What is Dharma?

By Jacob Devaney on Monday January 25th, 2016

Living by the principle of Dharma can positively impact our lives

Why would someone attempt to define such a deep and complex spiritual idea like dharma in a short blog? While I acknowledge that this topic is worth a lifetime of exploration, there are some very good reasons to consider the implications of this concept in your life right now. Just as the slightest twitch of the archer with his bow pulled back can change the trajectory of the arrow dramatically, a moment of reflection now may change the direction of your life for many years to come. Dharma is a complex word with no simple translation but this short article will give you an opportunity to consider it’s significance in your life.

The Classical Sanskrit noun dharma is a derivation from the root dhṛ, which means “to hold, maintain, keep”, and takes a meaning of “what is established or firm”, and hence “law”. It is derived from an older Vedic Sanskrit stem dharman, with a literal meaning of “bearer, supporter”.

Dharma wheelThe wheel symbolising dharma

Because of the way society is set up we often equate laws, discipline, and order as things that are enforced (or forced) on us externally. Even many religions like Christianity often assert a sort of punitive control on us to do good or we’ll need to confess to the preacher, or be turned away from the pearly gates when we die. Dharma comes from a tradition that is centered from the in-side-outward with much emphasis on spiritual growth, direction, wisdom as things that we seek and find internally. This is not to negate the importance of external laws, order, teachers, etc. but to bring some balance to our ways of thinking that don’t always put much value on listening to one’s own inner self or intuition.

ContentedTo be contented and happy

Hinduism describes dharma as the natural universal laws whose observance enables humans to be contented and happy, and to save himself from degradation and suffering. Dharma is the moral law combined with spiritual discipline that guides one’s life.
Subhamoy Das

It is true that we spend so much time seeking external validation, praise from friends, success through power and money, that we can end up feeling a bit hollow. When laws are something that are only understood to exist externally then we might fool ourselves into thinking we can get away with things when nobody is looking. Spiritual traditions remind us that this is not possible. Being accountable to ourselves, our own values, our own higher purpose, even sometimes at the cost of earning praise from those around us is the source of true happiness and personal power. This is part of understanding our dharma.

Dharma wheel in rockThat which is firm

Monier-Williams, the widely cited resource for definitions and explanation of Sanskrit words and concepts of Hinduism, offers numerous definitions of the word dharma: such as that which is established or firm, steadfast decree, statute, law, practice, custom, duty, right, justice, virtue, morality, ethics, religion, religious merit, good works, nature, character, quality, property. Yet, each of these definitions is incomplete, while combination of these translations do not convey the total sense of the word. In common parlance, dharma means ‘right way of living’ and ‘path of righteousness’.

Dharma incensePath of righteousness

Coherence between our inner selves, and the world around us is a powerful place to be. Often we struggle to accomplish anything when we are out of alignment with our own true nature. We can push through this sometimes to attain material success and praise from others but inside we know that something is missing. Other times we see the opposite of this when we witness a talented but starving musician or artist who is fulfilled internally but unable to take care of themselves in the “real” world.

Dharma is a cosmic principle that is difficult, if not impossible, to define. Our Dharma is our true place in the cosmic process: in time, in space, in awareness, in thought, deed and desire. The eternal principle of Dharma determines the harmonious functions of the cosmic machine. In order that we fulfil our role in the divine play we must behave within our Dharma. That is, we ought to do the right thing, at the right time, In the right way, and for the right reason. By this we attain balance. To establish balance within ourselves ensures our own welfare and the welfare of society. And opens the path prepared for us by the divine.
Ramesh Manocha

When we are aligned with our dharma, it is as if a force greater than us is propelling us. Obstacles fall away and we feel our place within the flow of life like a surfer that has caught the perfect wave. This is how we see true masters that take the wisdom of their inner discipline and can apply it to the world around them in physical or spiritual ways. For example a musician who can apply harmonic musical theory to their social relationships, or an architect who can also build bridges of understanding between people. In this way dharma encompasses our whole life extending from our center and effecting everyone and everything around us.

Prayer wheelsAttuning to dharma

We know that the accomplished musician spent much time practicing scales, and the surfer missed many waves on their journey to mastery. We also have tools that are meant specifically for attuning us to our dharma. Tools like meditation, yoga, diet, listening to our gut (or intuition), and more are readily available to anyone who wants to learn.

We are engaged in a lifelong journey with ourselves and everyone around us and this is why we reach towards each other through media or community. There are endless ways to support each other to find our inner calling, but each of us have our own unique way to align with this dharma. If we never take time to consider this we may spend our whole lives seeking external gratification while feeling hollow inside.

How do you feel about this article? Join the conversation.

Jacob Devaney

Founder and director of Culture Collective, creative activist, musician, and producer.



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2 Responses to What is Dharma?

  1. Thank you for sharing these definitions and insights, Jacob. I’m fascinated by this concept of dharma, especially as it relates to our work and purpose. It’s such an inspiring principle – worthy of a lifetime’s study. 🙂 Do you know if all Sanskrit words have such a variety of definitions?

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