What is Dharma?

Authors: Gopal Singh & Shivashankar Rao & Rami Sivan

What is Dharma?

Note to readers: Kindly refer to the comprehensive article on Dharma on this portal.

RamiSivanAuthor: Rami Sivan (Hindu Priest, Mimamsaka, Vedanta teacher, Pancharatrika)
Sep 17th, 2018

The term Dharma is first defined by Jaimini. He defines Dharma as:—

codaṇā-lakṣaṇaḥ arthaḥ dharmaḥ

Dharma is that which leads to the highest common good (śreyas) [and, is distinguished by Vedic injunctions].

Dharma is “right living” defined by the practice of universal ethics and personal morals.

The Mahabharata defines Dharma:–

dhāraṇād dharma ityāhuḥ dharmo dhārayate prajāḥ |

ya syād dhāraṇa samyuktaḥ sa dharma iti niścayaḥ ||

The word Dharma is derived from dhāraṇa or sustenance; dharma sustains society. That which has the capacity to sustain is indeed dharma. (M.B. Karna Parva 69:58)

“Dharma” cannot be known through empirical means such as cognition. It can be known only either through intuition or through an impersonal source of knowledge.

The problem with relying on reason or intuition is that individuals will come to differing conclusions about what the ultimate nature of the “Common Good” is.

There are endless controversies on most if not all ethical issues by “experts” who take one side or the other.

The best and most universal source of Dharma therefore, would be an “impersonal” source such as the Vedas.

What is Dharma?

The science of conduct, the systematized principles according to which one should act.

Ethical science is a relative science — relative to the individual and one’s surroundings and circumstances.

The purpose of morality is to bring about happiness for the maximum number of people by creating harmony.

Harmony between individuals of a family, between families of a community, between communities that live together in a nation. Harmony between nations that make up humanity. Harmony between humankind and the environment and other creatures that share our earth. And harmony between earthlings and the inhabitants of other worlds.

Where there is harmony there is happiness, disharmony cause unhappiness.

The ultimate object of morality is to bring about universal happiness.

The underlying principle of Dharma is the recognition of the unity of the Self and the diversity of the not-self.


Author: Gopal Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

Dharma means property or characteristics. It is derived from the Sanskrit root “dhr” + “man”: The verb form is “dhárańa”, “to hold” and the noun is “Dharma”, “that which ‘holds’ an entity in existence”. “Dharma” literally means an innate characteristic, the nature or property of an object. The property of fire is to burn. Just as fire and its property are inseparable, similarly human beings and their property – their quest for Brahma (the Supreme Entity) – are also one and the same.

It is universally true, for all ages and all realms, that Dharma is the main current of human life. It is the impetus of living beings; it is also their source of wealth and the guidance for their journey through life. In the pervasive sense of the word, all objects, animate and inanimate, have their respective dharma: that is, dharma denotes the very existence of an object. In its narrow sense, dharma is less manifested in inanimate entities and more manifested in animate ones. In animate entities, the manifestation of the dharma of non-human creatures is instinctive and inborn. But the dharma of human beings is much more than this: it permeates and penetrates each and every sphere of life.

What is the dharma or the characteristic of living beings? It is the endeavour to attain happiness. Why does a living being crave for happiness? For self-preservation. Why do you eat and drink? To keep yourself alive – to attain happiness. From this you very well understand this too, that to love whatever little is lasting within your present entity – whatever is its essence, is your dharma. This dharma or sádhaná teaches you to keep your subtlest self aloof from all transitory objects, as the result of which your eternal self gets healthy nourishments – gets more and more developed on the path of progress.

Dharma is a psycho-spiritual faculty. It gradually brings out the latent divine qualities of the human heart, and helps human beings attain oneness with the Supreme Entity. It has nothing to do with material objects. On the other hand, religion is a psycho-sentimental factor. It is a collection of physical and ritualistic observances. There may be many religions, but dharma is one.

The Lord says:

Yadá yadá hi dharmasya glánirbhavati Bhárata;
Cábhyutthánamadharmasya tadátmánaḿ srjámyáham.
Paritráńáya sádhúnáḿ vinásháya ca duśkrtám;
Dharmasaḿsthápanártháya sambhavámi yuge yuge.

He says that “Whenever there is degradation of dharma and development of adharma, rule of adharma, regime of adharma, then, and in that particular moment, I recreate Myself.”

