Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century


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First Definition - Sunder Hattangadi

dharma - the very word itself is capable of evoking a sense of reverence, wonder, awe, and fear in the hearts of many who have been brought up in, or exposed to the Vedic (including shruti, smRRiti, purana, itihasa) tradition.

The word is derived from the root verb dhRRi, which means to hold, or uphold. It is used in the context of what sustains humanity and the environs. It is THE LAW, the principle, behind humanity's perception and experience of, and response to the world.

The central concern is the principles that govern human action (karma). In fact, it is the link that unites and integrates the inanimate universe, the animate world, the after-life, and the Reality underlying these; in modern jargon, we can say ecology, human psychology, and soteriology (spiritual salvation). These principles are eternal, and therefore, the Vedic tradition is called 'sanaatana' or 'shaashvata' dharma.

Many definitions have been offered, but the subtlety of the meanings is hard to capture. Kanada Rishi's Vaisheshika Darshana Sutra-s begin with:

athaato dharmaM vyaakhyaasyaamaH | yataH abhyudaya-niHshreyasa- siddhiH sa dharmaH | [ Now, therefore, explication of Dharma. Dharma is that which fulfils the prosperity and the ultimate goal (of human life), namely liberation.] [Ref.]

In fact, Adi Shankara uses this definition in the Introduction to Gita Bhashya, and in his commentary on verses 7-8 in Ch. 4. He also adds in the Introduction:

dvivido hi vedokto dharmaH pravRRitti-lakShaNo nivRRitti-lakShaNashcha jagataH sthiti-kaaraNam | praaNinaaM saakShaad abhyudaya-niHshreyasa hetuH yaH sa dharmaH.... | [Vedas state a two-fold dharma for the maintenance of the world - one characterized by Works, and the other by Renunciation. Dharma is that which directly leads to liberation and worldly prosperity..]

Jaimini Rishi's Karma-Mimamsa Sutra-s also begin with:

athaato dharma -jij~naasaa | [Now, therefore, inquiry into dharma]. [Ref. ]

Dharma has thus come to mean scripturally prescribed (shaastra- choditam) and proscribed (shaastra-pratiShiddham) actions. It is the very foundation of acquiring 'daivi sampat' (wealth of divine qualities - Gita 16:1- 3) and 'saatvika'(pure) nature, which are the sine qua non for realizing the Truth.

dharma is the 403rd name of Vishnu, in the Vishnu-sahasra-nama hymn: Adi Shankara's commentary says: sarva-bhuutaanaaM dhaaraNaad dharmaH | dharmaH aaraadhyata iti vaa dharmaH | [That which supports all creatures is dharma; or that by which the Supreme is propitiated.]

Sw. Chinmayananda comments on the same: "Dharma of a thing is that because of which the thing is, without which the thing is not." It is thus the 'Law of Being';....the essential dharma of an individual can only be the Self, because without which the individual cannot exist, and the individual's expressions - physical, mental and intellectual, are all expressions of the Self through the equipment in him. Thus Dharma means the One Self in all indivduals. This essential Dharma in anything is that which supports the things and therefore the Self which is the essence everywhere is considered as the very One which supports everything." Elsewhere he has used the metaphor of the pole-vault: 'the pole of dharma alone can help one cross the bar of (ignorance) avidya/maya, and having crossed it even the pole would lose its utility.'

Sw. Chandrashekharendra Sarasvati (1894-1994) of Kanchi said:

"Dharma denotes beneficent action, good or virtuous deeds. The dictates of dharma help us to abandon the pursuit of sensual enjoyments and endeavor for eternal bliss. They are also essential to create a social order that has the same high purpose, the liberation of all. Religion, with its goal of liberation, lays down the tenets of dharma. That is why the great understand the word dharma itself to mean religion." .."It is the only 'currency' negotiable after death."

Dharma is the observance of truth in the conduct of life.In fact, Dharma is the way of life, which translates into action the truth perceived by the man of insight as, expressed by him truly. In short, Rita is truth in thought, Satya is truth in words and Dharma is truth in deed.

Saint Tiruvalluvar in the Kural lays down Dharma thus:

Becoming free from impurity of mind is the whole Dharma; all else is outward show. (Tirukkural)

The Mahabharata, (Karna Parva 49:50) says: dhaaraNaad dharmam ity aahur dharmo dhaarayati prajaaH | yaH syaad dhaaraNa saMyuktaH sa dharma iti nishchayaH ||

(Dharma is for the stability of society, the maintenance of social order and the general well-being and progress of humankind. Whatever conduces to the fulfilment of these objects is Dharma, that is definite.)

The Mahabharata and the Tirukkural have rightly been honored with the appellation of 'the Fifth Veda', for their descriptions of virtue and right conduct.

Manu Smriti states it this way:

satyaM brUyAt priyaM brUyAt na brUyAt satyam apriyam | priyaM ca nAnRRitaM brUyAt eSha dharmaH sanAtanaH ||

Speak truth in such a way that it should be pleasing to others. Never speak truth, which is unpleasant to others. Never speak untruth, which might be pleasant. This is the path of eternal morality, sanatana dharma.

dharmo rakShati rakShitaH | Virtue will protect one who protects It.

It is the fundamental and foremost of the Purushartha-s, goals of human life. kaarya-akaarya-vidhiH iti dharmaH | [Dharma is what the scriptures guide as to what ought to be practised, and what ought not to be practised.] Dharma is the touchstone by which one recognizes the nobility, purity, sublimity and exemplariness of actions.

The Bhagavad-Gita states it thus:

yaH shaastravidhimutsR^ijya vartate kaamakaarataH . na sa siddhimavaapnoti na sukhaM na paraaM gatim.h .. 16\-23.. tasmaachchhaastraM pramaaNaM te kaaryaakaaryavyavasthitau . GYaatvaa shaastravidhaanokta.n karma kartumihaarhasi .. 16\-24..

[23. Ignoring the precept of the scriptures, one who acts under the impulsion of passion, does not attain perfection, nor happiness, nor the supreme Goal.

24. Therefore, the scripture is your authority as regards the determination of what is to be done and what is not to be done. After understanding (your) duty as presented by scriptural injunction, you ought to perform (your duty) here.]

It emphasizes further:

svalpamapyasya dharmasya traayate mahato bhayaat | (Gita 2:40) [Anything done, however little it may be, in this path of Yoga, saves one from great fear, from the fear of samsara, of birth and death.] The special emphasis is on performing one's own duties (sva-dharma) - the general (saamaanya) and the special (visheSha), over those of another (para-dharma) - [ref. Gita 3:35 & 18:47]

Chandogya upanishad, mantra 2:23:1, states dharma (virtue) as constituted of 3 divisions: i- sacrifice, scriptural study, and charity; ii - austerity, and iii - renunciation.

katha upanishad - 1:1:21 - states its profundity thus: na hi suvij~neyam aNuH eSha dharmaH | [being subtle this substance (Self) is not easily comprehended.]

Yudhishthitra in Mahabharata (Yaksha Prashna) exclaims : dharmasya tattvaM nihitaM guhaayaam | mahaajano yena gataH sa panthaH || [The essence of Dharma is hidden as in a cave. What the great souls practise is the right path.] (ref. Gita - gahanaa karmaNo gatiH - the course of action is unfathomable).

Taittriya upan., mantra 1:11:4, gives the definition of the great souls: 'seekers of Truth, able deliberators, adept in those duties and customs, not directed by others, not cruel, and who are desirous of merit.'

