Rādhakrishnan declares that next to the conception of reality, dharma is the most significant concept in Hinduism (qtd. in Creel 161) , while Badrinath notes that dharma is the fountainhead from which all Indian thought proceeds (Essays, 29). Dharma like many concepts in Hinduism is difficult, if not impossible, to define adequately, though many attempts have been made to do so (Larson 146). The Grand Sire Bhishma in the Mahābhārata make this point while conversing with Yudhishthira, “It is difficult to say what righteousness [dharma] is. It is not easy to indicate it. No one in discoursing upon righteousness can indicate it accurately” (Ganguli, Santi Parva CIX 237-38). Koller ...view middle of the document...
The Central Hindu College (CHC) adds an important qualification when it declares that dharma is more than just belief, it is action based on belief (2). Badrinath defines dharma as “the ethical order… that sustains all life” (Essays 24) but also gives it a more political slant when he says that it is “freedom from discredited ideas and debased social and political structures” ("Individual and World" 28). Krishnananda gives a succinct but insightful definition of dharma as “a duty imposed upon every person on account of the very involvement of consciousness in space and time…. [which] is nothing but the maintenance of harmony with the atmosphere” (51). Van Buitenen observes that dharma “is the cosmically or ‘religiously’ determined activity of all existing beings to maintain the normal order in the world,” highlighting the idea of normalcy and order (36). Rādhakrishnan gives a fuller description of dharma as
All those ideals and purposes, influences and institutions that shape the character of man both as an individual and as a member of society. It is the law of right living, the observance of which secures the double object of happiness on earth and salvation. It is ethics and religion combined. (1-2)
This brings in several elements worth noting including law, character, ethics, and religion and is better than the foregoing but still not adequate in scope. Creel expands the definition as follows:
Dharma pointed to duty, and specified duties; dharma also supplied a rationale or justification for duties by reference to patterns of order understood to be regnant in society and in the cosmos. Social regulation was grounded in an interpretation of processes and structures of existence, and this was part and parcel of what was meant by dharma. (161)
Creel’s explanation of dharma as duty, rationale, and justification based on the interpretation of existence provides a much-needed addition to the other definitions proffered.
In view of all these definitions, there are five elements of dharma that can be educed. Each of them is an important piece of the puzzle that is dharma.
(1) Dharma is active, rather than passive. Mere belief or “easy believism” is not sufficient. Actions must follow upon knowing and believing.
(2) Dharma is both proscriptive and prescriptive, providing the person with both “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots.”
(3) Dharma is obligatory and failure to perform the dharmic actions is sinful.
(4) Dharma must be performed without regard to the consequences and outcomes, even if the action demanded by it seems wrong.
(5) Dharma is personal and particularized. As Sridhar points out, dharma is not an outside demand imposed on the person but arises from the person’s nature (qtd. in Suda 361). This explains the reason there are different dharmas for different persons (for instance kings as opposed to peasants), different times (the Kaliyuga as opposed to other times), and different situations (Suda 361-62). ...