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Moksha and Dharma

Morality has a bad name in certain contemporary circles. Rules, restrictions, tired old dogmas, the famous “thou shalt nots . . . “ All this jars against modern ideas of liberty, where free spirits follow their own inclinations first. What role could such narrow and rigid anachronisms have in genuine spiritual practice? This is indeed the age of moral relativism, at least throughout most of the western world. Today, the spiritual aspirant seeking “Ultimate Liberation” commonly avoids direct encounter with certain traditional teachings, say of brahmacharya or aparigraha. Sexual waywardness and the accumulation of material objects are tough habits to break, particularly in today’s world. Besides, the unspoken logic often goes: How can one find freedom without being free?

But what does “being free” really signify? If it means following self-based whims, it is action based on desire. This kind of action merely reinforces the ego-consciousness out of which desires arise in the first place, keeping an individual bound in the wheel of samsara, where karmic patterns self-perpetuate. It is the antithesis of freedom in the spiritual sense. True freedom indicates the dissolution of ego-consciousness, not its strengthening. This ultimate liberation, the goal of all spiritual practice, is called moksha or Self-Realisation. It means freedom from the delusion of the individual mind/body perspective. With moksha, all desire, all aspirations dissolve in a profound shift in consciousness. The individual transcends all duality, so that no conceptual constructs upon the Absolute remain, even (and most particularly!) the concept of the individual self.

As an intra-psychic event, moksha transcends worldly concerns. On the other hand, dharma (virtue or righteousness) applies directly to the world, to the moral order which underpins the material realm. According to Hinduism, dharma is the foundation of the world, the universal harmony. And so, from very early times, a tension between moksha and dharma has resonated throughout the Indian tradition. If moksha means the transcendence of duality, then it is beyond good and evil, beyond virtue and vice. It would seem by this that since dharma appears not to matter ultimately, it is of little concern to the spiritual aspirant. This view supports quite neatly the modern resistance to moral teachings and appears to relegate dharma to an inferior status.

The ancient Hindu lawmakers identified four worthy goals for human life. Known as the purusha-artha, they are: artha (material prosperity or wealth); kama (pleasure of a sensual, aesthetic or intellectual nature); dharma (virtue or truth); and moksha (spiritual liberation). [Interestingly, in the 13th century CE, a fifth goal—bhakti-- was added by the mystical poet Jnanadeva.] If artha, kama and dharma apply to worldly pursuits –to the phenomenal world of time and space governed by duality--and moksha reaches beyond to the unmanifest, the Absolute; where does Bhakti (love and devotion to the Divine) belong? It is my understanding that it can belong to both. And that this fact provides a key to understanding the true importance of dharma for the spiritual aspirant.

In the Gita, Krishna teaches two levels of emancipation. Beyond the realisation of egoless transcendence into the Absolute lies an awakening into Transcendental Love. Krishna says to Arjuna, “Thus ever yoking the self, the yogin of restrained mind approaches peace, the supreme extinction that subsists in Me.” (6.15) Bhakti supersedes moksha. God-consciousness embraces, includes and transcends the abstract world ground. Krishna teaches a panentheistic metaphysic. God is in everything, and everything is in God. Bhakti thus belongs to the highest level of spiritual attainment, for “everything is in God”. It also belongs to every part of ordinary worldly life. Any simple action becomes an opportunity for bhakti – from cutting the carrots to cleaning the carpets, for “God is in everything”.

Bhakti serves as a kind of luminous thread, weaving the various strands of existence into a coherent fabric dedicated to a singular radiant purpose. Worship, love, devotion – no words can get it quite right. Story works better. Bhakti is the ecstatic union of Krishna and Radha, where Krishna is the infinity of God and Radha is the pulse of every human heart. On the fields of Vrindavana, Krishna multiplied himself so that each gopi (and there were thousands) felt that she alone possessed the totality of his passion, she alone was Radha. Every gopi embraces the fullness of Krishna. In a like manner, every expression in the material world of pure bhakti--the yoga of Transcendent Love—manifests the same infinite, indivisible Divine.

Bhakti belongs to the manifest world as much as to the Transcendental Oneness. Indeed, all form and phenomena in all the three worlds—physical, astral, causal—result from the division of Shiva (the unmanifest Absolute, the Source) into Shiva/Shakti (potential form and creative energy). The male/static and female/dynamic deities (or principles) govern the entire creative flow of material reality. Thus dharma—or the universal harmony of the cosmos-- grows out of the Body of the Divine. The Divine expression into worldly form is dharma, so dharma is honoured and served through bhakti too. This understanding does much to reinstate dharma to a position of prominence in the hierarchy of worthy pursuits.

