Dharma Refers to Order and Custom That Sustain Life

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.

Dharma Meaning

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”).

What Is Dharma?
Meaning of Dharma

Dharma Definition

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.

Dharma History

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.

Modern Interpretations

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?

It holds immense significance in Hinduism for several reasons:

Moral and Ethical Guidance

It provides a moral and ethical framework that guides individuals in making righteous choices and decisions. It helps them distinguish between right and wrong, good and bad and encourages virtuous behavior.

Social Order and Harmony

Dharma is pivotal in maintaining social order and harmony in Hindu society. It outlines the duties and responsibilities of individuals based on their caste, stage of life, and social roles, which contribute to the smooth functioning of the community.

Spiritual Progress

Following one’s Dharma is believed to lead to spiritual growth and ultimately liberation (moksha) from the cycle of reincarnation. By fulfilling their Dharma, individuals accumulate good karma and progress on the path to spiritual realization.

Personal Growth

It encourages individuals to develop self-discipline, self-control, and a sense of responsibility. Also, it fosters personal growth and character development, which is essential for spiritual evolution.

Cultural Identity

Dharma is an integral part of Hindu culture and identity. It has shaped the values, traditions, and way of life for Hindus throughout history and continues to do so today.

Connection to the Divine

Practicing one’s Dharma often involves religious duties and rituals, strengthening an individual’s connection to the divine and reinforcing one’s sense of spirituality.

Sense of Purpose

It gives individuals a sense of purpose and direction in life, and provides a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities, making their lives meaningful and fulfilling.

Relationship with Nature

Dharma extends to how humans interact with nature and the environment. It promotes a harmonious relationship with the natural world, emphasizing the importance of environmental stewardship and sustainability.


Dharma is flexible and adaptable, allowing individuals to navigate changing circumstances while still adhering to their moral and ethical principles.

Overall, Dharma in Hinduism is not just a set of rules but a profound and versatile concept that influences every aspect of life, from personal conduct and family life to social structure and spirituality. It serves as a guiding light for individuals to lead a virtuous, purposeful life while contributing to the well-being of society and the world at large.

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Teachings of Hindu Dharma

Teachings of Dharma as per Hinduism

Here are some of the key teachings and principles associated with these traditions:

  • Duty and Responsibility: Hindu Dharma emphasizes one’s duty and responsibility in their social roles, such as varna (caste) and ashrama (stage of life). It prescribes specific duties for individuals based on their position in society.
  • Ahimsa (Non-violence): Non-violence is a central aspect of Hinduism. It includes refraining from causing harm to all living beings.
  • Truthfulness: Honesty and truthfulness are highly valued in Hinduism.
  • Righteousness: Acting morally and ethically, and doing what is right, is fundamental to Dharma.
  • Karma: Understanding the law of cause and effect (karma) and accepting personal responsibility for one’s actions is important.

What is the significance of Dharma in Buddhism?

Dharma, or “Dhamma” in Pali, holds significant importance in Buddhism for several reasons:

The Teachings of the Buddha

In Buddhism, Dharma primarily refers to the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha, who attained enlightenment and then shared his insights with his followers. It encompasses the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, which are the core principles that guide Buddhists on the path to liberation from suffering and achieving Nirvana.

Path to Liberation

It serves as a practical guide for individuals seeking spiritual awakening and liberation from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara). By understanding and practicing it, followers aim to free themselves from suffering and attain Nirvana, the ultimate goal in Buddhism.

Moral and Ethical Guidelines

The Dharma provides a moral and ethical framework that encourages Buddhists to lead a life of virtue, compassion, and mindfulness. It emphasizes the importance of right action, right speech, and right thought, among other ethical principles.

Meditation and Mindfulness

Dharma teachings stress the significance of meditation and mindfulness practices. Through meditation, followers can gain a deeper understanding of their own minds and emotions, which is essential for spiritual progress.


Dharma teachings highlight the impermanence of all things, emphasizing that attachment to the transient and ephemeral nature of life is a source of suffering. By recognizing impermanence, individuals can cultivate detachment and reduce suffering.

Compassion and Loving-kindness

Dharma encourages compassion, loving-kindness (metta), and empathy towards all sentient beings. This fosters a sense of interconnectedness and a commitment to alleviating the suffering of others.

Non-harming (Ahimsa)

Similar to Hinduism, Buddhism places a strong emphasis on non-violence and non-harming (ahimsa). It teaches followers to refrain from causing harm to others and to practice compassion.

Personal Responsibility

Buddhism teaches that individuals are responsible for their own actions and their consequences, emphasizing the concept of karma. Practicing Dharma involves taking responsibility for one’s thoughts, words, and deeds.

Ethical Living

It guides Buddhists in leading an ethical and mindful way of life, both in their personal conduct and in their interactions with others. This leads to greater harmony within the individual and in society.

