The meaning of Dharma is a very important concept which has got lots of meanings varying in Indian religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and others. Whereas in Hinduism, dharma signifies “behaviours that are considered to be in accord with Ṛta, the order that makes life and universe possible, and includes duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues and right way of living”. In Buddhism, dharma means “cosmic law and order, as applied to the teachings of Buddha and can be applied to mental constructs or what is cognized by the mind. In Buddhist philosophy, dhamma/dharma is also the term for phenomena”. Dharma in Jainism refers to the “teachings of tirthankara (Jina) and the body of doctrine pertaining to the purification and moral transformation of human beings”. For Sikhs, dharma means “the path of righteousness and proper religious practice”.
The article is divided into four chapters which are as follows:
- Dharma explained according to various religious texts and jurists
- Concept of Dharma
- Sources of Dharma
- Nature of Dharma
Dharma Explained According to Various Religious Texts and Jurists
The Karna Parva of the Mahabharatha, verse 58 in chapter 69 says, “Dharma is for the stability of the society, the maintenance of social order and the general well-being and progress of humankind. Whatever conduces to the fulfillment of these objects is Dharma”.
The Brihadaranyakopnishad, a religious text which is part of Vedas is identified Dharma with truth and declared its supreme status. It says, “There is nothing higher than Dharma. Even a very weak man hopes to prevail over a very strong man on the strength of Dharma just as (he prevails over the wrongdoer) with the help of the King. So what is called Dharma is really truth. Therefore people say about a man who declares the truth that he is declaring Dharma and about one who declares Dharma they say he speaks truth.”
Kautilya, a jurist in his Arthashastra book has indicated it as, “the basis for securing and preserving power over the earth”.
The Bhagwad Gita, a religious epic refers “to the essential aspect of ancient Hindu thought concerning law was, the clear recognition of the supremacy of Dharma and the clear articulation of the statutes of Dharma, somewhat in terms of the modern concept of the Rule of Law that is of all being sustained and regulated by it”.
Concept of Dharma
To understand the concept of Dharma, we have seen above what the term dharma exactly means. One of the most explained meaning of Dharma is the responsibility. As mentioned above, meaning of Dharma depends upon different context and different religious philosophies. For instance, Buddhists explain Dharma as cosmic law whereas Jains and Sikhs uses Dharma to explain the path of religious practices.
Referring Dharma to Hindu Jurisprudence it means “responsibility in different aspects of life which explains it as either religious responsibility or social, legal and even spiritual duties. Whereas some people understands Dharma as righteousness which enables moralistic interpretation. Legally speaking Dharma refers to the concept of justice. Hence there is no difference between Dharma and Law, but it is always understood as a religious and morale basis as well.”
Sources of Dharma
If we discuss about the sources of Dharma, it was first discussed in Vedic language such as Rig Veda which means the foundation of the universe. Such religious manuscripts claimed that the lives were created by the God, applying the principles of Dharma in living beings. Whereas, the death is the eternal Dharma for human, considering the Hindu practices.
After Rig Veda, manuscripts like Upanishads greatly filtered the explanation of Dharmaand made it more morale. By this time, Dharma had recognized a legal meaning. Whereas codes like Manusmriti, utilized Dharma to mean religious and legal responsibilities of people; which laid down what people should or should not do, which continued in modern Hindu Laws. Hindu Epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata has also referred to Dharma, which stated that performing one’s responsibility should be the individual aim. The scope and explanation was expanded with time and the above mentioned philosophy is exactly how Dharma is understood today.
Nature of Dharma
Different from other schools of Jurisprudence, Hindu Jurisprudence has always given more priority to the responsibilities over the rights as because Dharma in its various implications has prescribed the foremost responsibilities of every individual, and has always remained a central theme. To illustrate it further the Dharma of a professor is to provide interim knowledge to their students, while that of a farmer is to provide sustenance.
Another important point of Dharma is that it greatly reminds one of the natural law schools of Jurisprudence as the ancient Indian Jurisprudence is of the view that the God has granted the rights to the human beings. Thus the only source of all social, legal, political, and spiritual rights is divinity.
Dharma in its way, is multi-faceted which contains laws and customs abiding a wide range of subjects. As mentioned above, Manusmriti deals with religion, administration, economics, civil-criminal law, marriage, succession and etc.
Thus the concept of dharma which can be roughly translated as “righteousness”, is one of the most challenging in Indian philosophical thought. It seems to cut across so many conceptual distinctions – legal, social, moral, religious – that to those attaching importance to these divides it may appear to be less challenging than confusing. And yet there is something fascinating about a term whose usage spans millennia and which gives evidence of a sustained effort to come to grips with the friction of fact and meaning, institution and ideal.
Today, if we say that a man is dhārmik (righteous) indicates the highest commendation. Whether one decides to be dhārmik or not is something which could be paralleled by whether one should be moral or not. In both cases, to pose the query is to reveal that the speaker has asked a question which does not strictly make sense.
 https://www.toppr.com/guides/legal-aptitude/jurisprudence/schools-of-jurisprudence-concept-of-dharma/ [Last accessed on May 22, 2020].
 Supra Note 1.
https://www.google.com/search?q=concept+of+dharma&rlz=1C1GIWA_enIN697IN697&oq=concept+of+dharma&aqs=chrome..69i57j0l7.25769j1j8&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8 [Last accessed on May 22, 2020].
Contributed by: Piyush Jalan (Amity Law School, Kolkata)