The Natural Flow: Dharma and Tao

The Natural Flow: Dharma and Tao

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Vasishta said so to Rama thus: ‘Efface thoughts of all kinds, of things enjoyed, not enjoyed, or otherwise. Like wood or stone, remain free from thoughts.

Rama: Should I altogether forget everything?

Vasishta: Exactly; altogether forget everything and remain like wood or stone.

Rama: The result will be dullness like that of stones or wood.

Vasishta: Not so. All this is only illusion. Forgetting the illusion, you are freed from it. Though seeming dull, you will be the Bliss Itself. Your intellect will be altogether clear and sharp. Without getting entangled in worldly life, but appearing active to others remain as the very Bliss of Brahman and be happy. […]’ 

– Advaita Bodha Deepika (The Lamp of Non-Dual Knowledge): 35-37


Most people in India today, understand the word ‘Dharma’ to mean righteousness or right action, in the context of moral behaviour. In a purer sense however, the word has a much more profound and subtle meaning. It refers to what the ancient sages in India discovered as the cosmic law (rta) governing nature. Following Dharma therefore refers to following the natural order (of the universe).

Around the 6th century BC, the Chinese sage Lao Tzu wrote a book called Tao Te Ching. ‘Tao’ meaning ‘the way’; ‘te’ meaning ‘virtue’; ‘ching’ meaning ‘text’ or ‘book’. In it, Lao Tzu spoke of how a Self-realised or enlightened being follows the Tao which is the same, in essence as Dharma.

The difficulty in understanding Dharma or Tao is that it requires a subtler understanding that is beyond the intellect. In human society, we’re more familiar with being handed down rules and laws, ‘do’s and ‘don’t’s. In some way it’s easy to just follow the prescriptions without questioning. The human intellect functions in the duality of right and wrong, good and bad. But being in Dharma is not like that. When Krishna stated to Arjuna that He has come to Earth to establish Dharma, he did not hand over a set of principles to follow; He didn’t even hand down the Gita which is in fact a narration heard by a third party to the Krishna-Arjuna conversation.

‘Good’ and ‘bad’ are human labels set up, initially at least it would appear, for our survival on the planet. But notice that nature does not think that it is ‘bad’ that the rain destroys your crops. There is no meaning endorsed by Existence for anything that exists or anything that happens in life. All the meanings and judgements are the product of the human intellect. The intellect is useful for many purposes concerning survival but when it becomes our primary tool for navigating life, it has the effect of veiling our natural intelligence, the flow that we share with nature. We start to, for instance, follow diet plans instead of responding to our bodies’ wants and needs moment to moment.


Humans follows Earth,

Earth follows Heaven,

Heaven follows Tao.

Tao follows its own nature.

– Tao Te Ching


Following Tao is being in tune with Existence. It is trusting that same ‘knowing’ that the birds rely on to migrate or that ants rely on to construct intricate ant hills. It appears that in our society we’re more familiar with the lower human instincts than the higher and purer ones. Aligning with our highest nature requires a conscious recognition of our true Self which is all-inclusive and all-knowing.

Perhaps one of the biggest resistances to following our natural flow, is our fear or lack of trust. We plan and plan so that we feel we have control and can secure the outcome for ourselves. But as life shows us again and again, we can never predict what will happen despite our best laid plans. As they say, ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans’.


Devotion to Truth is the sole reason for our existence. All our activities should be centered in Truth. Truth should be the very death of our life. When once this stage in the pilgrim’s progress is reached, all other rules of correct living will come without effort and obedience to them will be instinctive. But without Truth, it would be impossible to observe any principles or rules in life.

– Mahatma Gandhi


Dharma refers to the functioning arising from the inner Being or Atman or from being in union with God or the Truth. Actions thus arising are spontaneous and in harmony with the natural functioning of the cosmos. The state of a sage or realised being is this natural state, or ‘sahaja’ where all actions flow in accordance with the will or flow of the Totality and not according to human rules or laws (which does not mean to say that they necessarily contradict them). Artists sometimes report attaining a state of ‘no-mind’ or ‘flow’ through their focused attention on the task they are performing – an experience of losing oneself in one’s work. 

