Dharma & Psalm


Moses recieves the Ten Commandments from the Nuremberg Bible 1483

Thy law is within my heart.
(Psalm 40:8)

The psalmist makes a very singular statement here. Or, to put it another way, he doesn’t make a plural statement. In the context of Jewish religion during the times of King David, Solomon’s Temple or the Babylonian Exile we might expect him to talk about the laws, meaning the commandments, statutes and ordinances received by Moses on Mount Sinai, and not the law. Nor is this merely an idiosyncrasy of  the Renaissance translators of the King James Bible, the contemporary academic Robert Alter renders the same line as: Your teaching is deep within me.

When we talk about a teaching we might mean a simple thing thoroughly understood, but more usually we would mean a group of component parts, mini-teachings as it were, which grouped together form a single teaching because there is a common essence running through the parts which come together in a whole that is somehow both greater than the sum of its parts but also implicit in each of the parts taken separately. The psalmist may, then, be taking this approach to the Mosaic Law, that is, each law on its own is only one facet of a single pearl of great price (to coin a phrase) therefore the whole law can be held in the heart as a single thing not a compendium of many things.

The Sanskrit word dharma may be useful in this situation. I am no linguist, and everything I am about to say might be wrong, but….as I understand it dharma means both the unity which underlies the diversity of the universe and every particular form of order within the universe which is consonant with the original pattern. So, dharma means the Uncaused First Cause, it means all of the operations of this Cause and it also means, say, the rules of a monastic order which are in harmony with the Cause and additionally it applies to the wisdom of one who is wise enough to understand the Cause. We could then reformulate the psalmist as saying Thy dharma is within my heart.

What is characteristically Hebrew about this is that the psalmist wouldn’t say the dharma but Thy dharma. For the Jewish, and therefore also for the Christian, understanding points not to an impersonal or abstract Source from which energy flows in a law-bound fashion but to a personal God who intervenes in human history. The origin (and destination) of all dharma is God and if we know it it is only because He has revealed it to us. Unaided we cannot arrive at its fullest expression, our investigations are hampered not so much by a lack of data as by a limit in our ability to comprehend. Philosophers and scientists have arrived at versions of the dharma but they are incomplete or maimed because they operate only in dimensions accessible to the discursive, analytical mind. The dimension beyond that can only be opened as an act of gift from the One God to us, or, in Christian terms, by an act of Divine Grace.

If the dharma is present within the psalmists heart it isn’t, nonetheless, identical with it. That is, other things are to be found within the heart also as Our Lord tells us “out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (Matthew 15:19) The heart then is, for most of us most of the time, a battleground. Our apprehension of that which is true and good and right, the dharma, is at war with our desires for immediate sensual gratification. This is something recognised both by ancient religion and by modern psychology but not, unfortunately, by contemporary popular discourse in the West.

When society urges us to ‘be the best version of you‘ it is not an invitation to battle against our demons on behalf of the dharma of God. It is, rather, the notion that we should give free reign to whatever our strongest urges may be, provided only that these are not obviously harmful to others or to ourselves. There is no recognition of  an hierarchy of value within the heart such that the dharma sits at the top as the best of all possible values. This is because law limits licence and licence has become equated with freedom. If the dominant urge of a boy is to be a girl or that of a woman is to abort her unborn child these transgress the dharma because they are disordered in relation to the underlying essence to which all manifestations of the dharma must be consonant. Society, however, approves such actions because it has no regard either to the underlying order of the cosmos or to the battleground that is the human heart. All that concerns it is the fulfillment of individual desires. This it calls freedom.

For Christians the fullest exercise of freedom occurs when a person chooses to cooperate with the grace of God, when the dharma within the heart is our guide in all things. To the extent that we fall away from this we have abandoned the freedom of God for the licence of sin. The point to grasp here is that this dharma is not an external set of rules imposed upon us by a jealous and wrathful deity, it is a jewel of great beauty which is concealed deeply within us and which it is our task to uncover so that we may be transformed into its likeness. And, it is beautiful precisely because it is one thing with the central principle which underlies all things, it is ‘that of God’ within each one of us. The individual desires which we form as a result of our interaction with the material world of forms and sensual experiences will be desires which exclude this whole dimension of ourselves, they will be adharmic.

Adharma is everything which is not dharma and, therefore, in the realm of actions which have consequences adharma is necessarily anti-dharma. If His law is within our hearts but we nonetheless follow the urges which are not consonant with that law then we are at war not only with ourselves but with the whole underlying ground of being. In Scripture adharma is illustrated by the Fall in Genesis. Our first parents despite knowing in their hearts what the dharma which united them to the primal source of being, God, was, chose to follow the desires of their hearts, to be, as they thought, the best version of you. An unintended but necessary consequence of this was their estrangement from God, their expulsion from Eden and their experience of corruption and death.

The contrary example is given by Our Lady in her dialogue with St Gabriel. We know from numerous references by the Evangelist Luke that Mary often pondered in her heart, that is, she took counsel and strength from the dharma within her deepest self. Because of this she was able to give her joyful fiat to the gift of God which Gabriel proposed to her. Mary, though, was immaculately conceived and full of grace and the rest of humanity was (and is) not. The final reconciliation, then, between the source of dharma and we, the adharmic children of Adam, was effected at Calvary through the Son of Mary who was also the Son of God. We may not, because of our personal weaknesses, be able to journey through life always true to the dharma present within us but we can accept Jesus as our Saviour, we can be nourished by the sacraments which strengthen us and we can turn to Mary as our icon and powerful intercessor. We can, in short, make the decisive and underlying choice of our will to be this: Thy Christ, Lord, is within my heart.


thoughtfully catholic has a Facebook page.

My *other* blog is thoughtfully detached.

The picture shows Moses receiving the Ten Commandments and is from the ‘Nuremberg Bible (Biblia Sacra Germanaica)’ (coloured woodcut), 1483


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