What is Dharma

Created on 28-08-2020


6 Dharma

Before we begin to our introduction to Sanātana Dharma, it is important to understand an often misunderstood, underrated and watered-down word 'dharma' often translated as 'duty'. 'Dharma' is much more than just a duty.

6.1 What is Dharma?

There are many ways in which the word Dharma is used in Sanatana Dharma. Giving a precise one line definition is not possible. We will try to understand different ways in which the word ‘dharma’ is used.

 

Dharma can be said to be a collection of divine qualities within an individual which induce certain behaviour. This includes behaviour at individual level and towards society. It is the virtuous conduct of an individual, community and society.

 

Dharma is also used to define duty of an individual. Execution of which depends upon the qualities developed within an individual. Infact dharma is prescribed keeping in mind mental makeup and inherent basic predominant quality within an individual.  

 

Dharma of husband is to take care of wife, children and elderly. Dharma of guru is to teach shishya and dharma of shishya is to unconditionally surrender to his guru and Ishvara and so on.

 

Dharma is also the inherent quality of any object. In other words the property of any chemical or object can also be covered under the word Dharma. It is known as guṇa dharma. E.g. guṇa dharma of fire is heat. So physical and chemical properties of an object is also known as guṇa dharma or simply dharma.

 

Sometimes dharma is used to describe nature of object i.e. dharma is used as a substitute of svabhāva. For example the svabhāva of river is to flow or the dharma of river is to keep flowing until it reaches its destination which is ocean.

 

Svabhāva of river is 'to flow' and dharma is 'to keep flowing towards ocean until it merges in it'

 

‘Dharma is also used to explain basic functions of body parts including mind and intellect. In other words it is the svabhāva or the function or property or nature of an object. For example, dharma or svabhāva of mind is to ‘think’. Ādi Śankara in Tatva Bodha in reply to a question ‘what is mind,’ says, ‘that which thinks is known as mind’. Dharma of eyes of to ‘see’ and so ‘to perceive’, dharma of ears is to ‘hear’, dharma of hands is ‘grahaṇa’ or to ‘grab’ or ‘to hold’ and so on.

 

 

6.2 Varṇa Dharma

 

There is dharma assigned to a particular varna or a position. This is not just duty but a moral and ethical conduct and character building. For example, dharma of a Brahmin is to protect vedas and practice agnihotra. Brahmin is also entrusted to preserve other shastras. Dharma of a kshatriya is to rule and protect people.

 

However, the application of dharma i.e. how a person carries out one's duty depends upon one's inherent qualities or guṇas. For example a sāttvika person will have different opinion then rājasika and tāmasika person. For example, a Brāhmin with less of satva guṇa will try to induce fear in others and psychologically force them to do a particular yajna so that he can get more money, while a sāttvika brahmin will only advice what is necessary as he does not have money as his prime goal in life. Similarly, a corrupt kshatriya will exploit his subjects, while a benevolent and kind king will take care of his subjects and will try to minimize their hardships in whatever way possible.

 

Hence it is the saskāra which triggers the direction or intention behind any karma and it is the guṇas which define a saskāra in an individual. So, when it comes to application of dharma (duty), then it is the guṇa that defines the behaviour. Guṇa is at the core of dharma.

 

Dharma is also a medium to introspect and do character building. Brahmins are expected to be pious and free from greed. Their objective is not to get popular and earn name and fame but to protect vedas and other śāstras. If, a brahmin for some reason, astrays from his expected way of life, he will introspect and find his own faults then finding faults in others and correct his behaviour. In this way, dharma is not just duty, but it helps in character building.

 

The varṇa dharma is often a topic of heated debates. Varṇa by Birth is just an opportunity given by Īśvara to a jīva.  Īśvara gives best possible environment and family that will help him extinguish his prārabhdha karma. A jīva born in a pious vaidika brahmin family will have vibrations and opportunity to learn vedās from his early childhood but a jīva born in an atheist brāhmin family will not have that opportunity, however he/she will still have vibrations better than other varṇas due to the tapas of his ancestors which passes on to him. The bicycle rider has stopped peddling however the bicycle still continues to move for some distance before completely stopping. If the bicycle has stopped meaning there is no further movement, then the merits of tapas of ancestors has extinguished.  So until one has the grace of one’s ancestors, one must live the life of a Brāhmaṇa that he is supposed to live.

 

6.3 Āśrama Dharma (Ashram Dharma)

 

Just like there is varṇa dharma there is also āśrama dharma. Āśrama dharma related to the four puruśārthas and also the age of an individual.

