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Dictionary Definition

Dharma n : basic principles of the cosmos; also: an ancient sage in Hindu mythology worshipped as a god by some lower castes;

User Contributed Dictionary






  1. (Hinduism and Buddhism) the principle that orders the universe; one's conduct in conformity with such a principle
  2. (Hinduism) one's obligation in respect to one's position in society
  3. the teachings of the Buddha; one's path to enlightenment

See also

Extensive Definition

The Sanskrit term Dharma (Devanāgarī: धर्म) (Pali: Dhamma) is an Indian spiritual or religious term, that means one's righteous duty, or any virtuous path in the common sense of the term. Contextually, it implies one's religion, in Indian languages. Throughout Indian philosophy, Dharma is present as a central concept, that is used in order to explain the "higher truth" or ultimate reality of the universe.
The word 'dharma' literally translates as 'that which upholds or supports' (from the root, Dhr, - to hold), and is generally translated into English as 'law'. But throughout the history of Indian philosophy, it has governed ideas about the proper conduct of living - ideas that that are upheld by the laws of the universe. The symbol of the dharma - the wheel - is the central motif in the national flag of India.
The various Indian religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jain dharma, Sikhism etc.) have all accorded a central focus to Dharma and advocate its practice. Each of these religions emphasize Dharma as the correct understanding of Nature (or God, as the origin of nature) in their teachings. In these traditions, beings that live in accordance with Dharma proceed more quickly toward Dharma Yukam, Moksha or Nirvana (personal liberation). Dharma also refers to the teachings and doctrines of the founders of these traditions, such as those of Gautama Buddha and Mahavira. In traditional Hindu society with its caste structure, Dharma constituted the religious and moral doctrine of the rights and duties of each individual. (see dharmasastra). Dharma in its universal meaning shares much in common with the way of Tao or Taoism.
The antonym of dharma is adharma meaning unnatural or immoral.


The word goes back to Sanskrit through a common Indo-Iranian root, dhar, "to fasten, to support, to hold", continuing PIE *dher, in the IEW, connected with Latin frēnum "rein, horse tack"; Germanic words for "hidden, held back" (OHG tarni "latens"); and extended to dher-gh, with OCS drъžǫ, drъžati "to hold, possess". Etymological identity of dharma with Latin firmus (whence English firm) has been suggested, but remains uncertain. Dhar Means to give of oneself or giving selflessly. Dhar to Give as in Spanish "Dar"
In the Hindu text of the Rigveda, the word appears as an n-stem, , with a range of meanings encompassing "something established or firm" (in the literal sense of prods or poles), figuratively "sustainer, supporter" (of deities), and in the abstract, similar to the semantics of Greek ethos, "fixed decree, statute, law".
From the Atharvaveda and in Classical Sanskrit, the stem is thematic, (Devanāgarī: धर्म), and in Pāli, it takes the form dhamma. It is also often rendered dharam in contemporary Indian languages and dialects. It is used in most or all philosophies and religions of Indian origin, sometimes summarized under the umbrella term of Dharmic faiths, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. It is difficult to provide a single concise definition for Dharma. The word has a long and varied history and straddles a complex set of meanings and interpretations.
In most of the modern Indian languages, such as Hindi or Bengali, dharma can also contextually mean simply "religion." Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism are called Hindu Dharma, Buddha-Dharma, Jain-Dharma and Sikh dharma, respectively.