One branch of Dharma is Bhágavata Dharma. This Bhágavata Dharma is mánava dharma (human dharma). There is no difference between Bhágavata Dharma and mánava dharma. Human beings are to follow jaeva dharma for their physical maintenance and for a certain portion of their psychic elevation, and beyond the scope of this jaeva dharma they are to follow Bhágavata Dharma, mánava dharma. This is the actual dharma, the true spirit of the term “dharma” is in it.

Sámányametad pashubhirnaránám;
Dharmo hi teśám adhiko visheśah
Dharmena hiináh pashubhih samánáh.

(Food, sleep, fear, procreation – these are the common properties of humans and animals. But humans possess an especial dharma (Bhágavata Dharma), in the absence of which they are as bad as animals.)

This Bhágavata Dharma differentiates a human being from a beast. A human being who does not follow Bhágavata Dharma is a beast. (because the beast does not know what to do and what not to do, but a human being knows what to do and what not to do.) So if a human does not follow the codes of Bhágavata Dharma, that person is worse than an animal – not pashubhih samánáh “the same as an animal”, but worse than an animal.

Now, since this Bhágavata Dharma is a must for all human beings, a human being should follow the doctrine of Bhágavata Dharma from his or her very childhood. There should be maximum utilization of his or her human existence, human calibre, human mind, and human spirit. Dhruva says,

Kaomára ácaret prájiṋah
Dharmán Bhágavatániha;
Durlabhaḿ mánuśaḿjanma
Tadapya dhruvamarthadaḿ.

Dhruva says, that is, “A person should follow this Bhágavata Dharma, here in this world.” (The word iha means “here”, “in this world”.) “One should follow Bhágavata Dharma from one’s very childhood, because human life is rare and is very precious.” Even the devatás, if they want to do something good or great, will have to come in human frame to work. A devatá as devatá cannot do anything good; the devatá requires a human framework. So human life is very precious, very rare; “and such life is still more rare, still more precious, if it has become successful by dint of Bhágavata Dharma, or by dint of sádhaná.” So a wise person should get initiated and should start sádhaná in his or her very childhood, or kaomára.

Note to readers: Kindly refer to the comprehensive article on Dharma on this portal.


Author: Shivashankar Rao
Oct 29th, 2019

It is difficult to describe the word DHARMA satisfactorily as it is expansive and intricate. As Sri Swami Shivananda said, “Dharma is like a price less jewel with numberless facets of brilliance of knowledge”.

Dharma has several meanings. “That which beholds the Universe is Dharma.”

It means NATURAL LAWS (prakriti dharma), justice (NYAYA DHARMA), NATURAL CHARACTERISTICS (swabhaava dharma), different species (JAATI DHARMA), SOCIAL CONDUCT (samaja dharma ), Religious conduct (shroutha dharma), and other are Varnaashrama dharma, Paaramaarthika dharma, Aachaara dharma, Neeti dharma, Pravritthi dharma, Nivritthi dharma etc.,

That which is the cause of prosperity and salvation is dharma. Laws of nature which beholds all creations is called dharma. Dharma bestows perennial happiness and adharma produces sorrow and misery. That which is eternal is dharma. Only God is eternal. Some quotations from great personalities.

“That which takes us from the world to MOKSHA is dharma.”- Vinoba Bhave.

“ That which makes you forget yourself is dharma”- Masti Venkatesha Iyengar.

“If you protect dharma, it protects you.”- Bhaasa.

“ dharma is in action, not in blind belief.”- Dr. Radhakrishnan.

“ Good of every one is dharma”- Shankaracharya.

“dharma is self sustaining “- Madhvaachaarya.

“Service for others is dharma”- Vivekananda

“Whoever feels sorry for others’ misery and feels happy with others is a dharmatma”-Bhagavatha.

“ Truth, non stealing, conquering anger, feeling sorry for mistakes committed, cleanliness, firm mind, discrimination between good and bad, absence of hastiness, control of senses and good education are the essential parts of Dharma”- Yajnavalkya Rishi.


Hinduism (Sanatanadharma) is like a noble mother who cares for all her children including those that deny her. Heretics like atheist, agnostic, even a blasphemer are not punished, but IGNORED. In course of time, if they repent, they have a chance of redeeming themselves. Hinduism is a comprehensive system incorporating in itself all aspects of human life including philosophy, religion, ethics, all facets of culture (arts, science and literature).

