Evolution of Dharma( 1 of 3)

06 Sep

Mr. Rajan in his blog What if Krishna became the Charioteer of Rama?, referred to the issue of the Yuga Dharma and obliquely to the dynamic character of Dharma. The idea of Dharma unfolding itself and acquiring newer interpretations at different stages and in different contexts, as it rolled on over the ages, fascinated me much.

Dharma is not a stagnant concept but a living experience; it is evolving itself all the time, constantly interacting with the challenges, demands and needs of the times. Dharma once visualized as the cosmic order, the eternal principle governing and sustaining the Universe; gradually metamorphosed into duties and responsibilities prescribed for varieties of beings in varied contexts and at different stages in the life of the society and the individual.

Along the way, it acquired an array of meanings and interpretations. At each stage, whatever was its form; Dharma was a point of reference to human existence; and a protection from confusions, delusions and upheavals. It always set an acceptable norm for a life well lived. Its underlying principle had always been the welfare of the society and the individual, leading to progress and harmony.

While talking of Dharma, one has to acknowledge the realities of life. The existence of evil in the individual and in the society is inevitable. It just cannot be wished away. At the same time, it is imperative to secure victory over that evil and injustice. Victory in this context means: a progression towards the greatest good of all, leading to peace and development of all beings; harmony of the individual with himself, with the society and with the universe; establishment of the right values in life; and helping humans to attain their ultimate goal.

Dharma does not necessarily win the battle each time in that ongoing conflict. Dharma nonetheless relentlessly pushes on, striving to restore and maintain a sense of balance, fair dealing and harmony in life. Evil will always be there and will never be completely eradicated. But it is essential that Dharma assert itself over the evil now and hereafter.


Let us take a brief look at some definitions of Dharma and its evolution over the ages.

Dharma is a richly connotative term that stands for a universal principle that is not easy to define but not impossible to outline. Dharma is ultimately the basis for our existence, prosperity and fair dealing in this world. All the other principles and values in life flow from the fountain of Dharma.

Dharma has variously been explained as: the principle or the law that governs the universe; individual conduct in conformity with that principle; that which is established or firm or steadfast; what holds together; the essential function or nature of a thing; codes regulating individual and of social conduct; a body of teachings; a sect or a religion, a way of life; righteousness; justice; duty etc. Every form of life, every group of people has its Dharma, which is the principle or law of its being. The failure to observe Dharma would put the individual and the society in peril.

At another plane of consciousness, Dharma is a synonym for Truth, Atman and God.

The essence of Dharma, in any case, consists in living and experiencing it.

Dharma can mean any one, more, or all of those explanations, depending upon the context in which it is referred. That is because; the term was employed in a variety of ways down the ages in different contexts; and the connotation and the scope of the term underwent huge changes over the period. It would therefore be worthwhile to glance at its evolution.

Dharma in Rig Veda

Rig Veda adopts a multifaceted approach to Dharma. At one level, Dharma is the, sublime cosmic order that governs the universe and sustains human existence. At another level, it guides the individual towards harmony with the universe.

Rig Veda does not engage in a systematic exposition Dharma. The seeds of Dharma are carried in the concepts of rta and sathya that Rig Veda refers to frequently. Rta is the natural or universal order and integrity of all forms of life and ecological systems. It recognizes our oneness with our environment and our unity with all life on earth. It is an inviolable cosmic order and Truth. Those were not imposed or created by God; but, in a sense, they are the God.

Rta is also used in the sense of consciousness of Truth; and when expressed through words and deeds it is Sathya. Rta in relation to an individual denotes his right conduct based on truth, the Dharma. Thus, the three terms Rta, Sathya and Dharma almost band together.

Dharma thus is not just harmony; it is pure Reality; it is also the law or right conduct based in Truth, which itself is also Dharma.

