Dharma is a misunderstood concept within Yogaland.
The term dharma has loosely been translated to passion and more often is and continues to be taken out of context. There have been numerous, conflicting attempts to try and translate ancient Sanskrit literature including the word dharma into German, English and French. Grassmann's translation of the Rig-veda identifies seven different meanings of dharma while Karl Friedrich Geldner in his translation uses 20 different translations for the term dharma!
Monier-Williams, a resource for definitions and explanation of Sanskrit words offers numerous definitions of dharma, such as that which is established or firm, steadfast, statute, law, practice, custom, duty, right, justice, virtue, morality, ethics, religion, religious merit, good works, nature, character, quality, property. However, each of these meanings is incomplete as dharma heavily depends on context. There is no equivalent translatable words or synonym for dharma and should not be confused with pursuing an individual’s calling or passion.
Hindus believe that dharma is both the guide and foundation for all aspects of life. To act or stand on the side of dharma, we first need to explore its meaning and the various context.
Before the word Hinduism came into existence, the term sanatana- eternal dharma- duty was etched in the Veda, one of the oldest pieces of literature in the world. This consists of duties which are spiritual in nature. Focusing on the eternal or intrinsic inclination of a human being which is to do service as desired by the divine and without expecting anything in return. It is the eternal duty that every individual follows irrespective of their birth or status.
In the Vedas, Ṛta also referred to as Dharma is the natural order, that regulates the universe and everything within it. It is neither the act nor the result, but a natural law that guides the action and creates the result to prevent chaos in the world. It is important to understand that Dharma does not make an action right or wrong. For example, lying is not categorically wrong - it is right or wrong depending on the circumstances. It is an approach to the right action.
The root word Dharma is "dhri", which means "to support, sustain, or uphold". Regulates the course of change. Relates to the divine order or rhythm of all creation within the universe. It is the ethical foundation of all life. I have simplified this for better understanding and to spark curiosity. It would help to view it from a non-western perspective.
Samanya Dharma: This relates to the universal ethical principles of an individual. An example of this would be the Yamas and Niyamas.
Vishesha Dharma: These are duties, which are unique to every individual depending on the time, place, varna- skillset and ashrama- stage of life.
Para Dharma: These are duties that are not aligned with one’s nature. A beautiful quote from the Bhagavad Gita describes this well. It is important to understand that one's dharma can and will change over the course of one's life.
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.”
Varna Dharma: These were or are duties dependent on an individual’s intrinsic nature towards a particular skillset. Each group followed specific duties to promote economic harmony within the community.
Ashrama Dharma or stages of life:
According to Sanatana Dharma, moksha or spiritual liberation is very much part of our culture. However, maintaining this path can be difficult as we have become deeply attached to our desires, emotions and greed. We are constantly torn between our aversions and attachments. The ashrama dharma becomes the framework for each individual as they transition from one stage of life while supporting dharma.
The four stages are
Brahmacharya: acquiring knowledge of culture, spirituality, society, history and abstinence.
Grahasthya: financial, emotional support towards family. Enjoyment of pleasures within the realm of dharma.
Vanaprastha: grandparents, retirement.
Sanyasa: a final step towards renunciation, striving for moksha.
Now according to the ancient Indian texts, a human born on earth must pursue 4 aims that encourage the individual to work towards moksha while living a full life. This concept is called the Puruṣārtha and is still thriving in our culture today.
Dharma: actions, ethics, and virtues that sustain personal and social harmony.
Artha: necessities, financial security, needs vary from person to person.
Kama: sensory pleasures/experiences but to refrain from being dependent on them.
Moksha: freedom from ignorance, the cycle of death and birth.
Finally, the Bhagavad Gita explains an important concept that reflects a person’s life purpose and duty that is determined by their nature.
Chapter 3 verse 35
śhreyān swa-dharmo viguṇaḥ para-dharmāt sv-anuṣhṭhitāt swa-dharme nidhanaṁ śhreyaḥ para-dharmo bhayāvahaḥ
Lord Krishna says that it is better to perform one’s prescribed duties, even if it has some faults in it, rather than performing someone else’s duty perfectly.
Swadharma: swa (own) + dharma (duty) reflects an individual’s actions, duty, responsibilities and nature, this varies from person to person. It is an integral part of Hindu culture even today. It is neither a goal nor does it translate to passion. Each individual embraces their role within the fabric of society knowingly or unknowingly.
It is the relationship between an individual’s individualism and their choice of action in upholding dharma while contributing to creating a healthy society. Due to its subjective nature, understanding and aligning one’s swadharma relies on swabhava -intrinsic nature also known as gunas. Swadharma is neither static nor fixed… it is fluid to facilitate harmony and balance as one move’s through the different roles, work experiences and stages of life. Texts like the Bhagavad Gita gives insights and understanding about one's dharma during challenging situations, especially when the response is obscured.
The concept of Dharma is unique and as you can see requires context. Sanatana Dharma’s cultural history is rooted in upholding and honouring Dharma as we Hindus see divinity in all living and non living entities.