Dharma (Sanskrit: "way of righteousness." From dhri, "to sustain; carry, hold.") refers to the underlying order in nature and human life and behavior considered to be in accord with that order. The word Dharma is used to mean nyaya (Justice), what is right in a given circumstance, moral values of life, pious obligations of individuals, righteous conduct in every sphere of activity, being helpful to other living beings, giving charity to individuals in need of it or to a public cause or alms to the needy, natural qualities or characteristics or properties of living beings and things, duty and law as also constitutional law. Dharma is the law that maintains the cosmic order as well as the individual and social order. Dharma sustains human life in harmony with nature. When we follow dharma, we are in conformity with the law that sustains the universe.
Dharma is a Sanskrit expression of the widest import. There is no corresponding word in any other language. It would also be futile to attempt to give any definition of the word. It can only be explained. It has a wide variety of meanings. A few of them would enable us to understand the range of that expression. Hence dharma can be briefly said as "that which contains or upholds the cosmos."
Human society, for example, is sustained and upheld by the dharma performed by its members. For example, parents protecting and maintaining children, children being obedient to parents, the king protecting the citizens, are acts of dharma that uphold and sustain society. In this context dharma has the meaning of duty. Dharma also employs the meaning of law, religion, virtue, and ethics. These things uphold and sustain the proper functioning of human society.
Dharma, is a multifaceted and all-inclusive term with many meanings which includes Divine Law, Law of Being, Way of Righteousness, Religion, Ethics, Duty, Responsibility, Virtue, Justice, Goodness and Truth.
The thought of dharma generates deep confidence in the Hindu mind in cosmic justice. This is reflected in the often-quoted maxims: "The righteous side will have the victory." "Truth only prevails, not falsehood." "Dharma kills if it is killed; dharma protects if it is protected." "The entire world rests on dharma."
Mahabharata the great epic which is acclaimed as the Manava Kartavya Sastra (code of duties of human beings) contains a discussion of this topic. On being asked by Yudhistira to explain the meaning and scope of DHARMA, Bhishma who had mastered the knowledge of Dharma replied thus:
Tadrisho ayam anuprashno yatra dharmaha sudurlabaha
Dushkamha pralisankhyatum tatkenatra vysvasyathi
Prabhavarthaya bhutanam dharmapravachanam kritam
Yasyat prabhavasamyuktaha sa dharma iti nischayaha.
SHANTHI PARVA - 109-9-11
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.
Karna Parva — Ch. 69 Verse 58 eulogies Dharma in the following words:
Dharanat dharma mityahu dharmo dhara-yate prajaha
Yat syad dharanasamyuktam sa dharma iti nischayaha.
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
Sa hi nisreyasena pumshamsamyunaktiti pra-tijaneemahe
tadabhidhiyate chodanalakshno ariho dharmaha.
Dharma is that which is indicated by the Vedas as conducive to the highest good.
Therefore, 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 God and heaven to attain moksha (eternal bliss).
The question arises as to what is right? Hindu scriptures include the following guidance that should be used to determine what is right under given circumstances:
- svadharma (individual actions) which are based upon satya (Truth), ahimsã, and moral values are considered righteous actions.
- Political, social, and community-related activities, which are based upon unselfishness, satya (Truth), ahimsã, and moral and ethical values are defined as right actions.
- Actions that arise as a consequence of ashrama dharma (one's stage of life) are considered good. The dharma of a student is to acquire knowledge and skills, whereas the dharma of a householder is to raise the family, and that of a retiree is to advise and guide the younger generations.
- Actions that are associated with varna dharma (one's profession) are considered right actions. The duty of a soldier may be to take the life of an enemy, whereas the duty of a doctor is to save the life, including that of an enemy.
- Actions which ensure adherence to the laws of the land are righteous actions. If the laws are unjust, they must be changed through democratic means and non-violence.
- In the event of a conflict between individual and social dharma, the social dharma takes precedence. "He who understands his duty to society truly lives. All others shall be counted among the dead," declares Tirukural, a Hindu scripture.
- "What you desire for yourself, you should desire for others. What you do not like others to do to you, you should not do to others." (Mahãbhãrata, Shãntiparva, 258)
In a nutshell Dharma defies dogma and thus seeks to instead align the human sharira (body), manas (mind), and atman (the Self) in harmony with nature. The doctrine of dharma states that right action must be performed for the sake of righteousness, and good must be done for the sake of goodness, without any expectation of receiving something in return.
Dharma is often referred as the Principle of Righteousness, the Principle of Holiness and also as the Principle of Unity. Bhishma says in his instructions to Yudhishthira that whatever creates conflict is Adharma, and whatever puts an end to conflict and brings about unity and harmony is Dharma. Anything that helps to unite all and develop pure divine love and universal brotherhood, is Dharma. Anything that creates discord, split and disharmony and foments hatred, is Adharma. Dharma is the cementer and sustainer of social life. The rules of Dharma have been laid down for regulating the worldly affairs of men. Dharma brings as its consequence happiness, both in this world and in the next. Dharma is the means of preserving ones self. If you transgress it, it will kill you. If you protect it, it will protect you. It is your sole companion after death. It is the sole refuge of humanity.
Our very limitation is guided under a universal understanding, that of Dharma. The atharvaveda, the last of the four books of the Vedas, utilizes symbolism to describe dharma's role. That we are bound by the laws of time, space and causation is only a finite reality, a limitation imposed by the self-projection of the infinite Brahman as the cosmos. Dharma is the foundation of this causal existence, the one step below the infinite. Indeed, dharma is the projection of divine order from Brahman, and as such:
"Prithivim Dharmana Dhritam"
— (Atharva Veda)
"This world is upheld by Dharma"
Dharma is called so because it bears and holds up the entire creation.
In short —
- Dharma is a collection of universal principles, without which there would be no existence of this creation.
- Dharma is the loving hand of the Divine Mother, which protects the entire creation from total annihilation and holds it up for further development.
- Dharma is the spiritual mother earth, which bears and protects the entire creation, without which our existence would have no ground.
- Dharma is the most beautiful maiden Ushas (goddess of the Dawn), it is her radiance and the reddish glow of her most beautiful face which signals the coming of the sun of wisdom and prosperity, and the departure of the darkness of ignorance and poverty.
- Dharma is Sanatana (eternal) and pervades all religions, because it comprises of all that is eternal and internal in a religion. A life in accordance of Dharma is a life in accordance of the laws of Nature and creation; hence it leads us towards evolution, development and everlasting bliss.
The Eternal Principle of Dharma
Dharma is our true place in the cosmic process: in time, in space, in awareness, in thought, deed and desire. The eternal principle of Dharma determines the harmonious functions of the cosmic machine. In order that we fulfill our role in the divine play we must behave within our Dharma. That is, we ought to do the right thing, at the right time, in the right way, and for the right reason. By this we attain balance. To establish balance within yourself ensures your own welfare as well as the welfare of society. It opens the path prepared for us by the divine.
A yogi was performing his regular routine of taking a bath in the river, while his followers waited for him on the shore. When the yogi noticed a fallen scorpion in the water, the yogi immediately picked up the scorpion. In spite of the intense pain of the scorpion sting racing through his veins, the great yogi waded through the water towards the shore, and rescued the scorpion. His followers watched, surprised at the Yogiӳ determination to help the scorpion.
The confused followers rushed to the struggling yogi, only to see a smile of content on the yogiӳ face. One of them asked him how he can still smile after almost being killed by the very scorpion he rescued. The yogi responded that the scorpion was only following its dharma, or nature, which is to sting. Also, the dharma of a yogi, which was to save the life of the scorpion, was followed.
Dharma is a natural instinct in all of us that stimulates us to act at a subconscious level, without thinking.
