What Is Dharma?

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Dhr- (to hold, support)

Dharma Definition

Dharma is a concept prominent in Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism, and other “dharmic” religions.

Derived from the Sanskrit root dhr, meaning to hold, bear, support, or sustain, dharma is often understood to mean the eternal or natural cosmic law, or the way of things that upholds righteousness.

a statue of a woman with a balance, representing the law, or dharma

Dharma Deep Dive

Dharma. Dhamma. Dharam. Daena. Dina. Deen.

Different religions and spiritual traditions call it different things, and sometimes contend they are different things. And while it is often said that dharma has no single definition, there certainly seems to be a common theme.

Dharma In Hinduism

In Hinduism, it is among the purusartha, the aims and objectives of life. We find it in all the prominent scriptures – The Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Vedas, and others. It’s being in alignment with your inherent nature.

For example, it’s the dharma of the songbird to sing, for the bee to make honey, for the sun to shine, for the river to flow. It’s what these creatures and things were meant to do. When this alignment happens, the universe makes it easy to flow.

For human beings then, certain duties and practices are in our dharma. But they’re different for everybody. In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna initially refuses to fight in a war, saying, “Better for me if the sons of Dhritarashtra, weapons in hand were to attack me in battle and kill me unarmed and unresisting.”

The problem is, he’s a warrior, and the cause is just. Krishna has to explain the concept of dharma to him – and the nature of the entire universe – to make this clear.

“It is better to strive in one’s own dharma than to succeed in the dharma of another. Nothing is ever lost in following one’s own dharma, but competition in another’s dharma breeds fear and insecurity.”

– Bhagavad Gita, 3:35
a painting of krishna and arunja

Hindu scriptures consistently posit that our highest duty, our dharma, is to cultivate our relationship with the divine. Spiritual practices like meditation, studying sacred texts, and applying the yamas and niyamas put you in harmony with existence.

Dharma In Sikhism

In Sikhism, dharam is much the same. In the Guru Granth Sahib, dharam is the path of righteousness and justice for the truth seeker.

It’s a way of life that includes duties such as seva, selfless service, simran, the remembrance of the divine, and the application of other ideals that bring the Sikh – literally meaning student or disciple – into the divine order of things.

Dharma In Buddhism

For Buddhists, dhamma is among the three jewels of Buddhism which form the foundation of practice.

Buddha – the exemplar.

Sangha – the community of practitioners.

Dhamma – the teachings and methods.

Hearing the Buddha teach the dhamma is often said to be the first step for Buddhists. The teachings include the four noble truths, the eightfold path, and other doctrines said to be universally applicable. The methods include meditation and mindfulness, mantras, and following ethical standards and other practices which form a way of life.   

“The dharma can be recognized when someone walks with freedom, with solidity, with joy. When someone sits with peace and compassion. When someone speaks with tolerance, with loving kindness.”

– Thich Nhat Hanh.
a dharma wheel statue against the blue sky
The Dharma Wheel

Dharma In Zoroastrianism

In Zoroastrianism, there’s daena, which is said to translate to that which is seen and observed, or that which shines through. But it also carries other meanings such as right conduct, conscience, religion, and law among others.

Dharma In Islam

Similarly, in Islam, there’s deen, which is the way of life of a believer conferred by the Q’uran and prophetic teachings. It is meant to make life easier, and in some hadith (prophetic narrations) it is said to be ease itself.

“There is no compulsion in deen; truly the right way has become clear from error.”

– Q’uran, 2:256

Dharma in Your Life

“Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue… as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.”

– Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
a woman with her arms outstretched in front of the milky way

It may help to see dharma as the energy that supports you when you get out of your own way.

However, that doesn’t mean that going with the flow, or going along to get along will put you in line with your dharma. Knowing yourself and your true nature has to come first, and if the above spiritual traditions can teach us anything, it’s that spiritual maturity takes practice.

It isn’t that you have to follow any one path. It’s about uncovering yours. The Srimad Bhagavatam 6.3.19 says:

dharmaṁ tu sākṣād bhagavat-praṇītaṁ

“Dharma is whatever the Supreme / Divine orders”

It’s there for you to hear, see, and touch for yourself. And it’s there to support you on your yoga journey, to make the ground firm under your feet, on and off the mat.

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To go deep and expand your yogic knowledge, access our free Yoga Terms Encyclopedia, where we host a profound wealth of ancient and timeless yogic wisdom in an accessible modern format.

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Hailing from the Yukon, Canada, David (B.A, M.A.) is a yoga teacher (200-hour therapeutic YTT) and long-time student and practitioner of various spiritual disciplines including vedanta and Islam.

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