What is Dharma?

What is Dharma?

The word dharma has multiple meanings across Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism. We’re going to explore one aspect of dharma that comes from Hinduism; the word dharma appears in many sacred Hindu texts like the Rig Vedas and the Upanishads. In this context, dharma has two meanings: the first meaning refers to a principle that maintains order and prevents chaos in the universe. The second context is individual – here, dharma means the living of one’s nature and true calling, therefore supporting order in the broader universe.

Nothing like tackling a big idea right off the bat, right? Let’s explore these concepts a bit further.

In the universal context, dharma refers to the principle governing a world that exists in harmony and where one force does not wildly unbalance another. It’s easy to see that the earth is not currently in this kind of state, with starvation, hatred, and suffering happening on a global scale. While it may be discouraging to look at the world through this lens, it is worth thinking about what you can do in your community to make the world a more balanced place, and that can be through living your individual dharma.

Universal dharma at work in Disney’s The Lion King

Simba: “But Dad, don’t we eat the antelope?”

Mufasa: “Yes Simba, but let me explain. When we die, our bodies become the grass. The antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great circle of life.”

In the individual context, dharma refers to the intrinsic nature of a person or thing. Some translations of dharma include “principle,” “standard,” “duty,” “constant,” “nature,” “character,” “truth,” or “right way of living.” It can be helpful to think about your dharma as your reason for being, raison d’être, life’s purpose, or individual path. Your dharma may change as you move through your life. Dharma can be the roles you play (parent, friend, partner, employee), but it may not be equivalent to the role you currently play.

The idea of dharma is that there is a “right” way for each person to live their life. This does NOT mean that there is ONE right way for everyone to live their life – quite the opposite. My dharma is not your dharma; what works for you may not work for me. Your dharma is to live in your true nature, and every person on this earth has a different nature.

There are some that believe that karma from past lives decides dharma for this life; whatever lot you were born to is yours to suffer from or enjoy. This seems a fatalistic view and a way to ensure that nobody rocks the boat – after all, if your destiny is to perform a duty as per a predetermined “station” in life, then taking action would be pointless and we’d all be biding our time until our next life.

Instead, I would encourage you to explore dharma as your individual path, which is yours to determine. Some questions to consider are: What is your true path? What would you be doing, if you had all the time and money in the world to do it? If you were dying, what would you regret NOT doing?

Of course, we don’t have all the time and money in the world, and changing your destiny might seem a Herculean task especially if you have responsibilities (as any adult does). But understanding your own dharma or purpose might be helpful in determining the direction you can move next.

I’m not asking you to up-end your life because you decided you’re on the wrong path. Living your dharma could mean taking small steps like setting boundaries with the people around you so you can live more comfortably, or volunteering at a soup kitchen in your neighbourhood so you can support those less fortunate.

What does it mean to live by your true nature and live in harmony with those around you? When you are deeply, honestly, comfortably yourself, there is no need to take more than you need; there is no need for hatred or fear of others. Living your own dharma can support others in being more truly themselves. Hopefully, we can all start to spread this principle in our own communities to make the world a more loving, compassionate place.