In Hinduism


In the Rig veda, the belief (or observation) that a natural justice and harmony pervades the natural world becomes manifest in the concept of rta, which is both 'nature's way' and the order implicit in nature. Thus rta bears a resemblance to the ancient Chinese concept of tao and the Heraclitan or stoic conception of the logos.
This "power" that lies behind nature, and which keeps everything in balance became a natural forerunner to the idea of dharma as one can see in this early Vedic prayer. This idea laid the cornerstone of Dharma's implicit attribution to the "ultimate reality" of the surrounding universe, in classical Hindu.
The following verse from the Rig-Veda is an example where rta finds mention :
"O Indra, lead us on the path of Rta, on the right path over all evils." (RV 10.133.6)
The transition of the rta to the modern idea of Dharma occurs in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. The Upanishads saw dharma as the universal principle of law, order, harmony, all in all truth, that sprang first from Brahman. It acts as the regulatory moral principle of the Universe. It is sat, truth, a major tenet of Hinduism. This hearkens back to the conception of the Rig Veda that "Ekam Sat," (Truth Is One), of the idea that Brahman is "Sacchidananda" (Truth-Consciousness-Bliss). Dharma is not just law, or harmony, it is pure Reality. In the Brihadaranyaka's own words:
" Verily, that which is Dharma is truth.
Therefore they say of a man who speaks truth, 'He speaks the Dharma,'
or of a man who speaks the Dharma, 'He speaks the Truth.'
Verily, both these things are the same."
(Brh. Upanishad, 1.4.14) (2)
In the Mahabharata, Krishna defines Dharma as: "Dhaaranaad dharma ity aahur dharmena vidhrtaah prajaah, Yat syaad dhaarana sanyuktam sa dharma iti nishchayah", Dharma upholds both this-worldly and the other-worldly affairs (Mbh 12.110.11).

Dharma as a "Purushartha"

In moving through the four stages of life, viz. Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vaanprastha , Sanyaasa, a person also seeks to fulfill the four essentials (purushaartha) of Dharma, Artha (worldly gain), Kama (sensual pleasures), and Moksha (liberation from reincarnation or rebirth). Moksha, although the ultimate goal, is emphasized more in the last two stages of life, while Artha and Kama are primary only during Grihasthaashram. Dharma, however is essential in all four stages.

The deity named Dharma

Dharma is also the name of a deity or "Deva" in charge of Dharma. Mythologically, he is said to have been born from the right breast of Brahma, is married to ten daughters of Daksha and fathers Shama, Kama and Harahsa. He is also the father of the celebrated Rishis Hari, Krishna, Nara-Narayana.
In the Epic Mahabharata,he is incarnate as Vidura. Also, Dharma is invoked by Kunti and she begets her eldest son Yudhisthira from him. As such Yudhisthira is known as Dharmaputra. There is also an assimilation of God Dharma and Yama, the God of the Dead in the Mahabharata.

In technical literature

In technical literature, e.g., in Sanskrit grammar, dharma also means "property" and dharmin means "property-bearer".In a Sanskrit sentence like , "sound is impermanent", "sound" is the bearer of the property "impermanence". Likewise, in the sentence , "here, there is a pot", "here" is the bearer of the property "pot-existence" - this just goes to show that the categories property and property-bearer are closer to those of a logical predicate and its subject-term, and not to a grammatical predicate and subject.

In Buddhism

For many Buddhists, the Dharma most often means the body of teachings expounded by the Buddha. The word is also used in Buddhist phenomenology as a term roughly equivalent to phenomenon, a basic unit of existence and/or experience.
In East Asia, the translation for Dharma is , pronounced fǎ in Mandarin, beop in Korean, hō in Japanese, and pháp in Vietnamese. However, the term Dharma can also be transliterated from its original form as well.

Buddha's teachings

For practicing Buddhists, references to "dharma" or dhamma in the singular, particularly as "the" Dharma, is generally means the teachings of the Buddha, commonly known throughout the east as Buddha-Dharma.
The status of the Dharma is regarded variably by different Buddhist traditions. Some regard it as an ultimate truth that lies beyond worldly things, somewhat like the Christian logos. Others, who regard the Buddha as simply an enlightened human being, see the Dharma as the essence of the 84,000 different teachings that the Buddha gave to various types of people based on their propensity and capacity.
"Dharma" usually refers not only to the sayings of the Buddha but also to the later traditions of interpretation and addition that the various schools of Buddhism have developed to help explain and expand upon the Buddha's teachings. For others still, they see the dharma as referring to the "origin".
The Dharma is one of the Three Jewels of Buddhism of which practitioners of Buddhism seek refuge in (what one relies on for his/her lasting happiness). The three jewels of Buddhism are the Buddha (mind's perfection of enlightenment), the Dharma (teachings and methods), and the Sangha (awakened beings who provide guidance and support).