The Divine Principle
Dharma is a Divine Principal that is inherent and invisible, but responsible for all existence. Dharma exists in all planes, in all aspects and at all levels of creation. In the context of human life, dharma consists of all that an individual undertakes in harmony with Divine expectations and his own inner spiritual aspirations, actions that would ensure order and harmony with in himself and in the environment in which he lives. Since this world is deluded, a human being may not know what is right and what is wrong or what is dharma and what is adharma. Hence he should rely upon the scriptures and adhere to the injunctions contained there in. In short, dharma for a human being means developing divine virtues and performing actions that are in harmony with the divine laws.
Dharma is considered to be the first cardinal aim because it is at the root of everything and upholds everything. For example see what happens when a person amasses wealth without observing dharma or indulges in sexual passion against the social norms or established moral values. Any action performed without observing dharma is bound to bring misery and suffering and delay ones liberation. Hinduism therefore considers it rightly as the first cardinal aim of life.
The Law of Being
That which elevates one is Dharma. This is another definition. Dharma is that which leads you to the path of perfection and glory. Dharma is that which helps you to have direct communion with the Lord. Dharma is that which makes you divine. Dharma is the ascending stairway unto God. Self-realisation is the highest Dharma. Dharma is the heart of Hindu ethics. God is the centre of Dharma.
Dharma means acara or the regulation of daily life. Achara is the supreme Dharma. It is the basis of Tapas or austerity. It leads to wealth, beauty, longevity and continuity of lineage. Evil conduct and immorality will lead to ill-fame, sorrow, disease and premature death. Dharma has its root in morality and the controller of Dharma is God Himself.
Maharshi Jaimini defines Dharma as that which is enjoined by the Vedas and is not ultimately productive of suffering.
The Way of Living
Dharma is a force that sustains this universe. Wherever there is dharma, we can unearth harmony and balance, both individually and socially. Dharma is a universal principle that lives in all societies, allowing for peace and brotherhood to grow among all people, not just certain religions.
If one studies today's society, we can say that dharma is gradually declining from the age of the ancient days to this day. In his dying speech, Bhishma tells Yudhishthira that in the fourth age of Kali Yuga (our present age), "dharma becomes adharma and adharma, dharma". If we live in on the basis of lust greed, and to accumulate possessions, money, and sensual pleasure by the demands of the mind and senses, it will become difficult to follow the path of dharma. People are becoming gradually more restless and out of balance. The guilt that they contain is so large that they are concealed from the world of happiness. Earning money is a stressful negotiation between necessity and greed. The world is full of egoism, materialism, and hatred. In the modern world, carried away by the mechanical way of living, people don't care for nature, culture and art, which is the root cause for all the problems they are facing and suffering today.
Eightfold Path of Dharma
"Worship, study, charity, austerity, truth, forgiveness, compassion and freedom from greed, this is the eightfold path to Dharma.
The first four can also be performed by a hypocrite, but the last four can only exist in a great soul."
Essence and purpose of Dharma
"May there be peace in the whole world. May the wicked become peaceful and gentle. Let all people pray with their hearts for peace and mutual wellbeing. May our minds resort only to that which is auspicious and good. May our thought be fixed on Lord Vishnu without any selfish motive." (5-18-9)
So accordingly it can be said that a Dharma is only a true Dharma, if :-
- It shows us a path to bring peace to the whole world.
- It transforms the hearts of those who want to harm and impels them to promote peace, not disturbance.
- It teaches its followers to pray for world peace and for physical, psychological and spiritual wellbeing of all beings.
- It teaches a method to reach a state of consciousness where our mind only follows that which is auspicious and good for all of us, and avoids that which is harmful to others and ourselves.
- It teaches devotion to the supreme Lord while at the same time eradicating selfish desires from our heart.
So concisely, the purpose of Dharma is world peace, and transformation of the hearts, while its essence is prayer for universal wellbeing, noble thoughts, and selfless devotion. So, in one word Dharma is - Universal Love.
