It may sound ironical, but it is my observation that many who know English find it difficult to understand the true meaning of “Dharma”. The reason is, the English knowing public, is accustomed to equate “Dharma” with religion. A common man who does not know English is under no such obsession. He knows the meaning of “dharmashala”. It is not a religious school. He understands the meaning of “Dharmarth Hospital” .No religion is treated in such hospital. He comprehends the meaning of “Dharma Kanta “. It is not a balance that weighs different religions. He knows “Raj-dharma” which is not a religion of a king apart from the religion of his subjects. He understands that the “Putradharma” is not the religion of the son, as distinct from that of his parents. .
Go To the Roots
The above examples are sufficient to establish that “dharma” and “religion” cannot be equated. The natural question is. what is “Dharma”? To comprehend the full connotation of the concept of “Dharma”, we must go to its root. We should follow the adage that when you are in difficulty you should go to the fundamentals. The word “Dharma” is derived from the Sanskrit root “dhri” which means to hold together, to bind, to sustain. What does “dharma” hold together? It holds together the whole universe. Therefore our Shastras say that “dharanat dharma ityahuh” (it is called “dharma” because it holds together or sustains).
Now let us see what this universe consist of. There are four broad entities or existences. The one is the individual, the other is the society in which the individual exists and lives; the third is the whole of the non-human world, both animate and inanimate and the fourth is the soul or the spirit. Each of these is a part, nay constituent, of the higher entity, and each of higher entities pervades the lower, the smaller entity. An individual is a part of the society, at the same time, the society pervades the individual. The human society is part of the nature and the nature pervades both the individual and the human society. All the three, viz the individual, the society and the nature are parts of the soul and at the same time are pervaded by it. This relation is expressed by our Shastras as “Yat pinde tad brahmande”. These four existences are termed as Vyashti, Samashti, Srishti and Parameshti. And Dharma is a string that binds or holds together and sustains all these four entities. It is a bridge that joins these four. When you build a house for your own use, it is no “dharma”, but when you build a house for others to live in, a “dharma shala” comes up.
When you make arrangements for your own health, it is no “dharma” but when you arrange for the health of others, then a “dharmarth” hospital is created. This “dharma takes the form of one’s duty as in “Rajdharma” or “Putradharma” but at the same time it gives the guarantee for the rights of the subjects and the parents respectively. Prajadharma connotes the duties of the subjects, but at the same time, guarantees the rights of the king. Thus “Dharma” is a mutual moral arrangement. “Dharma” is always in relation to something. It is a relative concept. It exists and sustains in relation to something. When it becomes the absolute concept, it gets the name of “Moksha.
How to bind an individual with society? It can be done through coercion also. But it is beyond the domain of “Dharma”; it may fall within the sphere of the State. Dharma enjoins voluntary relationship. This relationship is created by a sense of mutual respect. It is priceless, voluntary and ennobling. “Dharmashala” joins an individual with the society without coercion or compulsion. It denotes an individual’s concern and respect for the good of the society. In this way an individual serves the society and the society in turn raises the moral stature of the individual. The human society is required to show the same respect for the Nature (Srishti) of which it is a part. The Hindu Thought has raised this sense of respect to the highest pitch by calling it “Mother” (Matri) .The nature is not a lifeless, emotionless outsider. It is a living and as respectable and loving as a mother. Therefore the nature is Srishtimata. The earth is Bhoomata, the river is “lokamata”, the Cow is “Gomata”, the river Ganga is “Gangamata”, even the Tulsiplant is “Tulsimaiyya”. It is the prerogative of the human mind only, to think about such sacred relationship. There are many reptiles that eat their own offspring’s. There are many animals that are ignorant of the relation of the mother and child. Cows do have some sort of affection for their calves. But a calf when it grows into a bull, loses all intimations of mother or sister. It is the characteristic of the human mind alone that transforms even an inanimate thing into a vibrant living intimacy. Then the earth is not merely a conglomeration of sand and stones, but it becomes motherland, “matrbhumi , it becomes mother earth. Vishnupatnee and the seer says, “Vishnupatni namas tubhyam padasparsham kshamaswa me” (Oh, consort of Vishnu, I bow to thee. Please excuse me for treading on you). Because we have such an intimate Dharmic view towards the Nature, we never thought of exploitation of Nature. Our Hindu Thought never regarded that the man is the only centre of the universe and that the whole of the universe is for his enjoyment. Our attitude has been explained by the Bhagawad Geeta “ ‘Devan bhavayatanena te deva bhavayantu vah Parasparam bhavayantah shreyah paramavapsyatha (Ch 111, 11) (By this, foster ye the gods and let the gods foster you. Thus fostering each other you shall attain to the supreme good. ) This is the reason why there were no environmental problems in this land.
The Hindu thought, believes in the existence of the soul also. It is the primordial living principle. This principle as embodied in a human frame is the same that pervades the whole universe. The Shastras say, “Tat twam asi” (Thou art that). So aham ” (1 am that). In short, there is this intrinsic, intimate relationship. An individual is intimately connected with all the other three, viz society, nature and soul. His relationship with the soul or the spirit is the domain of religion. His relationship with all the three is the domain of Dharma. Therefore Dharma is a much, more broad a term than religion; and because it connects all these four with reverence and harmony, Dharma is called the ‘principle of universal harmony’.
