The word dharma is derived from the root dhr धऋ, which means to sustains or upheld. By definition, dhrarayati iti dharmah धार्यति इति धर्मः, that which upholds is called dhrama धर्म.
It is based on the understanding that there is something that sustains this universe. All the different components and elements that comprise the universe follow a certain order. Everything has its innate nature and it never transgresses it. There is unity in diversity and harmony in what may appear to be chaotic. This harmony or order is called dharma because this is the fundamental principle that informs, upholds and sustains everything.
An act in keeping with the order also can be called dharma. It is one of the four human ends and is the goal that one achieves as a result of following a life of dharma. The word dharma is, used both in the sense of means and ends. Normally it signifies means, in the sense of a certain conduct-righteous conduct, the right or proper way of conducting oneself that is in keeping with the order. Question can be as to how do we know what the order is and what would be the right way to conduct ourselves in a given situation.
We are all born with the awareness that we want to live and live happily, just as other living beings also want to. Our freedom and happiness should not be encroached upon. What I expect of others is what they expect of me. Conduct in accordance with this awareness is dharma. It may be called universal dharma or righteousness. Pujya Swamiji calls it common-sense-dharma. It is common sense inasmuch as everybody has this sense. This is samanya dhrama सामान्य धर्म, general dharma. Then there is visesa-dharma विशेष धर्म, conduct that is followed in’ particular situations. Every individual has to play a variety of roles and they call for appropriate responses. There are guidelines as to how one should act under various conditions. That is the visesa-dharma विशेष धर्म of a person.
The first part of the Veda prescribes dharma, the right code of conduct. This is conveyed in the form of do’s and don’ts. It is not so much that the Vedas give commands as to what to do and what not to, do, but they teach what is in the best interest of a person. What will help the person in terms of his well-being and growth is prescribed as do’ s and the opposite in the form of don’ ts. Ultimately it is up to the person to decide what he wants to do, whether he wants to conform to the guidance of the scriptures or wants to surrender to his own impulses.
Everyone knows what is right and wrong. Each one is in agreement as to how they would like to be treated by others This is known through common sense. Even if one does not know what the prescribed code in a particular situation; is, the universal code can be applied and interpreted in a given situation. In interpreting dharma the principle is universal and its application m a given situation is particular. Every individual has to understand What non-violence, truthfulness, compassion etc. is and what it means in a given situation. Non-Violence is not a particular conduct; it is the understanding that goes with the conduct. Dharma that is in the form of values requires to be interpreted in a given situation and followed accordingly.
Dharma can be explained as righteousness or right or. appropriate conduct. The result that is produced by this kind of conduct is also called dharma or punya पुण्य. This is conducive to the spiritual growth of. a person. Right conduct requires a one to subdue impulses of adharma अधर्म. The negative impulses, are there in us though they are not our nature. They are incidental to us. By nature we are loving and compassionate. To become free of the negative forces is spiritual growth. Because they are incidental they can be removed by asserting the positive tendencies in all possible situations. Kindness etc., being the very nature of oneself, can never be removed.
Very often the word dharma is translated as religion, Hindu religion etc. In that sense it can be said that there are many religious traditions. We can say that dharma in the sense of a religion is a way of life which is prescribed by the founders of that tradition to help the followers adhere to dharma that is the universal values with a view to help them reach dharma that is the universal truth. Dharma as the end is what each one is seeking and that is unconditional freedom. Ultimately that goal becomes dharma.
Swami Viditatmananda Saraswati