Free Press Journal

How exactly do we define Dharma?


Some may define Dharma as a moral code, some as rituals and religion, some as duties some as a way of life while some others as the laws of nature. If we consult the teachings of the sages of ancient India, we find there are two main meanings—nature and duty, writes Vibha Singh

“It is better to live your own Dharma imperfectly, than to live an imitation of somebody else’s life with perfection.” -Bhagavad Gita

Dharma at one level means the intrinsic nature of a thing. It is a concept of central importance in Indian philosophy and religion. It comes from the root word dhr that can be translated as “uphold” or “sustain”, according to Indologist PV Kane (quoted in Dayanand Bharati’s understanding of Hinduism). In many ways, the concepts of dharma have been the “supports” for Hindu (and Indian) society for a long time.

Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions all give a central place to dharma, with some varying shades of meaning and emphasis. Buddhists define dharma as “cosmic law and order”, or the general teachings of the Buddha. Jains define it as the teachings of the Jinas. Sikhs also use dharma to mean the “path of righteousness”. Even Muslim and Christian communities adopt some of the ideas behind dharma in their community life. Despite its pervasiveness, dharma is not a term heard in conversation. It is akin to the water the fish swims in. It is the accepted way things are supposed to work in the world. Because it is so foundational to the Hindu worldview, the differences between dharma and Western ideas create a huge divide in being able to understand each other.

 One’s intrinsic nature

Everything has its particular nature, a unique and essential quality that defines its existence. In this sense we can say that the dharma of sugar is its sweetness, or the dharma of water is its ability to quench our thirst with its pure taste. Each of us has an essential nature, too, and if we live in harmony with our essential nature, or dharma, we feel deeply satisfied. But as human beings, what is our dharma? According to the timeless wisdom of the Vedas, our dharma is a characteristic not of our body but of our soul.

The soul is a part and parcel of the Supreme Lord – who is known by many names Krishna, Allah, Yahweh, Parwardigar and many more. The Supreme Lord may be likened to a cosmic fire, the source of all the divine sparks that are our very selves, the souls. In Dharma Discussions, we follow the Vaishnava texts and refer to that supreme lord as Krishna.

Namita Purohit, software engineer, initiator of social group for women Bhakti women says, “The dharma of each spark of divine consciousness is to dance in harmony around the central fire, Krishna, the original supreme personality. We are all unique, individual, and personal manifestations of Kṛishna, but our dharma is to recognize our source, to celebrate our eternal connection with Him through loving service. In short, our dharma, as eternally conscious selves, is to love and serve Kṛiṣhṇa, the Supreme Lord.

Since our souls are covered by the mind, intelligence, false ego – we are covered by a material consciousness where we lose sight of our real nature. We forget our source and connection with Kṛishna. And our original dharma of selfless service to Him transforms into the false dharma of competitive selfishness for survival in this world.” The false dharma connects more to our body and its identity than the intrinsic nature of the soul. Because we lose touch with our true dharma, we experience frustration and dissatisfaction.

It is a duty

Another meaning of dharma is “duty.” In the latter part of the twentieth century, we’ve experimented with the abandonment of a sense of duty and responsibility in favour of an ethic of self-gratification—”If it feels good, do it!” Nikolas Cruz, Parkland Florida, went to his school and shot 17 people. He felt good and he did it. However, his hedonistic thirst was satisfied by the various lives that were lost in his carnage.

If satisfying one-self is one’s duty then Nikolas Cruz did a good job at that, but is such a sense of dharma wholesome? The sense of duty needs to be connected to the other part of dharma- our essential characteristic which is to render loving service to Krishna, then our primary duty is to focus our attention on awakening this loving service, or bhakti, in ourselves and helping others achieve the same goal.

There are no universal ten commandments of Hinduism. What is right for you may not be right for me. The Gita says that it is better to do your own duty poorly than to do someone else’s duty well. Individuals in a society have specific roles to play, and society depends on them to perform their roles well.

It is a principle of religion

It gives us the insight and inspiration we need to help ourselves and others achieve the goal of offering uninterrupted and unmotivated loving service.  When we are in a track race, we have a demarcated path we run on. Purohit is of the view that, ”The markings help us stay on our path without difficulty and lead us to the finish line. Similarly, the principles of religion, the preferences, the do’s and don’ts and rituals are guiding lighthouses to assist us in our journey of achieving the goal. In a track race when we step out of line we tend run astray from the finish line and also might bump into the runner on our side, similarly, if we stray away from these principles we will end up having to deal with the consequences of that. Just like the laws of the race will act on us, similarly, the laws of nature will act on us.”

When we understand the demarcations of our race better we have a better chance of staying on course and reaching the finish line, similarly as we understand the principles of dharma and consequences better we stand a sure chance of reaching the finish line without any mishaps.

Dharma Discussions,

Every Friday ,

5:30pm to 7:00pm, The Gita Lounge, Breach Candy