Dharma is a Sanskrit word usually translated as “duty“, “justice“, “law” and “morality“, but its meaning is broader and deeper. Dharma represents the moral and ethical order of the universe, the laws that govern both the cosmos and human conduct. It is an essential principle that drives individuals toward righteousness and moral duty.
In this article we will explore in detail the concept of Dharma within Hinduism and why it is so important.
The idea of Dharma has roots in the ancient Vedic scriptures, being one of the recurring themes in Hindu sacred texts such as the Rigveda, the Upanishads, the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita. These texts teach that living in accordance with Dharma helps to maintain cosmic and social balance.
The Heart of Dharma
Genuine ethics arises from understanding reality, from wisdom, from being able to see things as they are. The secret to living by following the Dharma is to know the interdependence of all beings, that we are all connected to each other, rather than perceiving ourselves as separate individuals. Interdependence contains a great number of teachings, hence its importance:
- Unity in diversity: Although there is immense diversity in the world, the interdependence of beings teaches us that we are all part of a large and intricate web of life. Each individual, however insignificant it may seem, plays a role in the maintenance and harmony of a larger system.
- Compassion and empathy: Awareness that our actions have an impact on others fosters a sense of compassion. Understanding interdependence pushes us to treat other beings, human or otherwise, with kindness and empathy.
- Environmental responsibility: Realizing the interdependence of ecosystems highlights the importance of environmental responsibility. Destroying one part of an ecosystem can have cascading effects on many other parts. This teaches us to act with caution and to consider the wider implications of our actions on the environment.
- Cause and effect: Every action has consequences, some immediate and some distant. Interdependence makes us aware of the ripple effects of our choices, inspiring us to make decisions based on deep reflection.
- Humility: Understanding that we are only a small part of something much larger helps to cultivate humility. It reminds us that although we play a role in life, the universe is vast and complex, beyond our full comprehension.
- Value of collaboration: In an interdependent world, collaboration is not only beneficial, but essential. It teaches us that the combined efforts of several individuals can produce results far superior to those of any one individual acting alone.
- Holistic thinking: Rather than considering problems or challenges in isolation, understanding interdependence encourages a more holistic approach. It pushes us to consider multiple perspectives and factors when addressing problems.
- Appreciation of life: Observing the beauty and complexity of interconnected life forms can increase our appreciation for life and foster a sense of wonder and gratitude.
- Moral Responsibility: Recognizing the interconnectedness of all beings carries with it a moral responsibility to act for the benefit of the larger community, whether local, global or universal.
Dharma as Vital Purpose
In Hindu thought, human life is described as a complex journey, laden with aspirations, duties and purposes. These dimensions of life are encapsulated by the four ‘Purusharthas‘: Dharma (moral duty or righteousness), Artha (prosperity or material attainment), Kama (desire or pleasure) and Moksha (liberation or spiritual realization). Of these, Dharma is considered the most fundamental, acting as the foundation upon which the other Purushartas are structured. Let’s see how Dharma relates to the other three objectives.
The word ‘Dharma‘ comes from the Sanskrit root ‘Dhri‘, which means ‘to sustain‘ or ‘to maintain‘. Dharma is what sustains society, morality and order in the world. It is not simply a set of rules, but a guiding principle on how one should act in different circumstances to maintain balance and harmony in society and in oneself.
The importance of Dharma as Purusharta lies in its regulative nature. Without a moral and ethical basis, other goals in life, such as the pursuit of pleasure or wealth, can become destructive. Dharma acts as a guide, ensuring that actions are performed fairly, justly and in harmony.
Dharma and Artha
Artha, wealth and material attainment, is essential for survival and well-being in society. But the pursuit of Artha without the guidance of Dharma can lead to greed, exploitation and social imbalance. It is the Dharma that provides a framework within which the accumulation of wealth can occur ethically. It teaches us to earn and spend fairly, without causing harm to others and without sacrificing moral values in the process.
