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By Swami Harshananda

Dharma literally means ‘that which supports’.

The scriptures eulogize dharma. Shastra assert that the people to follow dharma for a better life:
'anityāni śarirāni vibhavo naiva śāśvatah, nityam sannihito mṛtyuh kartavyo dharma-saṅgrahah,’
which means
‘Our bodies are short lived and wealth does not last long, death is constantly knocking at our door; so accumulation of dharma is must.’

Definition of Dharma

The scriptures and great men eloquently propagate dharma throughout history. Exact translation of the word dharma is difficult to infer in Sanskrit language.

It is universally accepted that the word dharma comes from the root ‘dhṛ’. It means ‘to uphold,’ ‘to support,’ ‘to sustain’. Dharma upholds the universe, supports it and sustains it. Thus, the universe will fall apart without dharma. This implies that dharma is God Himself.

The Upaniṣads describe dharma as sat or tat which is the essence of one’s being. Our conduct or lifestyle helps us to reveal dharma as the fundamental principle.

Inferences of Dharma

Dharma can be used in various means depending upon the context narrated. These meanings are:

  1. Law
  2. Duty
  3. Rite
  4. Code of conduct
  5. Etc.

Inclusions of Dharma

Dharma also incorporates:

  1. Rites
  2. Ceremonies and observances
  3. Fixed principles of conduct
  4. Privileges
  5. Duties and obligations of a man depending upon his stage of life and status in society
  6. Rules of law
  7. Customs of the society
  8. Manners of society

Ṛta, Satya and Dharma

The meanings of the words, dharma, ṛta and satya are more or less coalesce.

Ṛta Reference

Terms ṛta and satya are closely connected with the forms of dharma. The word ṛta has been profusely used in the Ṛgveda and the Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda. The word form Ṛta indicates a straight or direct line followed according to the universal laws of nature. It denotes a straight conduct-based truth referred as dharma morally.

Satya Reference

Dharma denotes inner awareness which means truth. It is based on the scriptural teachings and the duties performed by a person. When this awareness and duties express itself through words and actions, it becomes satya.

Dharma as per Vedas

Ṛgveda denotes dharma to be the foundation of the world. It is considered as the basic duty of every person towards his life and the society. Word dharma is used in the Ṛgveda fifty-six times.[1] Overall, in almost all the references, it has been used in context of duty or action which contributes towards the sustenance of the world.[2]

Dharma as per Upaniṣads

Every existing thing in the world has a beginning and an end. This belief strongly support the conception of universe by an eternal God. It has also been supported by various scriptures.

Upaniṣads have used the word dharma in the context of duties profusely. Each member of society has certain duties and responsibilities. Society is able to sustain when these duties are executed in the prescribed manner. Similarly, people need to pass through several stages of spiritual development in the journey towards liberation. Each such stage brings certain duties (code of conduct). This sustains inner development and simultaneously contributes to the well-being of society. The results of this system, known as varṇa-āśrama-dharma in later literature, are mentioned in the Purusasukta and in the earlier Upanisads as well.

Accounts In Kathā Upaniṣad

In rare cases, dharma has also been used to denote the ātman or the Self. In Kathā Upaniṣad: ‘aṇuresa dharmah,’ which means ‘This Self is very subtle’;[3] ‘evam dharmān pṛthak paśyan,’ ‘thus, considering the selves to be separate’ (i.e., ‘different in different bodies’[4]

Accounts In Taittiriya Upaniṣad

In the Acāryopadeśa of the Taittiriya Upaniṣad, the word dharma has been clearly used in the sense of obligatory works Dharmam cara,’ ‘Perform your ordained actions’[5]

Accounts In Chāndogya Upanisad

Chāndogya Upaniṣad supports this theory by:
sadeva somyeda magra āsīt, ekamevādvitīyam... tadaiksata bahu syām prajāyeya iti
My dear (boy), in the beginning Sat alone existed, the One without a second.
It reflected the theory of,
May I become many! May I be born![6]
Here many denotes the beings alive on earth. The beings that were created, needed a central integrating force, law or principle to regulate itself in discipline. Otherwise it would result in a complete chaos. This law or principle is termed as dharma. In one of the famous passages,[7] the duties of āśramas is referred very clearly:
trayo dharmaskandhā yajño’dhyayanam dāna-miti prathamah...’
Dharma has three branches. Performance of sacrifice, study of scriptures and giving gifts—this is the first

Accounts In Bṛhadāranyaka Upanisad

According to Bṛhadāranyaka Upanisad God created everything himself:
tat śreyorupam asṛjata dharmam... tasmāt dharmāt param nāsti... yo vai sa dharmah satyam vai tat
He specially created that dharma, of the form of the highest good... therefore there is nothing higher than that... that dharma is verily satya[8]

Sometimes, the word dharma has also been used in the Upanisads in the sense of apurva of the Purva Mīmāmsā System[9] Apurva is meant as the subtle effect of an action performed as per the directions of the scriptures. These actions produce suitable results later on.

In one of the quoted passages,[10] there is clear mention of dharma as a force regulating a kṣattriya. A kṣattriya by virtue of his position as a ruler could misuse his powers for self-aggrandizement.

