In the Giitá there is a shloka
Shreyán svadharmo viguńah paradharmát svanuśt́hitát;
Svadharme nidhanaḿ shreyah paradharmo bhayávahah.
(It is better to follow one’s own human dharma, even if it lacks in some qualities than to follow the dharmas of other beings. It is better to die as a human being than to live as an animal.)
What is the meaning of this shloka? If one’s dharma is difficult to follow and others’ dharma is seemingly very easy to follow, it is still preferable to die while following one’s own dharma. Any other dharma may be very dangerous. Many people wrongly interpret “dharma” as being Hindu Dharma, Vaishnavite Dharma, Shaivite Dharma, etc. But actually “dharma” means mánava dharma [“human dharma”].
[The root] meaning of dharma is “characteristics”. We can divide the created world into three: plant kingdom, animal kingdom, and human kingdom. There are many similarities between the plant and animal kingdoms, as indeed there are many dissimilarities. The main difference between them is that the animal world is mobile – animals can move from place to place – whereas the plant world is immobile. There are certain plants which are more developed in intelligence than the most undeveloped animal species, but as they cannot move from place to place they are included in the plant kingdom. So the main difference is that animals can move whereas plants cannot. All plants are not equally intelligent and neither are all animals. Furthermore, some animal species are even more developed than the most undeveloped human beings.
So what is the difference between animals and human beings? The main difference is that human beings follow Bhágavata dharma, whereas animals do not. Some people say that the human being is a rational animal. But if we call a human being a “rational animal”, then we could call an animal a “moving plant”. But a plant cannot move; that is its basic imperfection. If an animal could be called a moving plant, then humans could be described as rational moving plants! But they are neither plants nor animals – they are a different kind of being.
In Farsi [Persian], ján means “life”, and the word ján plus the suffix var [“having”], resulting in jánvar or jánoyár, means [“animal”,] a form of life that is body-centered. Living entities in general are termed jándár. Humans, animals and plants are all jándár, but humans are not jánoyár.
Humans, animals and plants all share some characteristics, all have some common properties. And there are some characteristics that humans share with animals but not with plants, and some special characteristics that humans alone have, not animals or plants. Those special characteristics, special qualities, distinguish human beings from animals and plants. Without them, humans would be like animals. And if furthermore human beings stop moving, if they sit immobile, if they stop walking even though they have the capacity to walk, they are as good as plants. A person who does not want to work, who wants to sit silently, cannot be called a human. We will not call him “Mr. Human” or “Mr. Animal”, we will call him simply “Mr. Plant”. And those people who do not follow their human characteristics, their Bhágavata dharma, will be called “Mr. Animal”. Thakur [Saint] Narottama Das once said:
Krśńa bhajibár tare saḿsáre áinu,
Miche Máyáy baddha haye vrkśasama hainu.
(I came to the world to worship Lord Krśńa, but I have become bound by illusion and become like a tree.)
In other words, a person has been transformed into a plant. One who follows human dharma is a human in the true sense of the term, otherwise, how can the use of the term be justified? If there are no longer any zamindaries [landowners], why use the surname “Roychowdhury” [formerly the surname of the landowner caste]? Human dharma is Bhágavata [divine] dharma.
Bhágavata dharma has three features: vistára, rasa, and sevá.
Vistára [expansion]: Human beings seek psychic expansion. Not wishing to be confined in one place, they seek expansion on all sides. The inner urge for expansion is an innate characteristic common to humans and persists until the body is destroyed. Those who do not try to expand, however, or those who block the path of expansion of others by imposing various dogmas and isms, are certainly committing a sin. Also, those who do not try to expand their inherent qualities are as good as animals. We shall not suppress anyone, nor indeed shall we block anyone’s path of expansion. Rather, we shall give encouragement to those people who do not make sincere efforts for their expansion. We shall never seal the path of progress. This is vistára.
Rasa: Rasa means “flow”. An unbroken Cosmic flow is in extensive motion in this universe. This flow has created the universe and maintains it. Behind every action there is mobility: everything is on the move, everything has speed, nothing can remain static. Regarding Parama Puruśa it has been said: Raso vae sah – “He is the embodiment of rasa,” He is a universal flow. Humans are the most developed of His progeny, so it is natural that there should be a flow in them as well. That’s why it is said: “Human existence is an ideological flow.” So the old concept of the human as a rational animal degrades human dignity. Human beings have certain characteristics in common with plants and animals – they eat, sleep, etc. – but that does not mean they are plants or animals. Elephants and ants eat and sleep, but does that mean that they are the same thing? Of course not.
Sevá [service]: Human beings have the inherent quality of serving others. The inner spirit of a commercial transaction is “Give me something and take something in return.” “Give me one rupee and take goods worth one rupee.” This give-and-take is mutual. Service, however, is unilateral. That is, I give everything to Parama Puruśa and wish for nothing in return. I only want to merge in Parama Puruśa, the most valuable treasure in the universe, and so I give away the most valuable thing of mine – my very existence. The most precious things have to be given in exchange for the most precious things. So, “I will give everything to Him, keeping only a little for myself.” But why should I keep even a little for myself? Because I wish to see something, wish to hear something, wish to obtain something. But if I do not pay the full price, I will not get the precious object.
Vistára, rasa, and sevá are parts of mánava dharma or Bhágavata dharma, and in this Bhágavata dharma lies the excellence of humanity. It is the supreme dharma for humans. That’s why it has been said that it is better to follow one’s own human dharma than the dharma of other beings. So even if svadharma is viguńa, that is, that is, even if this mánava dharma is fraught with merits and demerits, with bliss and pain, humans should persist with this dharma alone to maintain their true identity.
Paradharma, the dharma of animals and plants, can be easily followed. A tree remains fixed in one place, an animal just roams around in search of food. They perform only a few actions such as eating and sleeping. A human being who behaves like an animal goes against the very spirit of expansion and is no better than an animal. A person who is afraid of work, who does not even like to move, following the principle of Pi-pu-phi-shu,(1) is no better than a plant. Such people spend their lives in comfort, sleeping without doing any work. That sort of dharma is not meant for human beings. It is easy, no doubt, but it is not meant for humans.
Svadharme nidhanaḿ shreyah – that is, “If human beings die while following the path of Bhágavata dharma, that death will open up the path to liberation.” Paradharmo bhayávaha. And the mind of a person following animal dharma will become degraded – and that person, after death, will be reborn as an animal or plant. So, paradharmo bhayávaha [“do not live as an animal”]. Here svadharma does not mean Shákta Dharma, Vaishnavite Dharma or Hindu Dharma.
A.V. Part-04, 5 Nov 1978, Calcutta