Dharma, Duty, and Freemasonry: Part I

Dharma, Duty, and Freemasonry: Part I

WE all have duties, which we are responsible for in life, although some may not ascribe these responsibilities that term. We are responsible for the well-being of families and our own self-improvement. Many of us would say that we have a duty of service to our community or even to humanity as a whole. “Duty” is an important concept in Freemasonry and can be viewed or defined in two basic ways:

  1. a moral or legal obligation; a responsibility, commitment, or allegiance.
  2. a task or action that someone is required to perform.

The first definition speaks to a higher concept – an attitude of reverence or respect in the cause of fidelity. The second definition is more concrete and delineates a specific action one is required to perform. What duties do we owe in life, and do these duties circumscribe our personal Dharma?

What is Dharma?

Dharma is an integral concept in many eastern religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. In Hinduism, Dharma has been defined as a spiritual law, which governs the necessary conduct of each individual. While there is no direct, one-word translation in the English language, Dharma can be described as duty, morality, virtues, or calling.

Nothing is higher than Dharma. The weak overcomes the stronger by Dharma, as over a king. Truly that Dharma is the Truth (Satya); therefore, when a man speaks the Truth, they say, “He speaks the Dharma”; and if he speaks Dharma, they say, “He speaks the Truth!” For both are one. — Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 1.4.xiv

Dharma signifies behaviors that are in accord with Rta, (i.e., the order that upholds the universe). In the Vedic religion, Ṛta (ऋत, “order, rule; truth”) is the principle of natural order which regulates and coordinates the operation of the universe and everything within it. Those ordinances, or life paths, which upholds Rta, are referred to as Dharma, and the action of the individual in relation to those ordinances is referred to as Karma. Ṛta – as an ethical principle – is linked with the notion of cosmic retribution.

A central concept of the Ṛig Veda (an important Hindu Scripture) is that created beings fulfill their true natures when they follow the path set for them by the ordinances of Ṛta, and failing to follow those ordinances was thought to be responsible for the appearance of various forms of calamity and suffering. Committing one’s actions to the governance of Ṛta, referred to as its “Dharma“, was therefore understood as imperative in ensuring one’s own well-being. Karma (lit., “action”) refers to the works one performs, which can occur either in congruence with or in opposition to Dharma – and thus, to Ṛta – and which are posited to stand in a causal relationship to the pains and pleasures one experiences in life. Described also as a “law of moral causation,” Karma places the responsibility for one’s life on the shoulders of the individual. Thus, an individual’s circumstances in life – calamity or fortune – are considered the outcome of that person’s past actions.

Determining One’s Duty: Aspects of Dharma

There are aspects of Dharma that apply to everyone (universal Dharma) and aspects that are specific to each individual (personal Dharma). In order to be in accordance with Rta, one first needs to cultivate certain universal moral principles including:

Dhriti: Perseverance Dhi: Reasoning
Kshama: Patience Vidya: Wisdom
Dama: Self-control Satya: Truthfulness
Shauch: Purity Asteya: Refraining from Theft
Indriya Nigrah: Control of One’s Senses Akrodha: Absence of Anger

Such moral principles are part of the universal application of Dharma, which apply to every individual and is referred to as sadharana Dharma. This is augmented by a person’s specific Dharma, which is impacted by three factors: 1) Gunas: Individual Tendencies, 2) Ashrams: Stages of Life, and 3) Syadharma: One’s Personal Calling.

The Gunas: Tendencies of Each Individual

“What is action; what inaction? Even the wise are hereby perplexed. It is needful to discriminate action, unlawful action, and inaction; mysterious is the path of action” – Bhagavad Gita, iv. 16-17

 The concept of Gunas is based on the idea that all human beings have a mixture of three tendencies: Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas.

  • Sattva: Tendency towards Truth and Purity
  • Rajas: Tendency towards Action
  • Tamas: Tendency towards Inaction, Obstruction, or Ignorance

Gunas, or individual tendencies, are expanded upon by their application to Varnas – or groups within the Hindu social structure – based on the recognition of the difference in individual tendencies and sort all members into one of four categories. Thus, each group follows a different life path and is assigned different duties.    

The Varnas: Groups Within Society

Varnas are groups within society, including Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras.

Brahmins: Priests, Scholars, and Teachers
  1. Predominant tendency: Sattva (Righteous and Purity)
  2. Duties: Control of the mind and the senses, austerity, purity, forbearance, and also uprightness, knowledge, realization, belief in a hereafter
  3. Action: study the Vedas, live according to Vedic principles, and share that knowledge
  4. Form the head of the cosmic being: As they make up the Mouth: Relay Truth

Kshatriyas: Rulers, Warriors, and Statesmen

  1. Predominant tendency: Rajas (Quick to take action)
  2. Duties: Prowess, boldness, fortitude, dexterity, and also not flying from battle, generosity and sovereignty
  3. Action: Protect righteousness
  4. Arms: Protect Truth
Vaishyas: Businessmen, Bankers, Merchants, and Farmers
  1. Mix of the tendencies of Sattva (Truth) and Rajas (Action)
  2. Duty: Agriculture and Trade
  3. Action: Meet the material needs of society without over indulging
  4. Thighs: Provide Material wealth
Shudras: Custodians, Laborers, and Service Providers
  1. Predominant Tendency: Tamas (Inaction)
  2. Duty: Service
  3. Action: Support the other activities of the other groups
  4. Feet: Provide Support

These classifications were once the basis of the Caste system in India and other nations. Based on the Caste or class someone was born into, these classifications cemented the person’s opportunities and social status. This is no longer the case in India, but it does highlight the past subjection of certain people based on their circumstances at birth. This raises the interesting question: Is one’s future predetermined at birth? Are we born with certain qualities [Gunas] which influence our life path, duties, or Dharma?

To be continued…


This is Part I of a two part series on Dharma, Duty, and Freemasonry. Readers can view the second installment here: Part II.

With Passion

With Passion

I recently attended a Masonic Philosophical Society discussion about compassion – what was it, what is it, and how did it get from there to here. In the course of the discussion, many people discussed kindness and manners but little discussion about compassion took place.

The word comes from the roots of ‘with’ and ‘passion.’ The modern, Webster’s version of the word means, “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.” As language evolves, and many of the things that philosophers study are dusty with age and wear, it was important to see where the word began. From its Latin beginnings through Old French, the word actually meant “suffer with.” From the 14th Century C.E. backward, the word is associated with suffering. To look at meanings, suffering and sympathy/concern are two wholly different experiences. What is interesting is the the word “suffer” also comes from the Old French, in about the same time period as compassion, and the word originally meant “the be under the burden of something, to ensure, to hold up.” The word sympathy shows up much later in vocabulary, around 1570, and is of two Greek roots – “together” (sym) and feeling (pathos).

compassionrockIn his book, “Sympathy: A History,” author Eric Schliesser puts the confusion between sympathy and compassion to rest. He breaks down, right in the introduction, the differences between sympathy, empathy, and compassion. Sympathy and empathy, which are often confused for one another, are different breeds. Empathy, a word from the 12th century C.E., was created, the author states, to describe the German concept of Einfuhlung, or the state of entering into someone else’s feelings. That is, in empathy, the person is actually “in” the emotions of others, whereas with sympathy, the person experiencing it is recreating what their imagination can create, from the building blocks of society, family, and learned experience. The person in sympathy is not actually feeling the same emotions as the person conveying the experience.

So, the question bears asking: are compassion and empathy related? How can one suffer without actually feeling the suffering?

The Chopra Center has an interesting distinction for the word compassion. They state:

“When you’re compassionate, you’re not running away from suffering, you’re not feeling overwhelmed by suffering, and you’re not pretending the suffering doesn’t exist. When you are practicing compassion, you can stay present with suffering.”

In other words, you need to have both empathy and sympathy to be able to motivate yourself to compassion. Compassion is also action; it is the desire to relieve the suffering of the other person with real and meaningful work.

pairThe interesting difference between kindness and compassion is in the suffering. It is kind to hold the door open for people. It is compassionate to bring someone into your home and away from the cold. Kindness involves a gentle mindset and may be necessary for compassion; however, compassion demands more. It demands action that is substantial enough to relieve true suffering, a true burden. It’s not taking the burden off someone’s shoulders, or living the pain with the person. That achieves nothing. It is not only lifting the burden with someone but working on ways to bring the cause of the suffering to an end. The compassionate person has distance from the emotional weight and can therefore see more clearly what may be accomplished. In conjunction with the other, that clear-headed person can provide a guide through the suffering.

Compassion requires a higher thought, a higher attention to the greater good. It also seems to require an integrated person – someone who can truly see the person in all their different forms and deliver what is required. Compassion isn’t kindness.

Kindness is a quality of being gentle and generous. Empathy is the ability to actually feel the suffering of another, while sympathy is the ability to imagine that suffering. Compassion takes all of those facets and creates an action plan. We might equate kindness with the physical, empathy with the emotional, sympathy with the mental, and compassion with the spirit, if we were breaking this down in the sense of human experience. The highest emotion, in this human drama, then, is compassion. It requires the most energy, delivering the most gain. In other words, sometimes the kindest, and toughest act of compassion may appear to be harsh of difficult for the person to achieve. Saying “no” to the alcoholic is compassionate, as is saying “no” to the person who always wants the answer. Telling the intelligent person that their poor work is the result of laziness is kindness, empathy, and sympathy rolled up into a greater purpose – it is compassion. Enablement is not compassion: it is destruction.aroundcompassion

Freemasonry teaches you how to act but not how to think or feel. Freemasons are regularly taught to be kind and compassionate, yet subdue strong emotions in favor of thoughtful discourse.

Freemasonry also teaches you to act instead of standing on the sidelines and watching and simply thinking about a thing. Freemasonry provides opportunities for its adherents to be able to speak openly and view themselves authentically. Everyone requires a second set of eyes and experiences to become better, and it is in the bonds of fraternal love that compassion can be delivered. It requires different thought than the general society. It expects the Mason to not only learn to be compassionate but also to be able to receive that compassion. It becomes a true bond of fraternity, when honesty is the cement that not only binds us but supports us.

Are Freemasons perfect? Not by a long shot. It is in the compassion found in fraternal bonds that Masons can become better human beings and thereby better members and examples in the larger society.