Accounts In Mahānārāyana Upanisad

Mahānārāyana Upaniṣad appeals that dharma is the firm foundation upon which the entire universe stands:
‘dharmo viśvasya jagatah pratiṣṭhā’.[11]
Dharma means righteous behavior based on truth and knowledge of the unity in spite of the diversity. Dharma is capable of bringing the best for the whole creation. All other meanings, senses and derivations of the word in later literature are corollaries of this central idea.

Dharma as per Bhagavadgītā

The word dharma has been used in a more definite and clear sense in the Bhagavadgītā. It is the righteousness which is the basis of all the puruṣārthas.[12] It is one’s duty ordained by the scriptures as per one’s varṇa and āśrama. A person is advised to execute his duties properly and attain well-being, both in this world (abhyudaya) and highest good (niśśreyasa).[13] It has been synonymously referred with ātmajñāna[14] or with Karmayoga[15] in rare cases.

Dharma as per Rāmāyana

The keynote of dharma in the Rāmāyana is to speak the truth and to keep up the promise given under all circumstances. Neither any hardship nor any sacrifice is too great compared to the fulfillment of this dharma. The name Rāmāyana can be explained as
rāmasya ayanarii vṛttarii caritam
the path trodden by Rāma or the conduct of Rāma
Śri Rāma is the hero depicted as the ideal man. His observance of dharma was dynamic. His conduct was in perfect conformity with dharma to such an extent that he has been described by the sage Vālmīki as
‘rāmo vigrahavān dharmah
Rāma is dharma personified

Rāma had the full power and strength to vanquish Daśaratha or anybody else and anoint himself as the king. Yet he did not do it as he did not want to violate dharma.[16] To please his father and help him keep up his promise to Kaikeyi, he was prepared to jump into the fire or consume deadly poison or drown himself in the ocean.[17] He would readily give up his life, Sītā or even Lakṣmaṇa but would never break the promise once made.[18] He did not hesitate to forsake Sītā in order to set up a very high standard of family life. He set up new norms of dharma by accepting the hospitality of Guha and Śabarī, by refusing to have more than one wife and by forcing Vibhiṣaṇa to conduct the last rites of Rāvaṇa.

Dharma as per Mahābhārata

The Mahābhārata is considered by many to be an encyclopedia of dharma. A very well-known definition of dharma ‘dhāraṇād dharmamityāhuh’ is reflected here. The epic gives a detailed delineation of the varṇāśrama-dharmas. The dhārmic virtues like satya and ahiṅsā are highly extolled. Performance of ordained duties, immaterial of being small, mean or repulsive, is recommended and eulogized through the stories of Dharmavyādha, Tulādhāra and the simple housewife. The idea of the four puruṣārthas is well described which gives worldly life and worldly pursuits a decent place in the scheme of life. It also gives the leniency in the moral standards and norms in times during distress and emergencies (termed as āpad-dharma).

There is a famous sutra in the Mahābhārata:
dharma eva hato hanti dharmo rakṣati rakṣitah
It is dharma that destroys us; it is dharma that protects us
Gāndhārī says that:
yato dharmastato jayah
Where there is dharma, there is victory also?
An often quoted verse from the Mahābhārata says:
dhāraṇāt dharmam ityāhuh dharmo dhārayate prajāh
They call it dharma since it upholds; it is dharma that upholds the people (of the world)

Dharma as per Purvamimāmsā and Vaiśesika Systems

Dharma means the Vedic ritualistic actions leading to happiness here or hereafter. It has been given two more interpretations here.

Jaimini in his Purvamimāmsā Sutras[19] uses the word in a very restricted sense:
codanā-lakṣaṇo’rtho dharmah,
Dharma is the desirable goal or result that is indicated by injunctive (Vedic) passages.
Kaṇāda gives a more liberal definition:
yato’bhyudaya-niśśreyasa-siddhih sa dharmah,
Dharma is that from which will result both worldly well-being and final beatitude.[20]

Evolution of DHARMA

The smṛtis give a very detailed information of dharma in all its intricacies. Hence they are designated as ‘Dharmaśāstras.’ According to these scriptures, dharma is the Cosmic Law which bonds the beings of the world and sustains them. They give a detailed practical information about the way of life which will help them to live according to dharma. Since human beings are gregarious by nature, all the instructions have a sociological bias. This way dharmaśāstras delineate the varna-āśrama-dharmas.

All the dharmaśāstras owe their allegiance to the Vedas. They also accept the words and conduct of saints, sages and seers well-versed in the knowledge of the Vedas, as authoritative in determining dharma.[21] Since circumstances in life are sometimes quite intriguing, the dharmaśāstras wisely recognizes the needs for reflective morality. For instance in Yājñavalkya Smrti[22] it has been mentioned that: ‘śrutih smṛtih sadācārah svasya ca priyamātmanah samyaksaṅkalpajah kāmo dharmamulam idam smṛtam,’ which means ‘The Vedas, smṛtis, usages of good men, what is agreeable to one’s self and desire born of deliberation are traditionally recognized as the source of dharma’.

