Dharma is an often cited and even more often misunderstood term [1–3]. This is partially because there is no word in the occidental traditions or even some of the oriental ones that can describe this term. It is also because, in the case of Sanatan Dharma / Hinduism or even Buddhism, many of the texts have been lost or written over, as per the convenience and scholarship of generations of philosophers and writers, often at the expense of the meaning of ‘Dharma’ as it was originally conceived [4–8]. In this essay, titled ‘Dharmashrama’ (translates as `Refuge in Dharma’), I will be looking at textual evidences and other sources of information to support what can be seen as the original and true meaning of `Dharma’. In the process, I hope to (re)establish a key cornerstone of Sanatan Dharma as it was originally conceived, to an extent.
In Classical Sanskrit, dharma derives from the root dhṛ, which means “to hold, maintain, keep” [9–13].
That which upholds the natural laws and order of nature is Dharma.
To fully understand the import of this statement, one has to understand two fundamental ideas that hold the greatest value in Sanatan Dharma (or the ‘Eternal Way of safekeeping the Order of the Universe’; see how tough it is to translate this original name of Hinduism into English, haha?): Ṛta and Satya [10, 14–17]. While the former refers to the order of nature, which is fundamental to the way the universe is and how life emerges, the latter refers to the Absolute Truth that underlies this order of things.
That which helps in upholding Rta and Satya is Dharma.
The first question that would and should come to your mind is: what is this order of things? How does one organise life so as to comply with the aforementioned requirements of Dharma? There is a fair bit of subjectivity surely in doing this?
Yes and no!
In nature, there is an inherent duality in objects and phenomena: things are local and global, phenomena are transient and yet reality can be unchanging. The order of things or Rta lies in this duality, which transcends this transience. This duality connects to a multiplicity of realities, much like in quantum physics. There are many ways in which objects in nature could evolve and each of those ways are equally valid and allowed in nature. However, there is always a certain unchanging reality that is common to all these changes. This is usually the set of all properties of an object that is exclusive of the property that is changing in a process.
Dharma upholds the multiplicity of realities of existence.
This underlies the need to protect the freedom and `happiness’ of all aspects of an existing being or object. One thing, which I will discuss later, is that no freedom is absolute and when freedoms of two objects is in conflict, a sense of sacrifice is important to let go some space for this to happen, to maintain global harmony. This is why the importance of sacrifice is highlighted in no uncertain terms in Sanatan Dharma.
Satya on the other hand is more than just the truth of this order of nature. It is not a descriptive attribute of an existing object but rather is all of existenceitself. It is the truth in that existence existing and one that safekeeps the reflexive tendencies of all existence. By reflexive tendencies, I refer to what most people call `consciousness’. The sense of being able to realise the unity in all nature and interact with everything in the universe with that understanding. Every interaction is then equivalent to a `self-interaction’ of Satya (that one-ness, that unity, that Truth) and thereby a `self-awareness’. This is why meditation and self-realization is put forth as such key components even of contemporary Hinduism.
Dharma is that which upholds all of existence with its inherent reflexive tendencies.
Even as this definition is so loose, there are some key aspects of social behavior that helps maintain Dharma in society and with respect to nature. Buddha, Jesus, Krishna, Rama, Zarathuster, Abraham, Patanjali and Moses all highlighted certain rules for this. At the end of the day, each of them encapsulated some key points in their rules, which I would try to extract, not by borrowing directly from these rules but by trying to synthesise and evolve the truth therein. There are three major sections in this: those that relate to Ethos, Sustainability and Universality.
There are some key ideas that are universal across major religious orders and belief-systems, and which were all encapsulated in the Vedic order and Sanatan Dharma. The key question is whether, much like most religions and modern belief-sets, one needs `rules of Dharma’. I would argue that one does not. All one needs is to understand, truly realize and internalize some important aspects of Dharma.
