What is Dharma?
Dharma is an important concept found in many spiritual philosophies from the Indian subcontinent, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. These philosophical traditions that are often referred to as “dharmic traditions,” because they share a commitment to dharma and various forms of spiritual liberation.
The term dharma is derived from the Sanskrit root verb dhr, which means to preserve or support. In the Indic traditions, there is no exact translation for the word “religion” and dharma is often the word used to indicate this idea. Dharma is a common thread in the Indic traditions that expands the conventional term “religion” to include ethics, spiritual path, duty, law, and cosmic order.
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 transcends suffering and the cycle of birth and death, or what is called saṃsāra.
One 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 Krishna teaches that it is our highest dharma to achieve spiritual understanding, which means to realize our true self as the Atman, the Supreme Consciousness, and to cultivate a relationship with the divine.
Dharma is considered one of the three jewels of Buddhism, along with the Sangha 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 there is suffering and dissatisfaction in the world,
- that there is a cause or a reason why we suffer – namely ignorance,
- that suffering can end, for it is only temporary; and,
- that there is a path to end suffering – one that includes living ethically, practicing meditation, and cultivating wisdom in one’s life.
In Jainism, non-harming is considered the true religion because all life contains a soul. Therefore the “path of dharma” includes precepts that align with the highest ethos of causing no harm to any living thing, large or small.
The Jain saint Mahavira taught a path designed to cultivate three virtues known as the three jewels or ratna-traya:
- samyag-darśana, or right belief
- samyag-jñāna, or right knowledge
- samyaq-cāritra, or right conduct
In an effort to cultivate these virtues, Jains vow to uphold 5 ethical principles that will be familiar to yogis as the yamas of the 8-limbed (aṣṭāṅga) yoga found in the Yoga-Sūtras of Patañjali:
- Ahiṃsā, or non-violence (both in action and speech)
- Satya, or truthfulness (while also adhering to ahiṃsā)
- Asteya, non-stealing (including care to return what is borrowed)
- Aparigraha, non-hoarding (not acquiring more than the essentials to live)
- Brahmacarya, sexual responsibility (including abstinence in order to preserve spiritual tapas or energy)
Dharma also refers to the law of motion, one of six substances (or dravyas) that constitute reality, according to the Jains, along with adharma (rest), ākāśa (space), jīva (souls), pudgala (matter), and kala (time). More broadly, dharma is used to denote the essential nature of a thing – that which we are looking to align with by living according to the rigorous ethical code of the Jain path.
In Sikhism, dharma means the “path of righteousness,” including a fundamental belief in the equality of all people and the duty to share and offer service to others. Sikh scriptures seek to answer the question, “What is the righteous path?” Given that for Sikhism the essential goal of human life is union with God, the path of the Sikhs is one that includes ethical observances and spiritual practices that direct one to this final release into the divine.
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. Jainism encourages us to reflect on non-violence as a necessary condition for the true spiritual path. From the Sikhs, dharma points us to the divine destination. From the Hindu perspective, dharma reminds us that there is a natural order to the cosmos (what in the Vedas is called Ṛta) that is responsible for the proper functioning of the cycles and movements of life.
When we study sacred texts and meditate or engage in contemplative practice, we are stepping into and aligning with that eternal order and inviting its wisdom to illuminate our lives.
Paul Dundas, The Jains. New York: Routledge: 2002.
Veena Howard, Dharma: The Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh Traditions of India. New York: IB Tauris, 2017.