Saturday, December 17, 2016

What is Dharma?

This Sanskrit & English article in tries to explain what Dharma is.

At the outset I should say the term "Hindu dharma" is a forced term, because of the common usage to contrast Dharma and religion.

Hindu Dharma – 1: Dharma and Religion

The word dharma has many meanings. In India from ancient times the word Dharma has been used in various senses. At the very onset we must understand that what is known as “Religion” in the west or “Mazhab”/ “Deen” in Islamic culture, is not the same as Dharma.

The dharma of water is to flow. However it is meaningless to say that the “religion” or “deen” of water is to flow. Not only is “dharma” translated as religion, sometimes it is also translated as “duty”. Like “religion”, “duty” cannot explain dharma. To say that the duty of water is to flow is meaningless. In English language, the word duty is applicable to people with thinking abilities and to beings with intellect.

Noted Indologist Shri Rajiv Malhotra often says that to understand our dharma we must use Indic categories and not take recourse to western categories. Instead of asking what dharma is, we should therefore ask what the signs and aims of dharma are.


The word dharma is derived from the root धृ meaning to uphold. That which upholds is known as Dharma. In Mahabharata, on being asked the purport of Dharma by Yudhishthira, Bhishma replies: It is most difficult to define Dharma. Dharma has been explained to be that which helps in the upliftment of living beings. Therefore, that which ensures the welfare of living beings is surely Dharma. The learned rishis have declared that which sustains is Dharma.
Dharma helps in the welfare of man and in achieving societal-harmony. Bhishma explains this to Yudhishthira in Karna-Parva of Mahabharata: Dharma sustains the society. Dharma maintains the social order. Dharma ensures wellbeing and progress of humanity. Dharma is surely that which fulfills these objectives.
In Shrimad Bhagavad it is said: The rules are dharma are made thus to enable smooth functioning of this world. But following it will give you lot of happiness not only in this world, but also the afterlife.
In Mahabharata Shanti-Parva it is said: Truthfulness, to be free from anger, sharing wealth with others, forgiveness, procreation of children from one’s wife alone, purity, absence of enmity, straightforwardness and maintaining persons dependent on oneself are the nine rules of the Dharma of persons belonging to all the Varna’s.
In Manusmriti, the great rishi Manu explains the ten signs of Dharma as patience, forgiveness, piety or self-control, honesty, sanctity, sense-control, reason, knowledge or learning, truthfulness and absence of anger.
According to Yajnavalkya, the nine signs of Dharma are non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, and purity, control of senses, giving, self-control, forgiveness and compassion.
From these definitions it is clear that dharma provides us solutions to problems in our everyday practical life. Dharma is based on reasoning, logic and rules. From dharma, one can discern what is to be done and what is not. Ideas like non-anger, speaking the truth, forgiving-nature, simple living etc. must be imbibed by everybody. This helps us understand what the right path is and what is not. Dharma thus gives us guidance on what is acceptable behavior and what is not.  Dharma is not based on any illogical premise.
Hinduism has all these signs and aims. Jainism and Buddhism have many of the above mentioned signs and aims. Thus Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism may be considered dharma.