Chapter 5


The Concept of Dharma


The concept of dharma (roughly translated as ‘righteousness’) is one of the most challenging in Indian philosophical thought. It seems to cut across so many conceptual distinctions – legal, social, moral, religious – that to those attaching importance to these divides it may appear to be less challenging than confusing. And yet there is something fascinating about a term whose usage spans millennia and which gives evidence of a sustained effort to come to grips with the friction of fact and meaning, institution and ideal. To this day, to say that a man is dhārmik (righteous) indicates the highest commendation. Whether one ought to be dhārmik or not is something which could be paralleled by whether one should be moral or not. In both cases, to pose the query is to reveal that the speaker has asked a question which does not strictly make sense.

The vast period of time over which the concept of dharma developed needs to be recalled. The early Vedic period dates from around 1500 B.C. when the Aryans invaded India from the northwest and settled in the plains of Punjab. The Rig-Veda, consisting of hymns in praise of the gods, might have been composed around 1200-1000 B.C. This is the period when the concept of rta (cosmic order) was born. Rta is both the law of righteousness and of cosmic equilibrium and combines in itself the notion of an integrated whole in which gods, men and nature participate. The whole thing was kept going by an intricate web of religious ceremonial which centred on various sacrifices to be made. The Vedas, whose message was believed to have been revealed to rishis or seers, were followed by elaborations called Brāhmanas, Āranyakas, and Upanishads. Their contents range from instructions as to how sacrifices should be performed to meditative works which are philosophico-poetic in nature. Śruti (what was heard and smrti (what was remembered) were regarded as sanātana dharma (eternal law) and passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth.

The concept of dharma evolved out of rta and encapsulated the basic meanings of the latter – a proper course of which the natural powers of sun, earth, the seasons, etc. were exemplars (cf. "the dharma of water is to flow"), parallelism between the functional distinctions among the deities and their counterparts in society, and the role of both human and gods in preserving the balance of parts of all that is. That human beings live in families, clans and other settled communities, that land and cattle have to be tended, and that what people do makes a difference to how things are, are all perceived as of the very nature of existence, but as nonetheless matters which are accompanied by certain ingrained responsibilities. The intermeshing of the natural and the normative is taken for granted. Maybe an agricultural people is well situated to grasp this. Etymologically the root dhr means ‘to hold, have or maintain’. Dharma is an ontological principle, but is no less regulative.

From about the sixth century B.C. to the twelfth century A.D. the literature concerning dharma proliferated into law books, the epic works Mahābhārata and Rāmāyana, the mythology of the Puranas, and eventually the political thinking of the modern era. The ethico-religious concepts of a traditional hierarchical society understandably concerned themselves in large part with relations of values and institutions rather than with personality, based, as the latter is, on a principle of individuality. Dharma is a social concept. It did not function in isolation but along with artha (wealth) and kāma (desire), the three known jointly as the Trivarga (three-fold principles). Whatever brief later speculative thinkers came to hold in favour of moksha (liberation) or apavarga (a principle beyond the Trivarga) it was the threefold values of artha, kāma, and dharma which governed the lives of the majority. Early Indian thinking was frankly this-worldly and concerned with practical matters having to do with the pursuit of prosperity (a matter which, after all, the rest of us do think of when the New Year comes round). Meditative philosophic thought added what has been called the "atman-centric predicament"1 (atman meaning noumenal self), the idea that there is not merely an attunement between the self and ultimate reality but, as the Advaita Vedantins would say, an identity between them. To bring in the concept of moksha (liberation) is to claim that man has a trans-social destiny which, while not cancelling out dharma, takes a man beyond it. This raises the whole question of the relation of the so-called purusārthas (goals of man) to each other, and to this we must now turn.

