Hinduism (original name Sanatana Dharma) provides complete freedom in worship, but lays down a strict code of conduct for life in the world. In this sense, Hinduism is more a way of life than a religion. As a Christian term, religion is a belief system to which one either belongs, or not, and of which one has to accept the items of belief, regardless what science would say about them. The followers of Hinduism are not Hindus because they accept one theology or one way of worship, they are all Hindus because they accept the Hindu way of culture and life. The theist and the atheist may both be Hindus not because of their religious outlook, but because of their ethical and spiritual outlook in life. In Hinduism, an atheist is not the one who denies God, but the one who denies dharma. Bhagavad Gita 6.40 says, “the performer of good (and not the one who believes in this or that view) never gets into evil state. There is no fall for him here or hereafter.” Thus in Hindu tradition, the practice precedes the theory and Hinduism is not merely a religion, but a fellowship of all who accept dharma and earnestly seek for truth.

In the Rig Veda, the cosmic order of the universe is called rita. This cosmic order reveals itself in the form of natural laws that are applicable to every level of existence. Rita is the underlying cosmic principle, which regulates nature from the voyage of the planets to the motion of the subatomic particles. The Vedic people concluded that since human beings are a part of the cosmic plan, there must be a moral and ethical order in the human society corresponding to rita in the natural world. This moral and ethical order was given the Sanskrit name, dharma. It was further recognized that there is a constant conflict between the spiritual and the material or the eternal and the temporal. While striving after the ideal, people cannot afford to overlook the actual.  Dharma was thus formulated to secure the material and spiritual sustenance of the individual and the society. Dharma is the product of the speculative and the practical wisdom of the ancient sages of India and is the path to the universal peace and harmony. It is the formula for “doing the right thing” or, in the popular terminology, “getting the job done right.”

What is Dharma?

The word dharma is derived from the Sanskrit root dhr, meaning, ‘to hold,’ ‘support’ or ‘sustain’.  Thus dharma is what sustains (dharayata iti dharma). There are two dimensions to dharma: (1) vertical and (2) horizontal. The vertical dimension concerns one’s natural and eternal relationship with the Divine (Godhead), including the knowledge that leads to Self-realization, the realization of one’s true nature as an inseparable aspect or expression of the Divine. This dimension of dharma also includes the religious duties, required rites and ceremonies, observances, and pilgrimages etc. that help one to attain Self-realization, the ultimate goal of human life in Hinduism.

The horizontal dimension concerns one’s relationship with fellow creatures, human and other. Thus dharma includes ethics, laws of the land, individual and social responsibilities; the laws of being, the principles and forces which sustain a being and the path of righteousness, rules of health, hygiene and the ecosystem.  Every thought, word or deed that sustains human growth and promotes harmony in the community, society and the world is an integral part of dharma.

When rendered literally, dharma means ‘fixed position.’  Dharma, therefore, is the fixed position of both the duty and simultaneously of right to which an individual is bound. Dharma holds mankind together individually, socially, politically, culturally and spiritually and helps a person to fulfill his or her individual needs, duties and obligations to the family and the society. The concept of dharma is grounded in the Hindu scheme of ethical, moral and spiritual values.

Since dharma means the true nature of things and beings and encompasses the universal and eternal principles, every form of life has its dharma, which is the law of its being. If moksha is full divinity, dharma is divinity achievable under human conditions. In individual life, dharma encompasses all systems and values as mentioned above, which are necessary to maintain harmonious relationship between individual, family, society and the universe. For example, the dharma of a student is to study, the dharma of an individual is to support his or her family and the society, the dharma of a policeman is to protect life and property, and the dharma of a doctor is to cure and thus protect even the life of an enemy. In short, dharma is ‘the right thing to do’ under the prevailing circumstances. 

Everything also has its dharma, which is the law of its being and without which it can never exist. Thus dharma of water is to quench thirst, dharma of fire is to give heat, the dharma of a cell is to survive and perform its natural functions, the dharma of an electron is to revolve around the nucleus of an atom, the dharma of Earth is rotate around the sun, and the dharma of the sun is to support life on Earth. In social life, dharma represents just and equitable laws, which restrain evil and promote virtuous life. Dharma is the idea of universal justice, involving responsibility in its widest sense, to ensure growth and harmony of all that has ever come into existence. Dharma is also the Sanskrit word for justice. In Hindu legal literature, the word dharma conveys the same meaning as the words ‘ethical’, ‘reasonable’ and ‘equitable’ in the Western legal literature. 

Dharma and the Individual

In the Hindu view, an individual is a part and parcel of the Mighty Whole, but not ‘the measure of all things,’ as is held in the West. Since individuals derive support from the cosmos, they have specific rights, but must bear their due share of the cosmic duties and responsibilities. Thus dharma is the ‘cosmic contract’ of individual duties and rights simultaneously, to which the individual is naturally bound. Dharma assigns a specific place to each individual in the cosmic family of all-human as well as non-human creatures. Dharma imposes obligations not only towards the higher Deity, but also towards the lower beings; not only towards self-preservation, but also towards the preservation of fellow creatures; not only towards family and society, but also towards animate and inanimate constituents of the cosmos. 

