By Swami Harshananda
Adharma literally means ‘unrighteousness’.
Among the pairs of words used often in the scriptures, the pair ‘dharma- adharma’ is perhaps the most recurrent. Since the etymological definition of ‘dharma’ is ‘that which supports and sustains,’ all that attempts to destroy or oppose or reverse this process of supporting and sustaining comes within the purview of the word ‘adharma.’ If dharma is the straight path that leads to abhyudaya (well-being and prosperity) and niśśreyasa (spiritual perfection), adharma is the crooked path that leads away from both.
Dharma indicates actions and duties, ritualistic or otherwise, which are confirmed with the teachings of the śāstra and ācārya and is not antagonistic to sampradāya. While adharma stands for all the errors of omission and commission.
In practice however, the word is more frequently used in the sense of unrighteous deeds and conduct resulting in sin. For instance, telling lies, stealing, cheating, adultery and committing such other forbidden acts and crimes are adharma. Dereliction of duty and not discharging the responsibilities one is entrusted with, are adharma. Performing such acts as they are not prescribed for a person e.g., a brāhmaṇa taking to arms or agriculture even though there is no urgency or emergency—is also considered adharma.
The personified adharma is said to be a prajāpati son of Brahmā, have hiṅsā (violence) as his wife, anṛta (falsehood) to his son, and nikṛti (deceit) as his daughter. Māyā (delusion), bhaya (fear), vedanā (torment), naraka (hell), duhkha (sorrow) and mṛtyu (death) are the other off-springs in this lineage. Though the details of such lists may vary, the purport is clear :
"Adharma is at the root of all our fears, troubles and sufferings."
In Jaina metaphysics, adharma is considered to be a dravya (substance) responsible for restful state and immobility of things.
- Visnupurāna 1.7
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore