Dharma and Yoga

Dharma and Yoga

The Bhagavad Gita, “the Song of the Beloved” or “the Song of the Lord,” is an epic poem consisting of 18 chapters on the topic of yoga. The poem reads as a conversation between a warrior and his charioteer. The Warrior, Arjuna, represents each and every one of us as we navigate the waters of life. The Charioteer, Krishna, is the incarnation of the eternal one (Lord) and assumes the generous role of teacher. The poem begins on a battlefield, adrenalin pumping, conchs blowing, the scene is set as the armies of good and evil prepare to fight. The virtuous side is the Pandavas of which Arjuna is a key figure. The non-virtuous side are the cousins of the Pandavas known as Kauravas. As Arjuna paces the battlefield in preparation for war he is suddenly arrested by a crisis of faith. Time seems to stand still. Two issues arise….First even though the war is a holy war and winning the war would be just and good Arjuna doesn’t want to harm his family members. Second even though he know he must fulfill his dharma (duty) he is instantly conflicted as to what his dharma really is.

Dharma comes from the root “dhar” meaning to uphold so dharma provides stability. It is our role in this life that supports our place in the universe. Another way of putting it is “right action.” Krishna begins at this moment to guide Arjuna towards his dharma reinforcing again and again that these bodies are merely ephemeral and the true self never dies. The call is to do his duty without attachment to the results…to be the same in both success or failure. Krishna’s initial aim is to help Arjuna gain “right perception” (yogica pratyaksa pramana) so that he can do his “right action” (dharma).

Still (understandably), in the heightened state, Arjuna is torn. His mind is mudha (covered) by fear and confusion saying…

“My own being is overcome by pity and weakness. My mind is confused as to my duty. I ask you which is preferable for certain? Tell that to me, your pupil, I beg you!”

~translation Winthrop Sargeant

What is duty?

In modern times the term dharma is often used incorrectly. Dharma is considered the end- I must “FIND” my purpose then i’ll be happy! But dharma is not the end it is a means or a path. Dharma is order, it is right action and is one of the purusharthas or the 4 endeavors/paths of life. The Purusharthas are collectively dharma, artha, kama and moksha.

  • Dharma: To Support. Doing our duty is not to achieve praise but to fulfill our responsibilities. The moment egoic agenda steps in is the moment dharma turns to adharma. A sattvic person is inclined towards dharma.
  • Artha: Purpose/Substance. Artha is the aim of accumulation typically of wealth. A rajasic person is inclined towards gaining possessions.
  • Kama: Pleasure. A tamasic person is geared towards pleasure seeking.
  • Moksha: Liberation. The yogi in nirodhah (all gunas in balance/beyond the gunas) is pointed towards moksha -liberation from all the effects of the gunas. This is the ultimate aim of the yogi.

Dharma therefore is the closest aim in life for the yogabhyasi not in nirodhah for it provides a container to minimize the effects of apunya karma (results of wrong action). The dharmic person is still able to sustain their needs (artha), find joy in the little things (kama) but these actions are guided by sattva rather than rajas and tamas. Much like all of us, navigating living our dharma amongst the murky waters of capitalism, status and self-doubt, Arjuna knows that Dharma is right but he needs some guidance on how to understand his. To see his path he has to first gain clarity (elevate sattva) and focus (ekagrah).

The partner to duty

Knowing that Arjuna has a duty to fight, Krishna guides his pupil with compassion from mudha citta (covered/clouded mind) to viksipta (waivering mind) and eventually to clarity and resolve (ekagrah). This is no easy fete and it is easy to sympathize with Arjuna. Nevertheless, Krishna gently persists. The message is not just duty but duty AND surrender. In order for our dharma to be true we must renounce the fruits of our actions. The poem is cyclical…continuously coming back to the same message: liberation through renunciation. In his waivering state Arjuna will begin to grasp, again and again, the point of Krishna’s words and then his mind regresses -again he is not convinced. As for us all fear and uncertainty take time to pull back. Remember even Patanjali says Abhinivesah (fear of death) is a difficult affliction to overcome even for the wise. Krishna the patient teacher goes through all the steps and stages of yoga from selfless service to knowledge to meditation to devotion until finally Arjuna is convinced to proceed. Never frustrated he persists because he loves Arjuna. This is not fleeting affection but the love of the unconditional. It is this self revealing love that allows him to finally take up his duty without ego. In this way the Bhagavad Gita is less a story about how to fight and more, as Stephen Mitchell writes, a response to the question of “how should we live?”

