Dharma, the Moral and Religious Duties of 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 order with laws to govern creation. It is more than just a set of laws of physics; it is religious and moral laws that bind us in harmony with that order.

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 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 laws of physics. It controls everything from subatomic properties to motions 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 that most Westerners are aware of. It is the sum of all accumulated "karmas" in one's life, molded by one's tendencies, personality, desires, and experiences. It represents one's 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 a rent you pay to live in the world of God, who is the true owner and indweller of all creation. To stay in this world, you have two option. 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 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 oneself from karma and the cycle of births and deaths (samsara). However, the approaches are different. In Buddhism, the followers look to the teachings of the Buddha to determine what constitute good conduct and dutiful life. In Hinduism, the same is determined by the Vedas and the law books called the Dharma Sastras. 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 that are performed with selfish intent to enjoy the fruit of such action. Adharma also means actions that are considered evil or unlawful by religious scriptures, or against the established code of conduct and religious traditions 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 that arises from your birth, profession, gender or caste affiliation. In a sense it also means your religion or faith. Jayaram V

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