The Sanskrit term Dharma appears to be a mystery for many. So much that its English dictionary definition almost sounds cryptic: The eternal and inherent nature of reality, regarded in Hinduism as a cosmic law underlying right behavior and social order.

If defining it is such a pain, wonder how people adhere to it? Right? Can I let you in on a secret? Honestly, this isn’t as mysterious as it appears. Yes, it is a bit complex because the meaning changes with context. Yet, it’s not impossible. Walk with me to know what I mean.


While I’m no Sanskrit expert, I learned a simple method to understand words. Unlike most modern languages, Sanskrit is very scientific and follows strict patterns. There are three parts in most Sanskrit words.

First comes the optional prefix that modifies the term. Then, the root word, and finally, the suffix that determines the context. The key is to identify the root word. Sometimes, there’s more than one root word.

Following the above, we can split the word Dharma in two ways. In the first option, there’s one root word Dhar with the suffix MaDhar is a derivative of Dhru (धृ). It means sustaining, supporting, or uplifting. Ma is a first-person reference. In other words, me! So, the meaning is:

Dhar + Ma => That which sustains me.

In another option, we can consider Dharma as a combination of two root words: Dhar and Ma. The meaning of Dhar remains the same. Ma is a derivative of Matha (मत). That means opinion, view, or perspective. Thus, the second meaning is:

Dhar + Ma(tha) => A view that uplifts.


What is that view or entity that uplifts or sustains someone? Well, it depends on who that “someone” is! Lord Rama’s Dharma was adhering to principles, and Lord Krishna’s was compassion. The Buddha’s was the emptiness of this creation, and Bhakt Meera’s was devotion to Krishna.

As many viewpoints there are in this universe, that many Dharmas there are. So the sages declared, “Dharma can’t be forced on anybody. Utmost, an expert in understanding it can provide us with some guidance.”

In more relatable terms, who can tell me what makes me peaceful and happy? That’s something I’d have to discover. Bhakti might give peace to some, but others may find it cultish. Sports or music could give someone fulfillment, but others might consider it a waste of time. In short, there’s no one-size-fits-all.

Further, a single perspective, passion, or quality may not give us peace. We may have to work towards it at many levels.

Towards Myself

Sva-Dharma or My Dharma is also known as Vyakti Dharma, the Dharma of an individual. It refers to a view or lifestyle that keeps a person tranquil.

Many scriptures provide their own Dharmas list. For instance, Mahabharata’s Vana Parva 2.75 gives an Eightfold Path to Dharma. Worship, self-study, charity, austerity, truth, forgiveness, self-restraint, and freedom from greed make it to that list.

That’s an excellent suggestive list. However, keeping the below in mind, we can arrive at our customized plan:

  1. Physical: Taking care of our body is our Dharma. We can’t be happy if we suffer from ailments. Here, the method we use to keep ourselves fit and healthy is our personal choice.
  2. Emotional: Emotional well-being impacts our happiness. Thus, practicing forgiveness, gratitude, and so on becomes part of our Dharmas list. Again, we have the choice of prioritizing virtues that give us peace.
  3. Intellectual: A restless mind can never experience sustained peace. Until we channelize our thoughts with principles and austerities, our minds won’t let us be calm. So, our Dharma includes speaking the truth, being content, and so on. These morals uplift and discipline us.
  4. Financial: We can’t sustain ourselves in this world without being financially self-sufficient. Material wealth is an essential aspect of our happiness. So, finding a worthy occupation makes it to our list of Dharmas as well.

Towards Society

The government’s Dharma is to maintain law and order. And that of the citizen is to obey the rules. If we don’t follow the legislation, we will end up in jail. Here, Dharma becomes inflexible and mandatory.

Also, to care for those around us, it becomes vital to practice some values. It includes non-violence, courtesy, and sticking to duties. Accordingly, the scriptures mention many Dharmas that encourage peace in the environment. A few are:

  • Parivarika or Kutumba Dharma: Duties towards our Family
  • Samaja Dharma: Duties towards our Community
  • Rashtra Dharma: Duties towards our Country
  • Manava Dharma: Duties towards Humankind

Towards Nature

Nature’s Dharma is to sustain cosmic order. To thrive peacefully, we must be in harmony with Nature. We can’t stop the sun from rising or setting. We can’t change the cycle of seasons. Like it or not, we’ve to function according to Nature’s laws. Accepting these realities can prevent us from feeling agitated.

Hence, to promote inner peace, surrendering to Nature is our Dharma. Denoting the cycles of Nature, a Chakra or wheel symbolizes Dharma in many Eastern philosophies.

Handling Predicaments

The truth of this world is change. If we don’t adapt to the times, we will become obsolete. So, our Dharma should flex according to Desha or Place, Kaala or Time, and Paatra or Subject. Apad or Predicament Dharma provides us that adaptability.

In the Mahabharata, Yudhishthira’s Dharma was speaking the truth. Yet, King Yudhishthira said a half-truth to defeat his guru in battle. Telling a lie would make Yudhishthira troubled. Still, not punishing his offenders would also make him agitated. It was a Dharma Sankat, a catch-22 situation.

In such a predicament, the Apad Dharma kicks in. According to this, our Dharma towards society takes precedence over our personal one. In other words, we must be selfless in our choices. Hence, Lord Krishna counseled Yudhishthira to speak a half-truth.

Adharma and Vidharma

Whenever we experience internal uneasiness – dullness, agitation, or fear – it’s time to analyze ourselves. If any action, belief, or behavior robs us of our inner peace, we have deviated from our Dharma. The scriptures refer to that as Adharma, the opposite of Dharma.

If the deviation is so huge that we’re treading the path of crime, it is a particular form of Adharma. It is called Vidharma, which becomes punishable by law. Finally, when all doors lead to internal unrest, we pick in favor of this world and move on.


In brief, Dharma is not set in stone. Anything that sustains or uplifts me is my Dharma. That is, everything that keeps me healthy and peaceful becomes my Dharma. It could be a virtue, perspective, passion, or duty. Or, it could even be religion or the Divine.

Also, while pursuing something, we can’t ignore Nature’s laws and our land’s rules. Besides, my freedom ends where the other person’s freedom begins. Hence, we follow some principles and regulations while interacting with this world.

In reality, that’s all there is. But, it requires mindfulness and a mind cleansed out of conditioning to practice. While Dharma needs some effort to follow, the concept isn’t as complex to understand. Is it?


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Sri Devi Om

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