Dharma as a Refuge

In times of difficulty or confusion, Buddhists often turn to the Dharma as a source of guidance and refuge. It offers wisdom and solace in the face of life’s challenges.

In summary, Dharma in Buddhism is central to the entire belief system and way of life. It offers a path to enlightenment, ethical guidelines for personal conduct, and a framework for living a life characterized by mindfulness, compassion, and the pursuit of spiritual liberation. The Dharma is not just a set of philosophical principles; it is a practical guide for transforming one’s life and achieving a state of profound inner peace and wisdom.

Teachings of Dharma as per Buddhism

Here are some of the key teachings and principles associated with Dharma in these traditions:

  • Four Noble Truths: The core of Buddhist Dharma, the Four Noble Truths, provide insights into the nature of suffering, its causes, the possibility of its cessation, and the Eightfold Path as a way to achieve that cessation.
  • Eightfold Path: The Eightfold Path consists of the right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. It serves as a guide to ethical and mental development.
  • Ahimsa: Similar to Hinduism, non-violence is a fundamental principle in Buddhism.
  • Mindfulness: Developing mindfulness through meditation is an essential aspect of Buddhist Dharma.
  • Compassion: It encourages cultivating compassion and loving-kindness for all sentient beings.
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Teachings of Dharma as per Buddhism

What is the significance of Dharma in Jainism?

In Jainism, the concept of Dharma holds profound significance, as it is a central pillar of the Jain ethical and spiritual framework. Here are some key aspects of the significance of Jainism:

Path to Liberation

Dharma plays a vital role in the Jain path to spiritual liberation, known as “moksha” or “nirvana.” Jains believe that by strictly adhering to their Dharma, they can purify their souls and break free from the cycle of birth and death (samsara) to attain spiritual liberation.

Ahimsa (Non-violence)

Ahimsa is the foundational principle of Jainism. Jains are committed to non-violence in thought, word, and deed, both towards other beings and in relation to their own selves. This commitment to non-violence is one of the most prominent aspects of Jainism and is evident in their strict vegetarian lifestyle and avoidance of harm to any living beings, even the smallest of insects.

Truthfulness and Honesty

Jains are encouraged to practice truthfulness and honesty in all aspects of life. They believe in speaking the truth and avoiding falsehood.


Dharma in Jainism emphasizes non-possessiveness or non-attachment to material possessions. Jains are expected to lead a simple and minimalist lifestyle and not be overly attached to worldly goods.

Asceticism and Self-discipline

For Jain monks and nuns (known as Sadhus and Sadhvis), Dharma involves renouncing worldly attachments and leading an ascetic life dedicated to spiritual practices, meditation, and self-purification. Lay Jains also practice self-discipline and austerity to the extent possible within their family and social roles.

Compassion and Empathy

Jain Dharma encourages followers to cultivate compassion and empathy towards all living beings. Jains are taught to care for and assist those in need.

Respect for All Life

Jain extends a deep respect for all forms of life, no matter how insignificant they may seem. This respect is evident in their practice of avoiding harm to even the tiniest creatures.

Environmental Stewardship

Jains are mindful of their impact on the environment and practice environmental stewardship by minimizing waste, conserving resources, and protecting the natural world.

Purification of the Soul

Jainism is primarily aimed at the purification of the soul (jiva). By living in harmony with their Dharma, Jains believe they can shed karmas (negative influences) that bind the soul and hinder its progress towards liberation.

Leading a Virtuous Life

The ultimate goal of Jainism is to lead a virtuous and ethical life that is aligned with the principles of non-violence, truth, and self-discipline. By doing so, Jains believe they can make spiritual progress and attain moksha.

In Jainism, Dharma is not just a set of religious rules but a comprehensive way of life that emphasizes profound spirituality, ethical conduct, and a deep commitment to non-violence and compassion for all living beings. It is central to the Jain faith and shapes every aspect of a Jain’s personal and social life.

Teachings of Dharma as per Jainism

Here are some of the key teachings and principles associated with these traditions:

  • Ahimsa: Jain Dharma places the utmost emphasis on non-violence, even in thought and speech. Jains are committed to avoiding harm to all living beings.
  • Truthfulness: Like in other Indian traditions, truthfulness is a core principle in Jainism.
  • Asceticism: For monks and nuns, renunciation of worldly attachments and leading an ascetic life are essential.
  • Aparigraha (Non-possessiveness): Jains are encouraged to minimize material possessions and live a minimalist lifestyle.
  • Syadvada: This Jain doctrine promotes an open-minded and non-absolutist approach to understanding reality.
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Teachings of Dharma as per Jainism

What is the significance of Dharma in Sikhism?

For Sikhs, the word dharam (Punjabi: ਧਰਮromanized: 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.
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Teachings of Dharma as per Sikhism

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?

