The Meaning of Dharma
Dharma is perhaps the key term for the great spiritual traditions of India and East Asia, Hindu and Buddhist, whether relative to their understanding of the outer world of nature or the inner realm of consciousness. It is the basis of India’s vast and diverse culture and its deep commitment to Yoga and meditation as tools of self-realization for all. A respect for Dharma is said to be more important even than a belief in God, because it implies certain values and a way of life that promotes truth, unity and respect for all life above ideas or emotions.
Dharma in Sanskrit comes from the root ‘dhri’ meaning ‘to uphold’ and is symbolized by a pillar. It refers to the spiritual, ethical and natural principles that uphold the entire universe. Dharma has always been linked to Veda or vidya, which refers to an inner capacity to perceive the nature of things. It reflects a higher awareness pervades and underlies all existence.
Dharma is a very difficult term to define and eventually must be understood in its own right. To provide a basis for this, we could say that Dharma indicates both the nature of reality at a universal level as well as the proper place for each thing in the universe according to its particular qualities and capacities. There is a specific dharma relative to each creature and every aspect of nature, as well as to the whole of existence. Dharma indicates the harmony both of the totality and the individual, which are complementary and interdependent. According to a dharmic view, the entire universe is present in each object and in every creature, which in some way embody or express the totality.
There is a dharma or natural way of working behind the great forces of nature, the five elements of earth, water, fire, air and ether, the seasons, the three worlds as earth, atmosphere and the heavens, and the different aspects of the cosmos as matter, energy, and light, which follow interrelated laws and patterns. There is a dharma or unique quality and energy in every plant and animal which serves to make it what it is. Everything has its place in the Dharma, which reflects its role in the cosmic order. And there is a special dharma or role on Earth for the human being, which is to seek to embody a higher truth and work to promote a higher consciousness in the world. The universe is an organically connected vibratory field in which all things are linked together into a greater network of harmony, beauty and vitality. This is the universal ‘web of dharma’.
There is dharma or way of right action relative to all aspects of human life and culture: a dharma of art, a dharma of business, a dharma of communication, a dharma of relationship, a dharma of science, a dharma of religion, and so on – each of which requires its own examination. What is done according to dharma is performed with grace, intelligence and respect for the natural order. Each different domain of our lives has certain principles and practices necessary to unfold its full potential, which constitute its dharma. If we follow the dharma in what we do, we will not only be successful, but will act so in a way that promotes the well-being of all.
We have our own individual or ‘svadharma’ that reflects our capacities and aspirations in life. Yet this is not something that divides us from others. Each person has similar potentials that we must honor.
The Social Dharma
Relative to society, the term Dharma is used in a special way as indicating the right way for society and its members to operate in harmony with their natures, with the environment and with the universe as a whole. This is what we could call the ‘social Dharma’. For social well being, there must be a proper understanding and implementation of Dharma on all levels.
In Vedic thought, human society is looked upon like the human body as a single organism with different limbs, organs and functions, which all serve the benefit of the whole. The social organism is one in essence, but the role of different individuals, communities or professions must vary in order to fulfill the diverse and specialized needs of the whole. Such social differences should not become a matter of high and low or good and bad, but an organic necessity in which each particular role is vital, just as each organ of the human body has an important and irreplaceable role in the well-being of the entire body. We cannot forget society’s connection with the Earth and nature, if we want society to be healthy, harmonious and without violence.
There are special principles of Dharma or right living for society, nations and communities, including special guidelines for men and women, the young and the old, for different professions and for different stages of life. There is an organic order to life, even at a social level, as there is in how our body functions.
However, Dharma also requires that our outer actions and life-styles change along with changing times and cultures. Dharma does not consist of rigid rules that can be blindly applied to all circumstances, but of guiding principles that require adaptation according to the differing needs of time, place and culture. The social Dharma cannot become rigid or the social organism will decline. This means that the vision of Dharma is more important than any specific formulation of dharma in a particular book or by a single person, though we should not discountenance the value of the dharmic wisdom from the past.
Today we need a new social dharma that can integrate what is best in science and technology while restoring our deeper connection with both Nature and the Spirit, such as the great seers of India maintained.
Dharma and Human Rights
Western political thought and modern democracies in general are based upon the idea of “human rights”, which are primarily defined on an individual basis, according to political ideals of freedom, equal opportunity, and justice for each person. These democratic principles have helped protect the individual, reducing oppression and discrimination on various levels within the society relative to race, ethnicity, gender, class, occupation, or other social affiliations.
Yet, on the negative side, an over fixation on “individual rights” encourages a mere outer freedom to do what one wants that can make people more aggressive and acquisitive, lacking an inner dimension of spiritual search. Outer freedom without a corresponding inner aspiration can become a license for the ego to do what it wishes, even if it causes eventual harm to others or to the environment. It often becomes a hectic pursuit of the material world, a running after the external allures of Maya.
The American Declaration of Independence is a very interesting document in this regard. It is based upon the three principles of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as the inalienable rights of man. Life and liberty are our inalienable rights to be sure, but the “pursuit of happiness” taken only at an outer level easily promotes an external seeking of enjoyment, pleasure and power. What you pursue or run after usually runs away from you! This pursuit of happiness or desire has given rise to the current commercial society that in many ways is becoming increasingly vulgar and destructive. Each individual tends to seek his or her rights, which easily lends itself to self-promotion over the greater good of all.
Dharma, on the other hand, teaches us that life, liberty and happiness are our inherent nature and can be found within ourselves, without the need for external seeking or accumulation of possessions. Dharma promotes freedom from any sort of outer dependency. This includes freedom from commercial exploitation and an inner orientation to life, which implies a spiritual search. Our role in life is not simply to gain what is due to us, as if the universe owed us a favor, but to help in the well-being of the world as a whole, which is part of our own greater nature. Our place in life is not simply to take, as if we existed in isolation, but to give, reflecting our relationship with the whole and the wholeness of who we really are.
Dharma and Duty
Dharma indicates duty, obligation, and responsibility as well as rights and freedom. Rights can never exist without corresponding duties and obligations. Unless rights and duties are balanced, the society itself will become imbalanced and disturbed. Each one of us no doubt has our individual place in the universe that must be honored and a destiny of our own to be fulfilled, but we must also respect the universe upon which we depend and realize that our well being can never be secured at the cost of that of others.
In this regard, Dharma is connected to the idea of giving, offering and sacrifice –what Vedic teachings call yajna. Yajna is symbolized by a fire sacrifice. Fire can only burn if given an offering of the proper fuel. Our place in life is to make the proper offering so that the universal fire of Dharma can illuminate both ourselves and the world around us. Ultimately, we must ourselves become an offering for all, rather than holding to our personal existence or private property as final.
Yajna says that our lives should consist of worship and honoring, including relative the Divine, our ancestors, other living creatures, all human beings, and the spiritual heritage of the entire human race. If each one of us acts for the good of all, we will all certainly flourish. If we act only for the good of ourselves, our family or our particular community, we will breed long term division, inequality and violence.
Broader Human and Universal Rights
According to the principles of Dharma, it is not only individuals that have rights but all aspects of the social organism and the world of nature as a whole. Families have rights, as do communities, including the right not to be interfered with or to be broken up. Cultures have rights not to be denigrated or exploited, even in the name of progress. Today in the name of individual human rights many traditional communities and cultures are being devalued and denigrated, if not eliminated, often paving the way for commercial exploitation.
The non-human world also has its rights. Animals have the right to live without human interference or exploitation and to have their natural space to move freely. Plants do so as well, as the plant also has consciousness and feeling. The world of nature does not exist solely for our own personal advantage as human beings. Each creature has its own existence that we must honor. Ecosystems also have a right to remain as they are and evolve according to their own energies, without being turned merely into human habitations or recreation sites.
When human rights do not respect the rights of other creatures, they invariably lead to conflict and problems in human society as well in the world of nature. The greater life organism of the biosphere gets damaged, which means that human beings will also not have a harmonious natural environment that can provide for health and well-being. This is what we are seeing today in which our environment has been damaged by making human needs, desires and profits predominate over the natural rights of other creatures and the sanctity of the Earth itself – in which we are failing in our duty to the universe in the blind pursuit of personal enjoyment.
Dharma reflects a pluralistic view of life which honors unity in multiplicity. It recognizes that there is a diversity of human beings, with each individual being unique in one way or another. There cannot be one job all for all, one medicine for all, or even one religion or spiritual path for all.
Therefore, there should be a corresponding diversity in society in terms of culture, philosophy, art and spirituality so that each person or group has something that their particular Dharma can relate to and find fulfillment in. According to Dharma, unity lies not in uniformity of name, form or action but in the inner freedom that allows the individual to move through and beyond all outer forms to the inner essence that is one with all.
Dharma and Relativism
Dharma holds that we must look at each individual and circumstance according the particular situations, energies and capacities involved. For this reason, a Dharmic approach remains flexible and does not seek to impose any absolutes or rigid rules upon humanity. For example, if you are driving down a road you cannot follow a rigid set of rules or formulas; you have to actually see the movement of traffic moment by moment. Similarly, Dharma rests upon perception more so than any doctrine.
Yet Dharma is far removed from an ‘anything goes’ attitude or a mere moral relativism. Dharma says that there is a right and appropriate way to do each thing, whether it is right way to eat, a right way to breathe, or a right and respectful way to organize our societies, reflecting individual circumstances as well as the broader principles existence. This way of right action cannot be reduced to a fixed pattern but is not without enduring principles either. Dharma requires consciousness in its application and cannot be turned into a standardized creed or mechanical set of rules.
Dharma and Secularism
Dharma does not imply a rule of religion over life or society. Dharma and secularism, the idea that church and state should be separate, share certain attitudes, values and concerns. Dharma holds that a government should not be used to promote one religious belief or another. It holds to freedom of religion and says that the individual should have the freedom to pursue their own Dharma in life, free of control by the state or by any external institution.
Yet Dharma is different from secularism in certain ways as well. Dharma regards all life as sacred and so cannot accept a merely commercial view of life, which is the tendency of so-called modern secular cultures. Dharma says that we must respect the sacred aspect of human life and try to make our social actions into something respectful of the greater universe. Dharma can project a spiritual vision without violating the principle of individual freedom. This is because it sees the spiritual path as a matter of individual practice, an expression of freedom, not something enforced from the outside.
Dharma and Religion
Religion is often translated as Dharma in Indian thought today. This reflects another side of its meaning. Dharma like religion states that we should recognize the universal and the eternal and base our human culture on a spiritual goal or higher consciousness. However, Dharma cannot be reduced to one particular religion, book, teacher, revelation or another. Dharma is not based upon belief and does not seek to spread, much less impose, a single belief upon all humanity. Dharma accepts freedom of religion as well as a freedom of the individual not to follow any religion at all. Above all, it places individual spiritual practice over any overt religious institutionalism.
Dharma places the need to act for the good of all above any religious labels or differences. Dharma says it is what we do that matters, not what we call ourselves, and that truth ultimately transcends all names and boundaries. Dharma says that the supreme truth is impersonal, apaurusheya, and cannot be reduced to a human formulation or representative that all must follow, however helpful these may be for certain groups or individuals.
Yet a dharmic approach does recognize that different individuals, groups and communities may want to follow different spiritual and religious paths – which need not all be the same – and which may have their own respective practices, formulations and values. Dharma accepts pluralism in religion as in all of life, including the freedom of individuals to differ and disagree on matters of religion, as long as they do not turn these differences into a pretext for conflict and violence.
At a higher level, Dharma embraces Yoga as its Moksha Dharma or teaching about the liberation of the soul, which is a matter of sadhana or inner spiritual practice through the science and art of meditation.
Dharmic Values and Ethics
Dharma rests upon certain clearly defined universal values and ethics. These are not simply dictates, laws or commandments but a recognition of how life works and how we can attune ourselves to the consciousness of the greater universe. Such dharmic values are perhaps most simply defined in the basic principles behind Yoga practice of non-violence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), self-control (Brahmacharya), non-stealing (asteya) and non-acquisitiveness (aparigraha).
There is no living being that wants to be hurt. We ourselves do not want to be hurt, so honoring the universal dharma, the universal culture as it were, we do not seek to harm anyone. Similarly, we do not want to be deceived. There is no creature that wants to be deceived, so honoring the universal dharma we tell the truth. Dharmic ethics therefore are a matter of universal courtesy, as it were, not only towards others but also towards ourselves. Without such dharmic ethics we cannot have access to the cosmic mind or the greater civilization of the universe, which is one of consciousness, not merely of science and technology.
Towards a New Dharmic Movement
Today humanity is suffering from a global crisis, which is not simply a lack of resources but a crisis of values. Today we must learn to coexist and pluralism, not only at a political level but also at cultural and religious levels, is essential. We cannot survive as a planet by promoting national, cultural or religious boundaries as final, as that is to deny the greater unity and value of humanity as a whole. A new vision of Dharma can help us in this direction because Dharma does not divide human beings up into opposing camps. It says we are all of one family and must all eventually come to the same truth and self-realization, albeit according to our own path and in our own time and manner.
Great modern teachers from India like Sri Aurobindo, Mahatma Gandhi, Swami Dayananda (of the Arya Samaj) and Swami Vivekananda, and many others from all over the world have looked into and provided their insights about creating a new social order or Dharma. Many Buddhist teachers, like the Dalai Lama are also promoting a greater dharma for humanity.
Ultimately, there needs to be a new renaissance in dharmic thinking. This implies a great deal of questioning, deep thought and profound meditation – an endeavor that may take decades to come to real fruition. It must rest upon an uncompromising pursuit of truth, not simply an attempt at social accommodation, appeasement or pleasing everyone. A new dharmic order is not a simple matter of a new political party but an infusion of higher values into our social interactions, which means a new approach to politics that considers not only the outer human being but the inner essence of the soul.
Unfortunately, the political world today tends to rely upon slogans, vote banks and appeals to mass fears and desires, looking forward only to the next election. The personality of the political leader is made more important than any deeper vision for humanity. Political parties today are lacking in any real idealism and vision and quickly compromise in order to gain power or influence. Even modern education is imed at training a person more in a particular technical profession, rather than providing a well rounded education that includes an examination as to what is the ultimate meaning of life. Clearly Dharma must be brought back into education and into social service for it to affect society as a whole.
A new world order defined by Dharma – not simply by religion, politics, or commercial concerns – is crucial for our way forward as a species and can help promote and preserve the good in all. It is important that a regard for the universal Dharma is brought into both our personal lives and into our societies. Otherwise our civilization may continue to flounder and is unlikely to find peace or harmony with life. This is a matter first of all of upholding Dharmic principles and practices in how we live and think. The work begins with each one of us.