It is well-known that the word ‘dharma,’ which has gained currency over the millennia has various shades of meaning that are different from each other but not mutually contradictory. However, in the Bhārata-Sāvitrī, Vyāsa has used the word ‘dharma’ in its holistic sense. This sort of usage of the word ‘dharma’ is widespread. Of those, perhaps the most famous and most comprehensive is the etymological explanation of the word given in the Karṇa-parva –
dhāraṇād-dharma ity-āhur-dharmo dhārayati prajāḥ।
yaḥ syād-dhāraṇa-saṃyuktaḥ sa dharma iti niścayaḥ॥
That which supports—dhāraṇāt—is called ‘dharma’
It is dharma that supports the people of the world
Anything that has the ability to sustain
is definitely dharma
The word ‘dharma’ is derived from the root ‘dhṛñ-dhāraṇe’ and refers to that which supports and sustains everything and everyone in the world. What Vyāsa emphasises is the following: dharma is the cause for the dynamic equilibrium and the prosperity in the world and owing to this, dharma deserves an unshakable position [at the top]. A similar exposition regarding dharma also appears in the Śānti-parva.
How did the philosophical concept of dharma attain this ability of sustenance? Because it is based on satya (truth). In other words, dharma is the practical manifestation of satya. This is what is seen in word usages like ‘anuṣṭhāna’ (practice, performance, execution), ‘anusandhāna’ (appli-cation, investigation, planning), and so forth. And all these philosophical concepts are familiar to us from the most ancient of times.
Ṛta, satya, and dharma are words that are closely related to each other. The word pairs ṛta-satya and satya-dharma are mentioned in the Vedic literature at many instances. For example,
ṛtaṃ ca satyaṃ cābhīddhāt tapaso’dhyajāyata…
Tapas led to the creation of ṛta and satya.
Speak the truth
Tread the path of dharma
Satya is like the śarīrī (one who possesses the body) and dharma is like the śarīra (the body) – we find this analogy in the Bṛhadāraṇyakopaniṣad (1.4.64).
The same concept, when uttered through words comes to be called satya and when put into action is dharma. Ṛta is fundamental to both satya and dharma. In Sage Vidyāraṇya’s words, ṛta is the determination to practise satya and dharma. Thus, ṛta—which happens to be the basis of satya and dharma—is also used in a broader sense as the cosmic order. Satya is realised by one who possesses viveka (a keen sense of discernment). Satya put into practice comes to be called dharma.
Kāya (body), vāk (speech), and manas (mind) – these three karaṇas (media for activity) have been clubbed together as tri-puṭi in the ancient Vedic lore. One can associate ṛta with the manas, satya with vāk, and dharma with kāya (i.e. execution through the body). This interrelation is exalted in the Śānti-parva –
prabhavārthāya bhūtānāṃ dharma-pravacanaṃ kṛtam।
yat syād-ahiṃsā-saṃyuktaṃ sa dharma iti niścayaḥ॥
The words of dharma
were created for the welfare of all
Whatever is done with ahiṃsā
is indeed dharma!
We see from the conversation between Tulādhāra and Jājali that only a person who works through his body, speech and mind for the goodness of all beings is said to have realised dharma.
sarveṣāṃ yaḥ suhṛn-nityaṃ sarveṣāṃ ca hite rataḥ।
karmaṇā manasā vācā sa dharmaṃ veda jājale॥
One who is always friendly with everyone
and who loves to work for the welfare of all—
in action, in thought, and in speech—
he truly knows dharma, O Jājali
Aiming Towards Universal Well-being
Today, there are several socio-cultural and political efforts being for achieving the well-being of the individual and the society. The Mahābhārata demonstrates that we must adhere to a path of sattva to achieve universal welfare. The Epic does not subscribe to the popular view ‘Irrespective of the path one takes, it is the fulfilment of the goal that matters.’
Dharma is the master and the guiding light for all our activities. It is not so because it is a controller with a prescribed set of rules to direct our actions but because it is something to be realised within oneself.
