Dharma in Hinduism, is an organizing principle that applies to human beings in solitude, in their interaction with human beings and nature, as well as between inanimate objects, to all of cosmos and its parts. It refers to the order and customs which make life and universe possible, and includes behaviors, rituals, rules that govern society, and ethics. Hindu dharma includes the religious duties, moral rights and duties of each individual, as well as behaviors that enable social order, right conduct, and those that are virtuous. Dharma is that which all existing beings must accept and respect to sustain harmony and order in the world. It is neither the act nor the result, but the natural laws that guide the act and create the result to prevent chaos in the world. It is innate characteristic, that makes the being what it is. It is the pursuit and execution of one’s nature and true calling, thus playing one’s role in cosmic concert. In Hinduism, it is the dharma of the bee to make honey, of cow to give milk, of sun to radiate sunshine, of river to flow. In terms of humanity, dharma is the need for, the effect of and essence of service and inter-connectedness of all life.
Dharma as the central theme of Mahabharata
The Mahabharata stands to be one of the most celebrated epics of all times. The Mahabharata and Ramayana have a very high status among the spiritual texts, as they delineate the glory of Lord Vishnu as the manifestation in human form. The Mahabharata has inspired the generations through the centuries of human evolution. Stories from the Mahabharata are used as teachings and for the good upbringing of a strong and virtuous character. The Bhagvad Gita, which has become one of the most popular parts of The Mahabharata, has the essence of Lord Krishna’s message to Arjuna as dharma being the ultimate goal of life. The entire bedrock of Hinduism is based on the principle of Dharma.
The underlying principle that laid the foundation to the story of Mahabharata, is Dharma. The first part of Mahabharata is based on the events that lead to the great Kurukshetra War. The second part deals with the war itself and the last part is the events post the war and its traumatic effects on the relatives of the warriors involved.
Three major characters representing Dharma are: Yudhishthira (the son of Dharma), Bhishma Pitamah and Vidhura, who is supposed to be Dharma’s avatar himself. These people have been completely devoted to Dharma throughout the epic. Their opinions and actions are unequivocally the most important in Mahabharata.
The epic game of dice and its consequences has a paramount significance in the chronicle. Various moral and ethical issues have been raised through it. All of Vidhura’s die hard efforts go utter waste when he tries to stop the game from happening. Yudhisthira on the other hand was aware that the art of gaming is trickery and yet he agrees to play Sakuni because being a Kshatriya made it his dharma not to refuse it when challenged once.
During the game, Yudhishthira asks Sakuni to play fair and not defeat them by any crooked means, because that defies the Kshatriya code of conduct. Thus, Yudhisthira is been told by Sakuni that he is free to leave the game at any point of time if he senses trickery. And thus, they began the game.
After Yudhishthira loses everything including himself and nothing else is left to put up at stake, Saubala suggests Dharmaraj Yudhishthira to stake Draupadi. Blinded by his decision making and addiction to somehow win the game, overwhelmed with Kshatriya dharma, Yudhishthira stakes his wife Draupadi and ultimately loses her to Duryodhana. Draupadi is hence dragged into the assembly of men and ill-treated to the verge of disrobing in front of her five husbands and her in laws. She questions all of them that whom did they lose first, themselves or her? Everyone watches blindly, even the great philosophers and Dharmic populace as Draupadi rightfully belonged to Duryodhana now and they couldn’t possibly do anything about it.
Technically speaking, these acts weren’t exactly wrong as no rules were at all broken by the people following the Dharma. One fine example of this from Pandava side is when Yudhishthira utters “Ashwatthama Hatha Kunjara:” (Ashwatthama, the Elephant, is dead) while muttering kunjara: silently under his breath which leads to the defeat and death of Dronacharya, all under Krishna’s counsel. There are shady arenas throughout the mythologies where rules are bent without losing the subtle essence of Dharma, as when Krishna assisted in killing Karna, Jayadratha, Bheeshma and Ashwatthama.
The origin of the conflict that leads to the great battle is the differences between the Pandavas and the Kauravas both on a human level and Godly level. The fight is represented by the five Pandava brothers for the Pandava army, and the Kaurava army is represented by the wicked king Duryodhana and the hundred sons of Dhartarastras. The major theme of Mahabharata is war and the idea of war itself is a conflict of dharma for the Kshatriya, or warrior caste. In general, the Hindu dharma condemns all sorts of violence especially on living beings. However, the specific dharma of the Kshatriya caste, the warrior, commands him to be stand up in war for his kingdom, and thus prepares himself to kill the enemy when the time comes, and does this with a sense of duty.
Though the Mahabharata is seen as a battle between the good and the evil, where the Pandavas are portrayed to be the good, the Pandavas did not make only right decisions throughout the story. Some of the bad effects in their lives were a consequence of their poor decisions as well. Thus, the moral can also be seen as the evil getting short term benefits, but the victory of the good in the long term permanently.
The Bhagvad Gita and its principle of Dharma
The Bhagvad Gita, “the song of the Lord”, is a 700 verse long part of the Mahabharata, in the 6th book of Mahabharata, Bhishma Parva. The Bhagvad Gita is considered as the guide book of Hindus. It is the profound philosophy propounded by Lord Krishna, the ninth avatara of Lord Vishnu, on the omnipotent nature of the universe and living beings. The epitomic Bhagvad Gita reconciles the motives, reasons, the cause and effects of one’s actions – Dharmic or otherwise.
Arjuna and Krishna were known to argue when they embarked upon the battle of Kurukshetra, where Arjuna tells Krishna that if they were to fight, they would be clearly incurring a sin by destroying Dharma. To this, Krishna replies to Arjuna that the truth is in fact the contrary. By not fighting, Arjuna would be defying his personal dharma, and thus committing a sin.
Lord Krishna further says, “One’s own dharma, performed imperfectly, is better than another’s dharma well performed. Destruction in one’s own dharma is better, for to perform another’s dharma leads to danger.” (Bg. 3.35)
Thus, the chapter ends, apparently summarizing the entire epic.
“It is better to engage in one’s own occupation, even though one may perform it imperfectly, than to accept another’s occupation and perform it perfectly.” (Bg. 18.47)
The Principle of Dharma in Ramayana
Throughout the Ramayana, dharma is often intertwined with rules. The rules are believed to be highly sacred and this clearly implies that any rule that gets broken, accounts to Adharmic behavior. The characters in Ramayana seem more like personification of righteousness, which further stress upon this point. The Maryada Purushottam Rama is an archetypal idealistic man, who nearly reaches Godhood through his complete dedication and devotion to rules even in times of greatest distress. He gladly leaves behind his family, his throne, his country and kinghood to embark upon fourteen years of Vanavasa (exile in jungles, away from normal lives), all because of his father’s direction to do so.
Rama obeys his father and his command without a second thought and gives up his leisurely life to accept that of a hermit. He doesn’t even question the orders and leaves for the jungles without any ill feelings in his heart. Sita dutifully follows her husband for the Vanvasa and proves her devotion as a wife. She even enters the holy fire to prove her virtue and purity to her husband at the time of “Agni Pareeksha”. Lakshmana, also accompanies Rama and Sita into the jungles out of fraternal bond and love.
Another instance is seen when Vibhishana, even after being the brother of Ravana, joins his arch enemy Rama, and didn’t flinch thinking of it as a punishment for Ravana’s Adharmic ways and dictatorship.
Hanuman, the archetypal devotee of Rama, is known to show unparalleled dedication to his Lord throughout the saga. It is also told in some akhyanas that Hanuman even tore open his chest to reveal the images of Rama and Sita inside his heart. Such was the devotion of Hanuman, which is sung and praised throughout the centuries till date.
Contrasting all this, Ravana – the learned Brahmin and Rakshasa king of Lanka, was evil personified to the ultimate level after he neglected his true nature, blinded by the power he owned. He terrorized the worlds, usurped another man’s wife and behaved cruelly towards his own kingdom and family. He can also be called as an archetype of what a person should never be. As goes the saying “As you sow, so shall you reap”, Ravana meets his death at the end of Ramyana at the hands of a simple and righteous Rama. His end was the climax to his unending Adharmic acts.
According to the writer of Ramayana, Rishi Valmiki, the entire chronicle has redundantly stressed upon the theme of “Truth” or “Satya”, which is considered equivalent to Dharma and shall be followed like a duty. All the characters representing Dharma follow the rules, even in times of warfare. They devote to the Dharma with such wholehearted steadfastness and never even once break or bend them. Adharmic people never follow any rules. It is hard to gulp the fact that all the main characters display a sort of divine human behavior when it comes to fulfilling the duties of their roles as stipulated by the Dharmic Order. We don’t see this kind of distinction in Mahabharata however. Things aren’t so black and white there.
Dharma in Vedas and Upanishads
The history section of this article discusses the development of dharma concept in Vedas. This development continued in the Upanishads and later ancient scripts of Hinduism. In Upanishads, the concept of dharma continues as universal principle of law, order, harmony, and truth. It acts as the regulatory moral principle of the Universe. It is explained as law of righteousness and equated to satya (Sanskrit: सत्यं, truth), in hymn 1.4.14 of Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, as follows:
धर्मः तस्माद्धर्मात् परं नास्त्य् अथो अबलीयान् बलीयाँसमाशँसते धर्मेण यथा राज्ञैवम् ।
यो वै स धर्मः सत्यं वै तत् तस्मात्सत्यं वदन्तमाहुर् धर्मं वदतीति धर्मं वा वदन्तँ सत्यं वदतीत्य् एतद्ध्येवैतदुभयं भवति ।।
Nothing is higher than Dharma. The weak overcomes the stronger by Dharma, as over a king. Truly that Dharma is the Truth (Satya); Therefore, when a man speaks the Truth, they say, “He speaks the Dharma”; and if he speaks Dharma, they say, “He speaks the Truth!” For both are one.
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