Sources of Dharma (धर्मस्थानानि)

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Sources of Dharma refer to the Dharmasthanas (Samskrit: धर्मस्थानानि) as exemplified in the vast literary tradition of Bharata, especially Vedas and Vaidika vangmaya. None of the abrahmic faiths, which are now widely prevalent in the world, have such an extensive literary tradition nor the depth of concepts as antique as those advocated in Sanatana Dharma.

परिचयः ॥ Introduction

Bharatavarsha has been the ancient motherland of all dharmas and karmas and we have irrefutable testimonies supporting this fact. Dharma is a complex concept with extensive application both in mundane and bizzare situations, thus has widespread presence through out our literature.

Yajnavalkya in his smrtigrantha summarizes all the sources of Dharma comprehensively,

पुराणन्यायमीमांसाधर्मशास्त्राङ्गमिश्रिताः । वेदाः स्थानानि विद्यानां धर्मस्य च चतुर्दश ।। ३ ।। (Yajn. Smrt. 1.3)[1]

purāṇanyāyamīmāṁsādharmaśāstrāṅgamiśritāḥ । vēdāḥ sthānāni vidyānāṁ dharmasya ca caturdaśa ।। 3 ।। (Yajn. Smrt. 1.3)

Puranas including the Brahma purana and others, Nyaya including Tarkashastra, Mimamsa which involves discussion about the content of Vedas, Dharmashastras including the Manu and other Smrtis, Angas including the Shad Vedangas, and Vedas (four of them) - these are the fourteen vidyasthanas and dharma-sthanas.

Thus we see that all dharmas have their roots going down to the Vedas. They are also the revered sources of Vidya and thus the ancient education system greatly stressed on imparting them to children at a young age in the Gurukula.

वेदः ॥ Vedas

That the Vedas are the root material for Dharma, Karma (Yajnas) and Upasana has well been advocated by many seers of olden and modern days. The Vedas do not contain positive precepts (vidhis) on matters of dharma in an interconnected manner, rather they give incidental references to various topics pertaining to moral and social order. Vedas have in different passages shed light on marriage and different kinds of marriage, varna-ashrama dharmas, different kinds of sons, adoption, partition, inheritance, dana, shraddha, prayashcitta and stridharma. Such vedic references constitute the basis of the rules of the dharmasutras and subsequently dharmashastras. While shrutis have been looked up as a source of dharma, they are not formal treatises on dharma owing to disconnected statements and few pointed explanatory anecdotes. It is the smrtis that contain a formal, systematic and connected treatment of the topics of the dharmashastras.[2]

A word whose exact meaning cannot be given in English or any other language, Dharma appears to be used in Rigveda as an adjective or noun in the form of dharman (धर्मन्) in neuter gender.

The word is clearly derived from dhatu धृञ् (in the meaning धारणे) meaning - "to uphold, to support, to nourish". Dharma is used in the sense of - 'upholder or supporter or sustainer' as in Rigveda (1.187.1 and 10.92.2 and 10.21.3)[2]

पितुं नु स्तोषं महो धर्माणं तविषीम् । यस्य त्रितो व्योजसा वृत्रं विपर्वमर्दयत् ॥१ (Rig. Veda. 1.187.1)

It is used in sense of religious ordinances or rites (Rig Veda. 1.22.18, 5.26.6, 8.43.24 and 9.64.1).

त्रीणि पदा वि चक्रमे विष्णुर्गोपा अदाभ्यः । अतो धर्मा॑णि धारयन् ॥१८॥ (Rig. Veda. 1.22.18)

According to Shri. P. V. Kane, Dharma is also used as notation for fixed principles or rules of conduct than just "religious rites" in mantras for example

धर्मणा मित्रावरुणा विपश्चिता व्रता रक्षेथे असुरस्य मायया । (Rig. Veda. 5.63.7)

Words such as prathama dharma (Rig. Veda. 3.17.1 and 10.56.3) and sanata dharmani (Rig. Veda. 3.3.1) have been associated with primeval and ancient ordinances respectively. The famous mantra explains Dharma as those primary set of activities involved in yajnas.

यज्ञेन यज्ञमयजन्त देवास्तानि धर्माणि प्रथमान्यासन् । ते ह नाकं महिमान: सचन्त यत्र पूर्वे साध्याः सन्ति देवाः ॥५॥० (Rig. Veda. 1.164.50)

Meaning: Through the (conduct) of yajnas, devatas worshipped the Yajnapurusha (sometimes referred to as Yajna or Vishnu), which are laid down as primary dharmas (in the sense that the primary dharmas are none other than the yajnas). Encouraged by the yajnas (and their merits) in the devaloka, the worldly beings began to perform them.

