Dharma: Does the Universe Have an Inherent Order?

Indian sculpture of the footprints of Buddha with soles of the feet are two Dharmachakras

Dharma is a central Hindu socioreligious precept that may be defined as order, the moral order, or duty, as well as both religious and customary law. Dharma literally means “what holds together” and thus is the basic Hindu concept for all order, whether individual, social, or cosmic, as established by the Veda. The Hindu concept derived from the Vedas of social obligation or duty and that is the basis of all Hindu social laws and ethics.

The concept of dharma dates back to the Vedas, the oldest scriptures of Hinduism, produced in India between c. 1500 and c. 500 BCE. It is expounded later Hindu texts, such as the epic work Ramayana (500-100 BCE) and the 700-verse Bhagavad Gita (c. 100CE), and is present in other Asian traditions such as Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism.

Dharma comes from the Sanskrit word for “uphold” or “support.” In Hinduism, dharma refers to the inherent order of things, both in terms of natural laws and social/ethical norms. Karma is a causal force that connects all things in the universe. As a result of this force, everything that a person does affects not only his own future, but also the futures of others.

As stated the word dharma is rendered in the new inscription by eusebeia. Scholars of Hellenistic Greece assure us that this Greek word in Hellenistic contexts refers not only to the veneration of gods, but also to a “generally reverential attitude toward the orders of life,” and that it is used “also for conduct toward relatives, between husband and wife, and even for the conduct of slaves toward their master.”

All human beings have a responsibility to maintain the natural order, which is manifested in the caste system of Hindu society. A person’s actions lead to karma, which determines their gunas (traits) and varna (caste), which in turn dictate the moral obligations that individual has to other people (dharma). For example, in the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna’s dharma as a kshatriya (warrior) obligates him to fight in a war even though he does not want to.

In Buddhism, dharma refers to not only the natural or moral order, but also to the teachings of the Buddha. Dharma determines a person’s duties at various stages of life (ashrama):

  • in youth, a student’s obligation is to learn;
  • in middle age, a householder is expected to promote the good of society;
  • in advanced age, the forest dweller and renunciant are expected to focus on spiritual cultivation.

The domain of what is moral was never as clearly emphasized in Hinduism as it was in Buddhism. On the one hand, the realm of dharma stretches out well beyond what is moral; on the other hand, dharma, in most of its contents, is not common to all humankind.

Dharma is one of the central metaphysical justifications for the caste system in India. The symbolic representation of dharma, the Dharmachakra or “dharma wheel,” appears in the center of the flag of India, representing the idea that truth and virtue should be the guiding principles of the nation.

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