A deep understanding of dharma is--in fact--vital to the spiritual aspirant. Not until the actual realisation of moksha, when the ego-concept completely dissolves, is the duality of virtue and vice transcended. Until that time, as long as the smallest shred of ego-consciousness lingers, the possibility of self-interested action remains. Neglect of dharma at this point can be a subtly-disguised and dangerous justification for ego indulgence. It can function as an insurmountable obstacle to Self-Realisation. An extreme example of this is the adept who has reached a high level of spiritual achievement, acquiring many siddhis or powers, but who misuses them for purposes of personal aggrandizement. An effort towards moral rightness, an alignment with the harmony and order that govern the manifest world according to divine plan, in other words, a knowledge of dharma--can assist the spiritual aspirant through the many pitfalls along the path towards moksha.

For this reason, spiritual development depends profoundly upon a true grasp of dharma. Moksha needs dharma. Likewise, dharma needs moksha. Morality without the quest for enlightenment too often degenerates into self-righteousness, hypocrisy or smug, judgemental shallowness —all those things that make many modern westerners run as far as they can in the opposite direction. Like two sides of a coin, moksha and dharma support and complete each other. A deep understanding of dharma quickens the journey towards moksha. And a genuine realisation of moksha becomes the ultimate expression of dharma, with repercussions extending to the subtlest possible realms.

Few words have more shades of meaning than “dharma”. Not only does it signify deep ethics, but also it denotes the very “thing-ness” of phenomena in a technical, philosophical sense. Though seemingly quite different, these two applications of the word “dharma” coincide in its meaning of ultimate truth or universal harmony. If dharma means the truth, then it underpins everything: truth extends from the intricate balance of the entire cosmos, both physical and ethical, to the very nature of a substance. Dharma refers to reality, to the way things are, to the right order or balance in the material, moral and cosmic realms. This understanding of dharma connects to the ancient Vedic concept of “rita”, the universal harmony of the natural order that flows from the Divine. The word “rita” itself is synonymous with “satya” or truth. Thus the circle is complete.

But the concept of dharma remains profoundly multi-faceted. Indeed, the British monk, Bhikshu Sangharakshita says “that it would scarcely be an exaggeration to claim that an understanding of this protean word is synonymous with an understanding of Buddhism”. In fact, the Buddha called his teaching the “Dharma”, and along with buddha and sangha, dharma is one of the Three Jewels of Buddhism—the essence of Buddhist practice and teaching. In the Hindu tradition as well, dharma figures prominently, with the concept of moksha appearing in continual counterpoint.

In ancient times, dharma appears as one of the undercurrents of the Vedas. The Vedas may not use the language of dharma and moksha, but through their own highly symbolic poetry, they suggest both concepts and the relationship between them. As a “sacrificial mysticism” the Vedic religion understands “rita” to emanate from the divine realm, and the many deites themselves as various expressions of or channels to the One Transcendental Reality. Though much Vedic ritual served to petition the divine for this-world prosperity in harmony with the cosmic order, some certainly aspired to merging with the divine. The rishis (seers) perceived with the inner eye the luminous reality behind manifest form. These “children of light” clearly experienced moksha, shaping their visions into the sublime hymns of the Vedas.

Later, various philosophical traditions deal directly with the concepts of dharma and moksha. Dharma appears foremost in the school of Purva-Mimamsa, whereas moksha is the central theme of Uttara-Mimamsa, the school of Advaita Vedanta--where the “unbroken whole” is the only reality and all manifestation belongs to the dream of Maya. Yet if dharma stands for universal truth or the unchangeable reality or the intrinsic order of the universe, it applies here as well. The order of the universe includes both the Absolute and the manifestation, the One and the many, the Truth and the dream. Maya is both real and unreal. And from the finite perspective where maya appears real, dharma provides the cohesive thread, linking objects in both time and space.

In a broad sense, dharma includes the harmony of the natural world as well—the cycles of seasons and stars, tides and all manner of temporality. Nature manifests according to pattern, the three gunas endlessly flowing in measured movement. Interestingly, this “dance of dharma” has its parallel in western culture, in the medieval and Renaissance vision of the natural and moral order reflecting a divinely directed harmony. Much of Shakespeare’s tragedy, in fact, pivots upon a rupture of this order, as in “the time is out of joint” (Hamlet I, v, 188). Since human beings have the capacity to choose according to free will, they can act either in harmony or at variance with the order of things.

