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The word dharma (Sanskrit; "धर्म" in the Devanagari script) or dhamma (Pali) is used in most or all philosophies and religions of Indian origin, Dharmic faiths, namely Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma), Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. It occurs first in the Vedas, in its oldest form as dharman.
It is difficult to provide a single concise definition for "Dharma" ("life" fails to convey a connoted complexity); the word has a long and varied history and complex set of meanings and interpretations. Certain Westerners and Orientalists have proposed any number of possible translations, from "justice" to "religion." All of them have a moral connotation, however, that, as any true scholar of Sanskrit and of Traditional Metaphysics would quickly point out, has no real place in Hinduism.
"Dharma" derives from the verbal root dhri, which simply means "manner of being." The term must therefore be understood in its original (i.e. metaphysical) context, that of a "conformity" to a Divine or Creative Principle at work in an individual. It represents the individual's internal "law," to which an obedience must be given if that individual life is to live in accordance with a Divine Will. (This, we should note, is what Hindus or, for that matter, all metaphysical traditions, consider the sole or primary "purpose" of life.) In "dharma," therefore, we find the founding principle of the caste system--one in which individuals owe their allegiance to an "internal decree" from which they cannot stray. It also explains how "justice," for example, finds its place among the many modern definitions of the word "dharma."
It [dharma] is, so to speak, the essential nature of a being, comprising the sum of its particular qualities or characteristics, and determining, by virtue of the tendencies or dispositions it implies, the manner in which this being will conduct itself, either in a general way or in relation to each particular circumstance. The same idea may be applied, not only to a single being, but also to an organized collectivity, to a species, to all the beings included in a cosmic cycle or state of existence, or even to the whole order of the Universe; it then, at one level or another, signifies conformity with the essential nature of beings... (from Guenon's "Introduction to the Study of Hindu Doctrines")
This said, certain "Western" definitions of the word must be considered in the light of this original definition--that is, as branches from a single root. Monier Monier-Williams, for example (while covering the entire scope it would seem), gives its primary definition as:
that which is established or firm, steadfast decree, statute, ordinance, law; usage, practice, customary observance or prescribed conduct, duty; right, justice (often as a synonym of punishment); virtue, morality, religion, religious merit, good works,
of which the first, "that which is established or firm" seems to be the most ancient and etymological. "Dharma" is cognate with the Latin firmus, the origin of the word "firm." Meanings related to law, morality, scripture, and teachings were probably acquired through analogy, by being regarded as firm and called as such. For the phenomenological or psychological meaning, see below.
In Hinduism, Yama, the god of death, is also known as Dharma, since he works within the laws of karma and morality, regulated by divine principles. More familiar to most Hindus is the embodiment of Dharma in Lord Rama, an avatar of Vishnu. Within Hindu communities, Dharma can also refer to the Hindu religion in general.
In Buddhism, the Dharma most often means the body of teachings expounded by the Buddha. Confusingly, the word is also used in Buddhist phenomenology as a term roughly equivalent to phenomenon, a basic unit of existence and/or experience.
In scripture translations dharma is often best left untranslated, as it has acquired a lively life of its own in English that is more expressive than any simplistic translation. Common translations and glosses include "right way of living," "Divine Law," "Path of Righteousness," "order," "faith," "natural harmony," "rule," "fundamental" and "duty". Dharma may be used to refer to "rules" of the operation of the mind or universe in a metaphysical system, or to rules of comportment in an ethical system.
Within Indian logic
Within Indian logic "dharma" also means "property" and "dharmin" means "property-bearer". In a Sanskrit sentence like "zabdo 'nityaH" (Sanskrit transliterated according to the Kyoto-Harvard convention ), "sound is impermanent", "sound" is the bearer of the property "impermanence". Likewise, in the sentence "iha ghataH", "here, there is a pot", "here" is the bearer of the property "pot-existence" - this just goes to show that the categories property and property-bearer are closer to those of a logical predicate and its subject-term, and not to a grammatical predicate and subject.
Origin and development in Hinduism
A common manner of describing Hinduism among its adherents is as a way of life, as "Dharma." It defies dogma and thus seeks to instead align the human body, mind, and soul in harmony with nature.
Our very limitation is guided under a universal understanding, that of Dharma. The Atharva Veda, the last of the four books of the Vedas, utilizes symbolism to describe dharma's role. Thus we are bound by the laws of time, space and causation according to finite reality, which itself is a limitation imposed by the self-projection of the infinite Brahman as the cosmos. Dharma is the foundation of this causal existence, the one step below the infinite. Indeed, dharma is the projection of divine order from Brahman, and as such:
- "Prithivim Dharmana Dhritam"
- "This world is upheld by Dharma"
- -- (Atharva Veda)
Proto-dharma: rta in the Vedas
To assess a concept whose explication is bewildering in range, it is useful to trace its nascence and subsequent development in Vedic culture. In the Vedas, which span back to 2000 BCE (and much further in oral tradition), the first concept that is strikingly dharmic is that of rta.
Rta literally means the "course of things." At first, the early Hindus (or followers of the "Sanatan Dharma") were notably confused as to the inscrutable order of nature, how the heavenly bodies, the rushing winds and flowing waters, the consistent cycling of the seasons, were regulated. Thenceforth sprang rta, whose all-purpose role it was to signify this order, the path that was always followed. Through all the metamorphoses and permutations of nature, of life in general, there was one unchangeable fact: rta.
