Follow Your Dharma: The Difference Between Quitting and Surrender
In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna rides with his chariot driver Krishna (an avatar or God incarnate) into a no-man’s land between two vast armies about to wage war. After seeing friends, teachers, family cousins and brothers arrayed on both sides of the battlefield, Arjuna, the greatest archer of his time, sinks to the floor of his chariot and loses himself in despair. “I will not fight, Krishna” he says, and drops his bow.
The Bhagavad Gita, one of the world’s most sacred texts, has resounded through the centuries because of its direct relation and applicability to the most challenging aspects of our daily lives. Everyone on a spiritual path will sooner or later recognize first-hand some variation of Arjuna’s despair. Whether it is the proverbial “Dark Night of the Soul” or a lesser but persistent doubt, (alasya, one of the main stumbling blocks on the path of yoga), this despair can lead us to think, “What’s the point of going on?” or “Nothing seems to matter”. So when Arjuna drops his bow it appears that he is trying to quit, an option that at times can appear attractive. But Arjuna’s action is much more significant than that. He is not just simply giving up his bow; he is also giving up his dharma.
The Sanskrit word Dharma comes from the root “dhri” which means to uplift or uphold. Dharma literally refers to “that which upholds righteousness.” A sense of righteousness, of purpose and inspiration is extremely significant on the spiritual path. And though even this sense of righteousness must ultimately be jettisoned on the path of kaivalyam or seedless freedom, our individual dharma is a tall ladder best kept at hand until it falls away on its own when true freedom is experienced.
Dharma might be considered to have two distinct, yet mutually supportive components: our personal or individual dharma (sva-dharma) of unique qualities (traits, gifts, talents and abilities) that help to define our life’s path and our Sat Dharma or “true” dharma – that path of Self-Realization and God-Realization which is the birthright of everyone and shared by all beings.
To follow our individual dharma, action is needed. Arjuna leads a good army in a righteous war against darkness or evil. In the Bhagavad Gita, the battle between the Kurus and the Pandus takes place on a field named Dharmakshetra Kurukshetra. Kuru is derived from the Sanskrit “kri” (the same root that is found in “Karma) which means, “to act”. Kuru can also be used to indicate darkness. The analogy of Arjuna struggling with his dharma or purpose in life is especially appropriate here on this field of Life or “Dharma-Action” where personal actions have the potential to uphold our spiritual path of righteousness or plunge us deeper into despair or darkness. In response to Arjuna dropping his bow, Krishna counsels, “…think also of thy duty and do not waiver, for there is no greater good for a warrior than to fight in a righteous war. ” (BG 2.31) Krishna addresses Arjuna’s dharma and reputation of a supreme archer-warrior here, but He is also delving deeper. “The Spirit that is in all beings is immortal in them all: for the death of what cannot die, cease thou to sorrow.” (BG 2.30) In addition to encouraging Arjuna to see the eternal in things that pass away, Krishna is reaching through Arjuna’s despair to encourage the knowing and acting upon our immediate and individual dharma, no matter how imperfect it may seem, in order to see Truth beyond form and access our highest path of Sat Dharma or God Realization. “And a man should not abandon his work, even if he cannot achieve it in full perfection,” Krishna counsels, “because in all work there may be imperfection, even as in all fire there must be smoke.” (BG 18.47)
In order to understand our Sat Dharma, it is imperative that we first find the warriors courage to stay present and stand in our individual dharma. What is this personal dharma that Arjuna gives up or tries to quit when he drops his bow? When Arjuna was a boy, one fine day his teacher the Great Bow Warrior Dronacharya gathered his royal students, the sons of Dhritarastra and Pandu, and took them out to a field cleared from the nearby forest. Drona indicated the field with open arms. “Look out at this clearing and tell me what you see.” All of the boys scanned their surroundings. “Grass!” chimed one. “A forest,” added someone else. “Birds and sky,” added another. Each boy contributed his own observation of detail. When it came to Arjuna’s turn, the boy remained silent, his gaze fixed intently in the distance. “And you,” Drona prodded Arjuna, “What is it that you see?” Arjuna raised his arm and pointed with focused precision at a single point far across the clearing. “I see the target.” All of the students followed Arjuna’s finger and noticed a small target hung on a tree by Drona the night before, barely visible in the distance. “Arjuna is the only true archer here today,” Drona announced, “for he never loses awareness of the target.”
