OPINION: Digital dharma and the zeitgeist
By Ana Vara
Bridge Staff Writer
Published Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024
It is Jan. 24 as I begin to write this and the much-awaited Academy Award nominations have finally been announced. Whether you’ve liked Maestro since Bradley Cooper peed his pants in A Star Is Born or saved a Cillian Murphy as Scarecrow edit on your TikTok favorites, today is a big day. Though, like any other day living in a hellscape, our seemingly vacuum-existing opinions have become almost laughably good examples of playing stupid games and winning stupid prizes.
I took a class on Hinduism and Buddhist philosophy this past Wintermester with Instructional Assistant Professor Jude Galbraith, and as the aftermath of four straight hours of Abhidharma metaphysics finally gives way to clear mindedness, I remain stuck on the problem of dharma.
The term “dharma,” which comes by way of Hindu philosophy, can be generally summarized as the nature of one’s self, or as Galbraith puts it in his response to my very panicked one-day-prior-to-the–final email, dharma is “the overall purpose and meaning to the universe.”
If you are a fan of the beautiful nation of Ireland or enjoy hearing JFK name dropped like he’s a Marvel Comics superhero, you might know that J. Robert Oppenheimer—whose Nolan-directed biopic is now in the running for this year’s Best Picture—was also intimately aware of the meaning of dharma, having read the Bhagavad Gita. In fact, his most famous quote is attributed to the scripture’s 11th verse, specifically its 32nd line.
“Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.”
Now, Oppenheimer didn’t have access to the Divine Society online translation I read and I know this because my reading of it takes Krishna’s words as this: “I am the mighty world-destroying Time, now engaged in destroying the worlds.”
I also know that “Oppie” dealt, for much of the later half of his life, in extraordinarily large amounts of guilt. The movie and the quote both tell us this, but it’s also something we need to continually wrap our heads around as A. users and B. citizens of the internet. Guilt is written onto the coding of our lives, so much so that we have left the shamelessness of the early aughts and 10s behind and re-learnt our digital footprint workshops.
And I get it. Some of us want those stupid prizes—but we’re not on Angelfire, God knows, our words mean more than that now. Now, when we can broadcast our thoughts freely to any amount of people at any given time, those thoughts hold weight and power and college students sometimes have upward of 1,000 people following them. That’s the population of a small rural town.
So our words matter. The things we post matter. And this is what brings us back to dharma, and perhaps, why I can’t seem to abandon the term in the first place.
More than ever, the significance of our actions online is in conversation with what we measure as our meaning in the universe, which is beginning to seemingly dilute within networks of billions of people. So what is our digital dharma? By that, I mean, what is our purpose and meaning within the internet?
If we peel back the layers of flat affect irony and owe-nobody-nothing disposition of the ‘20s—-that is, the 2020s—we may find that our liberation may lie in augmented authenticity. Insofar as so much of our material reality has found its imitation in some way, shape or form on the internet, we may trust that the replicas of ourselves that live within it are our guide map to that meaning.