Dharma is a word that every Indian has heard. Everyone has an idea what it is, but if you ask them to define or explain it, most people would be confused. In English, dharma is commonly translated as “religion”. However, the word “religion” is too narrow to mean all that dharma stands for.
For example, if a student copies another student’s answers, this would be seen by most as a violation of their student dharma. Yet none who say so would be able to point out a line in religious scripture that forbids copying by a student. It is clear that dharma also covers the non-religious aspects of our lives.
This difficulty in identifying what dharma is is not new. People have also faced it in the past. Some people have defined dharma in the context of varna-ashrama, the Hindu system of social classification which divides society into classes and age groups. The dharma of a Brahman is to study and to teach; of a Kshatriya to fight; of a Vaishya to trade; and a Shudra to serve the other varnas.
The dharma of a householder is different from that of a forest dweller. However, the dharma is too vast and complex to be confined to such narrow classifications. It is easy to see that the concepts of dharma and its opposite, adharma, apply universally, even in societies where the varna-ashrama system is not followed.
Going back further, even Yudhishthira, considered the embodiment of dharma, was confused about this. He says:
Vidam chaivam na va vidme shakyam va veditum na va | Aniyaan kshurdharaya gariyanapi parvatat || Gandharvanagarakarah prathamam sampradrishyate |Anvikshyamanah kavibhih punargachatyadarshanam || Whether we know dharma or not, whether it is knowable or not, dharma is finer than the finest edge of a sword and stronger than a mountain. At first sight, it seems clear and solid like a city; on closer inspection logically, it disappears from sight.
Mahabharata then proceeds to help Yudhishthira, and us, by providing a beautiful definition of dharma.
Manasam sarvabhutanam dharmamahurmanishinah | Tasmat sarveshu bhuteshu manasa shivamachareta ||
Those who have thought deeply are of the opinion that dharma is what is done for all beings with one’s heart and mind. Let us therefore, with our hearts and minds, do what is good for all beings.
Na tat parasya sandadhyat pratikulam yadatmanah | Esh sankshepato dharmah kamadanyah pravartate ||
Everything that does not suit us, that we must not do to others. This, in short, is dharma; everything else is just selfishness. Dharma is the universal foundation of life and relationships. Let us embrace the dharma in all its breadth, to lead a life in harmony with ourselves and with others.