Dharma and Kama
Kama is the sensual pleasures and human desires, from physical pleasures to emotions and aesthetics. Although Kama is a natural and essential part of the human experience, without proper guidance, it can lead to excesses and addictions. This is where Dharma comes in, providing guidance that helps people enjoy life’s pleasures in a balanced and healthy way, without falling into blind indulgence.
Dharma and Moksha
Moksha, spiritual freedom and realization, is the supreme goal in Hindu philosophy. It is a transcendence of the ego and recognition of oneness with the divine. To attain Moksha, one must follow the Dharma, for acting righteously and ethically purifies the mind and soul, preparing them for liberation.
Svadharma: Discovering our own path
“Sva” means “one’s own” or “self” in Sanskrit, so Svadharma can be literally translated as “one’s own dharma.” It is the moral and ethical obligation or duty that one should follow in life, which is in accordance with one’s inherent nature, talents, abilities and purpose. This concept stresses the importance of following one’s individual path or duty in life, even if it differs from the expectations or norms of society at large. It is a recognition that each person has a unique nature, and this intrinsic nature determines his or her specific duty or dharma.
Discovering our Svadharma is no easy task. It requires introspection, self-examination, and often the courage to question and leave behind social and familial expectations. It is a journey inward, where the truth of who we are and what our purpose is to be found. While the outside world may offer guides and signposts, the true map lies within each of us. Social norms, family pressures and personal aspirations can sometimes cloud the clarity needed to discern our own Dharma. In addition, the Svadharma can evolve over time, changing as one matures and encounters different stages of life.
There is a liberating irony in the Svadharma. Although it speaks to us of a duty or a predestined path, it actually offers us profound freedom. When we live in alignment with our essence, actions flow naturally, decisions are made with clarity, and life feels less like a struggle and more like a dance. It is not that challenges disappear, but facing them from authenticity gives us a special strength.
Personal Dharma manifests itself in various forms, depending on the inclinations, capacities and stages of life of each individual. Let us give some examples of Svadharma to make the concept a little clearer:
- Someone who possesses the natural ability and inclination to impart knowledge and wisdom could have the Svadharma of a teacher. Regardless of social pressures to pursue more lucrative careers, this person would find true fulfillment and alignment in teaching.
- Think of a creative person with an innate talent for painting, music or writing. Despite living in a community where art is not highly valued, his Svadharma might be to dedicate his life to art and express his vision, even if that means facing social challenges.
The Ethical Principles of the Dharma
Dharma cannot be understood as a set of rigid moral principles to be followed mechanically, quite the contrary. The Dharma is born out of an understanding of oneself and the world around us. It requires awareness of the connectedness of all living beings and how the actions we take, or do not take, have consequences. Although the idea of Dharma may vary from one tradition to another, at its heart lie a number of fundamental principles
These principles, as we have already said, are not strict rules, but rather can be interpreted as a map or guide that serves to reflect on the way we act and our duty to others and helps us to live in a more conscious and meaningful way.
We will describe in detail each of the principles that we consider essential and what their meaning is.
Ahimsa, non-violence, is a fundamental pillar in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. Beyond the obvious harm of physical violence, it is the awareness of the harm that can result from our behavior and words. It doesn’t take a keen observer to realize that most people go through life acting mechanically and unconsciously, oblivious to the impact they can have on others.
Let us briefly explore the different dimensions of Ahimsa:
- Mental: It is common to experience thoughts of anger, envy, jealousy or resentment. However, giving in to these thoughts and feeding them is tantamount to violating the principle of Ahimsa. Even if these thoughts are not translated into actions, they have the potential to poison the mind and create inner conflict.
- Verbal: Words have power. They can comfort, inspire and heal, but they can also hurt, belittle and destroy. Ahimsa practice on the verbal plane involves a deep awareness of how words are used. Criticizing, gossiping, lying or speaking in anger are examples of how language can be used in violent ways
- Physical: In addition to avoiding acts of violence, on the physical plane, it also involves being mindful of our daily actions, such as diet. This is why many Hindus choose to be vegetarian, as an extension of the practice of not harming other beings.
