What is Dharma?

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The concept of Dharma originated from the doctrine of Hinduism, and is generally used to refer to the holder of cosmic order. Dharma comes from the Sanskrit word “Dhr,” whose meaning is to hold or support. In classical Hinduism, the concept and importance of Dharma can be explained by three primary texts, namely the Ramayana, Manu Dharmasmrti, and Mahabharata.

The English translation of this term can mean law, order, duty, righteousness, principles, obligation, and ethics. However, for Hindus, the concept of Dharma is regarded as the guidelines that a person can follow in living life. In classic Hinduism, there is no universal set of principles which is applicable for all kinds of individuals. The set of Dharmic morals depends on the Varna-Asrama-Dharma of the person, wherein the Varna refers to the levels of society or social classes and the Asrama refers to the stages of life.

The four Varnas that comprise the Hindu society are the Brahmin (priests), Ksatriya (warriors), Vaisya (common folk), and Sudra (servants). For instance, the Dharma of the Brahmin involves the preservation of knowledge and the truth, while Ksatriya’s Dharma involves the safekeeping of lawfulness.

Just like the Varnas, there are also four Asramas or stages of life. The Student’s objective would be to live a celibate life and gain knowledge about the Vedas, while the Householder’s goal involves reproduction and saving up of wealth. The objectives in the Householder Asrama are also called Kama and Artha, respectively. For the third Asrama called Retiree (forest dweller), there are no real objectives because the family lineage has already been established and the debts have already been repaid. Lastly, the fourth stage of life called Renunciant involves aiming for freedom from the attachments that trap the individual in the cycle of rebirth. This liberation is also called Moksa in Classical Hinduism.