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Dharma: Purpose, Duty, and Truth

Yoga’s insights about purpose, duty, and truth.

The word Dharma is a Sanskrit word that comes up throughout Yoga history and in Yoga texts like the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and others. The word is translated as “purpose” or “that which upholds.” Another definition I really like is ”support from within” or “the essence of a thing.” Dharma can also be described as the virtues that make a thing what it is.

There's an ancient story of a man sitting down next to the Ganges River and as he's sitting next to this River, he glances down and sees a scorpion splashing around, drowning in the river. So what does he do? He bends down, he holds out his hand, and as he goes to rescue the scorpion, as you might expect it stings him on the hand.

Dharma is described as the virtues or essence of what makes a thing what it is

He comes back the next day and again sees another scorpion splashing around drowning in the river, so as you are probably guessing, he bends down, holds out his hand, picks up the scorpion, and it stings him again. This situation repeats over and over, until one day a man who had been sitting next to the river watching this whole thing happen each day comes over and he says, “What are you doing? Don't you know that it's the Dharma of the scorpion to sting you?” And the man replied, “Yep, it's the Dharma of the scorpion to sting but it's the Dharma of a human to save.”

Earlier I mentioned how Dharma is based on the virtues that make something what it is, but what if I told you that Dharma is also situational, circumstantial, and something that can evolve over time? According to the Bhagavad Gita, each of us also has a duty to fulfill our Dharma (whatever that might be). According to Krishna as he’s speaking to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita:

BG3.35: It is far better to perform one’s natural prescribed duty, though tinged with faults, than to perform another one’s prescribed duty, though perfectly”

Finding your Dharma

So what is your purpose and how do you go about discovering it? I recognize these can be big questions, and these aren't questions that I can give you the answer to. The answers to these questions are deeply personal; they're based on the things that make you, uniquely you.

One aspect of what makes you, uniquely you, is related to the situations that you find yourself in, as well as the ways that you can engage with the world based on what's in front of you.

Simon Haas, the author of ‘The Dharma Code’ says:

“Young graduates are encouraged to find their passion and then pursue their dreams. This advice often dished out at graduation ceremonies is misguided. Most successful young people don't look inside and then plan a life. They don't take an inward journey and come out having discovered a developed self, ready to meet the challenges of the world.

No, living allows them to find themselves. By confronting challenges in life, by finding a problem that summons their energies, they discover what they are capable of and what is important to them. In other words, our potential or purpose manifests not through a process of cognition, but through our vital engagement with the world.”

This insight from Simon Haas about discovering our Dharma by getting into the world and discovering situations that we are uniquely positioned to engage is echoed by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, who said, “To discover your world and with all your heart, give yourself to it.”

Outliers book

One of my favorite authors is Malcolm Gladwell. If you've ever read the book Outliers, in this book Malcolm Gladwell points out how some of the most successful people in their careers are actually successful from the situations that they've found themselves in. Outliers explains why the self-made man is a myth, and what truly lies behind the success of the best people in their field is often a series of lucky events, rare opportunities, and other external factors that are out of our control.

Wayne Gretzky Dharma

One example from that book is about Wayne Gretzky, a professional hockey player. Gladwell noticed and pointed out how professional athletes that were born within the first three months of the year have a major advantage over other players, based on things like their size and their development, and likelihood of being put into every game, and an overall confidence to succeed from all of this. So in a sense, because Wayne Gretzky was born in January, this perhaps affected Wayne Gretzky's Dharma to be this exceptional hockey player.

Bill Gates Dharma

We also have Bill Gates who was another example from Outliers. As you probably know, Bill Gates became one of the wealthiest, most successful people in the business world as the CEO of Microsoft and the founder of Windows. Bill Gates also happened to be growing up in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, just a short distance away from one of the few supercomputers that were even in the country at the time. So had it not been for this combination of living where he lived and being born in this time, plus his unique interests and skills, Bill Gates wouldn't be the Bill Gates we know today - or in other words, his Dharma might have been different.

Asramas: 4 Stages of Life

As you consider Dharma, it's worth noting that the concept of Dharma and purpose is actually fluid. In other words, our Dharma can change over time. Another component of Dharma is actually related to what phase of life we're in. From the Dharmashastra in the Upanishads, there's something called Asramas, which describe how a human lifespan can be divided into four distinct life stages.

Asramas Four Life Stages

Beginning with Brahmacharya, defined from age 1 to age 25. This is considered the bachelor or student phase of life where we're learning about the world, developing skills, and acquiring knowledge. If we again consider the Dharma of Bill Gates, his Dharma for a certain stage of his life was to be a student, when he learned about computers and programming.

This of course, led to the second stage of life, Grihastha stage of Life between age 26 and 50. This is a phase of life where it's more about the householder life, the duties of maintaining the household and creating security and prosperity. As we again consider Bill Gates, this was a phase of his life where he was building Microsoft, as well as starting his family.

Bill Gates Granihastha Asrama

The third phase of life, the Vanaprastha phase, between 51 and 75 is described as the phase where we start to consider retirement and handing down our wisdom to the next generation. Coming back to the Bill Gates example, he has of course taken a step back from Microsoft and is now more in the role of a philanthropist. So Bill Gates' Dharma to today has evolved from where it started.

The fourth stage of life from the Asramas is the Sannyasa stage, from about 76 onwards. This phase is where one begins to step away even more from the material world, focusing more on spiritual development and liberation.

As we consider these four life stages as they relate to Dharma, I think it illustrates how Dharma is actually fluid, and Dharma can evolve over time. Destiny isn't necessarily preset. Our Dharma can be affected by what phase of life we're in, situational factors, as well as where our interests, passions, and desires take us.

Dharma and Truth

Now that other part of the definition of Dharma is about the support from within, or the essence or virtues that makes something what it is. This aspect of Dharma is about listening to your innermost truth and expressing your unique authenticity. I love this quote from Jim Carrey,

Jim Carrey Dharma

“It hurts worse to fail when you compromise than failing at something you love. If it's possible to fail at something you don't love, you might as well do something you love, and be what you want to be.”

Another one of my favorite authors who writes about yoga philosophy is Deborah Adele, who says “Living the life that cries to be lived from the depth of our being frees up our energy and vitality - we benefit and everyone around us benefits.”

About the Author:

 Jason Wright

Jason Wright Yoga Teacher

Jason has been teaching Yoga in Wollongong since 2019, and in San Diego California since 2017. He has been an educator for over 20 years and is passionate about the wisdom and transformational power of Yoga. Jason facilitates 200hr Yoga Teacher Trainings in Sydney, Australia, specializing in Yoga history and philosophy. As a lifelong learner himself, he has completed trainings all over the world including 18 months of full-time Yoga studies in college.

If you would like to learn more, Jason has published several online courses about Yoga Philosophy which can be found at

The topic of Dharma is explored in more depth in the course The Wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita

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