Dharma: The First Lesson

A previous post has some thoughts on the idea of dharma and its importance within Hinduism and Hindu ethics. This post will sketch out a lesson plan I do with students in the hopes of introducing them to this complex idea.

At the start of class, I make a drawing on the board with four columns, asking the students to copy it into their notes. Then I ask them to think of 5-10 examples (depending on age of the students) of responsibilities for each of the following individuals. Usually I go with something like these four:

You [The students] | Mr. H [me] |   Your Dentist  |  President Obama/Head of School*

(*Of course there are other possibilities as well. In my experience this exercise works best with a variety of life stages and responsibilities: I am older than the students, the president has vastly different responsibilities than me for the most part, and a dentist/doctor/etc. does as well.)

After giving them some time to write independently and then to discuss their thoughts with a partner, we then discuss this material as a class. It’s a chance to solicit ideas from a range of different students, and I feel more comfortable cold-calling students who might be more quiet because I can always just ask them to read what they wrote.

We spend some time on each column, filling in the details. After we have filled out the chart, I then ask the students to look at similarities and differences in responsibilities between these individuals. Note: I still haven’t used the word dharma yet, and they haven’t otherwise been exposed to it – this is one of our very first lessons in Hinduism, as early as the first day.

dharma blackboard

The students usually make a number of observations. Several are especially salient here. First, many of the dharmas are different: President Obama has the nuclear launch codes; they do not. Second, and just as important, many of the dharmas are similar: the students and President Obama need to be good role models, for example. (I, evidently, do not; Charles Barkley and I seem to have this in common.)

We then spend some time discussing the implications of these ideas. There are certain responsibilities in common that people generally have: to act in a way that doesn’t harm others, to care for those in our communities (family, friends, those younger than us), to respect those who are our peers and our elders. Yet, in this ethical system, these responsibilities are not the most paramount; instead, it is the particular ethical responsibilities that have the most weight and are ultimately the most important.

At this point I introduce the concept: the Sanskrit term for these responsibilities in Hinduism is dharma. We spend much of the rest of our time studying Hinduism trying to understand dharma — and its subtleties.

The Analogy of the Human Body

At this point, I sometimes take a break to talk about the human body and compare it to human society. Look at the lungs, or the heart, or the liver: they all have general responsibilities (be a part of the body, get along well with the other parts of it), but what is most important is that they do their specific responsibility. The lungs have to do the lung dharma, the heart the heart dharma, the liver the liver dharma, and so on. If they do not do that, the human body (a community of parts and organs and so on) will not function well.

And so it is for us humans. We have a particular dharma that we must do, and in order for society as a whole to function, we must do that dharma.

A student’s question, a couple months on

As we came back from break this week, I asked students to do a kind of cumulative 3-2-1. Looking back to the beginning of the year, what were (the) three (most) important things you’ve learned? Two questions (large or small) you still have? One time you felt most engaged? One student, a senior, wrote this:

If my dharma were unethical, would I still be obligated to do it?

Such a great question!  And one that gets at the complexities of dharma very well. I met with this students a day later and was able to talk to him about it in more detail: what if a soldier were asked to kill civilians, he asked. Isn’t that part of their dharma?

My response was this: Hinduism (in the Bhagavad Gita and elsewhere) does place great emphasis on doing one’s dharma. This can – as in the case of Arjuna, a soldier – involve killing. But the fact that it’s Arjuna’s duty to kill other soldiers in this war does not mean: 1) that it’s his duty to kill anyone or 2) that I can kill anyone or 3) that Hinduism justifies killing. It’s not that simple. The dharma of an Asian Religions teacher is very different from the dharma of a warrior.

Dharma is action that upholds the world. It’s hard to imagine the killing of civilians as action that upholds the world. But, in this ethical system, the act of killing can be part of an action that upholds the world. Consider an exterminator: his or her actions to kill (and to kill many, many bugs, insects, cockroaches, etc.) help to preserve the functioning of human society. Insofar as an exterminator is exterminating, she is doing her dharma. (See this article about an exterminator in Mumbai.)

In many ways, then, the premise of the student’s question needed to be questioned. In a dharmic/duty-based/deontological ethical system, doing one’s duty is itself what makes an action ethical. The question had an unspoken premise that there could be a conflict between doing one’s dharma and doing what is ethical; I would argue that in this ethical system, those two terms should be understood as having the same meaning.

From a different ethical perspective – such as that of Jainism, with its adamant insistence on non-harm toward all life, human and non-human – the exterminator’s actions (and Arjuna’s) are completely unethical. Why? Because the highest good in this ethical system is non-harm — no matter what. But that’s not the conclusion we get from the Gita; that’s not Krishna’s teaching to Arjuna (and to us).

The subtleties of dharma…


2 thoughts on “Dharma: The First Lesson

  1. Hi, I’ve been stalking your blog a bit this afternoon, the truth is, I’ve been looking for something like it for a while. I really like this approach to starting a unit on Hinduism, and wish I’d found it just a few weeks ago. I teach a high school course in Durham, NC and it’s nice to find approaches that are both relateable and accessible for my students but also challenge them to think about the complexity of these ideas. Thank you!

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