Dharma is one of the most important themes within Hinduism. One often sees dharma translated as religion, duty, or even righteousness, but in fact, there is no single direct translation for dharma. Religion, duty and righteousness are not wrong; they are simply included within the idea of dharma. The word “dharma” comes from the Sanskrit root dhri, meaning to “uphold” or to “sustain.” From this perspective, the best way to think of dharma is to say, “that which upholds or sustains the positive order of things: the nation, the community, the family and ultimately even the universe.” At a social level, every individual has a particular dharma according to their place in life. Children have a dharma, parents have a dharma, teachers have a dharma, the police have a dharma and even the head of a nation has a dharma. One of the dharmas of a child, for example, is to obey parents and to study. Parents have a dharma to protect and look after children: to make sure they are educated, fed, housed and trained. It is sometimes written on the sides of police cars: To Protect and Serve. This is a statement of dharma for police. A head of state has a dharma to protect the country and to provide a secure environment for its citizens. If everyone performs their dharma: children obey parents, parents look after children, citizens uphold the laws of the land, the police enforce the law, a head of state protects the nation, then the family, the community and the nation are “upheld” and there can be prosperity. This is dharma, and it all follows from the idea of dhri, to uphold.
The opposite of dharma is “a-dharma.” What this means is obvious. If children fail to obey parents, if parents do not train and discipline children, if the police misuse their power and fail to protect, if the head of state fails to act in the interest of the nation, then adharma exists, and when there is too much adharma, there will be a break down of the family, society or the nation. The nation, the community, the family and even individuals cannot prosper when too much adharma reigns. There is a saying, dharmo rakshati rakshitah “Protect dharma and dharma will protect you.”
Individuals have different dharmas at different times in their lives. A child has a certain dharma that we mentioned above, but the same person as an adult has different dharmas to focus upon. And still later in life, there are other dharmas that need to be stressed. When one is married, one should not live according to the dharma of a child. If an adult adopts the dharma of a child this is adharma. A child cannot follow the dharma of the police. If an ordinary citizen tries to follow the dharma of the a head of state it results in adharma.
The ancient Hindu social system was called Varnashrama Dharma and the great epics of India, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are built on this system of dharma. In the Ramayana, the hero Rama exhibits the ideal execution of the dharma as a son and king. Sita, his wife, illustrates the dharma of the ideal woman and wife. Hanuman, the divine monkey, exhibits the dharma of a devoted servant in the way he serves Rama. The evil Ravana, the villain, is the very personification of adharma as he kidnaps Sita and tries to usurp Rama’s kingdom. In the end adharma destroys Ravana. In the Mahabharata, a great war takes place as dharma and adharma collide in a cosmic struggle over good and evil. In the end, good triumphs over evil. Dharma always rules over adharma. This is the way of the universe.
The word dharma is also used in a different way within Hindu philosophy that can also be understood from the root dhri. Every constituent of matter: liquids, metals, gases, fire, and so on have different dharmas. For example, the dharma of water is liquidity and wetness. The dharma of ice is solidity and coldness. The dharma of fire is heat and light. In other words, whatever it is that makes water, water or ice, ice, or fire, fire; what “upholds” the state of being water-ness, ice-ness, or fire-ness, etc., is dharma. These ideas occupies an important part of Hindu philosophy and even though they are subtle, I think the reader can see how even this use of dharma comes from the root dhri Indeed, the idea of dharma is paramount within both Hindu religion and philosophy.