The Four Legs of Dharma
The word ‘dharma’ means duty. In the Śrimad Bhāgavatam, dharma is described as a ‘bull’ who stands on four ‘legs’—austerity, cleanliness, truthfulness, and kindness. These principles are common to all aspects of human life, including that which is not directly associated with a ‘religion’. Indeed, ‘religion’ in the Vedic context is simply one’s duties associated with one’s role. The roles, however, are hierarchical and a person is simultaneously in multiple roles. The duties associated with the highest role—in relation to God—are called ‘religion’. Other duties, which are lower in the hierarchy, include one’s social duties such as ‘father’, ‘employee’, ‘student’, etc. The four legs of dutifulness are associated with both lower and higher duties. This post discusses the meanings of these four ‘legs’ of dutifulness.
Table of Contents
The First Leg of Austerity
Austerity—in the simplest sense—means ‘hard work’. It is the act of self-abnegation to achieve some goal. All of us understand that to get something, we must work. Austerity is the trouble that the mind and body have to undertake to achieve the goal. Now, typically, the body and the mind are not accustomed to austerity because the senses and the mind desire pleasure. Hard work can mean denying that pleasure in the short-term to achieve something that will yield pleasure in the long run.
Owing to the innate need for pleasure in the senses and the mind, a person may be driven by short-term thinking: “let me do what I need to do right now for my happiness, and I will think about the long-term problems later on”. When a person is dominated by short-term thinking, he or she becomes controlled by the urges of the body and the mind, and doesn’t realize that he or she is different from them.
To force the body and the mind to prepare for the long-term happiness, one may have to sacrifice the short-term happiness. This sacrifice ultimately depends on the realization that the soul is eternal, and even though some short-term sacrifices may be made, the eternity of the soul implies that there would be sufficient time later on enjoy the fruits of this sacrifice. When a person doesn’t believe in the eternity of the soul, he or she feels that their life will be wasted in sacrifice because after death there is no pleasure. Prioritizing the long-term happiness therefore appears to be risky: you might spend the majority of your life sacrificing your happiness, and since death will be the end of all pleasure, you gain nothing in the end. Hence, austerity is possible only when one is convinced of the soul’s eternity.
Austerity also requires will power, or what we call free will. The urges of the body and the mind can be overpowered but you must exercise the force of will power to achieve that mastery. Since the body and the mind are material, and always changing, the bodily and mental tendency is always to think of the short-term pleasure: “I will enjoy this now, and when things change, then I will enjoy something else later”. Some people hence interpret the “live in the present” exhortation to naively mean the focus on the short-term and immediate pleasures. To think for the longer-term, one has to master the art of will power (long-term thinking) over the urges of the body and mind (short-term thinking).
By exercising that will power, one realizes that he or she is different from the body and mind, and while the body and the mind keep changing, the ability to exert that will force remains unchanged. Thus, most people with weak will power claim to be helpless against the material forces, and since they are unable to control their body and mind, there must be no soul or free will in this world. This is a symptom that they haven’t developed their will power and don’t exercise it, and hence they succumb to the short-term pleasure urges. We might also note that the realization of free will is not uniform across everyone. Quite specifically, one has to use the will power to realize that you have it. The more we use the will power—to prioritize the long-term happiness over the short-term urges—the more we understand how the soul is different from the body and the mind. As a result, not everyone has free will; if you don’t use it, you lose it. But the potential for using it and finding it always exists.
Austerity is the act of using the will power to discover that you have will power, so that you can use it even more in the future, until you have complete mastery over the body and the mind.
Why is this a ‘leg’ of dharma? The fact is that when we face our duties and responsibilities, we are often compelled to think of the long-term vs. the short-term. Should I do the bare minimum to get past the day, inflict the minimum amount of pain on the body and the mind? Or should I take my role seriously for the long-term, and understand that sacrifices in the short-run will yield results in the long-run?
Most people prioritize the short-term over the long-term. They want quick results for their effort, and if those results are seen to be distant or non-existent, they become demotivated and stop working. Due to lack of effort, the results—which could have been achieved in the long-run through austerity in the short-run—are not seen over the long run. A person who prioritizes the short-term happiness goes through a vicious cycle of seeking their short-term pleasure, but as time passes even the short term happiness in the future depends on the sacrifices for the long-term made in the past. Since the delay between hard work and subsequent gratification seems large, the motivation to make that effort is generally weak, which means that the short-term happiness is again prioritized. By always prioritizing the short-term pleasure a person loses the will power to take pain in the short-term, and hence even the short-term pleasures disappear over time (because they depended on past sacrifices).
