If there is one word that encompasses the mystique of Hinduism, the Indic philosophy, the Indian civilization and its approach to the Universe, it is dharma. A term so often misunderstood even by its most fervent adherents, that it now seems equated with religion.

Perhaps an exploration into its nature and roots might be in order. For the word dharma, if correctly understood might give us new insights into who we are and what might be the nature of our journey on earth.

Dharma derives its root from the Sanskrit root word, ‘dhi’, which means to hold, to bear, to support. Dharyati iti dharma, as an ancient shloka says. What is it that this so-called dharma is supporting?

Dharma may be considered as the core, the karana, the causeless cause, the invisible scaffolding that holds any entity together. Realizing this truth of the entity or structure gives us its raison d’etre, its cause for being, its meaning, its purpose, etc.


Unique to the Indic world-view is the understanding that as one grows inwardly and spiritually so does one’s understanding of one’s dharma. In a progressive revelation dharma appears self-evident and obvious in an intuitive, vigyanamaya, understanding, that is not just mental, yet not infra-intellectual. For example, the entire Gita is an unveiling to Arjuna of his dharma through the eighteen chapters of instructions by Sri Krishna. If one might say that the Gita is a manual of the progressive unveiling of one’s dharma, one would not be incorrect.

But, if I might attempt to reduce this to simple formulae, knowing one’s true nature reveals one’s dharma. Thus, Svabhava is svadharma.

And the whole journey of India spirituality is in finding one’s svabhava or true nature.

And the entire set of ethical and moral and social and cultural and religious responsibilities that one endeavors to fulfil is based upon this identification.

If I see myself as a social or family man as Arjuna did, then I might see it as my dharma to eschew violence and preserve the kula or community or vansha. Which is how Arjuna does see himself at the beginning of the Gita.

But if he sees himself as a Kshatriya, a preserver of truth and uprightness, rectitude and righteousness in the society, then his role changes. This is what Sri Krishna reminds him of to take his despondency and confusion right away.

But this is not the end of the journey. To see oneself as just a role prescribed for one by the society, no matter how noble, too is a conditioned journey and there is no self-exploration or learning involved in such prescribed responsibilities for the individual in this day and age. To see oneself as a student, or grihastha or vaanprashtha or sannyasi: all these are impositions until one is truly free by realizing that one’s dharma constrantly transcends one’s bracketed and prescribed responsibilities if one grows in adhyatma.

Thus, one might adapt various dharmas based on one’s identification. Either with one’s ego, one’s social role, family roles, community assignments, national responsibilities, etc. but at some point one begins to start noticing that that one is oneself formed of various constituents.

Whether it is by a preliminary reading of sankhya or yogic enquiry or through gyana yoga or bhakti yoga, one realizes that one is not who one thought oneself is and layers within layers of one’s existence come out that were not so obvious in the past. As one’s true nature or svaroop is revealed, what happens to the dharma that one had taken as one’s gospel? It necessarily has to change, evolve, adapt, grow, in sync with one’s new insights and understanding.


One example of possible question and answer sessions that might be entertained about dharma.  We might call it a digital and modernized analog of prashna and Uttara Upanishad:

Q: What is the dharma of a flashlight, my child?

A: To give light, I suppose.

Q: Why is giving light its dharma?

A: Because that is its nature. That is what it is supposed to do.

Q: What if the flashlight also had a computer attached to it, along with a calculator and a camera? What would you think its dharma would be?

A: Well, its dharma would be to give light, and calculate and take pictures and compute, I suppose.

Q: Each depending on the component’s nature, right?

A: Yes!

Q: What if I added more features to the flashlight, e.g., e mail service, telephone, browsing services, videos, online chats, etc.

A: I suppose more dharmas would be added to its repertoire.

Q: So then what is its main dharma if you have so many features?

A: Difficult to say!

Q: What if I told you that you are now holding a smart phone? What is the dharma of the flashlight now?

A: Ah! Its dharma is to be a smartphone.

Q: Whichever way you define the dharma of a smartphone now, so will it be now? The point was to give you a new perspective on things you take for granted. Or this so-called you that you take as granted by defining your features and nature.

A: Dharma then would be nature, ability, aptitude, svaroop, responsibility, role, etc.

Q: Until you identify with them too. But you may discard them at will. When you are ready and transcend to a higher dharma. Perhaps you could call it a greater digital ecosystem.

So you think you are a flashlight until you realize you are a smartphone with multiple features, abilities, qualities, possibilities, modules, apps.

Then what are you? Meditate on this. What a complex universe and multitude you are and how will you find out who you are unless through a radical search and understanding.


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