Aitareya Brahmana mentions a whole body of religious duties associated with Dharma (Aite. Brah. 7.17 and 8.13).

Shukla Yajurveda samhita also refers to the above usages of the word Dharman as seen in Rig Veda. The mantras of Rig Veda quoted above are also occurring in Atharvaveda and "dharma" seems to be used in the sense of 'merit acquired by the performance of religious rites" in this context.[2]

उपनिषदः ॥ Upanishads

Upanishads speak about dharmas as a path towards upasana and fulfillment of ashrama dharmas leads one to moksha. Dharma is referred to as peculiar duties of asramas and dharma came to mean 'duties and privileges of a person as a member of the community, as a member of the one of the varnas or as in a particular stage of life'.[2]

तैत्तिरीयोपनिषदत् ॥ Taittriya Upanishad

The Shikshavalli of Taittriya Upanishad firmly lays down the order of dharma as 'those duties to be performed without fail'.

सत्यं वद । धर्मं चर । (Tait. Upan. 1.11.1)[3]

Speak the truth, practice (your) dharma... is the message given to the students during the convocation speech by the Acharya. Here dharma is referred to as the set of duties to be practiced.

बृहदारण्यक उपनिषद् ॥ Brhdaranyaka Upanishad

Brhdaranyaka Upanishad in the first adhyaya (fourth Brahmana) describes the origin of Purusha and from Him the Jagat, men of the four varnas and their requirements. In this context the Upanishad reflects on the origin of dharma from Brahman, as a varna duty particularly to Kshatriyas.

तच्छ्रेयो रूपमत्यसृजत धर्मम् । तदेतत्क्षत्रस्य क्षत्रं यद्धर्मः । तस्माद्धर्मात्परं नास्ति । अथो अबलीयान् बलीयांसमाशंसते धर्मेण । यथा राज्ञैवम् । यो वै स धर्मः सत्यं वै तत् । तस्मात्सत्यं वदन्तमाहुर्धर्मं वदतीति । धर्मं वा वदन्तं सत्यं वदतीति । एतद्ध्येवैतदुभयं भवति ॥ बृह. १,४.१४ ॥ (Brhd. Upan. 1.4.14)[4]

He (Brahman) created that excellent form, Dharma. This dharma is the controller of the kshatriya. Therefore, there is nothing higher than Dharma.

छान्दोग्योपनिषद् ॥ Chandogya Upanishad

In the Chandogya Upanishad, Dharma is described as having 3 branches.

त्रयो धर्मस्कन्धा यज्ञोऽध्ययनं दानमिति प्रथमस्तप एव द्वितीयो ब्रह्मचार्याचार्यकुलवासी तृतीयोऽत्यन्तमात्मानमाचार्यकुलेऽवसादयन्सर्व एते पुण्यलोका भवन्ति ब्रह्मसँस्थोऽमृतत्वमेति ॥ १ ॥ (Chan. Upan. 2.23)[5]

Meaning: There are three branches of dharma, one is constituted by yajna, adhyayana (study) and dana or charity (activities in the stage of a grhastha). Second includes the tapas (i.e., stage of a vaanaprastha and sanyasa); the third is constituted by Brahmacharin living in the house of his acharya, all through his life, in his service. All these attain the punyalokas (the worlds of the virtuous). One who abides firmly in Brahman attains immortality. It is explained further that among those that duly perform the duties of their respective states, whoever meditates upon Brahman attains amrtattva (immortality).[6]

महानारायणोपनिषद् ॥ Mahanarayanopanishad

धर्मो विश्वस्य जगतः प्रतिष्ठा लोके धर्मिष्ठ प्रजा उपसर्पन्ति धर्मेण पापमपनुदति धर्मे सर्वं प्रतिष्ठितं तस्माद्धर्मं परमं वदन्ति ॥ ७॥ (Mahanarayana. Upan. 79.7)[7]

Meaning : Dharma is the support for the universe, it drives the dharmik people to progress towards their goals, by which they cleanse themselves off their papam (malefic results). All (beings) exist due to the intrinsic Dharmas they follow, hence Dharma is said to be supreme.