 

General life expectancy of a person is 100 years. It is divided into four parts of 25 years each. Each part has it’s āśrama. Four āśramas are Brahmachārya, Gṛhastha, Vānaprastha and finally Sanyāsa. In today’s world the third āśrama vānaprastha is disfunct.  Each āśrama has it’s own duty or dedication. Brahmachārya āśrama is dedicated towards studying śāstras, gṛhastha for well being of all, vānaprastha for retiring from social life and living a solitary life with wife near forest or at end of village. Sanyāsa is renunciation of saṁsāra and dedicate one's life to attain moksha.

 

Brahmachārya āśrama is the foundation of all other āśramas. It is in this āśrama that one is taught how to live life. One is taught the four puruśārthas – dharma, artha, kāma and moksha. These puruśārthas are also linked with 4 āśramas in same order and are to be followed in the same order i.e. from dharma to moksha. Gṛhastha āśrama is the only āśrama in which one can earn money. Indirectly all other āśramas depend upon Gṛhastha. Gṛhastha is the great responsibility. With dharma as the base, one must earn in a fair way. Money earned by fair means can be utilized to fulfill desires (kāma or kāmanā or manokāmanā). Then one moves towards moksha after one realises the temporary nature of objects and saṁsāra begins to feel tasteless.

 

6.4 Summary of what is Dharma

 

To summarize, dharma on an individual level is to develop certain divine guṇas (qualities) and control lower negative guṇas. Guṇas form the basis of one's actions. Behaviour then expands upon the society. Dharma is also used to describe quality or nature of any object. This dharma is known as guṇa dharma. Dharma is used as a substitute of the word 'svabhāva. ‘Dharma’ is also used to define basic functions of any object or body part like mind and intellect.

 

6.5 Guṇas are at the heart of dharma

 

We can conclude that it is the guṇa that constitute dharma. Guṇas or qualities within a person forms the basis of dharma as they help in perception. Our conclusion depends upon how we perceive and knowledge too depends upon perception. Even the direction of research depends upon guṇas.

 

Gunas are also responsible for the approach of an individual towards any work. A lazy person will not care to know much while a rājasika person will be inclined towards exploration and a sāttvika person will feel contended with his / her work and plan to retire.

 

R & D, development can be done only if one has rājasika guṇa as it requires an active mind. This is not to say that scientists are do not have sattva guṇa. They do have other guṇas but the rājasa guṇa is in higher percentage.

 

6.6 Why do śāstras give importance to dharma?

 

Dharma smritis, Itihāsas and Purānas stress on developing divine sāttvika qualities like satya-prem (honesty), daya ahimsa, karuna, Kshamā, bhakti, etc. Smritis take care that these qualities are taken care of while the negative animal nature or lower gunas are kept in check in society by imposing a punishment or penance for a crime or papa karma or dush karma. Those who are with them i.e. divine qualities , it is said are with dharma and they need to be protected. Dharma protects those who protects dharma says a popular subhāshita (wise sayings).

 

A person acquires dosha by not obeying injunctions laid in shastras for individual’s emotional, mental and spiritual development. Such lapses are to be realised and one must make sure that it does not get repeated in future. For this, a person does penance. Penance helps one introspect and accept the wrong doing. It is an opportunity to change ourselves and reduce our ego. It helps cultivate divine qualities so that a person can progress spiritually and finally know one’s true nature as described by Mahāvākya ‘aham brahmāsmi’

 

Since Vedas describe the truth, they are said to be topmost authority and smritis are secondary to them in authority meaning they cannot contradict Vedas but compliment them and help individual and society to progress on spiritual path until the realisation of ultimate truth.

 

6.6.1 The Spiritual Journey

 

Spiritual path is a journey of mind. As one progresses, one is inwardly purified. Likes and dislikes and superstitions fade away. One becomes introvert. Mind becomes peaceful and experiences ānanda (bliss) constantly flowing through him. As mind purifies, it begins to get near to Īśvara tatva and merges in it resulting in samādhi. Mind again comes down in dual plain and sādhanā continues. Again, mind merges in it’s source or in heart resulting in nirvikalpa samādhi. Mind again comes down in dual plane. As this process continues, all the vāsanās (desires) get uprooted and permanently destroyed. Once all desires are destroyed, mind effortlessly merges in Brahman. After mind comes down from samādhi, it experiences ‘sarvam kahu-idam Brahma’ meaning ‘Everything else is (also) Brahman’. Such a divine jīva is known as ‘Jīvan Mukta. After such jīva quits his physical body, he attains ‘Videha mukti. After Videha mukti, there is permanent merging in Brahman. There is no returning back and the connection with the body is permenantly broken. There is no rebirth, there is no death, infact it is said that this life was the ‘last birth’ and not ‘last death’, as there is no death. The person was also mukta while still retaining physical body.

