My Dharma

It is better to do one’s own dharma, even though imperfectly, than to do another’s dharma, even though perfectly. By doing one’s innate duties, a person does not incur sin. (The Bhagavad-Gita, 18:47)

This week, as I watched the Trump-Putin new conference and the subsequent coverage, I have been pondering this quote from The Gita.

Unlike many of the commentators, I don’t find Trump’s friendliness to Putin, or Trump trusting Putin more than he trusts his own intelligence community, that surprising. Even a cursory attention to people like the alt-righter Alex Jones or the white supremacist Richard Spencer shows that many people in America (how many?) feel greater affinity to white nationalists in other countries than they do to fellow Americans who they see as globalists. 

On this view, all the following are basically the same: liberal democracy, globalism, a global state, multi-culturalism, feminism, anti-colonialism, secularism, liberal fascism, etc. And opposed to it is are basically various forms of nationalisms, where to each nation there corresponds a people bonded along cultural and racial lines. So each nation belongs, first and foremost, to the unique people who culturally define it.

So, then, on this view, the big fight now is between nationalists and globalists. The nationalists want nothing more – from their perspective – than to have their country, as it is true to their culture and race. They are simply trying to be themselves. And then here come these globalists imposing a fake/false/imperialistic universal framework which they are trying to impose on everyone else.

I have no doubt that when the cameras aren’t around this is how Trump talks to his friends. And how he talks to Putin and Kim Jong Un. Trump’s famed confidence that he can make deals with these autocrats is just the confidence that he and them can get aligned against the globalists. The issue isn’t democrats vs republicans, or capitalism vs communism, or even democracy vs dictatorship. Those are all by and by. The main issue is seen as: a global cadre of elites have formed in the last 50 years, who espouse multiculturalism and anti-colonialism and feminism and all other such “good” things, and in the name of that goodness, they are taking most of the wealth for themselves. This cadre is diverse in gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, and so because of that diversity, it assumes that it has found a universal framework for all people. This group presumes that it is more enlightened because it embraces people beyond culture, race, religion and nationality. And the “main stream media” gives them the praise and adoration, since it is part of this cadre itself. So people like Trump and Putin, though wealthy, feel as if their not being globalists limits their ability to have more wealth – and, as importantly, to have prestige and admiration. So they feel more affection for each other than to, as they see it, globalists who are betraying America and Russia.

This isn’t to deny that Putin might have something on Trump. Or that Trump’s finances might be tied into Russian money. Things which give Putin leverage over Trump. But it is to say that beyond that, there is here an alignment of resentiments and worldviews against the coalition of “globalists” like Hilary Clinton, Barack Obama, George Soros, etc. (women, blacks, jews, etc.).

Much of the dizzying sense around Trump and his actions in our politics and media is created by the confluence of two facts:

  1. Trump is operating with a framework of globalists versus nationalists, and
  2. The American cultural, media and political consciousness is still mired in the framework from the last 50 years, in which it is unthinkable that a prominent American might feel he has more in common with a Russian than he does with  many of his fellow Americans.

Ironically, while nationalists like Trump and Steven Bannon are so intent on physical boundaries around America, they are doing more than anyone to explode the old conceptual boundaries of America. It’s an issue even beyond race. Trump seems more comfortable with a non-white nationalist like Kim Jung Un than with a white, spreading freedom globalist like George W. Bush.

I predict that as our media and political consciousness itself comes to adopt the globalists vs nationalists framework, much of Trump’s actions will stop seeming mysterious, and thereby will stop seeming miraculous and as if he can never be held accountable. Right now he is gliding in between the old and the new frameworks, and so getting by without being held responsible in one or the other.

So, what does all this have to do with the Gita quote?

It’s a reminder to myself to keep doing my dharma, and not to get lost in all the cultural upheavals of the moment. I am not just a spectator of the history that is happening out there out in the world, or on TV. I am a part of the history myself. Trump has his dharma. Putin has his. Robert Muller has his. Politicians have theirs. Academics have theirs. And I have mine. Everyone’s dharma is to listen to the voice of God in them and to not worry about the dharma of others. Whether they are able to do that will determine how joyful and peaceful a life they lead, and ultimately how transformative.

The seismic shifts happening our culture and politics are huge. And they can be confusing and disorienting. But as long as one listens to one’s own dharma without worrying about the dharma of others, one can be grounded in that reality, the true reality. One then still feels in control, or at least not out of control. For one is then not trying to control others or the world. Not trying to control how Trump or Putin or the Republicans or the Democrats or the media should act, but focusing only on the source of inspiration within oneself. Content in the awareness that the inspiration within oneself which doesn’t put down others is the greatest and the shortest path towards a brighter future, and that such inspiration is always within us and guiding us. All we have to do is listen.

3 thoughts on “My Dharma”

  1. Hi Bharath,

    Very interesting and thought-provoking essay.

    One question I have is: what’s your interpretation of how your dharma aligns with the dharma taught by the Buddha, the Buddadharma? If your dharma arises from the Buddha within you, then practicing it would indeed express your own Buddhahood. But I can foresee situations in which people would say they are practicing their own dharma, when in fact they aren’t practicing the teachings of the Buddha.

    One thing I’ve learned from Buddhist philosophy is that we need be more aware of our tendency to look at the world dualistically. This is one thing I’ve been focusing on recently, trying to avoid this tendency to get trapped by unnecessary dualisms. Buddhism teaches that we may make false distinctions between things when we think of them as self-caused or self-existent, rather than as arising from causes and conditions of existence beyond themselves. Ignorance may consist of clinging or attachment to dualistic notions of such things as being and non-being, existence and non-existence, self and non-self, sameness and otherness, individuality and generality, unity and multiplicity.

    Thus, while I think your analysis of the nationalist/globalist divide is very astute and insightful, I also think one way of trying or heal or repair some of the divisions in our society may be to avoid looking at the world dualistically. You explain that diverse groups may share a nationalist orientation, and diverse groups may share a globalist orientation. But we can easily be misled by dualistic thinking when we fall into the habit of dividing the world into two kinds of people–rich and poor, white and black, liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, winners and losers, insiders and outsiders, nationalists and globalists, enlightened and unenlightened, and so on.

    In psychology, this tendency to look at the world dualistically is called “splitting.” Splitting can be a psychological mechanism by which we divide things or persons into good or bad kinds by focusing on their good or bad attributes (see Dr. Neel Burton’s 2012 article in Psychology Today at Splitting can also be a mechanism by which we avoid having to deal with all the nuances and complexities of a situation “by [instead] simplifying and schematizing the situation and thereby making it easier to think about.”

    So, while I think the nationalist/globalist framework may be useful for analyzing the way in which some politicians and their supporters or opponents may think about and see the world, I don’t think we ourselves should fall into the habit of thinking about and seeing the world in the same way. I think maybe this is what you’re saying when you quote the Bhagavad Gita verse that says, “It’s better to do one’s own dharma, even though imperfectly, than to do another’s dharma, even though perfectly.”


    1. Certainly agree about not dividing people into essential categories, into us vs them. The nationalist/globalist distinction isn’t meant to mark two kinds of people. It is to highlight two kinds of views of how to think about nationalities. The globalist view is that national identities are meant to be transcended as we come to see ourselves as fundamentally human and so all of us are the same. The nationalist view is that national identities are crucial to our sense of selves, and transcending that is only chaos and not global harmony.

      In the post I am saying that we are in a moment when the global framework is changing. In 1900 it was colonialists vs colonized, with capitalist vs communist a close second. In 1950, colonialists vs colonized went away, and capitalist vs communist came to the surface. But in 1950 capitalist and communist were both, in my usage, globalist views: the cold war was a fight over which economic framework should govern the whole world. When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, there was a widespread assumption of the triumph of global capitalism and liberal democracy (say, in Fukuyama’s End of History), and so that one global worldview won out. But now it seems clear the last 25 years were seeing the beginning of a new conflict. That is, between those who affirm the need for a global framework (globalists) and those who want to resist such a framework (nationalists). The issue isn’t peace vs continual war, since the globalists are as committed to war as anyone (say, against terrorism). It is really a question of which framework can engender more peace and less fighting, and lead to a more flourishing future.

      This strikes me as one of the main political and institutional questions of our new age. Perhaps it is question which is lagging behind the unstoppable pull towards some kind of a global framework with the internet, mass migration and global natural disasters. My sense is that Trump is ahead of the curve in sensing the newness of the situation, whereas much of the media, pop culture and academia is still in the triumphalist phase of the 90s and 00s.

      My own view is somewhere in between globalism and nationalism. Before coming up with a view, I am trying to appreciate better the new framework and its conceptual space.


  2. Bharath,

    Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting your analysis of nationalism vs. globalism suffers from any kind of dualistic world view. Your analysis reveals that you’re thoroughly committed to recognizing and clarifying all the difficulties and complexities of our present social and cultural situation. I’m merely saying that Americans need to look beyond our differences and work together as a society. I appreciate the depth and astuteness of your insights.


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