“Morality” comes from the Latin moralis, the word used by Cicero to translate the Greek êthos. The Latin word refers more properly to the habits and customs of a people, while the Greek one is related to the idea of character. So “morality” is concerned with people’s characters and how we interact with each other in society. Even though this idea sets a way to define rules for the same, the Greek and Roman version that relied on ethos is better to truly make a case for harmony in society (particularly since no one rule can cut across all nations and people necessarily). Before moving on to define these, there are two things that are very important to remember: firstly, human beings are never evolving in isolation and it is a mix of factors related to nature and society that fundamentally defines this evolution, and hence any school of ethics should make the safekeeping of consideration for nature and society (as is fundamental to Dharma anyway); secondly, one has to use one’s reasoningto see how one can temper natural instincts for harmony in society. This can be done with two things: observances and restraints.
While going over the various rules on this in various religions, besides the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one thing was crystal clear: all of the very many rules and directives can be encapsulated in the idea that Dharma is that which upholds all of existence and respects the multiplicity of realities in existence. This includes ideas of dignity, liberty, equality, brotherhood, right to life, charity, talking (that should be gentle and kind) with good intention, compassion, inclination towards non-violence, excessive expectations, abstaining from impure thoughts (that involves, say, arrogance or jealousy or pride) and contentment in one’s means. It also includes spiritual, public, and political freedoms, such as freedom of thought, opinion, religion and conscience, word, and peaceful association of the individual. It is amazing how all of this can be put into just one statement and if one were to truly realise the import and meaning of this statement, all these points can emerge from it naturally.
This statement also means that if there is anything that threatens Rta and Satya, the harmony of nature and society, measures must be taken to restrict the presence and influence of such an entity. Ideally, this should be by the rule of law but in case it is a case where one must act, say, in self-defence, one must do so.
One of the most important aspects of the order and truth of nature and society is the idea of sustainability. That which is sustainable is best for existence and the order of the Universe. This idea is also fundamentally encapsulated in the idea that Dharma upholds Satya. Satya, being all of existence and realities therein, has a certain unity in its conception and realisation as the one Absolute Truth. This unity naturally leads to the idea of sustainable development, since everything is connected to everything else. All 17 Sustainable Development Goals are encapsulated in the conception of Dharma. In this list I have made minor Dharmic modifications and added a few points.
(a) End poverty in all spheres of life. This includes social discrimination and lack of education and healthcare. The Shatapatha Brahmana (126.96.36.199) links social prosperity and dharma by stating that prosperity enables people to follow Dharma in their lives. In times of distress, of destitution, of drought, of poverty, everything suffers including relations between human beings and the human ability to live according to dharma, since survival is the greatest need of the hour then. Hence there is a great need to ensure that one of the four Purushartha (objectives) of life is Artha — capital and prosperity, alongwith Dharma, Kama (desire) and Moksha (salvation). Each of the Purushartha is dependent on the other and hence ending poverty is fundamental to the idea of attainment of Dharma.
(b) End hunger and obesity. Going by the inherent duality of nature, we must approach this problem with an eye on the two extremes and try to balance it out. Here, I would like to add dimensions to the conception of hunger to the previous point of poverty and capital. In the Vedic texts, the idea of Artha goes beyond just capital. As a concept, it has multiple meanings, all of which imply `means of life’. It implies activities and resources that enable one to be in a state one wants to be in, a state that is aligned with the higher aims of Dharma. On the other end is excess, which needs to be restricted too. It is important that inequality does not keep on increasing but this must not be enforced beyond a point, in an ideal society. Rather a culture of sacrifice and charity needs to be instilled so that people give themselves to the needy.
© End senseless consumerism and ensure sustainable production patterns. Nowadays families have two cars when one would suffice, even after knowing that roads are getting increasingly crowded and more cars can only add to the energy and pollution crisis. This is just one of many instances of senseless and insensitive consumerism. This is in no way a jab at capitalism or market forces but rather the natural tendencies of man. As per the Dharmic tradition, if one looks at the transience of human life, one must weigh what comes of embellishing that, important as it is, against the greater good of society, nature and our planet. All this comes from greed and avarice, and without check, much like anger and lust, this primal instinct can be devastating. The famous R’s: Recycle, Reuse, Reduce and Refuse should be remembered and eco-friendly production patterns must be promoted.
