The Sanskrit term dharma is generally translated as duty or righteousness. Any action that brings shreya, liberation, and abhyudaya, exaltation, is dharma. That which brings well being to human beings is dharma. The word dharma comes from the root dhri, which means to support or to hold on. Therefore, that which upholds is dharma. By dharma people are upheld. The mark of dharma is achara, good conduct, from which dharma is born. Achara is the highest dharma, and swadharma means one's own duty in accordance with the order of life.
The ashramas, the order or stages in life, are brahmacharya, the stage of studentship, grihastha, the stage of householder life, vanaprastha, the stage of forest-dwelling or seclusion, and sannyasa, the order of total renunciation. Each order of life has its own duties. At the present moment, it is difficult to maintain or observe the exact details of the ancient rules as the conditions have changed a lot, but if we can have a clear idea of the fundamental duties of each, we shall still be able to shape our life to a regulated course of development and steady growth.
The life of the student is dedicated to developing the spirit of service, humility and obedience. The student should mould his character properly and acquire knowledge.
After finishing his duties, the student enters the order of grihastha. He is ready to take up the duties and responsibilities of a householder. Householder life is the highest of all ashramas, because it supports the other three. As all streams and rivers flow to rest in the ocean, so all the ashramas flow to rest in the householder. This is the field for developing various virtues such as mercy, generosity, patience, tolerance, prudence and right judgment.
After this stage, the householder can become a vanaprastha either alone or with his wife. He should not remain in the house till the end of his life. However, ultimately vanaprastha is only a preparatory step to sannyasa.
When one takes sannyasa one becomes a dead person to family members. Only sannyasins can cut all sorts of attachments, otherwise subtle connections will always remain. The colour of the orange robe gives strength and purity. If there is internal change, external change is bound to come.
Morality and duty are relative terms. They change according to the state of life, stage of mental growth and evolution of the individual, time and circumstances, and the country in which you live.
Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita (18:47_48), "Better one's own duty, though destitute of merits, than the duty of another well executed. He who does the duty laid down by his own nature incurs not sin. Inherited duty, though defective, ought not to be abandoned. All undertakings are clouded by defects as fire by smoke."
The right performance of duties of any station in life without attachment will bring liberation. You have certain duties and responsibilities in life and you have to evolve morally and spiritually by performing these duties in the right manner. You have to find out the rules of conduct and then act and live according to the law of God.
In the Bhagavad Gita (2:7), Arjuna says to Lord Krishna, "My heart is overpowered with the taint of pity and my mind is confused as to duty. I ask You to tell me decisively what is good for me. Teach me, I am Your disciple and have taken refuge in You." Lord Krishna gives the following answer (18:66),
Sarvadharmaan parityajya maamekam sharanam vraja,
Aham tvaa sarvapaapebhyo mokshayishyaami maa shuchah.
Abandoning all duties, come to Me alone for shelter,
sorrow not, I will liberate you from all sins.
What is the significance of the words sarva dharman, all duties? For some people it means, "Give up the dharmas of the senses," but how could this be? Even a jivanmukta, a liberated person, sees, eats and walks. According to Sri Shankara the sloka, or verse, means, "Renounce all works, both righteous and unrighteous deeds." According to Ramanuja it means, "Actions should be performed without attachment to action or its fruits. They should be dedicated to the Supreme by removing the idea of agency therein." Vedantins explain this verse as follows, "Give up jiva bhavana, the feeling of being an individual, and take up brahma bhavana, the feeling of being Brahman, by meditating on themaha vakya, great saying, Aham Brahmasmi, I am Brahman. All sins will be destroyed and you will have liberation, mukti."
The verse means that Arjuna is to avoid the tangle of duties and take refuge in the Supreme. In other words, whatever actions one has to perform, according to one's disposition and innate tendency, one may do taking refuge in the Supreme. Krishna gives a command, a promise and a consolation to Arjuna. Sloka 66 is the most important verse in the Bhagavad Gita. If one can live in the spirit of this sloka alone, one can have shreya or highest bliss.
The real knowledge which solves life's problems can be obtained through guru's grace, guru kripa, which cannot be attained by mere mechanical prostration to the guru. It can be obtained only when one translates the guru's teachings in life. The more energy you spend in serving your guru, the more the divine energy will flow into you. If you serve the guru without any sort of selfish motives and feel the effect of purity and inner strength, what an expanded heart you will have by serving the guru! The spirit of guru seva must deeply enter into your very bones, cells, tissues and nerves. Service must be done without expectation of name, fame, power and wealth. When a disciple does not know the secret path of spiritual life, the only way is to serve the guru and receive his blessings.
The grace of God takes the form of the guru who is God Himself manifesting in a personal form to guide the aspirant. The guru is united with God, therefore to see the guru is to see God. The disciple should always be contented with what happens and know that what the guru chooses is better than what he chooses. A word from the guru is a word from God, and for a beginner on the spiritual path a guru is necessary. You need a burning candle to light a candle, and only an illumined soul can enlighten another soul.
The day-to-day conduct of the guru is a living ideal to the observant disciple. True discipleship opens the vision and awakens the dormant faculties. It is most necessary in one's journey along the spiritual path. Guru blesses, guides and inspires the disciple. He transmits, transforms and spiritualises him and then guru and disciple become one. The guru provides the disciple with the means as well as the end, with the sense of sight as well as the object of sight.