Qualities of Buddha Dharma

The Teaching of the Buddha also has six supreme qualities:
  1. (Svakkhato) The Dharma is not a speculative philosophy, but is the Universal Law found through enlightenment and is preached precisely. Therefore it is Excellent in the beginning (Sīla — Moral principles), Excellent in the middle (Samadhi — Concentration) and Excellent in the end (Pańña — Wisdom),
  2. (Samditthiko) The Dharma can be tested by practice and therefore he who follows it will see the result by himself through his own experience.
  3. (Akāliko) The Dharma is able to bestow timeless and immediate results here and now, for which there is no need to wait until the future or next existence.
  4. (Ehipassiko) The Dharma welcomes all beings to put it to the test and come and see for themselves.
  5. (Opāneyiko) The Dharma is capable of being entered upon and therefore it is worthy to be followed as a part of one's life.
  6. (Paccattam veditabbo viññūnhi) The Dharma can be perfectly realized only by the noble disciples (Ariyas) who have matured and enlightened enough in supreme wisdom.
Knowing these attributes, Buddhists believe that they will attain the greatest peace and happiness through the practice of their Dharma. Each person is therefore fully responsible for himself to put it in the real practice.

Dharmas in Buddhist phenomenology

Other uses include dharma, normally spelled with a small "d" (to differentiate), which refers to a phenomenon or constituent factor of human experience. This was gradually expanded into a classification of constituents of the entire material and mental world. Rejecting the substantial existence of permanent entities which are qualified by possibly changing qualities, Buddhist Abhidharma philosophy, which enumerated seventy-five dharmas, came to propound that these "constituent factors" are the only type of entity that truly exists. This notion is of particular importance for the analysis of human experience: Rather than assuming that mental states inhere in a cognizing subject, or a soul-substance, Buddhist philosophers largely propose that mental states alone exist as "momentary elements of consciousness" and that a subjective perceiver is assumed.
One of the central tenets of Buddhism, is the denial of a separate permanent "I", and is outlined in the three marks of existence. The three signs:
  1. Dukkha - Suffering (Pali: Dukkha),
  2. Anitya - Change/Impermanence (Pali: Anicca),
  3. Anatman - No-I (Pali: Annatta).
At the heart of Buddhism, is the denial of an "I" (and hence the delusion) as a separate self-existing entity.
Later, Buddhist philosophers like Nāgārjuna would question whether the dharmas (momentary elements of consciousness) truly have a separate existence of their own. (ie Do they exist apart from anything else?) Rejecting any inherent reality to the dharmas, he asked (rhetorically):
When all dharmas are empty, what is endless? What has an end? What is endless and with an end? What is not endless and not with an end? What is it? What is other? What is permanent? What is impermanent? What is impermanent and permanent? What is neither?
Auspicious is the pacification of phenomenal metastasis, the pacification of all apprehending; There is no dharma whatsoever taught by the Buddha to whomever, whenever, wherever. --Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, , 25:22-24

Dharma as righteousness

According to S. N. Goenka, teacher of Vipassana Meditation, the original meaning of dhamma is "dhareti ti dhamma", or "that which is contained". Dharma in the Buddhist scriptures has a variety of meanings, including "phenomenon" and "nature" or "characteristic". Dharma also means 'mental contents' and is paired with citta, which means heart/mind. The pairing is paralleled with the pairing of kaya (body) and vedana (feelings or sensations, that which arise within the body but experienced through the mind), in major sutras such as the Mahasatipatthana sutra. Dharma is also used to refer to the teachings of the Buddha, not in the context of the words of one man, even an enlightened man, but as a reflection of natural law which was re-discovered by this man and shared with the world. A person who lives their life with an understanding of this natural law, is a "dhammic" person, which is often translated as "righteous".

