Eating, sleep, fear and procreation are common to both animals and humans; Dharma alone is specific to humans, without Dharma, they are equal to animals. (hitopadesha)
If our activities while still or moving, conscious or unconscious are not for the benefit of other beings, they are equal to the actions of beasts.. (Garuda Purana)
Dharma is the foundational concept in Hinduism and its offshoots and is contained in the name Sanatana Dharma. The word Dharma is derived from the root dhr which means ‘to support’ or ‘to maintain’; that which is the essential nature of a being and the means of its moral and spiritual support is called its Dharma. There are two elements to Dharma (1) knowledge and (2) works. Knowledge refers to that which leads one to a realization of one’s true nature as an inseparable aspect or “expression” of the divine essence, and establishes one’s natural and eternal relationship with the Godhead, and helps one to know that Brahman is the focal element of Dharma. The second element is morality which is our personal code of conduct and ethics which governs one’s dealings with others. The source of Dharma is fourfold:—
The Veda, tradition, the conduct of virtuous people and one’s own conscience; this is declared to be the fourfold source of Dharma, right before one’s eyes. (Manu 2;12)
There are several definitions of Dharma given in the Sacred Texts but all are elaboration upon the same core theme which can be reduced to three concepts:—
The Eternal Duty (Sanatana Dharma) towards all creatures is the absence of malevolence (prejudice) towards them in thought, deed or word, and to practice compassion and generosity towards them. (Mahabharata Vana Parva 297;35)
The malevolence or prejudice that we bear towards others arises from judgmental attitudes based upon ignorance and a sense of separateness. Therefore the first stage of Dharma practice is to rid ourselves of all preconceived ideas and judgmental attitudes. Once we have suspended all judgment we can then begin the development of unconditional love and compassion which naturally result in generosity, charity and service to all. The greatest obstacle to spiritual, social and universal wellbeing is the double standard factor. We see everything from a selfish, subjective, personal stand point. Our religious, social and political values are the best, our feelings, aspirations, failures and disappointments are greater than any one else’s. Our possessions are more important than those of others and our acts can be fully justified. The practice of Dharma seeks to turn “Selfishness” into “Altruism” where the others are seen as important as, if not more, than ourselves.
The expanded form of Dharma according to the Padma Purana has 12 components; 6 relating to self development and 6 relating to relationship with “others” —
Purity (saucham) — The first requisite of Dharma and the foundation is the cultivation of a pure and healthy body and hence a pure and healthy mind. It is incumbent upon the Hindu to bathe twice a day or at least every morning and maintain good hygiene. The rules of purity are quite complex and cover everything from physical hygiene and eating to ritual purification after such occasions as death and birth. Worship (yajña) — worship of God through the rituals that are prescribed in the various sacred literatures (i.e. Vedas and Agamas) Austerity (tapah) — refers to simple living and the practice of meditation.
Self restraint (damah) — one should strive to control one’s desires and behavior, avoid excesses and cultivate self‐ discipline which is the basis of civilisation. Study (svadhyaya) — this concept refers to the Scriptural Study (investigation into the Truth) through the Primary Scriptures — the Vedas and the Upanishads, the Secondary Scriptures — Puranas, and the epics — the Mahabharata and Ramayana, as well as self‐ study or introspection, self analysis and cultivation of insight into one’s true self. Contentment (shanti) — development of a peaceful disposition; being content with little and accepting whatever comes to one; be it pleasant or unpleasant, with equanimity. Nonviolence (Ahimsa) — one should refrain from causing any injury to other living beings through word, deed or thought. The premise is that the Self in all beings is the same and therefore one should treat all other beings with the utmost compassion as one would deal with oneself. One may of course, as a last resort, defend oneself through violence if there is no other way. One may also use violence to defend a woman or a child from a murderous assailant. Truth (satyam) — practice of truth in speech and harmony in action at all times. One should speak only that which is true and agreeable, one should not needlessly say things that are hurtful even though they may be the truth. One’s actions should be in concordance with what one professes. The practice of truth includes in it such virtues as straightforwardness, frankness, absence of deviousness and malice and so forth. Generosity (danam) — this has a twofold reference; one is the giving of charity to the needy as well as social works for the benefit of society as a whole. The other reference is to the gift of fearlessness to all creatures through cultivation of complete non‐injury (ahimsa ) to any being in word, deed, or thought. Non stealing (asteya) — one should refrain from taking anything that is not given. Forgiveness (kshama) — and forbearance which comes from the cultivation of loving kindness to all beings.
Veneration for preceptors (gurusevana) — the term guru (preceptor) covers the parents, teachers, guides, elders and all those who teach something however insignificant it may be.
In actual fact Dharma encompasses all our duties and obligations to the society and world around us. The idea of ‘individuality’ is offensive to Sanatana Dharma. Everyone exists as part of a social group and each member of the group has certain duties and obligations towards every other member of the group. Once these duties are fulfilled then that which is our Right will come to us. In modern materialist society the emphasis is on individual rights and little if anything is ever heard about collective duties. In fact ‘rights’ are now taken for granted and demanded as a matter of course.
A great teacher of the 13th century in South India — Peria‐acchan‐Pillai taught that there are four categories of people in this world;
- 1 The lowest of the low — one who does evil in return for the good received;
- 2 The low — one who does not give anything in return for good rendered; or one who lives at the expense of others.
- 3 The average — one whose help is commensurate with the help received, that is one who feels that others too should live as well as oneself.
- 4 The best — one who does good to others without expecting anything in return or one who feels that others should live comfortably even at the expense of one’s own comforts.