Dharma is the basis of right action. Understanding Dharma can help us live a more fulfilling life.That which is upheld at all times is Dharma – Dharyate iti Dharmaha. It is a beacon in Indic philosophy guiding individuals to carry out righteous conduct irrespective of their external circumstances. In the past, Dharma has helped kings dispense even-handed justice; in epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata, it has provided the moral high ground to princes, enabling them to choose the right path. Even today, the ancient concept of Dharma can be the guide that can enable politicians and leaders of all hues to take the right stand on issues of larger public good. But for that to happen, all of us may have to persistently explore what Dharma truly means.“Most concisely and generally, Dharma could be taken to mean ‘the right thing to do’ when we talk about choices for our actions. But it also functions much more vaguely as the basis of moral action,” says author and translator Arshia Sattar, who has a PhD in South Asian languages and civilisations from the University of Chicago.She has translated Valmiki Ramayana into English and authored books including Ramayana For Children, Adventures With Hanuman and Lost Love: Exploring Rama’s Anguish. Her new book, Maryada: Searching For Dharma In The Ramayana explores varied notions of Dharma and the role it plays in the lives of the epic’s protagonists. “Some people call Rama maryada purushottama as they regard him as the ideal human being. Certainly, within the mainstream Ramayana tradition, he is seen as someone who tried to do the right thing, despite all odds. That is admirable,” said Sattar, pointing out that the problem with Dharma is that it presents us with more than one way of being right, so what you choose makes you who you are. “As Kaushalya herself says to Rama, ‘you are obedient to your father’s wishes and not to mine.’She’s reminding him that he has a Dharma towards her, his mother, as well as to his father and that he has chosen to ignore her even as he ensures that his father’s wishes are obeyed. This is precisely what makes Rama so interesting – we can see the choices he has before him, all of them with their compulsions, within the moral realm of doing what is right and good. We many disagree with the choices that he makes, but we know that he has them and that he has thought about what he should do,’ said Sattar, explaining that Dharma is also determined by who you are and what stage of life you are in – varna and Ashrama.Rama’s conduct has always been exemplary. He even sacrificed personal happiness and chose to act according to public expectation of him. “Rama did not have to abandon his wife; he chose to send her to the forest when he learnt that his people were uncomfortable with her presence in Ayodhya,” said Sattar, explaining that it was one of the options before him. The other was to keep her by his side. The issue, according to Sattar, is whether you should choose your private good over a public one. That’s a dilemma for all people, at all times and in all places.So, do Rama and Sita’s Dharma infringe upon their rights as individuals? Sattar said, “Rama, Sita, Bharata, you or me, sometimes, we choose to act in ways that will be good for us. At other times, we act in ways that might restrict us and benefit someone else. We make the choice as individuals, so we are always expressing ourselves. We can choose to curtail our rights and our desires. Dharma places the responsibility for our actions on our shoulders.”By Sonal Srivastava
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