In Hindu thought four goals of life-values are spoken of, the three values that make up Trivarga, plus moksha, which is of later origin. The definition of the first, artha, is given by Vatsyayana as follows:

Artha is the acquisition of arts, land, gold, cattle, wealth…and friends. It is also the protection of what is acquired, and the increase of what is protected.2

The arts referred to here are those of politics, commerce, techniques of survival and so on. The connotation of artha indicates what people in ancient India associated with prosperity. It includes the degree of independence involved in economic well-being and the ability to protect oneself. It is the realm of ‘having’ where this is regarded as the legitimate base for all other activities. To have land and cattle, but no friends, is to be poor indeed. Ritual activities were largely concerned with this dimension of life, and we find in fact a dual criterion of legitimation offered as far as artha is concerned, the religious and the pragmatic. The notion that wealth was ‘profane’ would have been quite unintelligible to the ancient Hindu. An interesting gloss on the legitimacy of worldly pursuits was provided by Jnanadeva, the saint from Maharashtra, who asked a religious aspirant how he could attain moksha if he could not succeed in a lesser task, namely, looking after himself and his family.

The pursuit of kāma, or the satisfaction of desire, is no less appropriate than the pursuit of artha. Vatsyayana wrote the Kāma Sūtra around A.D. 400, and it is clear that he thinks of desire in an extended way:

Kāma is the enjoyment of appropriate objects by the five senses of hearing, feeling, seeing, tasting and smelling assisted by the mind together with the soul.3

To say that kāma concerns the erotic is to recognize its involvement with the fine arts.

But as soon as we use the word ‘appropriate’ in the context of both the acquisition of wealth and the satisfaction of desire (in their extended connotations), the need for a regulative principle becomes apparent and this is where dharma comes in. Although much of the literature on dharma suggests a rather frigid canonical model of precepts which must not be infringed upon, there is another side to the story, the one which legitimates what we in fact value, while recognizing the need for a principle of regulation. Dharma is the third of the purusārthas, and vis-à-vis the first two, appears in the form of moral law. This is where the plot thickens, for dharma is not a monolithic concept but differentiates itself into the sorts of dharmas to be followed over the lifetime of man.

The various dharmas are classified into sādhārana-dharmas (literally ‘ordinary’ dharmas, or those obligatory on all), varna-dharmas (those varying with one’s station in life) and aśrama-dharmas (those varying with stages in life). Manu, about whose dates there is much disagreement among scholars, summarizes the ordinary or general dharmas as harmlessness, truth, integrity, purity and control of the senses, these being rough translations of the original terms. Varna-dharma was in ancient times identified with caste duties, the original idea behind this being much the same as the principle of ‘my station and its duties’. The implication is that, general duties apart, many obligations vary in relation to one’s function in society. The duty of the teacher, for example, differs from that of the soldier. The kind of crisis that Arjuna faces in the Bhagavad Gītā illustrates the clash of the general duty of harmlessness or nonviolence and the caste duty of the kshatriya (member of the warrior caste), namely to fight. The problem of the conflict of duties remains as baffling as it does in any other system of thought, except that Indian reflection adds the injunction to examine one’s true nature and proper course of action in keeping with one’s true nature and to discover an overriding consideration therein.

The message of the epic literature, however, might well be taken to be something like this. No matter how sincere the effort may be to do the best in the circumstances, there is a momentum in events and a destiny which shapes our ends and which leaves behind much that is disastrous. It is in order to set up a kind of protective barrier against this that the ancient Hindus laid such stress on equilibrium in society. The chaos that they envisaged was not of the cosmic kind that Greek imagination conjured up, but the nightmare possibility of a society where anything goes. It is almost as if they had glimpsed in idea the cut-throat style of living of a competitive society and opted for a stratified society in which each man had his allotted place. The factual and the prescriptive are mutually involved in an interesting way on such a model. Diversities of function are factual matters and out of these a set of obligations arises. There is also, along with such a view, the belief that traditional roles should be perpetuated on the ground that it is good to do what one can do best. Modern thinking would at this point come up with a query as to the role of judgement in all this. Are prescriptions to be read off, as it were, from roles? We need, I feel sure, to bear in mind the context of a traditional society whose economic life centered on crafts which, for centuries (and this used to be the case in many parts of the world) were perfected through skills handed down from father to son. Radical questioning and self-searching held full sway in a different context, that of metaphysical thought. At the everyday level, fact and evaluation remained bound together in Hindu ethical thinking through appreciation of the components of situation and circumstance.

