Dharma: Its Wider Meaning and Connotations
Derivation and meaning of the word ‘Dharma’
The word ‘dharma’ (धर्म) in Sanskrit is derived from the root धृ  meaning ‘to hold’, ‘to bear’, ‘to carry’ or ‘to support’.  धारणात् धर्मः –  that which holds together or supports is dharma.  In this sense dharma encompasses all ethical, moral, social and other values or principles, code of conduct and behavior which contribute to the well-being, sustenance and harmonious functioning of individuals, societies and nations and which prevent their disintegration.  In a wider sense it is dharma which sustains and supports the whole world. This word has gathered around itself such richness of meaning and wealth of associations that it is impossible to translate it into a single word in any other language, Indian or foreign.
Usage of the word ‘Dharma’  in languages other than Sanskrit   
In many Indian languages the word ‘dharma’ is used to denote ‘religion’.  However,  in Sanskrit, there is no word which is the exact equivalent of ‘religion’. The word ‘religion’ connotes a set of dogmas and beliefs, a code of conduct, a Founder, a Sacred Book and a Church or similar institution.  Such a concept of Institutionalized religion is alien to Hindu thought.  In fact, Hinduism (more properly ‘Sanatana Dharma‘ ) accommodates within its fold people with widely differing beliefs and dogmas.  It is therefore no wonder that Sanskrit does not have a word which is the exact equivalent of ‘religion’ in the sense mentioned above. 
‘Dharma’  is also used in Indian languages to denote ‘duty’, ‘righteousness’, ‘virtue’, ‘justice’, ‘morality’, ‘charity’, ‘innate tendency’ etc.  All these represent only a particular aspect of ‘dharma’.  There is no single word which can be substituted for the Sanskrit word ‘Dharma’.  This is also the case with English and other western languages where the difficulty in translating the term is enhanced because of the cultural divide.  In fact the word ‘dharma’ has already been assimilated into the lexicon of the English language. 
Dharma’ is a unique human attribute
An oft-quoted verse in Sanskrit says:
            आहारनिद्राभयमैथुनानि सामान्यमेतत्पशुभिर्नराणाम् ।
            धर्मो हि तेषामधिको विशेषो धर्मेण हीनाः पशुभिस्समानाः ॥  
’Eating, sleeping, fearing and mating – human beings have these in common with animals.  What distinguishes them from animals is dharma.  Those devoid of dharma are no better than animals’
Only human beings are endowed with the capacity to distinguish between what is dharma and what is adharma, the opposite of dharma.  Human beings are endowed with an inner conscience which cautions us when we contemplate deviating from the righteous path.  This, of course, assumes that we have not smothered this inner voice by habitually breaking the counsel of that voice.  Without adherence to dharma humans will sink to the level of animals.
The Supreme Importance of Dharma in Sustaining the World
Decline of dharma  and ascendancy of adharma ( the opposite of dharma) will result in such chaotic conditions and destabilization on the Earth that the Lord Himself comes down in human form to re-establish the reign of Dharma.  Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita:
        यदा यदा हि धर्मस्य ग्लानिर्भवति भारत ।
        अभ्युत्थानमधर्मस्य तदात्मानं सृजाम्यहम् ॥
        परित्राणाय साधूनां विनाशाय च दुष्कृताम् ।
        धर्मसंस्थापनार्थाय संभवामि युगे युगे    ॥
’whenever there is decline of dharma and ascendancy of adharma,  I take birth Myself on this Earth to establish the rule of Dharma.  In every Yuga I incarnate myself to protect the virtuous and destroy the wicked.’
Sankara’s definition of Dharma
The first Sankaracharya defines dharma in the following words:
                अभ्युदयनिःश्रेयसकारणो चोदनालक्षणो धर्मः
That which the Sruti (the  Vedas) prompts us to do and which will result in our material and spiritual advancement is dharma.  An illustration of this definition can be given from the Taittiriya Upanishad wherein the Teacher (Acharya) addresses his pupils on the completion of their Vedic studies:
सत्यं वद । धर्मं चर। स्वाध्यायान्मा प्रमदः। ……………. मातृदेवो भव। पितृदेवो भव। आचार्यदेवो भव । अतिथिदेवो भव । …………….   
Mother Sruti,  through the medium of the teacher’s address to his pupils, prompts us to speak the truth, walk on the path of dharma, do swadhyaya without fail  (study the scriptures regularly) and look upon one’s mother, father, teacher and also the guest as divine.  Being the exhortations of Mother Sruti for our own material and spiritual benefit , the above codes of conduct comes within Sankara’s definition of dharma.
Manu on the Sources and Essence of Dharma
How do we distinguish between dharma and adharma ?  Manu has this to say in answer to this question:
            वेदः स्मृतिः सदाचारः स्वस्य च प्रियमात्मनः।
            एतच्चतुर्विधं प्राहुः साक्षाद्धर्मस्य लक्षणम् ॥   
That which the Vedas and dharma sastras prompt us to do is dharma. The example set by noble and exalted souls by their conduct (सदाचारः)  and what one’s own conscience says is also dharma. Manu also says:
     धृतिः क्षमा शमोऽस्तेयं शौचमिन्द्रियनिग्रहः।
     धीर्विद्या सत्यमक्रोधो दशकं धर्मलक्षणम् ॥
‘Steadfastness or determination (धृतिः), patience (क्षमा), control of the mind (शमः), non-stealing (अस्तेयं), purity of mind, body and speech (शौचं), control of the senses (इन्द्रियनिग्रहः), an inquiring intellect (धीः), knowledge which leads to liberation (विद्या),  truth in thought, word and deed (सत्यं) and controlling anger (अक्रोधः) – these ten are the marks of dharma’
