What is Dharma?

Although the word is commonly translated as ‘religion,’ this is incorrect.  As often happens, there is no direct equivalent of dharma in the English language without losing a large part of the meaning of the original word.  Instead we can use a group of words to give a better understanding of it: duty, belief, righteousness, order, justice, and virtue being a few.  Also, dharma is something which accomplishes three tasks (according to Adi Shankaracharya): keeps society in excellent condition, brings worldly progress of every living being, and causes spiritual progress of every living being.  And so, dharma is applicable to the entire human population and the rest of the universe as well.  Thus we can also refer to it as vishwa dharma (vishwa meaning “universal” or “world”).

Someone practicing dharma is considered to be living a dharmic way of life.  There are quite a few dharmic practices which spring from the Indian subcontinent: Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism, etc. In a curious reversal, all these belief systems are named with an “ism” attached despite the fact that they are not codified nor regulated, nor have governing bodies which determine interpretation (but that’s a topic for another time).

Some common concepts among all dharmic faiths are the immortality of the soul, no absolution for adharma, feminine divinity, striving towards God, and lack of division between believers and non-believers.

An immortal soul, or atma, is central to dharmic faiths.  While some believe that our ultimate purpose is moksha, or cleansing the soul in order to reunite with God (Param-atma, or Supreme Soul) others believe in simply ending the cycle of rebirth of the soul with no God figure to merge with.  This belief in an immortal soul, combined with a strong sense of dharma, has historically lead to many courageous kings and warriors. When Alexander of Macedon began his incursion into the subcontinent, he met great resistance from local rulers who were determined to protect their subjects.  In more modern times, Indian freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh and Ramprasad Bismil met their deaths with no qualms because they knew they had done their dharma and their souls would continue on.

Someone who follows dharma is dharmic, as such someone who follow adharma is adharmic (the “a” in used to denote negatives in Sanskrit, eg. dvait and advaita dual and non-dual).  Whereas some religions offer forgiveness through repentance of a sin, or recitation of Gods name, one of the ways dharmic people cleanse their souls of adharma is good karma and living a dharmic life.  There is no fast and easy solution, which is why the process takes many births.

Dharmic faiths believe that men and women are inherently created equal, to the extent that God is believed to have dual aspects: that of a male (shakta) and female (shakti) divine energies. These energies have their own unique qualities that are manifest in the universe.  Neither is subservient to the other, instead they balance each other.

Lastly, dharmic communities are welcoming of everyone so long as they live a dharmic life.  You do not have to believe in their god/s (you could even be agnostic or atheist), do not have to pray the way they do, don’t have to follow their diet or hold the same beliefs so long as you live a good life.  A “good life” is a very broad term but being helpful and kind, encouraging and supporting, and caring for the world around you is a simple enough thing to do.  Anyone living such a life would be welcomed, not shunned or encouraged to convert, by dharmic people.  There is no eternal hell or suffering for someone who doesn’t believe in the same things, so people have freedom to do all good things.

Having covered some of the basics of what is dharma and what dharmic people believe in, we now come to the name Hindu.  It’s commonly accepted that the word Hindu is a grammatical interchange of “s” to “h” which turns Sindhu to Hindu_._  Which is in reference to the *Sindhu* River, which is in present day Pakistan and called the Indus River.  The Old Persian language is said to be lacking a “s” sound, so the Persians instead pronounced it “h,” which then brings us to Hindu.  This is perplexing however, since Old Persian does indeed have a “s” sound in it’s alphabet.  Another explanation for the etymological origins of Hindu may be from the subcontinent itself.

There are a few examples of modern languages which change the “s” sound to a “h,” this precedent may point to a similar phenomenon in the past which lead to the creation of the word Hindu.  In Assam, for example, they call themself Ahom but write it as Assam.

Additionally, it isn’t logical for a culture which has such a vast body of literature to not have a name for themselves.  They had done exactly that actually: they referred to the land where people who followed dharmic culture lived, as Sindhusthanam because the area was surrounded by water (either rivers or oceans).  So from Sindhu and Sindhusthanam we get Hindu and Hindusthan.

Though the idea of dharma is a very large concept to explore and discuss, these basic features can be found in most Dharmic faiths and are important to understand. Many ideas found in the Dharmic faiths could probably be found in the old religions of Europe, Africa, the Americas, as well as throughout Asia and Australia.