I tend to think that, as humans, we all want to be a little bit better today than we were yesterday. We all want to grow and be a different person now than we were five years ago. Compassion, respect, integrity, kindness and more show up in cultures all over the world as values to live by. But sometimes we struggle with it too - they can sound like abstract concepts and flashy words that sound good to the ear.
Which leaves us with a question - how exactly should I live my life? By what values? How does that play out practically?
In Hinduism, we have the concept of dharma. A complex word in itself, you can think of dharma as a a code of conduct or guide to live in this world. And like most of the directions provided by the Hindu pantheon of scriptures, it requires a little teasing out and quite a bit of trial and error but ultimately is quite practical advice regardless of your spiritual path or affiliation.
So let’s begin...
What is Dharma?
Dharma is a difficult word to translate accurately. Sometimes interpreted as righteousness or duty, and at other times as code or religion, the word literally means ‘that which upholds’. Everything is seen as having a purpose in the cosmic order and dharma is about correctly fulfilling that purpose. But as the Mahabharata continually reminds us, dharma is subtle and can vary depending on how we look at things. For some Hindus, dharma is about fulfilling the duties of their ascribed caste, or family role, whereas for others it is about cultivating virtuous qualities. Dharma can also be seen as anything that takes you closer to the goal of moksha.
For our purposes, we’ll look at dharma as twelve pillars or principles that help us to live in a dharmic way. Through practice and a little self-analysis, you can cultivate a way of living that helps you nourish important human and spiritual qualities, and supports your ongoing relationship with the Divine.
12 Pillars of Dharma
Regardless of your spiritual path or affiliation, conscious practice of the twelve pillars of dharma supports a life of compassion, kindness, introspection, and general personal development. Below, I will outline each of these pillars and how they can be applied to your life.
The first requisite of dharma is the cultivation of a pure and healthy body and hence a pure and healthy mind. When one thinks of purity, the mind immediately suggests different types of images: crystal-clear water running down waterfalls, sparkling clean floors in the house, and many others.
Is this the type of purity the ancient scriptures talk about? Yes and no, actually.
First of all, we have to define the different areas where purity has to be applied. We, as humans, have two primary areas to take care of: one on the outside and one on the inside.
From the outside perspective, living a dharmic, pure life means to be clean, shower at least once a day, live in a clean environment and maintain a pure body. Everything that is outside of us reflects in our inner activity and reality, consistently influencing our lifestyle and experience of our daily life. Purity has to be understood as an area that is somehow an extension of what we are. Therefore, even the company we chose to be with becomes a crucial decision in determining whether our inner experience stays pure and clean, or starts to become stained by the outer reflection.
From an inner perspective, the purity of the mind has to be developed.
The mind of the bhakta is pure. He has purified himself through his yoga practice, through his japa, through constant remembrance of the Lord.
Paramahamsa Vishwananda’s commentary, Bhagavad Gita, 13.8
This is where spiritual practise plays such an important role in life for all of us. There is a need to purify the mind through spiritual practices as that is the way to be in communion with God. This is the understanding we should have when we talk about inner purity, purity of the mind.
A few other examples of practising purity include:
- Babaji’s Surya Namaskar or other physical activity
- Being vegetarian or vegan
- Atma Kriya Yoga, japa, or another meditation practice
The next pillar is that of worshipping God through rituals that are prescribed in various sacred literature. Worship allows you to forget yourself and grow in humility.
Focus your mind on Me, be devoted to Me, offer worship to Me, bow down to Me. Engaging your mind in this manner and regarding Me as the supreme goal, you will come to Me.
Bhagavad Gita 9.34
To worship is to bow down before something greater than yourself, to commit yourself to a cause or a pursuit more important than your individual desires or gains. Life becomes full of meaning and purpose when you are able to dedicate yourself to something greater.
True happiness is born out of that spirit of worship, the spirit that you are in the service of something more important than sense gratification or the fleeting happiness of your mind.