Kṣātra—i.e. the spirit of valour and protection—should be directed by dharma and must be under its control. This right perspective towards kṣātra is documented in the Bṛhadāraṇyakopaniṣad. The same view is reiterated in the smṛtis and works like the Mahābhārata.
tri-vargo’yaṃ dharma-mūlo narendra
rājyaṃ cedaṃ dharma-mūlaṃ vadanti।
O king, dharma is fundamental to the tri-varga
(i.e. dharma, artha, and kāma)
It is also said that a kingdom
must have dharma as its foundation
In his commentary on this sentence from the Bṛhad-āraṇyakopaniṣad – “Sa naiva vyabhavat tat śreyo-rūpaṃ aty-asṛjata...”  Śaṅkarācārya says the following: “Though the execution of unchecked kṣātra can at times bring śreyas (success, fame), it is not possible to say that such execution of power will always be reliable (and sustainable), due to the very nature of kṣātra.” Thus, dharma should guide kṣātra.
At one instance, Vyāsa declares that it is the observance of dharma that distinguishes humans from animals. He further establishes the supremacy of dharma at several other places in the Epic using suitable logic and through the narration of sub-stories. A person who has realised dharma within himself is free of all vāsanas and has a stable mind – so says the Śānti-parva (300.29–31).
The Ādhyātmika Framework of Dharma
There is a common tendency of associating empathy with dharma. However, the dharma that Mahābhārata propounds is something beyond the morals of the phenomenal world – it has its roots in adhyātma and in the understanding of Eternal Truth (satya). Dharma is based on the understanding of the Real Nature of the world. It gets its stature of the Highest Good and Supremacy because of this feature. Dharma that is professed by the Bhārata-Sāvitrī is this Supreme aspect and not a weak and fragile moral.
Dharma-tattva (the concept of dharma) came about as a product of centuries of deep contemplation carried out by the sages and as a result of the civilizational thought that has laid the foundation for the concept. There is no other conception that is so wholesome and profound. Though the conception and the philosophy of dharma are found in the earliest Vedic literature, the need for making it known to common man grew and it was absolutely necessary for humans to develop a feel for it to the fullest. This purpose was fulfilled by Bhagavān Veda-vyāsa through the Mahābhārata.
Vyāsa has employed several different techniques to convince us that dharma holds the society together and is the foundation for the world. Whatever carries and is capable of carrying can be called dharma. Given this feature of dharma, its application is as wide and varied as are the lives and tastes of the world.
Dharma is eternal while joys and sorrows are ephemeral. Life is eternal, while birth and death are incidental. Thus, do not give up dharma under any kind of circumstances – so I say with both my arms raised up in the air, but no one pays any heed to my words. Vyāsa cries out loud in the famous verse – ‘Ūrdhva-bāhur-viraumy-eṣa…’ (#3).
Karma-bhūmi (The Sphere of Activity)
Vyāsa, in his magnum opus, delineates the importance of nityānitya-bheda-viveka – discerning between the eternal and the ephemeral. He does not advocate shunning away of the world. On the contrary, he proposes that we must work for universal well-being however difficult it may seem to be. He stresses on the point that what we have here is karma-bhūmi –
karma-bhūmir-iyaṃ brahman phala-bhūmir-asau matā॥
In my view, iha-loka (the world where we live in)
is karma-bhūmi, the world of activity and
para-loka (the world we attain after death)
is phala-bhūmi, the world of fruits (or rewards).
This is the preaching of emissaries of the Devas to Sage Mudgala. (Here, we need not consider the concept of transmigration across the worlds in its literal sense; we must understand it as different stages in our current life in the phenomenal world). The language of a poem is figurative. Vyāsa’s emphasis at all places is on the phenomenal world. In the Śānti-parva, he further says,
guhyaṃ brahma tad-idaṃ vo bravīmi
na mānuṣāc-chreṣṭhataraṃ hi kiñcit॥
I will tell you something extremely confidential:
There’s none greater than the human being
This universal and objective world-view elucidated by Vyāsa recognises man as the Supreme being in the world. This view of Vyāsa is attested by the later scholars as well. The sage has come to this conclusion as it is only the human being who can have a perspective on karma, akarma, and duṣkarma. The Āśvamedhika-parva has a clearer elucidation of the same principle –
prakāśa-lakṣaṇā devā manuṣyāḥ karma-lakṣaṇāḥ॥
Brilliance is the nature of the deities
Action is the nature of humans
As a result of performance of his karma in the right manner, man attains brilliance.
