Published in the Onam Souvenir, OHM (Organization of Hindu Malayalees),

Los Angeles, September 2012


Almost everyone the world over would have heard the word ‘Dharma’, yet few people understand what precisely is meant by the word, ‘Dharma’. This has less to do with people’s ability to understand meaning of non-English words like ‘Dharma’ but has more to do with the difficulty of translating this Sanskrit word, Dharma, into English and other world languages. An attempt is made in this write-up to explain the meaning of Dharma and its centrality for success in civilization and peoples.


Dharma is a Sanskrit word derived from its root, dhr, and the meaning expressed in the Sanskrit expresion, ‘dharayathi iti dharmah’, which gives the meaning of dharma as ‘that which upholds’. This also does not take us very far. It means to ‘uphold (the truth)’ and can thus be used to explain the word as requiring us to ‘do the right thing’, ‘to be righteous in our thoughts, word and deed’ etc.

The Indus valley Civilization and the people living in the Indus Valley have used this concept for over thousands of years. They used the ‘Dharma’ principle in their everyday life and even named their way of life as ‘Sanatan Dharma’ or ‘Eternal Righteous Living and Conduct’. A fuller meaning and understanding of the meaning of ‘Dharma’ is thus possible by learning from the examples provided in the lives of the masters of Sanatan Dharma. The very original book of knowledge ‘Vedas’, ‘Vedanta’ as well as the ‘Puranas’ and other hoary literature of ‘Sanatan Dharma’ also explain Dharma and the righteous conduct of people of those times.

Many scholars, in particular many in the West, few in the East and many the world over, equate dharma with ethics and morality. Clearly, leading one’s life based on ethics and morality is excellent and high living indeed. However, we must understand that dharma includes ethics and morality but it is used to mean much more. To uphold, to do the right thing and to live by righteous conduct requires much more broader perspective than mere legality, ethics and morality.

If the stated meaning of a word is not fully clear from the meanings provided by the words defining the word, our recourse then is to follow examples from the lives of our masters that illuminate their adherence to dharma. This allows us to understand what it takes to lead a dharma way of life.


The first example is from the Purana, ‘Mahabharatha’, the story of cousins Pandavas and Kauravas fighting a battle for what each believed to be their rights to the throne. In an incident discussed therein, the Pandavas were exhausted after a hard day’s work and sought water to quench their thirst. Sahadeva went to fetch water from a near-by pond when he was told that failure to answer the queries from a mysterious unidentified source before taking water from the pond would result in his death. Without paying any heed to such threats, he tried to take water from the pond and he fell dead as predicted by the source. Soon followed the other Pandavas, Nakula, Bhima, Arjuna in that order who also met with the same fate. Then came the eldest Pandava, Yudhishtira, who decided to answer the questions, all 100 of them, from the unidentified source. Satisfied with the answers, the source asked Yudhishtira one final question, namely, if only one of the four dead brothers lying over there – Sahadeva, Nakula, Bhima or Arjuna – are to be brought back to life, which one would Yudhishtira want that to be. This is a great test for anyone when one is asked to select one brother among the four to be brought back to life – but not to Yudhishtira, known as ‘Dharma Raja’, the king who practices, and lives by, dharma. Bhima’s strength or Arjuna’s superior valor were essential for Yudhishtira and Pandavas to have any chance of winning the impending war with Kauravas and thus would have been natural choices for the one brother to be brought alive but Yudhishtira’s straight-forward and immediate reply was ‘Let Nakula be brought back to life; dharma requires that one son of each mother, Kunti and Madri, stay alive’ (Yudhishtira, Bhima and Arjuna are children of Kunti; Nakula and Sahadeva are sons of Madri). Ethics and morality would have allowed Yudhishtira to choose any one of the four brothers to be brought back to life whereas his adherence to dharma dictated that he select Nakula to be brought back to life.

The second example is from the Purana, ‘Ramayana’: King Dasaratha, the queens Kausalya (mother of Rama), Kaikeyi (the mother of Bharatha) and Sumitra (mother of Lakshmana and Shatrughna) and the people of Ayodhya were all happy and in festive moods as they were preparing to crown their beloved prince, Rama, as the future King of Ayodhya. Based on the suggestion from her maid Manthara, Queen Kaikeyi decided to request King Dasaratha for the twin boons promised her earlier and to seek, by the first boon, Rama’s exile to the forests for a period of fourteen (14) years, and, to seek, by the second boon, the crowning of her son, Bharatha, as the future King. As King Dasaratha lay unconscious by the shock he felt on hearing of such demands from his favorite queen Kaikeyi, Rama decided to go to the forest. Lakshmana told Rama that there is no need for him to go to the forest, that he has every right to the throne and that his claims to the throne are valid legally, ethically and morally. Lakshmana stated, furthermore, that he will fight, and defeat, single-handedly, any and all who stand in the way of crowning of Rama even if armies are arrayed against him. Rama’s decision to go to forest in spite of Lakshmana and others entreating him to assume his right to the throne informs us that dharma requires that he go to the forest and uphold his father’s word (by letting Kaikeyi’s request for fulfillment of the boons); his ethical and moral right to be crowned as future king must remain secondary to the primary requirement of dharma. This again illustrates that dharma implies aspects including, but more than, legality, ethics and morality.

The third example is a direct quote by Lord Krishna from the Bhagavad Gita:

“Yada Yada hi Dharmasya Glanirbhavathi Bharatha

Abhyuththanam Adharmasya Thadathmaanam Srijaamyaham”


(Meaning: Whenever there is decline of dharma or righteousness, and rise of ‘Adharma’ or unrighteousness, O Arjuna, then I manifest myself).