If You Protect It, It Will Protect You
Dharmo Rakshati Rakshitaha
Dharma protects those who protect it!
Though the results are slow, person of dharma realizes the atman (Self), understands one's nature, does all work as perfectly as possible, and lives a full life with happiness. That is why dharma is very important and necessary for everyone. Honesty pays, but people do not have the patience to practice it, said Swami Vivekananda.
Incentives of Dharma are visible to only those who follow it. The quote, "know till you try" applies in this situation. We need to think about dharma before we do anything. So, before gambling, dharma says, "Gambling is bad. You lose money and credibility. Your good name will be destroyed." Until and unless the gambler understands this, he is bound to suffer. Another example of suffering would be when a person buys the most demanding car; only to see his neighborӳ car, which happens to be better than his car. Now this person's happiness suddenly disappeared since someone else has a better car than him. This is fake happiness; the true happiness comes from the atman (Inner Self). Some have not experienced this happiness yet, but they will not know the feeling without seeking it first. Whoever practices Dharma finds the peace, joy, strength, and tranquility within themselves.
Dharma is the harmony of thought, word and deed. This is the mark of true humanness. Protecting dharma is an essential duty of every individual and society. Without dharma, the life does not continue. Hence great sages have toiled to save dharma forever. Today's societies must continue that spirit.
"In whose heart resides Dharma or benevolence, for such a person there is nothing that is difficult to attain." says Goswami Tulasi Das.
Dharma helps us to get rid of the animal part and develop the human in us. Therefore it is a path that helps us to become a perfectly developed Human Being. It is the only path that leads to everlasting peace, prosperity and joy in this world.
The Eternal Truth
Dharma is the greatest and the most valuable contribution to humanity by Bharatvarsha (India), and it is the central concept in religions and philosophies originating in India. These religions and philosophies are called dharmic traditions. The principal ones are Hindu Dharma or Sanatana Dharma, Buddhism or Buddha Dharma, Jainism or Jain Dharma and Sikhism, all of which emphasize Dharma (the correct understanding of Nature) in their teachings.
Essentially, dharma is the orderly fulfillment of an inherent nature or destiny. Relating to the atman (Inner Self), it is the mode of conduct most conducive to spiritual advancement, the right and righteous path.
All our present day problems are a direct result of disregarding 'Dharma' , under the influence of a materialistic philosophy, in the belief that it alone can usher in happiness and secure the welfare of the people. Now it is becoming clear that human problems multiply as we go on multiplying our lust and desire for material wealth and pleasure and that the solution to all the problems, Social, Economic and Political, which the world and our nation are facing, in particular the crash of our moral edifice is, Dharma alone panacea. There is no alternative to 'Dharma'. This is the Eternal Truth. This can be realized, if we understand the real meaning of 'Dharma'.
Persons who render selfless service to other human beings are the greatest.
Persons who carry on their profession, avocation or business with self interest,
but without exploiting and causing any injury to those who deal with them are good.
But those who give trouble to or exploit others in utter selfishness are demons in human form.**
Is Dharma religion?
Generally the equivalent of Dharma in English is considered "religion". However, this translation is based on a fundamental misunderstanding since if "religion" means :-
- the condition of belonging to a religious order,
- a particular religious or monastic order,
- a particular system of a belief in a supernatural power,
Then Dharma has nothing to do with religion. In this sense, the Sanskrit word for "religion" can be "sampradaya" or "Mata", but not Dharma.
If "religion" means belief in a superhuman controlling power, entitled to obedience, reverence, and worship, then it is just an aspect of Dharma, viz. devotion to the Divinity. In this sense, the Sanskrit equivalent of "religion" can be "Shraddha" or bhakti", but not Dharma, because, as described above, the true realm of Dharma extends far beyond just that.
Either way, Dharma is NOT religion.
(See Dharma and Religion)
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