To practice dharma or duty, one must begin thinking about the long-term over the short-term. Pain in the short-term must be accepted if it means long-term happiness. Austerity therefore doesn’t mean eternal suffering. It means temporary sacrifice for eternal happiness. The practice of austerity naturally increases the soul’s will power, and hence the detachment from the mind and body. Hence, in Vedic texts, tapasyā or austerity is a dominant means for self-realization. However, every step of our life involves the short vs. long term thinking question, and hence the question is perennial.
The Second Leg of Cleanliness
The word ‘clean’ is normally identified with hygiene and sanitation—e.g. taking bath, wearing clean clothes, washing your food before consumption, etc. But ‘clean’ also means systematic and organized. For example, you might say that “the room looks clean” not because it has been swept and mopped but also because the things in the room seem to be organized and orderly. Cleanliness appears in our lives through systematic and organized working. Some people do their work systematically—step by step, following a clear process, designed to achieve a result, even if it means delayed gratification, because the results of following that systematic approach are predictable and certain.
It’s noteworthy that cleanliness depends on a longer-term thinking because to do things systematically, you have to invest time, energy, and effort into creating that system, bringing that discipline in your activities, and ensuring that you don’t break the regulations of process and procedure in order to ‘quickly’ achieve results. If a person prioritizes the short-term urges, he would be tempted to quickly get to the finish line to achieve fast gratification, and hence shortcuts would be taken. The result of these shortcuts is that outcomes become fault-ridden, unpredictable, and patchy.
Of course, when you work unsystematically and produce an unclean outcome, you have to expend further effort in cleaning it up. If the urge for getting to a clean state is very high, then under that urge a systematic way of cleaning and fixing the situation would be avoided. So, you employ an unclean process to clean up things, and the result is further clumsiness, clutter, and disorganization. Now, you are caught in the vicious cycle of uncleanliness: you did not do the work systematically the first time, and you are now under the pressure to clean it up, but the pressure motivates you to pursue short-term outcomes and quick-fix solutions, which then leads to more uncleanliness in the effort to clean up the mess created by previous uncleanliness. As a result, the mess is never cleaned up. It becomes more and more convoluted and complex, and over time all your energy is spent in clean-up operations.
With an unsystematic way of working, you appear to make rapid progress in the initial stages, but over time you become paralyzed by the disorganization—most of the time is spent just apply patches to the leaking bucket that was haphazardly put together under an urgency to produce something like a bucket. The pressure to clean up things remains high, so the systematic process is never followed, and all the energy spent in cleaning creates more clutter. To clean up, you not only have to institute processes and procedures, but these in turn rest upon prioritizing the long-term over the short-term. Hence, if there is no patience—based on the longer-term benefits of working systematically—then processes will be broken, and the net result is stagnation as more energy is continually invested to clean up.
As this stagnation becomes a way of life, people become demotivated with their work, and give up the desire to clean up. They keep applying patches to give the appearance of progress, but internally they lose the conviction that they are doing something meaningful. Over time, they must become more cynical about the prospect of progress, and this cynicism is depicted today in cartoons such as Dilbert where the entire workplace is permeated by the need for short-term results, overlooking a systematic way of working, producing unsatisfactory results, and an endless cycle of patchwork.
Cleanliness is a ‘leg’ of dharma because it means that you might crawl like a tortoise initially but you outpace the hare who runs fast in the beginning but is stagnated thereafter. The moral of the hare and tortoise story is that the benefits of systematic progress outstrip those of discrete and discontinuous activities, if only you can believe in the benefits of the long-term over the short-term.
The Third Leg of Kindness
Kindness is the opposite of selfishness, and to be kind means to be unselfish and cooperative. Kindness depends on humility, which comes from self-confidence. Conversely, selfishness is the symptom of inner weakness, which prompts a person to remain selfish and fear their self-preservation. Under that fear of survival, a person forgets that all relationships are based on trust, and that trust is quickly broken by selfish actions. When the trust is broken, other people stop cooperating and you become even lonelier in life, and your inner weakness and fear is exacerbated, prompting a vicious cycle in which weakness leads to selfishness, which then leads to breach of trust, which then leads to more fear.
