Dharma is an important concept found in many spiritual philosophies from the Indian subcontinent – including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism.

In Hinduism, dharma is simultaneously the eternal order that rules the universe and the duty or law that governs one’s life. Fulfilling one’s dharma is more than simply one’s purpose in life. It is considered the very means by which one transcend’s suffering and the cycle of birth and death, or what is called saṃsāra. A person has social, political, and familial dharmas, but most important is one’s spiritual dharma.

In the Bhagavad-Gītā, one of India’s most sacred texts, the popular deity Kṛṣṇa teaches that it is our highest dharma to achieve spiritual understanding, which means to realize our true self as the Ātman, the supreme consciousness, and to cultivate a relationship with the divine.

This teaching of Kṛṣṇa reflects a popular understanding in Hinduism referred to as the puruṣārthas, the four aims of human life. Every well-lived life should aim to accomplish Dharma (which is living ethically and according to one’s authentic purpose), Artha (a sustainable prosperity that allows one to live comfortably and take care of one’s family), Kāma (love and pleasure) and Mokṣa (spiritual liberation). Given that one may pursue prosperity and desire from a place of ignorance or craving, the Kāma-sūtra posits that dharma must precede kāma and and artha, indicating the spiritual importance of aligning with dharma as the guiding force of a fulfilled life.

Dharma is considered one of the “three jewels” of Buddhism, along with the Saṅga, or community of practitioners, and the Buddha, or the enlightened state. Dharma most frequently refers to the Buddha’s teachings on liberation.

One such teaching is called the Four Noble Truths. It states that,

  1. That there is suffering and dissatisfaction in the world,
  2. That there is a cause, or a reason why we suffer – namely ignorance,
  3. That suffering can end, for it is only temporary, and
  4. That there is a path to end suffering, one that includes living ethically, practicing meditation, and cultivating wisdom in one’s life.

As contemplative practitioners, dharma, from the Buddhist perspective, reminds us to honor, study, and preserve those sacred spiritual teachings that help to inspire deep insight. From the Hindu perspective, dharma reminds us that there is a natural order to the cosmos, what in the Vedas is called Ṛta, and is responsible for the proper functioning of the cycles and movements of life.

When we study sacred texts and meditate or engage in contemplative practices, we are stepping into and aligning with that eternal order and inviting its wisdom to illuminate our lives.