This comment can be further borne out with reference to the third type of dharma, that which varies with stages in life. The four aśramas (stages of life) are described as brahmacarya, gārhasthya, vanaprastha and sannyāsa. The first (student life) is typified in the life of preparation and self-discipline. The full connotation goes beyond the narrower meaning of continence. The second or householder stage is where the facticity of the pursuit of artha and kāma comes into full play. The dharma of the householder also sets a value on links with the past in various ways, ceremonies for the benefit of ancestors, perpetuation of family lines, and the following of the teachings of saints and sages. The householder, situated in the present as he is, is bound by invisible but strong cords to the past and the future. These are the facts of his being-where-he-is. His recognition of this as good, and as indicating his role at this particular stage in life, bears him up in this, the busiest, part of his pilgrimage.

The third stage, vanaprastha, retreat to the forest, is analogous to what we mean today by retirement, and significantly, in industrialized societies it often takes the form of a shift from the city to the country. The difference is that whereas in our day we think of retirement as a time for new activities, especially new forms of sociality, the ancient Hindu thought in terms of gradual withdrawal from society, assimilating, as he did, societal bonds to ‘bondage’. The texts go into detail concerning change of diet and habits at this stage, much of which makes good sense. It is also worth remembering that Indian philosophy tends to blur the distinction between means and end, so that, to take an example, fasting is looked on both as instrumental to health and self-purification and as discipline as an end in itself. The retired man, free of familial obligations, is still within society and has obligations towards it. The Rāmāyana tells how Sita was looked after by Valmiki in his hermitage when she was alone in the forest. But since each stage can be regarded as a preparation for the next the forest-dweller’s stage gives way to that of sannyāsa or complete renunciation. The ascetic is free of all possessions and also free from the practice of rituals. He has shed all attachment. While from one point of view the sannyāsin (the one practising sannyāsa) has gone beyond the bounds of society, from another point of view a societal system that sanctions sannyāsa is in fact making room, almost as a safety valve, for those who serve society best by ‘being a friend to all’.

The discipline of the four stages is a discipline of growth, of progressive non-attachment. Even the householder, who may be supposed to be attached to his family and his possessions, needs to learn that the time will soon come when all these will have to be given up. The value put on detachment in the Indian tradition can also be seen as a determination not to be submerged by fact. Facticity was usually seen by Indian thinkers above all in the prevalence of suffering in the human condition. Buddha began his meditation on the condition of man with what suddenly struck him as most crucial about this condition – the inevitability of the facts of old age, sickness and death. Was it out of a rare courage or forgetfulness that longevity was nevertheless regarded as good? Death was never regarded as a bourn from which no traveller returned, for the soul would return again and again until all potencies had been worked out. The longer the life the more the opportunity to fulfill positive karmas and the less need for too many rebirths – such may be the implicit motive behind this way of thinking. To phrase it like this is to see how the four aśramas are connected with the fourth purusārtha, moksha, to which we turn next.

If dharma means righteousness, moksha is usually translated as freedom or liberation. It might be useful at this point to compare the four purusārthas with Plato’s distinction between eikasis, pistis, dianoia and noesis. Plato’s is a noetic ladder of ascent where, so the Divided Line analogy tells us, there is a coherence between the first and the second and between the third and the fourth. The first two deal with the sensible world and the latter two with the intelligible world. Plato is very clear on the point that there is no route to noesis other than through dianoia.

Comparison with the purusārthas is suggestive. The bottom two are worldly. There is no route to the fourth other than via the third. But the progression is not a cognitive one. Moreover the highest term is not spoken of in terms of the good but rather incorporates the insight that freedom from the bondage of suffering is at first sight the highest state to which a human being can aspire. The metaphor of ascent in Plato is here paralleled by the metaphor of a journey within. Phenomenologically, no doubt, the triad of truth, beauty and goodness is not the same as the triad satcitānanda (truth, beauty and bliss). Both express in different ways how the ultimate was conceived by two remarkable, ancient cultures. The Platonic return to the cave resembles the Mahayana Buddhist position rather than the Vedantic one. And yet the Platonic and the Vedantic viewpoints show considerable similarity of insight in their quest for the transcendent and their conceiving of this as an ethico-metaphysical endeavour.