 

Dharma śāstras help one cultivate a way of lifesytle that helps one progress spiritually and attain the highest goal of life – moksha.

 

We have understood dharma in simple words. Let us understand what our śāstras say about it.

 

6.7 Dharma as described in a dharma smritis like Manu Smriti, Mahābhārata and Upaniṣads

 Manu Smriti describes dharma as

 

धृतिः क्षमा दमोऽस्तेयं शौचमिन्द्रियग्रहः ।

धीविर्द्या सत्यमक्रोधो दशकं धर्मलक्षणम् ।।

- मनुस्मृति ६|९२


Ten principles (virtuous conducts) to be daily practised are



  1. dhruti - courage / Self Command
  2. kshamā  - Forgiveness
  3. dama - Control over mind
  4. asteya - Non-stealing
  5. śauca - internal and external cleanliness
  6. indriya-nigraha - control over senses
  7. dhī (buddhi) - to understand rightly by logical thinking
  8. vidyā - knowledge discrimination between right and wrong (ātmā-anātmā-viveka, nitya-anitya vastu-viveka). Scriptural knowledge of ātmā is expected.
  9. satya - Truth
  10. a-krodha - Absence of anger

 

- Manu Smriti 6.92

 

In another adhyāya 2, Manu smriti says –

 

वेदः स्मृतिः सदाचारः स्वस्य च प्रियम् आत्मनः ।

एतत् चतुर्विधं प्राहुः साक्षाद् धर्मस्य लक्षणम् ॥ 

- मनुस्मृतिः 2.12

  

1. Veda - Highest Authority amongst our śāstras,

2. Smṛti - Dharma Smṛti (Smritis) the books of Civil Laws.

3. Sadāchāra - sad-ācharaṇa - meaning virtuous conduct of wise men well versed in śāstras

4. Ātma-priya - what is agreeable to oneself after reasoning 

- these directly constitute the fourfold means of knowing Dharma.

 

-  Manu Smriti 2.12

 

Here, it must be noted that the fourth explanation of dharma is dependent upon the knowledge of first three. The superiority of dharma is from ascending order beginning from veda to smriti to practice of cultured men to whatever is agreeable to oneself. A person has to be well versed and his decisions must not contradict vedas. However, blind acceptance is not required, but one must reason with oneself and others before coming to a conclusion. The interpretation must compliment the spiritual journey.

 

Note: The word Ātma Priya means that which is dear to one. In Mamu Smriti 2.12, the word Ātma-priya is to be understood as that which one agrees by oneself without blind belief and getting convinced to accept any thought after logical reasoning. The word 'priya' would mean that which is acceptable without any pressure. The decision of what is acceptable to oneself depends upon guṇas and inherant saṁskāras. 


Anushāshaṇika parva 116.28-29 of Mahabharata describes ahimsā as ‘parama dharma’, the supreme dharma or the best dharma

 

अहिंसा परमो धर्मस्तथाहिंसा परो दमः अहिंसा परमं दानमहिंसा परमं रतपः ।।

अहिंसा परमो यज्ञस्तथाहिंसा परं फलम् अहिंसा परमं मित्रमहिंसा परमं सुखम् ।।

- महाभा. अनु. पर्व. ११६।२८-२९


Ahiṃsā is the best dharma (and also yajña)ahiṃsā is the best dama (control of mind) i.e. it is the best way to control mind and resist impulsive reaction.

ahiṃsā is the best dāna (donation), ahiṃsā is the best tapa (sādhanā)

ahiṃsā is the best fruit of yajña, ahiṃsā is the best mitra (Friend) and ahiṃsā is the foremost sukhaḥ (happiness)    


- Mahabharata Anu. Parva. 116.28-29

 

Note: Dharma is also interpreted as ‘duty is to perform agnihotra, a vedika yajña / vaidika yajña वैदिक यज्ञ’. So Ahiṃsā is the yajña and itś fruit too, as the fruit of action lies in the fulfillment of action. Ahiṃsā is also the best of guṇa as dharma is dependent upon guṇa. 

