Misunderstanding Dharma

Sita and Rama“Other than you, who in the three worlds would even think of desiring me, for I am the wife of that pious-soul, as Shachi is to Indra?” (Sita Devi speaking to Ravana, Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 22.14)

māṃ hi dharmātmanaḥ patnīṃ śacīmiva śacīpateḥ |
tvadanyastriṣu lokeṣu prārthayenmanasāpi kaḥ ||

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Householder life embodies a material existence. Though ideally this stage of life is meant to be an ashrama, one where spiritual realization is furthered, it is a time where enjoyments for the senses are available in the largest quantities. The householder lacking a spiritual consciousness is always contemplating how to enjoy eating. “Where will I eat tonight? What will I cook for dinner?” The hosting area is also of tremendous importance. This is the headquarters for enjoyment. So naturally other questions are, “What kind of house can I find? How many rooms is enough? Can I get a bigger house than my friend?”

Interior decoratingAside from the possible rise of a host of negative emotions, such as envy and hostility towards others, there is the danger of misunderstanding dharma. The original definition of the Sanskrit term is “an essential quality.” Since the essence of everything is life, dharma also applies to the essence of the living spirit. The procedures and policies used to reawaken that essence and maintain it are also known as dharma.

If I know nothing of spirit due to the fact that I am illusioned by the temporary manifestation covering myself today, I’ll mistake dharma for a system used to gain material benefits. “I worship God so that I can get stuff. The goal is to get stuff, not really to worship. I worship every now and then, but not too much. I don’t want to make it a fulltime thing. I think that eating, sleeping, and mating are the most important things in life. Since I can only enjoy in this life, defending is also essential.”

This is a misunderstanding because the purpose to following dharma is to regain one’s essence. In that pure consciousness, there is hardly any desire to enjoy the senses. Therefore renunciation is a natural byproduct of following dharma. In the pure state, there is devotion to the Almighty, the source of all matter and spirit. His association is the ultimate reward of dharma; it is the fruit of all mysticism, work, and study. His association is then maintained through devotion. There is no other way to keep Him by one’s side.

Bright flame and shadowRenunciation and knowledge follow the devotee like the shadow that trails behind a bright flame from a lamp. They are aftereffects, comparatively insignificant to the object of interest. In the devotional consciousness one naturally loses taste for material opulence. They don’t really care about eating the finest dishes. They don’t worry too much about intoxicating beverages. They enjoy eating spiritually, so to speak. They drink up the visual nectar of the transcendental form of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Their ears bask in the sound vibrations glorifying the Supreme Lord. They feel the touch of sacred garments presented on the altar and smell the fragrance of the lotus flower offered at the lotus feet of the deity on the same altar.

Lord KrishnaThe materially attached person cannot understand such practices. They don’t know that there is a higher taste. They may even engage in dharma, but they still don’t know the ultimate reward. This was the case with Ravana, who is addressed in the verse referenced above. He is being rebuked here by the wife of a pious soul, dharma-atma. Everyone in the world knew her staunch devotion to her husband Rama. They also knew of Rama’s qualities, which were all good.

Ravana couldn’t understand Sita’s consciousness. He took her by force back to his kingdom of Lanka, hoping she would agree to become his chief queen. She kept refusing him, and so he kept upping the offer. He thought that maybe she was playing hard to get. Perhaps she was negotiating for a better deal. Ravana considered eating succulent meats, drinking fine wine, and enjoying with many women to be the summit of an existence, the best it has to offer. He had previously engaged in rigorous austerities in what appeared to be part of a life in dharma. He had a specific purpose in mind, however. He wanted strength which he could then use to rule the world. Thus his understanding of dharma was not right.

He couldn’t understand why Sita kept rejecting him. She tried her best to explain it to him. Rama was a dharma-atma, a soul who knew the principles of righteousness. If she was His wife, it meant she knew those principles as well. In the material sense, the guiding principle for a wife is devotion to her husband. At least this is the case in ideal circumstances. The husband and wife share in spiritual merits, so if the wife can support the husband in following dharma, she benefits tremendously.

Sita compares her situation to Shachi Devi’s. Shachi is the wife of Lord Indra, the king of heaven. No one would think of taking her, since everyone knows that her heart is given over to Indra. What enjoyment would you get from someone who doesn’t want anything to do with you? Using force in such a case would be a waste of time.

Sita and RamaRavana proceeded anyway, for he couldn’t understand the devotee’s heart. He didn’t realize that Sita would never be enticed by material opulence if it came at the price of Rama’s association. Rama is the Supreme Lord in His incarnation as a warrior prince. He is the goal of dharma, and on earth He plays the part of a righteous son, brother, husband and leader to show everyone the proper path in life. Sita teams with Him to make the perfect couple, an object for devotion. Ravana saw her as an object of personal enjoyment, and this faulty vision would ruin him.

In Closing:

Having husband of pious soul,

She too righteous in wife’s role.


Only when one in depths to sink,

That to have as wife they’d think.


Dharma not for my material gain,

Or simply to ease unwanted pain.


Love for Rama Sita’s only way to be,

Deluded soul Ravana fact could not see.


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