(d) Ensure healthy lives and promote welfare of all at all ages. This not only includes quality basic healthcare for all, free of cost, but also awareness-building of healthcare and welfare, besides welfare of animals and plants. The word Dharma comes from a term that means `to uphold, to sustain’. At the individual level this is not possible without being healthy. At the community level, it refers to the need for cleanliness and hygiene in society. Pollution needs to be checked and technology actively developed for the same. Some may ask whether any act of pollution is also not a natural activity of a part of the greater Truth. No. Firstly, it is not `natural’ and secondly, it is too much of a pressure for other aspects of that Truth (ecosystems in nature, for instance) to cope and adapt to.
(e) Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for everyone. Basic comprehensive education needs to be provided to all students irrespective of social identities and communities they belong to. Quality of education should be improved and talents of students must be identified and must inform their choice of careers. According to the Rig-Veda, education is something which makes a man self-reliant and selfless, which effectively liberates and makes one aware of universal truths and ideas.
(f) Ensure that there is gender equality and empower all members of society with varied sexes and sexual orientations. In the Upanishads and Puranic texts, there are cases of both women empowerment and discrimination. Given that the divine Feminine, in her various forms, be it as Adi Shakti or Prakriti, has such an important place in Sanatan Dharma, there should be no doubt about the esteemed place women have in it. A natural order would have men and women equally empowered to create a synergy as they move ahead. That is key to human society and its progress. Also, members of society with other sexual orientations and sexes need to be accepted as they are and their views and interests must be respected.
(g) Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and air and sanitation for all. In the Vedas, all components of Nature are said to be interrelated and interdependent. All elements of Nature and origins of natural resources and life-forms (including plants and trees) are given due respect in the Vedic hymns as manifestations and reflections of the divine creation — thus emphasizing the significance of each. Water and air are the basic requirements of any living being, and ensuring that drinking water and clean air is available to all humans is a must, as a result, in the Dharmic tradition. If either water-bodies or the air in a city has a high (and harmful) amount of certain pollutants, every effort must be taken to correct the same. Also, even though open defecation is a major health problem, the contribution to nature in terms of manure that human faeces can be should be considered, potentially in a hybrid model, as in the case of the revolutionary idea put forth by the EAWAG: Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology.
(h) Ensure access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy for all. This is particularly important since the dual purposes of effectively carrying out the tasks of individual lives and in society, along with a sense of responsibility towards nature, is safekept in this idea. A massive move to renewable energy is required in contemporary times, given realities of climate change and global warming. Be it solar, hydro or nuclear energy, the pressures on nature from using fossil fuels has to be reduced. More efforts should be made to come up with novel technology and methods to do so.
(i) Ensure that there is sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all. This is one of the most important points since the Dharmic tradition believes in Karmayoga and despises and denounces lack of work. Modern welfare states often provide able-bodied men facilities without seeking that they contribute to society with a respectable employment. Some would argue that they may not get respectable employment. I agree, and feel that welfare states should remain for weaker sections of society like orphans, abandoned elders, etc (as should support to developing countries such as in the form of the Enhanced Integrated Framework for Trade-Related Technical Assistance to Least Developed Countriesas a tool for achieving sustainable economic development). But the governments should ensure that everyone who can work must work. This could initially done with a token contribution for gaining access to various facilities in society, before moving to a culture that naturally promotes the idea of work and the dignity in labour. Innovation, entrepreneurship and infrastructure building must go along with help provided to small-scale business that should be encouraged to go glocal (global in outlook, local in realization) with management and technical support given wherever required.
