Dharmacakra (‘Wheel of Dharma’) at the Konark Sun Temple
The “Way of Being”
The Sanskrit term Dharma denotes ‘the Way of Being’. Dharma can be expressed as the natural, innate behavior of things (duty, law, ethics, virtue, etc). It is similar in essence to the Chinese concept of Tao.
The word ‘Dharma’ is derived from the root dhri which means “to uphold, to maintain, to support, to nourish, to sustain”. It contains the moral values required for sustaining human existence in its fullness. Self-development through self-restraint is called ‘Dharma’.
Every entity in the cosmos has its own dharma – plants, insects, all the way up to the solar system and galaxies. Man’s understanding of the Dharma of inanimate things is what we now call physics.
Unlike the Abrahamic religions, which focus on the actions of a single lifetime (through which you would deserve eternal “heaven” or “hell”), Dharmic cosmology describes a continuous process of birth and rebirth that ultimately releases the true self from the limitations of body and the ego – a freeing of the spirit called moksha. That process includes a release from sensual experiences, including sexuality.
A Cosmic View
Dharma is conceptually very different from the Judeo-Christian or Islamic definition of ‘Religion’ – a rigorous code of conduct, handed down from a central authority and imposed universally, usually under implied threat of divine retribution for apostasy.
We are all inter-dependent and we must see the well-being of the whole universe as a whole. Dharma is the path of righteousness and living one’s life according to the codes of conduct as described by the Vedas and Upanisads. Dharma means “that which holds” – the people of this world and the whole creation.
Dharma stands for the underlying laws of the universe, not only of matter but of life, mind and consciousness as well. It can refer to natural law, social rules and regulations, the principles of art or philosophy, and above all, the ways of truth behind religion and spirituality.
The Dharma is explained at length in the Bhagavad Gita. In it, it is implied that of the three paths that lead to salvation – ascetic practices, devotion and Dharma (or wholesome activities), according to your role – it was the latter that was most effective because it contributes to both the individual and the world as a whole, while the two former practices only helped the individual.
Dharma and Karma
Dharma is the essential function, or nature of a thing. One can say that the ‘dharma’ of fire is Heat, the ‘dharma’ of water is Liquidity, and the ‘dharma’ of sugar is Sweetness.
Then what is the ‘dharma’ of the living being? The answer is: to render service. Every living being is constantly engaged in rendering service to another living being. A living being serves another living in various capacities. By doing so, the living entity enjoys life.
The animals serve human beings as servants serve their master. One friend serves another friend, the mother serves the son, the wife serves the husband, the husband serves the wife and so on.
If we go on searching in this spirit it will be seen that there is no exception in the society of living beings to the activity of service and therefore we can safely conclude that service is the constant companion of the living being and that the rendering of service is the eternal Dharma of the living being.
The Eternal Law
Sanatana Dharma means the Eternal religion, the Ancient Law. Dharma is the natural universal laws whose observance enables humans to be contented.
Accepting the concept of reincarnation, what determines the state of an individual in the next existence is karma, which refers to the actions undertaken by the body and the mind.
In order to achieve good Karma it is important to live life according to Dharma. This involves doing what is right for the individual, the family and for the universe itself.
Dharma is like a cosmic norm and if one goes against the norm it can result in bad karma. So, dharma affects the future according to the karma accumulated. Therefore one’s dharmic path in the next life is the one necessary to bring to fruition all the results of past karma.
Dharma and Adharma
In the same way that in the human body, Anabolism is a restorative, healing, balancing process, while Catabolism is active, degenerative and stressful, Dharma is what is contributing to the Whole, while Adharma is what is destructive to the Whole.
The term Dharma can best be explained as the “Law of Being” without which things cannot exist. Dharma therefore implies duty – a course of conduct. The purpose of dharma is not only to attain a union of the soul with the Divine Consciousness, it also suggests a code of conduct that is intended to secure both worldly joys and supreme happiness.