Talk:Meaning of Dharma

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Dharma is one of those Sanskrit words that defy all the attempts at an exact rendering in English or any other tongue. The word has passed through several vicissitudes. In the hymns of the Ṛgveda the word appears to be used either as an adjective or a noun in the form 'dharman', generally neuter. It occurs at least fifty-six times therein. It is very difficult to say what the exact meaning of the word dharma was in the most ancient period of the vedic language.

Roots of Word 'Dharma'

The word 'Dharma' is clearly derived from the root 'dhṛ'[1]. In a few passages, the word appears to be used in the sense of up-holder or supporter or sustainer.[2]

Form of Dharma

In the two passages of Ṛgveda[3], the word dharma is clearly masculine. In all other cases, the word is either in the neuter or presents a form which may be either masculine or neuter. In most cases, the meaning of dharman is ‘religious ordinances or rites’ as in Ṛgveda[4][5][6] The refrain ‘Tani dharmāni prathamanyasan’ occurs in Ṛgveda[7]. Similarly, we have the words ‘Prathama dharma’[8] and ‘sanata dharmāni[9] in Ṛgveda.[10][11][12]

Different Inferences of Dharma

As per Vajasaneyasamhita

In some passages, the sense of ‘religious rites’ would not suit the context. In these passages, the meaning seems to be ‘fixed principles or rules of conduct'. In the Vajasaneyasamhita the above senses of the word dharman are found and while in other verses, we have the words dhruvepa dharmaij.[13] In the same Samhita the form dharmah is used frequently.

As per Atharvaveda

The Atharvaveda contains many verses of the Rgveda in which the word dharman occurs.[14][15][16]. The word ‘dharmah’ is to also used in the sense of merit acquired by the performance of religious rites'.[17]

As per Aitareya Brahmana

In the Aitareya-brahmana, the word dharman seems to be used in an abstract sense’, viz. ‘the whole body of religious duties’.

As per Chāndogya-Upaniṣad

In the Chāndogya-Upaniṣad[18] there is a whole passage explaining the meaning of the word dharma. According to this scripture, there are three branches of dharma delineated as follows:

  1. The branch constituted by sacrifice, study and charity.[19]
  2. The section constituted by austerities.[20]
  3. The last section comprised of the brahmacārin dwelling in the house of his teacher and teacher's family till his last breath which leads him to the world of meritorious men and thereby attaining immortality.

As per Smṛtis

The Manusmṛiti[21] tells us that the sages requested Manu to impart instructions in the dharma of all the varnas. The Yajnyavalkya-smriti[22] employs it in the same sense. In the Tantra-Vartika also, it has been emphasized that all the dharmasutras are concerned with imparting instruction in the dharmas of varṇas and āśramas. Medhatithi commenting on Manu says that the expounders of smṛtis dilate upon as five-fold as denoted below:

  1. Varṇadharma
  2. Āśrama dharma
  3. Varṇāśramadharma
  4. Naimittika dharma[23]
  5. Guṇadharma[24].

Legacy of Dharma

It will be concluded that as per the Aitreya brāhmana, the word stands for the peculiar duties of the aśramas. The foregoing brief discussion establishes how the word dharma passed through several transitions of meaning and how ultimately its most prominent significance became 'the privileges, duties and obligations of a man, his standard of conduct as a member of the Aryan community, as a member of one of the castes, as a person in a particular stage of life.’

It is in this sense that the word seems to be used in the well-known exhortation to the pupil contained in the 'Taittiriya Upaniṣad.[25] It is specified to speak the truth and practice your own dharma. The Bhagavadgitā uses the word dharma in the oft-quoted verse ‘svadharme nidhanam shreyah’ which also signifies the same meaning. The word is employed in this sense even in the dharmasāshtra literature.