Religion considers man’s life as a long journey towards perfection. In this journey, natural desires and inclinations of man to possess and enjoy the good things of life cannot be overlooked. Hence the dharmaśāstras provide the detailed theory of the puruṣārtha for the acquisition of artha (wealth) and kāma (enjoyment of fleshly desires) within the framework of dharma. It is asserted that by following the footsteps of the Jñānakānda[23] of the Vedas, one should always try for mokṣa or liberation as the summum bonum of life.[24]

No society is absolutely homogeneous. Even the five fingers of our own hand exhibit this principle. The dharmaśāstras recognizes this natural division as God-made and give detailed instructions regarding the duties and responsibilities of various groups or varṇas of society towards each other. It emphasizes on these divisions being evolved due to guṇa (quality) and karma (vocation). Stringent punishments for the person ignoring one's duty and rewards for sincere performance have been subscribed. However, relaxations of these rules have been provided in the times of distress.

While dealing with the duties of a king, the dharmaśāstras have given us a fairly well-developed form of Indian jurisprudence. Fair justice occupy the central place in all these rules.[25] Supporting the principle of a long journey in life, stations (āśramas) have been provided in a man’s life for effecting this perfection gradually. Detailed directions have been provided with regard to each of the āśramas.

The dharmaśāstras have provided some basic rules common to all the varṇas and āśramas (sāmānya-dharmas). A perusal of these will reveal to us the great stress laid on the moral life. To get the forgiveness from 'the God', the human being must make himself pure by recognizing his own sins and repenting for them. The dharmaśāstras have given us a detailed treatment of the various kinds of sins and necessary expiations or prāyaścittas.[26]

Apart from these, the dharmaśāstras also deal with the sanskāras or sacraments which purify human beings, making them better fitted for the spiritual journey in life. We thus see that the concept of dharma has undergone a healthy evolution over the years, preserving the core meaning.

Dharma, a Dynamic Concept

Sometimes the Hindu society is considered very conservative. It is believed that dharma including social laws, customs and manners is outmoded and stagnant. On the other hand, an impartial study of the smṛtis shows that social laws have constantly been revised depending on the needs of the times.

The earliest smṛtikāras like Manu and Yājñavalkya suggest that when a dharma (law or custom) is hated or disliked by people (lokavikṛta) it must be given up.[27] Throughout the history, many times we find the rules and regulations being changed to suit the tastes and needs of the people. Inspite of the amendments, the fundamental spiritual principles have always been kept intact. There is a change in the view of Upaniṣads regarding principle of food, the kali-varjya principle and anuloma marriages.[28]

It is also believed that certain acts permitted in the earlier ages should not be permitted in this kali age. For instance, animal sacrifice in Vedic sacrifices. All these clearly indicate that the Hindu sages and founders of laws were endowed with immense common sense. This proves the society to be dynamic throughout the history.


From ancient times, the history of dharma represents it to be potential. Dharma is conceived as the Cosmic Law gradually metamorphosed into duties and responsibilities prescribed for various beings in different stages of evolution in life. The principle behind this evolution is to bring about spiritual enlightenment. If all the members of the society act according to dharma, happiness and peace will prevail eternally. Ṛṣi Vyāsa has said that, ‘dharmo rakṣati rakṣitah’ which means Dharma is the protector cannot go in vain.


  1. Ṛgveda 5.63.7; 5.72.2; 9.7.1; 9.25.2; 10.88.1; 10.170.2
  2. ‘jagad-dhāraka-karma’
  3. Kathā Upaniṣad 1.21
  4. Katha Upaniṣad 4.14
  5. Taittiriya Upaniṣad 1.11.1
  6. Chāndogya Upanisad 6.2.1-3
  7. Chāndogya Upanisad 2.31.1
  8. Bṛhadāranyaka Upanisad 1.4.14
  9. Bṛhadāranyaka Upanisad 2.5.11 ‘ayarh dharmah sarveṣām bhutānām madhu’.
  10. Brhadāranyaka Upanisad 1.4.14
  11. Mahānārāyana Upanisad 79.7
  12. Bhagavadgītā 18.34
  13. Bhagavadgītā 4.8; 18.31; 1.40; 7.11 etc.
  14. Bhagavadgītā 9.3
  15. Bhagavadgītā 2.40
  16. Rāmāyana 2.53.26
  17. Rāmāyana 2.18.28-29
  18. Rāmāyana 3.10.19
  19. Purvamimāmsā Sutras 1.1.2
  20. Vaiśesika Sutras 1.2
  21. Manusmrti 2.6; Gautama Dharmasutras 1.1-2; Āpastamba Dharmasutras; Yājñavalkya Smrti 1.7.
  22. Yājñavalkya Smṛti 1.7
  23. Section that deals with spiritual wisdom of the Vedas.
  24. Manusmrti 12.116 to 125
  25. Manusmrti chapters 8 & 9
  26. Manusmrti, chapters 10 & 11; Yājñavalkya Smrti, 3.205 to 327; Vasistha Dharmasutras, chapters 20 to 28
  27. Manusmṛti 4.176
  28. Marriage of higher caste men with women of lower castes.
  • The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore