Dharma has been an oft discussed but seldom understood concept and term. Dharma is the anchor and the foundation of the Hindu civilization. Dharma is what makes society compliant with the order of the cosmos.

But what is Dharma?

Was Parashurama truly Dharmic when he is said to have vanquished the Kshatriya, or the ruling class, not once, not twice but 21 times, in an apparent violation of Varnashrama Dharma?

Were Bhishma and Karna truly Dharmic when Bhishma stuck to his vow of celibacy and not taking the crown, and Karna decided to side with his friend Duryodhana regardless of the situation or circumstances, in what can be regarded as Mitra Dharma (Dharma of a friend)?

Is a modern nation state like the United States of America truly Dharmic when they speak of bringing order to countries with dictatorial regimes in a manner that is inherently Adharmic?

These are all questions make one see why the concept of Dharma is often so incomprehensible: since it encompasses the relative and the subjective, along with a sense of a greater scheme of things in our cosmos. To look at what Dharma truly means, let us look at its etymological origins, to begin with. In Classical Sanskrit, dharma derives from the root dhṛ, which means "to hold, maintain, keep.” Over the Vedic and Upanishadic periods and interpretations, the concept of Dharma has been closely tied to two fundamental ideas: Rta and Satya. Ṛta refers to the order of nature, which is fundamental to the way the universe is and how life emerges, while Satya refers to the Absolute Truth that underlies this order of things and reflects the same. Looking at these concepts and formulating Dharma as simply as can be,

That which upholds the natural laws of the Universe and the order of nature is Dharma.

The first question that would and should come to your mind then is: What is this order of things? How does one organise life to comply with the aforementioned requirements of Dharma?

There is a fair bit of subjectivity surely in doing this? Yes and No!

In nature, there is an inherent duality in objects and phenomena: things are local and global, phenomena are transient and yet reality can be unchanging. The order of things or Rta lies in this duality, nay multiplicity, which transcends.

A multiplicity of realities.

There are many ways in which objects in nature could evolve and each of those ways are equally valid and allowed in nature. However, there is always a certain unchanging reality that is common to all these changes. This is usually the (super-)set of all properties of an object.

If the Satya of the cosmos is in the idea of unity, in the Brahman, in the singularity from which the Big Bang happened, surely every element in the Universe is inherently connected and interacts with every other element in the cosmos. Therefore, any interaction is inherently a ‘self-interaction’ in the higher scheme of things, and it is this tendency that is a cornerstone of that which upholds Satya: Dharma. Dharma respects the relational reality of the Universe.

By self-reflection and self-awareness, one gauges what is one’s Swadharma or innate tendencies. Fire burns, water flows and trees photosynthesize. At the human level, everyone has some inherent personality traits. This needs to be used and/or evolved to best suit one’s existence, and the first step in doing so is again the reflexive self-awareness, which is a cornerstone of Sanatana Dharma.

Dharma is that which upholds the multiplicity of realities of existence with its inherent reflexive tendencies.


What are the rules of Dharma?

Well, much like the ways to reach Brahmana and its characteristics

There aren’t any!

Dharma is contextual at the practical level. There are certain key ideals and values and basis for Dharma, but the specifics change with time. For instance, what was Dharmic in the age of the Mahabharata such as polygamy and niyoga (an ancient Hindu tradition, in which a woman, whose husband is either incapable of fatherhood or has died without having a child, could request and appoint a man for helping her bear a child) would be frowned upon. However, the value of marriage and life is still valued as much as in the times of yore, as are the order of things that facilitate the same.

For understanding how to formulate the Dharmic structure of a time, one must reflect and meditate on the aforementioned definition of Dharma. One also needs to understand, truly realize and internalize some important aspects and cornerstones of Dharma, such as

  1. संस्कार (dispositions, character and ethos)

  2. संपोषणीयता (sustainability)

  3. सर्वव्यापित्व (universality)

  4. मोक्ष (liberation)


Remembering that Dharma is that which upholds all of existence and respects the multiplicity of realities in existence, this includes ideas of dignity, liberty, equality, brotherhood, right to life, charity, talking (that should be gentle and kind) with good intention, compassion, inclination towards non-violence, excessive expectations, abstaining from impure thoughts (that involves, say, arrogance or jealousy or pride) and contentment in one's means. Each of these values naturally arises from this central definition. For instance, liberty arises from the tendency of Dharma to respect the multiplicity of realities and possibilities in the life of an individual, and charity arises from the tendency of Dharma to uphold all of existence and naturally to birth a feeling of compassion in the world.

