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From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

By Shankara Bharadwaj Khandavalli and Krishna Maheshwari

The Sanskrit word Dharma has no direct translation into English. Among other things, it can be thought of as righteousness in thought, word, and action. It comes from the root Dhr, which means to uphold, sustain, or uplift. Thus another interpretation of the word in English would be 'the collection of natural and universal laws that uphold, sustain, or uplift[1].' Ie. law of being; law of nature; individual nature; prescribed duty; social and personal duties; moral code; civil law; code of conduct; morality; way of life; practice; observance; justice; righteousness; religion; religiosity; harmony.

Dharma also refers to the following people from historic texts:

  • Yama, the lord of the departed and the judge of the actions of the departed souls; Justice personified as born from Yama, who is the divine father of Sāma, Kāma, Harşa, Vidura and Yudhişţhira[2]
  • the prajāpati who was the husband of 13 of the daughters of Dakşa and the father of Hari and Nārāyana[3]
  • the son of Aņu and the father of Ghŗtas[4]
  • a son of the Hehaya and father of Netra[5]
  • son of Pŗthuśravā; the 15th jaina arhat of the present avasarpinī[6]
  • a son of Gāndhāra and father of Dhŗta[7].

Defining Dharma[edit]

The definition of Dharma as that which upholds, sustains and uplifts does not define the object that is being upheld, sustained, or uplifted. It does not imply any specific object (living or inanimate) and thus applys to all possible objects. It represents a ‘Principle’ or a ‘Quality of being’ that can be widely used in a variety of contexts to mean a variety of different ideas.

In the Mahabharata, Yudhistira asks Bhishma to explain the meaning and scope of Dharma. Bhishma replies:

Tadrisho ayam anuprashno yatra dharmaha sudurlabaha
Dushkamha pralisankhyatum tatkenatra vysvasyathi
Prabhavarthaya bhutanam dharmapravachanam kritam
Yasyat prabhavasamyuktaha sa dharma iti nischayaha.[8]

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 that which sustains is Dharma.

In the Karna Parva, Lord Krishna explains Dharma to Arjuna in the following words:

Dharanat dharma mityahu dharmo dhara-yate prajaha
Yat syad dharanasamyuktam sa dharma iti nischayaha[9]

Dharma sustains the society. Dharma maintains the social order. Dharma ensures well being and progress of humanity. Dharma is surely that which fulfills these objectives.

Rishi Jaimini, the author of Purva Mimamsa and Uthara Mimamsa, explains Dharma as:

Sa hi nisreyasena pumshamsamyunaktiti pra-tijaneemahe
tadabhidhiyate chodanalakshno ariho dharmaha[10]

Dharma is that which is indicated by the Vedas as conducive to the highest good.

Madhavacharya, in his commentary on Parashara Smriti, explains the meaning of dharma as

Dharma is that which sustains and ensures progress and welfare of all in this world and eternal Bliss in the other world. Dharma is promulgated in the form of commands. (positive and negative vidhi and nishedha).[11]

Dharma embraces every type of righteous conduct, covering every aspect of life essential for the sustenance and welfare of the individual and society. Further, it includes those rules which guide and enable those who believe in God and heaven to attain moksha.

Dharma as Cosmic Order[edit]

The earliest import of the word Dharma, arises from the ancient Vedic idea of Ritam (or Cosmic Order)[12]. The entire universe is sustained by a cosmic order, which are physical laws that govern the motion of stars, suns, planets, satellites, asteroids and other physical bodies. For example, the law of gravity sustains life on the earth – since without it everything would fly away, never to come back. Similarly there are other natural laws that are responsible for sustaining and upholding various natural phenomenon. For example, why electrons keep revolving around the nucleus of an atom, why atoms combine in ways to form molecules, why the earth goes around the sun, and why human beings breathe out carbon-dioxide while plants breathe out oxygen. There are thus physical laws, chemical laws, biological laws, even psychological laws that both underlie the behavior and also sustain and maintain various natural phenomena.

There are geophysical laws that govern the occurrence of mountains, forests, climates, seas and rivers, and the numerous phenomena we see on this planet. There are climatic laws that govern the seasons: summer follows spring, spring follows winter, and winter follows autumn and so on. The winds blow as though by an internal law – gently in normal times, and as hurricanes and gales, in abnormal times. And even the hurricanes and gales come only during their appointed season. The snows melt in the high mountains during summer, and the rivers flow in full spate, and thus the whole cycle of life is sustained.

