Dharma is arguably the one word most commonly associated with Indic civilization. Few other Indian words are as readily associated with India, as Dharma.

Yoga and Karma are probably close rivals!

But what is Dharma? It is a term that is poorly understood despite much overuse.
It is often stated that India, at least in its idealized form, represents a “Dharmic” civilization. But what exactly is a Dharmic civilization?
Does Dharma imply merely an adherence to Hindu religion? Or is it linked to what is often called “the Hindu way of life”?

If it’s the latter, what is this “way of life”?
Questions about Dharma galore..

Is Dharma “eternal” or “era specific”?
Is Dharma contextual or context-free?
Is Dharma synonymous with religion / faith or does it transcend religion?
Is Dharma “law”? Or is it merely a set of guidelines that are non-binding?
It is often also stated that there exists no appropriate translation of the word “Dharma” in English. It defies translation.

Be that as it may, this also begs the question -

Is Dharma “definable” even in Indian discourse? Or does it have multiple definitions?
Has the “understanding” of the term “Dharma” changed over millennia?

Finally how does religion interact with Dharma?

Are Hindu ideas of Dharma vastly different from Buddhist or Jain conceptions of Dharma?
This thread is a modest attempt to understand Dharma as understood in traditional Indian literature. (with a particular slant towards the Hindu canon, as opposed to Buddhist canon)
First let's attempt to understand Dharma in etymological terms. Maybe there are clues to understanding it right there.
In Classical Sanskrit, the word "Dharma" is derived from the root "dhr" which means "to hold / maintain".

But the word itself is v ancient and goes all the way back to the Rig Veda. In the Rig Veda Samhita, the word is used as many as 56 times! So this is not a new fangled word
In the Rig Veda, the word takes the form of "Dharman" which means "bearer / supporter" - again consistent with the meaning we discussed in the previous tweet.

This would suggest that Dharma refers to a certain set of ideals that help maintain "order".
One can simplify this by associating the word simplistically with the hackneyed term "morality". But Dharma transcends that. Not everything that is seemingly "moral" on the surface necessarily is "sustainable" or favorable to the maintenance of order.
So the terms "sustenance" and "order become key to understanding Dharma, right from its earliest usage in Rig Veda.
The Rig Veda explicitly associates Dharma with an allied concept called "Rta" - which is associated with the cosmic principle that governs the universe
But the earliest layers of Vedic literature do not theorize on Dharma. We don't get to understand what is the nature of social and personal conduct that constitutes Dharma.
This elaboration happens later in Indian history, first in the Upanisads, and then in the Itihaasas, Gita, and finally in the Dharmasutras and the successor Dharmashastra texts.
The Brihadaranyaka Upanisad seeks to define Dharma by linking it with "Truth"

धर्मः तस्माद्धर्मात् परं नास्त्य् अथो अबलीयान् बलीयाँसमाशँसते धर्मेण यथा राज्ञैवम्
यो वै स धर्मः सत्यं वै तत् तस्मात्सत्यं वदन्तमाहुर् धर्मं वदतीति धर्मं वा वदन्तँ सत्यं वदतीत्य् एतद्ध्येवैतदुभयं भवति
Here's the translation -

"Nothing is higher than dharma. The weak overcomes the strong by dharma... Truly dharma is the Truth; Therefore, when a man speaks the Truth, they say, "He speaks the Dharma"; and if he speaks Dharma, they say, "He speaks the Truth!" For both are one"
The Brihadaranyaka dates roughly to ~700 BCE (some 1000 years after Rig Veda)

While its definition is elegant, it is not entirely satisfactory. It does not entirely cover the etymological suggestion of "Dharma" as a "sustainer" of civilizational order in the Rig Veda.
The Itihaasas take the idea of Dharma a few steps further by making it contextual. In Ramayana,

Dharma is viewed as the choice of "Shreyas" over "Preyas'.

Doing the "right" thing over the "pleasing" thing.
Unlike Mahabharata, Ramayana does not theorize as much on Dharma, but instead chooses to define Dharma through the life example of Rama - a person who always chooses Shreyas over Preyas at every crucial juncture in the epic.
The Mahabharata in contrast, takes a much more nuanced view of Dharma. Two of its great sections - the Gita and the Shanti Parva spend a lot of time theorizing about Dharma

Unlike the view in Brihadaranyaka which we encountered, MB offers a context-sensitive view of Dharma
Here's a verse from the Gita that talks of "Swadharma" - where Dharma is linked to one's circumstances