The term Dharma occurs in Rig Veda about fifty-six times (e.g.5.63.7, 5.72.2, 9.7.1, 9.25.2, 10.88.1, 10.170.2). In almost all the instances, it is used in the sense of duty or action, which contributes to the support or sustenance of the world. Atharva Veda too describes dharma symbolically: Prithivim dharmana dhritam, that is, “this world is upheld by dharma”.

viśvasvaṃ mātaram oṣadhīnāṃ dhruvāṃ bhūmiṃ pṛthivīṃ dharmaṇā dhṛtām |AVŚ_12,1.17a|


Dharma in Upanishads

The Upanishads continue the two-pronged approach to Dharma.

The Upanishads at one level see Dharma as the universal principle of law, order, harmony and the supreme Truth, Brahman. It is the law of being, without which one cannot exist- “anur esha dharmaha”- (Katha Upanishad 1.21). Dharma denotes Atman. It is Sat, the truth that Rig Veda proclaims in “Ekam Sat” (Truth Is One). It is also the Sat in Satchidananda (Truth-Consciousness-Bliss), the grand imagery of that Brahman.

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad speaks of the identity of truth and Dharma:

yo vai sa dharmaḥ satyaṃ vai tat | tasmāt satyaṃ vadantam āhur dharmaṃ vadatīti | dharmaṃ vā vadantaṃ satyaṃ vadatīti |

Verily, that which is Dharma is truth.

Therefore, they say of a man who speaks truth,
‘He speaks the Dharma,’

Or of a man who speaks the Dharma,
‘He speaks the Truth.’

Verily, both these things are the same

 (Brh. Upanishad, 1.4.14)

Upanishads also speak of Dharma in the sense of duty or course of conduct, which contributes, to the sustenance of the society and its members. Mahanarayana Upanishad (1.4.14) calls it “Dharmo vishvasya jagathah prathista” – that which sustains the world.

Chandogya Upanishad (2.23.1) speaks of “trio dharma skandaha …” the duties in three stages of life as the offshoots or the braches of the Dharma. This refers to the obligations and privileges of a student, a householder and a hermit.

trayo dharmaskandhāḥ | yajño ‘dhyayanaṃ dānam iti prathamaḥ | tapa eva dvitīyaḥ |
brahmacāryācāryakulavāsī tṛtīyo ‘tyantam ātmānam ācāryakule ‘vasādayan | sarva ete puṇyalokā bhavanti | brahmasaṃstho ‘mṛtatvam eti || ChUp_2,23.1 ||

The Acharyaopadesha in Taitteriya Upanishad (1.11.1) instructs “Dharmam chara”- perform your ordained duties.

vedamanūcyācāryontevāsinamanuśāsti / satyaṃ vada / dharmaṃ cara / svādhyāyānmā pramadaḥ / ācāryāya priyaṃ dhanamāhṛtya prajātantuṃ mā vyavacchetsīḥ / satyānna pramaditavyam / dharmānna pramaditavyam / kuśalānna pramaditavyam / bhūtyaina pramaditavyam / svādhyāyapravacanābhyāṃ na pramaditavyam // (TaittU_1,11.1)

Here, in these cases, Dharma stands for righteous behavior based on truth, in accordance with the right conduct prescribed as per law in the context of ones stage and/or calling in life. It is in the best interests of the society and the individual. It shapes and sustains ones existence as an individual and as a member of the society. All other meanings, interpretations and derivations from the term Dharma, in the later texts are corollaries of this central idea.

Dharma as Purushartha

The Rig Veda talks of another concept, that of rna which underlines the responsibility of man to his family, his community, his environment and to himself as a human being. Rna aims to set values in a normal day-to-day life. The fulfillment of three purposes of life (dharma, artha and Kama) acquires meaning only in the context of felt obligations (rnas). It is essential the pursuit of Artha (wealth or power) and Kama (desire or pleasure) is guided and restrained by Dharma. It is the violation of this requirement that sets apart the not-so-virtuous from the virtuous. Rig Veda (8.1.6) gives a call, “Man, you must reach upward, not go down below”.

If moksha is the goal, then participate fully in the affairs of society, raise a family, enjoy the good life, and serve the community … all within the framework of Dharma.

Dharma in this context is characterized by human values like truth, compassion, self-restraint, non-enmity, forgiveness etc. It sets proper priorities for human achievements, lends a sense of direction to human aspirations and rationalizes the relationship of the individual with the society and the world at large. It also provides ample scope for individual conscience and to exercise options.

We see here a logical progression from Rta a cosmic order to a code of conduct prescribed for the individual in the light of righteousness, commitment and a sense of balance in life.

Dharma in Ramayana

Valmiki presents his view of ideal conduct through Rama and his approach to life. Valmiki portrays Rama not as a supernatural being but as a rational human who in his life encounters several moral dilemmas and deals with each of them in accordance with the Dharma that was relevant in the context of the event and with reference to the stage of life he was then placed.

Valmiki says, ” Honour the duties of one’s stage in life”. To him Dharma is neither stagnant nor an abstract concept but a dynamic living experience. “Whichever Dharma you follow with steadfastness and according to the principles, may that Dharma protect you.”

Valmiki demonstrates the dynamic nature of the Dharma through the stressful events in the life of Rama, and by depicting how Rama reacted to those events in accordance with the Dharma then appropriate.

For instance, when the question of his exile came up, Rama was not a king, yet. At that stage in his life, the relation between him and the people of Ayodhya was not that of a king and his subjects. His station in life, then, was of a dutiful son. His primary duty, then, was to his parents and to his family. He rightly respected his father’s wish, obeyed him and saved him from the danger of breaking his solemn promise. By accepting the exile without hesitation or any ill feeling, Rama protected his Dharma, that of his father and that of his nation too. He acted with great sense of responsibility and set an ideal for the coming generations to follow. That is the reason Rama is regarded the upholder of the right conduct and as the epitome of virtue.

At a later stage in his life, after return from exile and crowned as the king, his Dharma as the king took precedence over all other concerns in his life. He placed the interests of the kingdom over that of himself and of his family.

As if to demonstrate the contrast, Valmiki also brings out in relief the ill effects of pride, greed, lust, jealousy, distrust, deceit etc. to highlight the virtues of Dharma, and to show how they could lead to degradation and destruction.

Another aspect of Dharma that Valmiki highlights is its equation with Sathya, truthfulness. To him, Sathya is Dharma and it is established in Dharma. Accordingly, Rama is entirely committed to truth; he is true to himself in spirit, word and deed. He not only follows the path of truth but also helps others to be truthful and to follow their Dharma.

Ramayana delineates the Dharma of a father, son, a brother, a king, a wife, a friend and a follower with illustrative examples. Valmiki in this context presents three contrasting sets of brothers.

Rama and his brothers idealize the brotherly love, affection and regard.

The relationship of Vaali and Sugreeva, in contrast, is a case where communication between the brothers has broken down. Whatever brotherly affection was there has since vanished. Each does not hesitate to kill the other or usurp the woman and kingdom.

The relationship among the brothers Ravana is of a different kind. Kumbhakarna is aware that his elder brother Ravana clearly trespassed Dharma and he tries to dissuade Ravana from pursuing the wrong path. After he fails in his attempts, Kumbhakarna decides to go along with Ravana, regardless; because of brotherly affection, allegiance, loyalty and respect for his elder brother.

Vibhishana on the other hand is clear in his mind that lending support to the righteous takes priority over loyalty to the family and to the brother. Vibhishana was perhaps the earliest instance of a whistle-blower. Dharma in these cases was a question of choosing the right priorities.

It is also a picture of three types of societies, each with its own set of values, mores and structure. One is the kingdom of man; the other is of the Vanaras while the third is of the Rakshasas. They are also pictures of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas gunas.

In all the three cases, the elder brother is denied the throne; each for a different reason. Eventually the Sattvics come to throne, but again in three different ways. It is virtually a demonstration of Dharma in action.

