What does Dharma mean?
The concept of Dharma is unique to Hinduism. In fact, the actual name of Hinduism is Sanatana Dharma — the ancient "Law of Righteousness". This is a cosmic law that encompasses everything and keeps everything in its place. It is a triple law known as ritam (the principle of natural order that coordinates everything in nature), satyam (truth), and dharma (righteousness). The first two are cosmic laws that, when translated into human life, are called dharma. Everything in the universe must uphold this law. The whole of nature upholds this law without any problem since it is conditioned and, therefore, has no choice in the matter. Galaxies do not run around as they like, plants do not grow upside down, and the sun, moon, and all the other planets have their own orbits beyond which they cannot transgress. The sun shines, the rain falls, flowers bloom, and fruits appear according to this cosmic dharma, which essentially means the law of righteousness, the law that decides the best behavior for everything in the universe. Inasmuch as human laws keep in tune with this cosmic dharma, they can be called just and righteous. The universal laws of ritam and satyam, when passed through the medium of the human mind, become distorted. That is why we find it challenging for human beings to remain steadfast to the rules of dharma. The problem with human beings is that they are not conditioned. They have a mind, intellect, and reasoning capacity that enables them to think for themselves. In one way, this is good, but in another way, it is very dangerous, and a distorted or perverted intellect can cause havoc on both the individual and social platforms.
The Hindu Dharma is called Sanatana for two reasons. Firstly, it is ancient and eternal. It has always existed because it is related to the cosmic system, which has never changed from ancient times. Secondly, it attempts to make us realize that we are not our body alone. Our body is only a possession, like our car or house. The power that animates the body is spiritual, not physical. The body is made up of matter and energy, but the Hindu dharma makes us realize that the inner consciousness or atman is unborn, undying, eternal, and infinite. It takes us from body consciousness to divine consciousness and makes us experience our immortality.
Like all Sanskrit words, the word "dharma" comes from the Vedas, which are the foundation on which the mighty edifice of Hinduism has been built. The word does not have an English equivalent. Even in Sanskrit, "dharma" conveys a vast number of meanings. In the previous paragraph, I have already explained what it means when connected with Nature. When applied to the human being, it denotes the attitude that gives strength to the human being in all situations, in fortune and misfortune, prosperity and adversity. From these and various other shastras (scriptures), we can have some idea of what exactly Hindu Dharma means. Our epics and Puranas deal with the subject of dharma and try to portray to us, through the lives of the characters depicted therein, the exact connotation of the word.
According to Hinduism, there are four goals of life, known as the “purusharthas”: dharma, artha, kama, and moksha. Hinduism recognizes the human need to acquire wealth and possessions, as well as the need for pleasure, including sex. Therefore, these four goals represent the obligations, restraints, and aspirations that a human being has, which will fuse their individual life with society and cosmic life, enabling them to live a life in harmony and peace with themselves, society, and God.
Dharma is the first goal of life as given in Hinduism. It stands for that code of honor and righteousness by following which a person can make a living that is in consonance with the laws of nature.
Dharma leads to the second goal, which is “artha” or the pursuit of wealth. Wealth gained by self-effort and following a strict code of conduct is allowed by the shastras (scriptures).
The third goal is “kama,” which is the human aspiration for pleasure. If enjoyed through dharmic or legitimate means, it is permissible and will lead to the fourth purushartha (goal) of “moksha.”
Moksha means liberation from the egoistic bonds created by the mind and intellect. According to Hinduism, this liberation can be attained here and now. Unlike many religions, Hinduism does not promise a doubtful heaven after the death of the physical body. Instead, moksha or liberation is something that every human being can achieve here and now, provided they lead a dharmic life. Artha and kama (the desire for wealth and the desire for pleasure) are bound by dharma or righteousness on one side and moksha or liberation on the other. If both artha and kama are followed using dharmic means, they will automatically lead us to moksha or liberation.
Thus, we see that Hindu Dharma is extremely rational and scientific in its approach to reality. It does not try to suppress the basic psychological needs of human beings but keeps in view the goal of life, which is enlightenment and helps us to break away from the pressures imposed on our personality by the ego.
Itihasa refers to a life on earth that is lived according to the laws of dharma. It will indeed bring fulfillment and liberation both in this world and after the death of the physical body. The great sages of our epics, Valmiki and Vyasa, have stressed the different aspects of dharma in their wonderful works known as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
These two epics deal with the greatest of our avataras—Rama and Krishna. Both Valmiki and Vyasa were contemporaries of these great personalities, so they wrote about historical facts that unrolled before their very eyes and not about happenings that were told to them by a third party. The British who came to exploit this land were confronted with a culture that they were totally incapable of understanding. However, they realized that the only way to control the masses was to make them disbelieve in the historicity of their greatest avataras—Rama and Krishna. They did their best to make out that the Indians had no concept of history, and the stories about Rama and Krishna were myths created by the fertile brains of Valmiki and Vyasa! Unfortunately, the British-educated elite of India were easy prey and fell for this type of nonsense.