"स्वधर्ममपि चावेक्ष्य न विकम्पितुमर्हसि
धर्म्याद्धि युद्धाछ्रेयोऽन्यत्क्षत्रियस्य न विद्यते
यदृच्छया चोपपन्नं स्वर्गद्वारमपावृतम्
सुखिनः क्षत्रियाः पार्थ लभन्ते युद्धमीदृशम्
Here's the translation -

"As a Kshatriya, your Swadharma is to fight a lawful war, and there is nothing that is superior to that. A warrior must be happy when encountered with an opportunity to wage a battle that will open the gate to heaven for the fighter"
The Gita also suggests that one's Swadharma is much more important than doing the duties of someone else

श्रेयान्स्वधर्मो विगुणः परधर्मात्स्वनुष्ठितात्
स्वभावनियतं कर्म कुर्वन्नाप्नोति किल्बिषम्
सहजं कर्म कौन्तेय सदोषमपि न त्यजेत्
सर्वारम्भा हि दोषेण धूमेनाग्निरिवावृताः
Translation -

"“It is better to perform one’s own dharma imperfectly than to perform another’s action very well. Performing one’s own dharma (as dictated by one’s innate “swabhava”), one does not accumulate guilt."
So what's striking here in the Gita is that, unlike in Upanisads, it positions Dharma not merely with Satyam but with the idea of "Duty"

Duty is contextual and is specific to each person's station and circumstance

Hence the approach to Dharma can never be "one size fits all"
This acknowledgment of Dharma's context-sensitivity and the impossibility of "defining" it is found even in the Apastamba Dharmasutras - one of the oldest Dharma texts (dating roughly to 5th-3rd cen BCE) and hence arguably contemporaneous with the Gita.
Apastamba in these sutras says -

"Dharma and Adharma do not go around saying, "That is us." Neither do gods, nor gandharvas, nor ancestors declare what is Dharma and what is Adharma"

An acknowledgment of Dharma's enigmatic character.
But this did not result in the Indian mind giving up on the idea and throwing its hands up in arms.

There was always a certain strand in Indian thought that argued that while Dharma may be "contextual" there are certain aspects to Dharma that are context-free and eternal.
This distinction came about in the Dharmasastras where the word "Sanatana Dharma" made its appearance.

Sanatana Dharma meant "Eternal order" - contrast to the "context specific" notion of Dharma we were discussing this far, particularly in the Mahabharata.
In fact during the age of the Dharmasastras (200BCE to 400 AD), there emerged the distinction between Sanatana Dharma (which is eternal) and Yuga Dharma (which is specific to the age in which one finds onself).

So Dharma can be both eternal as well as contextual
To understand this best, let's look at Manu Smriti - the foremost of the Dharmasastra texts (dating anywhere between 4th cen BCE and 2nd cen AD).
Here's an instance of the use of "Sanatana Dharma" in Manu Smriti -

"सत्यम् ब्रूयात् प्रियम् ब्रूयात् न ब्रूयात् सत्यमप्रियम् |
प्रियम् नानृतं ब्रूयात् एष धर्मः सनातनः ||
Here's the translation -

"Speak the truth. Speak Pleasantly. Never speak the truth that is unpleasant. Nor be pleasant at the expense of the truth. This is the eternal law (Sanatana Dharma)"
So while Dharma may have contextual usage, there are certain aspects to it (like the example given above by Manu) that transcend the vagaries of era and personal circumstance. Aspects of it that are timeless.

These aspects are not necessarily contextual. These are eternal.
So while Manu Smriti does have a great deal of wisdom and strictures that are best understood as "Yuga Dharma" (Eg : Don't eat garlic. Dont eat onion), it is also a champion of "Sanatana Dharma" (an example of which we gave above).
In Straussian terms, one can regard Manu Smriti as a text that is both "Exoteric" and "Esoteric".

Exoteric : speaking to its own times
Esoteric : speaking profound truths for eternity ; truths that don't get dated
Manu also makes a case for the inherent robustness of Dharma, as it can defend itself. Here's the verse -

"धर्म एव हतो हन्ति धर्मो रक्षति रक्षितः ।
तस्माद्धर्मो न हन्तव्यः मानो धर्मो हतोवाधीत् ॥
Here's the translation -

"Dharma, when destroyed, destroys; Dharma protects when it is protected.
Therefore Dharma must not be violated, Otherwise violated Dharma destroys us"
Let's now leave the Dharma-sastras, Itihaasas and Upanisads, and turn our attention to the different philosophical schools. How does Yoga for instance define Dharma.

