What is Dharma?

Dharma’ is one of the most intractable terms used in the Hindu philosophy and is derived from the root ‘dhru’, meaning to uphold, sustain or support. Hindu Dharma comprises a medium, an instrument or an integrated scheme of life by which one is prevented from falling down and is uplifted spiritually. It is thus a way of life or a value system. The word ‘Religion’ is used for the lack of a better synonym for ‘Dharma’ in English language.

Hinduism describes Dharma as the natural universal laws whose observance enables humans to be contented and happy, and to save himself from degradation and suffering. Dharma is the moral law combined with spiritual discipline that guides one’s life. Hindus consider Dharma the very foundation of life. Atharva Veda describes Dharma symbolically: Prithivim Dharmana dhritam, that is, “this world is upheld by Dharma”.

Anything that helps human being to reach god is Dharma and anything that hinders human being from reaching god is Adharma. For instance, in the epic poem Maha Bharata, the Pandavas represent Dharma in life and the Kauravas represent Adharma. According to the Bhagavat Purana, righteous living or life on a dharmic path has four aspects: austerity (tap), purity (shauch), compassion (daya) and truthfulness (satya); and adharmic or unrighteous life has three vices: pride (ahankar), contact (sang), and intoxication (madya).

Manusmriti written by the ancient sage Manu prescribes ten essential rules for the observance of Dharma: Patience (dhriti), forgiveness (kshama), piety or self control (dama), honesty (asteya), sanctity (shauch), control of senses (indraiya-nigrah), reason (dhi), knowledge or learning (vidya), truthfulness (satya) and absence of anger (krodha). Manu further writes, “Nonviolence, truth, non-coveting, purity of body and mind, control of senses are the essence of Dharma”. Therefore dharmic laws govern not only the individual but all in society. The purpose of Dharma is not only to attain a union of the soul with the supreme reality; it also suggests a code of conduct that is intended to secure both worldly joys and supreme happiness. Hinduism is the religion that suggests methods for the attainment of the highest ideal and eternal bliss here and now on earth and not somewhere in heaven.

In essence Hinduism is a way of life and culture in which several religious practices are harmoniously blended and bound by the common bond of ‘Dharma’. In the words of a Hindu scholar and writer, Ram Swarup, “it is the name of one religion or one truth lived at hundred points in hundred ways by people of different capacities and preparedness. Unity of Hinduism is not external and geographical; it is deep, subtle, spiritual; it has multiple expressions; it lives in them all; it also exceeds them.”