Dharma is a word not used just by the vaidikas but also employed reverently by the Buddhists and Jains. The vaidikas have employed this term in different śāstras and as part of different terminologies. Śrī Śaṅkara gives the following meaning:
jagataḥ sthiti-kāraṇam। prāṇināṃ sākṣād-abhyudaya-niḥśreyasa hetuḥ yaḥ sa dharmaḥ...
The system and set of acts that bestows
(i) Welfare upon beings in the world now and
(ii) Salvation in the hereafter
Dharma sustains not only the jīvas but also the universe. The jīva and the world have a mutual relationship. Hence, the body of practices, qualities, rules, and regulations that
1. Suitably ensure that the jīva’s abilities and qualities do not degrade in contact with the Universe, but on the other hand ensure that they flower and help the world and
2. Also ensure that the Universe is unhindered by its contact with jīvas and benefits the jīva
This is an ancient explanation. The vaiśeṣika-sūtra states thus:
yato’bhyudaya-niḥśreyasa-siddhiḥ sa dharmaḥ ||
Niḥśreyasa refers to the best among the best, the supreme good. What is it that is good? What is well-being? The great sage Āpastamba conveys the quintessence of the Veda and Vedānta in the following words:
ātmā-lābhān-na paraṃ vidyate||
There is no greater benefit than attaining one’s own Self. This is the highest of all welfare. It was the considered view of our ancients that being established in one’s own Self after experiencing it constituted mokṣa (absolute deliverance).
The Bṛhadāraṇyakopaniṣat [and Chāndogyopaniṣat] states it as follows:
ātmā vā are śrotavyaḥ||
(The ātmā has to be heard about)
tarati śokam a ātmāvit||
(The knower of the ātmā crosses sorrow)
The Īśāvāsyopaniṣat states:
tatra ko mohaḥ kaḥ śoka ekatvam-anupaśyataḥ ||
(Whence delusion? Whence sorrow for the one who sees Unity everywhere?)
All Upaniṣads state the same.
The jīva, enmeshed in the web of māyā (delusion) cast by prakṛti (the primordial power) forgets the Supreme Self in him, and believes that things other than the ātman bring happiness and hankers after those ingredients of pleasure. This hankering after pleasure is saṃsāra. Confusion stems from a desire for the world. Going beyond this error and delusion, experiencing the Self – and the Divine – is a bliss higher than any other external pleasure. The set of qualities and behaviours that ready the jīva for such supreme benefits is dharma. The same has been stated by Yājñavalkya.
ayaṃ tu paramo dharmo yadyogenātmadarśanam ||
All of the above can be collectively stated as follows. There are three main benefits from dharma:
1. Sustenance of the world.
2. Bliss for the jīva
3. Welfare for the jīva.
Beings normally yearn for pleasure at every instant. Pleasure is attainment of the desirable and cessation of the undesirable. But all pleasure is not welfare. All that yields pleasure may not be beneficial. Many dishes are enjoyable whilst on the palate but are otherwise when they are in the stomach. The kind of food that does not cause displeasure to the digestive system while still yielding pleasure to the tongue is wholesome (or hita). Wholesomeness originates from limiting one’s pleasures or moderation. Pleasure is wholesome (or hita) when associated with a method and moderation. The welfare of a jīva is in restraining one’s enjoyment of pleasures while pursuing his desire in such a way that his future course towards the Beyond is unimpeded. The set of rituals, practices and rules that are needed for the welfare of the jīva form the essence of dharma.
The above defines dharma from the perspective of its results. From the perspective of its internal structure, dharma can be defined as the practical observance of objective truth. By truth is meant reality, a situation as is. ‘Tattva’ refers to the same. Tat-tva is a thing’s thingness. Dharma is the adaptation of our behaviour to current circumstances after understanding the true nature of the circumstances.
There is yet another explanation. Dharma is the set of our actions performed with the Supreme Self as witness. The set of actions performed with the conviction that one is answerable to Īśvara for every action done or not done is dharma.