स्मृतिः॥ Smrtis

Smrtis are the Dharmashastra granthas, given by seers as the 'remembered texts'. They are also texts which among many things mostly discuss the dharmas to be followed by people. Dharmasutras laid the foundation for the later day nibandha compilations, namely, Dharmashastras.

मनुस्मृतिः ॥ Manusmriti

Manusmriti has attached great importance to the Vedas and primarily advocates their authority.

वेदोऽखिलो धर्ममूलं स्मृतिशीले च तद्विदाम् । आचारश्चैव साधूनां आत्मनस्तुष्टिरेव च । । २.६ । । (Manu. Smrt. 2.6)[8][9]

vedo'khilo dharmamūlaṃ smṛtiśīle ca tadvidām । ācāraścaiva sādhūnāṃ ātmanastuṣṭireva ca । । 2.6 । ।(Manu. Smri. 2.6)

Meaning: Indeed ! Vedas are the source of all Dharma. Secondly it’s source is attributed to tradition and the virtuous conduct of those who follow the Veda, thirdly, to the customs of holy men and finally Atma-tushti (आत्मनस्तुष्टिः । satisfaction of the inner self).[10][11]

धर्मजिज्ञासानां प्रमाणं परमं श्रुतिः ॥ (Manu. Smrt. 2.3)[8]

dharmajijñāsānāṃ pramāṇaṃ paramaṃ śrutiḥ ॥ (Manu. Smrt. 2.3)

Meaning : For those greatly interested seekers of Dharma, the Vedas (Shrutis) are the highest authorities.[11] That the Vedas are the very treasure house of all Dharma, i.e. religion, morality, righteousness, and good conduct, was unequivocally and unquestionably proclaimed by Manu, the first Law-giver after the Vedas as follows:

बिभर्ति सर्वभूतानि वेदशास्त्रं सनातनम् । तस्मादेतत्परं मन्ये यज्जन्तोरस्य साधनम् । । १२.९९ । । (Manu. Smrt. 12.99)[12]

bibharti sarvabhūtāni vedaśāstraṃ sanātanam । tasmādetatparaṃ manye yajjantorasya sādhanam । । 12.99 । ।

Meaning: The eternal Veda shastra upholds or protects all beings (by being their flawless guideline). Those endeavoring for the welfare of all beings, regard Vedas as their supreme authoritative instrument in achieving it. The necessity of scrupulous practice of Dharma is forcefully expressed in Manusmriti thus:

धर्म एव हतो हन्ति धर्मो रक्षति रक्षितः | तस्माध्दर्मो न हन्तव्यो मा नो धर्मो हतोऽवधीत्  || (Manu 6-11-15)[9]

dharma eva hato hanti dharmo rakṣati rakṣitaḥ | tasmādhdarmo na hantavyo mā no dharmo hato'vadhīt || (Manu 6-11-15)

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.

याज्ञवल्क्य-स्मृतिः ॥ Yajnavalkya Smrti

The Yajnavalkya Smrti, which is one of the important texts that is consulted for the present day Hindu Law, further lays its claim on being founded on Vedas. According to Brhadyogi-Yajnavalkya-Smrti (Page No. 11 of Ved aur Vedarth)[11][13][14]

न वेदशास्त्रादन्यत्तु किंचिच्छास्त्रं हि विद्यते । निःसृतं सर्वशास्त्रं तु वेदशास्त्रात् सनातनम् ॥ (Brha. Smrt. 12.1)

na vedaśāstrādanyattu kiṃcicchāstraṃ hi vidyate । niḥsṛtaṃ sarvaśāstraṃ tu vedaśāstrāt sanātanam ॥ (Brha. Smri . 12.1)

Meaning : There are no greater shastras other than the Vedas, as all shastras arose from the eternal Veda shastras only.

अत्रि-स्मृतिः ॥ Atri Smrti

Atri Smrti attributes the highest position of a Guru (गुरुः । teacher) to Vedas[11]

नास्ति वेदात् परं शास्त्रं, नास्ति मातु:समो गुरु: || (Atri. Smri. 5.148)

nāsti vedāt paraṃ śāstraṃ, nāsti mātu:samo guru: || (Atri. Smri. 5.148)

Meaning: There is no other shastra greater than Vedas, just as there is no greater Guru than the mother (to the child).