Dharma in Ch'an

Dharma is employed in Ch'an in a specific context in relation to transmission of authentic doctrine, understanding and bodhi; recognized in Dharma transmission.

In Sikhism

For Sikhs, the word "Dharma" means the "path of righteousness". What is the "righteous path"? That is the question that the Sikh scriptures attempt to answer. The main holy scriptures of the Sikhs is called the Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS.) It is considered to be more than a holy book of the Sikhs. The Sikhs treat this Granth (holy book) as a living Guru. The holy text spans 1430 pages and contains the actual words spoken by the Sikh Gurus and various other Saints from other religions including Hinduism and Islam.
Sikh Dharma is a distinct religion revealed through the teachings of ten Gurus who are accepted by the followers as if they were spiritually the same. The Gurus are considered "the divine light" and they conveyed Gurbani (the word of God) in the form of the Guru Granth Sahib to the world. In this faith, God is described as both Nirgun (transcendent) and Sargun (immanent). Further, God pervades in His creation and is omnipresent, but cannot be incarnate. The principal Sikh belief lays stress on one's actions and deeds rather than people's religious labels, rituals or outward appearance or signs.


The primary object of a Sikh's life is to seek union with God and hence, liberation from the cycle of births and deaths (cycle of re-incarnation) which is dictated by a person's thought, deeds and actions in this life. Liberation can be achieved through meditating on God, truthful living and sharing ones wealth in the context of a normal family life and through divine grace. Amrit Pahul – Sikh baptism for both men and women – was instituted in 1699 by Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru. All Sikhs, on taking Amrit, are enjoined to lead a disciplined life by following a code of ethics leading to a "Saint-Soldier" way of life. In 1708, Guru Gobind Singh vested spiritual authority in the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh Scriptures) as the eternal Guru and hence Sikh Dharma acknowledges the end of human Guruship. At the same time, the temporal authority was vested in the Khalsa Panth (a community of Sikhs who have taken Amrit).
Other important aspects of a Sikh's life include Sewa (dedication to the service of God's creation) where the emphasis is often upon manual work, undertaking of goodwill towards other faiths and their followers, to defend for justice and assistance of the oppressed. In contrast to many other faiths, Sikhs believe that when all other means to achieve justice are exhausted, then it is just to wield the sword.
Congregational worship includes the following:
  1. Paath - Reading of the Holy scriptures
  2. Kirtan - Singing of Shabads (hymns).
  3. Langar - A communal vegetarian meal also call free kitchen is an important feature of the Sikh way of life, and food is served to everyone at the end of a Sikh service.
  4. Community Centre - Today, in most countries, a Gurdwara, the Sikh place of worship, also serves as a centre to promote Sikh culture and such other needs of the community.
  5. Ardas - Sikhs conclude their prayers by doing the Ardas and invoking God's blessings on everyone – not just on Sikhs.

