symbols used in Dharmic religions

One fundamental concept in Hinduism is dharma, which refers to natural law and the social and religious obligations it imposes. According to this concept, individuals should fulfill their proper role in society as prescribed by their dharma. Dharma is difficult to define. Some translate it as meaning “universal justice” or “natural law” but is best viewed as doing what is required based on one's position and stage in life. Other important moral concepts found in Hinduism include: 1) “prarabdha” (fate); 2) “anugraha” (divine grace); and 3) “papa” (moral evil).

Dharma is basically a code of moral conduct and duties and is regarded as one of the most important truths sought by individuals in their lifetime. It is linked with righteousness and responsibility and is sometimes viewed as living in accordance with one’s caste traditions. Among Buddhists dharma it the ultimate reality, the eternal truth to which Buddha was "awakened."

While religion means to bind, Dharma means to hold. What man holds on to is his inner law, which leads from ignorance to Truth. Though reading of the scriptures (shastras) would not directly lead you to self-realization, the teachings of the seers provide a basis and a path for spirituality. Despite being the oldest religion, the truth realized by the seers prove that the Truth and path provided by Hinduism is beyond time.

Although not essential to philosophical Hinduism, the caste system has become an integral part of its social or dharmic expression. Under this system, individuals are born into a specific caste, which is traditionally associated with a particular occupation. However, it should be noted that not all members necessarily practice this occupation. The caste system is graded based on the level of purity or impurity associated with each caste. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991]

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (1.4.xiv) states: Nothing is higher than Dharma. The weak overcomes the stronger by Dharma, as over a king. Truly that Dharma is the Truth (Satya); Therefore, when a man speaks the Truth, they say, "He speaks the Dharma"; and if he speaks Dharma, they say, "He speaks the Truth!" For both are one. In the Mahabharata, Krishna defines dharma as upholding both this-worldly and other-worldly affairs. (Mbh 12.110.11). The word Sanatana means eternal, perennial, or forever; thus, Sanatana Dharma signifies that it is the dharma that has neither beginning nor end. The Dutch Indologist J.A.B. Van Buitenen defines Dharma as the universal principle that all beings must accept and respect to maintain harmony and order in the world. He explains that it involves pursuing and fulfilling one's true calling and playing a role in the cosmic concert.

Websites and Resources on Hinduism: Hinduism Today hinduismtoday.com ; India Divine indiadivine.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ochs.org.uk ; Hindu Website hinduwebsite.com/hinduindex ; Hindu Gallery hindugallery.com ; Encyclopædia Britannica Online article britannica.com ; International Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu/hindu ; The Hindu Religion, Swami Vivekananda (1894), .wikisource.org ; Journal of Hindu Studies, Oxford University Press academic.oup.com/jhs

Importance of Dharma

In Hinduism, dharma is the primary goal for human beings. It encompasses behaviors that align with rta, the order that enables life and the universe. This includes duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues, and the 'right way of living.' Hindu dharma encompasses religious duties, moral rights and obligations of individuals, as well as behaviors that promote social order, proper conduct, and virtue. [Source: Wikipedia]

Professor Gavin Flood of Oxford University wrote: “Dharma is an important term in Indian religions. In Hinduism it means 'duty', 'virtue', 'morality', even 'religion' and it refers to the power which upholds the universe and society. Hindus generally believe that dharma was revealed in the Vedas although a more common word there for 'universal law' or 'righteousness' is rita. Dharma is the power that maintains society, it makes the grass grow, the sun shine, and makes us moral people or rather gives humans the opportunity to act virtuously. [Source: Professor Gavin Flood, BBC, August 24, 2009 |::|]

“But acting virtuously does not mean precisely the same for everyone; different people have different obligations and duties according to their age, gender, and social position. Dharma is universal but it is also particular and operates within concrete circumstances. Each person therefore has their own dharma known as sva-dharma. What is correct for a woman might not be for a man or what is correct for an adult might not be for a child. |::|

“Correct action in accordance with dharma is also understood as service to humanity and to God. The idea of what has become known as sanatana dharma can be traced back to the puranas. Those who adhere to this idea, addressing one’s eternal dharma or constitution, claim that it transcends other mundane dharmas – that it is the para dharma, the ultimate dharma. It is often associated with bhakti movements, who propose that we are all eternal servants of a personal Deity, thus advocating each act, word, and deed to be acts of devotion. In the 19th Century the concept of sanatana dharma was used by some groups to advocate a unified view of Hinduism.” |::|