But whereas the shift from dianoia to noesis is a shift within the overarching framework of the intelligible, the transition from dharma to moksha seems more radical; this now has to be elucidated. Even though the word dhārmik serves in common Indian usage for both ‘righteous’ and ‘religious’ (equating these almost in the Judaic manner), there is a tendency among scholars to stress that religion, strictly speaking, goes beyond the realm of morality into the realm of ‘realization’. The nearest analogy to this position that I can think of would be regarding a ‘holy will’ in the Kantian sense as a realizable ideal for the human being. On Kant’s view, of course, it is no such thing.

To proceed, we have already noticed that there is a profoundly ontological dimension about dharma. Dharma both is and ought to be. There is probably a similar tangle involved in discussions about value in some other systems of thought in that values, qua ideals, are in a paradigmatic sense. What is required, from our own human perspective, is an actualization of them in the course of life. The trouble is that if the supreme value is seen as beyond good and evil (apart from the difficulty of giving a connotation to ‘supreme’ divorced from ‘good’), as the concept of moksha has it, we are in the paradoxical position of lifting it out of the context of living altogether. Other problems include these: how to describe what is presumably beyond description; how to commend as a supreme terminus of the human quest what is supposed to be beyond the sphere of human judgement; and how to prescribe action in conformity with an ideal whose inner meaning connotes the very cessation of action, since all actions bind. The concept of moksha in Indian thought represents an extreme form of the urge to ‘get away from fact’.

Hindu thought takes the web of human obligations to be, then, intricately structured indeed. A more person-centered philosophy makes room for the ebb and flow of activities respecting others. The ancient Hindus retained what they regarded as the ‘privilege’ of opting out of these activities for exceptional individuals whose special gifts (and this included inclinations) allowed them to leave aside normal social duties before they had been through the traditional sequence of stages of life. The rest of humanity, however, was in a sense ‘condemned not to be free,’ or at least constantly reminded of the extent to which the world of getting and spending is ever with us. There was also a concept of jivanmukti (freedom within this life) which some systems made room for, but this was envisaged in terms of detachment rather than anything else.

The only route to moksha is through dharma, since freedom is seen, on this view, not as a presupposition of action but as the culmination of life. It requires a switch in thinking to be able to regard freedom as in opposition to responsibility – freedom being attained after responsibilities are over (on the extreme form of the theory as against the jivanmukti form). This shows how different the Indian treatment of freedom is from what we may be accustomed to in other philosophical traditions. It all springs from the conviction (or more properly, presupposition) for it does not seem to have been radically questioned except by the Carvakas and a few others whom orthodoxy probably suppressed) that the wheel of facticity must revolve and that it is possible for man to acquit himself creditably in the ascesis which ordinary living involves, but that the ultimate desideratum could be a state of being where empiricality would be completely overcome. There are branches of the Indian cluster of philosophies, Jainism and Hinayana Buddhism, where the highest value is placed on incorporeal existence, that is a state of being after the death of the body. Hinduism at least had the merit of allowing the possibility of liberation during one’s lifetime. If one recasts the idea of detachment which goes along with this as a near Stoic refusal to be overwhelmed by the devastating effect of circumstances, one perhaps comes close to what the concept might have meant in the lifeworld of a people who are distant in time and whose way of life has in large part to be reconstructed imaginatively. The theory of separate karmic lines prevented the Hindus from having an ‘Atlas-complex’ (seeing themselves as called upon to remedy the ills of the world). But that karma theory did not stand in the way of the Mahayana Buddhist’s compassionate concern to alleviate the suffering of humanity.