Scriptures and Dharma

The Guru Granth Sahib lays down the foundation of this "righteous path" and various salient points are found.
  1. Sikh is bound by Dharma: The followers of this faith are bound by Dharma as advocated in their holy scriptures. The committed Sikh is encouraged to follow this path at all times. The first recitation of the Guru Granth Sahib called the Japji Sahib says the following: ''"The path of the faithful shall never be blocked. The faithful shall depart with honor and fame. The faithful do not follow empty religious rituals. The faithful are firmly bound to the Dharma. Such is the Name of the Immaculate Lord. Only one who has faith comes to know such a state of mind."'' (14) (Guru Granth Sahib Japji page 3.)
  2. Deeds are recorded: The persons thoughts and deeds are said to be recorded and the faithful is warned that these will be read out in the presence of the "Lord of Dharma". Two scribes called "Chitr and Gupt" 1 , the angels of the conscious and the subconscious mind are busy writing ones thought and deeds. On death the soul of the person he brought before "Lord of Dharma" are these account are read out as recoded in this quote: ''"Day and night are the two nurses, in whose lap all the world is at play. Good deeds and bad deeds - the record is read out in the Presence of the Lord of Dharma. According to their own actions, some are drawn closer, and some are driven farther away."'' (Guru Granth Sahib Japji page 8, Salok.) 2
  3. Dharma administered by God: The scriptures further outline how the "Judge of Dharma" administers justice depending on the way that one has conducted life on Earth. The soul is either "cleared" or "subject to God's command" depending on the review of the person history. The holy text says: "The Righteous Judge of Dharma, by the Hukam of God's Command, sits and administers True Justice". (Guru Granth Sahib page 38) (4) and those followers who "chant the name of the Lord" are cleared as outlined thus: "Her account is cleared by the Righteous Judge of Dharma, when she chants the Name of the Lord, Har, Har." (Guru Granth Sahib page 78) 5

In Jainism

Dharma is natural. Jain Acharya Samantabhadra writes: "Vatthu sahavo dhammo" the dharma is the nature of an object. It is the nature of the soul to be free, thus for the soul, the dharma ia paralaukika, beyond worldly. However the nature of the body is to seek self-preservation and be engaged in pleasures.
Thus there are two dharmas.

The two Dharmas

Acharya Haribhadra (approx. 6-7th cent.) discusses dharma in Dharma-Bindu. he writes (Translation by Y. Malaiya):
Because of the difference in practice, dharma is of two kinds, for the householders and for the monks.
Of the householder's dharma, there are two kinds,"ordinary" and "special"
The ordinary dharma of the householder should be carried out according to tradition, such that it is not objectionable, according to ones abilities such as wealth, in accordance with nyaya (everyone treated fairly and according to laws).
Somadeva suri (10th c.) terms the "ordinary" and "special" dharmas laukika ("worldly") and pralaukika ("extra-worldly") respectively:
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A householder follows both laukika and the paralaukika dharmas at the same time.

References in pop culture


  • The Dharma Initiative is a fictional research project featured in the American television series Lost shown on ABC. It was introduced in the second season episode "Orientation". During the Lost Experience it was revealed that "DHARMA" is an acronym for Department of Heuristics And Research on Material Applications. The Dharma Initiative brought together "scientists and free thinkers" from around the globe at a "large-scale communal research compound" to conduct research in various disciplines, including meteorology, psychology, parapsychology, zoology, electromagnetism, and a sixth discipline that the orientation film begins to identify as "utopian social-" before being cut off.


  • Donald Roeser, guitarist for Blue Öyster Cult listed his name on albums as "Buck Dharma."
  • Up Dharma Down, a Filipino band, whose curious name is from the idea that everything in existence is connected no matter how diverse they are.
  • FM (Canadian band), wrote a song called Dialing For Dharma, which can be found on the album Black Noise.
  • The song Darkside of Aquarius by Iron Maiden (band) frontman Bruce Dickinson is about the heralds of Apocalypse, and about the wheel of dharma, which will not stop unless "From the starlit sky on the silver sea a lonely silver surfer comes to push the wheel for me". In the lyrics this wheel is also called the "wheel of torment".



Further reading

  1. Murthy, K. Krishna. "Dharma - Its Etymology." The Tibet Journal, Vol. XXI, No. 1, Spring 1966, pp. 84-87.
  2. Radhakrishnan, S. (1923): "Indian Philosophy Vol.1" (2nd Edition). New Delhi: Oxford India Paperbacks (Oxford University Press).
  3. Hume, R.E.: (1921): "The Thirteen Principal Upanishads" (2nd Edition, Revised). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  4. Easwaran, E. (1987): "The Upanishads" (Seventh Printing). Tomales, CA: Nilgiri Press.
dharma in Arabic: دارما
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