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The Difficulty of Dharma

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?


Thus, begins the Gita – on a battlefield, quite literally on the line between “good” and “evil,” with a warrior torn between an unjust but peaceful resolution or a righteous but painful war.  Krishna explains that this war is Arjun’s dharma as a warrior and is necessary for righteousness to prevail in society.  While peace is important and every reasonable option to achieve it must be explored, peace for peace’s sake is not in accordance with dharma.  In this fight between good and evil, Krishna says, Arjun’s desire to give up his identity and duty as warrior to become a hermit is not only cowardly, but also not dharmic.

“One acts according to one’s own nature…Better in one’s own dharma, even if imperfect than another’s dharma followed perfectly,” explains Krishna (3.33).


One logical argument at a time, Krishna urges Arjun to fight.  Fight, Krishna says, not because you are in anticipation of victory or glory, but because it is your righteous duty in life, because it is the path of dharma, because it is in the best interest of society at large.  One who fights on the side of dharma will always prevail. And here he goes on to explains that this fight is not always one on the battlefield.  More often than not – and particularly for most of us today – it is an internal struggle we face, when acting ethically and in accordance with dharma is more challenging than the alternative.  It is, as Gurcharan Das so aptly titles his book, The Difficulty of Being Good.


After a lengthy philosophical discourse which covers not only dharma, but also the immortality of the soul and the paths of yoga (discussions for following blogs), Arjun is ultimately convinced and picks up his weapon.  He fights and prevails, though not without catastrophic losses – the five Pandava brothers were left standing alone amongst a sea of dead bodies which included countless loved ones.  My intention here is not to suggest that the Gita is a text that should be used to justify violence – on the contrary, prior to the start of this war, Krishna tries every means possible to avoid the war.  Even when all those surrounding him were ready to fight, Krishna makes one last genuine attempt at reconciliation.  It was only when this offer was rebuffed that he agreed to the necessity of war.  There are many morals to the Gita, but today’s takeaway is that while ahimsa is a core Hindu belief, it cannot be viewed as a stand alone value.  It must always be considered within the bigger picture of dharma.


Alone, the death of bin Laden, while symbolic, will not bring lasting tranquility.  The U.S. must now work to translate that into peace through legitimate foreign policy that acknowledges the serious issues in our relationship with Pakistan and aims to correct them.  So, while some may not celebrate the death of bin Laden, per se, we can all applaud the heroism of our great soldiers who acted according to their dharma.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Krishna

    If it gives you any perspective on the issue, some Hindus have a tradition of burning Ravana in effigy every year on Vijaya Dasami.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Dharmakeerti

    If you read His Holiness the dalai Lama’s comment on this topic, there will be no confusion at all. it is the understanding of dharma as in the Bhagavad Gita too

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment BSK Murthy

    If we can accept the act of God as SriKrishna did in Kurukshetra,urging
    Arjuna to go into war against his loved ones,what is wrong with the elated feeling of people when the most evil person was destroyed to save the rest of the world where he had resorted to destruction only whatever
    his individual dharma was. Everybody else who did not accept his concept of dharma he considered as infidels and wanted to destroy them.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Angela Brown

    Thank you so much for writing on this topic.

    I support those in the military in making their many and extreme contributions to our freedoms, and yet it felt so bad to me to hear people celebrating so much over killing anyone, even when it is supposed to be for peace and freedom.

    Just sort of felt like dropping down to his level…

    I really appreciate the thoughtful article.

  • Suresh Vyas

    There is no need to rejoice OBL’s death because it is not likely to reduce terrorism coming from Islamist. It will be time to rejoice when Bhaarat and other kafir countries declare Islam illegal simply because Islam does not approve any democratic or Non-Islamic government.

    Below short article says what is Dharma.

