What is eternal dharma?


कथं धर्मे स्थातुमिच्छन्नरॊ वर्तेत भारत |

 किं स्विद् धर्म्यं सनातनम् |

How should a person who wants to practice dharma behave?

What is eternal dharma?

[Mahābhārata 12.110; my own translation]

These are some of the questions that Yudhiṣṭhira asks Bhiṣma in the Śānti Parvan of the Mahābhārata.  Indeed, dharma has been a pervasive concept in Hindu thought and Indian philosophy generally, during the time of the Rig Veda and in every subsequent period right up to the present.  Primarily an ethical concept, it is also an ontological concept in some branches of philosophy.  In this video I will provide a rapid walk through the history of the term dharma over the last few millennia.  In later videos I will drill down into how the concept of dharma has been expressed, debated and problematized in works of dharmaśāstra, literature, philosophy, art and so on.

The concept of dharma is of course already present in the Rig Veda, where it appears at least 63 times.  It has the sense of a ‘foundation’ in two related senses.  Firstly, ‘dharma’ may refer to a physical or metaphysical foundation for the entire universe.  Secondly, ‘dharma’ may be a normative foundation of divine or supernatural authority for the moral, social and ritual order of society.  It concerns our obligations before the gods, whether to engage in ritual or to engage in moral behaviour with respect to each other.

In this latter sense, we encounter dharma in verses such as the following –

मि॒त्रावरु॑णवन्ता उ॒त धर्म॑वन्ता म॒रुत्व॑न्ता जरि॒तुर्ग॑च्छथो॒ हव॑म् ।

स॒जोष॑सा उ॒षसा॒ सूर्ये॑ण चादि॒त्यैर्या॑तमश्विना ॥ ८.०३५.१३

“You two (Nāsatyas) come to the singer’s call, accompanied by Mitra and Varuṇa, accompanied by Dharma, accompanied by the Maruts.”

[Rig Veda 8.35.13ab of Ṛṣi Śyāvāśvaḥ; translation by Prof. Paul Thieme]

Dharma is here an ethical concept as are the other deities present in this verse.  As Prof. Paul Thieme explains, by invoking the Nāsatyas,

“the poet adds the more general concept of ‘ethical Establishment, Lawfulness’ (Dharma) to the divinized concept ‘Contract, Treaty’ (Mitra) and ‘True Speech’ (Varuṇa), and, instead of naming Indra himself, speaks of Indra’s companions in battle, the Maruts.”

This normative concept of dharma in the Rig Veda is closely related to the older concept of rta, from which it represents a natural evolution.  As Dr. Rachana Bhangaokar explains –

“drawing from the root word “rta”, Dharma in the Rigveda meant both religious rituals and something that nourished and sustained everything else.  Rta represented the natural order of the cosmos, where everything in the universe follows a specific course.  It also meant a moral order which includes the results of following the path of truth.  Thus rta as a concept included both physical and moral harmony. … Gradually, the term rta was replaced by the exclusive use of the word Dharma, which then encompassed what rta represented.  Finally, Dharma became ideal conduct that had to be followed for human beings to become spiritually perfect.”

The figure of Rāma in the Rāmāyana exemplifies such an ideal of human behaviour, at least according to what we are told in the Sāhitya-darpaṇa.  By contrast, however, the concept of dharma take on a more strange and disturbing aspect in the Mahābhārata.  Thus, as Dr. Bhangaokar also explains –

“Dharma in the Mahabharata is constantly problematized and deconstructed, exposing the unavoidable turbulence of moral life”

A great example of this is the well-known ‘game of dice’ episode where Yudhiṣṭhira gambles and loses to the Kauravas first all the wealth of the five Pāṇḍava brothers and their single wife Draupadī and then even their lives.  The episode leads to an attempt by Duḥśāsana to unclothe Draupadī, only thwarted by a miraculous intervention brought about by Krishna.  Draupadī is reclothed as fast as Duḥśāsana unclothes her, as illustrated in this painting by the famous 18-century artist Nainsukh.  The discussion that is provoked by Draupadī when this game reaches its conclusion revolves around the concept of dharma and whether or not dharma has been transgressed.

