Dharma (Hinduism)

For Hindus, dharma is the moral order of the universe and a code of living that embodies the fundamental principles of law, religion, and duty that governs all reality. The Hindu worldview asserts that is one by following one's dharma, a person can eventually achieve liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth (samsara). In the traditional Hindu view, a person’s duties are dependent upon his or her age, gender, occupation, and caste; dharma is construed at least in part in terms of prescribed rituals and caste obligations. Hindu reformers have interpreted dharma in multiple ways. For example, Mohandas Gandhi argued that dharma should be understood in more spiritual terms. He reinterpreted the role of dharma in Hindu society by highlighting its moral precepts and portrayed it as a dimension of human freedom.

Dharma is a central concept shared by many religions in the Indian subcontinent, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism—as well as in the Indo-Iranian faith of Zoroastrianism. In Hinduism, dharma is conceived as the moral precept that governs duty, religion, and law. Therefore, because dharma has the potential to affect all aspects of a believer’s life, many British colonialists considered the Dharmasastras—the textual compilation and analysis of dharmic ordinances—to be the civil law of Hindu peoples. Hence, colonists believed that dharmic texts were the reason for prevailing caste practices and ritual obligation in society. However, the relevance and potency of dharma is continuously challenged and even today the claim that dharma is compatible with a strict separation between the religious and secular realms is a matter of debate. The persistence of dharma in Indian society encourages spiritual practice and right conduct, but has also supported the persistence of the caste system. Even though the caste system was abolished when India gained her independence from the British, it is still socially pervasive. Modern Hindu reformers argue that regardless of its connection to dharmic rules expressed in ancient texts, the caste system is incompatible with democracy.