The word dharma has many meanings. In India from ancient times the word Dharma has been used in various senses. At the very onset we must understand that what is known as “Religion” in the west or “Mazhab”/ “Deen” in Islamic culture, is not the same as Dharma.
The dharma of water is to flow. However it is meaningless to say that the “religion” or “deen” of water is to flow. Not only is “dharma” translated as religion, sometimes it is also translated as “duty”. Like “religion”, “duty” cannot explain dharma. To say that the duty of water is to flow is meaningless. In English language, the word duty is applicable to people with thinking abilities and to beings with intellect.
Noted Indologist Shri Rajiv Malhotra often says that to understand our dharma we must use Indic categories and not take recourse to western categories. Instead of asking what dharma is, we should therefore ask what the signs and aims of dharma are.
The word dharma is derived from the root धृ meaning to uphold. That which upholds is known as Dharma. In Mahabharata, on being asked the purport of Dharma by Yudhishthira, Bhishma replies: It is most difficult to define Dharma. Dharma has been explained to be that which helps in the upliftment of living beings. Therefore, that which ensures the welfare of living beings is surely Dharma. The learned rishis have declared that which sustains is Dharma.
Dharma helps in the welfare of man and in achieving societal-harmony. Bhishma explains this to Yudhishthira in Karna-Parva of Mahabharata: Dharma sustains the society. Dharma maintains the social order. Dharma ensures wellbeing and progress of humanity. Dharma is surely that which fulfills these objectives.
In Shrimad Bhagavad it is said: The rules are dharma are made thus to enable smooth functioning of this world. But following it will give you lot of happiness not only in this world, but also the afterlife.
In Mahabharata Shanti-Parva it is said: Truthfulness, to be free from anger, sharing wealth with others, forgiveness, procreation of children from one’s wife alone, purity, absence of enmity, straightforwardness and maintaining persons dependent on oneself are the nine rules of the Dharma of persons belonging to all the Varna’s.
In Manusmriti, the great rishi Manu explains the ten signs of Dharma as patience, forgiveness, piety or self-control, honesty, sanctity, sense-control, reason, knowledge or learning, truthfulness and absence of anger.
According to Yajnavalkya, the nine signs of Dharma are non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, and purity, control of senses, giving, self-control, forgiveness and compassion.
From these definitions it is clear that dharma provides us solutions to problems in our everyday practical life. Dharma is based on reasoning, logic and rules. From dharma, one can discern what is to be done and what is not. Ideas like non-anger, speaking the truth, forgiving-nature, simple living etc. must be imbibed by everybody. This helps us understand what the right path is and what is not. Dharma thus gives us guidance on what is acceptable behavior and what is not. Dharma is not based on any illogical premise.
Hinduism has all these signs and aims. Jainism and Buddhism have many of the above mentioned signs and aims. Thus Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism may be considered dharma.
Religion and God
Religion is a western construct based on Abrahamic theology. Religion is not dharma. There are three main Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Islam and Judaism. A religion has three main components:
- One and only God
- One and only one Prophet who alone can hear and transmit God’s message
- One Holy Book where God’s and messenger’s magical life stories are recorded
As per Abrahamic theology, there can only be One God. Hence religion is by default monotheistic.
- As per Koran: There is no god but Allah. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.
- As per Bible: I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me.
Followers of Abrahamic theology, believe in two separate realities – a Creator (God) and his creation (the universe). God is a male human like figure. God has strong likes and dislikes. God has no mercy for those who don’t believe in Him (an atheist). Such people are destined to eternally burn in Hell – such has God proclaimed through his Prophet or Son.
Obviously God can in no way be considered same as Hindu devas and devis. In the subsequent articles, we would look into these issues in more depth.
Jois, R. (2016, December 4). Dharma The Global Ethic. Retrieved from VHP America: http://www.vhp-america.org/dynamic_includes/ebooks/DHARMA_Ram_Jois.pdf
Malhotra, R. (2011). Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism. Delhi: HarperCollins Publishers India.
Singh, A., & Natarajan, S. (2013, September). Sanskrit Non Translatables. Retrieved from Rajiv Malhotra: http://rajivmalhotra.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/SanskritNonTranslatables.pdf
Wirth, M. (2013, June 27). Difference between Hinduism and Christianity/Islam. Retrieved from Maria Wirth: https://mariawirthblog.wordpress.com/2013/06/27/is-hinduism-a-religion/
 See (Malhotra, 2011)
 (Singh & Natarajan, 2013)
 to hold, to bear, to support
 (Jois, 2016)
 (Jois, 2016)
 श्रीमद्भागवत् १२-२५९-४, ५
 शान्ति पर्व 60-7,8
 मनुस्मृति ६.९२
 याज्ञवल्क्यस्मृति १.१२२
 … A “God” who is personal, male, separate from his creation and with strong likes and dislikes. For example, this God, so is claimed, greatly dislikes any human being who does not acknowledge him as the only true God. In fact he even has decreed that any such human being will burn eternally in hell, unless he officially (through a small ritual) joins the ‘true religion’. Now, how do these religions know what God is and what he wants? Because God/ Allah has revealed ‘the truth’ to two persons – to Jesus Christ some 2000 years ago and Prophet Mohammed some 1400 years ago, and these revelations have been handed down in two books, the Bible and the Quran. And what is the proof that all this is true? There is no proof, except for the words of those two persons who are, however, not ordinary persons: Jesus Christi is the only son of God and Prophet Mohammed Allah’s final prophet.
 lā ʾilāha ʾillā-llāh, muḥammadur-rasūlu-llāh (Shahahda)
 Isaiah 46:9
 “As to those who reject faith, I will punish them with terrible agony in this world and in the Hereafter, nor will they have anyone to help.” Quran (3:56)
 Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works. John 1:9-11