In India, Goddess Saraswati was referred to (for instance in the Rig Veda) as a symbol for this flow of consciousness – a divine flow manifesting as wisdom and beauty in the world. The seers did not point to diagrams or procedures as ‘the Way’ but to ‘flow’ as the closest representation of natural harmony. 

Our conditioning has us believe that we must prepare and plan what to do in each situation. To meet each situation fresh and spontaneously seems like a recipe for disaster to most of us. Yet, this is precisely where true creativity comes from. Having the sensitivity to know when to allow the situation to reveal itself and when to plan for it, is what being human in the highest sense is about. 

At the heart of fear that is so much a part of the human psyche, is the belief in personal identity. Taking everything in life personally is the reason for most of our suffering. When a lion eats a rabbit, it is nothing personal. All nature’s acts are innocent. Everything therefore maintains balance and harmony. No personal agendas. 

With personal identity, there comes an arrogance arising from belief in our knowledge and ‘doership’. Of knowing what is better or worse. But as science shows us again and again, what we considered to be facts yesterday, we find to be untrue today. In fact today scientists admit that they cannot find an edge to anything – neither the universe, nor the cells in our bodies. The universe then, we have to admit is unlimited or infinite and yet, humans believe they can conquer or capture it in their understanding. 

We believe in our thoughts as guides for action but we fail to explain how so many impulses are indifferent or unrelated to our thoughts. Science cannot explain how sages in India knew about facts like the earth being round or even complex calculations about the solar system (like the distances between stars), without any use of instruments. The surrendering of our belief in our own knowledgeability is what in religious terminology we may refer to as ‘leaving everything in God’s hands’.


The further you travel,

The less you know.

This is why the Sage

Knows without budging,

Identifies without looking,

Does without trying.

Not doing and nothing not done.

– Tao Te Ching


We are used to focusing on content, objects, doing whereas life flows from emptiness or no-thingness.


Thirty spokes join one hub.
The wheel’s use comes from emptiness.

Clay is fired to make a pot.
The pot’s use comes from emptiness.

Windows and doors are cut to make a room.
The room’s use comes from emptiness.

Having leads to profit,
Not having leads to use.

– Tao Te Ching

One fear in the human mind was expressed by Lord Rama to his preceptor, Sage Vashishtha (quote at the top of this article): wouldn’t an existence where one abandons the dictates of the mind or intellect, lead to one becoming almost insentient like a tree or stone? That’s the lack of trust that is so ingrained in the human mind which is so wont to taking credit and responsibility for everything it considers important. “If I don’t plan, how will it be done?” Looking deeper and deeper into these matters, the sages have gone so far as to dismantle the very backbone of our understanding of phenomena – such as ‘causality’. As in the example from the Yoga Vashistha: a crow lands on the branch of a coconut tree and a coconut falls from that tree; ‘are the two happenings necessarily cause and effect?’ asks the sage.

Deconstructing the false imaginings of the mind is what the sages spent a lot of time doing and the effect (so to speak!) was a revelation of the natural order. More accurately, they realised that everything is in fact already in its natural flow but the human mind with its interference, inflicts much sorrow on human and other lives.

Dharma is an integrating force of anything that is even apparently in disparity. Anything that is disconnected, apparently isolated, not visibly connected, is actually connected, and that connecting principle is called Dharma. And Dharma becomes an integrating principle because of the presence of the ātman that is behind it. There is no such thing as Dharma independent of the operation of the ātman. What you call Dharma or law is the ātman working. Its own law is its Being; its Being is its law; they are not two different things.

– Swami Krishnananda (Divine Life Society) 


You may also like to read:

What is Dharma

Saraswati, the Vedic Goddess and River

Ancient Wisdom and the Environment



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