What is the true meaning of ‘Dharma ?

Quotes such as ‘There is no substitute for religion’ and ‘Religion is like a narcotic pill’ which are contradictory, create confusion in the minds of the common man. When we talk about Dharma we think about religious orders such as Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism etc. Others think that Bharat being a secular state talking about religion is highly objectionable. To eliminate these misconceptions and to realise how there is no alternative to Dharma as well as to unite all mankind, we have to understand the true meaning of Dharma. Information on Dharma – its meaning, importance, its various aspects, mysteries, doctrines and types, its difference from culture and morality, its decline and assumption of incarnations, importance of Bharat in the context of Dharma etc. is provided in the holy text Dharma published by Sanatan.

Since generally people have heard only words like the Veds, Upanishads etc. they think that only these texts are spiritual literature. They do not know what a vast treasure house of spiritual literature Bharat has. To get acquainted with it, this text gives information on the Veds, their importance, aims, divisions, subdivisions, parts, etc. The study of the Brahman texts and the Upanishads is important as they include several doctrines of Spirituality; hence they have been elaborated upon. An introduction to the Darshans is also made. Scriptures on Dharma from the Smrutis which describe the righteous code of conduct are discussed with respect to their importance, characteristics, number, their authority, the period when they were written, how they are different from the Shrutis (Veds), various texts of the Smrutis and their authors etc. An introduction to the divine mission of Maharshi Vyas and the foremost Adi Shankaracharya has also been made to illustrate their supremacy. Information on the four varnas (classes) and ashrams (stages of life) has been given in another holy text ‘Science of Spirituality : Vol.1 C – Varnashramvyavastha’.

Contents –

1. Origin and meaning

1.1 In the context of society

1.2 In the context of an individual

1.3 In relation to both the society and the individual

1.4 Some lopsided definitions


1. Origin and meaning

The word Dharma has been used by various holy texts with various connotations. To be able to comprehend the pervasiveness of this word some of its important derivations and meanings are elucidated below.

1.1 In the context of society

1. ‘`धृ धारयति’ means to bear, to support. The word Dharma (धर्म) has been derived from the ‘धरति लोकान् ध्रियते पुण्यात्मभि: इति वा’ means Dharma is that which sustains the people or that which is adopted by meritorious souls.

2. धारणात् धर्मं इत्याहुर्धर्मो धारयती प्रजा: । – महाभारत १२.१०९.११

Meaning : Dharma is that which nurtures the subjects and in turn the society. – Mahabharat 12.109.11

3. धारणाद्धर्ममित्याहुर्धर्मेण विधृता: प्रजा: ।
यस्माद्धारयते सर्वं त्रैलोक्यं सचराचरम् ।। – रामायण ७.५९

Meaning : Since it nurtures (dharana) it acquired the name of Dharma. Subjects are borne through Dharma. Consequently the entire universe containing the three regions is supported by Dharma. – Ramayan 7.59

4. ‘The Bharatiya Aryans established chaturvarnya (system of the four classes), ashrams (duties in the four stages of life), the institution of marriage, system of inheritance, etc. to stabilise society. All this together constitutes Dharma.’

5. लोकयात्रार्थमेवेह धर्मस्य नियम: कृत: ।। – महाभारत १२.२५९.५

Meaning : The aim of establishing a code of Dharma is to facilitate social transactions. – Mahabharat 12.259.5

6. The basic nature of all living beings is to live collectively, because this favours both procuring food and protection. Grass, trees, etc. all take birth and grow in groups; hence the earth is called sanghamitra or sanghi, an assembly of animate and inanimate creation. The earth, rainfall, lightning etc. all exist in a group. The sun accompanies its solar system. The body too is the union of several particles. In short different people form a group and a group consists of several individuals. ‘Jagadguru Shri Shankaracharya has referred to living in a group as Maya (The Great Illusion). If there is no harmony of the individual with the group then his existence is endangered. The rules framed to enable the group to live collectively are known as the code of Dharma. Although thoughts, respiration, food habits, etc. of each one vary, the framing of rules to sustain an organisation, for example not setting the hut on fire to prevent those residing in it from becoming homeless, is known as adhishthan. Adhishthan is a kind of spiritual practice.

‘Desire to live in a group is the natural tendency of man. The physical and spiritual needs of man are fulfilled because of this very tendency. Thus a group can influence an individual profoundly and that is precisely why it can be firmly stated that Dharma is based mainly on social principles. Dharma is concerned with the entire society and by observing it, society becomes righteous.

1.2 In the context of an individual

1. य: साध्यात् अभ्युदय: नि:श्रेयस धर्म: ।

Meaning : That by virtue of which one is uplifted both in the worldly and spiritual aspects of life, by means of which man acquires the ultimate spiritual evolution, that is the Moksha (Final Liberation) is known as Dharma.

