Concept of Dharma

“Dharmo Rakshati Rakshitaha”

Dharma protects those who protect it!

Dharma is a Divine Principal that is inherent and invisible, but responsible for all existence. The concept of Dharma or law in ancient India was inspired by the Vedas which contained rules of conduct and rites and compiled in Dharma Sutras, were practiced in a number of branches of the Vedic schools. Their principal contents address the duties of people at various stages of life, the rights and duties of the kings and juridical matters. Since this world is deluded, a human being may not know what is right and what is wrong or what is dharma and what is adharma. Hence he should rely upon the scriptures and adhere to the injunctions contained therein. In short, dharma for a human being means developing divine virtues and performing actions that are in harmony with the divine laws. Dharma is semantic equivalent to the Greek word ‘ethos’[1].

Meaning of Dharma

Tadrisho ayam anuprashno yatra dharmaha sudurlabaha

Dushkamha pralisankhyatum tatkenatra vysvasyathi

Prabhavarthaya bhutanam dharmapravachanam kritam

Yasyat prabhavasamyuktaha sa dharma iti nischayaha[2].

 “It is most difficult to define Dharma.

Dharma has been explained to be that which helps the upliftment of living beings.

Therefore, that which ensures the welfare of living beings is surely Dharma.

The learned rishis have declared that which sustains is Dharma.”

 The word ‘Dharma’ has a very wide meaning. One meaning of it is the ‘moral values or ethics’ on which the life is naturally regulated. Dharma or righteousness is elemental and fundamental in all nations, periods and times. For example truth, love, compassion are human virtues.

Dharma is deemed to be the highest ideal of human life. It deals with the virtuus conduct of man, his duties and his relationship with religion. It is the closest what India has to natural law and ethos, and finds its unlimited aim in the welfare of society. It includes anything that is right, just and moral. It originates from the vedas and is a time immorial concept.

In Hinduism, dharma is the religious and moral law governing individual conduct and is one of the four ends of life. In addition to the dharma that applies to everyone (sadharana dharma)—consisting of truthfulness, non-injury, and generosity, among other virtues—there is also a specific dharma (svadharma) to be followed according to one’s class, status, and station in life. Dharma is the moral law combined with spiritual discipline that guides one’s life. Hence dharma can be briefly said as “that which contains or upholds the cosmos.” Human society, for example, is sustained and upheld by the dharma performed by its members. For example, parents protect and maintain their children, children being obedient to parents, the king protecting the citizens, are acts of dharma that uphold and sustain society. The logo of the Indian Supreme Court is inscribed with the following words “Yato Dharma Tato Jaya” meaning , ‘Where there is dharma there is victory’, as stated in the Bhagavad Gita.

“Religion is enriched by visionary methodology and theology, whereas dharma blooms in the realm of direct experience. Religion contributes to the changing phases of a culture; dharma enhances the beauty of spirituality. Religion may inspire one to build a fragile, mortal home for God; dharma helps one to recognize the immortal shrine in the heart.[3]

Origin of Dharma

Dharma originated from Vedas which are Sruti (heard knowledge) and they are the supreme source of knowledge for humans, as the narration of what is heard from the ancient priests that is Sruti  and they contains narration on everything possible ranging from military to politics to common people’s life. Its other sources are Smriti, which are the interpretation of Vedas and four sages have propounded the dharmasastras and are called Smritikars. They are:

  • Manu
  • Yagnavalkaya
  • Brihaspati
  • Narada

The other source has been Puranas which are eighteen in number and contains information about the creation and dynasties of god, sages and kings and detailed description of yugas. All the sources are on the same footstep and no one has supremacy over the other.

Idea which made people adhere to the Dharma can be illustrated by one verse from Brihadaranyaka Upnishad which is, “punyo vai punyena Karmana bhavati, Papah Papeneti”, meaning ‘everyone becomes good by good deeds and bad by bad deeds’, in other words ‘every one reaps what he sows’ and what’s good is defined by Dharma.

