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  • Rajiv Venkat

Decoding Dharma

Rajeev Venkat (@RVenkat_India),

Author of the Book – Cast Your Caste Away: The Clarion Call of Sanatana Dharma

The Unique concept of Dharma

What is that one term or concept or idea without understanding it, one can never ever appreciate the tenets of Sanātana Dharma in its fullness, forget about understanding them. What could be that which possibly no other culture, civilization, religion or spiritual tradition could even think or conceive anything even close to that? And yet, hardly many people, including in India too barely understand it well enough.

That one term is, DHARMA!

Without understanding or appreciating this one concept if anyone passes judgements or opinion about Sanatana Dharma then, he or she is either being ignorant, naïve or perhaps motivated. Dharma is one such term which has no synonym, no substitute and honestly even the best translation would fall short to explain. Dharma can mean many things at the same time and yet, cannot completely be explained. Majority of people even in India would tell you without blinking an eyelid, if asked, that Dharma means Religion. For some Dharma means Duty for some it just means some lofty ideal to aspire.

One of the finest definitions of Dharma we come across was given by the Modern Age Saint, H.H. Swami Chinmayananda, who summed it up with these words, “Dharma is that essential nature of ANY Being, in the absence of which the Being cannot exist.”

To explain further let us say, Heat is the Dharma of Fire. Can there be any Fire with absence of Heat? So, it leaves us to ponder as to what could be the Dharma of Human Being. The 4 stated Puruṣārthas (Purpose of Life), the Scriptural advice for Humankind are Dharma, Arth, Kāma and Moksa. That is, while adhering to the injunctions of Dharma, earn wealth (artha) in order to fulfil desires (kāma) in order to pursue or attain Mokṣa (Liberation). The philosophy of this land believes that every individual, every living being from the smallest unicellular organism to the greatest creation of this Universe is on its journey for liberation.

In this scheme of journey, every Being has been provided their respective (and agree or not, the most ideal) field of play strictly based on the Laws of Causation. The field of Play is the product of the Past Actions, the Player chose based on his individual Guṇa (Temperament) and Karma (Past Actions).

The word Dharma is perhaps the most mystical word in ANY Philosophy or School of Thought. Dharma is used in common parlance to refer to,

-          Religion

-          Duty

-          Righteousness

-          And, much more


Dharma surely indicates to all of the above and at the same is much more than that. Another explanation of Dharma is that, the root word of Dharma is ‘dhṛ’, which means:

to Uphold

to Sustain

to Integrate


So, that which upholds or sustains or integrates is Dharma. That, which integrates and brings Harmony is Dharma. Anything which does not fulfil this basic premise cannot be said to have the Sanction of Dharma.


In the Śrīmad Bhāgavad Mahā Purāṇa considered as another one of the major Sacred Texts for Hindus, Bhagavān Veda Vyāsa elaborately explains Dharma, and when queried further by the Student, he explains Dharma to further consist of,


-          Sāmānya Dharma (Common Dharma)

-          Viśeṣa Dharma (Specific Duties)


Sāmānya Dharma (Universal/Obligatory Duties)


Sāmānya Dharma or the Common Dharma are basically those Duties or Dharma which every Human Being needs to perform – to qualify, to be considered as Human Being. Here it is pertinent to understand that as per Sanātana Dharma, this Life is not something to be viewed in isolation or as one-off stray incident due to chance. It is considered as part of an indescribable, timeless journey of Realisation of one’s Own Self. It will not be out of place to say, that as per the tenets of Sanātana Dharma, this is the only purpose of life.


Bhagavān Veda Vyāsa in Śrīmad Bhāgavata Purāṇa gives out 30 Virtues which are Universal and to be practised by EVERY Human Being irrespective of who he or she is and where he or she is born. These 30 Virtues are the cornerstone of Humanity and the essential Virtues which qualifies one as a Human Being. These 30 Virtues are,

-          Truth (Satyam)

-          Compassion (Dayā)

-          Austerity (Tapas)

-          Purity (śaucam)

-          Forbearance (Titikṣā)

-          Discrimination between Good and Bad (Viveka Vicāra)

-          Control of The Mind (Sama)

-          Control of the Senses (Dama)

-          Non-injury to Others (Ahiṃsā)

-          Continence (Brahmacarya)

-          Sacrifice (Tyāga)

-          Scriptural Study (Svādhyāya)

-          Integrity (Ārjavam)

-          Contentment (Saṃtoṣa)

-          Service of Holy Men (Sevā)

-          Gradual Withdrawal from Worldly Affairs

-          Preparedness to face Failures

-          Avoidance of Unnecessary Talk (Maunam)

-          Self-reflection (Ātma-vimarśanam)

-          Offering Food to Other LIVING Beings as deserved

-          Seeing Lord in ALL Beings

-          Perceiving Divinity in ALL Human Beings

-          Practise the Highest Way of Life resorted to by Devoted Men consisting of (8)

-          Listening

-          Singing Hymns

-          Remembrance

-          Worship

-          Salutations

-          Dedication of ALL Actions

-          Friendship

-          Complete Surrender


[Śrīmad Bhāgavad Purāṇa, Canto 7, Chapter 11}


As much as it is important to appreciate the full import of the 30 virtues it is equally important to take note of them as being Universal and Common/Obligatory Duty of EVERY Human Being irrespective of any exception or exemption. Some of the virtues mentioned above cannot even be sufficiently translated due to the lack of an equivalent term in order to fully convey the essence. That is how sublime the Spiritual Thought behind Sanātana Dharma has always been.


Any sincere Practitioner or Student of Hindu Dharma in order to learn should be necessarily initiated by a Guru (in any Sampradāya or Tradition), in order to have more nuanced understanding of the Scriptural declarations which are mystical to say, the least. Such nuanced understanding is much needed for the correct interpretations since Hinduism is an embodied Knowledge and not a text-based Religion. It is not without a reason that the Vedas, the oldest scriptures of the Hindu faith have no claimant for authorship. Vedas are considered as Apaurusheya which means un-authored or revealed rather than written.

Besides the 30 Common/Obligatory Duties, which as such appear seemingly impossible tp practise in today’s prevalent situation, there are Viśeṣa Dharma or specific duties.


Viśeṣa Dharma (Special Duties)


Along with the Sāmānya Dharma or common obligatory duties of EVERY human being, the scriptures prescribed some Specific Duties or Viśeṣa Dharma for every type of individual. These Specific duties prescribed depends on,

-          Āśrama (Stage of Life)

-          Varṇa (Classification as per Guṇa and Karma).


Now, for the proper functioning of any institution, organisation or government, there are some common rules, regulations and guidelines; however, there are also some specific rules depending on the activity or role being performed. Like in any Hospital, there would be some common guidelines to be followed by every member of the staff working in the hospital irrespective of their role; yet, there would be some specific role/duty assigned for the Doctors or the Nurses or staff associated with critical care or sensitive activities.


This would hold good for any organisation or society.


To have better understanding of these Viśeṣa Dharma prescribed, it is imperative to understand the Āśrama Vyavasthā and the Varṇa Vyavasthā which were the basis for these Special Duties.


Āśrama Vyavasthā and Varṇa Vyavasthā will be taken up for discussion separately.


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