Dharma has various meanings including responsibilities, religious teachings, ethics and righteousness. It can mean one’s spiritual path, or one’s social duties. Hindus consider dharma as one of life’s four aims. The others are artha (work), kama (pleasure) and moksha (seeking liberation). In the social context, dharma is a set of duties, obligations and rules, that maintain order in society. So, those who create disharmony in society for selfish reasons are castigated as exemplifying adharma (unrighteousness).
Dharma as Law
The vedas portray dharma in the sense of facilitating order and harmony. One had to perform duties according to one’s social class, gender and age. For instance, in youth one is a student. In adulthood, one becomes a householder. In old age, one should ideally meditate and study the scriptures.
Dharma in Action
The Bhagavad Gita illustrates the use of dharma as a base for action. Krishna advises that one should perform one’s allotted duty selflessly, without hankering for the fruits of the action. Instead of focusing on the reward, one should concentrate on performing the action to the best of one’s ability. Such detached action is a dharmic ideal.
Arjuna is loathe to perform his duty as a warrior because of the impending grief it will cause. His mind is uneasy, as his relatives and teacher are arrayed on the other side. In confusion, he seeks Krishna’s advice. Though Arjuna’s motive is noble, as he wants to avoid suffering, he still has a duty to perform as a warrior. Krishna advises him to focus on his task without regret. Though bodies may be slain in the war, the soul is imperishable says Krishna, thus consoling Arjuna.
Dharma as Truth
Sanatana dharma means the “eternal truth”. This indicates that while there are many religions, there is but one ultimate truth. The numerous religions offer many paths and express this truth in various ways. Hinduism accepts this fact and recognizes the numerous approaches to the ultimate truth.