The western world has become familiar with ‘karma’ sufficient for the word to be absorbed into everyday language. People understand karma as payback for wrongdoing meted out by the invisible hand of the universe. People talk of ‘good karma’ and ‘bad karma’ and ‘quick karma’. Perhaps the well-known saying ‘what goes around comes around,’ sums up how we in the west commonly understand karma.
Not so with ‘dharma’. Few western people know what dharma is. The word is therefore little used in our day-to-day conversations. If Jack Kerouac’s 1958 novel The Dharma Bums had made the same impact as On the Road, published a year earlier, dharma may have taken firm hold in western consciousness. It wasn’t to be. Kerouac’s Dharma Bums foray into dharma with Buddhist poet friend, Gary Snyder, has not been popularized. We do however know about an accomplished car thief, Neal Cassady, made famous by On the Road as Kerouac’s ‘western kinsman of the sun.’
Both karma and dharma come from Hinduism – the most ancient of the world’s religions and mother tradition of newer dharmic faiths Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. Deepak Chopra mentions both in his 1994 book The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success. Karma is included as the third spiritual law in the chapter entitled The Law of “Karma” or Cause and Effect. Dharma features as the seventh and final law of success in the chapter entitled The Law of “Dharma” or Purpose in Life. Chopra defines dharma simply as a Sanskrit word meaning ‘purpose in life’. While this broad-brush definition works for this book, dharma means a whole lot more than that.
Dharma is one of those big non-western ideas that are hard to define. It has been translated as ‘religion’, ‘duty’ and ‘righteousness’. While dharma includes all these things, they do not define it. Other broad ideas from outside the west also evade easy definition. The indigenous Maori people of New Zealand (Aotearoa) have a word ‘mana’ that has been translated as ‘honour’ or ‘prestige’. This Maori word has crossed over into everyday use within New Zealand. Most New Zealanders have some idea what mana means. Although mana includes both honour and prestige the word means more than those things. The meaning of the word is better illustrated by an example from Maori society. A person who has acted selflessly in the best interests of the tribe (iwi) and/or the clan (hapu) and has as a result gained standing, influence, honour and prestige is said to have ‘mana’.
The origins of dharma are to be found in India, in one of the most ancient scriptures known to humanity, the Rig Veda. This first Vedic scripture dates back in oral tradition to the late Bronze Age – about 1,400 BC. The Rig Veda spoke of ‘Rta’ – the idea that natural justice and harmony pervade the natural world and there is a power behind nature keeping the natural world in harmony and balance.
Several hundred years later dharma, as we now know it, appeared in the pre-Buddhist era Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (the Great Forest of Knowledge Upanishad). In this scripture dharma is seen as truth. The intelligent force behind nature, rta, had become more than the universal principle of law, order and harmony, it had become dharma – all those things and pure reality – in a word, truth.
The Wikipedia definition of dharma is ‘that which upholds, supports or maintains the regulatory order of the universe’. ‘Adharma’ is the opposite of dharma and refers to that which pulls the universe down and into chaos. Unsurprisingly, the Hindu encyclopedia, Hindupedia, provides more in depth analysis. It confirms dharma ‘has no direct translation into English,’ and states dharma ‘can be thought of as righteousness in thought, word, and action.’ Hindupedia offers as another interpretation: ‘the collection of natural and universal laws that uphold, sustain, or uplift. That is law of being; law of nature; individual nature; prescribed duty; social and personal duties; moral code; civil law; code of conduct; morality; way of life; practice; observance; justice; righteousness; religion; religiosity; harmony.’ Dharma is said to represent a ‘principle’ or ‘quality of being’ capable of wide use in ‘a variety of contexts to mean a variety of different ideas.’
Hindupedia goes on to discuss dharma as: cosmic order; a social order; a civilizational principle; ethical behaviour, duty or responsibility; service to the community; self-expression; and a means for attaining eternal nirvana.
In order to understand dharma at a cosmic level we need to first see the universe not as a loose bundle of disparate elements but rather as an interwoven web of countless interdependent strands. Dharma is the intelligent cosmic order underpinning and sustaining this web.
Moving from the cosmic order to the social order of humans, dharma allows us freedom to express and experience so long as we respect others in doing so. A father who delivers his child to school supports and upholds the child and is therefore true to his dharma as a father. The community and the nation also benefit from the father’s support of his child. If however a father abuses his child, the result is adharma – a chain reaction of disharmony feeding out from the family, to the community, the nation and ultimately the universe.
At a community level, dharma is expressed in self-lessness, putting the greater good of the community ahead of personal gain. In serving our communities our lives are given meaning and purpose beyond our selfish existence. Supporting and uplifting others within our communities nourishes our souls.
Dharma is also the means by which the purpose of human life – eternal nirvana – will be achieved. A dharmic life will facilitate the evolution of the human soul to a state of eternal bliss and final liberation from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Hindus also believe nirvana may be achieved here and now on earth – there is no need to die and find it in heaven.
In western nations the individual is the most important member of society. Each and every individual has legal rights against each and every other individual. The most easily understood aspect of dharma for western people is therefore likely to be individual dharma or dharma as self-expression.
In order to understand dharma at an individual level we must first see human life as an essentially spiritual journey. As discussed, dharma is truth incorporating universal law, order and harmony. An individual following a dharmic life will therefore undertake a spiritual journey seeking and following truth.
The source of an individual’s dharma lies within the nature of each individual, his or her unique talents and abilities. As Hindupedia puts it ‘ultimately a human being uplifts himself, sustains and upholds his spirit, when he or she truly fully develops and expresses his or her unique gifts in the service of humanity.’ Dharma is therefore integral to the ‘flowering of a human being … this developing of an inner potential and possibility to its full height and range of expression, this unfolding of human genius consistent with the individual’s inner law of being and action.’
What is to be learned from dharma? As individuals if we connect with our dharma we will find and follow our true purpose in life. That path must be ethical because, in common with Christianity, dharma includes the principle ‘do unto others as you would have others do to you.’ The products of our work will be the expressions of our unique talents. And our unique talents will contribute to the greater good of humanity. If we follow dharma we will evolve in accordance with our higher spiritual purpose and uphold and support our families, our professions, our communities, our nations, and the entire universe.
- On the Road by Jack Kerouac, Part One, Chapter One
- The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success by Deepak Chopra at page 95
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rigveda see Dating and Historical Context
- Rig Veda at 10.133.6 as cited by Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dharma
- Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.14 as cited by Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dharma
- Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dharma
- Hindupedia http://www.hindupedia.com/en/Dharma
- – 15. Ibid.