Worship can assume many different forms including but not limited to:
- Praise, Prayer, and Meditation - worship of the Lord begins simply as spending time with Him and seeking Him from inside of you.
- Puja - a form of ritualistic worship performed out of love to a personal deity.
- Japa - The Lord gave us His Name to chant as a method of worship we can engage in at any and every moment.
Among the 12 pillars of dharma, the pillar of austerity seems to be almost old-fashioned especially in Western society, but for those who are on a spiritual path, austerity is fundamental.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna states that austerity is one of His divine qualities and in His commentary, Paramahamsa Vishwananda states that it is a quality that God has placed in every human being. Very often in His satsangs, Paramahamsa Vishwananda urges His devotees to be disciplined in their daily spiritual duties such as the practice of Atma Kriya Yoga, japa, puja and reading the holy scriptures. It encourages us to become true yogis - yogis on the path of bhakti.
The Bhagavad Gita is an incredible manual of practical spirituality. In the 17th chapter Krishna clearly explains how to apply a concept as unusual as austerity is today in our everyday behaviour.
When these three forms of austerity are practised with firm faith, and without any desire for reward, they are of the sattvic nature. - Bhagavad Gita, 17.17
In summary, it looks like this:
- Austerity of the body: being clean, honest, and refraining from violence.
- Austerity of speech: not causing distress to others, stating the truth, speaking lovingly and what is beneficial.
- Austerity of the mind: being peaceful, benevolent, silent and self-controlled, with pure thoughts.
Following austerity, is the pillar of self-restraint. This is the pillar of balance and controlling your desires and behaviours, avoiding excess and cultivating self-discipline.
The mind is undoubtedly chaotic and hard to subdue, O Arjuna. But by repeated practice and renunciation it can be brought under control. In my opinion, it is hard for a person with an unrestrained mind to take up this path. However, it can be done through proper means by one who strives for it with a subdued mind.
Bhagavad Gita, 6.35-36
It's not that we need to fight our mind in an all-out war. It takes some small battles, for sure. But what really allows us to engage in a loving relationship with God is to be able to calm the mind enough to redirect it towards something beyond—towards something better, more beneficial, desirable, and more rewarding. Practising self-restraint can look like:
- Striving to act from a place of duty rather than desire
- Seeking out a balance in how you sleep, eat, and engage with the material world
- Consiously choosing activities that will support your spiritual path over activities that won’t.
The pillar of study carries multiple meanings. It refers to both self-studying, the act of self-introspection and analysis, and the study of Vedic literature. This pillar’s importance cannot be overstated.
Therefore, let the shastras be your authority in determining what ought to be done or what ought not to be done. Knowing what has been declared by the rules of the shastras, you ought to work in this world.\
Bhagavad Gita 16.24
The process of studying, introspection and analysis are of paramount importance to our spiritual aspirations. There are so many samskaras within us, so many external distractions lurking around every corner, ready to tempt our senses and mind into material engagement, that unless we come to observe these patterns and learn to identify their causes and negative effects, there is little hope that we won’t be led astray from our path sooner or later.
Regular self-analysis and reflection are the solutions and the final three chapters of the Bhagavad Gita are the perfect companions on that journey. Knowing our minds and controlling our impulses end up being worthless endeavours if they are not coupled with the sincere thirst for approximation to our beloved Lord. And one of the ways Paramahamsa Vishwananda recommends cultivating that is by studying the teachings and lilas of the Lord, primarily through the Bhagavad Gita and the Srimad Bhagavatam.
The practice of study can be applied by:
- Regular study of the scriptures with whatever tools you have available. That could be your personal copies of the scriptures, courses, or the use of learning tools like the Paavan App.
- Meditation or introspection on your true relationship with the Divine
Today's society teaches us that satisfying our desires is a necessary prerequisite for our happiness. The more we possess, the happier we are. But contentment comes, not when we fulfil our desires, but when we accept and have gratitude for what we already have.
