Question: I believe that ultimately all paths are the same and that we should not judge other paths, but accept everything as ultimately equal, like rivers flowing to the ocean. Each person believes what they are doing is their dharma, and thus no one should be discouraged from following their chosen path as everyone ultimately is getting the same result. What is your view on judging systems of belief and dharma.

It may be popular to accept a stance where all paths are judged as the same, but such a view cannot be rationally defended. Simply because someone believes something to be his dharma does not in fact make his actions dharma anymore than thinking you are the Prime Minister of India makes you Atal Bihari Vajpayee. We must remember that some people believe flying planes into buildings is their dharma. It is insanity to think that all paths are the same without first judging the actions and results involved. It is a fact that most sane people in the world will not accept the act of flying planes into buildings to be dharma, nor Hitler’s killing of millions of Jews as dharma. Thus the view that all paths are ultimately one and everyone’s personal dharma is ultimately equal is nothing but a sound bite meant to replace rational thinking.

A good action is judged by good results. To know whether something is actually good or bad requires us to know the results it brings in full, not superficially. For example, I may eat some food that tastes good and then say I feel this action was good because I enjoyed the taste. But if the food was poisoned, I would later die. So to judge whether something is good requires complete knowledge of the results, not partial knowledge; and those results should be universally beneficial for the action to be good.

The second aspect of judgement is to know objectively what is good. Someone may judge the taste of food as being good, but if it is poisoned we can see it is not actually good to eat (the ultimate result is bad). Thus the Gita warns us that what appears sweet at first may not always be good:

yat tad agre ’mritopamam
pariname visham iva
tat sukham rajasam smritam

“That happiness which is derived from contact of the senses with their objects and which appears like nectar at first but poison at the end is said to be of the nature of passion (rajo-guna).”

The seventeenth chapter of the Gita further explains that faith or religion is also influenced by and categorized according to the three modes of nature (i.e. the three gunas: sattva guna, rajo guna, and tamo guna), and that based on the qualities (gunas) one is influenced by, his destination is determined. If one goes through the fourteenth chapter of Gita (dealing with the three modes of material nature) and the seventeenth chapter of the Gita (dealing with the division of faiths according to the three modes), one will clearly see that it is a great misconception to think that Hinduism teaches all paths are ultimately one and that their destinations are the same.

The Gita describes actions within the modes of nature and their results as follows:

karmanah sukritasyahuh
sattvikam nirmalam phalam
rajasas tu phalam duhkham
ajnanam tamasah phalam

“The result of pious action is pure and is said to be in the mode of goodness. But action done in the mode of passion results in misery, and action performed in the mode of ignorance results in darkness.”

The first thing we should note is that each action influenced by each mode of nature brings a distinctly different result. Actions in the mode of passion (rajo-guna) and ignorance (tamo-guna) lead to misery and darkness for the performer of the action. The popular sound bite that all paths lead to the same goal is not supported by the Gita, which clearly says those who act in passion or ignorance attain only misery and darkness.

According to the Gita these modes of nature help develop our inner qualities, which ultimately leads to our future destination:

sattvat sanjayate jnanam
rajaso lobha eva ca
pramada-mohau tamaso
bhavato ’jnanam eva ca

“From the mode of goodness, real knowledge develops; from the mode of passion, greed develops; and from the mode of ignorance develop foolishness, madness and illusion.”

Only by acting within the mode of goodness does one attain to jnanam, or spiritual knowledge. Krishna defines jnanam in the Gita as follows: kshetra-kshetrajnayor jnanam yat taj jnanam matam mama. “Knoweldge (jnanam) is to know both the body and the knower of the body (the Atma and Paramatma).” Thus action in goodness leads to knowledge of the material world, the eternal soul, and the Paramatma (Super Soul). Actions in ignorance on the other hand lead to the exact opposite, “ajnanam”, which is improper knowledge of the world, ignorance of the eternal self, and forgetfullness of the Paramatma (i.e. God).

The ultimate destination for such people is described in the Gita as follows:

yada sattve pravriddhe tu
pralayam yati deha-bhrit
tadottama-vidam lokan
amalan pratipadyate
rajasi pralayam gatva
karma-sangishu jayate
tatha pralinas tamasi
mudha-yonishu jayate

“When one dies in the mode of goodness, he attains to the pure higher planets of the great sages. When one dies in the mode of passion, he takes birth among those engaged in fruitive activities; and when one dies in the mode of ignorance, he takes birth in the animal kingdom.”

