The entire Gita is written from the standpoint of Sanjaya, the messenger of the blind king Dhrithrasthtra. The two station themselves remotely, with Sanjaya providing “live” details as they happen, being blessed with divine vision (ability to see remote events clearly) by Krishna.
The very first verse of the Gita begins with Dhritharasthra asking Sanjaya, “O Sanjaya, what did my sons and the sons of Pandu do when eager to fight, they gathered on Kurukshetra the battleground of Dharma?”
And so it is that right from the outset, this is not about a war fought in an ancient world, but the war waging within each of us at any given moment. Kurukshetra is right here, right now – the inner conflict that is the hallmark of human existence. And it all has to do with what has been termed dharma.
Dharma is quite simply, natural law – that upon which all creation rests. If we can remain rooted in our own personal dharma, there would be no inner conflict and there would be peace at all times. However, although it is a simple definition, the murky thing is to know what one’s dharma is. In the context of the Gita and other Vedic literature, in order to understand dharma, it helps to understand three other concepts – guna, varna and ashrama.
Guna is “quality”, tendency or aptitude. All of creation can be seen to be composed of 3 gunas – tamas, rajas and sattva. Tamas refers to the quality of inertia, darkness, and/or heaviness, rajas of movement, action, dynamism and sattva of purity, lightness, light. Tamas makes up the structure of the universe, rajas provides movement, and sattva the intelligence. In all creatures, these qualities in specific combinations, make up the individual psyche/nature/personality. Evolution entails moving from tamas to rajas to sattva. Tamas in us results in inertia, lack of motivation, laziness, etc, rajas results in activity (and hyperactivity), movement, determination, accomplishment, etc and sattva results in quiet mind, clarity, purity of being, etc. The gunas also determine the “tightness” of ego-identification or “I- and my-ness”. Tamas results in total entrapment in the ego (separate self) on all levels, rajas to a lower degree and sattva to a still lower degree of such clinging to “I” and “me”.
Varna is the sorting, classification or division of a group. In 4:13, Krishna declares that he created 4 varnas (castes) according to guna and work/vocation: Brahmin (not Brahman), Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Sudra. This classification exists universally in every society, government, organization or group. Brahmins are those individuals that have a guna combination of sattva, rajas, tamas (in that order) and make up the segment of society that comes up with ideas, concepts and discoveries (scientists, philosophers and the like). Kshatriyas have the guna combination of rajas, sattva and tamas and are the leaders, the ones that take on the task of bringing ideas to fruition (politicians, military commanders, CEOs, etc). Vaishyas are driven by the guna combination of rajas, tamas and sattva, and excel at finding resources for the project (economists, financial planners, fundraisers, etc). Sudras with gunas combining in tamas, rajas and sattva are the workers, the ones that do the actual producing of results.
In the Vedic system, a person chose his “caste” according to his/her aptitude and type of work. Thus, a Brahmin’s son could become a warrior (Kshatriya), a Sudra’s son a Brahmin, etc based on one’s personal aptitute driven by gunas, and according to the “ashrama” system.
Ashrama is the stage of life that along with guna and varna, will determine one’s unique dharma. Upto a certain age, everyone was a celibate student (Brahmacharya). Upon entering adulthood and finishing education (that was pretty equivalent for all, consisting of learning about the greater purpose of life and integration into society), most married and became householders (Grihastha). Once these duties were performed and children were raised, the householder left all material ties and retired to a quiet place for reflection (Vanaprastha), becoming celibate again. Finally, with further development of non-attachment, one entered the final stage of life (Sannyasa), renouncing everything and withdrawing inward.
In the context of guna, varna and ashram, it is easy to know what one’s dharma is. Thus, as a Brahmacharya (celibate student), one’s dharma is to study, to honor and obey the guru and parents and to direct all energies toward learning. Upon entering Grihastha ashrama, if one became a Kshatriya, one’s dharma was to first and foremost serve/protect and to lead by example, but also care for his family (since he would also be a Grihastha). If one had followed the ashrama system as it was designed, one would be ready to renounce material possessions when the time for Vanaprastha came.
In the context of the Mahabharata, Duryodhana was a king (therefore Kshatriya) and his dharma was to rule justly, to give the Pandavas the kingdom he had promised them before their exile. His dharma was to protect his people, not subject them to the horrors of war. However, (especially once the war was announced and particularly after the conches were blown), it was Arjuna’s dharma (also as a Kshatriya) to fight against injustice. To not fight would be adharma (opposite of dharma) for him and akin to “sin”. Throughout the Gita, Krishna emphasizes that swadharma (one’s own dharma) is far superior to paradharma (someone else’s dharma). As an example, premature renunciation of one’s family/life to retire into a life of contemplation (because someone else did that) would be adharma.
Even though knowledge of one’s gunas/varna/ashrama makes it somewhat easier to know what one’s dharma is, it is not always easy to follow it. Humans have the unique ability to choose or discriminate between what is right and what is pleasurable. A tiger does not wonder if it should kill for food and if that is the right thing to do. It is driven by instinct. We humans, on the other hand, are plagued with constant assessment and re-assessment of our thoughts and actions, heavily caught up in what we have learned to be right or wrong from our culture and upbringing. There is one part of us that knows what the right thing to do is; yet the other part that desires pleasure nags in an overpowering fashion. One adharmic action leads to one more and then one more and so on until we are lost in the perpetual war within. In every moment, opposing forces pull us in one direction or the other, in the form of self-judgment, jealousy and comparison to others, endless desire for “more” (more admiration and approval from others, more material wealth, more status, more fame…). The Bhagavad Gita is really about this war – Dharmakshetra, Kurukshetra.
On the spiritual path as well, it may not always be clear what our dharma is, at least initially. This is also true because as spiritual practices are taken up, there is continuous evolution in terms of the gunas; becoming more and more sattvic. This may (and does) result in a draw toward drastically different types of work/vocation and lifestyles to be in line with the inner transformation. Previously enjoyed work may not appeal so much as the need for external validations in terms of approval, fame, wealth and such falls away. Also, the need for external reminders of our dharma in terms of guna/varna/ashrama lessens with surrendering to and trusting that which arises from deep within.
Dharma is not merely “should” or “should not” but the universal law that inherently benefits and upholds the whole, rather than the individual. Thus, any action undertaken with the motive of benefitting solely oneself is inherently adharmic. As one progresses along the path of yoga, the war within subsides and all thoughts and actions that arise become inherently dharmic, without a conscious choosing between what is right and what gives pleasure. Such actions of a perfected yogi benefit everyone around and he/she takes no personal credit for it.