What is Dharmic also includes spiritual, public, and political freedoms, such as freedom of thought, opinion, religion and conscience, word, and peaceful association of the individual. You may now say that this construct of Dharma is so abstract and not realizable in the real world. This is not the case and the answer for how Dharma can guide us in day-to-day activities lies in a set of ideas that has resonances with everything from Patanjali’s Yogasutra, Buddha’s Eightfold Path, Christian thought on sin and Jain beliefs.

The Dharmic way is the way that asks one to curtail

काम (lust), क्रोध (anger), लोभ (greed), मोह (attachment), मद (pride), and मात्सर्य (jealousy)

This classification has an older counterpart in the Panch Mahapatakas (five unforgivable sins) of Sanatana Dharma. Lust arises from the perversion of the relational reality we spoke of earlier. Anger comes from individualism taken to the level wherein anything not compliant with one’s state of being or belief or perspective causes friction. Greed and attachment come from superficial identification with elements (such as things and people) of the universe without appreciating the underlying unity of all things in the universe. Pride comes from extreme identification with the self and completely discounting the great unity and oneness with the Universe, while jealousy comes by looking at the hierarchy based on qualities of elements and making that the primary point of focus, thereby forgetting that this hierarchy is a transient one.

As we discussed previously, the goal of life is to realize the unity with the One, to yoke to the supreme godhead. This realization is seriously impeded by these base-human vices. Each of them leads to separation of the human and the divine instead of the unification ideally sought. Breaking these habits and vices is not easy. Doing so is a life-long process and those who truly transcend base-human existence are those who can move beyond this to a realm that is marked by humility, satisfaction, control, absence of lust, peace, lack of avarice and energy and dynamism.

It is also marked by the state known as


which refers to the state of equanimity and knowledge that one attains when one lets go the aforementioned vices and truly lives in realization of the Unity and Truth of life. This is the ultimate conditioning or Sanskara.


Most people regard the Dharmic way as one related to the times of yore. However, looking closely at it, one can see that the Dharmic way is a modern one. A key part of the Dharmic tradition is its connection to sustainable development goals, if one were to study the scriptures and early formulations of Dharma.

No Poverty, Employment and Economic Growth

Dharma is all about ending poverty in all spheres of life. This includes social discrimination and lack of education and healthcare. When it comes to material wealth and poverty, the famous lines from the Rig Veda Mandala 10, Hymn 117, Verse 5 comes to mind:

पर्णीयादिन नाधमानाय तव्यान दराघीयांसमनुपश्येत पन्थाम |

ओ हि वर्तन्ते रथ्येव चक्रान्यम-अन्यमुप तिष्ठन्त रायः ||

which talks upon the value of charity and the changing dynamics of wealth. The Shatapatha Brahmana ( links social prosperity and dharma by stating that prosperity enables people to follow Dharma in their lives. In times of distress, of destitution, of drought, of poverty, everything suffers including relations between human beings and the human ability to live according to dharma, since survival is the greatest need of the hour then.

Hence there is a great need to ensure that one of the four Purushartha (objectives) of life is Artha — capital and prosperity, along with Dharma, Kama (desire) and Moksha (salvation). Each of the Purushartha is dependent on the other and hence ending poverty is fundamental to the idea of attainment of Dharma.

The Dharmic traditions calls for ensuring that there is sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all. This is one of the most important points since the Dharmic tradition believes in Karmayoga and despises and denounces lack of work.

Governments should ensure that everyone who can work must work. A culture that naturally promotes the idea of work and the dignity in labour is inherently Dharmic since it cultivates the Swadharma and creates a means of appreciating the relational reality in nature through work.

The Vedas praise labour in various areas, be it agriculture (Rig Veda 1.117.21, 8.22.6, 4.57.4, 10.104.4 and 10.101.3), weaving and tailoring (Rig Veda 10.26, 10.53.6, 6.9.2 and 6.9.3), artistry and technical work (Rig Veda 4.36.1), while other verse that speak highly of skilled labor are Rigveda 10.39.14, 10.53.10, 1.20.2, 2.41.5, 7.3.7, 7.15.14 and 10.53.8, Atharvaved 14.1.53, 14.2.22, 14.2.23, 14.2.24, 14.2.67 and 15.2.65. Commerce (Rigveda 5.45.6 and 1.112.11), the work of a boatman (Rigveda 10.53.8, Yajurved 21.3, Yajurved 21.7, Atharvaved 5.4.4, 3.6.7), the work of a barber (Atharvaved 8.2.19), the work of a goldsmith and a gardener (in different sections of Rigveda 8.47.15), the work of an ironsmith and smelter (Rigveda 5.9.5) and metallurgy (Yajurved 28.13) is also spoken of highly.

Chanakya’s Arthashastra is a seminal piece in the Dharmic society that talks of economics. Chanakya spoke of conducting international trade according to the principles of comparative advantages: imports are as important as exports when promoting national economic growth. He felt imports can offer the kingdom goods that can’t be found on the national territory. He also argued for strict regulation of business activities so that monopolies are undermined and domestic economies are protected from potential adversaries. However,

Regulation was not quite Chanakya’s (Dharmic) cup of tea!

The reason I say this is that excessive regulation infringes on the liberty of the individual and the possibilities of the market forces. Since being Dharmic is to ensure the multiplicity of such possibilities without compromising on the welfare and interests of the elements of society, Chanakya’s way is not Dharmic through and through.

Instead of an enforced regulation, governments should see the reasons for market failure and why important effects of a free market transaction is not captured by the decisions made by the buyers and sellers. They should seek to address it by exploiting and not disrupting the market-based economic ecosystem. Calibrating such regulations mainly to address market failures can ensure that the interventions by the government achieve the intended goals while minimizing adverse consequences. Regulations also need to have a proper social cost-social benefit analysis. That is the Dharmic way. Given the importance of Satya in the Dharmic tradition, it is also important to base this regulation on the best available scientific and technical information, possibly with public input too. A Dharmic economy is the one that uses the Swadharma and liberty of the individual to ensure the welfare and relation reality of all, without compromising on the rule of law or remedial steps to ensure the same.

No Hunger and Good Health

In Rig Veda Mandala 1 Hymn 187, the glory of food is spoken of

पितुं नु सतोषं महो धर्माणं तविषीम |

यस्य तरितो वयोजसा वर्त्रं विपर्वमर्दयत ||

सवादो पितो मधो पितो वयं तवा वव्र्महे |

अस्माकमविता भव ||

उप नः पितवा चर शिवः शिवाभिरूतिभिः |

मयोभुरद्विषेण्यः सखा सुशेवो अद्वयाः ||

तव तये पितो रस रजांस्यनु विष्ठिताः |

दिवि वाता इव शरिताः ||

तव तये पितो ददतस्तव सवादिष्ठ ते पितो |

पर सवाद्मानो रसानां तुविग्रीवा इवेरते ||

तवे पितो महानां देवानां मनो हिताम |

अकारि चारु केतुना तवाहिमवसावधीत ||

यददो पितो अजगन विवस्व पर्वतानाम |

अत्रा चिन नो मधो पितो.अरं भक्षाय गम्याः ||

यदपामोषधीनां परिंशमारिशामहे |

वातपे पीवैद भव ||

यत ते सोम गवाशिरो यवाशिरो भजामहे |

वातापे ... ||

करम्भ ओषधे भव पीवो वर्क्क उदारथिः |

वातापे ... ||

तं तवा वयं पितो वचोभिर्गावो न हव्या सुषूदिम |

देवेभ्यस्त्वा सधमादमस्मभ्यं तवा सधम

This verse glorifies food that `upholds great strength’ and asks it to be our kind protector, auspicious as it is. The seers call food a `health-bringing, not unkind, a dear and guileless friend’. It talks of the juices in the food, which are winds in the heavens, diffused throughout its composition, and that it is most sweet to taste. The seers go on to say that in food is set the spirit of the great Gods.

It is with food that brave deeds were accomplished and food remains, much like the splendour of the clouds, for our enjoyment. It talks of the food from the waters or the plants, milky food or barley-based, and talks of waxing `the fat of Soma’ or extracting the nectar-like essence of the food, which replenishes and reinvigorates. The seers describe the vegetables as `wholesome, firm and strengthening’. It ends with the interesting line saying that food is what banquets of God and man, alike, are fulfilled.