It plays a significant role in improving one’s lifestyle in several ways, particularly in the context of Indian religions and philosophies. Here are some of the ways in which adhering to Dharma can benefit and enhance one’s life:

Moral and Ethical Guidance

It provides a moral and ethical compass, helping individuals distinguish between right and wrong, and good and bad behavior. This guidance encourages people to make virtuous and ethical choices in their personal and social lives.

Purpose and Meaning

It gives individuals a sense of purpose and direction in life. It provides clarity about their roles and responsibilities, helping them lead more meaningful and fulfilling lives.

Inner Peace

Living in accordance with Dharma fosters a sense of inner peace and contentment. It reduces inner conflict and guilt, as individuals know they are doing what is right and fulfilling their responsibilities.


Dharma guides individuals in their interactions with others, promoting healthy and harmonious relationships with family members, friends, and society. It encourages kindness, compassion, and understanding.

Social Harmony

Dharma is essential for maintaining social order and harmony. It prescribes duties and responsibilities for different social roles, contributing to the well-being of the community and society at large.

Reduction of Negative Karma

In belief systems like Hinduism and Buddhism, adhering to Dharma is associated with accruing positive karma. By doing so, individuals can mitigate the negative consequences of their actions and pave the way for a more positive future.

Self-discipline and Self-improvement

It encourages self-discipline, self-control, and self-improvement. It promotes the development of virtues and character traits that lead to personal growth.

Stress Reduction

It can reduce stress and anxiety by helping individuals accept their roles and responsibilities and make decisions in line with their values.

Environmental Stewardship

Dharma extends to one’s relationship with nature and the environment. It encourages responsible and sustainable behavior, fostering greater environmental awareness and stewardship.

Spiritual Growth

It provides a framework for individuals to advance on their spiritual paths, whether it’s the pursuit of enlightenment, liberation, or self-realization.

Fulfillment of Religious Duties

Dharma often includes religious duties and practices, which contribute to one’s spiritual well-being and sense of connection to the divine.

Adaptation to Change

Dharma can adapt to changing circumstances, allowing individuals to navigate life’s complexities while still adhering to their ethical and moral principles.

It’s important to note that the specific benefits may vary depending on the religious or philosophical tradition and individual interpretations. However, across these traditions, adherence to Dharma generally leads to a more ethical, meaningful, and harmonious lifestyle that benefits both individuals and the broader community.


In conclusion, Dharma is a profound and multifaceted concept deeply rooted in the spiritual, ethical, and moral traditions of India. It serves as a guiding framework for individuals to lead virtuous and meaningful lives, both in their personal and social roles. It varies across different Indian religions and philosophies, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, and is a dynamic concept that can adapt to changing circumstances.

Key principles associated with Dharma include moral and ethical guidance, personal and social responsibilities, and a sense of purpose in life. Adhering to Dharma can lead to personal growth, inner peace, and harmonious relationships with others. It is closely tied to spirituality and the pursuit of enlightenment, liberation, or self-realization in many Indian traditions.

While it offers numerous benefits, misinterpretations or extreme applications of its principles can lead to rigidity, intolerance, or social inequalities. It is crucial to understand and practice Dharma in a balanced and compassionate manner, aligning it with the values of non-violence, truthfulness, and kindness to benefit both individuals and the broader community. Ultimately, Dharma represents a continuous journey of moral and ethical self-improvement, contributing to the welfare of humanity and the world.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some frequently asked questions about Dharma with short answers:

What is Dharma?

It is a complex concept in Indian religions, representing moral and ethical principles that guide an individual’s way of life.

Is Dharma the same in all Indian religions?

No, it varies between Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, with distinct interpretations and practices.

How does Dharma benefit individuals?

It provides moral guidance, a sense of purpose, and a framework for leading a virtuous life, promoting personal growth and inner peace.

What is the role of Dharma in society?

It helps maintain social harmony by outlining duties and responsibilities for different social roles and promoting ethical conduct.

Can Dharma change over time?

Yes, it is adaptable and can evolve to suit changing circumstances, ensuring its relevance in different eras.

Does Dharma involve religious practices?

It often includes religious duties, such as rituals and worship, but it also extends to everyday moral and ethical behavior.

What is the relationship between Dharma and karma?

Dharma influences one’s actions and adherence to moral principles, while karma is the concept of cause and effect, determining the consequences of those actions.

Are there any potential drawbacks to following Dharma?

Overly strict adherence may lead to rigidity or moral dilemmas, and misinterpretations can result in intolerance or social inequalities.

How do different Indian traditions interpret Dharma?

Each tradition, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, has its own specific teachings and interpretations.

Can Dharma conflict with personal desires?

At times, individuals may face dilemmas where their personal desires and Dharma responsibilities appear to conflict, requiring careful consideration and ethical choices.

Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dharma

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