Dharma and moksha in fact are concepts which cannot really be divorced from a host of other terms with which we cannot deal here. Among these the self, karma, samsāra, and Brahman are the most important. Dharma is a concept which has much bearing on the way in which the empirical self, which is particularistic, is distinguished from the Self seen in a transcendent manner, that is, as identical with ultimate reality or Brahman. Not all systems make this conflation. But the Vedantic way of thinking does, and it is this approach which has perhaps been philosophically the most influential in India to this day. Karma (which shares the root for the verb ‘to do’) is the law of action according to which whatever we do is retrospectively conditioned and prospectively determinative. It is not as cast-iron and deterministic a concept as it sounds, for it accommodates the presence of unfulfilled potencies which permit leeway for choice. If it were not so there would have been no place for the concept of dharma which is clearly concerned with what one ought to do. This part of the theory can well be compared, for example, with Sartre’s tandem affirmation of facticity and freedom, of course just at the level of analogy. Samsāra refers to the ongoing course of change to which human beings are subject in a chain of births. It is a concept which in many ways takes the place of evil, for it is seen as something which is inexorable, terrifying and yet challenging (if all of these are mutually compatible). Dharma is really the mitigating factor in a world governed by samsāra, but from which moksha or liberation was believed to be both desirable and possible. The ancient Hindus were deeply conscious of the binding force of actions in the sense that whatever we do affects both ourselves and others. This being ‘condemned not to be free’ at the empirical level is the form which finitude takes in Hindu thought. The causes of this condition are further spelled out in terms of factors such as cosmic ignorance and inordinate craving – the language varies. In any case it is taken for granted that man is destined for something else in spite of this vast cosmic trap, and this without benefit of a concept of an overriding Providence who has a design for each of His creatures.

It is this long-term prospect (which is the nearest to hope that one can get to in Hindu thinking) that poses a problem regarding the relation between dharma and moksha. If moksha is what is valued supremely, this seems to relegate dharma to what is to be finally transcended, and this looks very much like a philosophy of ‘beyond good and evil’ which would give us pause. We can move from this to certain other difficulties.

Dharma, as has been shown, is a cosmic principle of ontological status, a principal of individual growth (svadharma, or one’s own dharma which is not a matter of choice but of discovery), and a regulative principle in the face of our relations with others. The sources of dharma are not confined to philosophical and legal texts, but also include customs, the habits of good men and the conscience of the enlightened. The last of these sources is especially relevant in modern times, when reformist thinkers like Mahatma Gandhi have advocated a rethinking of dharma in order to bring about desirable changes in Hindu society. This is to say that the concept has been appealed to in recent times in order to justify change rather than to legitimize the status quo. Purely secular thinkers, however, have doubted the wisdom of invoking a concept which on the whole has had conservative connotations and, in their view, is associated less with evaluating prevailing states of affairs than with perpetuating them.

To what extent is dharma concerned with adjustment to a life of bondage and to what extent does it take us beyond it? The answer may need to combine both alternatives. In this respect once more we have an analogy with other traditions which insist on the autonomy of the ethical and yet conceive it as a path to the spiritual (if this unexamined distinction can be pardoned). It certainly looks as if the concept of moksha takes us beyond the distinction of ‘is’ and ‘ought’ to being, but in the sense of being-beyond-good-and-evil. And yet the liberated man is often referred to as one in whom the sattvik (which can be variously translated as purity, goodness and the like) and guna (quality) prevails. Now the three gunas (the other two being rajas, energy, and tamas, inertia) operate at the empirical level. It should be mentioned, however, that this way of putting it is more characteristic of the Sankhya system than of any other. The ‘realized soul’ according to the Upanishads, is gunatīta (beyond the gunas). The matter, of course, needs to be taken historically (never an easy thing to do in inquiring into Indian philosophy), noting the early connection of dharma with sacrifice in the Vedic era, the later, less ritualistic ways of relating the temporal and the eternal, and its use as a ground for questioning norms and values. Although the etymological meaning of dharma is tied up with conservation,4 insights into what needs to be conserved evolve as time goes on. This shows the fertility of a concept which, although avowedly referring to what transcends space and time (what is sanātana or eternal), yet requires human agency to manifest it. This can be restated something like this: the man of moral integrity articulates Being in his daily activities. This I believe to be an important insight in the context of relating authenticity both to adjudication between possibilities and therein plumbing an ontological stratum which must be accessible to us in some sense, clouded though our vision must needs be. In other words, in Heideggerian terminology dharma (rather than the ‘concept of dharma’) straddles the ontological and the ontic.

