Essay published in Collaboration: Journal of the Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Vol. 40 (2), pp. 29-33.
“Do what feels right to you, to the real you inside.”
“Listen to your inner voice, and act accordingly.”
“Don’t give in to the societal pressure, hear the voice of your soul.”
We hear such advice so often these days. From practically anybody and everybody!
But let us think about it deeply for a minute. Is it that simple to access that inner voice? That voice of the real ‘me’ which will inspire me to do the ‘right’ thing?
How many individuals are actually able to organize their lives according to the law of their truer/inner self? Only the rarest among rare are actually able to live in their true self that is beyond their emotional and mental selves and their demands. Rest of us, the vast majority are driven by impulses, preferences, biases, prejudices, instincts and perhaps a bit of rationality too in our saner moments.
The ancient Indian Rishis knew very well about this problem of human nature. So they came up with the ideal of Dharma, which covered basically all natures, all aspects of life, all situations and stages of life, and even allowed for maximum freedom, continuity and greatest possibility of contextualization, adaptation and adjustment. Sri Aurobindo in his Essays on the Gita defined dharma as follows:
Dharma in the Indian conception is not merely the good, the right, morality and justice, ethics; it is the whole government of all the relations of man with other beings, with Nature, with God, considered from the point of view of a divine principle working itself out in forms and laws of action, forms of the inner and the outer life, orderings of relations of every kind in the world. Dharma is both that which we hold to and that which holds together our inner and outer activities. In its primary sense it means a fundamental law of our nature which secretly conditions all our activities, and in this sense each being, type, species, individual, group has its own dharma. Secondly, there is the divine nature which has to develop and manifest in us, and in this sense dharma is the law of the inner workings by which that grows in our being. Thirdly, there is the law by which we govern our outgoing thought and action and our relations with each other so as to help best both our own growth and that of the human race towards the divine ideal.
We find that there is an individual dharma (different for different roles, functions, and stages of life), group-dharma (dharma of an organization like a guild of craftsmen or a regiment of soldiers or a gurukulam/educational institution) kula-dharma (dharma of an extended family lineage), jati-dharma (dharma of a collective of lineages), yuga dharma (dharma appropriate for a yuga or epoch – implying that dharma changes with time, what is appropriate today may not be relevant tomorrow). Dharma also varies by the varna (varna does not mean caste), and by the stage of one’s life (dharma of a householder is different from dharma of a social recluse/ascetic or from dharma of a student).
The society was meant to be organized around this ideal truth of dharma and the idea was that if people truly acted and lived according to the truth of their dharma they would be able to live harmoniously with others and eventually work towards their own self-fulfillment gradually coming closer and closer to discovering their swabhava, true nature and swadharma, the deeper purpose of their life. This gradual progress in one’s life and living by the dharma appropriate to age, station and place in life and society, helped one grow inwardly and spiritually.
Thus dharma ensures stability and continuity of the society. But in the imperfect human hands/minds, it can also result in society’s stagnation by restricting individual freedom and free expression and by pushing people back in their fixed ‘place’ if they tried to transcend their so-called dharma. Dharma is often confused with the English word ‘Duty’ which automatically brings in the opposition to the other idea of ‘Right’.
 Essays on the Gita, CWSA, Volume 19, pp. 171-173