Book Review – The Power of Dharma: The Universal Moral Principle


Author –  Nicholas Sutton, Hemal Randerwala (Hanuman Dass) 
Published – Daya Press, 2013
Pages – 123
Readability – Easy


Hinduism is often referred to as Sanatana Dharma. Although Dharma is well known word among Hindus, it is not often well understood. Is Dharma the set of rules by which a Hindu is expected to live? Is it righteousness? If so, who decides who is right or wrong? Dr. Nicholas Sutton (Oxford Centre of Hindu Studies) and Hemal Randerwala offers a clear layout of what Dharma is and how if understood properly, Dharma can be a universal philosophy to live by, not just rulebook for Hindus.

Almost all religions have a view of how life ought to be lived. Some have codified this as a rulebook. Some religions are very particular about how their rulebook are followed, and some are more flexible about it. Hinduism, being a diverse system of philosophical and spiritual schools of thoughts offers many different perspectives on how to live, and what the goal of life is. Many saints, teachers and texts place an emphasis on Dharma – that one needs to live by Dharma. It is often defined as rules, duties, virtues etc. The challenge of deciding what is right and wrong was well acknowledged by early Hindu thinkers and a clear understanding of what Dharma actually refers to is key to understanding Hinduism’s unique take on morality.

No text in Hinduism has dealt with the complexities of Dharma more than the Mahabharatha. Anyone who has thought about this knows the innate challenge of doing the right thing. Even if we know what the right thing is, we have faced the challenge of sticking to it. For e.g. we might believe being truthful is something we should live by. After contemplating on the nature of violence against animals, one might conclude that a vegetarian diet is the ethical way to live. But there are challenges in practice. Does this mean that we do not have it in us to be righteous? Are we by nature evil?

The Power of Dharma explores these questions and offers a definition of Dharma which is not bound by dogma or a list of Do’s and Dont’s. In this way, it clears a lot of confusion regarding what we think Dharma is and offers a way of deciding for ourselves what its meaning is in our own context. It establishes that Dharma as a concept is subtle and a set of ideals that transcends religion because it can be universally applied. Dr. Nicholas Sutton and Hemal Randerwala also offer a set of ideas to think about some of the key issues we face today, in the light of this understanding of Dharma.

The book is short and concise, and makes for an easy read. However if one desires more discussion on the topic of Dharma, I would suggest Gurcharan Das’s ‘The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma’ as a next read. It explores the complexities of Dharma at length against the backdrop of Mahabharatha.

One cannot have such a trivial attitude as expecting immediate benefits in auspicious matters like yogabhyasa, worship, sandhya vandanam (salutation to the sun) or chanting of mantras as though one were a labourer who does one hour of work and expects immediate payment

-Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (Yoga Makaranda)

Is Yoga a group practice or an individual journey?

Yoga has spread from its roots in India to become one of the most popular fitness activities in the western world, adopting multitude of changes along the way. While purists maintain that we abide by the teachings of our ancient Gurus, we should be mindful of the fact that those guidelines were set in a different era. Yoga is not a rigid practice set in stone; it must and has been evolving with the times. However, we should be aware of the changes yoga has undergone, as looking at yoga merely as a group fitness activity or a weight loss program takes away the essence of the ancient practice.

Looking at yoga merely as a group fitness activity or a weight loss program takes away the essence of the ancient practice

In this article, we use “yoga” to indicate Hatha Yoga, where one works with body and breath to influence the mind, and thereby lead one forward along the path of a spiritual journey. In the last century, many practitioners have discovered yoga’s tremendous physical, physiological and psychological benefits. However, even while doing asana practice as a health and wellness program, it still is an individual journey. How our body aligns and feels in a posture or how we breathe is going to be completely different from the person next to us, or even the instructor.

Beginners and regular practitioners should always strive to learn the fundamentals of the practice instead of mechanically following instructions. For example, while doing a forward bend do we make sure that we are folding from the hips and not worrying about touching the forehead to knees? In a group setting there is often someone who is super flexible and they will do the postures exactly as shown by the instructor. But trying to follow that may be detrimental to our long term practice and could eventually even harm us. We owe it to ourselves to work on learning what each posture is focusing on, start from where our body is now and then move forward from that base.

Let us take the example of a simple seated forward bend, Paschimottanasana. A very common mistake in this posture is leading with the forehead because that is what we notice in advanced practitioners. But it is easy to overlook the spine alignment where the fold comes from the hips and then the abdomen, chest, chin and finally forehead rests on the legs. In every posture there is a clear spinal position defined. It could be neutral, forward bend, back bend, twist or lateral bend, and our focus should be on getting this right rather than worry about how we align our limbs. Some yogis even suggest that we should compromise how we position our hands and feet and where we look, to get the spinal alignment right because that is the base of every posture.

Another important individual versus group element is that people are not cast out of a single mould. While doing any posture, apart from our lack of practice, the biggest limitation is structural. To take the same example as above, in Paschimottanasana we can see that some keep their forehead on their shin and some on their knees even if they have perfect hip flexion and their forward fold is complete. This is because of different leg to body length ratio. Even though it is rarely mentioned in group classes, this is a major factor in how we do our postures. While we develop our practice we should work on understanding our body proportions and structural limitations. This helps us in adjusting postures accordingly, and derive the maximum benefits from them.

Similarly for breath practice, we should work on deepening our breath and not keep rigidly to the count of the instructor. When a yoga instructor does a breath count, they have to maintain the average of the class and cannot suit everyone’s pace of breathing. We have the choice of going with their count or working on deeper breath. For example, if the instructor counts for 5 breaths when holding a posture, but our breath is deeper than the average, then we have the choice of taking just 2 deep breaths within that count. It does not benefit us to take shallower breaths to match the count. We are not compromising by taking a lesser number of breaths as the posture is being held for the same length of time, we are only ensuring that we breathe to our level. It may be appropriate for beginners to take 7 to 8 breaths in the same time. Bear in mind that the instructor cannot feel what goes on inside our body. When we struggle to breathe or find it too easy, our body is signalling for a change and we will do well to respond accordingly.

Many practitioners compare themselves to others and lament that they are unable to replicate a certain posture despite many years of practice. This is the biggest drawback in a group setting, where we ignore what our body is experiencing and start looking at those around us

This is true for every posture, breath practice or meditation: Group settings provide an environment to learn and practice the basics, but we need to work individually focusing on our body and breath to derive full benefits. Many practitioners compare themselves to others and lament that they are unable to replicate a certain posture despite many years of practice. This is the biggest drawback in a group setting, where we ignore what our body is experiencing and start looking at those around us. This can change once we start building our self-practice with nobody but us to compare. We can learn so much about our body, breath and mind that every time we attend a group session the learnings are manifold.
Without a strong individual practice to raise our self-awareness, both physically and mentally, yoga becomes just another fitness program. The energy of a class helps us learn and move forward in the discipline, but do set aside time for self-practice and learn about yourself as much as you can. Any instructor, however accomplished they are, can only guide us up to a certain point. We alone have to find our own path to take the journey.

Let come what comes, let go what goes. See what remains.

-Ramana Maharshi

The Yogi & the thieves of attention

‘Ding’! The accompanying buzz was loud, as Jean’s iPhone called out to her from the counter-top. She got up from her Downward Dog and gazed at the notification screen. Her friend had just posted a vacation pic on Instagram and the app wanted to tell her how this might be worth checking out, since the friend had posted a pic after a break. Eagerly, she went right in. She felt a bit jealous of her friend enjoying that Hawaiian sunset. She hit like, posted a ‘love it!!!’ comment and repeated the process on a few other pics she came across. She remembered she hadn’t posted a pic for couple of days now. The next five minutes went in cropping, trying out filters and hashtagging. She hovered around the phone for a few of minutes, as likes and comments started trickling in. She got back to her mat eventually, to do a few more vinyasas but the phone kept buzzing after her Instagram post. She decided to wrap up her practice sooner that evening as the final buzz her phone gave her was Netflix telling her a new binge-worthy show has just become available.

Jean is not alone. Each of us are being hijacked constantly by technology in our daily lives and we have learnt to give control. Technology, which can be empowering and a tool to enrich and improve our lives is more often than not enslaving us, fooling us to believe that we are the masters of our own choices.

In yoga, we learn to withdraw from the external and begin our journey inward, where our true self shines. This is the practice of Pratyahara. With the omnipresence of technology in our lives, starting with the smartphone which is our companion to almost everywhere we go, including the yoga mat as far as many yogis out there are concerned, it poses a challenge to that inward journey, drawing us out to the external realm with each ding and buzz.

Thieves of Attention

They call it the ‘Attention Economy’. The more apps persuade you to spend time on them, the more they can maximise revenue. Design Ethicist Tristan Harris says its like these apps have scheduled small meetings with us throughout the day. They user several persuasive techniques in their push notifications to lure us in to the app and spend time in them. Time is indeed money, and they are out there to steal what we should be most careful about – Attention

The True role of technology in our lives

As Yogis, we should be mindful on how we use technology and when we are being used by the thieves of attention

Technology has no doubt made our lives easier. And we are able to do more in life, due to the technological advancements that we have achieved. But as Yogis, we should be mindful on how we use it and when we are being used, by the aforementioned thieves. It takes practice and a whole lot of watchfulness to not let our attention being stolen.

A first step is to set an intention for our interface with technology – what do we want technology to do for us. For e.g. I know to-do apps and reading apps improve my efficiency and knowledge. I have boundaries of how to use messaging apps, how much time to spend each day in them. These boundaries are not set in stone and shouldn’t exist to suffocate us, but I have come to realise that even the exercise of setting these rules forces us to be mindful each time we pick up that phone or open that laptop.