So how does Arjuna get to that point of giving up? And why shouldnt he just quit what seems to be a no-win, horrible situation? In select situations, giving up or even quitting can indeed be a good first step to change. But what Arjuna is trying to give up is much more than just his place in a battle. “Not by refraining from action does man attain freedom from action. Not by mere renunciation does (one) attain supreme perfection. For not even for a moment can a man be without action. Helplessly are all driven to action by the forces of nature.” (BG 3.4-6) Krishna tells Arjuna here in no uncertain terms that quitting is not an option. Giving up is not a luxury Arjuna can indulge in. Even retreating from the world to live in a cave is taking an action. So giving up as Arjuna tries to do is not an act of surrender or true humility, it is the act of an ego caught in the mesh of avidya or ignorance mistaking outer appearance as ultimate reality. At this point many have used Arjuna’s dilemma and Krishnas response in the Bhagavad Gita to justify wars, but this is a very minimal or surface understanding of the Bhagavad Gita without any awareness of that Sat Dharma which is Krishna’s deepest message. “Even the life of the body could not be if there were no action.” (BG 3.8) Essentially Krishna is telling Arjuna that we are literally made of action. On the level of atoms and quantum physics this is true. The cells, molecules, and atoms in our body are in a constant wave-like flux even while coalescing into apparently solid matter focused to a point in time and space. Ultimately, Arjunas dharma (and our own life) cannot be quit or fled because quite simply, there is nowhere else to go!
“Greater is thine own work, even if this be humble, then the work of another, even if this be great. When a man does the work God gives him, no sin can touch this man.” (BG 18.47)
In the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita, it is clear that Arjuna was born to be a warrior. And not just any warrior… Like his Pandu brothers, Arjuna is a brave, and noble warrior fighting in a just cause. He was also the greatest archer of his time. The bow and arrow were his life’s gift and focus, one of his reasons for existing. Krishna knows this when he states, “Action is greater than inaction: perform therefore thy task in life.” (BG 3.8) Each one of us is born with the equivalent of Arjunas bow. It is the very quality of life itself manifest through a specific talent, quality, character trait or ability. To despair and quit our individual dharma in the face of struggle is to give up that tall ladder of duty and inspiration before we have climbed to freedom. It is the path of illusion or maya and which leads to great suffering (dukha) as we try to limit the Infinite to that which is seen through our faulty perceptions.
“Give me thy mind and give me thy heart, give me thy offerings and thy adoration; and thus with thy soul in harmony, and making me the goal supreme, thou shalt in truth come to me.” –(BG 9.34)
Having a goal on the spiritual path can be a great irony. Having one can take you out of the present moment. Not having one can plunge you into an aimless wandering. Ultimately it is not the goal that binds but our attachment to the form and results we think that goal might represent in our lives. Think for a moment of the goals or aspirations you have in life that may be attained by following your personal dharma. Beyond the wrappings of material reward, beyond the shell of recognition or the husk of a visible attainable moment we are longing for a state of pure being-ness. Peace. Love. Tranquility. Abundance. Joy. Bliss. The definition of a fanatic is someone who loses sight of the goal and doubles the effort. To chase after the shells of life unconscious of their inner gems is to place our personal dharma in the service of creating more doubt and confusion. Ultimately it is important to see beyond the surface of our goal in order to remember those qualities of truth we seek that are present in the highest goal of our Sat Dharma.
“All actions takes place in time by the interweaving of the forces of Nature (the three Gunas); but the man lost in selfish delusion thinks that he himself is the actor. But the man who knows the relation between the forces of Nature and actions, sees how some forces of Nature work upon other forces of Nature, and becomes not their slave.
Those who are under the delusion of the forces of Nature bind themselves to the work of these forces. Let not the wise man who sees All disturb the unwise who sees not the All. Offer to me all thy works and rest thy mind on the Supreme. Be free from vain hopes and selfish thoughts, and with inner peace fight thou thy fight.” (BG 3.27-30)
Your own dharma might take different forms in different situations, but if you remember your soul’s longing, if you remember to listen to the constant Spirit within, then all of your actions will be truthful to Sat Dharma. Surrendering the choice of action to the Atman or God-Self within you brings a deeper awareness to all of our actions. In this way our individual dharma has the potential to inspire seedless freedom to the very last breath we take. “Even in the last hour of his life upon earth, man can reach the Nirvana of Brahman – Man can find peace in the peace of his God.” (BG 2.72) Our dharma is our life and our life is our dharma, the two are inextricably linked. As Richard Bach states in his book Illusions, “Here is a test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: If you are alive, it isnt.” Acting upon the call of our dharma helps us to feel present, inspired and alive. In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna is led to the highest realization of the Divine True Self by knowing and living his individual dharma, not by abandoning it. The same holds true for all of us, whatever our “bow” may be.
All quotes are from The Bhagavad Gita by Juan Mascaro, Penguin Classics.
Jeff Martens is a teacher, writer and co-owner of Inner Vision Yoga.
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