The word 'dharma' literally translates as 'that which upholds or supports' (from the root, Dhr, - to hold), and is generally translated into English as 'law'. But throughout the history of Indian philosophy, it has governed ideas about the proper conduct of living - ideas that are upheld by the laws of the universe. The symbol of the dharma - the wheel - is the central motif in the national flag of India.
The various Indian religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jain dharma, Sikhism etc.) have all accorded a central focus to Dharma and advocate its practice. Each of these religions emphasize Dharma as the correct understanding of Nature (or God, as the origin of nature) in their teachings. In these traditions, beings that live in accordance with Dharma proceed more quickly toward Dharma Yukam, Moksha or Nirvana (personal liberation). Dharma also refers to the teachings and doctrines of the founders of these traditions, such as those of Gautama Buddha and Mahavira. In traditional Hindu society with its caste structure, Dharma constituted the religious and moral doctrine of the rights and duties of each individual. (see dharmasastra). Dharma in its universal meaning shares much in common with the way of Tao or Taoism.
The antonym of dharma is adharma meaning unnatural or immoral.
The word goes back to Sanskrit through a common Indo-Iranian root, dhar, "to fasten, to support, to hold", continuing PIE *dher, in the IEW, connected with Latin frēnum "rein, horse tack"; Germanic words for "hidden, held back" (OHG tarni "latens"); and extended to dher-gh, with OCS drъžǫ, drъžati "to hold, possess". Etymological identity of dharma with Latin firmus (whence English firm) has been suggested, but remains uncertain.
In the Hindu text of the Rigveda, the word appears as an n-stem, dhárman-, with a range of meanings encompassing "something established or firm" (in the literal sense of prods or poles), figuratively "sustainer, supporter" (of deities), and in the abstract, similar to the semantics of Greek ethos, "fixed decree, statute, law".
From the Atharvaveda and in Classical Sanskrit, the stem is thematic, dhárma- (Devanāgarī: धर्म), and in Pāli, it takes the form dhamma. It is also often rendered dharam in contemporary Indian languages and dialects. It is used in most or all philosophies and religions of Indian origin, sometimes summarized under the umbrella term of Dharmic faiths, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. It is difficult to provide a single concise definition for Dharma. The word has a long and varied history and straddles a complex set of meanings and interpretations.
In most of the modern Indian languages, such as Hindi or Bengali, dharma can also contextually mean simply "religion." Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism are called Hindu Dharma, Buddha-Dharma, Jain-Dharma and Sikh dharma, respectively.
In the Rig veda, the belief (or observation) that a natural justice and harmony pervades the natural world becomes manifest in the concept of rta, which is both 'nature's way' and the order implicit in nature. Thus rta bears a resemblance to the ancient Chinese concept of tao and the Heraclitan or stoic conception of the logos.
This "power" that lies behind nature, and which keeps everything in balance became a natural forerunner to the idea of dharma as one can see in this early Vedic prayer. This idea laid the cornerstone of Dharma's implicit attribution to the "ultimate reality" of the surrounding universe, in classical Hindu.
The following verse from the Rig-Veda is an example where rta finds mention :
- "O Indra, lead us on the path of Rta, on the right path over all evils." (RV 10.133.6)
The transition of the rta to the modern idea of Dharma occurs in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. The Upanishads saw dharma as the universal principle of law, order, harmony, all in all truth, that sprang first from Brahman. It acts as the regulatory moral principle of the Universe. It is sat, truth, a major tenet of Hinduism. This hearkens back to the conception of the Rig Veda that "Ekam Sat," (Truth Is One), of the idea that Brahman is "Sacchidananda" (Truth-Consciousness-Bliss). Dharma is not just law, or harmony, it is pure Reality. In the Brihadaranyaka's own words:
- " Verily, that which is Dharma is truth.
- Therefore they say of a man who speaks truth, 'He speaks the Dharma,'
- or of a man who speaks the Dharma, 'He speaks the Truth.'
- Verily, both these things are the same."
- (Brh. Upanishad, 1.4.14) (2)
In the Mahabharata, Krishna defines Dharma as: "Dhaaranaad dharma ity aahur dharmena vidhrtaah prajaah, Yat syaad dhaarana sanyuktam sa dharma iti nishchayah", Dharma upholds both this-worldly and the other-worldly affairs (Mbh 12.110.11).
Dharma as a "Purushartha"
In moving through the four stages of life, viz. Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vaanprastha , Sanyaasa, a person also seeks to fulfill the four essentials (purushaartha) of Dharma, Artha (worldly gain), Kama (sensual pleasures), and Moksha (liberation from reincarnation or rebirth). Moksha, although the ultimate goal, is emphasized more in the last two stages of life, while Artha and Kama are primary only during Grihasthaashram. Dharma, however is essential in all four stages.
The deity named Dharma
Dharma is also the name of a deity or "Deva" in charge of Dharma. Mythologically, he is said to have been born from the right breast of Brahma, is married to ten daughters of Daksha and fathers Shama, Kama and Harahsa. He is also the father of the celebrated Rishis Hari, Krishna, Nara-Narayana.
In the Epic Mahabharata,he is incarnate as Vidura. Also, Dharma is invoked by Kunti and she begets her eldest son Yudhisthira from him. As such Yudhisthira is known as Dharmaputra. There is also an assimilation of God Dharma and Yama, the God of the Dead in the Mahabharata.