Jean Johnson of New York University wrote: “Dharma is like one's role in a play or position on a team. For the play to go well or for the team to win, each person must "stay in character" or "play his position." If each thing in the universe does its dharma, the universe functions smoothly. When people or things violate their dharma, things fall apart.” [Source: Jean Johnson, New York University, U.C. Davis website]

Sanatana and Vaidika Dharma

Hindu practitioners often refer to the 'orthodox' form of Hinduism as Sanatana Dharma, which means 'the eternal law' or 'the eternal way.' According to Encyclopædia Britannica, Sanatana Dharma historically referred to the religiously ordained 'eternal' duties in Hinduism. These duties include honesty, refraining from injuring living beings (ahi sa), purity, goodwill, mercy, patience, forbearance, self-restraint, generosity, and asceticism. These duties apply to all Hindus, regardless of their class, caste, or sect. They contrast with svadharma, which refers to one's own duty in accordance with their class or caste (varna) and stage in life (ashrama). In recent years, Hindu leaders, reformers, and nationalists have used the term Sanatana Dharma to refer to Hinduism. Sanatana Dharma has become a synonym for the eternal truth and teachings of Hinduism that transcend history and are unchanging, indivisible, and ultimately universal. [Source: Wikipedia]

According to scholars Kim Knott and Brian Hatcher, Sanatana Dharma refers to a set of timeless and eternal truths. This is how Hindus view the origins of their religion. Hinduism is considered a tradition of eternal truths and ancient traditions that were divinely revealed (Shruti) in the Vedas, the world's most ancient scriptures. Many Hindus find the Western term 'religion' inappropriate for their tradition, as it implies dogma and an institution traceable to a single founder, according to Hatcher. They view Hinduism as a tradition that can be traced back to the ancient Vedic era.

Hinduism has also been referred to as the Vaidika dharma. The term 'Vaidika' in Sanskrit means 'derived from or conformable to the Veda' or 'relating to the Veda'. To differentiate various Indian schools from Jainism, Buddhism, and Charvaka, traditional scholars used the terms Vaidika and Avaidika, which refer to those who accept the Vedas as a source of authoritative knowledge and those who do not. According to Klaus Klostermaier, the term Vaidika dharma is the earliest self-designation of Hinduism.

Dharma and the Bhagavad Gita

ancient territories conquered by the Dharma according to Ashoka (ruled 268 to 232 BC)

Professor Gavin Flood of Oxford University wrote: “The importance of sva-dharma is illustrated well by the Bhagavad Gita. This text, set before the great battle of the Mahabharata, depicts the hero Arjuna riding in his chariot driven by his charioteer Krishna between the great armies. The warrior Arjuna questions Krishna about why he should fight in the battle. Surely, he asks, killing one's relatives and teachers is wrong and so he refuses to fight. [Source: Professor Gavin Flood, BBC, August 24, 2009 |::|]

“Krishna assures him that this particular battle is righteous and he must fight as his duty or dharma as a warrior. Arjuna's sva-dharma was to fight in the battle because he was a warrior, but he must fight with detachment from the results of his actions and within the rules of the warriors' dharma. Indeed, not to act according to one's own dharma is wrong and called adharma. |::|

“Correct action in accordance with dharma is also understood as service to humanity and to God. The idea of what has become known as sanatana dharma can be traced back to the puranas - texts of antiquity. Those who adhere to this idea of one's eternal dharma or constitution, claim that it transcends other mundane dharmas - that it is the para dharma, the ultimate dharma of the self. It is often associated with bhakti movements, who link an attitude of eternal service to a personal deity.” |::|

Hindu Morality and Kama (Pleasure)

Adharma is behavior that is opposed to one’s dharma. Adharma and dharma are somewhat like yin and yang in that they oppose one another but are also complimentary and they way they oppose each other is relative. Good and evil, right and wrong and truth and falsehood are can all be viewed in terms of dharma and adharma but are relative to an individual and his or her position in life.

The great Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata give a lot of attention to dharma and adharma. See Concepts in the Bhagavad Gita The concept of purity is important. Hindus believed that purification of the body leads to purification of the mind and ones position in the world (or caste) is determined by the purity or impurity of past deeds ( “karma” ). The five polluting “pancamakra” are: 1) wine; 2) meat; 3) fish; 4) parched grain; and 5) sexual intercourse with a menstruating woman. The idea of purity is at the heart of the caste system. See Caste System.

