On Dharma or “Do the right thing”

In an ancient kingdom there was a master builder of great skill. The kingdom prospered under their wise and benevolent king. The master builder served the king his entire life and was responsible for all the buildings of splendour to be found in the kingdom. For the great king, the builder had constructed many glorious palaces and impenetrable forts. When the old king died he was succeeded by the his son. By this time the master builder himself was getting old and was hoping that his building days were over. When he approached the young king to ask his permission to retire from service, he was surprised at at the new king’s response: “Very well. You have served my father well and for so long. Before you enjoy your leisure, I ask one final project. You must build for me a grand palace as your last task.”

indian_palaceThe tired master builder was greatly irritated with the young king’s request and grumbled to himself, “Doesn’t this pompous youngster have enough palaces?” He had no choice but to comply and begrudgingly began the task of building another palace. As the project moved along the old master builder became increasingly bitter and spitefully plotted to cheat his king. He began to cut corners everywhere: he used lesser building materials, he was careless in his work and he even started dipping his hand into the building funds.

When it came time for the inauguration of the new palace the young king was on hand. The master builder felt he had done well to cheat the king who he found ungrateful. After the king had lighted the lamp he approached the master builder in front of all who had gathered. With folded palms, the young king offered the old builder a garland, a gift and these parting words: “Dear master builder-ji, you have long served my family and your kingdom with your exceptional talent and skill. We are all grateful for your service and I bestow on you this very palace to enjoy for the rest of your days.”

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Dharma is a very subtle concept and much ink has been spilled in its exploration. The term is packed with meaning depending on the context. A common and basic view is understanding dharma as right action or duty. We all have duties in life depending on our situation and we are challenged to do everything we do properly and well.

Why should we bother? In the famous Bhagavadgita, Sri Krishna explains that ignoring one’s dharma invites ruin for both the individual and society. In the grand scheme if people skirt their duty (or don’t do the right thing) other people tend to follow. If you’ve ever seen a motorist pull an illegal move, you’ll know what I’m talking about. An easy example is if a driver is in the reserved turning lane but go straight. Many others will follow suit and even more motorists, frustrated at waiting in traffic and being passed, will question why they should bother waiting properly when others don’t. Blocking intersections is another great example (it shows a lot of other things too).

As the above story illustrates, not doing the right thing causes us to suffer. It also effects the world around us, if you can just imagine if everyone stopped following rules and doing a terrible job at whatever they do. The simplest way to live your dharma is to always do the right thing and perform your task, however trivial, to the best of your abilities. Whether you’re a banker, a teacher or a car-washer be the best banker, teacher or car-washer possible. You and the world deserve nothing less.

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