There are biological laws that govern the birth, growth, sustenance and death of all things living, from the single-celled amoeba to the complex human being. There is a digestive system that digests food, and a respiratory system that transforms oxygen into energy, a nervous system that carries impulses, a brain that initiates thought and co-ordinates movement, and so on. The Laws of Evolution have governed the progressive differentiation of species, and Laws of Destruction have destroyed numerous species in their time. There are laws that govern how the heart works, how the breath works, how hunger works and how food works, how speech works, how the mind works, how emotions work and how imagination works.

It could be said that it is the Dharma of the Wind to blow, the Dharma of the Sun to heat up the world, the Dharma of the Ice to freeze and melt, the Dharma of Fire to burn. It is the Dharma of the Plants to give out oxygen, and the Dharma of the Animals to give out carbon dioxide. And behind the delicate workings and inter-relations between the various cosmic phenomena, there is an order, an intelligently engineered and organized system, a set of laws that seem to be at work governing the great forces and powers (Shakti) at play behind these laws.

This is Dharma as the cosmic order, that includes many dynamic sub-orders, each represented by powers and forces of great intensity and magnitude, each governed by their own dharma or internal law of being and working – each interacting upon one another, within the boundaries of that law, sustaining, maintaining and upholding all things material and phenomenal in this Universe.

Dharma as a Social Order[edit]

While recognizing that in its inherent definition, Dharma must include all these natural cosmic laws that pertain to the physical universe, it is when the word is applied to Human life, that it gains additional significance. In the Mahabharata, Lord Krishna states that Dharma sustains society, maintains social order, and ensures wellbeing and progress of humanity[13].

Every society is prone to internal and external conflict. Individuals are fallible and prone to fall to the passions of greed, desire, jealousy and anger that may lay hold of the mind and give rise to all forms of social disturbance. In order to curb this likelihood, proper education and training must be provided and a sense of orderly living imparted. To live in peace in accordance to Dharma, individuals must learn to gain a free range of expression and experience while at the same time, know not to transgress the freedom and liberty of others[14].

Dharma, in this situation, is the collection of laws that uphold, sustain, and uplift society, social order, and the well-being and progress of humanity. It is the prescriptions and proscriptions that give rise to harmony, workability and stability in any society.

Every society has recognized the need for these as seen in religions that have created commandments and injunctions, backed by threats of extraordinary punishments for transgression in the present life and afterlife.

Dharma has indeed been given an elevated place in the consciousness, enshrined through numerous stories and puranas, epics and tales in order to make it accessible to all, ranging from the uneducated villager to the powerful king, from the rishi to the merchant, irrespective of their station and role in society. This ensures that Dharma, the law of right living and conduct, is enshrined and passed on from father to son, from mother to daughter - from generation to generation.

Dharma as Ethical behavior[edit]

Dharma includes the Golden rule “Do unto others as others would do unto you”, and therefore the set of all possible values such as speaking the truth, being kind, speaking pleasant words, being respectful, demonstrating reverence towards the earth and the natural resources etc. Dharma includes all possible values, and not any one specific set of values, defined by any one individual or religious tradition, at a historical point of time. Dharma extends itself into the specific ways of life, our value systems, and attitudes.

When an individual conforms to a certain universal matrix of behavioral norms, (s)he contributes in the sustenance, maintenance, and the upliftment of societal order and thus the society itself. On the other hand, if the universal norms are transgressed, then a chain of actions and reactions takes place, which creates disorder. For example, the abused child becomes an abuser himself, or the hurt individual hurts another.

Dharma as Duty or Responsibility[edit]

Dharma can be said to be expressed in the duties and responsibilities of an individual or a community that ensures the harmony and balance in society as a whole, in terms of its inter-relations and its dependencies. So Dharma upholds, sustains and uplifts all the various constituents of this universe, who are woven together in a common interdependent existence.

When the parents perform their duties or discharge their responsibilities towards their children, that naturally sustains and uplifts their children. And when children perform their duties towards their parents, their actions sustains and uplifts the parents. When there is a break in the discharge of the responsibilities of a parent towards a child, there is set in motion, a great cycle of disharmony, and society itself becomes unbalanced in some way.