But there is also the idea of Kama, which is found in things like the Kama Sutra sex manual. Kama refers to desire, wish, passion, longing, and pleasure of the senses, including aesthetic enjoyment of life, affection, and love, with or without sexual connotations. In contemporary Indian literature, kama is often used to refer to sexual desire. However, in ancient Indian literature, kama is expansive and includes any kind of enjoyment and pleasure, such as pleasure derived from the arts. The Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic, defines kama as any pleasant and desirable experience resulting from the interaction of one or more of the five senses with anything associated with that sense, as long as it is in harmony with the other goals of human life, namely dharma, artha, and moksha. In Hinduism, kama is considered an essential and healthy goal of human life, as long as it is pursued without sacrificing dharma, artha, and moksha. New York Times Wikipedia]

Some argue Hinduism encourages tolerance and open-mindedness. There is no right way or wrong way to practice Hinduism; no correct code of ethics or values; no proselytizing. Children are brought up to follow the customs and ethics of their parents but are encouraged to decide for themselves which gods and goddesses are right for them. Individuals often practice group rituals for their family and private rituals for themselves. It has been said that Hinduism encourages fatalistic pacificism and that holiness is often equated with passivity and renunciation. See Karma

See Karma and the Caste System

Hinduism, Artha and Materialism

Hinduism has traditionally frowned upon the accumulation of material wealth. The "comforts" of the body do not necessarily promise peace of mind. Eternal bliss holy men say is achieved through by "controlling your desires and imposing self-discipline." Renouncing materialism is something that has traditionally been associated with old age and holy men not working men caring for his wife and children. In keeping with Hindu beliefs about the stages of life a man with a family "cannot hope to realize all his spiritual capabilities until his responsibilities are over and he can leave the world."

Inherent to the stage of the householder (a man with a family) is the belief that the pursuit of money, power, fame and glory are all legitimate pursuits as long as they don’t harm others. The pursuit of religious enlightenment is something that takes place after one’s family is provided for. The last two stages of life place an emphasis on gaining merit before death to improve one’s karma and gain a better position through reincarnation. The best time to renounce material concerns says a Hindu treatise is "when a householder sees his skin wrinkled, and his hair white, and the sons of his sons, then he may resort to the forest...he should live without fire, without a house, a silent sage subsisting on roots and fruit.” See Sadhus, Hindu Holy Men

Within Hinduism there is also the idea of Artha. Artha is the virtuous pursuit of means, resources, assets, or livelihood for meeting obligations, achieving economic prosperity, and leading a fulfilling life. It includes political life, diplomacy, and material well-being. The concept encompasses all activities and resources that enable one to achieve the desired state of wealth, career, and financial security. Pursuing artha properly is considered an important aim of human life in Hinduism. [Source: Wikipedia]

20120501-Karma Depiction_of_Violence_Gujarat 4.jpg
Karma depiction of Violence from Gujarat

Ahimsa and Hindu Views on Ethics and Animals

Hindu ethics generally center on the principle of ahimsa, noninjury to living creatures — especially the cow, which is held sacred. The principle is expressed in almost universally observed rules against eating beef. By no means are all Hindus vegetarians, but abstinence from all kinds of meat is regarded as a "higher" virtue. High-caste Bangladeshi Hindus, unlike their counterparts elsewhere in South Asia, ordinarily eat fish. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989]

Hinduism is a term that embraces many different although related religious ideas. Therefore, there is no clear single Hindu view on the right way to treat animals. However, in general, the doctrine of ahimsa leads Hindus to treat animals well. Hindu don't eat beef in same way Muslims abstain from eating pork. In addition: 1) For Hindus, butchery and related jobs are restricted to people of low caste; 2) Most Hindus believe that non-human animals are inferior to human beings; 3) Some Hindu temples keep sacred animals; 4) Some Hindu gods have animal characteristics. Ganesh has the head of an elephant. Hanuman takes the form of a monkey. [Source: BBC |::|

Ahimsa originated in Jainism but is also widely accepted in Hinduism and Buddhism. According to the BBC: “Ahimsa is often translated simply as non-violence, but its implications are far wider; it is more than not doing violence, it is more than an attitude, it is a whole way of life. And for modern Jains the concept also includes the positive elements of working for justice, peace, liberation, and freedom, if doing so does not involve violence. |::|

Literally translated, Ahimsa means to be without harm; to be utterly harmless, as Jains see it, not only to oneself and others, but to all forms of life, from the largest mammals to the smallest bacteria. Mahatma Gandhi was a famous advocate of Ahimsa, as it informed his policy of passive resistance, satyagraha (combining the Sanskrit terms for 'truth' and 'holding firmly') - which he adopted towards the occupying British forces during the period leading up to Indian independence. Some Jains have criticised this as being a subtle form of violence. |::|

