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What is Dharma?

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  • Written By: Devon Pryor
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 04 November 2016
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Dharma is a concept originating in the religious theology or dogma of Hinduism. The term is a derivative of the Sanskrit root word, Dhr, which means to hold, sustain, or support. Dhr can also be used for wearing, remembering, or carrying something.

As one might expect, a word such as Dharma, which holds substantial religious significance, is dense with meaning. Within the Hindu religion, particularly Classical Hinduism, there are three main texts that are the primary sources of reference for Hindu ideas of Dharma, each of which explains its meaning and importance through both explanation and example. These are the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, which contains the widely known section or subtext known as the Bhagavad Gita, and the Manu Dharmasmrti.

Generally speaking, Dharma is the holder of cosmic order, and can be loosely translated into English words such as duty, law, ethics, principles, religion, righteousness, justice, obligation, order, etc. For Hindus, this concept can perhaps be understood as a conceptual system of guidelines for one to follow in life. The aforementioned texts, for example, serve to answer the question of how one relates their own position to the family, the society, the world, and the cosmos. The answer is by following Dharma. It relates the individual contextually to the greater.

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More specifically, the Dharma of daily Classical Hindu life can be understood in terms of the one’s Varna-Asrama-Dharma. Varna are the levels into which traditional Hindu society was divided. Asrama are the stages of life through which most people in traditional Hindu society were understood to pass. Thus, one’s Varna-Asrama-Dharma indicates the specific set of Dharmic rules for individuals. There is no universal set of Dharmic morals and principles that are appropriate for each person. For example, in traditional Hindu society, the four Varna are Brahmin or priests, Ksatriya or warriors, Vaisya or common folk, and Sudra or servants. Each group has its own Dharma. For the Brahmin, it’s peacefulness and the safe keeping of knowledge and truth. For the Ksatriya, it’s honesty and preserving lawfulness, possibly to the point of making war.

Dharma will also be different for each Asrama, or stage of life, and will be attached to an Asrama-specific goal and the repaying of Asrama-specific debts. The four basic stages of life are Student, Householder, Retiree or forest dweller, and Renunciant. For a student, the goal is actually Dharma, to live in celibacy learning the knowledge of the Vedas, and repaying debts to the sages by learning what they have learned. For a householder, the goals are Kama, or pleasurable love that leads to reproduction, and Artha, or the accumulation of wealth. In these ways, a householder repays debts to the ancestors by having sons, and to the gods by spending money on honorary rituals. For a retiree or forest dweller, there is no real goal, all debts are considered repaid, and family lineage has been ensured because one’s son has had a son — ideally. For a Renunciant, the goal is Moksa, or liberation from all attachments that keep one trapped in the cycle of rebirth.

Although these ideas of Dharma, along with the Hindu god pantheon, religious myths, and the caste system seemed to crystallize in the time of Classical Hinduism, circa 200 BCE to 1100 CE, this concept was previously and continues to be of utmost importance and open to exegesis. For example, within Classical Hinduism it was a basis for the development of social ideology, for the structure of individual participation in society. Conversely, the gradual dissoluition of the caste system in Modern Hinduism likely lead to the eventual use of the term suadharma, which does not hold to such strict, society-specific guidelines as Varna-Asrama-Dharma.

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