Time and again in this discussion, these speakers remind us, dharma is subtle and not easily formulated in terms of rules and laws.  Nevertheless, we are told, we have an overriding duty to engage in careful moral deliberation and discussion, to exercise our moral judgment to our best ability, and to speak out about what is right without fear or favour.  Indeed, the many discussions of dharma in the Mahābhārata are rich and sophisticated, and go far beyond simplistic ideas about some kind of supernatural carrot-and-stick mechanism.  Thus Prof. Emily Hudson explains –

“the epic’s answer to the problem of suffering … is not the direct or literal kind of answer that conceptual categories such as karma or fate would provide.  Instead, the text’s strategies of rupture create a cognitive space in the sensitive reader/ spectator where a revelation of the tragic structure of existence may take place  … the epic’s aesthetic of suffering is attempting to reorient the sensitive reader/ receiver toward a notion of dharma that is divested of the idea of rewards (heaven is the ultimate reward according to the logic of dharma in the first sense) as well as stripped of the notion that dharma would, or could, provide protection from suffering”

The concept of dharma was a central concept in the dharmasūtras and dharmaśāstras too. It is true that most of the details of these texts concern the ritual and religious duties of Brahmins as well as the social duties of various castes.  Nevertheless, there is an  awareness of an overarching ethical framework too.  As Prof. P.V. Kane explains regarding the dharmaśāstras –

“in the scale of values mere performance of sacrifices and purificatory and other religious ceremonies ranked according to Gautama and other writers very low and the highest value attached to the moral qualities of the soul … there is always insistence on the necessity to satisfy the inner man (āntara-puruṣa) or conscience.”

Dharma also continued to be a key term during the period of the philosophical systems.  The Vaiśeṣika Sūtra begins with the words –

“So now, dharma will be explained.  That due to which true knowledge and liberation are obtained is dharma.  The sacred tradition is authoritative because it expresses that.”

[Vaiśeṣika Sūtra 1-3; my own translation following the gloss of Praśastapāda]

In later works of the Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika philosophical systems, ‘dharma’ is increasingly used as a technical term of art, meaning any of the various abstract properties everything has which makes it that type of thing or indeed that particular thing.

By contrast, the Mīmāṃsā Sūtra defines dharma as –

“Dharma has the defining characteristic of guiding actions”

[Mīmāṃsā Sūtra 1-1-2; my own translation]

For the Mīmāṃsā philosophers, the injunctions of the Veda provide a paradigm of statements that prompt actions that are aligned with dharma.

The concept of dharma has always been symbolised by the dharmacakra or wheel of dharma, used in Hinduism and Buddhism to represent sovereignty, dharma and saṃsara (phenomenal existence).  As such, it is not surprising that it was used by the Buddhist King Aśoka as the symbol of his rule, perhaps drawing on its resonance more specifically as the wheel of the teaching of the Buddha. 

The wheel became significant in a quite different form during the Indian Independence struggle,  in the shape of the spinning wheel, when Mahatma Gandhi made spinning a vehicle of India’s economic self-assertion.  Significantly, Gandhi compared the spinning wheel to the Sudarshan Chakra and the Kāmadhenu rather than the Dharmacakra.

Indeed, the flag of the Indian National Congress, a precursor to the modern Indian flag, featured the spinning wheel (or charkhā) as its centrepiece, and this is certainly one dimension of the symbolism present in the modern flag, which also has the symbolism of a dharmacakra.

Some of the questions about dharma posed by Yudhiṣṭhira in the Mahābhārata were quoted at the start of this video.  We may end with a section of Bhiṣma’s response –

This type of question is very difficult to answer

It is difficult to explicate by logic [tarka].  It is discerned as follows.

Dharma was propounded for the dignity of living beings

What is certain is that dharma is anything connected with non-violence

Dharma was propounded for non-violence among living beings

It is called dharma because it supports; all creatures are maintained by dharma

What is certain is that dharma is anything connected with giving support

[Mahābhārata 12.110; my own translation]

Video Image Credits –

Stone wheel engraved in the 13th century built Konark Sun Temple in Orissa, India – Wikimedia Commons – Subhrajyoti07

Himalaya Mountain Village Nepal – Pixabay – MattHrusc

Mountain And Clouds – RoyaltyFree — Videos for content creators

Wellcome Collection – Four priests holding ritual vessels perform a yagna, a fire sacrifice, an old vedic ritual where offerings are made to the god of fire, Agni. Gouache painting by an Indian artist.

Photo by Aditya Siva on Unsplash

Varuna, the God of Waters (1675-1700) – LACMA

Rama and Sita – Victoria and Albert Museum

The demon Nakubha and his cohorts face Krishna, Pradyumna and Arjuna – Wikimedia Commons

The disrobing of Draupadi, a miniature of the Basohli School, attributed to Nainsukh, c.1765 – Wikimedia Commons

Krishna talking with Yudhishthira and his brothers – Wikimedia Commons

A page from the Bhavishyottara section of Bhavishya Purana (Sanskrit, Devanagari) – Wikimedia Commons (Ms Sarah Welch)

P.V.Kane – Wikimedia Commons

Kapila – British Museum

Gandhi at a spinning wheel during a ‘Charlea’ demonstration in Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh, June 9, 1925 – Wikimedia Commons

Indian Flag, the first stamp of independent India – Wikimedia Commons

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