It would be interesting to recall a few other definitions of dharma. Jaimini defines dharma as a desirable goal or result that is indicated by injunctive (Vedic) passages.’ The word dharma would mean such rites as are conducive to happiness and are enjoined by Vedic passages. The Vaiśeśikasutra defines dharma as that from which results happiness and final beatitude. There are several other more or less one-sided definitions of dharma such as ‘ahimsa paramo dharmah’[26], ‘Anrsamsyam paro dharmah’[27] Ācarah paramo dharmah’[28]. Harita defined dharma as Śrutipramānaka based on revelation. In the Buddhist sacred books the word dharma has several senses. It often means the whole teaching of Buddha.[29] Another meaning of dharma peculiar to the Buddhist system is an clement of existence, i. e. of matter, mind and forces. The present work will deal with the sources of dharma, their contents, their chronology and other kindred matters. As the material is vast and the number of works is extremely large, only a few selected works and some important authors will be taken up for the detailed treatment. More space will be devoted to comparatively early works.

AD/CR: Read note 41 for note 46

After the words ‘the sutra is in close relation to one of the oldest schools of the Yajurveda, viz. Kapha the following should be added ‘ Vācaspati in his Śraddha-kalpa alias Pitṛbhakṛtitarangini says that the sutra of Viṣṇu is meant for students of the Kathasikha, as Viṣṇu is a sutra-kāra of that akha’ ; IT of in the India Ollicc, folio 17a (1 . O. p. 556 No. 1750). The sutra referred to is 86.

Synopsis: Defies exact rendering in English - In the Ṛgveda, used as adjective or noun - means upholder or supporter in some Ṛgvedic passages - in most Ṛgveda passages means religious ordinances or rites and in rare cases fixed principles or rules of conduct - in Aitareya-brāhmana dharma means ‘whole body of religious duties- in Chāndogya-Upaniṣad dharma means ‘peculiar duties of aśramas dharma came to mean duties and privileges of a person as a member of the Aryan community, as a member of one of the varṇas or as in a particular stage of life - the same meaning in Taittiriya Upaniṣad, Bhagavadgitā, Manusmṛti and other smṛtis - according to Medhatithi, dharma is five-fold viz., varṇadharma, āśramadharma, varṇasramadharma, naimittikadharma, guṇadharma - this meaning of dharma taken in this work - definitions of dharma according to Jaimini, Vaiśesikasutra, Harita, Mahābhārata and Buddhist works - subjects treated in this work, viz. sources of dharma, contents of works on dharma, their chronology.


  1. It means to uphold, to support, to nourish.
  2. Ṛgveda I. 187.1 and X. 92.2
  3. Ṛgveda X. 21.3
  4. Ṛgveda I. 22. 18
  5. Ṛgveda 26. 6
  6. Ṛgveda VIII. 43. 24, IX. 64. I
  7. Ṛgveda I. 164, 43 and 50, X. 90. 16
  8. It means the primeval or first ordinances.
  9. It means ancient ordinances.
  10. Ṛgveda III. 17. I
  11. Ṛgveda X 56.3
  12. Ṛgveda III. 3. I
  13. Vajasaneyasamhita 11.3 and V. 27
  14. Atharvaveda VI. 51. 3 'Acittyā chet tava dharmā yuyopima',
  15. Atharvaveda VII, 5. 1 'Yajṅena yajṅamayajanta'
  16. Atharvaveda Vll. 27 5 'Tṛni pāda vicakrame
  17. Atharvaveda XI. 9. 17
  18. Chāndogya Upaniṣad 2.23
  19. It is the stage of house-holder.
  20. It is the stage of being a hermit.
  21. Manusmṛti 1. 2
  22. Yajnavalkya Smriti I. i
  23. Prayascitta or penance comes under this section.
  24. It is the duty of a crowned king, whether Kśatriya or not, to protect.
  25. Taittiriya Upaniṣad C 1- 11
  26. Anuśāśanaparva 115
  27. Vanaparva 373. 76
  28. Manu I. 108
  29. S.B.E.Vol. X. p. XXXllI