Dharma is divided into 'saamaanya' (general), and 'visheSha' (specific to an individual's innate nature (svabhaava).

saamaanya are: kShamaa satyaM damaH shauchaM daanaM indriyasaMyamaH | ahiMsaa gurushushruuShaa tiirthaanusaraNaM dayaa || aatmavrataM alobhitvaM devataanaaM cha puujanam | anabhyasuuyaa cha tathaa dharmaH saamaanya uchyate ||

[forbearance, truthfulness, self-restraint, cleanliness, charity, control of senses; non-viloence, service of the elders, pilgrimages, compassion; keeping vows, freedom from avarice, worship of deities; absence of jealousy - are duties common to all.]

Vishesha dharma duties are according to the 'chaaturvarNya' (four- fold division of labor according to one's inherent nature) categories, as explained in Gita 4:13, and 18:41-44.

chaaturvarNyaM mayaa sR^iShTa.n guNakarmavibhaagashaH . tasya kartaaramapi maa.n vid.hdhyakartaaramavyayam.h .. 4\-13.. braahmaNakShatriyavishaa.n shuudraaNaa.n cha parantapa . karmaaNi pravibhaktaani svabhaavaprabhavairguNaiH .. 18\-41.. shamo damastapaH shauchaM kShaantiraarjavameva cha . GYaanaM viGYaanamaastikyaM brahmakarma svabhaavajam.h .. 18\-42.. shaurya.n tejo dhR^itirdaakShya.n yuddhe chaapyapalaayanam.h . daanamiishvarabhaavashcha kShaatraM karma svabhaavajam.h .. 18\-43.. kR^iShigaurakShyavaaNijya.n vaishyakarma svabhaavajam.h . paricharyaatmakaM karma shuudrasyaapi svabhaavajam.h .. 18\-44..

[13. The fourfold-caste has been created by Me according to the differentiation of GUNA an d KARMA; though I am the author thereof know Me as non-doer and immutable.

41. Of scholars (BRAHMANAS) , of leaders (KSHATRIYAS) and of traders (VAISHYAS) , as also of workers (SHUDRAS) , O Parantapa, the duties are distributed according to the qualities born of their own nature.

42. Serenity, self-restraint, austerity, purity, forgiveness and also uprightness, knowledge, realisation, belief-in-God --- are the duties of the BRAHMANAS, born of (their own) nature.

43. Prowess, splendour, firmness, dexterity, and also not fleeing from battle, generosity, lordliness --- these are the duties of the KSHATRIYAS, born of (their own) nature.

44. Agriculture, cattle-rearing and trade are the duties of the VAISHYAS, born of (their own) nature; and service is the duty of the SHUDRAS, born of (their own) nature.]

When the Supreme Itself incarnates to uphold dharma (Gita 4:7-8), its importance can well be imagined.

Brihadaranyaka upan., mantra 1:4:14, exalts it to the very apex - dharmaatparaM naasti |........... It identifies Dharma with Truth, and declares its supreme status:

[There is nothing higher than Dharma. Even a very weak man hopes to prevail over a very strong man on the strength of dharma, just as (he prevails over a wrongdoer) with the help of the King. So what is called Dharma is really Truth. Therefore people say about a man who declares the truth that he is declaring dharma and about one who declares dharma they say he speaks the truth. These two (dharma and truth) are this.]


Complete Works of Sri Shankara - sanskrit
Gita Super-Site - with many commentaries - Sanskrit & English]
Shankara Gita Bhashya - Engl. tr. by Sw. Gambhirananda
English translations of Sanskrit Scriptures
Major sanskrit scriptures - devanagari script
The main Smritis
Mahabharata in Itrans
Mahabharata - Engl. tr.
Tirukural - Engl. tr.
Kanchi Paramacharya's discourses - Engl tr.
Prof. V.K.'s web-site
7-part series on Dharmavyadha [ Advaitin yahoo group - by Sri Ramakrishna Krishnamurthy ]
Ch. 3, pp. 32 ff. [Sw. Sivananda - Engl.]
Dharmasastras [Engl. & Sanskrit] February/013406.html
Ramayana epic, Sanskrit & Engl.
Purusharthas [to p. 26]
Monier-Williams Dictionary Sanskrit-English

Second Definition - Dr. Shyam Subramanian

Dharma is the essential nature of anything. The Sun's dharma is to shine. The fact that it illumines both good and evil is neither in its control nor its concern. As part of Ishvara's order, its diktat is to shine and thereby enable life to take place on earth and enable the infinite numbers of jIva-s to exhaust their karmas.

