Dharma (धर्मः)

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Dharma (Samskrit : धर्मः) is that which upholds, nourishes or supports the stability of the society, maintains the social order and secures the general well-being and progress of mankind. It is considered a unique and the most valuable contribution to humanity by Bharatavarsha.[1]

परिचयः ॥ Introduction

Every civilization has a characteristic way of living (जीवनशैली) on the basis of which the perspectives of life that the civilization is founded upon are formed. Underlying this way of living and the perspectives of life lie the perspectives about the world ie. vishva drshti (विश्वदृष्टिः । worldview) and tattvajnana (तत्त्वज्ञानम् - foundational philosophy) of the civilization that influence an individual’s relationships with other entities, which include all movable and immovable (चराचर) entities. Dharma served as that foundational principle for people of all traditions that arose on Bharatavarsha.

व्युत्पत्तिः ॥ Etymology

The samskrit word veda (वेदः | knowledge, wisdom) is derived from the धातुः (root) विद् (vid) - ज्ञाने (वेत्ति) in the meaning "to know" (Dhatupatha 1064)[2]. Apart from this, Veda is derived from विद् (vid) धातुः with the addition of Bhavarthaka (भावर्थकः), Karmarthaka (कर्मार्थकः) and Karanarthaka (करणार्थकः) "धम" Dhama pratyaya (प्रत्ययः | suffix) to form the meanings "knowledge, pertaining to knowledge and instrument of knowledge" respectively (See Page 2 footnote 1 for further reference).[3]

वेद्यन्ते ज्ञाप्यन्ते धर्मादिपुरुशार्थचतुष्ठयोपाया येन स वेदः। vedyante jñāpyante dharmādipuruśārthacatuṣṭhayopāyā yena sa vedaḥ।

Meaning: That which is the means for obtaining the knowledge of Dharma and other (अर्थः ॥ Artha, कामः ॥ Kama and मोक्षः ॥ Moksha) purusharthas is called Veda.[3] Thus, the inseparable link between Dharma and Vedas is well established by scholars in many instances. The word Dharma is derived from the root ’धृ’ which means to hold.[4] Apte Sanskrit dictionary explains the word dharma as

ध्रियति लोकान् अनेन, धरति लोकं वा । dhriyati lokān anena, dharati lokaṁ vā ।[5]

Meaning: That which supports or holds together everyone and everything.[6]

In short, Dharma is ‘that which holds’

  • this world
  • the people of the world or
  • the whole creation from the microcosm to the macrocosm

It is the eternal divine law of the Lord. The entire creation is held together and sustained by the all-powerful law of the divine. Practice of Dharma, therefore, means recognition of this law and abidance by it. And it is this law that brings well-being to man. It includes all external deeds, as well as thoughts and other mental practices which tend to elevate the character of man thereby securing preservation of beings. Therefore, it is said that people are upheld by Dharma. And that Dharma leads one to eternal happiness and immortality.[4]

Dharma is not Religion

It is paradoxical that the word 'dharma' is being translated as religion and vice-versa. The word religion may at most be translated as ’Mata’ (मतम्) or 'Sampradaya' or 'Pantha'. In view of the translation of the word religion as Dharma, many translate the word Secularism as 'Dharma Nirapekshata'. Dr. L.M. Singhvi says,

"We have been accustomed to use, though erroneously, the expression 'Dharma Nirapekshata', so far as the State and its institutions are concerned, as an equivalent of secularism in contemporary Bharata's constitutional vocabulary and political parlance. A more accurate equivalent Hindi translation of "secularism" would be "Sampradaya Nirapekshata" because "Dharma" in Bharata's tradition also stands for Law and Morality and no State can be devoid of Law and Morality."

This misinterpretation of Dharma as religion is the cause of it being seen a source of conflict and something injurious to the feeling of fraternity among the citizens. This is wholly erroneous. For, Dharma, as it will be seen further, indicates adherence to qualities of Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfullness), Asteya (not acquiring illegitimate wealth), Shaucha (cleanliness of mind and body i.e., purity of thought, word and deed) and Indriyanigraha (control of senses). If secularism is translated as meaning 'Dharma Nirapekshata', it means a state where all the above rules of dharma have no place. Certainly our Constitution is not intended to establish a State of Adharma. Also, a literal translation of 'Dharma Nirapekshata' in English is 'bereft of dharma' or a lawless State i.e., State without Morals. Further, the famous saying "यतो धर्मस्ततो जयः । yato dharmastato jayaḥ।" which means ’where there is dharma, there is victory”, would become "yato religion tato jayaḥ" which means 'victory is always to religion' and not to dharma. Such are the consequences of erroneous translation of dharma as religion.[1]

Various Aspects of Dharma

Dharma as being discussed is multifaceted with various nuances and usages. It has different definitions as per the context used, it is mentioned in various sources and valid such sources of dharmik knowledge (pramanas) are to be understood. Knowledge of classification of objects of dharma (the broad divisions of usage), further refined for moral and judicial applications, is required to comprehend the vastness of Dharma.