The true practice of Ahimsa demands deep self-examination. It requires one to recognize and control violent tendencies, not only in actions, but also in words and thoughts. It reminds us that violence, in whatever form, harms not only the victim, but also the perpetrator. Violence begets more violence in an endless cycle, while nonviolence can break this cycle, creating opportunities for understanding and reconciliation, with ourselves and with others.
The Upanishads, which are philosophical treatises that explore the nature of being and the cosmos, emphasize the interconnectedness of all forms of life. Within this context, harming another being, in any form, is tantamount to harming oneself. The belief in the Atman, or the soul, which is divine and omnipresent, also reinforces the concept of Ahimsa: to harm another is to harm that divine aspect present in everyone.
In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the fundamental text of yoga, Ahimsa forms part of the Yamas (ethical or moral principles), which are the first step in the eight steps of the Asthanga Yoga path described by Patanjali. These principles are considered essential for personal development and self-realization.
Although at its most basic level, Satya involves speaking truthfully and avoiding lying, Hinduism teaches that Satya goes beyond the dichotomy of true and false. It is a quality of authenticity and consistency. Truth is not only what is said, but how it is lived. Every action, thought and feeling can be a reflection of Satya if it emanates from a place of authentic self-awareness and sincerity.
Satya and Dharma are intrinsically linked. To live in truth is to live in accordance with Dharma. However, this is not always simple. Sometimes, telling the truth may seem to go against welfare or nonviolence (Ahimsa). For example, what if telling the truth hurts someone? Here, Hinduism offers a nuanced perspective: truth should not be cruel. Truthfulness is balanced with compassion. If a “truth” is told for the purpose of hurting or harming, it has lost its alignment with Dharma.
Often translated as charity or giving, Dāna goes beyond simply giving goods or money. It is a conscious and voluntary act of giving up something of one’s own for the welfare of others, without expecting anything in return. While material giving, such as food, money or goods, is the most recognized form of Dāna, there are other types of generosity that often go unnoticed and can lead to deeper changes in the person receiving these acts:
- Dāna of knowledge: Sharing wisdom, teaching or imparting knowledge is a form of Dāna. Great spiritual teachers, who share their wisdom selflessly, are seen as supreme examples of this form of generosity.
- Dāna of time: Devoting time to worthy causes, helping others or participating in community service is considered a valuable form of Dāna.
- Dāna of love and understanding: Showing empathy, love and understanding, even in difficult situations, is a profound expression of generosity.
By practicing Dāna we cultivate a healthy detachment from possessions, recognizing that true wealth is not found in what is possessed, but in what is given.
Daya is not a passive compassion, but an active empathy that seeks to alleviate the suffering of others. Whether through acts of charity, providing emotional support or, in the case of great saints, offering spiritual guidance. It is a call to see beyond oneself, to connect with the suffering and joy of others and to act from a place of genuine love and understanding.
The true essence of Daya is found in everyday life. It manifests in simple acts: sharing food with someone who is hungry, offering words of comfort to someone who is grieving, or even offering a comforting smile.
Kshama (Patience and Forgiveness)
This principle goes beyond mere tolerance; it is a deep understanding of human nature and the human condition, as well as a constant reminder of the power of love and understanding.
Kshama is not simply a passive virtue; it is active and dynamic in nature. It is the conscious act of resisting the impulse to anger or revenge, even when provoked. This ability to maintain inner peace in the midst of adversity and challenge is a mark of true strength and wisdom. Patience is a deep understanding that everything has its time and that anger or impatience will not make things happen faster or more effectively.
Forgiveness goes hand in hand with patience and is considered a form of liberation. By releasing others from our expectations and judgments, we are actually releasing ourselves from the chains of resentment and hatred, allowing us to live fully.