Similarly when the citizens perform their duties or discharge their responsibilities (i.e. pay their taxes, don't break laws), this sustains the well-being of the society (and the State), and when the State discharges its responsibilities towards its citizens, that upholds, sustains and uplifts its citizens.

When the society discharges its duties and responsibilities towards the Earth and all its inhabitants i.e. plants and animals, then the Earth itself is upheld, sustained and uplifted. When humanity consumes the resources of the Earth indiscriminately, then that can unsettle the balance and harmony in this world and result in disaster.

Dharma as Service to the Community[edit]

Ordinary human endeavors involve the pursuit of Artha and Kama – which can be loosely translated as security and pleasure, respectively. People's lives are predominantly given to the commitment of their professional lives, and the various pleasures that the physical world has to offer for experience. They hold on to their jobs for financial security, build and buy houses for security, invest in retirement funds for a secure future, and pursue various pastimes for pleasure. In fact, for most people, life is confined to the pursuit of Artha and Kama.

It is when they awaken to a wider possibility – that of subordinating personal interests in favor of ensuring the wellbeing of others – whether those others are within the family, neighborhood, village, city or state, or a specific community or even the country or the world – their lives take on a wider dimension. A commitment to pursue the greater good, clearly sustains, maintains, upholds and uplifts the prevailing social order, especially the community that is the beneficiary. Dharma is therefore inherent to any community service – whether it is the building of a school or running a hospital or an orphanage, or creating a philanthropic foundation or running a shelter for the homeless.

Dharmic life, is a life of self-less service, of sacrifice and contribution. It is the lifestyle that has been held in India from time immemorial as an ideal life, a life worth emulating, a life that one aspires towards. Making a difference in society at large, somehow honors and fulfills the human spirit, and brings to life the true possibility and potential of human existence. Every Purana thus extols Dharma. In the Ramayana this idea is personified in Lord Rama – who is widely called Vigrahavaan Dharma – the embodiment of Dharma.

Dharma as Self-Expression[edit]

Each human being is endowed with specific qualities and gifts. Some are born with a a talent for music or sports, while others have developed a talent for management. Some have a deep well developed intellectual disposition while others are blessed with great energy and entrepreneurship for social activity. Ultimately a human being uplifts himself, sustains and upholds his spirit, when he or she truly fully develops and expresses his or her unique gifts in the service of humanity.

Man must grow to his full potential, in conformity with his own inner law of being - his Svadharma. Such self-actualization is consistent with the complete unfoldment of the specific gifts, talents and qualities that one is blessed with and results in the true fulfillment of one’s life’s potential as well as bestows these special gifts and talents to those surrounding such a person. This flowering of a human being is also Dharma - this developing of an inner potential and possibility to its full height and range of expression, this unfolding of human genius consistent with the individual’s own inner law of being and action, and this manifestation in physical reality, the power of the human mind, thought, feeling and action.

When society has created the conditions of harmony and stability, the pre-conditions of progress are created. Such a society flowers naturally and easily, and there is an outburst of human creativity – and all manner of creative expression is found to arise. In short periods of time, such societies have brought forth great advances in art, architecture, science and technology, philosophy and thought, literature and drama, and all other fields of human development.

Dharma as a means for Moksha[edit]

Progress of humanity can be conceived in many different terms – scientific, social, industrial, technological, arts, economic, political and so on. India’s civilization has always conceived of humanity’s progress in spiritual terms, and given it a pre-eminent significance. It is in the context of spiritual progress, that the notion of Dharma attains its fullest import. The Rig Veda was realized and composed on the banks of the Saraswati River many millennia ago. It describes the purpose of human life succinctly in the phrase "Atmano mokshartham jagat hitayacha" which means 'the pursuit of moksha while keeping in view the welfare of the world.' From a spiritual context, the ultimate fulfillment of a human life arises in the pursuit and attainment of moksha.

A life of Dharma then is a life that keeps in full view the spiritual end of human life and harmonizes one’s everyday life with the progression towards that end. Dharma becomes the means to attain a spiritual end of life. Thus Dharma is that which sustains, upholds, and uplifts the spiritual progress of humanity, both individually and as a collective. Without a complete understanding of the essentially spiritual journey that human beings are on, without a recognition of the nature of the inner reality of the individual, and the relationship with the universe, and without establishing a notion of Bhagwan as the all-pervasive reality of this universe, the word Dharma cannot be fully understood.