Yoga is the guide for dharma and moksha

The main take home for Krishna is not the virtues of battle but rather the recognition of the eternal self. The Atman never dies. Our true form can not be struck down for it is not this body. Doing our duty without attachment to the results (the objects) helps us to go beyond the gunas. Arjuna through contemplation on the many paths of yoga eventually clears his mind enough to be able to see Krishna not as the charioteer in front of him but the divine (a representation of the formless). Upon seeing the divine there is no doubt and no more duhkha. Yoga helps us to reduce the ill effects of excess rajas and tamas, to elevate sattva for the clarity of the mind. With a clear mind doing our duty becomes effortless and unattached. With a clear mind we can also take up the path of meditation and self recognition.

The parallel message

The beauty of the Gita is that many paths of yoga are described all with the same aim. Do your duty, take up the path of yoga (in whatever form suits the individual) and moksha will come. The theme of yoga as many paths towards the same internal goal is consistent with the messages in the yoga sutras. 

The sage Patanjali of whom we regularly refer is often depicted not as a human but as Adishesha- the 1000 headed king of the nagas and Vishnu’s (the sustainer in the trinity) support. This imagery is particularly beautiful in relationship to yoga as each of the 1000 heads is said to represent an aspect of yoga sadhana to be attended. The point is that yoga is not just one act or path but a vast and rich tradition for the benefit of all. Each yogabhyasi comes to the practice in their own way and as such the practice should be adapted to them as is appropriate. This is how Krishnamacharya taught. So it is also with the Bhagavad Gita. There are many paths to the eternal. The path taken up should suit the capacity of the abhyasi. As described in the Gita: some find their way to truth through selfless service, others through devotion to the higher principle, some through the yoga of knowledge, some through sankhya but for all vairagya is key. Just as in the yoga sutras there are 4 chapters written specifically for the stage the yogabhyasi is in:

  • The first chapter is for the practitioner already with the samadhi capability.
  • The 2nd chapter is for the “beginner” as it gives us a means to sustain attention through kriya yoga and then ashtanga yoga.
  • The third is for the master who has begun to reveal yogic powers (siddhis) as a guide to not get stuck in the fruits of practice.
  • The 4th chapter is for the yogi in nirodhah as a guide to sustain liberation throughout one’s remaining embodied years.

Again abhyasa and vairagya go together. In each chapter there is also variability towards the same aim. This is the meaning of come as you are. There is no conflict in these paths, no dogma. With faith, determination and consistency anyone can attain ultimate peace. Why? well because peace, while we call it an aim or a goal, is not really a goal at all. There is limitation in language. A goal implies movement towards an external point. But liberation is already here, inside us. Yoga is just the system by which we stop the citta vrtti from pointing every other direction but home. It’s how we come home to ourself. Krishna compassionately and kindly guides his pupil to that knowing through many routes explaining that there is not ONE perfect way for everyone. 

As Krishna states in the final chapter…

“Better one’s own duty though imperfect than the duty of another well performed. Performing the duty prescribed by one’s own nature, one does not incur sin”

~translation Winthrop Sargeant

With his intellect unattached at all times, with conquered self free from desire, by renunciation one attains the Supreme state of freedom from action”

~translation Winthrop Sargeant

What is citta vrtti but action/activity? Krishna knows as does Patanjali that stopping action all together is virtually impossible for the bound mind. So the instruction instead is to act according to our dharma but without attachment to the results. With a steady dharma, take up the path of yoga towards nirodhah. A parallel message to that mirrored in the sutras. It all comes together. Immediate “perfection” is not the teaching. Eventually even your perfect or imperfect action too will fall away. 

Remain steadfast in yoga as it applies to you, release the fruits of your actions, the destination is already set. 

While Krishna’s initial message is Right action + detachment, his final advice is to follow this path to eventually release all action together (citta vrtti nirodhah- the ultimate release). There is freedom in releasing what isn’t ours. Dharma is a support for our place in the navigating life but the ultimate support is Purusha- the true Self.

See you tomorrow,


P.S. Jacquelin Sonderling has taken up the dharmic activity of putting together portions of Ramaswami’s lectures on the Bhagavad Gita for all to view. I highly recommend watching… This is chapter 2 part 1. For example Vs. 31 speaks on Svadharma- one’s individual duty.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.