Of late it has become fashionable for some profit-minded pseudo-intellectuals to cite Rna or indebtedness as the motivation for dharma. This is incorrect. Because our very existence in this world is a test of character, our own selfish obligation is not meant to be the ultimate motivation for action. Rather it is to seek the good of society and the world itself, samaj kalyan and lok kalyan. It is a selfless motivation, not a selfish one. It is this obsession with Rna, with personal or selfish obligation, that continues to create small minds motivated by fruitive action. To them performance of personal yagna is the be all and end all of Vedic knowledge. This is incorrect. True yagna is as follows:
The yagna of the Brahmana is his puja&punaskara on behalf of society, the yagna of the Kshatriya is his protection of society, the yagna of the Vaisya is his honest wealth creation & charity for society, and the yagna of the Sudra is his work, service & craftsmanship on behalf of society. All these yagnas are not done for merit, power, money, livelihood, but ultimately, for true knowledge of reality (jnana). The vast majority of individuals may not realise this, but that is the true fruit of the yagna they are conducting. In action itself they begin to learn the nature of the world, ultimately preparing them for understanding the totality of reality. It is also for this reason that not only before our important rituals but also before any important work, such as teaching/learning, starting an important task, or even a work of art, we begin with a prayer.
“puruso vaava yajnah, tasya yaani catur-vimsati varsaani, tat praatah-savanam, catur-vimsaty-aksaraa gaayatri, gaayatram praatah-savavam tad asya vasavo’nvaayattaah, praanaa vaava vasavah, ete heedam sarvam vaasayanti.” Chandogya Upanishad. ch.3,s.16, sl.1
“I.Verily, a person is a sacrifice[yagna]. His (first) twenty-four years are the morning libation is offered with a gaayatri hymn. With this (part of the sacrifice) the Vasus are connected. Verily, the vital breaths are the Vasus, for they cause every-thing here to endure”[1, 394]
It must be remembered that even if told so, many individuals do not feel obligation to their parents, let alone the universe, for whatever reason: tough life, selfish natures, etc. Such people do not voluntarily pay off personal financial debts, so what of the cosmic? That is the danger of having public performers and glorified translators, foreign and domestic, teach “dharma” without the requisite saadhana and shraddha. As such, if people are educated about Rta in terms of Rna, they will not see its value and will be misguided.
If they are educated in terms of truth (Satya) and self interest (sva artha) over time their nihith svaartha (unrestrained selfishness)will disappear, becoming asvaartha and nishkama karma.
I maintain my parents today, so that my children may maintain me tomorrow. I respect the wives of others so that they may respect my wife. I help others in need, so that they may help me when I am in need. That is how a community, that is how a society is built & preserved. Thus, what begins in self-interest, eventually graduates to selflessness. The truly perfected being does all this out of Prema, love for fellow members of society, rather than self interest; nevertheless, proper Dharmic motivation under Rta and Satya is the starting ground for this, not Rna.
Therefore, protection of Rta is not premised on obligation to the Universe, which accords to us whatever fate. But rather, it is premised on a selfless desire to protect and preserve fellow members of creation. True, those who are not spiritually inclined may act out of self-interest, but that is the starting point. Nishkama karma is the end point to which all souls in whatever lifetime must graduate. That is what must engender dharma. Drona, Karna, and Kripa all cited Rna as the basis for their actions. All were on the wrong side of the Kurukshetra.
They believed their selfish salvation (whether material or spiritual) lay in clearing off that personal debt to Dhritarashtra and his sons, and only fools lionise these characters on the basis of sentiment rather than satya. That is the danger of focus on Rna, as personal Rna becomes easily conflated with universal Rna. This misinterpretation leads to wrong action and ultimate destruction of not only individuals, but also societies, and civilizations.
In contrast, Dharma is the expression of Rta, which originates in Satya. Satya is in fact Brahman, and the essence of Brahman is love, Prema. All the great saints recognise this. This difference is not a nitpick, but rather, an important distinguishment between what must and must not motivate us. Thus, preservation of Rta is not due to Rna. Rather preservation of Rta must be for its own sake, because it is the expression of Satya. It must be due to either the love of truth, or the love of order (as it ensures justice, yuktata), or from rational recognition of its benefits and general utility to society as a whole, rather than Rna, which benefits only individuals and causes adharma. The souls of individuals are bought with Rna (debt) as Duryodhana bought the soul of Karna with the kingdom of Anga. Krishna himself warned of this danger to Karna.
Debt is the path to and shield of tyranny. It is why ambitious ahankaris who crave not only kingdoms but undue recognition and monopoly forever trumpet the horn of Rna. Because they chase after the rightful position of others, they obsess over Rna, rather than cherish Rta and Satya. They may talk of the need for the truth to be told, but in actuality fear it, lest they be discovered for what they really are.
That is why Rta and Satya are more important than Rna, and why Dharma is not about Rna, it is, and always was, about Rta. While the two may seem to be related concepts, Rna is about personal debt, but Dharma, Saamaanya Dharma, is about the common good. Dharma doesn’t ask “what is my financial obligation here”, or “gurudakshina there”. It asks, what is the interest of society? Rnis start from the personal—obsessing about ritual and tradition above right and wrong—and then, if there is time, think about the rest of society. Rituals do matter, but those who understand Rta recognise that our duty, our svadharma, is determined by saamaanya dharma—and we must determine the best course of action based on society’s needs. Chennaites did precisely that in the recent flood.
What’s more, many confuse the existence of the Chaturvarna as representing the hermetical sealing off of society into different orders—preventing interaction. This is incorrect. While there are certain samskaras maintained at different times and places, society represents an organic whole. Ritual and tradition do matter, but they are not the be all or end all or the heart of Dharma. Rta and Satya are. Achara is the first Dharma, but not the most important Dharma (Rta and Satya are). Though it is true historically the coherence of society was maintained by establishing social orders performing various functions, this doesn’t mean cutting off social interaction completely. Individual kulacharas do not represent different religions. Rather they represent different duties within the same religion. Religion, or more correctly, dharma, creates order within society that is parallel to law, vyavahara. Because breakdowns in law and order occur from time to time, it is a strong moral culture, Sanskriti, and ethical dharma, that prevents matsya nyaya (big fish eats little fish), during such periods.
In our age, the Kali age, the age of disorder, guna is not always aligned with birth. Therefore, the spiritual characteristics, gunas, of individuals, matter more than caste birth (or alleged“aptitude”). It is ahankar that drives individuals to insult and oppress people for their caste, in the end, destroying both them and society. It is ambition and profit that causes individuals to obsess about Rna. Rta + Respect for others of all backgrounds is what must come first.
Ultimately, we preserve Dharma and Rta not because of obligation to the universe, or because we have a selfish debt to pay, but because preservation of Dharma and Rta benefits all of us collectively and protects us and society. This in turn makes civilized life possible for the individual and all mankind.
That is the end goal of Dharma and Rta…and Satya.
- Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli. The Principal Upanisads. London: Unwin Brothers.1968
- Subramaniam, Kamala. Mahabharata. Mumbai: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. 1965