Dharma: An Introduction

“Dharma is subtle.”

This quotation recurs throughout the Mahabharata, one of the two great epics in Hinduism. (The Ramayana is the other.) Dharma is a Sanskrit word that is often translated as duty or responsibility. It is probably the central ethical idea in Hinduism. It’s also rather complex.

The word dharma is often translated as “duty,” and this definition is a pretty good start. However, there’s more nuance to the term: dharma refers to duties/responsibilities that a person has to uphold the functioning of the communities in which they are enmeshed. Dharma is action that upholds the world. As such, it is linked quite closely to a person’s identity: in my case, I have specific dharmas as a son, a partner, a teacher, a colleague, a tenant, and so on. Performing my dharma, then, is a matter of acting in a way that preserves and upholds the social orders I am a part of: my family, my classroom, my workplace, my home – my communities.

But – and this is perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind when teaching and learning about dharma – not everyone’s dharma is the same. In fact, as Anne Monius, a former professor of mine, often emphasized, Hinduism describes an ethics of particularity: a worldview that takes human difference very seriously, and thus sees different people as having different ethical responsibilities, or dharmas.

Traditionally, this idea was expressed in a framework known as varna-ashrama-dharma: the dharmas of life stage and caste. The ideal (male, Brahmin) life was divided into different life stages, each of which had certain responsibilities: as a student, for example, a person’s dharmas are different than when s/he is a householder. Similarly, Hinduism contains a hierarchical system of purity and impurity known as the caste system (varna in Sanskrit), and different castes have different dharmas.

This ethic of particularity challenges ideas of universal ethics that are more common in Semitic religions and many European philosophical systems. There, we might see ideas of moral laws that are binding toward all: Thou Shalt Nots, categorical imperatives, or even ideas that all men humans are created equal.

It’s this last idea that dharma challenges: of course we are not equal, we can imagine a proponent of this view saying. We have different abilities, stations in life, caste locations, dispositions, aptitudes – and thus we have different responsibilities. We have different dharmas.

And therefore, one person’s dharma might be (and in reality, often is) different from another person’s dharma. This point is made throughout Hindu religious literature: it’s one of the core ideas of the Bhagavad Gita, to take only one example. The implications of this idea are profound: what is ethical for you may not be ethical for me (and vice-versa). To take the example of the Gita, the dharma of a soldier in war differs from, say, the dharma of a high school teacher in war. There isn’t a single way of being ethical – there is not a universal ethic. Instead, as Professor Monius emphasizes, there is an ethic of particularity: what is ethical for Arjuna may not be ethical for me.

Of all the implications about dharma, this last one may be the most challenging. It speaks to the subtlety of dharma, and subtlety of the ethical framework of Hinduism more broadly. Conveying these ideas to students is a complex task, and I’ll articulate in a later post about the way I introduce this concept to students. It’s one thing to tell the students about this idea, but it’s much more important that they actually learn it – and this difference between my telling and their learning is something I hope to explore in this blog as well.

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