2. प्रभवार्थाय भूतानां धर्मप्रवचनं कृतम् ।
य: स्यात्प्रभवसंयुक्त: स धर्म इति निश्र्चय: ।। – महाभारत १२.१०९.१०

Meaning : The sole aim with which Dharma is advocated is to bring about the evolution of living beings. A doctrine preaches that, that which is able to bring about evolution is  Dharma. – Mahabharat 12.109.10

3. ‘The special famous feature of Dharma quoted by Kanad (in the Vaisheshik Sutras 1.12) is -

यतोभ्युदयनि:श्रेयससिद्धि: स धर्म: ।

Meaning : Dharma is that by means of which one acquires prosperity and the ultimate upliftment.

Benefaction (abhyuday) includes materialistic prosperity, spiritual happiness and the practices to attain them. The state wherein prosperity is more than unhappiness is known as abhyuday. Moksha, the eternal or the supreme goal is termed as the ultimate upliftment (nihishreyas). The state in which one does not aspire to acquire anything or is always content is known as the ultimate evolution. The practices by means of which these two targets are achieved is Dharma.

4. Sage Jaimini (in His holy text the Jaimini Sutra 1.1.2) describes the features of Dharma as -

चोदनालक्षणोर्थो धर्म: ।

Meaning : The act of realising the meaning of what is beneficial to oneself by preaching, obedience or performing rituals is known as Dharma.

The meaning of the word chodana is inspiration. Inspiration is of two types – verbal emotion and meaningful emotion. Verbal emotion implies to the commanding energy behind the words. Human or divine speech (vani) tells one to perform or not to perform a certain act. This speech is superior to that of an average person. It reassures the vanquishing of obstacles and acquisition of beneficial results and also threatens with punishment if disobeyed. According to the authors of the Mimansa such commanding speech bestowing inspiration is nothing but the Veds itself. This inspiration energy, which is a verbal emotion, exists only in Vedic words. Meaningful emotion refers to the tendency generated from the emotion that by doing a certain act one will be benefitted. One can call dedication a meaningful emotion. This emotion is present in righteous individuals.

5. All religions state that deciding the ideal behaviour is not within the purview of the human intellect but can only be done by a divine supernatural energy. The acquisition of beneficial results and overcoming obstacles in this birth and in the life beyond, itself are blessings. All Scriptures proclaim that if one does not acquire benefits in this world through the pursuit of Dharma then one will certainly acquire them in the subtle world.’

6. Dharma is a crafty means of liberating man from the ignorance (illusion of raja-tama components) in which he is trapped with the help of the same ignorance (sattva component).’ – H.H. Kane Maharaj, Narayangaon, Maharashtra

7. ‘In the Brahman holy texts the meaning of the word Dharma is Righteousness according to ashramdharma (stage of life) as is understood from the quote ”trayo dharmaskandhaha (त्रयो धर्मसकनधा: ….)” from the Upanishads. It also means the duties allotted to or accepted by an individual according to varnashram (system of classes and the stages of life).’

8. ‘Dharma in Aryan society refers to the rights, duties and responsibilities of an individual belonging to a specific varna and in a specific state.

In famous quotes such as ”Speak the truth and observe Dharma.” from the Taittiriya Upanishads (1.11) which preach to a student, this is the very meaning with which the word is used.

श्रेयान्स्वधर्मो विगुण: परधर्मात्स्वनुष्ठितात् ।
स्वधर्मे निधनं श्रेय: परधर्मो भयावह: ।। – श्री महाभारत ६.२७.३५

Meaning : One’s own code of Dharma is superior even if it be faulty in comparison to another’s code of Dharma which may be easier to adopt. It is better to embrace death while observing one’s own code of Dharma because danger lies in the acceptance of another’s code of Dharma. – Sri Mahabharat 6.27.35

In this well known shloka (verse) too, the word Dharma is used with the same meaning.

The word Dharma is used with the same connotation in spiritual literature. The Manusmruti (1.2) states that the sages requested Manu to teach them the code of Dharma of all the varnas. In the Yadnyavalkyasmruti (1.1) Dharma is used with the same meaning.’

1.3 In relation to both the society and the individual

1. जगत: स्थितिकारणं प्राणिनां साक्षात् अभ्युदयनि:श्रेयस हेतुर्य: स धर्म: । – श्री शंकराचार्य

Meaning : Dharma is that which accomplishes the three tasks of keeping the social system in an excellent condition, bringing about the worldly progress of every living being and causing progress in the spiritual realm as well. – Sri Shankaracharya

2. ‘According to authors of the Scriptures the word ”Dharma” is not simply defined as a sect but it also incorporates the actions that an individual should perform and the restrictions that he has to observe for the sake of his individual progress and that of society of which he is a part and parcel.’

1.4 Some lopsided definitions

‘अहिंसा परमो धर्म:’ meaning non-violence is the supreme form of Dharma (Mahabharat 13.115.13), ‘आनृशंस्यं परो धर्म:’ meaning that compassion itself is ultimate Dharma (Mahabharat 3.373.76), ‘आचार: परमो धर्म:’ meaning good conduct is the supreme Dharma (Manusmruti 1.108) are some examples of lopsided definitions.

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