Essentialism

From our intention of how to use technology comes the opportunity to build an essentialist approach to the apps we have on our mobile phones. Each app should have a purpose. Even if it is an entertainment app, it should be something that leaves us happier and fulfilled, not regretful for having spent hours in it.

Practical Tools

  • Snooze notifications of individual apps, unless you really need to be notified – Remember that apps will use various persuasive techniques to lure you to open the app and spend time in it. Let it be a very conscious decision about which apps should do that to you.

  • If your phone has a do not disturb mode, use it to your advantage. When you do anything, ask yourself if a notification of a ring would distract your attention. If the answer is yes, turn that do-not-disturb mode on
  • Apps like Moment or RealizD tracks how many minutes you spend on the phone and how many times you picked it up each day. The very act of tracking will help you keep focus
  • Having a dedicated time for mails and messages helps you focus on other things during the day.

Is Yoga a religious practice?

This is a question many yogis around the world struggle with. It is also arguably one of the main questions that keep people from trying out Yoga, another being the myth that Yoga isn’t intense.

Hatha Yoga is a practice where we work with our body and breath to calm and quieten our mind, please keep in mind that the word yoga is used here to refer to  traditional Hatha yoga practice. To answer the question, let us start by going to the dictionary definition of the word religion-

Religion is defined as the belief in a god or in a group of gods / an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules, used to worship a god or a group of gods.

The key word here is belief which is indicative of the nature of most religions where we are required to hold faith in a supernatural force which one may have never experienced. Because Yogic practices originated in a country which was predominantly Hindu, people associate yoga to Hinduism. Hinduism itself can be defined at best as a polytheistic religion which is a melting pot of a multitude of beliefs and rituals. Swami Vivekananda famously quoted that ancient India was a land of many religions, each person having his own – meaning that each person had his own path to follow. Religious rituals and practices differ a lot within India. For e.g. a Hindu from the south of India will not recognise most of the rituals and beliefs of someone living in the northern parts of India when praying to the same deity. So if we are to understand Yoga (Hatha Yoga) in the context of Hinduism we can say that it was just one of the numerous streams of practices aimed at spiritual growth and self-actualisation, which one could say is the end goal of most spiritual paths that came to evolve under the umbrella of Hinduism.

Now going back to its definition, religion by its nature requires you to believe in something which you have not already experienced, whereas yoga is all about the experience of life itself. Yoga in its core does not expect us to believe anything blindly but only to do our practice diligently. While one has to have a certain level of trust in the practice there are no rituals or practices which are expected to be done without understanding the purpose of it. Hatha Yoga can be considered as a learning process where we start from body awareness & control through various asanas, then progress to breath awareness & control through pranayama and then start becoming aware of the mind and eventually master it and go beyond. The key word here is awareness, which means we are not expected to believe that an asana gives a particular effect but we should become aware of our body through the asana. This is a very personal experience, while you may be learning as a group initially, with practice you start becoming more aware of yourself in body, breath and eventually mind.

It is better to avoid chanting than continue chanting with doubts in your mind about it because instead of calming the mind we are agitating it further.

Once we remove belief from the equation, one of the major reasons for yoga being considered religious is the various Hindu rituals associated with it starting from chanting OM, lighting a lamp or incense to the way many yoga practitioners dress up. While some of these like chanting OM or lighting incense can provide a certain ambience to the practice, it is not the core of the practice. If you do not want to chant OM, it does not make your practice meaningless or weak. OM chant is one of the ways to help regulate our mind and keep it calm and still. It is better to avoid chanting than continue chanting with doubts in your mind about it because instead of calming the mind we are agitating it further. This can be extended to any of the so called rituals associated with the practice. Having said that, let me also add that OM chanting the way it is used for meditation practice has nothing to do with Hindu religious beliefs. It is not a prayer to any deity but considered as a Mantra to raise your own self-awareness. Some call it the primal sound, but you can take it mean anything that will bring your awareness back to yourself. The fact that it is a Sanskrit word adds to this notion of connection to Hinduism, but keep in mind that Sanskrit is a language that was used in ancient India. It is like saying that if I teach a class in English I am practising Christian yoga.

In fact, Hatha yoga practice can be considered more atheistic from the point of view of religion in the traditional sense. In Hatha yoga practice we are not trying to reach out to a supernatural force that resides outside, but we are trying to become more self-aware and go deeper into ourselves. These associations to rituals stems from the fact that many instructors while being good at the physical practice, do not pay much attention to the spiritual aspects of the practice. In the effort to appear like an authentic teacher or studio, many add these rituals or symbols and thereby alienate those who want to practice but associate these to religion.

I would conclude by saying to those who want to start Yoga practice but consider it religious, make the effort to find an instructor who focusses on the practical aspects and do not bother to make an elaborate spectacle out of it.

Yoga happens when all activities of the mind cease. That is the state when the Yogi abides in his most authentic self

– Yoga Sutra