12. Kurma Purana Uttara- Bhaga 11.22
13. Bhagavad Purana 1.4.24-25
14. Kurma Purana Uttara- Bhaga 11.22
15. Manu Smriti 3.47 & 3.50
(The article was earlier published on indiafacts.org. A version of this paper was published in the Prabuddha Bharata, and has been republished with permission. It now forms part of the book Samanya Dharma: Ethical Duties Common to All by Nithin Sridhar.)
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