Kindness is a symptom of internal emotional self-confidence. When a person works hard (is not afraid of austerity) and works systematically (is not afraid of discipline) he or she naturally develops confidence, and with that confidence comes kindness. With kindness emerge strong relationships based on mutual trust, and with that trust, you can rely on others to reciprocate your kindness.
The emotionally weak cannot be kind because they are always worried about self-preservation. Kindness to them appears too risky, because by being kind they fear being cheated by others. That fear of being cheated prompts people to be selfish. But if you are always selfish, then you must expect selfishness in return. If you are prone to manipulate other people, then you must expect manipulation from others. Emotional weakness hence leads to selfishness, which turns into subversive manipulation of others, but over time people realize your nature and become uncooperative. The kind person brings out kindness in others, but the selfish person causes others to become selfish. The irony is that selfishness is the symptom of weakness, and if you are already weak, you need the support of strong relationships. If you break the trust via selfishness, then you also break the relationship and you are now left even lonelier. However, most weak people don’t realize that their selfishness is the cause of their loneliness, and that weakness to selfishness to loneliness constitutes a vicious cycle.
When a person is confident, he or she becomes less egoistic. They are able to treat criticisms objectively as areas of improvement, rather than as an affront on their individuality. Confidence therefore brings humility, whereas weakness breeds egoism. Those who are egoistic are not confident. They are in fact weak to the point of being unable to handle criticism, make improvements, become more confident as a result of those improvements, and become humble as a result of confidence. They remain stuck in their weakness, acting selfishly out of their fear, which manifests externally as ego, but eats a person from within because that ego hinders a person’s self-correction leading to improvement.
In the material world, no relationship is perfect. However, long-lasting relationships require a person to be receptive to change—making the necessary corrections. If a person has flaws, but remains adamant about those flaws, he or she imposes the adverse outcomes of their flaws on others. The person on the receiving end of those flaws suffers only to the point where their own kindness can take them. Beyond that point, they stop tolerating the flaws, by moving out of the relationship, or fighting it, because they are unable to bear the burden of the other person’s flaws being inflicted upon them.
Kindness means that I am willing to fix my problems and make the life of others—living or working with me—less painful. We must realize that a flawed person is a burden on other people, and they may bear that burden only if they are kind toward you. Kindness means not just giving something valuable to others. It also means that taking out the pain of your own personality problems which make other’s life difficult. Correcting one’s flaws is the preliminary form of kindness. Once this kindness is perfected, then people want to trust and seek your help. That’s when you can expand your kindness toward generosity—i.e. offering your time, energy, and abilities to further their goals. Therefore, charity is a much advanced form of kindness, but the preliminary form of kindness is self-correction.
Sometimes people perform charity—e.g. offering others money and time—but don’t want to fix their personality problems. Their charity is yet another masquerade for their ego: they pretend to help others in order to demonstrate their superiority over the needy. That quest for superiority is a symptom of their own inner weakness. Such ‘charity’ superficially appears to be kind, but it is not actually kind, and cannot be considered one’s duty. The preliminary duty one has is fixing one’s personality problems. Without fixing those problems, charity and kindness are another form of show business.
The Fourth Leg of Truthfulness
Once you have become kind, you can offer help to others. But what kind of help is that going to be? Should that help expand their short-term thinking, support the practice of unsystematic and patchy work, and spread superficial charity in order to appear to be kind to others? Or should it be the dissemination of truth—however harsh and painful—that reinforces long-term over short-term thinking, exhorts the person to work in a systematic and disciplined manner, and points out personality flaws so that they can be corrected? By truth we mean the latter rather than the former.
It is said that truth is harsh, and truthfulness is therefore painful. It is easier to appeal to a person’s short-term gratification, support their wrongdoing in order to achieve that pleasure, and pretend to have a relationship that exchanges short-term gratification as motivation for their work. It is much harder to tell the truth that enlightens a person about their real long-term happiness, which then leads to a systematic and organized practice with predictable results, while challenging a person to fix their personality problems as the primary purpose of having a relationship with the others.
