Although “dharma” is a Sanskrit word with origins in the Vedic texts of ancient India, it has now become a mainstream word in English and many other languages of the world. The spread of such religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism have helped to popularize the concept of dharma, although many people only have a vague understanding of what the term means.
In this article, we take a deep dive into the concept of dharma and its role in Vedic science. When we understand the importance of dharma and how it can serve as a guide for our life, we will automatically align ourselves with our true, spiritual purpose.
What does dharma really mean?
The word karma comes from the Sanskrit verbal root “dhri” — to maintain or support. The literal meaning of dharma is that which establishes or upholds. The Mahabharata provides a definition for how the term dharma applies to human life:
“Dharma is so-called because it upholds (dhāraṇā). Dharma upholds all human beings. Whatever is endowed with the capacity to uphold is concluded to be dharma.” (Mahābhārata, Karṇa-parva 69.58)
A basic way to understand dharma is that it refers to the intrinsic quality of an object. For instance, the dharma of sugar is its sweetness, the dharma of ice is its coldness, the dharma of chili is its spiciness, and so on.
Thus, in its essence, dharma refers to our true nature as human beings — what and who we are at our core.
The Four Goals of Human Life
The Vedas describe four goals of human life, known collectively as purusharthas:
Dharma — the observance of religious, ethical, and spiritual codes of conduct for individual and social life.
Artha — the pursuit of wealth in all its forms, including land, grains, livestock, precious metals, and so on.
Kama — the fulfillment of material desires for sensual pleasure, such as fine food, a beautiful spouse, bright and accomplished children, and so on.
Moksha — ultimate liberation from the cycle of repeated birth and death in material existence, or samsara.
Among these four, dharma is considered to be the foundation of progressive human life. Without it, one can’t properly cultivate any of the other aims. If one tries to secure wealth and material happiness through adharma, or unrighteous means, then it will only result in failure and frustration. For instance, it is written in the Mahabharata:
“All artha and kama that are devoid of dharma are to be given up.” (Manu-smṛti 4.176)”
In this way, dharma provides the glue that holds human society together and protects individuals from their lower, animalistic impulses. It prevents people from stealing and cheating others in order to gain wealth (artha), and it protects them from overindulgence and covetousness in the pursuit of endless sensuality (kama). All the problems we find in modern society can be addressed through the cultivation of dharma. However, people today want wealth and pleasure without taking any responsibility for the consequences of their ignorant actions.
Only with dharma as the basis of human life, is the fourth aim of liberation (moksha), or genuine spiritual culture, made possible.
Two Levels of Dharma
There are basically two layers of dharma described in the Vedic texts: the dharma of the body and the dharma of the soul. Let’s take a look at each of these layers in more depth:
Dharmas of the Body
Because human beings all share certain basic qualities, such as consciousness, freedom of thought and action, etc, the Vedas prescribe many codes of dharma for all humans. These are known as universal principles of human life, and they are essential for maintaining a functioning human society. Here are some examples:
- Truthfulness. Everyone should tell the truth and avoid speaking untruths. This promotes trust and friendship amongst the human community.
- Cleanliness. Everyone should keep their inside and outside clean. This helps avoid the spread of germs and disease, as well as the influence of impure ideologies based on self-centered thinking (due to an impure heart).
- Austerity. Everyone should be willing to sacrifice their time and energy for their self-betterment, and for the well-being of others. When any one individual neglects their basic responsibilities, it drags down the entire society. Imagine the consequences when a police officer decides to stop doing their duty? Or a school teacher? Or a parent?
- Compassion. Everyone should strive to help others according to their capacity. This ensures that all members of society can get the support they need in times of difficulty.
In addition to universal codes of dharma, there are other dharmas that are based on a person’s individual circumstances. For instance, one type of individual dharma is known as ashram dharma. The four types of ashram dharma are generally based on a person’s age and they each account for one fourth of the total human lifespan:
- Student life (brahmacari) — In the first quarter of life (age 0-25), a human being is meant to grow and develop into an educated and responsible adult. For this reason, this is known as the student phase of life where the main focus is on learning and study.
- Married life (grihastha) — In the second quarter of life (age 25-50), a human being is meant to give back to society. For this reason, this phase is known as the householder phase of life, where the main focus is on marriage, bearing children, and contributing to the community, in the form of work, giving in charity, and supporting the other three ashrams.
- Retired life (vanaprastha) — In the third quarter of life (age 50-75), a human being is meant to step away from their worldly responsibilities in order to develop themselves spiritually and prepare for a successful death, the final test of human life. Thus this phase is known as the retired phase of life, where one hands over responsibility for family matters to the next generation.
- Renounced life (sannyasa) — In the fourth and final quarter of life (age 75-100), a human being is meant to strive for spiritual perfection even in this very lifetime. This phase is optional, since many human beings will not be able to fully detach themselves from their home, family, and society. For those who do take it up, this phase is known as the renounced phase of life, where the main duty is spiritual practice, including traveling and teaching others about the science of the soul and the process of Krishna bhakti, or God consciousness.
Aside from the four ashram dharmas, there are also dharmas based on an individual’s psycho-physical nature within the three modes of material energy. Just as we have different modern personality tests that classify human beings according to their strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, and various other attributes, Vedic texts explain that there are four basic categories of human beings according to their qualities of work, also known as varna dharma.
Unfortunately, in recent centuries, this system of varna dharma has become corrupted into what is now known as the Hindu caste system. This perversion of the ancient system of varna dharma is based on oppression, exploitation, and material birthright.
