What is Dharma?

If you grew up in India or if you were associated with Indian culture in any form – literature, music, dance, or films – you would have heard the word dharma. Most Indian languages have this word as is or at least have the concept (for example, in Tamil, we use the word aram, which is similar to dharma).

Dharma is the universal principle that sustains and supports everything. It is the mechanism of Nature. It is a universal Virtue. It is Truth in action. It is Sustainable growth. Depending on the context, dharma can mean one of the following: ‘sustainability,’ ‘support,’ ‘law,’ ‘justice,’ ‘rule,’ ‘principle,’ ‘duty,’ ‘value system,’ ‘virtue,’ ‘way of life,’ or ‘state.’

We have different types of dharmas:

  • सामान्यधर्म / samanyadharma applies to everyone (for example, being honest or being compassionate)
  • राजधर्म / rajadharma applies to kings and rulers (for example, punishing the wicked and protecting the good, maintaining law and order).
  • विशेषधर्म / visheshadharma applies to specific groups (for example, there are certain rules only applicable to doctors or to miners or to lawyers, and not to the generality of the population)
  • आपद्धर्म / apaddharma applies only to emergencies (for example, if there’s a fire in a building, we should not take the elevator, while it is perfectly normal and safe at other times)
  • मोक्षधर्म / mokshadharma applies to those on the path of liberation (for example, a sanyasi sees no difference between a diamond and a stone; a diamond merchant cannot obviously have such a mindset)

An essential feature of dharma is that it is holistic. It takes into consideration the larger picture. On the other hand, normative ethics, and the Western idea of 'morality' reduces the rules to specifics. Take for example one of the Ten Commandments, “Thou shalt not kill.” This appears in all the Semitic faiths – in Judaism (Exodus 20:1-17, Deuteronomy 5:4-21), Christianity (Matthew 19:16-19, Romans 13:8-10) and Islam (Qur’an 6:151). It also becomes clear from other sections in these Holy Books that every word found in them is uttered by God through the Prophets and has to be considered sacred.

How then do you explain another passage that goads you to kill infidels or traitors? How do you explain religious war in the wake of this Commandment? How do you explain the behavior of the millions of soldiers who follow one of the Semitic faiths? And what shalt thou not kill? Humans, animals, plants, or insects? If abortion and euthanasia are unholy, then how is killing an infidel holy? These questions are impossible to answer within the Semitic framework because it comes from a place of absolutism and not relativity.

The idea of dharma is an affirmation that there are no absolute truths in the human world. There are only transient, relative truths. And since they are relative, they have to be understood in the context of a bigger canvas. Dharma doesn’t impose anything on us. All it requires us to do is to ask ourselves a simple question: “Is this action of mine sustainable?” By using the word 'sustainable,' we automatically include the world at large. After all, I, as an individual, can sustain only as long as the world around me is sustained. If my family is unwell, how can I be healthy? If my friends are depressed, how can I be happy? If my workplace is filthy, how can I be clean? Therefore we ask ourselves if our present action will be sustainable in the long run, not just for us but for everyone concerned.

When we put our actions through this filter, we automatically tend to become more natural – we become more honest, compassionate, clean, and gentle. After all, nature is the best example for sustainability. If humans don’t interfere, nature expresses itself so beautifully, for it is a self-sustaining organism.

There is a beautiful verse in the Manusmrti about dharma:

धर्म एव हतो हन्ति
धर्मो रक्षति रक्षतः |
तस्माद् धर्मो न हन्तव्यो
मा नो धर्मो हतो’वधीत् ||
(मनुस्मृति ८.१५)

Dharma destroys one who destroys it.
Dharma protects one who protects it.
Don’t violate dharma
lest the violated dharma destroys us!
– Manusmrti 8.15

Violating dharma is like chopping off the branch of a tree on which we are sitting. It is like poisoning a well from which we drink water.

One way to understand dharma is to observe what we expect from others. Do we expect others to be honest? Or would we rather have people tell us lies? Do we expect people to be friendly? Or would we rather have them be hostile? Ideally, we should behave with others in a way that we would expect them to behave.

Now let us look it from another perspective. In an argument, if I use false statistics to build my case, I lose the right to call someone else’s bluff. As a part of a network of people, if I begin to make false promises, then over time I won’t be believed and will be eased out of the network. So if not for anything else, we need to adhere to dharma for our own good and for our own growth.

In sum, just remember: if we smile at someone, usually s/he will smile in return. There’s no guarantee but there’s a good chance. And we feel happy about it. If we frown at someone, there is hardly any chance that we will get a smile in return. And we feel bad about it. Adhering to dharma is like that. If we are dharmik, there is a good chance people will be dharmik in their dealings with us. And we will feel happy about it. If we are not dharmik, we can’t expect dharma in return. And we will be miserable.

I think I’d choose happiness.

(This article first appeared in The Frustrated Indian. In preparing this article, I have drawn heavily from my discussions with Shatavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh and from his monograph on dharma titled ‘ಸಾಮಾನ್ಯಧರ್ಮ’ (2nd Ed. Hubli: Sahitya Prakashana, 2011). I have also benefited from Dr. B. Mahadevan’s podcast on the subject.)

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About:

Hari is a writer, translator, violinist, and designer with a deep interest in Vedanta, Carnatic music, education pedagogy design, and literature. He has worked on books like The New Bhagavad-Gita, Your Dharma and Mine, Srishti, and Foggy Fool's Farrago.

Prekshaa Publications

Prekṣaṇīyam is an anthology of essays on Indian classical dance and theatre authored by multifaceted scholar and creative genius, Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh. As a master of śāstra, a performing artiste (of the ancient art of Avadhānam), and a cultured rasika, he brings a unique, holistic perspective...

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