Similarly the Earth, the rains, the rivers, the cows, - all have a given place in the Order that is Ishvara. Everything has a role, a sanctity, a purpose.

Part of this very same order is the "free will" that is accorded to a human. This gives the individual the ability to choose his action and thereby chart his course.

Where there is choice there is its mirror-image - conflict. Shall I do this? or that? What parameters should I use to decide what is right? Making the right choice, Taking the right decision - is what dharma is all about.

Any decision I make using my free will that is untainted by my binding desires and attachments is nothing other than the Divine will. And this action of mine is not mine but Thine/Ishvara's - hence - "Thy will be done"

I am running late for the most important interview of my life. And my car passes by a person lying on the road in agony. A simple right-wrong analysis will dictate that the right thing to do, the dharmic action, the Will of the Divine, would be for me as His instrument, forgo my preoccupation with my life and help out this person in distress. Unfortunately life seldom throws at us such situations involving black and white, right and wrong choices. Most of life is gray. I can choose A or B but I find my intellect has good answers for both A and B. This usually has to do with the different roles I am called to play. And both A and B are justifiable to me depending on which role is of paramount importance to me at that point in time.

Compounding the problem is the fact that our egocentric desires and attachments are so deep-rooted that it is almost impossible for us to decipher whether our actions are indeed free of our own subconscious attachments, arising from the inexhaustible vAsanA-s (impressions) from prior innumerable births.

No other epic epitomizes this more graphically than the Mahabharata. Bhishma was an embodiment of dharma. But he was fighting on the side of adharma. He was a mute spectator to Draupadi's ordeal in the court. Why? Because he was bound by his word. So, in making a choice between what was ethical for his people and what was ethical for him as a person, he had to choose. And the choices he made dictated the course of history.

When a mahApuruSha (great Sage) like Bhishma had difficulty interpreting dharma, do we mortals even stand a chance? What recourse do we have? I should make every effort to align my free-will in such a way that it has as little taint of my rAgadveSha (love/hatred, i.e. desires and attachments). And if I am still not sure, then I should resort to advice from persons who are themselves free of rAgadveSha-s - the wonderful multitude of mahApuruSha-s who grace us by their teachings and presence. If even this is not feasible or helpful then the only thing to do is pray - pray to the very Order, the very Author of Dharma, that, whatever I do, let it be what is right, what is just, what is fair, what is in keeping with His Will and His Way. "O Lord, Grant me the strength to change the things I can, and the serenity to accept the things I cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference"

In this are born the seeds of the only true solution to the issue of dharma - surrender. Hence alone does Lord Krishna exhort us weary souls: Sarva-dhaman parityajna mam ekam saranam vraja ahm tvan sarva- papebhyo moksayisyami ma suchah

While one can spend a great deal of time on the meaning of this paramount verse from the Gita, the essence in the context of dharma is this - it is impossible for a jIva, bound as he is by rAgadveSha, to be in perfect alignment with dharma by self-effort alone. This is because of avidyA or mAyA. One has to transcend avidyA, i.e. attain knowledge about one's true nature being non-different from Ishvara. Once I know I am pUrNam, I am whole, I am fulfilled. Anything more I do from that point is an expression of my fulfillment - an extension of my sense of being Whole - and hence is nothing other than Divinity expressing itself. And that and only that ultimately is what is truly "dharmic"

And how do I get there? "sharaNaM" - Surrender. Surrender my ego at the altar of wisdom. As the ego dies so do concepts of right, wrong, good and evil. Wisdom is thus the sole sanctifier.

Return to the Contents page for the Terms and Definition.

Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012