Dharma, the Moral and Religious Duties in Hinduism

Hinduism Essay Subject Image

by Jayaram V


A Sanskrit-English Dictionary by Monier-Williams defines the word dharma as duty; morality, religious merit; good works; justice (often used as a synonym for punishment)."

According to Hindu philosophy, dharma represents the natural order of things with laws to govern their properties, natual propensities and Creation itself. It is more than just a set of laws of physics; it is a set of religious and moral laws which bind us in harmony with that order. Dharma also represents your natural propensity (sahaja svabhava) or your essential nature. For example, it is the dharma of fire to burn, of the wind to blow, of the water to flow and of the earth to provide support. Our essential dharma is to perform our obligatory duties and serve the aims of creation so that it progresses naturally as ordained by God.

Dharma as the Foundation of Life

In Hinduism, religion (dharma) influences the way people live and view themselves. The very act of living is regarded as an obligatory duty and an opportunity to fulfill the aims of creation and participate in God’s eternal dharma. Tradition holds that religious duty (dharma) is the primary aim (Purusharthas) of human life since it is the foundation upon which one develops the wisdom and discretion to pursue wealth (artha) and happiness (kama) without compromising the chances of liberation (moksha). From Introduction to Hinduism by Jayaram V.

There are four different types of dharma:

1) Universal, cosmic law (rita) regulates the forces of Nature, manifested by the  laws of physics. It controls everything from subatomic properties to motion of galaxies. The Hindu believes himself/herself to be part of Nature and seeks to bring the Self into harmony with the universal path.

2) Social dharma (varna dharma) consists of the duties, occupations and responsibilities that everyone fulfills in the family, nation, society and communities. An important aspect is religious and moral law.

3) Human law (ashrama dharma) is the natural expression and evolution of the body, mind, soul and feelings throughout the stages of life: righteousness, wealth, pleasure and liberation.

4) Self-dharma (sva-dharma) is perhaps the dharma with which most Westerners are familiar. It is the sum of all accumulated "karmas" in one's life, molded by one's tendencies, personality, desires, and experiences. It represents the path one takes. 

Hinduism strongly believes that it is best to follow one's own path rather than the path of others. Search for the natural self is of utmost importance. Paraphrased from "Dancing with S'iva", pp. 167, 169, 171, 173, 175

When does Dharma become a burden?

The duties prescribed in the scriptures of Hinduism are obligatory. It means you cannot avoid them. It is something like the rent you pay to live as a temporary tenant in the world of God, who is the true owner and indweller of all creation. To stay in this world, you have two options. Either you pay the rent in the form of karma or you offer all your actions to Him and take no credit for them. The first approach binds you and keeps you chained to the cycle of births and deaths. The second option, which is prescribed in several Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita is the best way to keep away from the burning fires of existential suffering.  Jayaram V

Buddha Dharma and Hindu Dharma

In Buddhism duties or obligations which ensure righteous conduct, both for the lay practitioners and monks, arise from the teachings of the Buddha and more specifically from the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. In Hinduism, they arise from God's eternal duties as enshrined in the Vedas. The purpose of both is same, to free the jiva (living being) from karma and the cycle of births and deaths (samsara). However, the manner in which they approach the problem is different. In Buddhism, followers look to the teachings of the Buddha to determine what constitute good conduct and dutiful life. In Hinduism, it is determined by the Vedas and the law books called the Dharma Shastras. However, in both religions there is a great emphasis upon cultivating discerning intelligence (buddhi). Jayaram V

Why is Hinduism called Sanatana Dharma?

Hinduism is called Sanatana Dharma because the religion is derived from the duties of God which are eternal. Since as human beings we share these duties upon earth, just as gods and other beings in other worlds, to let the divine order of things to continue and since the knowledge of such duties are enshrined in our religion in the form of the Vedas, Hinduism, which is derived from the Vedas, is known as Sanatana Dharma or Eternal Duty. Jayaram V

What is Adharma and svadharma

Adharma or unlawful actions means actions which are performed with selfish intent to enjoy the fruit of such action or actions which are prohibited by the Vedas and other scriptures. Adharma also means actions which are considered evil or unlawful by tradition, or against the established code of conduct and religious practices which are prescribed by the law books or religious scriptures. While selfish actions lead to rebirth, evil and sinful actions lead to one's downfall into lower hells. Svadharma is the duty which arises from your birth, essential nature, profession, gender or caste affiliation. In a sense, it also means your belief system or personal faith. Jayaram V

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