धर्मसूत्राणि ॥ Dharmasutras

Dharmasutras based on Vedas have a more formal treatment on the topics of Dharma. They start with the explicit mention of the authority of Vedas as the source of dharma. They are the main treatises about the Dharma given by many rshis.[2]

Baudhayana Dharmasutras

उपदिष्टो धर्मः प्रतिवेदम् । (Bau. Dhar. Sutr. 1.1.1)

स्मार्तो द्वितीयः । तृतीयश्शिष्टागमः । (Bau. Dhar. Sutr. 1.1.3-4)[15]

Govindasvami's commentary on Baudhayana Sutras elaborates the above sutras as follows - "those volumes of granthas that propose the meaning (jnana) that is beyond the understanding of sensual knowledge, in every shaka (of the Vedas) and which are eternal are the Vedas. They put forth the (Shrauta) Dharmas (प्रत्यक्षश्रुतिविहितः प्रथमो धर्मः). Each shaka is complete with Vedangas and the Kalpasutras in them discuss the shaka specific aspects.

Smarta dharmas (प्रकीर्णमन्त्रार्थवादमूलो द्वितीयः धर्मः) for the second type. They are given by Smrtis, which are secondary explanations sourced from the Vedas. They are of five types namely, Varnadharma, Ashramadharma, Varnashramadharma, Gunadharma and Nimitta-dharmas. Again they are classified into general and specific dharmas.

The third is dharma practiced by Shistas (तृतीयस्तु प्रलीनशाखामूलः घर्मः), who are people performing Shishtachara."[16]

Gautama Dharmasutra (1.1.1-2) says

वेदो धर्ममूलम्। तद्विदां च स्मृतिशीले।[17]

Veda is the source of dharma and the tradition and practice of those that know it (the Veda). Vasishta Dharmasutras (1.4-6) says

श्रुतिस्मृतिविहितो धर्मः। तदलाभे शिष्टाचारः प्रमाणम्। शिष्टः पुनरकामात्मा।

षड्-दर्शनानि ॥ Shad Darshanas

Shad Darshanas, include Sankhya (साङ्ख्यः), Yoga (योगः), Vaisheshika (वैशेषिकः), Nyaya (न्यायः), Purva Mimamsa (पूर्वमीमांसा), Uttara Mimamsa (उत्तरमीमांसा or वेदान्तः Vedanta). As they are deeply rooted in vedic principles, they are called Astika darshanas (आस्तिक-दर्शनानि) according to many scholars, although some believe that Sankhya is not an Astika Darshana. The dharmas mentioned in sramanic and nastika darsanas are beyond the scope of the present article.

न्याय-दर्शनम् ॥ Nyaya Darshana

Gautama maharshi gave the Nyaya shastra to the world. It is also classified as one of the Upangas which, as part of the Vaidika vangmaya, is important to understand Vedas.

मन्त्रायुर्वेदप्रामाण्यवच्च तत्प्रामाण्यमाप्तप्रामाण्यात् || (Nyay. Shas. 2.1.69)[18]

mantrāyurvedaprāmāṇyavacca tatprāmāṇyamāptaprāmāṇyāt || (Nyay. Shas. 2.1.69)

Meaning: Just like the mantras (spells) counteract the poisons and Ayurveda (medical science) prescribes reliable remedies (for diseases and prevention of disease) with authority (as they are given by the maharshis and sages who are authoritative about the subjects), so also Vedas are standard (unequivocal guidelines), as the mantra drastas or rshis to whom they were revealed are the righteous sages.[11]

वैशेषिक-दर्शनम् ॥ Vaisheshika Darshana

Kanada maharshi who authored the Vaisheshika shastra also considers that the Vedas were revealed by Supreme Being.

तद्वचनादाम्नायस्य प्रामाण्यम् । वैशेषिक-१,१.३ । (Vais. Shas. 1.1.3)[19]

tadvacanādāmnāyasya prāmāṇyam । vaiśeṣika-1,1.3 । (Vais. Shas. 1.1.3)

In expounding padārthānāṃ dharmaḥ (पदार्थानां धर्म । nature of matter), Kanada took for pramana (source of valid knowledge), the Vedas (आम्नायः ॥ Amnaya)

मीमांसा ॥ Mimamsa

Purva mimamsa (पूर्वमीमांसा) deals extensively with Karmakanda (कर्मकाण्डः) while उत्तरमीमांसा ॥ Uttara mimamsa (वेदान्तः ॥ Vedanta) deals with मोक्षकाण्डः ॥ Mokshakanda of vedas. Mimamsa attained significance as many vedic interpretations are based and debated on the basis of the logic and rules set forth by this shastra.

