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The concept of dharma

Last updated: 04 September, 2009
Mirle Karthik

Dharma is a term that is frequently used in Indian spiritual thought. Though it is a term with wide and far reaching ramifications, it essentially signifies a sense of duty, a sense of obligation or a sense of responsibility.


What follows is an extract from an exposition on Dharma by the eminent scholar late Prof S K Ramachandra Rao.

“Dharma basically means ‘to nourish’, ‘to uphold’ and signifies whatever supports the universal order and also the individual life in society. Dharma is the basic value in life as well as in transactions - social, religious, secular and vocational. Dharma is the first of the three normal human purposes, the other two being the acquisition of wealth (artha) and the enjoyment of pleasures (kama).  Dharma is characterised by certain common human values like truth, generosity, compassion, sympathy, self-restraint, forgiveness, non-enmity, friendliness, absence of envy and rectitude in conduct. The scriptures say ‘attend to this, the essence of dharma, do not do to others what you would not do to yourself. Put yourself in the position of others and then act’. In other words, dharma is the inner light of clear conscience, mindful of the welfare of all and minimising ego involvement and selfishness in institutional behaviour.

Dharma is closely linked with the idea of original human indebtedness or inescapable obligation. Every human being is born with three debts. The first is towards his ancestors, the second is towards the sages and the third is what he owes to the Gods.

By continuing the family line by having his own children, he discharges his debts towards his ancestors, by studying, understanding the cultural context and milieu into which he is born, he discharges his debt towards the sages, as the sages have been responsible for the unbroken cultural heritage of the land. By respecting and worshipping the elemental and environmental forces like the air, the rivers, the mountains, plants, animals etc, he discharges his debts to the Gods. (The stress on environmental awareness is to be noted here). This concept of indebtedness is the very source of dharma, which shifts the focus from desire gratification to duty fulfilment, thus making human life meaningful and worthwhile.

The two great epics of India, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata both emphasise the role of Dharma in individual life as well as in collective existence. If the Ramayana illustrates the need to subordinate wealth and enjoyment to dharma, thus making it the mirror of Indian culture, the Mahabharata expounds on the challenges that dharma faces from greed and wealth in personal and public life and how real dharma is sabotaged by surrogates and counterfeits.” This is Dharma, the bedrock of human existence.


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