If dharma is our essential nature, then why does the Gita (18.66) ask us to abandon dharma?
Answer summary: The word dharma has many meanings. In Gita 18.66, dharma refers to subordinate religious principles that should be given up to embrace the supreme religious principle, devotion to Krishna, which is our actual dharma, our essential nature.
To understand this puzzling Gita verse, we need to analyze the foundational and functional meanings of the word dharma.
Etymologically, the word dharma comes from the root ‘dhr’ which means to sustain. The dharma of an object refers to that which sustains the very existence of that object, the characteristic that is its essential nature. For example, the dharma of fire is heat; the dharma of sugar, sweetness; the dharma of water, liquidity.
Vedic wisdom explains that the dharma of all of us, as conscious beings, is to love and to serve. Why? Because our defining characteristic is the desire to love and be loved, and love is naturally expressed through service. As we intrinsically long to love eternally and rejoice forever thereof, we need an everlasting object for our love: God. By loving God, we fulfill our natural longing, our dharma, to love and serve permanently. Dharma, when thus understood etymologically and foundationally as love of God, is universal, non-sectarian and egalitarian.
Presently however, our love is misdirected to various objects: pounds, pleasure, power, possession and prestige, for example. To help us redirect our love towards Krishna, the scriptures offer us various moral, cultural and spiritual guidelines. Most people consider these functional guidelines to be dharma and so they equate dharma with the English word ‘religion.’ Such an understanding of the word dharma is valid but not complete. If dharma becomes reduced to its functional meaning of specific behavioral codes and divorced from its foundational meaning of essential nature, then it becomes the source of confusion, even conflict. Why? Because the behavioral codes needed to help different people revive their love for God vary according to time-place-circumstance. That’s why the religious codes outlined in the various religions of the world vary. And that’s why the religious codes given in the multi-level Vedic tradition also vary depending on the level of their intended practitioners. If one sticks to such codes legalistically without understanding their purpose, then they can impede instead of facilitate the revival of love for God.
This was what happened to Arjuna on the Kurukshetra battlefield where the Gita was spoken. For him behavioral codes like avoiding unnecessary violence, protecting one’s relatives, respecting one’s elders, all of which are valid and valuable in their own way, came in the way of his serving God. Only by doing God’s will would Arjuna deepen his own relationship with God and also establish a virtuous political administration that would enable all the citizens to develop love for God.
To help Arjuna break free from all those religious codes that had becomes constrictions, the Gita gives the dramatic call to abandon all dharmas (in the functional sense of specific behavioral codes) and thereby abide by his actual dharma (in the foundational sense of surrendering to God and lovingly doing his will).
Thus, this verse is not a call for religious anarchy, as a superficial reading might suggest. Instead, it is a call to singularly focus on the essence of dharma, reviving love of God, and not let anything, even the codes of religion, come in the way.