 

Sāyanācārya and Vārtikakāra (Śrī Sureshvarāchārya) while commenting on Śrī Ādi Śankara’s commentary on taittiriya upanishad Tai. Up. 1.11 ‘satyam vada, dharamam chara’ has given one of the definitions of ‘dharma’ as ‘agnihotra’. It is my humble opinion that Ācārya-s have given this definition in context to the sloka under explanation. Study of vedas and performance of yajñas (karma kāṇḍa) is important. After one I ssufficiently inwardl purified, it is time to walk on path of renunciation (jñāna mārga). Since āchāryas are commenting of vedānta or upanishads which teach us path of renunciation (jñāna mārga), hence they have given such interpretation of the word ‘dharma’. Ācharya-s clarify that practising veidika yajñas (vedic rituals) like agnihotra just once is not enough to make us inwardly pure and start practicing jñāna mārga. They should be diligently practised until one attains sufficient inner purity which is judged by a guru.


To Conclude,

The word ‘dharma’ is very vast. It includes body functions. dharma of eye is to see. dharma of mind is to think. dharma also includes a predefined or expected way of life. dharma of a teacher (Ācārya) is to teach and so on.


‘Dharma’ could mean, virtue, character, mark, quality, nature, custom (tradition), justice, way of life, law (natural or manmade), duty (includes all kinds of duties like duty towards society, family, nation, etc), ‘that which is established’, a particular condition, rites and rituals, morality, customary actions, practice, observance, injunctions laid by dharma shastras etc. Dharma covers all aspects of life.

 

6.8 Beyond Dharma (and adharma) is moksha – Another Meaning of dharma

 

Bhagavāna in Gītā says,

सर्वधर्मान्परित्यज्य मामेकं शरणं व्रज।
अहं त्वा सर्वपापेभ्यो मोक्षयिष्यामि मा शुचः।।18.66।।

 

Abandoning all duties, take refuge in Me alone: I will liberate you from all sins and grant you moksha, do not grieve.

 

Dharma in traditional commentaries is referred by Śrī Ādi Śankara as that referring to vaidika yajñas in Gītā. Ādi Śankara further explains that in this sloka, the word ‘dharma’ includes ‘adharma too. This is said so as many vaidika injunctons like in Taittiriya Samhitā, Satapatha Brāhmana and dharma smritis warn us that if certain dharmas are not carried out then one incurs sin. There are certain yajña-s which are obligatory and some are compulsory. The compulsory ones are those which when done do not incur any merit but if not done will incur sin. This is because a person has three debts (ṝṇa) or ṝṇa-traya right from his birth. We will understand ṝṇa-traya later. To conclude, Ādi Śankara says that by taking sanyāsa one is free from doing any type of kāmya karma (as fulfilment of rituals give us meritious fruits). This includes the compulsory karmas too. Slokas warning us of not neglecting them are ineffective as one has become sufficiently inwardly pure to renounce the same vaidika karmas that made him inwardly pure. Karmas glorified by śāstras have deep impact on our mind. It is time to reduce their importance from our mind and detach from them so there is no urge to perform them, but rather mind naturally turn inwards. Now one has to walk on the path of renunciation where one has to dis-identify and dis-associate or detach oneself from all that is anātmā.

We will go further deep to understand the word ‘dharma’ in Gītā BG 18.66

6.8.1 More on the word ‘dharma’ in Gītā BG 18.66

We know that dharma is also used to describe the quality (guṇas), nature or property of any object. Even māyā has three guṇas. So rising above guṇas means rising above māyā too.

 

The word, ‘dharma’ indicates ‘everything that is anātmā i.e. everything that can be experienced separately from oneself or ‘I’ – the first person. Disassociation of these dharmas is beautifully given in a concise way in a very popular and great composition ‘Ātma Ṣaṭaka’ (Atma Shatak) or ‘Nirvāṇa Ṣaṭaka of  Śrī Ādi Śankara. It is the essence of advaita sādhanā and also the realisation of a sādhaka.

 

Earlier we have known that there are compulsory karmas which one must perform. Let us know understand the ṝṇatraya or the three debts and how one can be free from them.

 

6.9 Ṝṇa-traya or the Three Debts

 

The three ṝṇas (debts) are deva-ṝṇa, Ṝishi-ṝṇa and Pitṛ-ṝṇa


6.9.1 - 1. deva-ṝṇa – debt to devī-devatā-s.

 

They control the nature (environment), they represent five elements (earth, water, fire, air and ākāśa), solve our problems and protect us. Kanchi Paramāchārya says that Mortals and Celestials help each other. Yajña is the food of the deva-s. In return devata-s bless us with good weather, rain, and protect us. They carry out the functions of nature and the whole eco system runs spontaneously. Devas do not have physical body. They have manomaya kosha as the last grossest body.  We can show our gratitude to devī-devatās and can become free from this debt by  performing yajña-s and singing vaidika hymns.

 

6.9.2 - 2. Ṝishi-ṝṇa - debt to rishi-s (for giving us shastra-s).