Scriptural Discussions[edit]

Dharma is outlined in both Sruti and Smriti. For example, the Rig Veda refers to it as Ritam later on, the Atharva Veda also refers to it. The Kalpa Sutras, a Vedanga, contain the Dharma Sutras, Srauta Sutras, Grihya Sutras and Sulba Sutras. Of these, Dharma Sutras outline dharma. Because of the critical importance of grhastha ashrama to the society, Grihya sutras (to be followed by Grhastha) are separately mentioned. These Sutras are specific to the adherents of each Veda Shakha. There are many other metrical codes written, for instance by Manu, Parashara and Vasistha, that serve the same purpose. Apart from these, the Itihasa and Puranas detail the nature of Dharma and illustrate through stories what is Dharma in various life situations.

Sutras are guidelines and not impositions. They provide a guide to persons desiring to go by a particular path regarding what benefits and what retards them in their path. The prayaschitta for deviation also applies only to someone wanting to go by a specific path.

Among the Smritis for instance, the Manusmriti has more of a record of what is/was, rather than a prescription. It is a statement of what kind of social setup existed and what were the norms followed. Parashara smriti, being more recent, is said to be applicable to kaliyuga.

So the following are the texts needed to understanding Dharma:

  1. Sutras (Dharma, Grihya)
  2. Smritis
    • Metrical codes like Manusmriti
    • Itihasa Puranas

There are three sources of knowledge of Dharma[15]:

  1. Through scriptures
  2. Through elders
  3. By observing the behavior of noble men in different situations

The concepts involved in understanding Dharma:

  1. Varna Dharma
  2. Ashrama Dharma
  3. Concept of Karma

These are overlapping and not exclusive concepts.

Types of Dharma[edit]

Dharma can be classified into many subsets depending on application area and to whom or what is being discussed. For people, the following are examples of dharma that typically apply for day-to-day life:

  • Vyakti dharma - the dharma of an individual
  • Parivarika dharma - family dharma (also called kutumba dharma)
  • Samaja dharma - societal dharma
  • Rashtra dharma - national dharma
  • Manava dharma - the dharma of mankind
  • Varna dharma - professional dharma
  • apad dharma - exceptional/abnormal situational dharma
  • Yuga dharma - dharma applicable for an age
  • Ashrama dharma - dharma for stage of life

Dharma in Common Usage[edit]

Mahatma Gandhi brought the phrase "Ahimsa Paramo Dharma" into common usage stating (in contradiction to scripture) that non-violence was the topmost Dharma for all and he is often quoted by many people and leaders.

Dharma as a Civilizational Principle[edit]

Ancient Rishis saw rights and responsibilities as two sides of the same coin and decided to emphasize responsibilities and duty over rights whereas other civilizations emphasized rights. They knew that when responsibilities and duties are fulfilled, people receive their rights. For example, when parents fulfill their duties and responsibilities for their children--their children receive their rights. The same principle applies for a nation and its citizens. Where people live in conformity with their dharma, the individual rights of all others are naturally granted. A culture that emphasizes rights over duties only results in a competitive clamoring where each group and sub-group organizes itself to lobby and fight for its rights. Whereas in Sanatana Dharma, one is taught to live consistently with one's dharma (swadharma), and leave the rest to Ishwara or Bhagwan[16]

Related Articles[edit]


  1. Dharayati iti Dharmaha – Means “That which upholds, sustains and even uplifts is Dharma”.
  2. Mahabharata
  3. Harivańśa Purāņa
  4. Harivańśa Purāņa
  5. Bhāgavata Purāņa
  6. Jainendra Siddhānta Kośa
  7. Vişņu Purāņa
  8. Mahabharata, Shanti Parva 109-9-11
  9. Mahabharata, Karna Parva, 69.58
  10. Jaimini 1-2
  11. P. 71 Genomics In Asia By Margaret Sleeboom-Faulkner
  12. first referred to in the Rig Veda
  13. Mahabharata, Karna Parva 69.58
  14. "What is Santana Dharma--A definition"
  15. Manusmriti 2.6-16
  16. Viswanathan, Kalyan, "The Bhagvad Gita and Mahatma Gandhi - Dharma and Ahimsa." Waves - 7th International Converence, June 27, 2008