And elsewhere in the Gita:

urdhvam gacchanti sattva-stha
madhye tishthanti rajasah
adho gacchanti tamasah

“Those situated in the mode of goodness gradually go upward to the higher planets; those in the mode of passion live on the earthly planets; and those in the abominable mode of ignorance go down to the hellish worlds.”

Thus the results of those situated within the three modes of nature are delineated. Very clearly and logically the Gita states that those who act in ignorance attain only ignorance. Only by acting within the mode of sattva (i.e. goodness), does one develop spiritual knowledge and elevate oneself to higher realms of existence. The ultimate goal of life is to gradually transcend these three modes of material nature and attain to our eternal spiritual existence, beyond birth and death (mukti):

gunan etan atitya trin
dehi deha-samudbhavan
vimukto ’mritam asnute

“When the embodied being is able to transcend these three modes associated with the material body, he can become free from birth, death, old age and their distresses and can enjoy nectar even in this life.”

Mukti is only attainable by transcending the modes of nature through illuminating spiritual knowledge. According to the Gita, one will not attain mukti while engaging in ignorant destructive actions, regardless of whether one thinks it is his dharma or not. The path of sattva (goodness) leads to vidya (spiritual knowledge) and is therefore an illuminating staircase to transcendence. The paths of rajo-guna (passion) and tamo-guna (ignorance) on the other hand are directly opposed to this elevation and lead one to material suffering and darkness (ajnanam) which pushes one further down to lower species of life and a hellish existence.

Now that we have analyzed the three modes of nature (the gunas) and we have seen how each guna brings a different result, we should refer to the seventeenth chapter of the Gita where Lord Krishna describes the three varieties of faith or religion. Lord Krishna chooses to analyze faith from multiple angles of action, not just belief, such as sacrifice within the three modes of nature, austerity within the three modes of nature, charity within the three modes of nature and food with the three modes of nature. It is not enough to sentimentally look at one’s “spiritual beliefs”, but on the day to day actions a belief brings about. Are the resultant actions situated within sattva-guna (which leads to knowledge and enlightenment) or are they situated within tamo-guna (ignorance which leads to darkness and suffering)? If one’s faith or religion leads one to engage in actions within the modes of passion (rajo-guna) and ignorance (tamo-guna), then that religion leads one to darkness, not liberation:

adho gacchanti tamasah

“Those in the abominable mode of ignorance go down to the hellish worlds.”

tatha pralinas tamasi
mudha-yonishu jayate

“When one dies in the mode of ignorance, he takes birth in the animal kingdom.”

Thus it becomes clear from a rational and logical perspective that all paths are not the same, nor are their destinations the same; each path must be judged according to its actions and effects. A good action must be determined by a good result, and that good result must be with full knowledge of the ultimate effect of the result. As stated in the example given earlier, if food tastes good but has poison in it, the act of eating it can’t be judged good simply because the taste was good. Thus it is required to know the ultimate effect an action has, and that ultimate effect must be judged impartially.

To understand the ultimate effect an action has on us, we must first know whom we ultimately are. Only then can we judge the ultimate effect on our self and others, and subsequently whether those effects are universally good. Proper judgement requires wisdom, which entails knowledge of the true self and the ultimate reactions an action brings about on to the true self. This again comes back to the fourteenth and seventeenth chapters of the Bhagavad Gita and understanding how actions within the three modes of nature bring good and bad reactions to the soul. Without understanding this science clearly any judgement is external and shallow, not taking into account the ultimate reaction nor the ultimate recipient of the reaction. It is like saying eating poisoned food was good because it tasted good.

Thus true dharma is not just the undefined whim of each and every person, nor are all paths equal and leading to the same goal as the popular sound bite suggests. We must judge every path on its own merits in terms of the actions it creates. For such an impartial judgement we must use wisdom based on the scriptures to determine what actions bring about universal benefit, and whether the benefit is actually for the true self, i.e. the soul. Such an illumined judgement is only possible when we see through the “eyes of knowledge”, the Vedic scriptures:

kshetra-kshetrajnayor evam
antaram jnana-cakshusha
bhuta-prakriti-moksham ca
ye vidur yanti te param

“Those who see with eyes of knowledge the difference between the body and the soul, and can also understand the process of liberation from bondage in material nature, attain to the supreme goal.”