When a man expels, O Partha, all desires from the mind, and is satisfied in the Self by virtue of the Self’s intrinsic joy, then is he considered steady in wisdom.
Bhagavad Gītā 2.55
One of the greatest practices to help cultivate contentment is gratitude. Gratitude is focusing on finding happiness in what you currently have, rather than focusing on what you lack and anticipating happiness through acquiring something more. Become grateful for the people that are close to you, your family and friends, grateful for the job you now have, the home you live in, for your health, for your belongings and grateful for the wisdom and practices of our spirituality. Become content with the life you are living.
Practising contentment could be done by:
- Self-analysis and introspection
- Developing a gratitude practice
- When you find yourself focusing on what you lack, try to shift your thinking towards enjoying what you currently have
While the other pillars may not be so commonly known, the pillar of non-violence (or ahimsa) is prominent in the West. It is often misunderstood as an idyllic and rigid state of being rather than a path of the least possible harm. Until we are realised, true and complete non-violence is impossible. All of us are liable to make mistakes that cause harm, both intentionally and unintentionally. For us who are still walking the path, the pillar of non-violence is the dedication to living your life with compassion and generosity, minimising any and all harm you could cause.
The Eternal Duty towards all creatures is the absence of malevolence towards them in thought, deed or word, and to practice compassion and generosity towards them.
This principle is rooted in the understanding that the Self in all beings is connected, coming from and enlivened by the same source. With this understanding striving to live life, refraining from causing injury to any other being or part of creation through word, deed or thought encompasses the practice of non-violence.
It’s important to note that when we talk about non-violence, that extends to yourself. If your non-violence or your self-compassion does not extend to and include yourself, then your non-violence is incomplete.
While there are countless ways to practice non-violence, here are three to get you started:
- Green Living/Sustainable living
- Cultivation of gratitude, generosity, and compassion through self-analysis and introspection
The practice of truth in speech can be understood in three different ways. Firstly, one should speak the truth only for the benefit of the situation, not to cause undue harm. As long as they are spoken with the intent of benefiting the situation, unpleasant truths should not be spoken. However, when they are spoken not for the benefit of the listener but rather simply to hurt or demean the person, the truth should be withheld.
Secondly, it’s important to understand the difference between subjective and objective truths. Opinions and facts are two different things with differing value and application, which should never be confused.
Lastly, a deeper understanding of the principle of truth is to differentiate and consequently prioritise between the ‘real’ (true, permanent) and the ‘unreal’ (false, impermanent).
Everyone claims to have the one and only truth and yet remarkably there are billions of people walking this earth that are unable to see the truth of say, Christianity, or Islam, or even our own truth claim, that of the divinity of Paramahamsa Vishwananda. And so, it’s easy to wonder about the possible reasons as to why that is.
One should approach a spiritual Master with submission, extensive enquiry and service. Such realised souls can instruct you, for they have seen the Truth.
Bhagavad Gita 4.34
Ironically, the Supreme Truth ‘lies’ to us by concealing His true nature. But why is that? Paramahamsa Vishwananda teaches that the Lord will test our sincerity before revealing Himself to us. The Truth asks us to be sincere before it will gift itself to us, a gift that washes away all lies, illusions and misapprehensions from our being. And so, we come to the most practical and plausible expression of truth that we as humans can muster – sincerity.
Sincerity and the truth are both the same and different, somewhat paradoxically. The truth is difficult to grasp, but sincerity is both simple and self-evident. It comes down to the authenticity in which you live your life and pursue your path.
Within the system of dharma, the pillar of truth starts with recognising the limitations of the human mind and body, our propensity to present opinions as facts and our tendency to argue endlessly in pursuit of the so-called truth. Dismissing that fruitless endeavour, our best option for applying the practice of truth to how we live is to strive only for sincerity. How sincere are we in our desire to realise God? To live with love? To find our way and path and purpose?
And it is in that sincerity, that God will reveal the Truth to us.
