Monday, April 1, 2019

Dharma: It Ain't What It Used To Be, Says Mark Singleton

Mark Singleton, March 2019, at Nest Yoga, Oakland, California
by Patrice Priya Wagner

A few days ago, I had the good fortune to hear Mark Singleton, author of Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice and Senior Research Fellow at School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, speak about dharma and its role in contemporary society. The lecture delivered all that was promised and more; concepts were accessible to the new yogi as well as long-time teacher familiar with ancient yogic texts. The material presented was full of suggestions of books for further study and more ideas than there is room to include in an overview of the main points raised during the two and a half hours. But I thought I would share some of the highlights with you today.

To most modern yoga practitioners, dharma refers to your purpose in life and how you embody that. Finding your dharma has become an “industry” that is so relevant, successful, and promises to show you what life is for and where you're going because there's no steady ground under our feet. You can find books on dharma for your golfing, parenting, your dog, and many other things. Singleton asked: How do we know what life is about in this confusing world where truth is lies and lies are truth, fake news abounds, and climate catastrophe is in full tilt?

Dharma, the word and concept, has a history of thousands of years and has transformed over the centuries especially in modern times. As Singleton explained, the prevalent understanding of dharma in Vedic times, 1500-500 BCE, was that it involved primordial laws, emphasized universal stability, maintained lawfulness and regularity of the cosmos, and meant enactment of this eternal lawfulness in the self (svadharma). In Vedic times, there existed a rigid caste system that determined exactly a person's role in society from the moment of birth. For example, a male born into the kṣatrīya caste was a warrior and, as we'll see below, he'd be duty bound to go out and fight to defend his people. Unlike current notions about dharma, it was not something that just happened; you had to perform in order to uphold it.

Singleton pointed out how over the years, the meaning of dharma shifted as religion and rigid societal structure became less dominant in people's lives. Fast forward to the 19th and 20th centuries when the exchange of ideas between the East and West greatly increased, causing many ways of commerce and society to change and transforming the sense of dharma as well.

For example, many people who practice yoga are introduced to dharma by the Bhagavad Gītā: "It is better to follow one's own dharma imperfectly than that of another well; better to die in one's own dharma; the dharma of another brings danger. (3.35)" This verse refers to Arjuna, the main character, questioning his dharma; must he do his duty as a warrior although it means fighting, and possibly killing, people he knows and loves?

But although the passage pertains just to one man born into a societal system with rigid rules to live by, writer Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, 1838-1894, uses it to justify his interpretation of dharma as an individual duty to carry out in the world, not necessarily according to the societal norms he was born into. Chatterjee asks if non-Indians also have a svadharma, concluding that there is a universalization of dharma regardless of nationality.

The Prime Minister of India, Sarvepalli Radhakrishna, 1888-1975, a great thinker, writer, and modernizer of India, wrote "Each individual has his inborn nature, svabhāva, and to make it effective in his life is his duty, svadharma...We should introduce changes today and make the content of Hindu dharma relevant to modern conditions." Radhakrishna asserted that dharma doesn't have an absolute and timeless content as many had been told but "an elastic tissue to enclose the growing body," justifying India to keep in step with the modern world by not sticking an old-fashioned concept of dharma.

As psychology became more widely recognized in both the East and the West, concepts such as Sigmund Freud's (1856-1939) three parts of the human mind, Ego, Super Ego, and Id, came into play. According to Freud, we're strangers to ourselves and may not know who we are unless we explore uncharted parts of our mind. 

Yoga teacher and writer Stephen Cope (1945-) takes this concept of going inward to find ourselves and connects it to dharma. He wrote:"...When we drill down into this issue, we discover that our dharmas...are based...on what is already mysteriously in us at birth: our fingerprints....You can only expect a fulfilling life if you dedicate yourself to finding out who you are." Cope states in The Great Work of Your Life, 2012, that dharma is your unique vocation, admittedly changing the meaning of the word. There are many modern thinkers and writers who added to this notion including Ekhart Tolle (1948-).

Commercial industry became familiar with these concepts in hopes of improving sales of products to consumers. In particular, the idea of people belonging to a type appealed to advertising and marketing executives. American psychologist Abram Maslow (1908-1970) created a Hierarchy of Needs for self-actualization that follows this line of thinking. By categorizing people into types, a company could brand a product according to the specific preferences of each type.

The idea of dharma types, as embraced by some psychotherapists and popular writers, puts people into simplistic and limiting boxes. There appears to be a fundamental contradiction when popular dharma discourse informed by psychology tells us we are individual and idiosyncratic, but at the same time insists we identify with one of a handful of types.

Singleton concluded the lecture with: "I propose that dharma, like freedom, has become an empty signifier that can mean whatever you want it to mean, and to justify whatever action you want it to. Just as freedom can become a justification for your favorite drug, hate speech, or the invasion of Iraq, dharma can justify everything from one's lifestyle choices to military nuclear testing. Today, in the world of global capital, it is intimately bound with the psychological project, all manner of self-help literature, and, arguably, the neo-liberal machine (to use a loaded phrase.)"

Well, this certainly raises a lot of questions for me about the concept of dharma and how it is being used in the modern yoga community. What do you think?

Patrice Priya Wagner, RYT 500, C-IAYT, teaches yoga to people with disabilities in Oakland, California, and has been published in New Mobility Magazine, Works and Conversations, Artweek, and the Accessible Yoga Blog. She is a co-editor of the Accessible Yoga Blog.

This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, co-editor of the Accessible Yoga blog and Editor in Chief of Yoga for Healthy Aging.

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