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The Difficulty of Dharma

By: for on May 7, 2011
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The Kurukshetra war
In the midst of many celebrating the demise of Osama bin Laden, there has been an ongoing debate amongst many of us at the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) around whether it is right to rejoice over the death of another, even one as “evil” as bin Laden. A core Hindu belief is that of ahimsa, or non-violence, which is closely linked with another key concept that the Divine resides in all living beings. Thus, one may commonly hear the Hindu greeting of Namaste or “The Divine within me bows to the Divine within you.” So, how then as ahmisa-loving people, can Hindus applaud the death of bin Laden?

The problem I see is that when both of these beliefs are taken at face value, they do not fully account for the bigger picture of dharma, very loosely translated as righteousness and our duty in life to preserve it. Dharma is conceptually challenging to define because while it is encompassing of societal harmony and justice, it is also applicable on the individual level and is not the same for everyone. It is distinct for people, based on a number of factors including their stage in life, their role in society or path in life, and the overarching situation at hand. Simply explained, the dharma of a school teacher is quite different from the dharma of a soldier. Both have equally important places in society, but both have vastly different paths in preserving societal righteousness.

This past Sunday, I was at an HAF fundraiser where our guest speaker was Rajiv Srinivasan, a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, who also happens to be Hindu. We at HAF came to know Rajiv when he won our 2009 NextGen essay contest with a brilliant piece describing how he reconciled his belief in ahimsa with his dharma as a soldier. Both in his essay and his speech on Sunday, Rajiv aptly quoted from the sacred Hindu text, The Bhagavad Gita, and his words are just as applicable to the ongoing debate at HAF.

The Gita is delivered by Lord Krishna just moments before the start of a great war – the ultimate fight between good and evil. On one side are five brothers, known as the Pandavas, who have suffered countless injustices at the hands of their vindictive cousins. The Pandavas have consistently humbled themselves in an effort to avoid this war. Opposing them are scores of members of their extended family, led by a prince (who is also their cousin) in his ill-sought quest for complete domination of the land as a means to quench his jealousy of the Pandavas. The two opposing armies are lined up at the battlefield when suddenly Arjun, the middle Pandava brother and the greatest warrior of his time, asks his chariot driver – who just happens to be Lord Krishna – to advance his chariot right to the middle of the two armies. There, Arjun is crippled with emotion as he sees his loved ones in the opposition, and he begins to question the violence and futility of war. Arjun turns to Krishna and asks why he should kill these people who he loves and with whom he has grown up. What’s the point of fighting for a kingdom if half the family will die? Why shouldn’t he just let the other side keep it and become a hermit and pray?

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