The principle characters – Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Dasharatha , Kumbhakarna , Vibhishana et al – each exercises his/her judgment and acts in accordance with what he/she considers is the right or righteous in the context of the then society, his/her Dharma in the circumstance. Ramayana thus sets in motion a context sensitive dynamic interpretation of Dharma, evolving itself all the time. It means that the broad principles of Dharma are translated into applications for use in specific situations; just as in the relation between science and technology.

This context sensitive theme, innovative treatment, and dynamic interpretation of Dharma gains greater significance in Mahabharata.

Read Next:

Dharma in Mahabharata


Posted by on September 6, 2012 in Dharma, Indian Philosophy


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5 responses to “Evolution of Dharma( 1 of 3)

  1. sreenivasaraos

    March 21, 2015 at 7:27 am

    dear srini,

    i think it is a very well thought out and well presented blog. i read it twice to grasp its depth fully.

    while i personally felt that every single line of yours carried its purpose, others may feel the introduction is somewhat too lengthy.

    the following paragraph was simply superb; it is an angle of view that i think no one would have elaborated so far:

    “it is also a picture of three types of societies, each with its own set of values, mores and structure. one is the kingdom of man; the other is of the vanaras while the third is of the rakshasas. they are also pictures of sattva, rajas and tamas gunas. in all the three cases, the elder brother is denied the throne; each for a different reason. eventually the sattvics come to throne, but again in three different ways. it is virtually a demonstration of dharma in action.”

    i have read in the gospel of sri ramakrishna about the nature of the ravana brothers linked to trigunas. ravana represented rajas, kumbhakarna, the tamas and vibhishana the sattwa.

    in ramayana, perhaps one area where rama himself stood some what defenceless about dharma, was in vali vadham. in my childhood, i used to read and reread rajaji’s ramayana (in tamil). there rajaji would have commented that there are some interpretations by intellects justifying rama’s actions, but he personally felt that those arguments are not strong enough and rama did seem to have lost some balance in the episode. as a young boy, i felt that rama the god should have given some good and solid explanation to justify his act. but only after reading the gospel of sri ramakrishna at much later in life i could understand the fact that avatara purushas and jivan muktas transcend both dharma and adharma.

    in a conversation with sri ramakrishna and others, girish gosh, a famous drama writer and an earnest follower of ramakrishn, would be arguing with others about avatars. girish was a staunch believer of avatars and in the course of arguments the other person would make a comment “how can you justify vali vadham, if rama is really an avatar?” for that girish gosh’s retort was “only an avatar can do it!” sir ramakrishna would give his nod of approval for girish’s retort. when i read it for the first time, i felt overwhelmed. i got the answer for a question that was nagging me for a long time. if krishna were to be in rama’s position, perhaps he would have instantly proclaimed his divinity and by virtue of it, his power to act at his will, for every thing comes under his maya of divine play. but the poor rama, ‘the son of dasaratha’ had to stand muted in front of vali’ tirades!

    i look forward to rest of your blogs.

    ram ram


  2. sreenivasaraos

    March 21, 2015 at 7:28 am

    Reading this one was easy– but feeling was not. I could not grasp the meanings totally but it made me feel.

    And as you explained the Dharma in the context of Ramayana– I understood for the first time why Ramayana is rated as Maha-kabya.

    Great article.

    Bijaya Ghosh

    • sreenivasaraos

      March 21, 2015 at 7:29 am

      Dear Bijaya Gosh, Thank you for brushing up an old blog fading away.
      I am glad you read this.
      Please do read Part Two also .
      Hopefully , it might be less tedious.

  3. Alex Klein

    November 29, 2022 at 12:35 am

    This was incredibly helpful to me even 10 years after you had posted it. I will have to read it multiple times to fully absorb and begin to understand everything. Thank you for taking the time to write this out and explain so much sir! 🙏

    • sreenivasaraos

      November 29, 2022 at 1:26 am

      Dear Alex
      I wonder how you dug out this old and a forgotten blog
      You are most welcome
      I am happy you found this useful and interesting
      Take your time
      Please do read the other two parts as well
      At each stage it gets more complicated
      I trust you will have the patience to wade through

      Cheers and Regards


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