From among many explanations possible for this verse, at least two are worth noting in this context. First is to learn about the situations prevalent at places, and times, during Vishnu’s various avatars, which situations imply, by this verse, the decline of Dharma and the rise of Adharma at such times, thus helping us understand Dharma. Second is to learn about the importance of maintenance and preservation of dharma that Lord Krishna attaches; that it requires His manifestation as an avatar or incarnation to defeat the forces of ‘Adharma’ or unrighteousness and establish dharma or righteousness. No greater emphasis is required to instill in us the absolute need and imperative of leading a dharma based living style and eschew adharma or unrighteousness. If direct words of Lord Krishna, the ‘Bhutha Bhavya Bhavath Prabhu’, synonym of Vishnu as stated in Vishnu Sahasranama, (meaning: the Lord who knows the past, present and future), telling us that dharma living is all that matters, establishment of dharma is all that matters, the removal of ‘Adharma’ is all that matters, what further proof or advice or admonition do we need before we commit ourselves to the practice of dharma in our daily lives?

The fourth example is a quote from Mahanarayana Upanishad: Aruni, son of Prajapathi Aruna and his wife Suparna, approached his father Prajapathi and asked him, “What is it that is declared as the supreme means (of moksha or liberation) by revered teachers?” Among the various things declared as ‘Supreme Means’, Prajapathi talks about ‘Dharma’ as follows:

“Dharmo Viswasya Jagathah Prathishta Lokey, Dharmishtam Praja Upasarpanthi, Dharmena

   Paapam Apanudhathi, Aharmey Sarvam Prasthishtitham, Thasmaad Dharmam Paramam



(Meaning: Dharma is the support of all this universe. All people approach a person devoted to dharma. Through dharma, a person gets rid of sin. Everything is established in dharma. Therefore, they say dharma is the supreme means).

It is instructive to note here that no less a person than Prajapathi is stating that “Dharma is the support of all this universe” and that “Everything is established in Dharma” – instructing us to fully understand these two statements to fully understand ‘Dharma’. If dharma is the support of all this universe, consisting of billions of galaxies, of which our galaxy, ‘The Milky Way’, is but a tiny part, it behooves each, and every one, of us to do our part in adhering to ‘Dharma’ in our daily life including in everything we do.

Many more of such examples from our hoary scriptures can be provided to illustrate ‘contextual’ meanings of dharma which help us understand the dharma concept much more clearly but not attempted here for want of space. The Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras and our Puranas extol the virtues of dharma and the need to observe dharma in our day to day living. Even to the believers, these explanations may not be enough; to the rationalists, atheists, scientists and non-believers, these explanations may not mean much without physical proof. Such physical proof is provided by our examining the past and is discussed in the next section.

Centrality of Dharma:

The Mesopotamian, the Greek and the Roman civilizations have all disappeared today. Each, in its own heyday, looked like that is the only civilization that is everlasting and will last forever. But we know it didn’t happen that way and we presently only read about these civilizations in history texts. The Indus Valley Civilization, on the other hand, alone, was founded on principles of truth (‘Satyam’) and Dharma (‘Righteous Way of Living’) and as the oldest civilization, with origins at least five thousand years ago or more, exists today as the only civilization that has withstood the test of time. In spite of being subjected to external attacks, the Indus valley Civilization and the ‘Sanatan Dharma Way of Life’ survives even today serving as a beacon to the world as the custodian of spirituality and peaceful co-existence between people’s of differing and different faiths. Other civilizations did certainly emphasize legality, ethics and morality, but perished after a period of time. The ‘Centrality of Dharma’ is the core of Indus Valley Civilization, and survives even today, thus, demonstrating again, in practical terms, that dharma contains legality, ethics and morality but means much more and emphasizes ‘Righteousness’ as its essential nature. Sanatan Dharma’s teachings like ‘Ekam Sad Viprah Bahudha Vadanthi’ (truth – reality – is one, men call it by many names), ‘Satyam Vada’ (tell the truth) and ‘Dharmam Chara’ (live by dharma precepts and concepts) proclaim to the whole world a path that allows its peoples to realize their full potential and live a life of peaceful co-existence.

Dharma Deficit:

Loud cries of ‘fiscal deficit’, ‘trade deficit’, ‘trust deficit’ are heard spoken by economists, academia and politicians from capitals all over the world. The author wishes to publicize the term, ‘Deficit of Dharma’ or ‘Dharma Deficit’ (first pronounced by my good friend, Kalyan Viswanathan of Dallas, recently in a private meeting) as the single most ‘Deficit Problem’ facing governments all over the world. The solution to this problem, naturally, is easy to suggest, namely, restore dharma in everyday administration. Yet, for such a solution to get implemented, such dharma-based living has to happen from the bottom up. In other words, fiscal deficit may be able to solved by the treasury departments of governments, trade deficit may be solved by the government and trade groups of the country and so on, whereas problems of ‘Dharma Deficit’ will only be able to be solved by all peoples of the country contributing to its solution. That is, if people follow dharma based living and demand that their political leaders also live by such tenet, then, and then only, will there be a chance for the leaders to embrace dharma based living and governing. Dharma must thus proceed bottom up all the way to the top if it has to become part of governing. Herein lies the challenge for all – whether western, eastern, Indian, Chinese, African or wherever people face the dharma deficit. This is the hardest thing for people – to change from our present ways of living that has contributed to the ‘Dharma Deficit’ and to embrace actions that contributes to dharma and the common good of the people at large. It is the task of each and everyone all over the world to re-learn this simple concept, to start leading a life based on dharma – we must move to higher levels from just only meeting the legal requirements to ethical, moral and righteousness levels in all our actions. However long it may take, by such individual efforts, we will be able to help each and everyone in our community to follow dharma so that from bottom up we can contribute to erasing the ‘Dharma Deficit’ and restore our community and society to a life of peace and happiness.