Decline of Dharma and advent of positive law

With the advent of Muslim rule followed by British rule, Dharma (Hindu) started losing its gloss and roots. During Muslim rule, the place of dharma was taken by koranic teachings, though many practises remained, hence it remained mainly untouched. But, with the onset of British rule, and their ignorance of the Indian laws had a devastating effect on the concept of Dharma as they found no laws here to govern people and they started to fix the issue by either importing western law or say natural law with the devices of equality, justice and good conscience or imposing western laws by means of codification in fields where no law was offered by either the Hindu’s or Muslim’s Natural law, teachings and customs. But the civil rights and liberties enjoyed by people were taken away. Indians were treated ruthlessly and arbitrary suppressed in every sphere of life ranging from political to social and economical. Indians fought back for the rights and liberties that they enjoyed before under the Law of Dharma. During his famous champaran trial, Gandhiji remarked that he disobeyed the law not to show disrespect to British law, ‘but in obedience to higher law of our being – the vice of conscience’, by which he meant Dharma.

Adherence of Dharma

“punyo vai punyena Karmana bhavati, Papah Papeneti”

Everyone becomes good by good deeds and bad by bad deeds’

 In other words the above said verse can be explained as “Everyone reaps what he sows’ and what’s good is defined by Dharma.

In his dying speech, Bhishma tells Yudhishthira that in the fourth age of Kali Yuga (our present age), “dharma becomes adharma and adharma, dharma”. If we live in on the basis of lust greed, and to accumulate possessions, money, and sensual pleasure by the demands of the mind and senses, it will become difficult to follow the path of dharma. People are becoming gradually more restless and out of balance. The guilt that they contain is so large that they are concealed from the world of happiness.

An illustrated example might help in understanding how dharma works.

A yogi was performing his regular routine of taking a bath in the river, while his followers waited for him on the shore. When the yogi noticed a fallen scorpion in the water, the yogi immediately picked up the scorpion. In spite of the intense pain of the scorpion sting racing through his veins, the great yogi waded through the water towards the shore, and rescued the scorpion. His followers watched, surprised at the Yogi determination to help the scorpion.

The confused followers rushed to the struggling yogi, only to see a smile of content on the yogi face. One of them asked him how he can still smile after almost being killed by the very scorpion he rescued. The yogi responded that the scorpion was only following its dharma, or nature, which is to sting. Also, the dharma of a yogi, which was to save the life of the scorpion, was followed.”

Dharma is a natural instinct in all of us that stimulates us to act at a subconscious level, without thinking.

 Relationship between Dharma and Karma

Hinduism accepts the concept of reincarnation, and what determines the state of an individual in the next existence is karma which refers to the actions undertaken by the body and the mind. In order to achieve good karma it is important to live life according to dharma, what is right. This involves doing what is right for the individual, the family, the class or caste and also for the universe itself. Dharma is like a cosmic norm and if one goes against the norm it can result in bad karma. According to the Bhagavat Purana, righteous living or life on a dharmic path has four aspects: austerity (tap), purity (shauch), compassion (daya) and truthfulness (satya); and adharmic or unrighteous life has three vices: pride (ahankar), contact (sangh), and intoxication (madya).  “Dharma is that which binds society together. That which divides society, breaks it up into parts and makes people fight one another is Adharma.[4]”

 Eightfold Path of Dharma

The eightfold of the dharma are described in the ‘Bhagavad Gita’ a part of Hindu mythological book Mahabharata which are as follows-

  1. Worship
  2. Study
  3. Charity
  4. Austerity
  5. Truth
  6. Forgiveness
  7. Compassion
  8. Freedom from greed

It is said that the first four of the eightfold can also be performed by the hypocrite, but the last four can only exist in a great soul.


The underlying principle behind the concept of dharma is to sustain, carry or hold the human society and to bring them on the way of righteousness. Some people consider the word dharma and religion as the same while they are not and this has been stated by the Indian Supreme Court in various cases. The word Dharma is not restricted to any particular religion, it is a concept which is established to attain ‘moksha’ and attain freedom from the cycle of birth and death. As said by the famous poet Rumi “There can be many lamps, but there is only one light, far beyond.”


[1] Brereton, Joel P. (2004) “Dhárman in the Ṛgveda”. Journal of Indian Philosophy 32: 449–89.

[2] SHANTHI PARVA – 109-9-11.

[3] A.S. Narayana Deekshitulu vs State Of Andhra Pradesh & Ors, 1996 AIR 1765, JT 1996 (3) 482.

[4] Dr. S. Radhakrishnan (Former President of India).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *