It is said the great sage Vishwamitra once suffered extreme pangs of hunger during a famine. He became so hungry that he accepted meat from a low caste chandala.
At that moment, his dharma was to keep himself alive at all costs. Later when the wife offered him water, he refused saying that since the threat to life was no longer present, he could not transcend the dharma by which he was is bound. In a discourse, Swami Bodhananda pointed out that Sastras accept that we have to care for ourselves but that this practice should not affect the self-interest of others. How do we foster our self-interest ethically? How is one to deal with the common space without exploiting it selfishly? We live in a world of people who are interested in their individual welfare and so our mutual interests have to be optimally pursued. A cobbler makes shoes not out of philanthropic drive alone; he does so to feed himself and his family. Truth (Satya) in this context is our ability to be truly honest about ourselves and accept the rights of others.
Bhishma speaks of dharma in a lengthy treatise of 30,000 verses in the Santi Parva of the Mahabharata.
He discusses threadbare the various contexts of its all pervasive presence and how people should learn to abide by its law. But the same Bhishma is tongue-tied and unable to answer Draupadi’s demand for an explanation on the adharmic way in which she had been humiliated in the august presence of the royal household, the custodian of dharma. Bhishma merely says dharma’s workings are subtle and none can know its perplexing connotations.
The case of Sage Mandavya raises the issue of dharma. As a child, he had played with cockroaches and even made a garland of these creatures by piercing them with a needle. At the time of reckoning, the retribution pronounced by Yama is that he should be pierced by an arrow for 20,000 years. Mandavya argues that the punishment is disproportionate to his act since it was committed in childhood playfulness. He gains the power to curse Yama who is deemed to be born as a human being. Yama is born as Vidhura and lives a humble life.