Dharma is a word that every Indian has heard of. Everyone has some idea of what it is, but if you asked them to define or explain it, most people would be stumped. In English, dharma is usually translated as “religion”. However, the word “religion” is too narrow to denote everything Dharma stands for.
For example, if a student were to copy answers from a fellow student, most would consider this a violation of their student dharma. Yet none of those who say so would be able to point to a line in any religious scripture that forbids copying by a student. It is clear that Dharma also encompasses the non-religious aspects of our lives.
This difficulty in determining exactly what dharma is is not new. People have also been confronted with this in the past. Some people defined dharma in terms of Varna-Ashrama – the Hindu system of social classification that divides society into classes and ages. The Dharma of a Brahmin is to study and teach; a Kshatriya for fighting; a Vaishya for action; and from a Shudra to serve the other Varnas.
The dharma of a householder differs from that of a forest dweller. However, 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 further back, even Yudhishthira, who is considered the epitome of the Dharma, was puzzled by 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 recognizable or not, Dharma is subtler than the finest blade of a sword and more substantial than a mountain. At first glance it appears clear and solid like a city; If you look more logically, it disappears from view.
Mahabharata then goes on 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 hold that Dharma is what is done with heart and mind for all beings. Therefore let us do with heart and mind what is good for all beings.
Na tat parasya sandadhyat pratikulam yadatmanah | Esh sankshepato dharmah kamadanyah pravartate ||
What we don’t like, we shouldn’t do to others. In short, this is Dharma; everything else is just selfishness. Dharma is the universal foundation of life and relationships. Let’s embrace Dharma in all its breadth to live a life in harmony with ourselves and others.