It is worth studying Patanjali in this regard, who wrote his famous Yoga Sutras circa 200-400 AD.
Patanjali is less abstract in his discussion of Dharma than the sources we have discussed so far. He is a man for detail and defines Dharma in terms of "Yama" and "Niyama" - which are integral two "Dharma" and constitute the two limbs of Yoga.
Patanjali suggests 5 restraints (Yamas) and 5 Niyamas (observances)

Yamas -

Ahimsa (Non violence)
Satya (Abstinence from falsehood)
Asteya (Non stealing)
Brahmacharya (Celibacy)
Aparigraha (Non-avarice)
Niyamas -

Śauca (purity)
Santosha (contentment)
Tapas (austerity / meditation)
Svadhyaya (self reflection / study)
Isvara Pranidhana (contemplation of God)
So clearly in classical 4th cen India (to which Patanjali belongs) we see a shift

Dharma is now increasingly studied from a reflective standpoint - with a focus on personal growth

in contrast to Dharma in the Gita (some 800 years earlier) where it is more worldly and contextual
If we study the ideas of several influential modern Indian thinkers like Vivekananda and even Gandhi in the 20th cen, they are clearly influenced in a big way by the ideas of Dharma in Patanjali

Gandhian thought owes a great deal to the Yamas and Niyamas of Patanjali.
Next we need to ask the question -

How did Dharma stack up against the other aspects of life in Indian thought?

Purushartha is a word that comes up very early in Indian lit - as per which Dharma is only one of the 4 goals of a well led life (Artha, kama & Moksha being others)
Now with the possible exception of Arthashastra that privileges Artha, most Indian texts are unequivocal on this -

Dharma is paramount, and trumps Artha and Kama.
In fact this support for Dharma over Artha and Kama, is vocally stated by none other than Vatsyayana - the author of Kama Sutras!

Vatsyayana is one of those rare Indian minds who explicitly distinguishes between Dharma and Adharma.
In fact he goes one step further and distinguishes between the different types of Dharma and Adharma -

Dharma / Adharma of mind
Dharma / Adharma of words
Dharma / Adharma of body
As per Vatsyayana, "paricharana" (rendering service to others) is "Dharma of the body" while "pratisiddha maithuna" (sexual activity with someone other than one's partner) is "Adharma of the body"

This is a remarkable vote in favor of Dharma from the philosopher of love himself!
So far we have discussed Dharma from a largely individual lens. But is there a societal view of Dharma voiced by Hindu society.

The answer is yes. This is best summed up by the well known, yet controversial, phrase - "Varnashrama Dharma"
While Varna needs no introduction, Ashrama refers to the 4 stages of life - Brahmacharya (celibate student), Grihastin (householder), Vanaprastha (retired life), Sanyasa (renounced life)
This societal view of Dharma (Varna-Ashrama) is the aspect of Dharma that is most problematic in our times

Partly because modern liberalism privileges"individual liberty" as the highest ideal, and this conflicts with the Hindu view that there is a "time and place for everything"
A fine example of this conflict is illustrated in the 2007 movie Cheeni Kum where a 35 year old Tabu falls for a 64 year old Amitabh.

Is this consistent with Ashrama Dharma? In my view, no.
This reminds us of the original etymological understanding of Dharma where we started - "that which sustains / bears".

Is the kind of union described in Cheeni Kum sustainable for the society at large? Perhaps not.
So in that sense it is not Dharmic. Yet it is viewed positively by modern liberal society using the lens of "personal liberty"

Here's a fine instance where modern liberal morality conflicts with Dharmic morality. Ofcourse there are other instances.
While Dharmic code focuses on behaviors / modes of thought that promote "stability", modern liberalism privileges "liberty" over "stability".

These are two totally different takes on how to approach life.
As we look ahead into what remains of the 21st century, Indian society faces some hard qns

How do we preserve Dharma? How do we balance it against the ideal of individual liberty (which has its charm, while being adharmic).

How do we have the cake and eat it too?
Our answers to these questions will determine if we continue to remain a "Dharmic" society focused on virtue and stability, or a "liberal" society focused on freedom and pleasure.
Thanks for reading if you got this far

Post script : This thread was focused on Hindu ideas of Dharma. I have not discussed notions of Dharma in Buddhism. Nor the conflicts between those ideas and the HIndu understanding

That calls for a separate thread by a different person
Post script 2 : A reader pointed out a small error. The idea of "Shreyas" vs "Preyas" - while it is central to understanding Ramayana, did not originate in that epic. It is originally found in Katha Upanisad, which is one of the 13 principal Upanisads.

Thanks for pointing out
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