Sources of Dharma (धर्मस्थानानि) deals with what various texts such as Vedas, Shastras, Dharmasutras, Smrti granthas, itihasa and puranas mentioned about the authority of dharma. In the modern days, questions about dharma are being posed to Acharyas, Swamijis from various Sampradayas and trained persons in their respective mutts. However, the aspects of Sanatana dharma are gradually getting diluted and traditions of the Panth or Sampradaya are taking precedence. It is at this juncture that we need to revisit our ancient texts and shastras to reestablish Dharma over and above any Sampradaya. While various sampradayas have played an important role in keeping our traditions alive to this, the need of the hour is to focus on Sanatana Dharma as the unifying factor of all sampradayas. Sampradaya pramana is one alternative in the absence of Vedic injunctions among all Pramanas for Dharma (धर्मप्रमाणानि). Needless to say Vedas are the primary authority for all dharmas. It explains the qualities of authoritative persons to decide dharma, based on vedic injunctions and the direct dharmas in their absence.

To understand the Definition of Dharma (धर्मपरिभाषा), its nuances in the context of its usage, one needs to understand the explanatory interpretation of dharma given in various texts. The whole concept of origin of dharma and lakshanas (qualities) of dharma are significant to understand the contribution of dharma in building the character of a person. Thus we have thoughts (of manas), expressions (such as speech) and acts (such as robbery or a dana) which constitute dharma, the people, place and time constraints of dharma, and the prayaschittas (penances, vratas etc) to follow in case of digression from dharma; all these put together a classification of constituents of Dharma which are dealt under the heading Constituents of Dharmashastras (धर्मशास्त्रविभागाः). Here the reference to Dharmashastras is made because of the organized system of classification of the topics presented therein.

धर्मविस्तृतिः ॥ Scope of Dharma

Dharma is a Sanskrit expression of the widest import. It has a wide variety of meanings. A few of them would enable us to understand the range of that expression.[1] For instance, the word 'Dharma' is used to mean

  1. The Principles of Justice (न्यायः | Nyaya)
  2. What is right in a given circumstance
  3. Virtue or Moral values of life
  4. Pious obligations of individuals
  5. Righteous conduct in every sphere of activity
  6. Being helpful to other living beings
  7. Giving charity to individuals in need of it or to a public cause or alms to the needy
  8. Natural qualities or characteristics or properties of living beings and things
  9. Duty towards oneself, family, community, country, and the world at large.
  10. Law as also constitutional law.
  11. The principle on the foundation of which a society stands.[1][6]

Hence, there are multiple facets of dharma. Knowledge of Dharma is the knowledge of what is right and wrong. It is to guide mankind through life. It is the universal code of behavior towards all living creatures and nonliving things. Therefore, Dharma sustains and supports life in general, and helps to hold the community together.

धर्मपुरुषार्थः ॥ Dharma Purushartha

Of the four grand objects of human aspiration—Purusharthas—viz., Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha, Dharma is given the foremost rank in the scriptures. Dharma alone is the gateway to Moksha, to immortality, infinite bliss, supreme peace and highest knowledge. Dharma alone is the primary Purushartha. Dharma is the first and foremost Purushartha. Through the practice of Dharma alone can you ever hope to achieve the crowning glory of all human endeavours, viz., Moksha which is the best and the highest of all desirable things. Practice of Dharma leads to the perfect realisation of essential unity or the final end, the highest good, namely, Moksha. The practitioner experiences peace, joy, strength and tranquillity within himself. His life becomes thoroughly disciplined. His powers and capacities are exceedingly intensified. He realises that there is one underlying homogeneous essence, a living truth, behind these names and forms. He is transmuted into divinity. His whole nature gets transformed. He becomes one with the Eternal. He beholds Brahman above, Brahman below, Brahman to the right, Brahman to the left, Brahman in front, Brahman at the back, Brahman within, Brahman without and Brahman pervading the whole world.

The development of the divine qualities is indispensable for the attainment of Self-realisation. Brahman or the Eternal is purity. The Eternal cannot be attained without the attainment of purity. Brahman is truth. The Eternal cannot be attained without practising truth. Brahman is fearlessness. The Eternal cannot be attained unless you become absolutely fearless. Attachment to the body causes fear and Dehadhyasa. If only you become fearless, then the identification with the body will vanish.[4]

Dharma Elevates Happiness Index

The necessity of scrupulous practice of Dharma is forcefully expressed by Manu :

धर्म एव हतो हन्ति धर्मो रक्षति रक्षितः । तस्माद्धर्मो न हन्तव्यो मा नो धर्मो हतोऽवधीत् ॥ Manu Smrt 8,15

Meaning : Dharma protects those who protect it. Those who destroy Dharma get destroyed. Therefore, Dharma should not be destroyed so that we may not be destroyed as a consequence thereof.

The principle laid down in this saying is of the utmost importance and significance. In the above very short saying, the entire concept of Rule of Law is incorporated.

