Last Updated: November 30, 2018

Definition - What does Dharma mean?

Dharma is a Hindu, Buddhist and yogic concept that refers to the idea of a law, or principle, governing the universe. For an individual to live out their dharma is for them to act in accordance with this law. In Buddhism, it is said that acting in this way is the path to enlightenment.

The implication of dharma is that there is a right way for each person to carry out their life. Dharma is closely related to the concepts of duty and service to others, or seva. It has no single-word Western translation, which sometimes makes it a difficult concept for Westerners to grasp. One close translation, however, is “right way of living.”

Yogapedia explains Dharma

The word, dharma, comes from the Sanskrit root word dhri, which means “to hold,” "to maintain," or "to preserve." In the early Vedas and ancient Hinduism, dharma referred to the cosmic law, which created the ordered universe from chaos. Later, it was applied to other contexts, including human behaviors and ways of living that prevent society, family and nature from descending into chaos. This included the concepts of duty, rights, religion and morally appropriate behavior.

An individual’s dharma is traditionally determined. Due to past karma, a being is born into a particular caste, essentially as a reward or punishment for actions in previous lives. This could, and likely did, lead to gross injustices, especially for individuals born into the servant caste, whose future was fixed with no real possibility to improve their lot. A person's dharma then depends on which caste he or she is born into; it did not matter if he was good at it or not. According to the Bhagavad Gita, it is better to do your own dharma poorly than to do another well.

It is said that all beings must accept their dharma for order and harmony to exist in the world. If an individual is following their dharma, they are pursuing their truest calling, serving all other beings in the universe by playing their true role. To Hindus, all beings have their own dharma: the sun must shine and the bees must make honey.

In Buddhism, the added layer of meaning is that dharma includes the idea of acting in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha and the Four Noble Truths. The wider meaning of the term even encompasses the result of acting in this “right way," which is enlightenment.

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