Author: Karunakaran TK

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)

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.

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

– Yoga Sutra