Thus the Hindu concept of dharma is more profound than the Western concepts of duty and ethics. Dharma admits no exception, and even gods cannot claim exclusion from this cosmic contract.  Dharma is not an idea of obedience to any scripture, deity or divine being, but is, in the words of late Professor Betty Heimann, “The idea of universal justice, involving responsibility in its widest sense, not, however, in the guise of any external compulsion but as immanent necessity, so that all that has ever come into existence produces its specific reaction and effect.”

Dharma and the Society

Hindu sages maintain that individual duties and responsibilities must take precedence over individual rights and privileges to protect the natural world and to ensure individual and social harmony. This is the major difference between the wisdom of the Hindu sages and the modern social thought. Modern social thought emphasizes rights and privileges over duties and responsibilities. The result is a rights-oriented society, which is primarily individualistic in character. Success in this society is measured in terms of how high your position is, how many people work for you, and how large your income is. This is the philosophy of measuring our lives in terms of property and possessions, and prestige and power. Since we evaluate ourselves in terms of individual success, there is no commitment to dharma, the foundation of civic virtue.

If we want to solve the problem of modern social evils such as crime, drugs and guns, we have to take a fresh look at our approach to life and the laws that govern it. We have to implement dharma in our social and political life to eliminate the social prejudice and economic disparity that has given birth to many of our social evils. We want individuals to strive hard, but we must also strive for the common good of the people. Every society must have a sense of dharma, i.e. what is right and wrong under given conditions. The things that are right are the things that nurture the individuals, environment and promote harmony not only in one’s own society, but also in the entire world. These are the virtues like truthfulness, kindness, compassion, honesty, justice, harmlessness, fairness and accountability, which are the operating parameters of Hindu dharma

Practicing Dharma

Dharma is a way of life, which creates a balance between material and spiritual requirements of people at all levels. The acquisition of wealth and enjoyment of material possessions (artha) is necessary, but the balancing aspect of dharma ensures fairness in all dealings and restricts people from going beyond moral and ethical norms. This way people are free to shape their lives, yet be in the conformity with the value system.

Time has come to once more draw our strength from dharma and guide the human society to live in harmony, for destiny of entire mankind is the same. A dharmic person would be one who considers himself or herself as a universal entity, with universal feelings, having total regard for the sacredness and centrality of all life. Such a person would accept that there are many ways to worship the same God and consider all human beings equal. This would encourage him or her to give a call to the human society across the globe to live like members of one large family (Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam). Let every human being become a dharmic person, so that there is sustained peace in the world.

It is only after global understanding dawns on the person that one can perceive true nature of dharma. Dharma, which is the universal and eternal natural law, governing all aspects, stages and actions of humans, provides total freedom and protection. It unites fellow human being, promotes respect for diversity and provides a holistic vision of realizing that ultimately the “Truth is one and wise call it by various names.” (Rig Veda)

As stated above, at the universal level dharma is known as ‘rita’ and prevails in the law of nature. At global level it is the ‘Manav Dharma’, which is an expression of humanism and universality, built around a proper understanding about the purpose of life. At social level, dharma stands for justice and is the entire code of conduct. Through the long history of India, the powers conferred on the king were always in accordance with dharma. Dharma is a code of conduct supported by the general consciousness of the people.

At personal level, dharma allows individuals to hold on to their own beings by following ethical standards like fortitude, forgiveness, self-control, non-coveting, purity, control over senses, power of mind to discriminate between good and bad, learning, truthfulness and absence of anger. It is through the observance of dharma that an individual realizes his or her relevance in the world.

The prejudice that we bear towards others arises from our poor judgmental attitudes based upon ignorance and a sense of separation. Therefore the first stage of dharma practice is to rid ourselves of all preconceived notions and judgmental attitudes. Once we have suspended a judgment we can then begin the development of unconditional love and compassion which naturally leads to generosity, charity and service to all. The greatest obstacle to one’s spiritual, social and universal wellbeing is the “double standard” factor. We see everything from a selfish, subjective and personal standpoint. We believe that our religious, social and political values are superior than anyone else’s. Our possessions are more important than those of others and our acts can be fully justified. The practice of dharma seeks to turn “selfishness” into “altruism” where the others are seen as important, if not more, as ourselves. Hindu scriptures give the following twelve prescriptions (six relating to self-development and six relating to relationship with others) for practicing dharma: Physical and Mental Purity (saucham), Worship of God (yajńā), Austerity (tapas), Self-control (damah), Pursuit of knowledge (vidyā), Contentment (shantī), Nonviolence (ahimsā), Truthfulness (satya), Generosity (danam), Non-stealing (asteya), Forgiveness (kshmā), and Veneration for Preceptors, i.e. parents and teachers (guruseva).

Hindu Scriptures Speak on Dharma

Eating, sleep, fear and procreation are common to both animals and humans. Dharma alone is specific to humans; without dharma they are equal to animals.      (Hitopadesha)

If our activities while still or moving, conscious or unconscious are not for the benefit of other beings, they are equal to the actions of beasts.   (Garuda Purana)

The Veda, the sacred tradition, the conduct of virtuous people and one’s own conscience; this is declared to be the fourfold source of dharma.     (Manusmriti 2-12)

The eternal duty (dharma) towards all creatures is the absence of prejudice towards them in thought, deed and word and to practice compassion and generosity towards them. (Mahabharata Vana Parva 297:35)


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