(j) Ensure the building of resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation and altruism. Since manufacturing is a major source of employment, this should be supported. This has to go hand-in-hand with innovation and infrastructure-building. An important Dharmic component is the collaboration that this sector should have with the intellectuals, scientists and engineers, besides administrators and workers, as in the conception of Varnashrama (a point to remember here is that this is fundamentally different from the more rigid Jati-based caste system). A spirit of altruism must also be instilled in industrial powerhouses so that they can contribute to society in the form of initiatives such as those under corporate social responsibility.
(k) End income inequality within and among countries. Measures should be taken so as to developing countries get the benefit of international trade. Positive reinforcement measures should be put in place for members of society who belong to economically backward families. In the Dharmictradition, one calls for building a culture of giving and natural redistribution, out of one’s own volition. This model, though benevolent, does not tackle the natural aversion of certain human beings from doing so. Financial independence and initiatives like those involving micro-credit should be promoted to make communities independent and resilient in their handling of finances and resources. Two very important things in the Dharmic traditions are those of contentment and sacrifice and charity. While the latter is noble and helpful, the former is easier said than done. We must take the dual approach of seeking people to move towards a model of contentment along with external facilitators like the provision of basic amenities and facilities at free or economical prices. Both have to go hand-in-hand to bring a feeling of equality, over and above the realisation of equality in every way, in human society, in the short and long terms. Equality of opportunities at the very basic, fundamental level is a very important aspect of a harmonious and prosperous society.
(l) Ensure that all human settlements are inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. In the Rig Veda, in one of the Atri hymns (5.72.2ab), the Gods Mitra and Varuna are said to, by their very foundation (`Dharmana’), give peaceful settlements that endure (`dhruvaksema’). Thus the relation between Dharma and sustainable human settlements has been outlined in the earliest of scriptures in Sanatana Dharma, over and above the discourse on the various Gods. In contemporary times, new settlements in various places should consider the resources, existing population and human resource index of an area. Ideally there should be no restriction on movement and settlement, given the availability of residence and acceptance by a community in the place where relocation is sought. However, given actual constraints, one must try to create affordable housing solutions for all sections of society within countries at various places, so that people do not move in large masses towards areas with good housing and resources, which can only encumber the resources of that region. Optimisation of land is an absolute must since land is a limited asset in the world. One must ensure that even with families, the settlement is resilient. Measures like family planning and expansion based on available resources need to be supported. Social and natural spaces must be created with green-zones in every settlement.
(m) Ensure that action is taken to combat climate change. In Dharmic traditions, we are said to have a debt to our surrounding environs and to nature, since they play an important role in our evolution as individual. Corporates and governments, alike, must be encouraged to adopt practises that can reduce the climate change crisis. Even though it relates to malpractices of individual industries at times, a more comprehensive program needs to be put forth and a partnership between governmental and private entities is conducive to this form glocal (global+local, or national+regional in case of a country) approach to the problem. Every industry or government should have a strategy cell that can analyse which production techniques and patterns can lead to lesser harm to the environment, and this study can be used actively by all industrial and commercial projects. A point to note here is that since every region and industry will have idiosyncratic characteristics, the independence of these cells means that the solutions given will be customized to the industry and region, as is expected and needed.
(n) Ensure the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development. In the Dharmic traditions, such bodies are elevated to the status of `Gods’ for the simple reason that their sustenance and welfare is an absolute must for mankind to thrive. Following from the previous point of indebtedness to environs, it is important to look into the safekeeping of marine life and bodies. Plastic garbage, oil spills and harmful effluents all affect these bodies. Technology, innovation and careful strategy must be used to optimally use these marine bodies, without harming them. One can use innovative solutions like the use of enzymes for degrading plastic bottles, as formulated by Austin et al .
(o) Ensure the protection, restoration and promotion of sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainable management of forests, combating of desertification, and halting and reversal of land degradation and halting of biodiversity loss. The seers of the Rig Veda speak on behalf of earth for its principle of replenishment “You give me and I give you”. They look at every entity of Nature with the eyes of a friend and sympathiser when they say, “Mitrasyaaham chakshushaa sarvaani bhootaani sameekshe.” In contemporary times, we must define targets for preserving biodiversity of forest, desert, and mountain eco-systems, as a percentage of total land mass. Achieving a `land degradation-neutral world’ can be reached by restoring degraded forests and land lost to drought and flood. Natural corridors near industrial, commercial and urban corridors and pockets must be promoted. The flora and fauna are fundamentally important to a forest ecosystem, and hence harm to these must be punishable under law in a strict way.