In human society, dharma signifies “right action”. In the Buddhist tradition, the noble eightfold path teaches principles for right living that lead to self-transcendence. Though divided into eight practices, the path follows three general stages. First of all, everything begins with “right vision or understanding”. This is “vidya” or seeing the truth—i.e., that the self-concept is a delusion and conditioned existence is impermanent, composite, interdependent. Out of this vision, along with the resolve it implies, proceeds right behaviour--speech, conduct and livelihood in alignment with the truth. The path culminates in “right yoga” – effort, mindfulness, meditation directed towards samadhi and the experience of self-transcendence, which when complete is another way of understanding moksha. From true seeing, true action follows. From true action comes true wisdom. Though its terminology may differ, Buddhism teaches the importance of both dharma and moksha, the one leading into another, exemplified by the image of the Turning of the Wheel of Dharma.

In the Hindu tradition, many sacred texts, notably the Ramayana and the Bhagavad-Gita, explore the themes of dharma and moksha. Throughout the many adventures of the Ramayana, Rama, one of the principal incarnations of Vishu, follows a path of virtue, truthfulness, penance, forgiveness and stoicism. Both he and his wife Sita serve as exemplary models of self-transcending action, upholding dharma in every choice they make. Rama chooses the virtuous path not from self-interest, but rather out of his vision of the Whole. If dharma signifies what is true or good or right or harmonious, it does so from the perspective of the Whole, of Ultimate Reality, not the individual. Thus, though the Ramayana stands primarily as a treatise on the moral disciplines--on dharma—still, it favours wisdom as the ultimate goal of existence. Towards the end of the epic, in the section known at the Rama-Gita, this point becomes explicit. Self-Realisation (or moksha) emerges as the highest achievement, where action and “the idea of a self” cease and the sage is “always intent on the contemplation of the Self”.

In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna teaches Arjuna the essence of karma, jnana and bhakti yoga, explicating the role of dharma and moksha against the vast tableau of Ultimate Reality. Krishna reveals to Arjuna the fullness of reality—where in the manifest realm the movement of the gunas creates an intricate web of karma that must play itself out (the unfolding of dharma) and where in the unmanifest realm (beyond time and space) everything has already happened and rests in a state of equilibrium and potential (dissolution in moksha). Arjuna can do nothing to change his karma (the particular conditioning of his mind/body organism), which belongs to the Divine Order. Krishna shows Arjuna that his reluctance to act comes from ego-attachment, from clinging to the finite and impermanent. He teaches him to relinquish all attachment to the fruits of his action, renouncing not action (which is impossible) but attachment or self-interested thinking. Right action, the basis of karma yoga, means assuming the stance of Eternal Witness of all process. It means breaking through the illusion of an active subject and aligning oneself (and thus losing oneself) in the Transcendental Oneness.

Thus, in the Gita, karma yoga or self-transcending action leads to jnana yoga or wisdom, the realisation that consciousness is One, omnipresent and eternal, and consciousness is all that is. Krishna teaches Arjuna that all concepts projected onto this Transcendental Oneness arise out of delusion and belong to maya. Finally, Krishna reveals to Arjuna that He himself is that Transcendental Oneness. The Ultimate Reality is Divine Being. Krishna (another principal incarnation of Vishnu) is both the Source and the multiplicity. The Divine permeates and includes the totality of form, both manifest and unmanifest. With this understanding, the ultimate yoga becomes the practice of bhakti. For the practitioner, this means the alignment of one’s entire being according to the light of the divine. Life flows as a continual yoga, where self-transcending action is a surrender to the divine will. And action in the world serves to promote the welfare of all beings, who are the body of the divine. Thus the ethics of the Gita comes full circle. Self-transcending action requires not just non-attachment but also righteousness or virtue. Indeed, according to the Hindu tradition, Vishnu incarnates into the world whenever the dharma or moral order needs to be reinstated. Such was the case with both Rama and Krishna.

Yet just as ancient tradition elevates dharma, promoting for all individuals ethical action in alignment with the Divine Order, it certainly does not mean that from an individual perspective, “bad” things won’t happen. On the contrary, from any particular point in time and space, i.e., from the personal viewpoint, bad (and good) things happen all the time. In the manifest realm of ego-consciousness, duality determines all appearances. This is Nature or Prakriti, the movement of the gunas. This is Shakti: the primal, creative energy, the dynamic of all phenomena. Nature manifests always in polarity—subject and object, male and female, light and dark, good and evil---and all the multitude of interconnected opposites. This is Kali, the Divine Mother who embraces the diversity and range of all experience—bountiful womb and grim reaper. Kali is ocean and sky, thunder and grass, flowers and bone and rotting flesh.