How to practice the pillar of truth:
- Take shelter with a spiritual Master who knows the ultimate Truth
- Be truthful in both your actions and your words
- Practice meditation to discover the Truth inside
Generosity might seem like a simple and rather obvious pillar but it does come with two meanings. Firstly, generosity can be seen as charity or performing social works for the benefit of society as a whole. Whatever we have in excess, we share. But even this requires a specific mindset. To be generous includes not being attached to what you give. In other words, give and forget.
The charity that is dispensed from a sense of duty, to one who does not reciprocate, at the proper place and time to a deserving person – that is said to be sattvic.
Bhagavad Gita 17.20
The second way to think about generosity is through the concept of ‘abhaya pradanam’ which is the act of living in a manner that does not cause fear to any living being. The dharmic person strives to be a gift to the world rather than a burden. All our actions are done for the purpose of ‘loka sangraha’ - the benefit for the entire world.
Practising generosity could look like:
- Offering charity or social works for the benefit of society (while striving to remain unattached to the outcomes)
- Cultivating non-violence in thought, word and deed.
- Constantly seeking out ways to be of service to the people and world around you.
The pillar of non-stealing seems self-explanatory. And on the surface it is. In essence, it is ´don’t take what is not yours.’ The act of stealing creates further attachments that bind you to this world and take you away from the ultimate goal of realising God.
The one who is always taking becomes very greedy. One is like a thief who just steals, steals and steals and in that state, attachment, greed and so on, awaken and one loses oneself. Then one doesn’t have any good merit. One can’t free oneself. Paramahamsa Vishwananda’s commentary, Bhagavad Gita , 3.12
But if you go a little deeper into why non-stealing would be on the list of guiding principles for how to live your life, you’ll find that it includes a mindset of acceptance and non-jealousy. Begin to see that all that comes to you and all that doesn’t is by the will of God and is exactly what you need.
Cultivate the practice of non-stealing:
- Cultivate a mindset of gratitude and acceptance through regular introspection and self-analysis
- Live within your means
- Refrain from taking what is not yours
The principle of forgiveness and non-violence go hand-in-hand. They share the understanding that God is within all beings and as such, all beings are connected. As long as we are not realised and our minds and egos are still active, we are bound to make mistakes and even cause harm. It is unavoidable. You will. I will. Everyone around us will.
Forgiveness allows you to free yourself. By not forgiving someone who has harmed you, you are causing more harm to yourself than you are to them. Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to get sick. In that way, forgiveness also ties into non-violence and remains incomplete until it extends to both yourself and those around you.
I am located in the hearts of all.
Bhagavad Gita, 15.15
Practising the pillar of forgiveness could look like:
- Utilising self-analysis to find forgiveness in your heart
- Acknowledging and taking responsibility for your mistakes
- Offering forgiveness to yourself as well as others for any mistakes made
The term guru includes parents, teachers, guides, elders and all those who teach something, no matter how small it may be. However, special worship is reserved for the spiritual Master who should be venerated on equal footing with God. As the guru reveals God to the disciple, making respect, service, and veneration to Him part of how you live is crucial to developing and growing into the Divine relationship.
True bhaktas know what true Love is as they have tasted the nectar of the Lord Himself through the guru’s grace.
- Paramahamsa Vishwananda
Practising guru veneration could look like this:
- Following the teachings of the spiritual Master
- Regular guru-puja
- Taking every opportunity to serve the spiritual Master
Putting It All Together
Regardless of your spiritual path or tradition, these principles teach you how to live in a manner that benefits the world. It helps you live your best life and find the best in life. I know it’s a lot to think about and a lot to try and put into practice so it’s important to remember that you can cultivate this lifestyle step-by-step.
There is no pressure to be perfect today or even tomorrow. You can start by picking one pillar to focus on and making it your goal for self-analysis and then grow from there.
With practice, self-discipline, and grace you can develop all of these qualities in your daily life if you so choose.