    Sanatana-Dharma / Hinduism in a Nutshell
    By Srinandanandan Prabhu (Stephen Knapp)

    Some people think that Hinduism or Vedic culture is difficult to understand, but if you look at it succinctly, it is not very difficult at all. So this presents the essential principles in a concise way. Hinduism is also more correctly called by its Sanskrit name: Sanatana-Dharma. This, essentially, means to follow one’s eternal duty, which is to search for and understand our spiritual identity, and then to learn to live according to those eternal and spiritual characteristics, especially by one’s own spiritual realizations. This is also the purpose and mission of the Vedic philosophy and culture.

    The Vedic philosophy, or that which is based on the ancient Vedas and its supporting literature of India, is to help humanity understand who we really are, and the purpose of life. It is like the manual you get when you buy an appliance and need to understand exactly how it works. The Vedic literature is there to help all of us.

    The essence of it comes down to 10 basic principles. These are the ones most accepted by the majority of people who follow Sanatana-dharma, and are also referenced in the Vedic texts. Beyond these, there are various schools of thought, which have further developments in their own outlook and philosophy, such as the Shaivites, Vaishnavas, Shaktas, Brahmanandis, Tantrics, and so on. These we can discuss at another time or you can read more about them in my books or website for further information.

    In any case, the first code is: There is one Supreme Being, Bhagavan or God, with no beginning or end, the all in all, the unlimited Absolute Truth, who can expand into many forms. In this regard, the RigVeda (1:164:45) says: Ekam Sat Viprah Bahudha Vadanti. Though sages may call Him by different names, such as Krishna, Rama, Vishnu, etc., there is but one Absolute Truth, or one source and foundation of everything. God is considered Sat-chit-ananda vigraha, the form of eternal knowledge and bliss. He is supreme, full of beauty, knowledge, is all-powerful and all-pervading. He is also known by His three main features: namely Brahman, the all-pervading, impersonal spiritual force or effulgence; the Paramatma, the localized expansion known as the Supersoul which accompanies every individual soul in the heart of everyone; and then Bhagavan, the Supreme Personality and form of God.

    The other principles are: (2) The Vedas are Divine knowledge and are the basis or foundation of the Vedic philosophy. Some of these texts have been given or spoken by God, and others were composed by sages in their deepest super conscious state in which they were able to give revelations of Universal Truths while in meditation on the Supreme. This Vedic literature, including, among other texts, the Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva Vedas, the Upa-Vedas, Vedangas, Shadarshanas, Upanishads, the Vedanta-Sutras, Yoga Sutras, Agamas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and Bhagavad-gita, and all Puranic literature and the practices congruent with them, contain the basis of the Vedic or Sanatana-dharma spiritual culture.

    (3) God can and has appeared throughout history in the form of personal appearances (avataras) within the realm of matter, and even in the sound vibration of scriptures (the Vedic literature), and there are ten basic avataras of God, with numerous other expansions.

    (4) Our real identity is being a spirit soul, or jiva.

    5) The soul undergoes it=s own karma, the law of cause and effect, by which each person must experience the results or consequences of his activities and creates his own destiny based on his thought, words and deeds.

    (6) There is also rebirth or reincarnation, wherein our next birth is directed by our karma. The soul incarnates through different forms until, by its own spiritual development, it reaches liberation (moksha) from the repetition of birth and death, when it attains its natural position in the spiritual domain.

    (7) We can elevate ourselves spiritually by also engaging in worship of the Divine, such as in His forms as deities in the temple.

    (8) We can receive proper instruction on how to follow the teachings of the Vedic philosophy from an authorized guru who is in line with a genuine parampara, or line of gurus.

    (9) We should also follow particular principles for our spiritual development, such as ahimsa or non-violence.