What Manu says about the inner conscience being the arbiter of dharma, finds expression in the following lines from shankuntlam of Kalidasa, the great poet:
             सतां हि सन्देहपदेषु वस्तुषु प्रमाणमन्तःकरणप्रवृत्त्यः . 
When a person of exalted character is in doubt whether a particular course of action is right or not, he has only to listen to his inner conscience.  What this inner voice approves is right, what it does not is wrong.
Example to be followed in case of doubt
In the Taittiriya Upanishad, in the context of the Acharya’s address to the students, the question arises about the course of action to be followed when one is in doubt whether an action or conduct is in conformity with dharma or not.  The Teacher says:
अथ यदि ते कर्मविचिकित्सा वा वृत्तविचिकित्सा वा स्यात्।  ये तत्र ब्रह्मणाः सम्मर्शिनः। युक्ताः आयुक्ताः । अलूक्षा धर्मकामाः स्युः । यथा ते तत्र वर्तेरन् । तथा तत्र वर्तेथाः ।
‘When you are in doubt whether an action or conduct is right or wrong, you should follow the example set by men of noble thoughts and deeds who are kind-hearted, who are ever willing to give sound advice and who always desire dharma alone’
Duty to protect and uphold dharma
It is the duty of everyone to protect dharma. Manu says “धर्मो रक्षति रक्षितः’ meaning dharma protects those who protect it.  The same idea is expressed in Valmiki Ramayana wherein Kausalya tells Rama before he leaves for the forest:
    यं पालयसि धर्मं त्वं धृत्या च नियमेन च।
    स वै राघवशार्दूल धर्मस्त्वामभिरक्षतु॥
’O Raghava! Dharma  which you uphold with steadfastness and discipline protect you from all sides’. 
Sanatana dharma and yuga dharma
The religion of the Hindus is known as Sanatanadharma  the core values of which are embodied in the following lines from Manu Smriti:
     धृतिः क्षमा शमोऽस्तेयं शौचमिन्द्रियनिग्रहः।
     धीर्विद्या सत्यमक्रोधो दशकं धर्मलक्षणम् ॥
The values enumerated in the above lines of Manu are valid for all times (Yugas).  They form the core of Sanatanadharma. On the other hand yugadharma is valid for a particular age or Yuga.  These evolve based on the particular social, political and other circumstances prevailing in a particular age.  Yugadharma  may change when the yuga changes but Sanatana dharma remains the same for all yugas
The dilemma of dharma and adharma
Man is often confronted with situations wherein he is unable to decide which course of action is dharma and which is not. We have the classic example of Arjuna who comes to the battlefield to wage a righteous war with the Kauravas.  But he finds his own kith and kin and his own revered teachers in the opposite camp.  Arjuna is unable to decide which is his dharma, killing his own kinsmen and teachers in a war or retreating from the scene of action.  The Lord had to expound the whole of the Gita to resolve his inner conflict.  The Lord says to Arjuna:
             सुखदुःखे  समे कृत्वा लाभालाभौ जयाजयौ ।
             ततो युद्धाय युज्यस्व नैवं पापमवाप्स्यसि ॥
’O Arjuna! Engage yourself in this fight with a mind which accepts with equanimity pleasure and pain, gain and loss, victory and defeat. Thus you will not be tainted by your actions’.
The conflict between dharma and adharma  goes on all the time, both in the external world and in the internal world of man.  The kurukshetra war typifies this battle in which the final victory is always of dharma.  The Lord Himself was on the side of dharma represented by the Pandavas.
Importance of swadharma
One’s dharma differs from that of another person depending on one’s calling, place in the family, place in society, station in life and other circumstances.  The Gits says:
          स्वधर्मे निधनं श्रेयः परधर्मो भयावहः।
It is better to die doing one’s own dharma than following परधर्म  i.e another man’s dharma. Following परधर्म  may have frightening consequences.  What is swadharma to a butcher cannot be swadharma to a brahmin and vice versa.
Srimad Bhagavata tells the story of dharma vyadha, a butcher by calling, who practiced his swadharma as a Karma Yogi would.  He did his allotted work in life with a detached mind and served his old parents with all his heart, seeing in them God incarnate.  By the practice of swadharma in this manner he became a highly evolved soul spiritually.  He was considered competent to impart spiritual instruction to even a brahmin by birth.  Such is the power of practicing swadharma in the right spirit, offering the fruits of one’s actions in loving devotion to the Lord.
The highest dharma according to Bhishma
In the Mahabharata, Yudhishthira asks Bhishma Pitamaha “को धर्मः सर्वधर्माणां भवतः परमो मत:” “Which is the highest of all dharmas?” Bhishma replies:
     एष मे सर्वधर्माणां धर्मोऽधिकतमो मतः।
     यद्भक्त्या पुण्डरीकाक्षं स्तवैरर्चेन्नरस्सदा ॥
’ The highest dharma is to worship the lotus-eyed Lord vishnu with devotion by singing hymns in his praise’.  This is perhaps the easiest dharma which can be practiced in this Kali Yuga.
Surrender to the Divine Will, the ultimate dharma
The final pronouncement on dharma comes from Lord Krishna Himself in the 18th chapter of the Gita:
       सर्वधर्मान् परित्यज्य मामेकं शरणं व्रज।
       अहं त्वा सर्वपापेभ्यो मोक्षयिष्यामि मा शुचः ॥
‘O Arjuna ! leave aside all dharma and take refuge in me alone in total surrender.  I shall free you from all sins, do not grieve’. 
By totally surrendering oneself to the Divine, one becomes truly an instrument of the Divine.  Such a person is incapable of committing any sin.  All his actions become dharma. The Divine will works through him and he becomes one with the Divine. Such a human being goes beyond dharma and adharma and  all his conflicts are resolved.