नित्यस्तु स्याद् दर्शनस्य परार्थत्वात् || (Mima. Shas. 1.1.18)

nityastu syād darśanasya parārthatvāt || (Mima. Shas. 1.1.18)

महाभारतम् ॥ Mahabharata

Maharshi Vedavyasa in Mahabharata extols that Vedas are the path of life for all beings. Abundant instances about the Dharmas to be followed and the social and moral implications are emphasized in Mahabharata, many being an instruction to Yudhisthira by Bhishma and other Maharshis such as Vaisampayana, Suta.

अनादिनिधनानित्या, वागुत्सृष्टा स्वयम्भुवा | आदौ वेदमयी दिव्या, यत: सर्वा: प्रवृत्तय: || (Maha. Shan. 232.24)[20]

anādinidhanānityā, vāgutsṛṣṭā svayambhuvā | ādau vedamayī divyā, yata: sarvā: pravṛttaya: || (Maha. Shan. 232.24)

Meaning : In the beginning of Srishti, the self existent Creator, revealed the Eternal and Divine Vedas, as they show the path for all activities of every being.[11] Mahabharata which is acclaimed as the मानव-कर्तव्य-शास्त्रम् || Manava kartavya shastra, has a discussion on this topic in the form of conversation between Yudhishthira and Bhishma thus. (Pt. Ramnarayan's Mahabharata: Volume 4[21] and Vol 5 Shanti Parva Page 323)[22]

तादृशोऽयमनुप्रश्नो यत्र धर्मः सुदुर्लभः । दुष्करः प्रतिसंख्यातुं तत्केनात्र व्यवस्यति ॥(Maha. Shan. Parv. 109.9)

प्रभावार्थाय भूतानां धर्मप्रवचनं कृतम् । यः स्यात्प्रभवसंयुक्तः स धर्म इति निश्चयः ॥ (Maha. Shan. Parv. 109.11)

tādṛśo'yamanupraśno yatra dharmaḥ sudurlabhaḥ | duṣkaraḥ pratisaṃkhyātuṃ tatkenātra vyavasyati || (Maha. Shanti. 109.9)

prabhāvārthāya bhūtānāṃ dharmapravacanaṃ kṛtam | yaḥ syātprabhavasaṃyuktaḥ sa dharma iti niścayaḥ || (Maha. Shanti. 109.11)

Meaning : It is most difficult to define Dharma. Dharma has been explained to be that which helps the upliftment of living beings. Therefore, that which helps ensure the welfare of living beings is surely Dharma. The learned rishis have declared that which sustains is Dharma.

धारणाद् धर्म इत्याहुर्धर्मो धारयते प्रजाः | यत् स्याद् धारणसंयुक्तं स धर्म इति निश्चयः || (Maha. Karna. 69-58)

dhāraṇād dharma ityāhurdharmo dhārayate prajāḥ | yat syād dhāraṇasaṃyuktaṃ sa dharma iti niścayaḥ || (Maha. Karna. 69-58)

Meaning : Dharma sustains the society, Dharma maintains the social order, Dharma ensures the well being and progress of humanity, Dharma is surely that which fulfills these objectives

Therefore, Dharma embraces every type of righteous conduct, covering every aspect of life essential for the sustenance and welfare of the individual and society and includes those rules which guide and enable those who believe in a supreme force and higher worlds to attain Moksha (मोक्षः । eternal bliss).   


  1. Yajnavalkya Smrti (Achara-adhyaya Upodghata-prakarana)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Kane, Pandurang Vaman. (1930) History of Dharmasastra (Ancient and Medieval Religious and Civil Law), Volume 1. Poona : Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. (Pages 1-7)
  3. Taittriya Upanishad (Shikshavalli Anuvaka 11)
  4. Brhdaranyaka Upanishad (Adhyaya 1)
  5. Chandogya Upanishad (Adhyaya 2)
  6. Mm. Ganganath Jha, (1923) Chhandogya Upanishad and Sri Sankara's Commentary. Volume 3.Madras: The India Printing Works.(Page 123)
  7. Mahanarayanopanishad (All Anuvakas)
  8. 8.0 8.1 Manusmriti (Adhyaya 2)
  9. 9.0 9.1 Kumar, S. (1996). The Vishuddha Manusmriti. Delhi:Arsh Sahitya Prachar Trust.
  10. Patel, Gautam. (1999). Traditional Vedic Interpretations. New Delhi : Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan
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