“To an individual, family, nation or even to plants and animals, dharma is ones true place in the cosmic process. The eternal principle of dharma determines the harmonious functions of the cosmic machine. In order that we fulfil our role in the divine play we must carry out our dharma. That is, we ought to do the right thing, at the right time, which is in harmony with our inner nature and conducive to the greater good… The question is; how do we know what our own dharma is?”
The reason for writing this article stems back to an incident which occurred a few months ago. A group of friends were at my house doing some filming (we have an aspiring film director amongst us). After the day’s work, an unplanned discussion about religion / society / purpose of life took place. There were people there who had quite definite views and others who did not.
One of the points made was that Hinduism is not a religion in the usual sense of the word, but a path to discover your dharma. This drew a response from a person who has up until then not spoken a word: “You keep talking about dharma, but what is dharma?” This was his first and only comment in the whole discussion.
He had a point. Keep on repeating the word dharma, and saying how important it is, is not constructive or satisfying for a person who does not already possess a basic grounding in at least one of the Indic traditions (which even many born-Hindus do not have). An attempt needs to be made to try and explain what dharma means and why it is different to religion as defined in the western sense of a belief system.
Back to our discussion; a few people tried to explain the meaning of the word, but a satisfactory definition proved elusive.
Since fools rush where angels dread to tread, I set out to write an article that could capture what dharma is. Little did I know that the definition would prove so difficult to write in a satisfactory way, and that it was presumptuous for me to even think I could truly do such a thing.
What is dharma? Why is it relevant to us, in the modern world? Dharma is a universal principle of existence that is difficult, if not impossible, to define. It has a cosmic aspect and a micro aspect. To an individual, family, nation or even to plants and animals, dharma is ones true place in the cosmic process. The eternal principle of dharma determines the harmonious functions of the cosmic machine. In order that we fulfil our role in the divine play we must carry out our dharma. That is, we ought to do the right thing, at the right time, which is in harmony with our inner nature and conducive to the greater good. By this we attain balance. To establish balance within ourselves ensures our own welfare and the welfare of society and opens the path prepared for us by the Divine.
Dharma is a Sanskrit term which is adopted by all other Indic languages. It has no direct translation in the English language, and hence is now incorporated into the English language. Associated words might include morality, ethics, virtue, righteousness and purity. Dharma is all of these, and more. The question naturally arises – how do we know our dharma? Hinduism doesn’t offer any black and white answer to this great and complex question. It takes a good deal of self-introspection and self-study and even trial and error to understand one’s true purpose in this incarnation. But the ultimate dharma of any soul is to discover its own true nature, self-realisation.
All classical Hindu literature, from the Vedas and Upanishads to the Ramayana and the Mahabharata attempt to show dharma in action, and also the obstacles, self-doubt and other difficulties which may beset even great men and women in their quest for doing what is truly right. Studying these teachings and reflecting on their application in the modern world holds the key to recapturing the spirit of dharma, and a brighter future for ourselves and the world.