A System that Nurtures Saṃskāras
It is well known that dharma is multi-dimensional in its nature and has multiple definitions. These definitions, however, are not contradictory to each other. Different etymologies and delineations are simply because of its various dimensions; from times immemorial, people have viewed it from different perspectives. The root meaning of the word ‘dharma’ is ‘naija-guṇa,’ i.e. ‘one’s own (Real) quality.’ In the arena of the material world, performance of the activity entrusted to an individual constitutes dharma. From the perspective of a particular sect or a religion, adherence to a set of rules for the betterment of the self and for spiritual elevation is dharma.
Doubts regarding dharma that might naturally arise in a person’s mind are clarified by Bhīṣma when he talks to Yudhiṣṭhira on the topic. He emphatically says that dharma is a framework that has been formed for the upliftment and well-being of every living being in the world.
The phrase: ‘Dharma carries the world’ suggests that it is something that has the capability of directing the world and holding it together.
To be concluded...
This is the third part of a four-part translation of Dr. S R Ramaswamy's Kannada essay ಭಾರತ ಸಾವಿತ್ರೀ, which was written with the express view that it should be translated by us for the English adaptation of his writings on the epic, Evolution of the Mahabharata.
 The original has ‘dhāraṇa-sāmarthya’ – dhāraṇa means ‘to support,’ ‘to bear,’ or ‘to sustain’ and sāmarthya means ‘competence’ or ‘ability’
 धारणाद्धर्म इत्याहुर्धर्मो धारयति प्रजाः। यः स्याद्धारणसंयुक्तः स धर्म इति निश्चयः॥ – Karṇa-parva 49.50
 See Śānti-parva 110.11
 ऋतं च सत्यं चाभीद्धात् तपसोऽध्यजायत। – Ṛgveda-saṃhitā 10.190.1
 सत्यं वद। धर्मं चर। – Taittirīyopaniṣad 1.11
 Vidyāraṇya’s illustrious brother, Sāyaṇa writes in his commentary on the Vedas: ṛta is akin to noble thought, satya to noble word, and dharma to noble deed. See D V Gundappa’s monograph titled Ṛta-Satya-Dharma (Mysore: Kāvyālaya Publishers, 1974) for more details
 प्रभवार्थाय भूतानां धर्मप्रवचनं कृतम्। यत् स्यादहिंसासंयुक्तं स धर्म इति निश्चय:॥ – Śānti-parva 110.10
 सर्वेषां यः सुहृन्नित्यं सर्वेषां च हिते रतः। कर्मणा मनसा वाचा स धर्मं वेद जाजले॥ – Śānti-parva 254.9
 त्रिवर्गोऽयं धर्ममूलो नरेन्द्र राज्यं चेदं धर्ममूलं वदन्ति। – Vana-parva 5.4
 स नैव व्यभवत् तत् श्रेयोरूपं अत्यसृजत... – Bṛhadāraṇyakopaniṣad 1.4.14
 Vāsana loosely translates into ‘conditioning.’ It is the residual impact of karma, i.e. the consequences of one’s actions. Experiences from previous births are carried to the present birth, which to some extent influence this life
 कर्मभूमिरियं ब्रह्मन् फलभूमिरसौ मता॥ – Vana-parva 247.35
 Mudgala was a generous brāhmaṇa who lived in Kurukṣetra. Under the most extreme circumstances, unmindful of his abject hunger, he offered his handful of rice to Sage Dūrvāsa, who was actually testing him. When Mudgala suceeds in the test, the emissaries of the Devas come to take him to svarga in his human form
 गुह्यं ब्रह्म तदिदं वो ब्रवीमि न मानुषाच्छ्रेष्ठतरं हि किञ्चित्॥ – Śānti-parva 288.20
 Karma is the activity that must be undertaken, akarma is the activity that is not done, and duṣkarma refers to evil actions. For a more detailed explanation of these concepts, one can refer to the fourth chapter of DVG’s Jīvana-dharma-yoga (Mysore: Kāvyālaya Publishers, 1966)
 प्रकाशलक्षणा देवा मनुष्याः कर्मलक्षणाः॥ – Āśvamedhika-parva 43.20