Jain Beliefs About Ahimsa

According to the BBC: Jains believe that the only way to save one's own soul is to protect every other soul, and so the most central Jain teaching, and the heart of Jain ethics, is that of ahimsa (non-violence).” The Jain founder “Mahavira taught that: ‘there is no quality of soul more subtle than non-violence and no virtue of spirit greater than reverence for life.’ In practical terms the biggest part that ahimsa plays in the lives of lay Jains today is in the regulation of their diet. [Source: BBC |::|]

depiction of the Jainism's message: "Ahinsa Parmo Dharm"

Jains believe that life (which equals soul) is sacred regardless of faith, caste, race, or even species. Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture or kill any creature or living being. In following this discipline Jain monks may be observed treading and sweeping in their temples with the utmost of care so as to avoid accidentally crushing crawling insects, or wearing muslin cloths over their mouths in case they should accidentally swallow a fly.

Ahimsa basics: 1) Refraining from violence: One should refrain from violence to any living creature. Violence includes: physical violence, mental violence and verbal violence. 2) Violence can be committed in several ways, all of which should be avoided: committing it yourself, asking others to commit violence, encouraging others to commit violence, assenting to or condoning violence. 3) Violence involves violent intention as well as physical harm. This is controversial among Jains and both the points below are disputed. Accidental physical harm may not count as violence if there was no violent intention, but lack of compassion or care may be a sufficiently violent intention. 4) Ahimsa is positive as well as negative, so it's good to: forgive, promote tolerance, be compassionate, give to charity, work for peace, protect the environment, work for kindness to animals, and do one's daily work in a just and honest way.

Hindu Beliefs About Ahimsa

Hindus view ahimsa as non-violence, honest compassion and true love. It is one of the five yamas, which are the ethical, moral and societal guidelines for yogis. Many Hindus believe that ahimsa can be distilled into a practice of non-violence in all aspects of life, from the physical to the mental and emotional. One can achieve this by embracing love: learning to love deeply, and being open to being loved.

According to ananda.org: in Hindu terms ahimsa “doesn’t mean to not harm or kill, which can sometimes be inevitable, such as when one eats meat or even plants, or accidentally steps on bugs. Ahimsa is about the intent, rather than the action itself. It is an attitude of universal benevolence. The Hindu mystic Patanjali wrote a scripture called the Yoga Sutras, where he outlines yamas (restraints, or what one should not do) and niyamas (observances, or what one should do). Ahimsa is the first of the yamas. Patanjali says that once ahimsa is mastered, even wild animals and ferocious criminals will become tame and harmless in our presence. [Source: ananda.org ||||]

Traditionally ahimsa is taken to mean that a person should not kill. This is why vegetarianism is so widespread in India. Some Hindus believe that one should not kill or harm anything even to save one’s own life. Some sects in India go to great measures to follow this, such as boiling water to avoid killing germs when they drink it. The term was popularized in modern times by Mahatma Gandhi. By non-violent resistance he led India to political emancipation from Britain. ||||

“Ahimsa, rightly understood, is the ultimate weapon; it turns one’s enemy into a friend, thereby banishing the possibility of further conflict. In the practice of yoga, it is important to understand that the same life flows in the veins of all creatures. What Patanjali referred to, essentially, was the attitude of the mind, rather than the literal acts of the body. It is one’s attitude that can either lead him toward liberation, or hold him in greater bondage. An attitude of harmlessness (and its corollary, a feeling of universal benevolence) is what is meant by ahimsa. It is not possible in any case kill anyone: The soul is immortal. What is possible, however, by wishing harm to another living being, is develop a consciousness of death, which causes harm to the perpetrator. ||||

Hierarchy of Inspiration on Ahimsa: a flow chart depicting the inspiration on Ahimsa and Satya (truth) in the contemporary history

“The principle of ahimsa must be understood in subtle ways, not only in gross. To harm anyone in the slightest way, even by disrespect, will harm the person doing the action as well as the one receiving it. The perfect practice of ahimsa, then, is very rare. For though not many people would actually kill their fellows, it is common to find people slashing at one another with angry words, or with contemptuous glances.” ||||

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Indian History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “The Creators” by Daniel Boorstin; “A Guide to Angkor: an Introduction to the Temples” by Dawn Rooney (Asia Book) for Information on temples and architecture. National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated December 2023

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