Foundations of Sanatana Dharma - Classification of Dharma

Dharma is broadly classified into two groups – general or universal (samanyadharma) and special or particular (visheshadharma). In the category of samanyadharma, all the basic values which generally never change with space and time are included. Here, the divisions of caste, creed, occupation, nationality, gender, race and other distinctions are not decisive. What we would call as human values today – values like truth, non-violence, freedom from greed, purity of thought, word and action, self-control, etc. are prescribed as universally applicable dharmic features by great thinkers and champions of sanatana dharma. Manu, in his treatise Manusmrti goes to the extent of defining the features of dharma in terms of values like self-possession, forbearance, bodily discipline, non-theft, purity of body and mind, sense-control, intellectual efficiency, wisdom or knowledge (awareness), truth and non-anger and declares that they are the characteristics of dharma (Manusmrti 6.92).

Visheshadharmas are essentially spatiotemporal in nature and include among others such things as varna dharma (duties of different social sectors), ashrama dharma (duties of individuals at different stages of their life), raja dharma (duties of political authority), apaddharma (alternative duties and exemptions during odd and critical times), etc. This list itself tells us that these were a few relevant in some space-time frame. The challenges facing us today may be different and might demand different policies. All these new policies will find a definite place in the broad phrase of dharma. Even specific concepts like varna and ashrama can be redefined to suit the times. Such corrections have been constantly going on in the annals of sanatana dharma. In fact, that is one of the secrets of its relevance and sublime dynamism.

The Colors of Holi

Without a compassionate understanding and wise execution of different dharmas coming under the categories of both samanya and vishesha, none can prescribe anything or describe anything in sanatana dharma. There is a subhashita (wise saying) in Sanskrit according to which the wicked should become good and the good should get peace. The peaceful one should get liberated from the clutches of ignorance, which only makes him wrongly identified with this ego and the materialistic world and such a liberated soul should aid others in the path of liberation. Thus, in our cultural context, constant accountability here and now, verily verifiable by one and all is the essential qualification of a true dharmic person. Those who are not up to this find no place in the world of values since they are essentially meant for practice and not preaching. In the words of Adi Shankara, samanyadharma is not merely a human-made convenience (purushatantra), but is a self-realized universal conformity (vastutantra). Values are like music and painting which mean little when they are described in words. It is only by practice that one derives the sustained, self-enriching joy that these values bring.

Even samanyadharma, such as truth, non-violence and others must be understood in the light of sacchidananda and the purusharthas. For example, truth which normally means verbal sincerity, or non-violence, which normally means not hurting others can take different connotations in different situations. A doctor uttering a lie to save his patient from a rude shock or a sincere police officer uttering a lie to catch hold of a crook who is trying to escape from law or a doctor operating on a patient shedding his blood or a teacher turning harsh to teach a lesson to his arrogant student cannot be considered as cases of violation of truth or non-violence. In all these and such similar cases, we naturally think about the intentions of the persons and the results of their acts. In this respect, sanatana dharma upholds the acts of persons who are selfless and self-realized and try to do the end good even if the chosen means is not "just" due to the restrictions imposed by situations. Here, one can remember a telling situation from the Mahabharatha (Karna parva) where Krishna tries to forge affection between Yudhistira and Arjuna, who were on a row regarding the issue of maintaining their oaths. Krishna pacifies the two brothers' heated arguments over the nature of truth and declares that that which is really good at the cosmic level is the bed rock of it: yad bhutahitamatyantam tat satyamiti dharana. This should be our real interest in the pursuit of values in general and fundamental values in particular.



Dr. Ganesh is a 'shatavadhani' and one of India’s foremost Sanskrit poets and scholars. He writes and lectures extensively on various subjects pertaining to India and Indian cultural heritage. He is a master of the ancient art of avadhana and is credited with reviving the art in Kannada. He is a recipient of the Badarayana-Vyasa Puraskar from the President of India for his contribution to the Sanskrit language.



K B S Ramachandra works in the software industry and has a deep interest in Kannada and Sanskrit literature.