1 The meaning it conveys is that an orderly society would be in existence if everyone acts according to Dharma and thereby protect Dharma, and such an orderly society which would be an incarnation of Dharma, in turn, protects the rights of individuals. Rules of Dharma were meant to regulate the individual conduct, in such a way as to restrict the rights, liberty, interest and desires of an individual as regards all matters to the extent necessary in the interest of other individuals, i.e., society and at the same time making it obligatory for society to safeguard and protect an individual in all respects through its social and political institutions. Briefly put, Dharma regulated the mutual obligations of the individual and society. Therefore, it was stressed that protection of Dharma was in the interest of both the individual and society. Manu Smriti warns; Do not destroy Dharma, so that you may not be destroyed. A 'State of Dharma' was required to be always maintained for peaceful co-existence, happiness and prosperity.

It is needless to state that it is only when a substantial number of citizens of a nation are by and large of "Dharma / law abiding Nature" the Rule of law can be maintained. But, if the majority are not of a law abiding nature, the nation gets destroyed. This aspect is sought to be impressed on every student in lesson Eight, Chapter-II, Shikshavalli (On Education) of Taittiriya Upanishad in these words :

युवा स्यात्साधु युवाऽध्यायकः । आशिष्ठो द्रढिष्ठो बलिष्ठ ॥

तस्येयं पृथिवी सर्वा वित्तस्य पूर्णा स्यात् । स एको मानुष आनन्दः ॥

Meaning : Happiness is this, youth should be of good character, learned, resolute and strong (morally and physically). Then only the earth will be full of prosperity and wealth. This is the measure of human happiness.

This lesson is highly enlightening. The real happiness and prosperity of any nation is directly proportional to the number of men of character it has produced, through proper education and environment. Today though on account of advancement of science many nations are affluent from the point of material prosperity, they are facing accute problems of greed and despair The crime rate among youth is increasing. There is lack of character. Short cuts and easy methods to secure maximum profit with minimum industry have become the order of the day.

When we look to the state of our nation, in particular as also the world in general, the situation is alarming. The number of individuals who indulge in crimes, abusing modern scientific knowledge and equipments and inflicting injury and suffering on other fellow human beings is increasing directly in proportion to the advancement of science (Vijnana). This indicates that Vijnana (Science) minus Jnana (Knowledge) of Dharma results in the ever increasing of selfishness and greed. It is op account of this, immorality and corruption, violence and sexual immorality are spreading like cancer and are threatening the health of our nation and of humanity. To this situation, the only remedy is the resurrection of the "Doctrine of Trivarga" which constitutes the Philosophy of our country - a philosophy universally applicable.[1]

Dharma as a Global Ethic

The eternal validity of the values based on Dharma, has to be accepted by the entire world if the human race is to be saved from total destruction, is established by the initial declaration {Towards Global Ethic) made at the Parliament of the World's Religions from August 28 to September 5,1993. at Chicago, to coincide with the centenary of Swamy Vivekananda 's Chicago Address. The declaration is signed by as many as 160 persons belonging to world religions and also those who represented Dharma. It incorporates values, which are all part of "Dharma" from times immemorial.

A comparison of the values declared as part of the Global Ethic and the corresponding rules of Dharma at once indicates that they are one and the same. They are :

1. We must treat others as : atmavat sarvabhutanam we wish others to treat us

2. We consider humankind : Vasudhaiva our family Kutumbakam

3. We should serve others : Paropakarartham idam shareeram

4. (a) We must commit to Ahimsasatyam- a culture of non violence asteyam

(b) We must speak and Shoucham act truthfully -we must not steal indriyanigraha,

(c) We must move beyond Etam the dominance of greed samasikam dharmam for power, money, prestige, consumption

(d) We must not commit Parityajedartha any sexual immorality Kamou Yau Syatam Dharma Varjitau

All these were declared as "Dharma" five thousand years ago in Mahabharata Shantiparva 60- 7 -8 (See Ch. II).

We have some thing more viz., in the form of a directive to a student at the culmination of their higher education, to treat his mother as God, treat his father and teacher as God, Don't indulge in acts which are forbidden (Vide Taittreeya Samhita) and also to treat every woman other than the wife as equal to mother" is part of the directive. The values of life found or laid down in any religious texts could supplement those values.

We should therefore compile all the moral values based on Dharma and classify them into different levels. The United Nations should adopt them as the GLOBAL ETHIC and prescribe it for study at appropriate levels from the primary to university courses in the education system of all nations and make it part of the Human Resources Development Programme.

This should constitute the Blue Print for education commencing from the 21st Century for all the Nations of the world in order to produce better individuals, lead a simple and better family life, secure a better national life, better environment ensuring happiness to Humanity as also to all living beings. This is the long range and the only solution for all the problems of the World.

Let the Entire World be Happy.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Justice M.Rama Jois, Dharma The Global Ethic.
  2. Patel, Gautam. (1999). Traditional Vedic Interpretations. New Delhi : Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan
  3. 3.0 3.1 Singh, Ahilya. (2010) PhD Thesis Title: Pracheen bharat mein aarthik jeevan prarambh se vaidik kaal tak. V. B. S. Purvanchal University.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Swami Sivananda (1999), All About Hinduism, Uttar Pradesh: The Divine Life Society.
  5. Vaman Shivram Apte (1985), The Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Arun J. Mehta (2011), Vedic Dharma, Edited by B.V.K.Sastry.