17 January 2008

What Is Dharma? - 1

I have only referred to Dharma in my previous posts, without actually defining it. Dharma is such a complex and multi-layered concept that I didn't dare write on it till I had some minimum understanding. This post is also a response to my friend's lengthy comment on the topic :-)

What is Dharma? Though 'Dharma' is untranslatable, we need some equivalent word when discussing it in English. The cliched words like religion, duty, virtue, righteousness, ethics, morals, etc, we can quickly dispense with. All these things are part of Dharma. They flow from Dharma. But they are not Dharma itself. Swami Chinmayananda translated the word as 'law' or 'essence'. These are better words. They take us a step closer to understanding what is Dharma. But even law/essence is a second order concept. The core of Dharma can best be captured by the word 'order'. Dharma is order.

Dharma evolved from the Rig Vedic concept of Rta. The early Aryans observed that nature was orderly: the sun rose in a certain direction and set in the opposite direction at regular intervals, the weather/seasons changed in a certain pattern, the plants and trees shed their leaves, flowered and bore fruit periodically, etc. They used the word 'Rta' (literally 'path' or 'course') to refer to this order in nature. At some point, Rta also came to mean 'right' or 'good'. So Rta no longer referred just to the cosmic order; it now referred to the moral order too. (How the Aryans made this philosophical leap I am not yet sure. Perhaps a study of the Vedas will throw some light)

During the later Vedic age, the word Rta was replaced by Dharma. The root for 'Dharma' is 'Dhr' which means 'to hold'. So Dharma literally means 'that which holds' or 'that which supports'. In the Mahabharata, Bhishma defines Dharma like this:
Dharanat dharmam ityahu; dharmena vidhrtah prajah.
Yat syat dharana samyuktam sa dharma iti nischayah.
'Dharma' comes from 'Dharana' (holding); society is held by Dharma.
That which has the ability to hold is Dharma indeed.
Thus Dharma is the cosmic order that holds the universe together. It is the physical order that holds the earth together. And it is the moral order that holds society together.

Dharma at the macro level means order. And Dharma at the micro level means the behaviour needed to maintain this macro-level order. The Dharma for the part is that behaviour which maintains the order of the whole. For example, for the universe to be orderly, the sun should rise in the east, set in the west and give light and energy. This is the sun’s Dharma. Similarly, for the earth to be orderly, the winds should blow, the rivers should flow, the birds should fly, the fishes should swim, etc – these are their respective Dharmas. Thus the Dharma of an entity is also the behaviour that defines its existence or essence.

If an entity does not perform its Dharma:
1. It will no longer be what it is meant to be. [Chinmaya's law/essence]
2. The order of the universe/world will be upset.
The two ideas of essence and order are intimately tied to each other.

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