Dharma is an umbrella term used in Hindu scriptures to define right ways of living. At a societal level, these are less about commandments and more about broad principles that allow human beings to live together in joy and harmony. At an individual level, to live in dharma is a way to break free from the cycle of karma and thereby understand the true meaning of life.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna explains to Arjuna that mankind is the only species that can rise above matsya nyaya, literally big fish gobbling smaller fish in a spiral of destruction; a more familiar term is ‘jungle law’.
Compassion, living without fear and basing all actions on love, these are the building blocks of dharma. Dharma ensures a fair playing field for all and bestows rights and responsibilities on individuals that promote a prosperous and peaceful society. In a broad sense therefore, dharma is that which upholds life itself.
Different scriptures varyingly describe principles of dharma to be followed by an individual. The Bhagavata Purana says that one must practice austerity, compassion, truthfulness and purity. Vices that go against dharma are pride, intoxication and the company of the impure. The sage Manu, in his text the Manusmriti, prescribed virtues like patience, honesty, rational thinking, sense control, knowledge and avoiding anger. Non-violence is a cornerstone of dharma. It is a man’s dharmic responsibility to marry, nurture and provide for his family; to protect aging parents and honor his ancestors.
Thus, the purpose of dharma is twofold. It endorses happiness, peace and prosperity in an individual’s earthly life and points the way to realization of the divine after death. It is also a blueprint for a civilized society.