Talk:References to Dharma in Scripture

From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

By P. V. Rane

Dharma is a Sanskrit word that has been re-interpreted many times across generations and across languages. The meaning of dharma is vast and the number of works that refer to it are also very large -- only some are mentioned here.

Several ancient texts use the word Dharma without explicitly defining it. These include the Ṛgveda where it is used mostly to refer to religious ordinance or rites; the Aitareya-brāhmana, where it refers to the 'whole body of religious duties'; the Chāndogya-Upaniṣad, Taittiriya Upaniṣad, Bhagavadgitā, Manusmṛti where it relates to 'peculiar duties of aśramas dharma' and evolves to refer to 'duties and privileges of a person as a member of the community.'

Many sages have specifically written extensively on the definition of Dharma. Medhatithi elaborates on five major meanings for Dharma. Jaimini, Vaiśesikasutra, Harita, Vyasa[1] and Budha treats Dharma in comprehensive detail discussing sources of Dharma, other works on Dharma and the evolution of Dharma.

Vedas do not contain a prescribed definition and precepts of Dharma. There are approximately fifty Vedic passages that briefly mention dharma in the form of different systems and forms of marriage, different kinds of sons, adoption of son, partition, inheritance, śrāddha, strīdhana, etc and it is because of these references, the Veda are considered as the primary source of dharma. However, these topics are elaborated upon in dharmaṣāstra explicitly as Dharma. As such, commentaries on Vedic literature refer to dharmaṣāstra where Dharma is elaborated upon.

References in the Ṛgveda

Dharma is used more than 56 times in the Ṛgveda in a gender neutral way either as an adjective or a noun ('dharman'). The word is clearly derived from root dhr (to uphold, to support, to nourish).

Other meanings that can be inferred are:

  • The procedure for performing rites and the rules[2][3][4]. Explicit definition can be found in the passage ‘Tani dharmāni prathamanyasan’ [5].
  • Upholder or supporter[6]
  • Fixed principles or rules of conduct[7] **Confirm references in original text**
  • Primeval or first ordinances as in ‘Prathama dharma’ [8]
  • Ancient ordinance as in ‘Sanata dharmāni' [9]

Ṛgveda uses 'Dharma' in a masculine or gender-neutral manner with 2 exceptions[10] where it is used in a masculine way.

References in the Shukla Yajurveda

In the Vajasaneya samhitā of the Shukla Yajurveda, the term is generally defined as ‘fixed principles or rules of conduct'.

In some passages, it is related to ‘religious rites’ as in 'dhruvepa dharmaij'[11].

The tense 'dharmah' is used frequently in this text.

References in the Atharvaveda

Dharma is defined in many cases identically to the Ṛgveda as the usage is a part of text that is copied verbatim from the Ṛgveda[12][13][14].

In addition, the tense ‘dharmah’ is also used in the sense of merit acquired by the performance of religious rites.[15]

References in the Aitareya Brāhmana

In the Aitareya-brāhmana, the word dharman is used in an abstract sense which means ‘the whole body of religious duties’ as well as referring to the unique duties of the aśramas. The meaning of the word dharma evolved through several commentaries and its most prominent meaning became 'the privileges, duties and obligations of a man and his standards of conduct as a person in a particular stage of life.’

This meaning is also used in the 'Taittiriya Upaniṣad.[16] where it emphasizes speaking of the truth and practicing one's own dharma. The Bhagavadgitā uses the word dharma in ‘svadharma nidhanam shreyah’ [17] which also signifies the same meaning.

References in the Chāndogya-Upaniṣad

Chāndogya Upaniṣad provides three definitions of dharma follows[18]

  1. Sacrifices, studies and charity as it relates to the duties of a house-holder
  2. Religious rites for a hermit to follow
  3. Duties and rites of a brahmacārin dwelling in a gurukul [19]

References as per Vaiśeśikasutra

The Vaiśeśikasutra defines dharma to be the actions that result in happiness and final beatitude.

Elaboration in per Smṛtis

The Manusṃṛti reveals five different sources of dharma emphasizing that the Veda is the foremost source of dharma along side by tradition and its practice by virtuous people. Manusmṛiti[20] states that the sages requested Manu to impart instructions on the dharma of all the varṇas. Ācarah paramo dharmah’[21]. Medhatithi, a commentator on Manusmṛiti, says that the expounders of smṛtis expand it in five ways:

  1. Varṇadharma
  2. Āśramadharma
  3. Varṇāśramadharma
  4. Naimittika dharma e.g., Prayascitta or penance comes under this section
  5. Guṇadharma e.g., the duty of a crowned king, whether Ksatriya or not, to protect
  • Yajnavalkya declares dharma as a combination of Veda, traditional lore and practices of learned men. The Yajnyavalkya-smṛiti[22] also points out dharma of all the varṇas.
  • Gautamadharmasutra refers to the Veda as the source of dharma and the knower of Veda follow traditions and practices of dharma.
  • According to Apastamba's view dharma is the consensus of dharma and Veda both. [23]
    • ^^^ last 2 bullets need cleanup **

The Tantra-Vartikā emphasizes that all dharmasutras primarily impart instructions on dharma associated with each varṇa and āśrama.

Elaboration in Itihasa

There are several references to dharma such as ‘Ahiṃsā paramo dharmah[24] and ‘Anrsamsyam paramo dharmah’,[25]

Definition of Dharma by Eminent Scholars

  • Jaimini defined dharma as a desirable goal or result which is indicated by injunctive or Vedic passages. The word dharma means the rites which are conducive to happiness enjoined by the Vedic passages.
  • Harita defined dharma as Śrutipramānaka based on revelation.
  • Buddha, in his teachings defined it in several ways but Buddhists refer to all of his teachings collectively as "dharma"[26]. One specific meaning he used is an element of existence, i. e. matter, mind and forces.


  1. Vyasa discusses Dharma in depth across many sections of the Mahābhārata
  2. Ṛgveda I.22.18
  3. Ṛgveda 26.6
  4. Ṛgveda VIII.43.24, IX.64.I
  5. Ṛgveda I.164, 43 and 50, X.90.16
  6. Ṛgveda I.187.1 and X.92.2
  7. Ṛgveda IV.53.3%, V.63.75, VI.70, VII.89.5
  8. Ṛgveda III.17.1, X.56.3
  9. Ṛgveda III.3.I
  10. Ṛgveda X. 21.3
  11. Vajasaneyasamhitā 11.3,27
  12. Atharvaveda VI.51.3 'Acittyā chet tava dharmā yuyopima',
  13. Atharvaveda VII.5.1 'Yajṅena yajṅamayajanta'
  14. Atharvaveda VII.27.5 'Tṛni pāda vicakrame
  15. Atharvaveda XI.9.17
  16. Taittiriya Upaniṣad 1-11
  17. Bhagavadgitā 3-35
  18. Chāndogya Upaniṣad 2.23
  19. These duties towards his teacher leads him to the world of meritorious men thereby attaining immortality
  20. Manusmṛti 1.2
  21. Manusmṛiti I.108
  22. Yajnavalkya Smriti I.i
  23. Vaśisṭhadharmasutra I.4-6
  24. Anuśāśanaparva 115
  25. Mahabharata, Vanaparva 373.76
  26. Sacred Books of East Vol. X. p. XXXIII