What the #$*! is Dharma? Is My Yoga the Same as Your Dharma?

Via Ramesh Bjonnes
on Dec 25, 2010
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You’ve heard this hip, spiritual term thrown around by yogis for a while. You’ve heard it thrown around by Buddhists the likes of Jack Kerouac, who wrote that ultimate hipster book The Dharma Bums.

You’ve likely even used it yourself. But what really is the inner, spiritual meaning and significance of this ancient Sanskrit word? And does it mean the same for everybody?

Most often, we think of the word Dharma, or Dhamma in Pali, to pertain to the teachings of the Buddha, or in Hinduism as the teachings of the Vedas. The Buddha, while completing his teachings, remarked, “Eśa dhamma sanantana, This is the eternal dharma.”

To live according to Dharma, it is said, means to live according to one’s religion, or to live according to universal law.

But since religions differ in so many fundamental ways, how is it possible that my Yoga Dharma—which I don’t even think of as a religion but instead of as a spiritual path—can be the same as your Buddhist Dharma? Or even your Christian Dharma? And does it really matter? Can’t we just celebrate the diversity of religions, of our spiritual points of view? Can’t we just agree to disagree?

It matters, I think, that we come to some common understanding of what spirituality, or religion, or Dharma is, because as long as I insist that my belief is different, or worse—better than yours—then we’re in deep trouble. And we’ve been in deep trouble for too long.

When people’s religions, people’s dharmas are threatened, then wars break out, wars with both words and swords. And soon the religious blood starts to flow.

And, frankly, at this time in the evolution of humanity, when fundamentalist religions are threatening our safety and sanity, we need to do better than that. We need to find a common ground, a perennial wisdom that can unify us beyond religious difference, practice and dogma. But is that possible?

We have already seen that representatives of both Yoga and Buddhist Dharma have the ability to speak a language of freedom and universal unity, a language that can bring us beyond dogmatic differences.

Vivekananda, the first Indian yogi to come to the West, spoke about religious universalism. He said:  “The idea of an objective God is not untrue—in fact, every idea of God, and hence every religion, is true, as each is but a different stage in the journey….”

And if we venture even further into India’s past, the Rig Veda, the world’s earliest sacred scripture stated: “Ekam sat vipra bahauda vadanti,” which means: “to what is One, the sages give many names.” In other words, there’s only one common, universal, spiritual Truth which we approach in so many different ways and give so many different names.

The Dalai Lama says that “compassion” is that which unites all religions; that each religion share kindness and care toward other human beings as a common goal.

But back to the word Dharma, for I think it contains a clue to our real spiritual commonality. What does it actually mean?

The word Dharma actually means nature, property, law. Hence we can say that it is the nature or property of a flame to burn, the nature or property of a fish to swim, and thus the dharma of water to flow. But what is the nature or property of a human being? To seek pleasure, to seek happiness, to seek enlightenment!

Unlike plants and animals, whose dharma it is to follow the simple laws of nature, whose dharma is easily fulfilled (just look at your dog, or your cat!), our human dharma is more expansive, we want unlimited pleasure, unlimited happiness. Hence, say the sages of the old and new age, our dharma is the search for spiritual happiness, for enlightenment.

If we seek that ultimate happiness the way animals do, mainly through our simple needs of the flesh, mainly by satisfying our hedonistic needs for food, sex and freedom from fear, we are following svabhavik dharma, our animal dharma.

But how can we satisfy our cosmic needs for enlightenment, our infinite needs for union with God, with Spirit, with the Void, through these limited means? How can sexual satisfaction give us the ultimate high, that cosmic realization of our true Self, our ultimate freedom from samsara?

It cannot. Because we cannot satisfy an unlimited need for Pure Awareness, for Cosmic Consciousness, for God, for the Void through limited means.

Hence, there is also something called Bhagavat (Great) Dharma in Yoga, the Dharma or path of spirituality, the path of the real human Dharma. Because our need is greater than that of a plant or a dog, we seek ultimate freedom, we seek the Great Dharma. The Buddhists call this path simply Dharma, or Dhamma.

I think it is fair to say, then, that both Yogis and Buddhists share the same goal, share the same Dharma, share the same desire for enlightenment!

Yes, I know. I can hear the voices of protest: our paths are so different, even our final goal is different. But I do not think so. Our language may be different, our name for that ultimate state of enlightenment may be different, our practices may be different, but the ultimate goal is not different. Enlightenment is One for All. And that is our common Dharma.

“All religions are one,’ said the 17th century visionary poet William Blake. And he was a Christian! The 14th century Indian poet-guru Kabir, while fiercely anchored in yogic practice, spoke to the common spiritual heart of both the Hindu and Muslim faith.

Likewise, Aldous Huxley, who sought illumination in both psychedelics and yoga, found enough common evidence among the world’s mystics to declare that there is a perennial wisdom river that runs through all religions. One river that ends in the same universal sea.

And Huston Smith, the well-known philosopher of religions, said: “It is possible to climb life’s mountain from any side, but when the top is reached the trails converge.” The trails converge because human nature, human Dharma is the same: to satisfy our inner thirst for illumination.

That’s why we pray, do yoga, meditate, chant, prostrate, breathe slowly through one nose at-a-time. That’s why we write love poetry to God all night. That’s why we dance and whirl as if we’re perfectly and wildly free.

But not so fast you say. There are too many differences among us, too many philosophical and ritualistic divergences that do not converge in the same Dharmic sea.

I agree. And that is both the problem and the solution. “A clear-eyed understanding of our religious differences may be the best hope for promoting cooperation among different religions,” writes religion writer Don Harper.

Boston University religion scholar Stephen Prothero, author of God is Not One, protests this notion that all religions share a fundamental goal. Huston Smith is wrong, he says. Prothero also contradicts Swami Sivananda, who said, “The fundamentals or essentials of all religions are the same.”

To which Prothero replies, “This is a lovely sentiment, but it is untrue, disrespectful, and dangerous.” He thinks that the only way towards cooperation is by understanding our diversity, our differences.

I agree. I agree with both Huston Smith and Stephen Prothero. Dharma is not either/or. Dharma is yes/and. We need to see and promote both universal unity and tolerance. Because there is both unity and diversity in nature. And if Dharma represents natural law, the two wings of the Dharmic bird are called unity and diversity.

Or think of it as a Dharmic nest. While the sticks used to build my Yogic Dharma may point in quite different directions than those used to build your Buddhist Dharma, on the inside both nests are round and whole. On the inside they both hold and support the nondual grace of the Void, the nondual grace of Pure Consciousness.


About Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes is the co-founder of the Prama Institute, a holistic retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and the Director of the Prama Wellness Center, a retreat center specializing in detox by incorporating juice fasting, ayurveda, meditation and yoga to cleanse, relax and rejuvenate. Bjonnes is also a writer, yogi and workshop leader. He lived in India and Nepal in the 1980s learning directly from the traditional teachers of yoga and Tantra. He has taught workshops in many countries and is the author of Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit (InnerWorld) and Tantra: The Yoga of Love and Awakening (Hay House India). He lives and practices in an eco-village in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.


34 Responses to “What the #$*! is Dharma? Is My Yoga the Same as Your Dharma?”

  1. Prothero is right on. I've often been struck by the incredibly disrespectful attitude of universalists who claim to respect everybody's beliefs, saying "if only people would pay attention to the essence, which is the same in every religion, instead of the unimportant details," completely ignoring the rather obvious fact that, for many, if not most, believers, the "unimportant details" ARE the essence.

  2. Excellent article, Ramesh. I just finished a wonderful book that is highly relevant to this discussion.

    I don't use this term lightly, but I would say this book is indispensable to anyone who wants to understand the impact of Vedanta-Yoga in the U.S.. (The only exception might be Ramesh, who always seems to know everything already!):

    American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation How Indian Spirituality Changed the West

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  3. Padma Kadag says:

    Ramesh…as always very thoughtful. But I am not sure why such an article by yourself and the other referenced authors is necessary. I say this because as all of us do our individual practices on our chosen paths, and if we are sincerely following the instructions to carry us on the path, then what more do we need? If you are interested in thwarting zealotry unfortunately this kind of approach will not work as we can see today. If you are wanting to somehow pacify the debates on EJ and elsewhere ….why? The problem with blogs and such is that here in the west it seems everyone is writing a book or has something to sell. Once they have an epiphany they want to sell it in some form and make money. Then they are stuck in believing in an unchanging stagnant spirituality which requires consistent uniform marketing. All of the Yoga Instructors, Healers, Bloggers, authors, are in business to make money, and as they say to make a more peaceful world. But are they really? Or how much of what they deny themselves is because of their business "shtick"? How much spiritual growth is retarded due to maintaining a view which supports their Instructor income or book writing?

  4. Aaron says:

    This is an interesting bunch of opinions, but I think where the Boston professor makes his mistake in the distinction between Dharma and Dogma. Dharma is one because reality is one. This why the Dali Lama has said where science has conclusively demonstrated that some bit of Buddhist belief (dogma) is in error it must be abandoned.
    Where I take issue with the author is in statement that one’s Dharma can ever be threaten. Dogmas can be threatened, while Dharma can not. When Dharma is realized there is peace and equanimity. Without a realization of Dharma it doesn’t matter how much one tried to respect another person’s dogma, failure is assured and there will be conflict. Dogmas are egotistical belongings that must be protected at all costs. Although granted “universalism” is a dogma and therefore contains it’s own seeds for strife. On the other hand that there is only one Dharma is an experiential fact that no dogma can either add nor take away from.

  5. Padma Kadag says:

    Gurudas… You are a firey character and I like that. Your comments regarding Shugden are concerning. If you want to state that you are standing with them because they are victimized by the Dalai Lama then I am not sure that will give you a result that you are working towards. The shugden activists are not victims persay but are selfvictimized. To support the Shugden people is sheer ignorance and does not need our discussion. If you are one of them , I understand. If you are an observer then best to not get involved and not support.

  6. essay help says:

    I think the main idea of the yoga is the understanding of the inside way of the man!And this way is one right in your life!

  7. Joe Sparks says:

    People can reach agreement to any desired degree, if they get their distresses out of the way and acquire enough information and allow for the differences in viewpoints.

    The ultimate unpredictability of future reality is not due just to our lack of knowledge. Even if we could ever attain complete information about present reality, the future would go on being surprising.

    This fits our essential nature well.

  8. Tangled Macrame says:

    I became a member of Elephant today to read this article. Informative and thought provoking writers like Ramesh Bjoones are completely worth the investment. Thank you!

  9. vakibs says:

    Ramesh.. A very fine article, food for thought.

    I will recall an anecdote from the Mahabharata epic to further elaborate your point on Dharma.

    Yudishtara, the hero of the epic, loses his kingdom in a game of gambling and has to spend 12 years in the jungle (aranya) with his brothers and wife. In the depths of despair, he leaves his beloved kingdom and enters the jungle at the foothills of the Himalayas. One day, his brother Bhima catches sight of him saluting the mighty peak of the Himalaya and performing devotional ablutions. Bhima asks him why he does that, especially considering his despair at the moment.

    Yudishtara replies by saying that it is the "dharma" of the Himalaya to appear majestic and it is his own "dharma" to supplicate before it in awe and wonder. He is just performing his natural course of action, the current condition of his own life is immaterial.

    "Dharma" simply means the natural course of action for any being. Since every sentient being (jiva) strives for perfection and liberation, the natural course of action leads it towards a certain direction. But these directions can be different, indeed contradictory, to different beings at different levels of their journey. Just observe the contrast between the dharma of Yudishtara, Himalaya and Bhima in the above discourse. Yudishtara has a second name "Dharma", and indeed personifies it in the epic.

    There is an ancient saying : "Svadharme nidhanam sreyah, paradharmo bhaya vahah". It means the "dharma" of one's very deepest self (svah) produces fulfillment and joy. On the other hand, the "dharma" of the "other from self" produces fear. It is very common for a human being to confuse his deepest self with attributes from the other that do not belong to him. We often make choices in life that do not represent the volition of our deepest selves, but that of others – either people or social organizations. These choices induce fear. It is important, but very difficult, for everyone to discover their true nature.. and thus identify their "dharma".

    However, there are certain elements that can indeed held in common with the whole of humanity. Charity or giving alms is one such thing. In India, a beggar calls for alms by literally saying "please do your dharma". This is a remnant from the ancient Buddhist period where the Bhikshus (monks) of the Sangha (society) had to beg for alms as a daily duty.

    The word "dharma" does not translate at all into "religion". The right word for the latter is "mata" (when understood as a series of rituals & practices) or "darshana" (when understood as a philosophical viewpoint). There can be various matas or darshanas, but there is only one "dharma" for any person.

  10. Ramesh says:

    great to hear from you again! Always a pleasure to read your thoughtful and wise contributions. The way I was thought it by my guru was that the sva-dharma is the bhagavad dharma, the great dharma, the true, spiritual dharma. In other words, whenwe align our personal (sva) dharma with our deepest Self it becomes Bhagavat Dharma, the great dharma, the transformation.

    I agree with you that dharma and religion are different in that religion may contain dogma, superstition, which is absent in true dharma. Thus i like to think of dharma as spirituality, not religion. These are just words, of course…. unless we live it, we are just preaching it!
    So dharma, although not religion per se, may exist in any religion as it indicates what is true spiritual transformation, what is true illumination…. that path of dharma exists irrespective of religious affiliation. It just is!

  11. […] What the #$*! is Dharma? Is My Yoga the Same as Your Dharma? by Ramesh Bjonnes […]

  12. […] a sign related to righteousness and law (both man-made law and God-made law or what is called “Dharma”, in eastern traditions). Sagittarius is the external/masculine nature of Jupiter, the planet of […]

  13. Bhaeravii says:

    I feel it is essential that the most commonly used words in spiritual work be defined by writers in any available media, really over and over, as most people use the word but do not know what it means. Dharma is such an integral part and visible element of the Eastern spiritual traditions, it cannot be overlooked or underestimated. Any spiritual aspirant can use the word dharma…for good or naught, depending on their conscience and samskaras.

    What a wonderful quote, especially considering all religions and spiritual paths are interconnected on the invisible level, even practical/philosophical descendants of Tantra: Vivekananda said: “The idea of an objective God is not untrue—in fact, every idea of God, and hence every religion, is true, as each is but a different stage in the journey….”

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