However, archaeological evidence of the modern age has proven beyond a doubt that these giants amongst men did indeed stride across the holy land of Bharat, and that everything written about them in these two epics is a true and faithful picture of the historical presence of these amazing beings. The fact that almost every festival in Bharat is connected with one or other of these avataras should be enough to convince anyone of their existence, if such proof were necessary. Furthermore, if we look at the names of all the places mentioned in the Ramayana, we find that these can be easily identified. The path taken by Rama from Ayodhya to Sri Lanka can be seen even today. The bridge he built from Dhanushkodi to Sri Lanka has been verified by pictures taken by NASA. Both Valmiki and Vyasa were exceptional astronomers as well as astrologers, and they have mentioned very specific placements of planets at the birth of Rama and Krishna, as well as the date on which Rama set out on his journey to the forest and many other dates. With the help of modern technological software, all these facts have been scientifically proven, which might make it easier for the modern mind to accept the fact of their historicity.
Both these epics actually deal with the different facets of dharma, which has always played an important part in Hindu life. In fact, the Hindu mind has always tried to prise open the many caskets of dharma and discern its different meanings. Abstract words like “dharma”, “satyam”, “ritam”, etc., are all very difficult for the human mind to conceive. It is easier for the mind to conceive of such things if a concrete example is given. Therefore, Valmiki portrayed these words in the Ramayana through the character of the great king called Rama. In the story of Valmiki, it is said that he had been a cruel hunter and robber called Ratnakar at one time. Once he came across the sage Narada, who told him to meditate and gave him the divine mantra of “rama”. Many years later, Narada returned to the spot where he had left Ratnakar and found that he was so immersed in his tapas that an anthill had grown all over him. Narada broke open the anthill and asked Valmiki to open his eyes and return to the world. Valmiki said he would return to the world only if Narada could tell him of the existence of at least one human being who was the essence of all dharma. Narada immediately mentioned the name of Rama and said that he was indeed the epitome of dharma or righteousness. He urged Valmiki to leave his seclusion and return to normal life and write the story of Rama, which would prove to be of great help to all humanity. Valmiki agreed, and that is how the Ramayana was written.
In the case of Rama, God had taken on a human form with all its frailties in order to show us how our aspirations for a dharmic life can be fulfilled. For this, we have to be prepared to completely subjugate our ego and live only for the good of the world and act in consonance with the rules of the cosmic dharma as seen in the duties and obligations that we owe to the society in which we live. A king or a ruler has to put the citizens first and himself last. Rama is an amazing portrait of such a king.
There are many controversial episodes in Rama’s life that are misinterpreted by our modern youth. However, if we look closely at these episodes, we will find that in each of them, he was only acting according to the strictest rule of dharma as he perceived it. In fact, he was the true “dharmatma” — the personification of dharma. In his stoic adherence to dharma, he was forced to sacrifice even the strongest of his attachments. However, we see that despite his agony, he never deviated from his ideal, even though it meant that he himself had to undergo great tortures of self-sacrifice and self-denial. He did not flinch even when he had to part from his beloved wife and, finally, from his beloved brother. We, who live in an age of easy morals, where ideals are renounced for the sake of self-interest, may consider Rama a fool. But to the ancient Indian society and to those who strive to uphold dharma, he is indeed a God; for none but a God would have been able to act in such a fashion, with absolute self-abnegation. In Rama, we find this blend of the sublime characteristics of God combined with all the frailties of the human being. Every avatara has to have both these sides if he is to give an example to humanity. If he acts in a superhuman way all the time, he would not serve his purpose, which is to lift up the human being, despite his frailties, to the divinity in him. Therefore, at times, he has to behave in a weak human fashion to encourage us so that we can also lift ourselves to the level of a Rama, however weak or helpless we may be.
We live in an age that is at a loss to know the meaning of human existence — which doubts the very existence of God. We are perplexed as to how we can act with righteousness when the whole world seems to have gone mad, when the meaning of truth and beauty has been forgotten, when hate and self-interest seem to be the only rule of conduct, and “money” the only god!
The Ramayana has inspired and encouraged countless people not merely in India, but all over the world. It is a story based on eternal truths that appeal to the best in human nature. The values portrayed in the character of Rama have universal appeal, and therefore the Ramayana has risen above the limits of sect, religion, race, and country. It has continued to cast its spell through the ages. Situations may change, but basic human nature has remained the same from those times to the present moment. Many great souls, preachers, and incarnations have come and gone, but none of them have been able to change this basic human nature. However, individuals can and must change if society is to progress.
The character of Rama has a direct appeal to those individuals who crave to cast off the confining limitations of their ordinary human nature and attain divine heights. The Ramayana is filled with characters who were prepared to sacrifice their own selfish interests for the sake of the greater good, who were prepared to subjugate their own ego and live only for the good of the world, and act in consonance with the duties and obligations of their particular position in society.
Rama is the portrait of a man who became divine by shaking off the limitations of mortality through strict adherence to satya (truth) and dharma. He had all the qualities of the average man, including attachments, desires, anger, fears, passion, and serenity. However, he became divine by shaking off these bonds. He surmounted these obstacles in his character and became superhuman, putting his duty to God and country above all personal considerations. He shows us that this type of perfection is available to all of us, weak though we are. Hence, he will always be a perfect example to all human beings, whatever their country or creed — a glorious and living example of the word “dharma.”
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