Dharma, the universal harmony of the cosmos, cannot preclude Kali, who is Earth Herself. She belongs to the Divine Order too. Kali governs the entire expression of primal energy as form and phenomena. Since manifest reality by definition appears as duality, it must include what seems from the individual perspective as joy or sorrow, beneficence or tragedy. No amount of right action or moral rightness in human behaviour will change this truth. Manifest reality is not “perfectible” from the human point of view, and an ethical stance based on this premise is a real fallacy. There is no utopia to be realised on earth. There is only the dance.

What can be realised, however, is the ultimate nature of reality. What can be realised is moksha or liberation from ego-consciousness, from the mistaken identification with a particular mind/body organism, which continually filters experience according to its judgements of good or bad. This individual mind perspective is delusion. It is the creative flow of Prakriti or Shakti into elemental matter. It is what Vedanta calls Maya, the mistaken identification of false appearances with the truth. Maya is the distorted lens that keeps us bound in ignorance of our true nature. And the greatest obstacle along the path towards realising that true nature is the ego-identity itself. As long as there is a “me” wanting some of “that” (even if the “that” is the worthiest of goals, i.e. moksha), it will never happen. “Me” and “that” imply a subject/object relationship which genuine moksha transcends.

What is a person to do to break this vicious circle? Aside from all the spiritual disciplines recommended by the yoga tradition, a cultivation of dharma in daily living can only help. In fact, it forms an essential aspect of the practice of Ashta-anga or Kriya Yoga according to Patanjali. Living as though one were already enlightened can only further one along the path towards enlightenment. For selfless action plants “good karmic” seeds, which can make liberation from ego-consciousness more likely to happen sooner rather than later. Genuine selfless action is by its very nature ethical. So ethical behaviour can only promote the understanding—both intellectual and experiential--of the true metaphysical meaning of self-less-ness.

Yet ethical action needs the vision of moksha to keep it truly selfless, so that it is based not on commandments to be kind or charitable or vanities about outward appearances, but rather the intuitive knowledge that “self” and “other” are false categories. Blind adherence to moral principles, without understanding their meaning in terms of ultimate liberation, can actually result in a reinforcement rather than dissolution of ego-identity. This is the “do-good” mentality that is at the root of much moral self-righteousness. The trap here can become very subtle. As long as there remains the “I” who is doing these “good things”, then that goodness—no matter how helpful—will not liberate the doer from ego-identity. Dharma needs moksha.

Equally important, moksha needs dharma. Before enlightenment, an alignment of behaviour in harmony with the moral order can assist the aspirant in keeping the quest pure. The challenge to humility here can be enormous, but is necessary to ensure that the desire for spiritual advancement is not just another form of personal gratification.

In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the practical path begins with the yamas and niyamas, ten ethical principles that form the foundation of the practice. The further one moves along the path, the deeper one’s understanding of these principles becomes. The eight limbs of ashta-anga yoga culminate in samadhi, which in its full expression leads to moksha. Yet the image here is of a wheel, where the eight limbs are like spokes. The practice forms a circle, in which nothing is left behind. Samadhi circles back to the first of the yamas, ahimsa or non-violence. After enlightenment, the yamas and niyamas reveal an unspeakable profundity of meaning. For they describe how an enlightened person naturally behaves in the world, without attachments even though still incarnate in a particular mind/body organism.

With the realisation of moksha, the action of the mind/body organism that continues on this earth plane by necessity follows the universal harmony. Without ego attachment, a Self-Realised being by nature upholds the dharma. Old karma plays out, but no new karma forms. Events happen as life flows, but no individual attempts to steer them in a particular way for personal advantage. Without self-centred interest, choice based on “moral rightness” happens effortlessly, according to the unique programming of the mind/body organism in a particular cultural framework.

As Ramesh Balsekar says, “One need only float with the magnificent current of Totality in the ecstasy of oneness with the cosmic flow of events. What else can the dreamer do with his dream except passively witness it without judgement.” In this way, moksha becomes the ultimate expression of dharma. Just like the jewels of Indra’s Net, the universal harmony of the cosmos becomes most luminous as each point realises the infinite nature of its own pure radiance.

Georg Feurerstein, trans. The Bhagavad-Gita (Manton, CA: Yoga Research and Education Center, 2002)

Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition. (Prescott , AZ: Hohm Press, 2001) p. 158

G. Blakemore Evans, ed. The Riverside Shakespeare. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1974)

Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition (Prescott, AZ: Hohm Press, 2001) p. 185

Ramesh Balsekar, Advaita, the Buddha and the Unbroken Whole. (Mumbai: Zen Publications, 2003), p. 14

© Marianne Jacuzzi 2004



Meditation for the Month:

"Thoughts come and go.
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Ramana Maharshi

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