Indeed, when one begins telling the truth, he or she also faces criticisms. To continue speaking the truth, one must have the requisite kindness, which in turn depends on the previous two legs of religion. Most people are deterred by that truth-speaking—because it makes life uncomfortable—and seek refuge in self-preservation. Such self-preservation sometimes goes in the name of not ‘offending’ or ‘hurting’ other’s emotions and feelings, but it is primarily motivated by keeping oneself happy. By avoiding to speak the truth, one breaks the kindness and austerity legs of dharma. He or she might maintain good relations with others, find his support reciprocated, besides popularity. But he or she has failed to perform the expected duty in exchange for pleasantness, happiness, and peace. Leo Tolstoy writes in his book War and Peace: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”.
When truthfulness is spoken as a leg of dharma the implication is that harshness may be involved. That harshness is, paradoxically, kindness, because only by speaking the truth can illusion be mitigated. It requires austerity because by speaking the truth, one might get into trouble and therefore one must be prepared to sacrifice short-term interests for a long-term fulfillment. And harshness is often necessary to drive out laziness in life to enforce a discipline by which life’s goals can be achieved systematically. The quest for truth is therefore not easy. It involves not only questions about what reality is and how we know it, but also the ability to accept the truth even when it becomes unpleasant to one’s life.
Truthfulness requires detachment. Those who rely on deception might seem successful, prosperous, and loved by others, and our desire for these things often prevents us from speaking the truth. The acquisition of truth also depends on detachment because then you can see things as they are rather than as you might want them to be. Truthfulness and detachment are therefore always connected to each other as jnana and vairagya because without detachment our ‘knowledge’ is biased.
The Progression in the Legs of Dharma
Since we can count the four legs of dharma, we can also ask: In which order should we count? The Vedic texts describe that the four legs of dharma are dominant in the four ages or yuga. The time called Satya-yuga dominates in austerity—i.e. voluntarily inflicting suffering on the body and mind to detach the soul from the material world as well as develop the power of will that separates the soul from the body. The time called Tretā-yuga dominates in cleanliness—it involves the strict performance of elaborate rituals (processes and procedures) without mistakes. The time called Dvāpara-yuga dominates in kindness by performing charity and fixing one’s personality flaws because intense austerity and elaborate rituals are very hard to achieve for most people. Finally, in the age called Kali-yuga truthfulness is the dominant form of religiosity because charity, complex rituals, and austerity are very hard to perform.
Of course, the relative predominance of one of the legs of religion doesn’t mean the non-existence of the others. But the fact is that when the body and mind are weak, they cannot tolerate severe austerities. When people are unable to perform complex tasks in a systematic manner, then the performance of yajña would be filled with many violations and mistakes. When most people are very poor and struggling to survive, charity is very hard and limited to a few rich people.
In the present age of Kali-yuga even truthfulness declines, and speaking the truth leads to quarrels. To avoid those quarrels, most people want to keep quiet, or offer false support to the misguided. At the bare minimum, therefore, truthfulness in this age means self-criticism through honest introspection. You may not offer honest guidance to others, but at least you must be honest with yourself. You may not be able to teach others the truth, but at least you must learn the truth yourself. Bringing oneself out of delusion, false hopes, and misapprehensions about one’s real state in life is our duty.
We can be assisted in this duty by other teachers, but the fact is that a teacher who offers the truth plainly may be disliked and challenged—making his or her task much more difficult—forcing them to recoil from their kindness, austerity, and cleanliness, because these are not easy anyway. The net result of such delusion partially impacts the teacher; but it greatly impacts the students themselves.
Dharma therefore doesn’t mean ‘religion’ in all cases. It does, however, mean ‘religion’ when the person is involved in the highest duties (which override all other duties). As Lord Kṛṣṇa says in the Bhagavad-Gita 18.66: “Abandon all varieties of dharma and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear”, the lower dharma or duties can be discarded in favor of the higher dharma. As a result, austerity, cleanliness, kindness, and truthfulness can also be discarded if it pleases the lord. But that rejection is generally rare and perilous, and it must be taken only under the guidance of a teacher who knows how to override the lower dharma with the higher dharma.
As a general principle, one must aspire to maintain all the four legs of dharma. But if all four cannot be maintained then one must aspire to at least practice truthfulness. But if even truthfulness toward others becomes impossible for a person, then at the bare minimum honesty with oneself is essential. The worst form of adharma is self-deception, which leads to the deception of others, and over time to unkindness, uncleanliness, and succumbing to the pleasure of the body and the mind over all else.