Dharma 101

Dharma About this sound listen (help·info) (Sanskritधर्म dhármaPali: धम्म dhamma; lit. that which upholds, supports or maintains the regulatory order of the universe[1]) means Law or Natural Law and is a concept of central importance in Indian philosophy and religion. As well as referring to Law in the universal or abstract sense dharma designates those behaviours considered necessary for the maintenance of the natural order of things.[2] Therefore dharma may encompass ideas such as duty,[3] vocation, religion and everything that is considered correct, proper or decent behaviour. The idea of dharma as duty or propriety derives from an idea found in India’s ancient legal and religious texts that there is a divinely instituted natural order of things (rta) and justice, social harmony and human happiness require that human beings discern and live in a manner appropriate to the requirements of that order. According to the various Indian religions, such as HinduismJainismBuddhism, and Sikhism, beings that live in accordance with dharma proceed more quickly toward dharma yukammoksha or nirvana (personal liberation). The antonym of dharma is adharma, meaning unnatural or immoral.

In traditional Hindu societydharma has historically denoted a variety of ideas, such as Vedic ritual, ethical conduct, caste rules, and civil and criminal law. Its most common meaning pertains to two principal ideals; that social life should be structured through well-defined and well-regulated classes (varna), and that an individual’s life within a class should be organized into defined stages (ashrama,see dharmasastra).[4] A Hindu‘s dharma is affected by the person’s age, caste, class, occupation, and gender.[5]

In modern Indian languages it can refer simply to a person’s religion, depending on the context. Dharma also refers to the teachings and doctrines of the founders of Buddhism and Jainismthe Buddhaand Mahavira.

In Buddhist philosophydhamma/dharma is also the term for “phenomenon“.[6]


Through the four ashramas, or stages of life (BrahmacharyaGrihasthaVaanprasthaSanyaasa), a person also seeks to fulfill the four essentials (puruṣārtha) of kama (sensual pleasures), artha(worldly gain), dharma, 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 considered primary only during Grihastha. Dharma, however is essential in all four stages. As a puruṣārtha (human goal), dharma can also be considered to be a lens through which humans plan and perform their interactions with the world. Through the dharmic lens, one focuses on doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong, while the kama perspective focuses on doing what is pleasurable (in many senses, not just sex) and avoiding pain, and the artha perspective focuses on doing what is profitable (in many senses, not just money) and avoiding loss.

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 HeraclitanStoic or Christian conceptions of the logos.

This “power” that lies behind nature and that keeps everything in balance became a natural forerunner to the idea of dharma. The idea of rta laid the cornerstone of dharma’s implicit attribution to the “ultimate reality” of the surrounding universe, in classical Vedic Hinduism the following verse from the Rig-Veda is an example where rta is mentioned:

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 MahabharataKrishna defines dharma as,

“Dhaaranaad dharma ity aahur dharmena vidhrtaah prajaah, Yat syaad dhaarana sanyuktam sa dharma iti nishchayah,”


Dharma upholds both this-worldly and other-worldly affairs
—(Mbh 12.110.11).

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  in Mandarin, beop in Korean,  in Japanese, and pháp in Vietnamese. However, the term dharma can also be transliterated from its original form.

[edit]Buddha’s teachings

For practicing Buddhists, references to “dharma” (dhamma in Pali) particularly as “the Dharma”, generally means the teachings of the Buddha, commonly known throughout the East as Buddha-Dharma.

The status of Dharma is regarded variably by different Buddhist traditions. Some regard it as an ultimate truth, or as the fount of all things which lies beyond the “three realms” (Sanskrit: tridhatu) and the “wheel of becoming” (Sanskrit: bhavacakra), somewhat like the pagan Greek and Christian logos: this is known as Dharmakaya (Sanskrit). Others, who regard the Buddha as simply an enlightened human being, see the Dharma as the essence of the “84,000 different aspects of the teaching” (Tibetan: chos-sgo brgyad-khri bzhi strong) that the Buddha gave to various types of people, based upon their individual propensities and capabilities.

Dharma 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 to expand upon the Buddha’s teachings. For others still, they see the Dharma as referring to the “truth,” or the ultimate reality of “the way that things really are” (Tib. Cho).

The Dharma is one of the Three Jewels of Buddhism in which practitioners of Buddhism seek refuge, or that upon which one relies for his or her lasting happiness. The Three Jewels of Buddhism are theBuddha, meaning the mind’s perfection of enlightenment, the Dharma, meaning the teachings and the methods of the Buddha, and the Sangha, meaning those awakened beings who provide guidance and support to followers of the Buddha.

[edit]Qualities of Buddha Dharma

The Teaching of the Buddha also has six supreme qualities:

  1. Svakkhato (Pali). 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, the only end that could result through fate. (Pańña — Wisdom).
  2. Sanditthiko (Pali). 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 (Pali). The Dharma is able to bestow timeless and immediate results here and now, through no matter which means of travel, for which there is no need to wait until the future or next existence.
  4. Ehipassiko (Pali). The Dharma welcomes all beings to put it to the test and to experience it for themselves.
  5. Opāneyiko (Pali). 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 viññūhi (Pali). The Dharma may be perfectly realized only by the noble disciples (Pali: ariyas) who have matured and who have become enlightened in supreme wisdom.

Knowing these attributes, Buddhists hold that they will attain the greatest peace and happiness through the practice of Dharma. Each person is therefore fully responsible to engage in their own practice and commitment.

[edit]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 Abhidharmaphilosophers enumerated lists of dharmas which varied by school. They came to propound that these “constituent factors” are the only type of entity that truly exists (and only some thinkers gave dharmas this kind of existence). 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.

  1. Dukkha – Suffering or unsatisfactoriness (Pali: Dukkha)
  2. Anitya – Change/Impermanence (Pali: Anicca)
  3. Anatman – Not-Self (Pali: Annatta)

At the heart of Buddhism is the understanding of all phenomena as dependently originated.