Discovering your inner strength is a popular topic in self-improvement circles. Kids go through it at the age of ten, I guess, but some return later on and hang out by self-help section in bookstores forever. Audio versions of the same motivational material are popular, too, people listen to them in cars as they travel to work to become empowered.
Does it ever work?
I don’t think so, but that is just me. I remember one devotee who left the temple and joined some marketing pyramid scheme to support himself. Suddenly he started talking in power-speak. He donned a suit and whenever he saw anything he would exclaim “And it’s less than ten dollars!” That price somehow has become his threshold of value.
A generic pen – “And it’s less than ten dollars!” A slice of pizza in a temple’s food shop – “And it’s less than ten dollars!” A picture frame someone used for the photo of his guru – “And it’s less than ten dollars!”
It was understood that he was training himself to aim big, to talk really valuable things, to expect everything in his life to be very, very expensive, to project a powerful personality. Didn’t really work in a temple community but some brahmacārīs took notice. The attitude is extremely polluting, of course. As devotees we should value simplicity and we shouldn’t use money as a criterion. Things have value due to their nature and their connection to Kṛṣṇa, price alone doesn’t tell us anything useful.
Still, that devotee was doing what he thought was right, and he was also doing what he was taught in his marketing scheme seminars. He had to support himself and we can’t judge how people earn their living, it’s between them and their karma, with Kṛṣṇa’s help.
Living in the material world we have lots of various duties, we have different aspects of our nature that we cannot neglect either. Our job is not to become sannyāsī renunciates and gurus of the whole world but purify our given nature in whatever position we find ourselves at the moment.
The auxiliary of this principle is that all dharmas are fundamentally good, they are given to us for our purification. Unless we fulfill our obligations we cannot jump to the next step so whatever we are forced to do now is absolutely necessary.
The downside of this is that we immediately run into a host of problems associated with following duties other than selflessly serving the Lord. Our path, the path of Bhagavatam is dharmaḥ projjhita-kaitavo ‘tra – Completely rejecting all religious activities which are materially motivated (SB 1.1.2), accepting any other duties goes against this principle, just as it goes against sarva-dharmān parityajya of Bhagavad Gīta.
We can, of course, look at all our obligations in their relation to our ultimate goal but sometimes that might be difficult for beginners like us. Understanding how exactly we deviate from the path of pure devotion should be easier, and just as helpful as well.
In the Seventh Canto of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam Nārada Muni taught Mahārāja Yudhiṣṭhira the duties of the civilized beings and the subject of adharma naturally came up, too, in three verses begining with SB 7.15.12. Śrīla Prabhupāda didn’t elaborate a lot on practical examples so, I believe, we have some freedom to interpret the modern applications.
The first verse lists:
There are five branches of irreligion, appropriately known as irreligion [vidharma], religious principles for which one is unfit [para-dharma], pretentious religion [ābhāsa], analogical religion [upadharma] and cheating religion [chala-dharma].
In subsequent verses these five deviations are defined and in the purports Śrīla Prabhupāda explains what they are.
Vidharma, for example, is religious duties that obstruct one’s own religion. Śrīla Prabhupāda gives examples of concocted religious paths, probably like Rāmakṛṣṇa’s nonsense, and says that following those distracts one from surrendering to Kṛṣṇa according to His instructions.
What would it mean for us? Probably inventing new roles and rules according to time, place and circumstances but which do not have sanctions of the ācāryas and go against principles of varnāśrama. An example could be redefining our family duties towards our children, parents, and partners, too. Modern serial monogamy is one such invention. Introduction of divorce into vaiṣṇava culture is another.
Maybe they are legitimate reactions to modern life, maybe not, but they have nothing to do with serving Kṛṣṇa, they prevent us from following genuine varṇāśrama, and so we should not take them seriously.
Para-dharma is, apparently, when these new rules are given to us by others. When we feel we have to do something and it goes against true dharma is one thing. When we take others’ advice is another. What might be good for them is not necessarily good for us. Vidharma might look close enough but following others is probably a bit more dangerous for our spiritual life. Our own feelings can be corrected by the Supersoul, if we are sincere enough our inner voice could be easily corrected by Him, but when we follow someone else we place our faith into something completely unreliable and outside our control. In this case our inner voice must be consciously ignored.
Ābhāsa is a pretentious religion. Śrīla Prabhupāda gives example of brāhmaṇas who are not fit for their position, a hot topic for the Gauḍīyā Maṭha in its early days but those of us living in the west have probably never met such people. For us it’s pretentious TV evangelists or all kinds near ISKCON quacks professing deep Vedic knowledge in astrology or ayrveda, or self-important “reformers” who assume they are spiritually advanced enough to tell ISKCON and GBC how do their service. They look devoted and knowledgeable but we should be skeptical. Authors of self-help books should fall into this category, too.
Upadharma is outright concoction, same as vidharma but with a focus on doing wrong things rather than not doing the right ones. I guess Kṛṣṇa West could be put into this category if it is ever declared legitimately bogus, which I, personally, don’t think it is. Veganism could be called upadharma, too, chanting only Pañca tattva mantra instead of Hare Kṛṣṇa and ritvikism are perfect candidates as well.
Finally, chala-dharma looks like twisting the śāstra to suit one’s own needs. “Eating mushrooms is okay as long as you don’t offer them to deities” kind of of thing. “I need to read books by Jīva Gosvāmī because Prabhupāda said so in the very first verse of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam” is another example. In material life such “exceptions” are too numerous to count. “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” “We all need to pay our taxes but…” Our life is full of excuses like that. They sound okay but they aren’t, they are chala dharma
Every time are need to do something we can look at the nature of our new duty – is it detrimental to executing our existing ones? Is it forced on us by others? Is it done to appear better than we really are? Is it just an obvious concoction? Is it a shameful and hypocritical abuse of the rules? It’s not very difficult to see where it’s coming from.
I haven’t yet tried this classification in real life but I hope it works, it was given by Nārada Muni himself, after all. Would this knowledge stop us from doing the wrong things? Maybe not, but at least it would stop us from accepting these cheating dharmas as a real.