The treatise which, to my mind, presents the whole question of the content of dharma in the most poignant way is the epic Mahabhārata. The Bhagavad Gītā which is part of this, links up the imperturbability of the dhārmik man with faith in God. An element of grace enters what is otherwise a rather Pelagian model. The argument of the Gītā passes over what would strike us today as a crucial matter, the role of individual conscience in situations where prima facie duties seem otherwise to be clearly indicated, and presents bhakti (devotion) as the route to freedom. The medieval bhakti cults expectedly had far less to say about dharma than, say, Manu did. More illuminating, in my view, is the stance taken by Yudhishthira in the Mahabhārata, his realization that not only adharma (that which is contrary to dharma) brings sorrow, but so also does dharma itself; this is a deeply paradoxical insight for one who was said to be dharmarāj (the king of dharma or dharma incarnate). We reach here a central theme in all epic literature, the apparent futility of human efforts, the devastation left behind after heroic deeds, the terrible solitude of the one who enters fully into the infinite extent of human suffering. The Mahabhārata is believed to describe events which took place around 1000 B.C. and was written somewhere between 200 B.C. and A.D. 400. The original was called Jaya, which means victory. Victory can be hollow and apparent failure can be heroic. And this is but one of the many layers of meaning that can be discovered in this striking work.

Another thing which the long history of the concept of dharma seems to me to show is that the clogging effect of fact on human ethical endeavour arises less from the bondage imposed by the physical world than from the intractable nature of human institutions. Both the legalistic aspect of dharma and its more general concern with the pattern of a life which is worth living brings out the intransigent character of those structures which man has made for himself. The structure of kingship and its responsibilities, familial obligations, and other societal frameworks seem to get snarled up in such a fashion that the path of duty is alternately unclear, hazardous, or, an even deeper insight, productive of catastrophes unintended by the agents. And yet the regulative function of dharma is inevitably mediated through institutions. An epoch and a generation which struggles to recast institutions is in a position to appreciate this. Even so, a modern critic will certainly react against the non-egalitarian bias of some of the attendant concepts, the idea of caste duties for example. The non-Hindu will find strange the notion of duties being performed with an eye to the merit believed to be built up thanks to proper performance. How was this concern for the accumulation of good karmas reconciled with the advocacy of disinterestedness? Was it a kind of Weltschmerz that gave rise to the stress on moksha by later Hindu thinkers?

Whereas moksha was a concept reserved for some of the philosophical systems it was the concept of dharma which retained its hold over popular thought and practice. Almost every innovator in social thinking in the modern era in India has appealed to dharma in the service of a critique of social factuality. Under the influence of various liberating tendencies in society, for example, it is commonly pronounced that caste is no longer associated with dharma. On the other hand, it is only fair to grant that dharma is also appealed to in defence of regressive positions.

In conclusion, to my mind the literature reveals not only a vérité de culture but a vérité de la condition humaine. It takes the form of poignant grappling with the contrast between the facticity which enables and the facticity which embroils; the need for roots and the need for branches; the temptation to soar beyond the values embodied in everyday life and seek an empyrean beyond it. Here etymology is suggestive. The sphere of fire, the sun, was as potent a symbol for the ancient Hindus as it was for the Greeks. What beckons is a light which is blinding in its intensity. It is tapasya (the austerity which sears) which leads us in this direction. In the meantime we are tried in the refiner’s fire – the daily round and common task – the realm of dharma.


1 Daya Krishna, Social Philosophy; Past and Future, Simla, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1969, pp. 12-13.

2 Kāma Sūtra, I, 1.

3 Ibid.

4 Cf. Abel Bengaigne, La religion Védique d’après les hymnes du Rig-Veda, III. Paris: 1963, p.210.

Last Revised 16-Feb-09 12:09 PM.