‘Dharma’ stems from the root sound dhri, in Sanskrit which means ‘to sustain; carry, hold’. At the cosmic level dharma refers to underlying order in nature and human life. At the basic human level it refers to behaviours being in accordance to that order. It also means duty, justice, law, virtue, ethics, religion, goodness and truth. We cannot find a single alternate word in English for dharma. It cannot be defined but can only be explained. It is said that dharma is only second to God in the order of the cosmos. When the divine consciousness created the purusha and prakriti it seem to have established dharma along with them to sustain them in their pure nature. So it can be said that dharma sustains everything in its true nature. In other words, dharma is the true nature itself of every being, both living and non-living. Simply said, dharma is that which contains or upholds the cosmos. It is akin to the canvas behind a painting or the cloth holding embroidery or the stone that holds a sculpture. While we admire the beauty of a painting, embroidery or the sculpture, that which holds them is often not seen, gets ignored. In due course we tend to believe the painting or the statue exists by its own selves. That’s the beginning of ignorance, I suppose.
The story of a rishi and a scorpion in one of the old Indian scriptures captures the essence of what dharma is. The story goes thus…. Once upon a time there was a rishi taking bath in a river along with his disciples. He saw a scorpion struggling in the water. He lifted the scorpion from the water in order to save it. The scorpion stung him severely and he was almost fainting because of the sting. Still he struggled to swim across to the shore and released the scorpion which rushed into the grasses alive. He heaved a sigh of relief and a smile swept through his face and he fell on the river bank unconscious. Shocked by the behavior of their guru who almost got himself killed his disciples, brought him resuscitated him asked him why he would rescue a scorpion which almost killed him. The guru replied, ‘stinging is the dharma of a scorpion; but saving a life is the dharma of a rishi.’
In the Mahabharata when Yudhistra asked Bhishma to teach him what dharma was, Bhishma from his bed of arrows said thus:
It is most difficult to define Dharma.
Dharma has been explained to be that which helps the upliftment of living beings.
Therefore, that which ensures the welfare of living beings is surely Dharma.
The learned rishis have declared that which sustains is Dharma.
SHANTHI PARVA – 109-9-11
In another place in the Mahabharata dharma is praised as
Dharma sustains the society
Dharma maintains the social order
Dharma ensures well being and progress of Humanity
Dharma is surely that which fulfils these objectives
KARNA PARVA 69-58
Jaimini, the author of the celebrated Purvamimamsa and Uthara Mimamsa, explains ‘Dharma’ thus:
Dharma is that which is indicated by the Vedas as conducive to the highest good.
Bhishma again says:
Whatever creates conflict is adharma
Whatever puts an end to conflict and brings about unity and harmony is dharma
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 the Divine. At the pragmatic level it transforms into right action. Then the question that arises is ‘what is right action?’ Indian philosophical frameworks give a series of direction for the same as well.
Right action is one that is governed by one’s svadharma, kuladhrama, asrama dharma, varna dharma and rashtriya dharma. Thus there is a series of dharma in hierarchical order starting from the individual level to the national level. It also goes beyond that to the global level pertaining to the cosmic period to which we belong, called the yuga dharma.
- Svadharma is the action determined by one’s nature, spiritual temperament and essential character. It is the natural instinct in all of us that stimulates us to act at a subconscious level, without thinking. One’s nature is in turn determined by one’s physical, pranic and mental constitutions, namely trigunas (sattwa, rajas, tamas) and body constituency (vata, pitta, kapha).
- Kula dharma is political, social, and community-related activities, which are based upon unselfishness, satya (Truth), ahimsã (non-violence), and moral and ethical values.
- Ashrama dharma is determined by the stage in life we belong to. The fours ashramas laid out in the Vedas are brahmacharya, gruhasta, vanaprasta and sannyasa. Each stage in life has its own set of norms and values to uphold in order to sustain one’s own identity and the family and society at large. Widely these are considered as four stages of life, while a differing perspective is that these are four options that are open for one to choose to live through his life. Thus one can choose to live as a brahmachari all through his life while one might take the path of sannyasa quite early in life like Sankara. These choices are again guided by one’s svadharma.
- Varna dharma pertains to the personality type to which one belongs. Even though the Vanashrama has been highly distorted and grossly abused in form of the caste system, in its original form it was an efficient social system that prescribed professions to individuals based on their qualities and natural temperaments and traits. Each varna (Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra) has its own nature (dharma). Knowing it to suit one’s career is the ancient form of ‘personality-job fit’. The story of Satyakama Jabala in the Upanishads stand testimony to this, where Satyakama who was born to jabala, a woman who did not know who his father was, was initiated into brahmanhood by a rishi because he stood for truth, which was the quality of a brahmin.
- Rashtriya dharma governs the conduct of each one of us as a responsible citizen of our nation.
- Yuga dharma that which sustains the universe at each yuga. There is a vedic analogy of dharma as a cow with four legs, where each leg is an aspect of kala – a yuga. In the first phase, satya yuga, the cow (dharma) was hale and healthy with all its four legs intact. When time transited into the second phase, dvapara yuga, it limped with three legs, denoting slow degenerating of values (dharma). In its third phase, treya yuga, it almost became immobile with just two legs. In its current phase, kali yuga, it is crippled and close to collapse with just one leg left. Prophetically, Bhishma says in the Mahabharata that in the kali yuga ‘dharma will become adharma and adharma dharma’. Subsequently Krishna says in the Gita that whenever such an erosion of dharma happens through the ages he will come again and again to reinstate the rightful place of dharma.
Following one’s dharma helps us align our body, mind and self with nature and eventually the divine. By establishing a hierarchy of dharmas it is ensured that no one acts arbitrarily at their own whims but act responsibly considering various factors into account.