Thus dharma is an essential training or refinement for the jīva. War is another such training ground. For a few kinds of jīvas, because of the bodies they inhabit, death in the battlefield is an essential purification, just as surgery for a few kinds of ailments.
Dharma is therefore the set of behaviours that is based on one’s own self, follows the Truth, and keeps the good of all in view.
Having briefly noted the inner essence of dharma, we need to understand that it assumes myriad forms in action. Just as a blob of gold assumes different forms such as coins or ornaments, the singular principle of dharma functions in different forms according to the capabilities of the individual jīvas and their varied circumstances. Such dharmas can be classified into four main groups:
1. Sādhāraṇa-dharma or nitya-dharma (common or ordinary dharma)
2. Viśeṣa-dharma (dharma in special circumstances)
3. Naimittika-dharma (dharma befitting specific occasions)
4. Āpad-dharma (dharma in extreme situations)
1. Sādhāraṇa-dharma or nitya-dharma - This is decreed for all of humanity. The main characteristics have been enumerated by Manu as follows:
dhṛtiḥ kṣamā damo’steyaṃ śaucamindriyanigrahaḥ
dhīrvidyā satyamakrodhaḥ daśakaṃ dharmalakṣaṇam॥
1. Dhṛti - Courage or steadfastness, 2. Kṣamā - Forgiveness, 3. Dama - Controlling the mind, 4. Asteya - Not coveting others’ wealth, 5. Śauca - Purity, 6. Indriyanigraha - Controlling sense organs, 7. Dhī - Intellect, 8. Vidyā - Knowledge, especially that of philosophy, 9. Satyam - Being truthful, 10. Akrodha - Being free of anger.
The above ten are characteristics of dharma. It is imperative for all human beings to cultivate or possess these qualities at all times.
2. Viśeṣa-dharma (Dharma under special circumstances) is of two kinds:
a. Jāti-dharma - is dharma belonging to one’s clan or varṇa or region. Arjuna referred to these when he said, “utsādyante jāti-dharmāḥ kula-dharmāś-ca śāśvatāḥ” - Dharmas belonging to society and one’s own clan, that have existed for time immemorial, will get destroyed.
b. Āśrama-dharma - peṛtains to the initiation, conduct, and rituals peṛtaining to the āśramas of brahmacharya (studenthood), gṛhastha (householderhood), vānaprastha (forest-dweller) and saṃnyāsa (renunciate).
3. Naimittika-dharma is dharma peṛtaining to a goal relevant for a specific duration of time. That is of two kinds:
a. Kāmya - the works (pūjas, vratas, yajñas) performed to achieve one’s personal desires.
b. Śuddhi - are the rites to purify oneself of any impurity or expiation for pāpas committed.
4. Āpad-dharma - When it is not possible to perform any of the above mentioned dharmas due to disease, drought or other calamity, a token of that dharma is maintained. The actions performed to maintain such a token dharma constitute āpad-dharma. Mantra-snāna (ritual bath using mantras) during fever, a brāhmaṇa following agriculture and other occupations during the age of Kali are the common examples. Droṇācharya’s foray into battle can thus be termed āpad-dharma or viśeṣa-dharma. In a story in the Chāndogyopaniṣat, the brāhmaṇa named Uṣasti had become emaciated due to a drought. To maintain his life, Uṣasti took half-eaten cereals from an elephant-driver. For Uṣasti, this became āpad-dharma.
To summarize, the rule of conduct placed upon oneself to neither mar one’s own progress nor be an impediment to others’ pursuits of pleasure and actually help others while achieving one’s own happiness is dharma.
To be continued...
The present series is a modern English translation of DVG’s Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award-winning work, Bhagavad-gītā-tātparya or Jīvana-dharma-yoga. The translators wish to express their thanks to Śatāvadhāni R Ganesh for his valuable feedback and to Hari Ravikumar for his astute edits.