The Meaning of and Understanding--Dharm (Dharma)
One ancient definition of Dharm roughly translates as: Dharm is that which upholds society and is adopted by meritorious souls (since it leads to merit so meritorious souls adopt it, here merit meaning the opposite of sin). (In the context of Vedic philosophy particularly in the spiritual context: paap or sin is that which takes one away from god or higher consciousness/ higher values and punya or merit is that which takes one closer to god or higher consciousness/ higher values).
Another definition being Dharm is that, by following or practicing which, one progresses both in the material and spiritual aspects of life leading one to have an integrated life and superior evolution eventually leading to self realization.
In the Mahabharat, Bhishm in his teachings to the crown prince Yudhishtir says that whatever creates conflict is adharm, whereas anything that puts an end to conflict, brings about unity and harmony is Dharm. Anything that helps to unite everyone, develop pure divine love and universal brotherhood is Dharm. Whatever creates discord, split, disharmony and foments hatred, is adharm (non-dharm). (Note: Here the intention or the message of Shri Bhishm is to convey the higher values of humanity and to uphold justice, hence the message must not be twisted out of context, but rather one must accept it keeping in mind the other definitions as well).
Lord Krishna explains to Prince Arjun that Dharm is that which fulfills the objectives of sustaining society, maintains social order, and ensures the well being & progress of humanity.
In the Vaisheshik sutras, the founder of this system Rishi Kanada has explained dharma as “That which leads to the attainment of Abhudaya (prosperity in this world) and Nihsreyasa (total cessation of pain and the attainment of eternal bliss hereafter) is Dharm.
The word Dharm often mis-spelt Dharma, is used frequently, but understood improperly most of the time, very often used in the wrong sense and therefore logically incorrect. To clarify, in one use from among others, it is often used in the sense of the word ‘religion’, but it does not mean religion. In reality, in Sanskrit and Hindi, there is no equivalent term, for the word ‘religion’. The opposite can also be held to be true, that is, there is no equivalent term for ‘Dharm’ in possibly any other language of the world (especially non-sanskrit based, non-indo languages).
Natureis governed by natural laws. In Vedic times these were called Rta. For example that which is born will die one day. Or the river will flow downwards or anything that has been released from a height will fall to the earth. Vedic philosophy followed the Rta. Later, by some accounts these Rta became a part and the basis for Dharma. The term Dharma originates from dhri meaning to uphold or uplift. Dharm means natural inherent qualities, laws of nature, laws of existence, to uphold or uplift (individuals and society), civil law, code of conduct, responsibilities and duties (individual and collective), moral code, spiritual way of life, correct behaviour that upholds or uplifts society, etc,.
The term Dharm in the sense of meaning natural inherent qualities can be explained as: It is the dharma of fire to burn; if fire does not burn it is not fire. If ice is not cold it is not ice. There is no English/foreign language equivalent for the term Dharm. It is often understood as natural quality/tendency/duty. Dharma can also be understood as living life by the doing right or righteous acts and duties. During the ages, the term Dharm came to also be understood as the duties of an individual. In the scripture ‘Mahabharat’ one finds that the role of each individual or personage has been defined and thus dharm defines the duties and obligations of the King, a prince, the ministers, a citizen, a husband, a wife, a brother, a sister and so on. So the term came to have a much larger connotation.
If one looks at the overall meaning of the term ‘Dharm’, then it is composed of all these:
- Acts or deeds (Karma) that uphold or/and uplift an individual and society as a whole.
- Moral and Ethical Values
- Virtuous acts
- Correct and proper behavior
- Compassion (read article on compassion)
- Noble qualities
- The duties or obligations of –an Individual/Official etc.
- Deeds that are done for the benefit of individuals and society as a whole keeping in view the above points.
- An integrated way of life that harmonizes and integrates an individual and society on the physical, mental, social and spiritual planes helping the individual and society to evolve.
- A spiritual way of life that helps one evolve to achieve self realization.
- Spiritual Practices and Philosophies.
Typically, the term is often confused with the natural tendencies and duties of the individual without taking into consideration moral values. One can come across a phrase such as “It is the dharm of a thief to steal”. Such phrases or explanations can best be termed as faulted logically, as stealing is against justice, moral values, and societal values, so what is not dharmic cannot be somebody’s dharm.
The term ‘Dharm’ indicates strength of character, uprightness, nobleness, and all the other positive and moral values and is closely linked to the term ‘Arya’ meaning noble. In real life upholding Dharm can be a very difficult test of one’s character and inner strength.
Manusmriti written by the ancient sage Manu, prescribes 10 essential rules that lead to the observance of dharm: Contentment (dhriti), Forgiveness (kshama), Control over worldly desire’s (dama), Honesty and non-stealing/ non-covetousness (asteya), Purity and Sanctity (shauch), Control over the senses (indraiya-nigrah), Reason (dhi), Knowledge or learning (vidya), Truthfulness (satya) and Absence of anger (krodha). Manu further adds, "Non-violence, truth, non-coveting, purity of body and mind, control of senses are the essence of dharm". Therefore dharm governs not only the individual but the entire society.
Dharm means living a well regulated life and is the basis for tapas (austerity) as well as of a spiritual life. By following Dharm one ensures self preservation, beauty, popularity, lengthy life span, wealth, continuity of the blood line and family, social acceptability, fame, honour, and spiritual merit.
Not following Dharm or Adharm or living an immoral and evil life on the other hand brings fear, dishonour, loss of wealth, sorrow, disease, premature death, social unacceptability, and spiritual failure. It brings about pain and loss in this life and hereafter.
The term Dharm indicates good deeds or good karm(a) and Adharm indicates bad deeds or bad karm(a). In the Bhagvat Gita, 16th chapter, 21st verse, Lord Krishna says “These three take one to the gates of hell and destroys a man’s spiritual nature. Lust, anger and greed—these three one must give up”; these being Adharm the opposite of Dharm. According to the Bhagvat Puran dharm has four aspects—these being Tapas (austerity), Shauch (purity and cleanliness), Satya (truth), Daya (kindness and compassion); while adharm has three negative qualities, these being Ahamkar—or one’s sense of ego and misplaced pride, Sangh—bad company, and Madya—the habit of intoxication (here one may understand intoxication as the intoxication of the senses by worldly pleasures, -wine, women/partners, sex, wealth, status, worldly pleasures, etc,).
In fact, in the 16th chapter of the Bhagvat Gita which describes the difference between the divine and demoniac types of persons or personalities, one can very easily distinguish the qualities of dharm and adharm. In one sense Dharm can be understood to be justice, uprightness, light & brightness while adharm is evilness, falsehood, lies, darkness & blackness. So the divine personalities represent dharm, while the demoniac personalities represent adharm.
Lord Krishna describes the divine personalities as those who have the qualities of: fearlessness, purity of heart, steadfastness in knowledge and devotion, benevolence, control over the senses, worship, study of the scriptures, austerity, uprightness, non-violence, truthfulness, freedom from anger, renunciation, sacrifice, tranquillity, aversion to slander, compassion to all living beings, freedom from sensuality, gentleness, modesty, stability, vigour, patience, forgiveness, purity, and freedom from vanity.
Lord Krishna further describes those who have demoniac nature with the following qualities: Pretentiousness, arrogance, extreme pride, wrath, rudeness, insensitivity to spiritual values, lack of discrimination between good and evil, bad conduct, lies and falsehood, lust, violence, cruelty, destructiveness, hypocrisy, vanity, avarice, corruption, false values, impure ways of life, sex indulgence, delusion, sensuousness, stubborn, intoxicated by wealth and possessions, oppressive, self-conceited and having bad/evil ways.