    (10) In our life there are four main goals, as indicated by the four ashramas of life, such as brahmacharya (the student’s life), the grihasta or the householder stage of life, the vanaprastha or retired stage of life in which we take our spiritual goals more seriously, and then the renounced or sannyasa stage of life in which our spiritual purpose is the main focus, culminating in attaining moksha or liberation from any further material existence.
    These ten principles expand to include several other additional points:
    1. The Vedic Tradition is more than a religion, but a way of life, a complete philosophy for the foundation and direction for one’s existence.
    2. It is based on Universal Spiritual Truths that can be applied by anyone at anytime.
    3. The Vedic tradition recognizes that the individual soul is eternal, beyond the limitations of the body, and that one soul is no different than another.
    4. All living entities, both human and otherwise, are the same in their essential and divine spiritual being. All of them are parts of the eternal truth, and have appeared in this world to express their nature and also to gather experience in the realms of matter.
    5. For this reason, Vedic followers accept the premise of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, that all living beings in the universe comprise one family, and that as such all beings are spiritually equal and should be respected as members within that family of the Supreme.
    6. The ultimate purpose of human life is to shed all attachments to matter and attain moksha (liberation from material existence) and return to the transcendental realm which is not only our true nature but also our real home.
    7. Every person’s capacity to progress spiritually depends upon their personal qualities, choices and abilities, and is not limited by the circumstances of one’s color, caste, class, or any other circumstance of birth or temporary material limitations or designations.
    8. The Vedic path is based on regaining our natural spiritual identity. To pursue this goal, all human beings have the eternal right to choose their personal form of spiritual practice, as well as the right to reject any form of religious activity, and that coercion, forced conversion, or commercial inducement to adopt one religion over another should never be used or tolerated to present, propagate, or enforce one’s spiritual beliefs on others.
    9. The Vedic path offers personal freedom for one to make his or her own choice of how he or she wants to pursue their spiritual approach, and what level of the Absolute Truth he or she wishes to understand. This is the height of spiritual democracy and freedom from tyranny.
    10. Recognizing the value and sanctity of all forms of life, as well as the Eternal Divine Being that is their true Self, the Vedic principle is that we should therefore strive in every possible way to peacefully co-exist with all other species of living entities.
    11. The Vedic path consists of ten general rules of moral conduct. There are five for inner purity, called the yamas—which include satya or truthfulness, ahimsa or non-injury to others and treating all beings with respect, asteya or no cheating or stealing, brahmacharya or celibacy, and aparighara or no unnecessarily selfish accumulation of resources for one=s own purpose. The five rules of conduct for external purification are the niyamas—such as shaucha or cleanliness and purity of mind and body, tapas or austerity and perseverance, swadhyaya or study of the Vedas and self-analysis, and santosh or contentment, as well as Ishwara-pranidhana, or acceptance of the Supreme.
    12. There are also ten qualities that are the basis of dharmic (righteous) life. These are dhriti (firmness or fortitude), kshama (forgiveness), dama (self-control), asteya (refraining from stealing or dishonesty), shauch (purity), indriya nigraha (control over the senses), dhih (intellect), vidya (knowledge), satyam (truth) and akrodhah (absence of anger).
    These principles are part of the eternal, universal truths that apply equally to all living entities who can use them for progress regardless of class, caste, nationality, gender, or any other temporary qualifications. These basic principles, as we can see, are not so difficult to understand and are the basis of the Vedic spiritual life.


  • Mihir Meghani

    Nicely writen – shows the balance Hindus seek.

  • ravi

    the interesting thing i’ve noticed lacking in all of the comments/articles written by hindus is not acknowledging or holding our american government accountable. the us trained bin laden in the 80’s during their fight against communism. they gave saddam hussein chemical weapons/wmd to use against iran ( they know it’s illegal for women to drive cars in saudi arabia and that’s it run by a monarchy but they provide them free troops, military training, and buy their oil. they financially supported mubarak as he terrorized local egyptians and built up a massive fortune. and amidst ALL the criticism of the pakistani by hindus, our government is not clueless – the us is more then well aware of what’s going on in pakistani. us intelligence is not stupid nor are they naive.

    hindus can make all the negative comments they want about muslim governments and islam – in the end though these same governments are receiving large amts of money from us – when we buy their oil or when we pay taxes and those taxes are given as “aid” to these countries.

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