(p) Ensure the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provision of access to justice for all and building of effective, accountable and inclusive institutions for administration and dispensation of justice at all levels. Dharma, by nature, underlies the call for a practical integral humanism. In ancient Indian Society, Law and Dharma were not distinct. In ancient texts such as Dharma Sastras, Smrities and Arthasastra, the concept of justice was equated to Dharma. Rules of Dharma have never been alterable according to the whims and fancies of politicians, monarchs, administrators and policy-makers, and it was always made clear that it was essential that the exercise of political power must be in conformity with Dharma — an essential aspect of governance in the Dharmic traditions. In contemporary times, reducing violent crime, trafficking, forced labor, and child abuse are much needed, as are stronger legal systems. Power should be decentralised to regional and state units with empowered legislature, judiciary and executive branches. Federalisation is a key step towards true democracy. This not only helps with administration that closely understands the unique problems of the area but also dispenses with solutions quicker than other alternatives. The voice of the civil society must also be reinforced and given a place in the political, socio-economic and cultural domains.
(q) Ensure the strengthening of the means of implementation and revitalisation of the global partnership for sustainable development. International cooperation is important in the Dharmic tradition. `Vasudeva Kutumbakam’ or ‘All World is our Family’ is an important message in Sanatan Dharma. Cooperation at the international level is important since most of the issues that these questions of sustainability deal with are on the global scale. Developing multi-stakeholder partnerships to share knowledge, expertise, technology, and financial support is seen as very important to the overall success of these rules of sustainability.
These rules of sustainability build on the traditional Dharmic elements of holistic development of the individual and society, and also adapt to our times and problems.
One of the key ideas of Sanatan Dharma is that of `consciousness’, the idea of reflexive tendencies . Of the correlation between evolution and adaptations based on the need of the hour, if need be. This element of Dharma is encapsulated in the way in which some of these universal rules of Dharma must evolve with time, as must the rules and laws of any potent and yet sensitive body of theology, politics or philosophy. Dharma has this idea inbuilt in its message of universality and unity. In today’s age, this can only be realized by international bodies such as the United Nations, which can analyse the realities of the world and decide on short- and long-term strategies to tackle these. The important point here is to safekeep the Dharmic tradition of duality where even though there is a guideline for what to do and possibly how to do it, there must be space and freedom to devise and customize solutions to local problems and factors. This tendency of local adaptation, after all, is the basis of evolution in nature itself. Since the scope of these revisions is so wide, the only thing to always remember is the fundamental definition of Dharma, mentioned above, and must be ascertained with the use of reasoning and a position of compassion and social unity.
In terms of spirituality and theology, Dharmic traditions leads us to approach the question of Godhead and universality from a position of empathy and compassion and the simple question posed to the tendency of the `other-ing’ of sections of humankind based on the fact that they do not belong to your religion or order. Which God-head would ever deprive any of his/her children to such discrimination, and that too based on what are primarily human customs of rituals and belief-systems. Sanatan Dharma talks about various schools of philosophy and beliefs and the use of whichever suits one best to reach the Truth. There is even a nastika school of thought within Sanatan Dharma. This very liberal and tolerant nature of Sanatan Dharma has made it survive largely intact in its spirit for over three millenia now.
I hope that this modern reassessment and adaptation of the concept of Dharma, as a universal idea built on the triad of ethos, sustainability and universality, and the connections drawn to the very core of Sanatan Dharma, will stand the test of time.
(This article has been published in the Social Sciences Research Network as a research paper  and has been published on YKA for putting forward the ideas therein to my good YKA readership)
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