Saamanya dharmas like ahimsa, satya, asteya, daya, titiksha, vinaya, indriya nigraha, self control, shanti, shoucha, Tapas and bhakti are the ones which train a person to tune his life to be in harmony with the society. But the samskaras which purify and refine the psychic personality prepare him to refine his own life. Hinduism accepts the existence of God and posits him as the final goal of our life. It places many paths before us to suit persons of different temperaments, but all of them lead to the same experience of that God. It provides us emotional satisfaction through rituals and festivals. Recognizing the shortcomings of the human intellect, Hinduism recognizes finality of the Vedas. Hinduism which is considered as a way of life that helps to elevate oneself is better than a religion that makes an individual dogmatic and anti every body else!!!


An example of the changing concepts of dharma depending on the society of the times can be observed from the story of Shambuka (Valmiki Ramayana). Shambuka had opposed the accepted norms of the day thus causing a revolution. Rama was not cruel and was kind-hearted. But his personal feelings would be insignificant before his duty. Bhavabhooti in his Uttararama charitha says,

“Raamasya baahurasi nirbharagarbha khinna seetaavivaasanapatOh karunaa kutaste”

The shastra which was applicable to Treta Yuga (which is irrelevant now) was,

” abraahmaNastadaa raajanna tapasvee kathanchana”- Uttara kaanda sarga 74.

It is not correct now to question this as it was accepted as dharma during those days. Before taking a decision on the subject Rama consulted his eight advisers. Narada representing all the wise people assembled said the the dharma of Krita yuga is not applicable in Tretayuga and in this Tretayuga, shambuka’s actions are against the accepted practice and hence he deserved punishment. In this episode as well as in Seeta’s expulsion, Rama’s concern can be seen as trying to follow democratic norms.


The secret of the survival instinct of Hinduism is the scientific spirit exhibited throughout history. Whenever there was an upheaval, it has responded vigorously, intelligently and prudently. It is this vitality that gave birth to the various reform movements.

The Upanishadic sages were the first reformers. When the Rigvedic religion deteriorated to a maze of sacrifices, the sages rejected them and advised meditation and knowledge of the Atman.

Lord Krishna was the second reformer. He brought out a balance and harmony among the Jnaana, Bhakti and Karma disciplines. His declaration of the nishkaama karma concept was his greatest contribution.

The third in this line was by Mahaaveera and Buddha. They substituted dry logic with simple moral and ethical principles in order to achieve peace and joy here and now. However, these were misunderstood and it resulted in the desertion of vedic religion.

Shankara took birth at this stage to resuscitate and reestablish sanatana dharma. He erased several ambiguities in the practices. He reformed several practices by introducing the six systems of worship(shanmathas as they are called), Panchaayatana pooja etc., and avoided the animal sacrifice and brought all those who believed int he vedic tradition under a single umbrella.

Next stage was a series of invasion by outside forces. There were a lot of changes because of this in the social and religious fields. In this critical period, several spiritual leaders came up and protected our religion by bringing in several new concepts like bhakti movement etc., This is the fifth reform movement. With the advent of the British, there was a planned import of the cultural and religious ideas from the west.

Then, the sixth reform movement became necessary. Raja Ram mohan Roy, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Mahadev Goinda Ranade, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Swami Vivekananda were some of the important leaders. So, Sanatana Dharma regained balance. This effort continued under Ramana Maharshi, Aurobindo and a few institutions like Ramakrishna Mission, Chinmaya Mission, Divine Life society etc.


During the recent past, Hindu society has not been capable of raising to the required levels. Caste animosities including the practice of untouchability became rampant. The rise of Indian Nationalism is not up to the mark. Infatuation with the glamour of western nations has resulted in aping their customs and manners at the cost of old and time tested values. Family bonds are getting loosened. There is damage to the psyche of children and the aged are being neglected.

There has been an aggressive posture by Semitic religions. Proselytism is uprooting the cultural and national moorings. Hindu society has become a soft target for aggressive propagators of these religions.

There is an urgent need to provide a new look to the Hindu society.

Hindus have to be HINDUISED

It is also necessary to remove the irrelevant aberrations. It is in this context that we should consider removal of weeds in our beliefs. Some of them have already been removed by our ancestors and some more are still there. The people who can think have to consider these.