Dharma (धर्म) is a key concept with multiple meanings in the Indian religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, among others. Although no single-word translation exists for dharma in English (or other European languages), the term is commonly understood as referring to “order and custom” that sustain life, “virtue”, or “religious and moral duties”. The concept of dharma was in use in the historical Vedic religion, and its meaning and conceptual scope have evolved over several millennia. The ancient Tamil text Tirukkuṟaḷ, despite being a collection of aphoristic teachings on dharma (aram), artha (porul), and kama (inpam), is completely and exclusively based on aṟam, the Tamil term for dharma. As with the other components of the Puruṣhārtha, the concept is pan-Indian. The antonym is adharma.
The word has roots in the Sanskrit Dhar-, which means to hold or to support, and is related to the Latin firmus (firm, stable). From this, it takes the meaning of “what is established or firm”, and hence “law”. It is derived from an older Vedic Sanskrit n-stem dharman-, with a literal meaning of “bearer, supporter”, in a religious sense conceived as an aspect of Rta. In 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, it means “sustainer” and “supporter” (of deities). It is semantically similar to the Greek themis (“fixed decree, statute, law”).
It is a complex and multifaceted concept in Indian philosophy and religion, but in a concise definition, that can be understood as the moral, ethical, and social duties, responsibilities, and righteous behavior that guide individuals in leading a virtuous life and maintaining harmony in the universe. It varies in interpretation and application across different Indian religions and philosophical traditions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism.
The concept has a long and complex history in Indian philosophy and culture. It is a central concept in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, and it has evolved and been interpreted in various ways over the centuries. Here is a brief overview of the history:
Vedic Period (c. 1500 BCE – 600 BCE)
Dharma has its roots in the Vedic period of ancient India, with the earliest references found in the Rigveda, one of the oldest sacred texts of Hinduism. In this period, it was associated with religious rituals and duties, particularly those related to the performance of sacrifices.
Dharmashastras (c. 200 BCE – 200 CE)
During the period of the Mauryan and Gupta empires, there was a significant development of legal and ethical texts known as the Dharmashastras. The Manusmriti, Yajnavalkya Smriti, and other texts outlined codes of conduct and laws, defining social, moral, and ethical duties for different classes and stages of life. These texts played a crucial role in shaping the concept of Dharma.
Dharma remains a central concept in Hinduism. It is often described as the moral and ethical duties and responsibilities that individuals have in their roles and social positions, such as ashrama (stages of life), varna (caste), and jati (subcaste). The Bhagavad Gita, a part of the Indian epic Mahabharata, is a notable text that discusses the concept in the context of duty, righteousness, and moral choices.
In Buddhism, Dharma refers to the teachings of the Buddha, as recorded in the Tripitaka (Buddhist scriptures). The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path are central aspects of Buddhism, which guide individuals on the path to enlightenment and liberation from suffering.
Jainism also places a strong emphasis on Dharma, which is seen as the moral and ethical principles that guide Jain practitioners in leading a life of non-violence, truth, and asceticism. Jain emphasizes the importance of Ahimsa (non-violence) and Self-discipline.
Sikhism incorporates the concept into its religious and ethical framework. Sikhs are encouraged to live according to the teachings of Guru Nanak and the Guru Granth Sahib, which include principles of truth, equality, and service to others.
In contemporary times, the concept of Dharma has evolved and adapted to various cultural and societal changes. It is often understood as a set of ethical and moral principles that guide individuals in making choices and decisions in a complex and diverse world.
Throughout its history, the concept has been central to the moral and ethical foundations of Indian religions and has played a significant role in shaping the cultural and philosophical landscape of the Indian subcontinent. While the specific interpretations and applications may vary among different religious traditions and schools of thought, it continues to be a key concept in understanding one’s duties, responsibilities, and moral compass in the context of a person’s life and society.
What is the significance of Dharma in Hinduism?
What is the significance of Dharma in Buddhism?
What is the significance of Dharma in Jainism?
What is the significance of Dharma in Sikhism?
For Sikhs, the word dharam (Punjabi: ਧਰਮ, romanized: dharam) means the path of righteousness and proper religious practice. Guru Granth Sahib connotes it as a duty and moral value. The 3HO movement in Western culture, which has incorporated certain Sikh beliefs, defines Sikh Dharma broadly as all that constitutes religion, moral duty, and way of life.
Teachings of Dharma as per Sikhism
Here are some of the key teachings and principles associated with these traditions:
- Worship of One God: Sikh Dharma centers around the belief in one God and rejects idol worship.
- Equality and Social Justice: Sikhism emphasizes the equality of all human beings and social justice. All individuals, regardless of caste, creed, or gender, are considered equal.
- Seva (Service): Serving others and selfless service are integral to Sikhs.
- Naam Simran: Remembering and meditating on the divine name (Naam) is a key aspect of Sikh practice.
- Guru Granth Sahib: The Sikh holy scripture, Guru Granth Sahib, is considered the eternal Guru and contains spiritual guidance for Sikhs.
Dharma in Sangam literature
Several works of the Sangam and post-Sangam period, many of which are of Hindu or Jain origin, emphasize dharma. Most of these texts are based on aṟam, the Tamil term for dharma. The ancient Tamil moral text of the Tirukkuṟaḷ or Kural, a text probably of Jain or Hindu origin, despite being a collection of aphoristic teachings on aram, artha (porul), and kama (inpam), is completely and exclusively based on aṟam. The Naladiyar, a Jain text of the post-Sangam period, follows a similar pattern as that of the Kural in emphasizing aṟam.
Dharma in symbols
The importance of dharma to Indian civilization is illustrated by India’s decision in 1947 to include the Ashoka Chakra, a depiction of the dharma chakra (the “wheel of dharma”), as the central motif on its flag.
How does Dharma benefit in the improvement of lifestyle?