Sri P R Ramamurthy Ji was the author of this website. When he started this website in 2009, he was in his eighties. He was able to publish such a great number of posts in limited time of 4 years. We appreciate his enthusiasm for Sanskrit Literature. Authors story in his own words : http://ramamurthypr1931.blogspot.com/

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  1. Anonymous says:

    I enjoyed reading it.

  2. This is treasure . . .
    Thank you for sharing

  3. Anonymous says:

    Many thanks for sharing such insights………Regards

  4. The meaning of Dharma is very clearly given. I liked it very much .I am grateful to the author.
    S K Parida

  5. sri says:

    Thanks Sri, super meaning

  6. greendream says:

    Thank you for a simplistic explanation!

  7. On a different note, can you explain the Sanskrit meaning of "Tat Parivarthan Bhavah"? Does it mean "Be the change that you wish to see"? Thanks in advance.

    1. What you have written is not correct Sanskrit. It may be like this तत्परिवर्त्तनं भव . But, this appears absurd because परिवर्त्तन is क्रिया and a person can't become क्रिया. You wish to convey that you should be the resultant of the effort. You definitely don't want that he should become effort. So, better use तथा भव, small sentence where तथा will mean that become similar to what ever is being talked. You may add स्वयं and make it स्वयं तथा भव to show that you wish to force the person to change first.

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