The Dharmic tradition promotes healthy lives and promote welfare of all at all ages. This not only includes quality basic healthcare for all, free of cost, but also awareness-building of healthcare and welfare, besides welfare of animals and plants. In the Sushruta Sutrasthana, chapter 15, it is said

समादोषः समाअग्निश्च समाधातुमलक्रियाः|

प्रसन्न आत्मेइन्द्रियमनाः स्वस्थ ईतिअभिधॆयते||

which translates to the idea that balanced doshaas (biological energies such as vata, pitta and kapha that are said to govern all physical and mental processes and provide every living being with an individual blueprint for health and fulfillment), balanced digestive fire, balanced body dhatu (elements of the body such as plasma - Rasa, blood - Rakta, muscle - Mamsa, fat - Meda, bone - Asthi, bone marrow and nerve - Majja and reproductive fluid - Shukra), elimination of waste from the body (with the removal of the Mala - the waste, which are Purisa - faeces, Mutra - urine and Sweda - sweat), balanced senses (indriya, such as those of sight, smell, taste, hearing and touch), a balanced mind and a contented soul, together constitute normal health. Absence or reduction of any of these elements or functions or states stated above can be termed as ‘disorder’, which can become a disease.

The Dharmic tradition seeks the balance of all these elements, functions and states, and hence calls for the maintenance of health in a holistic manner, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

Of the four Vedas, the medical topics have been dealt primarily in the Atharvaveda, while the Ṛigveda contains a lesser extent of verses of health conditions and medical aspects. The Oṣadhi-śukta is the first documentary evidence of the study of plants for pharmocological use and botanical study. Various sages like Jamadagni, Kaṇva, Āngirasas and Kaśyapa were well known for their expertise in recognizing and discovering new herbs for remedial purposes. The exploits of Sushruta in surgery and other Vedic seers in medicine are well-documented. Health has always been a priority for the Dharmic traditions, since the body is taken to be a temple and the abode of the soul. Its maintenance is key.

The word Dharma comes from a term that means `to uphold, to sustain’. At the individual level this is not possible without being healthy. At the community level, it refers to the need for cleanliness and hygiene in society. The Yoga-Sutras of Patanjali describe Shaucha (literally meaning purity, cleanliness and clearness) as-

शौचात्स्वाङ्गजुगुप्सा परैरसंसर्गः ||

सत्त्वशुद्धिसौमनस्यैकाग्र्येन्द्रियजयात्मदर्शनयोग्यत्वानि च||

which means that Shaucha is that from which there arises dispassion towards one’s body and detachment towards contact with other people and beings. Shaucha gives rise to contentment, purity of mind, focus, conquest of the senses and competency to attain self-realization.

Quality Education and Knowledge

The Dharmic tradition speaks of ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for everyone. In the Rig Veda, Mandala 1 Hymn 3 Verse 12, it says:

महो अर्णः सरस्वती पर चेतयति केतुना |

धियो विश्वा वि राजति ||

which translates to

Sarasvati, the mighty flood,--she with be light illuminates,

She brightens every pious thought.

Sarasvati is the goddess of learning and here the light being mentioned is the illumination of knowledge. The Vedic seers highlight the importance of piety in one's thoughts and the importance and power of knowledge. The importance of knowledge in the Dharmic tradition can be gauged from the fact that 'Veda' itself means 'to know’. In the modern world, basic comprehensive education needs to be provided to all students irrespective of social identities and communities they belong to. Quality of education should be improved, and talents of students must be identified and must inform their choice of careers, along with perseverance.

According to the Rig-Veda, education is something which makes a man self-reliant and selfless, which effectively liberates and makes one aware of universal truths and ideas.

Gender Equality

In the Rig Veda, Mandala 10 Hymn 125 Verses 3-8, the idea of the feminine to be the supreme principle behind all of cosmos is asserted

अहं राष्ट्री संगमनी वसूनां चिकितुषी परथमायज्ञियानाम |

तां मा देवा वयदधुः पुरुत्राभूरिस्थात्रां भूर्यावेशयन्तीम ||

मया सो अन्नमत्ति यो विपश्यति यः पराणिति य ईंश्र्णोत्युक्तम| अमन्तवो मां त उप कषियन्ति शरुधिश्रुत शरद्धिवं ते वदामि ||

अहमेव सवयमिदं वदामि जुष्टं देवेभिरुतमानुषेभिः |

यं कामये तं-तमुग्रं कर्णोमि तम्ब्रह्माणं तं रषिं तं सुम