Soon it transcended its passive role as a mere signifier and took on a greater one, that of an active imposition of order. Not only the natural principles, but the gods and goddesses themselves, were obliged to abide by rta. Rta became the father, the law of justice and righteousness, unyielding but eminently fair. It grew, as Radhakrishnan states, from "physical" to "divine" in its purvey.
The world's seeming mess of altercating fortune, the caprice of the divinities, was now intelligible. Indeed, there was a single, unchanging harmony working 'behind the scenes.' A right path existed, ready to be taken by the righteous ones. Rta signifies the way life ought to be, shifting from physical to divine, from natural to moral order. Rta was morality, the equitable law of the universe. The conception of this all-transcending, supramental force that is, practically, the same concept as later understandings of dharma, is captured in this early Vedic prayer, preempting the liturgical strains of classical Hindu mantras involving dharma:
- "O Indra, lead us on the path of Rta, on the right path over all evils."
- --(Rig Veda Book X, Chapter CXXXIII, Verse 6)
Thus we see the logical progression of an early 'course of things' into an all-encompassing moral order, a path and way of righteousness, an all-encompassing harmony of the universe, in the Vedic idea of Rta. (1)
An earlier and insightful demonstration of the continuity of thought from rta to dharma is a brief but "pregnant definition" ((3) of dharma given in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, a pre-Buddhist work dating back to between 1000 to 700 BCE. Founded upon the Hindu ideas of, as R. H. Hume's "intelligent monism," with Brahman the monad, the Upanishads saw dharma as the universal principle of law, order, harmony, all in all truth, that sprang first from Brahman. It acts as the regulatory moral principle of the universe. It is sat, truth, a major tenet of Hinduism. This hearkens back to the conception of the Rig Veda that "Ekam Sat," (Truth Is One), of the idea that Brahman is "Sacchidananda" (Truth-Consciousness-Bliss). Dharma has imbibed the highest principles of Truth, and as such is the central guiding principle in the Hindu conception of existence. Dharma is not just law, or harmony, it is pure Reality. In the Brihadaranyaka's own words:
- " Verily, that which is Dharma is truth.
- Therefore they say of a man who speaks truth, 'He speaks the Dharma,'
- or of a man who speaks the Dharma, 'He speaks the Truth.'
- Verily, both these things are the same."
- (Brh. Upanishad, 1.4.14) (2)
The teachings of the Buddha
For practicing Buddhists, references to "dharma" or dhamma in the singular, particularly as "the" Dharma, is used as a signifier of the teachings of the Buddhists, and is sometimes called the Buddha-Dharma.
The status of the Dharma is regarded variably by different traditions. Some regard it as an ultimate and transcendent truth which is utterly beyond worldly things, somewhat like the Christian logos. Others, who regard the Buddha as simply an enlightened human being, see the Dharma more as a useful set of ideas and suggestions for how to live ones life, not requiring any special transmundane status.
"Dharma" usually refers inclusively not just to the sayings of the Buddha but to the later traditions of interpretation and addition that the various schools of Buddhism have developed to help explain and expand upon the Buddha's teachings.
Dharmas in Buddhist phenomenology
Other uses include, in Buddhist philosophy, "phenomenon" or "constituent factor" in the sense of factors which were first enumerated as constituents of human experience, but then gradually expanded into a classification of constituents of the entire material and mental world. Rejecting the substantial existence of permanent entities which are qualified by possibly changing qualities, Buddhist Abhidharma philosophy, which enumerated seventy-five dharmas , came to propound that these "constituent factors" are the only type of entity that truly exists. This notion is of particular importance for the analysis of human experience: Rather than assuming that mental states inhere in a cognizing subject, or a soul-substance, Buddhist philosophers largely propose that mental states alone exist as "constituent factors", and that a subjective aspect is contained in these states themselves.
Later, Buddhist philosophers like Nāgārjuna would question whether the dharmas truly have an existence or nature of their own. Rejecting any inherent reality to the dharmas, he asked (rhetorically):
śūnyeṣu sarvadharmeṣu kim anantaṁ kimantavat
kim anantam antavac ca nānantaṁ nāntavacca kiṁ
kiṁ tad eva kim anyat kiṁ śāśvataṁ kim aśāśvataṁ
aśāśvataṁ śāśvataṁ ca kiṁ vā nobhayam apyataḥ 'tha
sarvopalambhpaśamaḥ prapańcopaśamaḥ śivaḥ
na kva cit kasyacit kaścid dharmo buddhena deśitaḥ|
When all dharmas are empty, what is endless? What has an end?
What is endless and with an end? What is not endless and not with an end?
What is it? What is other? What is permanent? What is impermanent?
What is impermanent and permanent? What is neither?
Auspicious is the pacification of phenomenal metastasis, the pacification of all apprehending;
There is no dharma whatsoever taught by the Buddha to whomever, whenever, wherever. --Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, nirvṇānaparīkṣā, 25:22-24
- Radhakrishnan, S. (1923): "Indian Philosophy Vol.1" (2nd Edition). New Delhi: Oxford India Paperbacks (Oxford University Press).
- Hume, R.E.: (1921): "The Thirteen Principal Upanishads" (2nd Edition, Revised). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Easwaran, E. (1987): "The Upanishads" (Seventh Printing). Tomales, CA: Nilgiri Press.
- DailyOM Inspirational thoughts for a happy, healthy & fulfilling day. Includes many articles about dharma.
- Digital Dictionary of Buddhism (log in with userID "guest")
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