The Kathopanishad starts with a conversation between Nachiketas and his father Vajashravan. Vajashravan is performing a yagnya, a sacrifice where one gives away a major portion of ones wealth. Nachiketas watches his father give away old and useless cows. He starts to wonder “a yagnya is meant to be an act that enlivens the world, and gives benefits to the giver and the receiver. None of my fathers’ acts fulfill these three requirements. The receiver of these cows cannot benefit, the world is hardly helped to grow and my father who is acting more for gaining a name rather than any real inner awakening can hardly benefit. As a son it is my responsibility to point out to my father that this is an act that lacks Dharma. Nachiketas then speaks to his father and points out the lacunae in the yagnya. The father gets enraged and sends the son to Yamas’ abode. The rest of the Upanishad is about the conversation regarding death and the nature of ones’ atman.
This story captures many of the important aspects of Dharma. The word dharma means: “regenerating that which has fallen, reinstating that which is falling and reinforcing that which is standing”. It is contextual and subjective on the one hand and has universal and timeless implications on the other.
Let me invite you to do a small exercise. Take a chart paper and some clour pencils. Take up some activity you do every day. Lets say having breakfast. Put down this activity at the centre of the page. Now start drawing a mind map of the other activities that your breakfast depends upon. If you are having a sandwich, where did the bread come from? A local grocer provided you the vegetables and the butter came from a dairy. How did the grocer get his vegetables? And so on. As one goes on through this process the quality of the earth on which the vegetable grows and the climate that sustains cultivation and so on integrate into the mind map. We did not get into the utensils used for cooking ingredients, or the gas used to heat the stove etc., etc. This map defines your world. Unless all the elements and people and systems in your map are healthy your life will not be enjoyable.
Now ask your self how often are you aware of the web of interconnectedness that underlies our every activity? Do we ask ourselves how our attitudes and actions affect all the people in our world? Let me illustrate the profound impact this introspection can have on the way one looks at work. I was helping an organization (in agri-business) that was considered ‘sick’, to turn around. One of the main production units was not doing well. The General Manager in charge of it had the reputation for being a tough ‘task –master’, and who believed in ‘command and control’. I asked the top management team of this group to do the exercise I just recommended to you. The starting point was “what does it mean for this factory to do well? Who benefits from it?” As each one drew the picture, they initially saw only a limited set of interdependencies. As I questioned and probed, the pictures became more inclusive. I got the group to share the pictures. It soon became obvious that the lives of almost a hundred thousand households were directly impacted by the health of the factory, and the economic prosperity of the whole district was heavily impacted by the business activities of hundreds of small shops and so on. The team was very shaken up, especially the General Manager. We ended the day on a sober note. The next morning, the GM came to the workshop with a beautiful poem he had written. He read it out and there were many who were moved to tears. He promised to reevaluate all his activities from the new perspective and ensure that every one in the factory committed to the larger purpose of the community health. True to his word, he changed his antagonist stance with the labor, he was able to resolve old festering issues and invite a meaningful partnership with them. We create our world and with every thoughtless purchase, we keep industries that are destructive of our environment alive, we keep exploitative practices going and so on.
The practice is not very difficult. It starts with an understanding of how deeply we are interconnected to each other and to the earth. It means being mindful of what we ‘vote for’ with our wallets. How do we deal with people in our teams? What questions are we willing to ask? What are we willing to give up so that there may be shared prosperity? The Sanskrit word ‘samudaaya’ means sama- shared or equitable udayam- arising or growth. A society where there is inequity is not a community.
What comes in the way? The idea of an individual that is reinforced day in and day out is one of ‘great forces that oppose dharma’. The range of ‘manufactured needs’, the pursuit of ‘planned obsolescence’ and so on that fuel much of the business practices today oppose dharma. Many of us know that the present ways in which we live is not sustainable, yet we seem to be locked into it in a inexorable inertia. If we can love our world as much as we love ourselves, we will find a more dharmic way of acting.
Dharma: The grounded notes of the taanpoora resonate from the Manipooraka.
Doing the right thing
My work revolves around helping individuals, groups and organizations discover their Dhamma, and become “the best they can be”. This aligns with my own personal saadhana. I have restated this question for my self as follows: “how can I be in touch with the well spring of my love for the world and my love for my self simultaneously”