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.

Other Significances by Eminent Scholars

  • Jaimini defines dharma as a desirable goal or result that is indicated by injunctive or Vedic passages. The word dharma means such rites which are conducive to happiness and enjoined by the Vedic passages.
  • The Vaiśeśikasutra defines dharma as the actions which results into happiness and final beatitude.
  • There are several other inferences on the definitions of dharma such as ‘Ahiṃsā paramo dharmah’[26], ‘Anrsamsyam paro dharmah’,[27] and Ācarah paramo dharmah’[28].
  • Harita defined dharma as Śrutipramānaka based on revelation.
  • In the Buddhist sacred books the word dharma has several senses but the most acclaimed one is that dharma means all the 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.

As the meaning of dharma is vast and the number of works are very huge, only a few selected works and some important authors are considered for the detailed synopsis.


In the Ṛgveda, the word dharma is used as adjective or noun which means upholder or supporter. Most of the Ṛgveda passages imply dharma as religious ordinance or rite and in rare cases fixed principles or rules of conduct. In Aitareya-brāhmana, dharma means ‘whole body of religious duties while in Chāndogya-Upaniṣad dharma means ‘peculiar duties of aśramas dharma which became duties and privileges of a person as a member of the community. The same meaning has been acclaimed in Taittiriya Upaniṣad, Bhagavadgitā, Manusmṛti and other smṛtis. Medhatithi portrays dharma as five-fold while Jaimini, Vaiśesikasutra, Harita, Mahābhārata and Buddhist works treat the subject in comprehensive details which include sources of dharma, contents of works on dharma and 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