Golden statue of Buddha turning the Wheel of Dharm
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Dharma is a Sanskrit word and a concept of central importance with multiple, different meanings in the Indian religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism. There is no singular definition for the word, as it has had a long and complex history with a variety of interpretations. There is also no individual word translation for the word Dharma in English or other Western languages.

Dharma in Hinduism: In Hinduism, Dharma is followed as a religious and moral law that governs how individuals are meant to act and behave.

In Hinduism, there is an overarching form of Dharma that applies to everyone that involves truthfulness, generosity, and peacefulness. These universal duties are referred to as Sanatana Dharma.

Sanatana Dharma

From the Encyclopedia Britannica:

In Hinduism, Santana Dharma is used to denote the “eternal” or absolute set of duties or religiously ordained practices incumbent upon all Hindus, regardless of class, caste, or sect. Different texts give different lists of the duties, but in general sanatana dharma consists of virtues such as honesty, refraining from injuring living beings, purity, goodwill, mercy, patience, forbearance, self-restraint, generosity, and asceticism. Sanatana dharma is contrasted with sva dharma, one’s “own duty” or the particular duties enjoined upon an individual according to his or her class or caste and stage of life. The potential for conflict between the two types of dharma (e.g., between the particular duties of a warrior and the general injunction to practice non-injury) is addressed in Hindu texts such as the Bhagavad Gītā.

The term has also more recently been used by Hindu leaders, reformers, and nationalists to refer to Hinduism as a unified world religion. Sanatana dharma has thus become a synonym for the “eternal” truth and teachings of Hinduism, the latter conceived of as not only transcendent of history and unchanging but also as indivisible and ultimately nonsectarian.”

In Hinduism, there is also a class-specific dharma that was to be followed in accordance with one’s societal caste, status, and current standing in society. In Hinduism, Dharma is meant to signify accepted behaviors which are thought to be in good accord with Rta, which is the order that regulates the operation of the universe and makes life possible, according to ancient Hindu teachings. Thus, daily duties, both family and as a citizen, personal rights, societal laws, personal conduct, and virtues are all folded up into Dharma in Hinduism. Principles of Dharma make up earliest tenants of Hindu law.

Dharma in Buddhism: In Buddhism, Dharma translates to ‘cosmic law and order’. It is a doctrine that is seen as an absolute truth to be understood by all individuals at all times, as proclaimed by the Buddha. Thus, Dharma in Buddhism does not vary with caste as it does in Hinduism.

The Buddha, Dharma, and the sangha, which is the community of believers, makes up the Triranta, or “Three Jewels” that Buddhists go to for advice and refuge. In Buddhism, Dharma incorporates the philosophies, teachings, and doctrines of the Buddha.

Dharma in Jainism: In Jainism, Dharma is viewed as a moral virtue.

In addition to being universally understood as moral value in Jainism, Dharma is also viewed as an eternal substance that allows beings to move. In Jainism, Dharma also incorporates the teachings of its founder, Mahavira.

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Gill, N.S. "Dharma." ThoughtCo, Dec. 20, 2015, thoughtco.com/what-is-dharma-p2-119206. Gill, N.S. (2015, December 20). Dharma. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-dharma-p2-119206 Gill, N.S. "Dharma." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-dharma-p2-119206 (accessed November 23, 2017).