 

We are in great debt of ishi-s. Śrī Ādi Śankara  has said that without śastras, there is not much difference between a human being and animal. Animals do not have power of discrimination. We humans can study scriptures and rise beyond the circle of birth and death. This debt can be repaid by studying śastras, doing self study (svādhyāya) and doing sādhanā. Abhyāsa and vairāgya are the two wings necessary to fly and rise beyond māyā, attain ātmajña (Self Realisation) and attain moksha.

 

The word ‘abhyāsa’ includes study of śatras under a guru (abhyāsa), then contemplating on the teachings (svādhyāya) and doing sādhanā. So abhyāsa includes svādhyāya and sādhanā too.

 

Similarly the word ‘vairāgya’ includes ‘viveka’ i.e. discrimination. Vairāgya should be developed with proper understanding and must not be impulsive or as a result of shock or trauma. It should be a mature decision. Hence vairāgya implies viveka yukta vairāgya meaning ‘dispassion resulting as a result of proper understanding of the goal of life and readiness to choose the path of renunciation then living a house holder’s life’. Here renunciation can be a mental or both mental and physical. It is mental as in case of certain sādhakas who for some reason have not taken sanyāsa but their mental state of similar to that of a sanyāsin.

 

One can be ideally free from Ṝishi rṇa after one attains ātma jñāna. Even sincere study of śatras and sincere sādhanā would also help repay this debt.

 

6.9.3 - 3. Pitṛ-ṝṇa is the debts of pitṝ-s (ancestors).

 

We need to help our ancestors to progress spiritually. It is said that after living the physical body, the jīva is known as ‘Preta’. After one year, jīva become ‘Pitru’. Pitru ascends to ‘Vasu, from Vasu to ‘Rudra’ then to ‘Aditya’ and finally to ‘Pitru-devatā’.

 

During first year, we must do tarpaṇa and shrādha as it takes one year to travel to the pitṛ loka. After one year, ‘Preta’ becomex ‘Pitru’. It is the pitṛ (putra), the son, who help his immediate ancestors in crossing this path, which is often considered as painful and makes the jīva very thirsty. As the preta becomes Pitru, the ancestors who were Pitrus will ascend to Vasu and Vasus ascend to Aditya and Adityas ascend to Pitru-devatā-s. Pitru devatā-s have the ability to bless us. They help us protect our family. When invited in yajñas or during graha-pravesha (house warming ceremony), they do visit our home and bless us. They pass on the energies of our family clan unto us.

 

We are also indebted to our parents who raise us, protect us and importantly they giva a jīva a body and so an opportunity to exhaust his / her prārabhdha and attain moksha.

 

Since we are indebted to our ancestors, it is our duty to perform yajña in their honour and donate money and wealth in their name and pray for their sadgati and moksha.

 

6.9.4 Notes on Shrādha

 

It is to be noted that if a son is absent, then a daughter can perform shrādha, if daughter is absent, then close relative. If no relative is present, anyone can perform shrādha. This type of shrādha is known as ‘karuṇā shrādha’ and the person performs it not as a duty but out of compassion as he wishes to help the departed jīva. Karuṇa shrādha incurs great merits as it is not the duty of a non-relative to perform shrādha. This shrādha is done by anyone or a brāhmaṇa may do it on his own if a person leaves his / her physical body while travelling to distant place or doing pligrimage.  It is not advisable to keep the body lying for few days as the jīva can get attracted to his / her physical body and this will stop his travelling to pitṛ loka. Burning body will break this bond. Upon death, a jīva is not ready to take journey and needs some time to this new situation without physical body. While dying and after death a person also recalls his past deeds. So a body needs to be burnt early but not immediately as the jīva is in pain of separation with physical body and begins to get acquinted to the new environment and then begins the flash back of past deeds.

 

Coming back, since we are already indebted to these three types of debts known as ‘ṝṇatraya’, by performing them we get free from them. Not doing them will keep us in debt and so it is considered as a sin. Hence it is a duty and does not incur merit, but not doing it incurs a sin.

 

Only when a person has a mental state of sanyāsa, one is not oblidged to perform these karmas rather focus on sādhanā and attain nirvikalpa samādhi.


Tarpaṇa to should be performed regularly. 


We have understood dharma in general sense. Dharma is the very foundation of our life. Let us now understand what Gītā says on the divine qualities that help develop a good character of high moral and ethical values and the demonic qualities that lead one astray from the path of dharma. An entire chapter adhyaaya 16 is dedicated to describing these qualities - 

Daivi (Divine) and Āsuri (Demonic) Qualities in Gītā Adhyāya 16

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