However, the original varna dharma system was not at all based on a person’s birth. It was exclusively based on their personal qualities. Anyone who exhibited characteristics of a certain varna, or social role, would be accepted, regardless of their family of birth. Just like anyone can become a doctor or lawyer today, if they are able to gain admission into an appropriate university and obtain a degree, similarly, in ancient times, anyone could become a brahmana (teacher-priest) or kshatriya (warrior-king) if they had the necessary qualifications. Here are the four broad categories of varna dharmas:
- Teacher-priests (brahmanas) — This role fulfills the intellectual and educational needs of society. Thus they are compared to the head of the social body. Sri Krishna describes the qualities and work of a brahmana as follows: Peacefulness, self-control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, knowledge, wisdom and religiousness – these are the natural qualities by which the brahmanas work. (Bhagavad-gita 18.42)
- Warrior-kings (kshatriyas) — This role fulfills the administrative and defensive needs of society. Thus they are compared to the arms of the social body. Sri Krishna describes the qualities and work of a kshatriya as follows: Heroism, power, determination, resourcefulness, courage in battle, generosity and leadership are the natural qualities of work for the kshatriyas. (Bhagavad-gita 18.43)
- Trader-merchants (vaishyas) — This role fulfills the mercantile and economic needs of society. Thus they are compared to the stomach of the social body. Sri Krishna describes the qualities and work of a vaishya as follows: Farming, cow protection and business are the natural work for the vaishyas. (Bhagavad-gita 18.44)
- Artisan-laborers (sudras) — This role fulfills the artisanal and labor needs of society. Thus they are compared to the legs of the social body. This class is the most abundant within the human population, and they assist the other three classes, just as the legs support the body. Sri Krishna describes the qualities and work of a shudra as follows: For the sudras, there are labor and service to others. (Bhagavad-gita 18.44)
In traditional Vedic society, each of these four classes of human beings were recognized and highly valued. All were expected to cultivate spiritual qualities such as compassion, service, and respect for all living beings.
In fact, if we look at any human society today, whether in the United States, India, China, Japan, or anywhere around the world, we will find the same four archetypes of the varnas present. Modern-day employees are shudras — they support their employers and fulfill the jobs they are assigned. Modern-day business owners are vaishyas — they generate economic activity in the form of buying, selling, and exchanging goods and services. Modern-day politicians and military personnel are kshatriyas — they oversee matters of governance and they protect the population. And modern-day doctors, teachers, priests, and lawyers are brahmanas — they educate, heal, and administer to the ethical, moral, and spiritual needs of the society.
Dharma of the Soul
The dharma of the soul is the same for all living beings, from humans, to animals, to plants and insects. The reason is because all living beings share the same spiritual nature. Krishna describes this knowledge in the Bhagavad-gita 18.20:
“That knowledge by which one undivided spiritual nature is seen in all living entities, though they are divided into innumerable forms, you should understand to be in the mode of goodness.”
What is the fundamental nature of the soul? We are all minute sparks of consciousness, expanded from the Supreme Conscious Source, Krishna. All philosophical and religious traditions of the world refer to a Supreme Being who is the ultimate cause and creator of all things, and all monotheistic religions agree that the purpose of human life is to love and serve that Supreme Person.
In the Bhagavata Purana, the dharma of the soul is similarly described as loving service to the Divine:
“The supreme occupation [dharma] for all humanity is that by which men can attain to loving devotional service unto the transcendent Lord. Such devotional service must be unmotivated and uninterrupted to completely satisfy the self.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.2.6)
The soul’s dharma is bhakti, devotional service to Sri Krishna. Bhakti in the mood of love, or prema, is thus known as the fifth and final purushartha, or ultimate aim of human life. The path of bhakti is the cultivation of this eternal, pure, and selfless love. Bhakti consists of nine primary practices:
- Shravanam: Listing to the descriptions of Lord Krishna, His numerous incarnations, His teachings, as well as the lives and teachings of His devotees found in the Vedic texts.
- Kirtanam: Chanting the names of Krishna in meditation and song, and speaking about Him and His teachings.
- Smaranam: Thinking about Lord Krishna and His devotees in a mood of gratitude, affection, and service.
- Pada-sevanam: Serving Lord Krishna in practical ways, such as establishing and maintaining a place of worship, cleaning the worship space, and also by serving Lord Krishna’s devotees.
- Archanam: Worshiping Lord Krishna or one of His many authorized incarnations in a Deity form.
- Vandanam: Offering physical respect by bowing down before the Lord in His Deity form and offering prayers of submission, praise, petition, and gratitude.
- Dasyam: Identifying oneself as a servant of Lord Krishna.
- Sakhyam: Identifying oneself as a dear friend of Lord Krishna.
- Atma-nivedanam: Offering oneself completely to Lord Krishna in a mood of total surrender.
Anyone can practice one or more of these types of bhakti and experience spiritual awakening in their own life. When a person studies and practices the path of bhakti under the guidance of a guru, they can make swift progress and attain the ultimate goal of dharma: pure love, or Krishna prema. This love permeates one’s entire being and eradicates all forms of misery, prejudice, hatred, fear, anger, lust, and all other undesirable aspects of life.
One of the easiest bhakti practices to begin on your own is daily chanting of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra:
hare krishna hare krishna krishna krishna hare hare
hare rama hare rama rama rama hare hare
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