By accepting this principle we do not become oblivious of the differences and the diversities in the universe. They are naturally there. But it is the Dharma that makes us conscious of inherent unity in the midst of diversity. Man has certain economic tendencies (Artha) .He has the sexual urges (Kama) .But these tendencies and urges, though natural, have to run within the limits of the Dharma. Just as a water of the river, when it flows within the limits of its banks is useful and benevolent, but when it transgresses these limits, as in the time of flood, it becomes destructive, so also the economic and the sexual urges of man have to run within the banks of the Dharma. Then alone they are benevolent; but once they transgress these limits, they lead to exploitation and permissiveness and become an ultimate curse to the very human existence.
Even the State should confirm to the Dharma principle. The Hindu Thought says that it should be “dharmarajya”. Dharmarajya is not a theocratic state. Hindus never envisaged a theocratic state. No Shankaracharya was allowed to become a king; and no king could become a “Shankaracharya”. It is elsewhere that we find an emperor of a country become a “Khalifa”; it is elsewhere that we find a Pope, a religious head meddling with the affairs of the state. To the Hindus, the state has always been secular, because it deals with the affairs of this world. The state is and has to be this worldly. The other worldly activities are outside the sphere of the state. It is religion’s domain. But the state must be attuned to the Dharma. Our Dharma is both this worldly and other worldly. Dharma is defined as “Yato abhyudaya nisshreyasa siddhih sa dharmah” .It means dharma is that which brings about this worldly prosperity as well as the final emancipation. All Hindu books on Dharmashastra deal with both these aspects of human life. More than half of the Manusmriti deals with secular topics, and yet it is called “manava dharma shastra” .The state will naturally have its primary law i.e., constitution. It all will have its physical laws that govern the activities of its people. But above all such laws, there is the Dharma. All laws, primary or secondary have to conform to the Dharma. Dharma is the ultimate reference point. The law of the Dharma is a moral law. All other laws must be in conformity with this ultimate moral law. Hence in a state of Hindu conception, the sovereignty rests, not with the “Parliament, nor with the people nor with the king. It rests with Dharma. Dharma alone is sovereign, and all others have to be attuned to it.
Dharma is the substratum of all of our social, economic and political institutions. Marriage is not a contract for the satisfaction of our carnal desires. It is a dharma, it is a “Sanskar, it is a duty and an obligation. Therefore there is a stress on preserving and sustaining a marriage. Dr. S. Radhakrishnan has rightly said, “that marriage is successful which transforms a chance mate into a life companion” .Therefore divorce is considered a weakness, a defeat. Our economic activities must be guided by Dharma. Only then there will be no exploitation. There is no conflict between the interests of an individual and society or between two classes of society. Therefore, Hindu Thought does not subscribe to class struggle. The worker and the employer must cooperate. That is the order of Dharma. To do good to others is Dharma. To cause pain to other is adharma.
In this broad sense, Hindu is a Dharma. The term “Hindu” has been acquired through History. Its qualitative epithet is “Sanatan” i.e. eternal. It was valid in the past, it is valid today and it will be valid in the future. That is the meaning of “Sanatana” .Just as there is an eternal aspect of Dharma, there is a practical and changing aspect also. It may change according to times. We wear some clothes in summer. They are changed in winter. This change is inevitable and we must accept it. To stick to the same methapher, we can say that wearing clothes is a Sanatana dharma. The quality and nature of clothes is Yugadharma i.e. dharma of the times. There is also an “apaddharma” i.e. dharma in exceptional circumstances. There is a pertinent story in the Upanishadas. Once there was a famine. People began to migrate from their place of residence. A Brahmin living in that village was also affected by famine, therefore he left his village and went to another village in search of food. But he was disappointed. While going out of that village, he saw an elephant guard, sitting under a tree, an elephant by his side, eating something from a cup of leaves. He was eating mustard seeds. The Brahmin asked him to give a few seeds. The elephant guard said, “Oh Brahmin, how can I give it to you. The seeds have been contaminated by my mouth” .The Brahmin said, “Whatever it is, I need them.” The elephant guard gave to the Brahmin the remnants of the mustard seeds. He had some water in an earthen jar. The guard put the jar to his mouth and drank it, after leaving a portion of it in the jar. When the Brahmin finished his eating, he requested the Brahmin to take the water in the jar. The Brahmin refused it, by saying that I don’t drink water contaminated by your mouth. The guard said, “Oh Brahmin, you could eat mustard seeds contaminated by my mouth, why are you refusing the water?” The Brahmin replied, “Had I not eaten the mustard seeds, I would have died of hunger. Now I have got some strength, I will go and find out water from a nearby stream.” Eating contaminated grain is an exception, an “apad dharma”. It cannot be a rule.
In short, Dharma is a principle of universal harmony. It creates harmony where there is natural dissension. The power of the State is effective only when it has the support of the Dharma. And in return, the Dharma gets its sustenance from the power of the state. As in the case of State, so in all spheres of human activity. Dharma is the cause of mutual benefits. We observe Dharma and thus Dharma is protected by us and in return Dharma protects us. Therefore, it is said that “Dharmo Rakshati Rakshitah.”
Sri M.G.Vaidya A prolific writer, an author of several books, Shree M. G. Vaidya was a former national executive member of RSS. He is a former editor of ‘Tarun Bharat’ Nagpur