The Dharma of Hinduism

When we explore the classical Hindu view of karma we may note that this notion takes on decidedly moral overtones with the ideas of positive and negative karma. What we didn’t talk about is what determines wether the karma is good or bad and how to know the difference. To answer these questions I must introduce the concept of Dharma.

Dharma is one of those difficult to translate notions that have various meanings and associations, so I prefer to leave it untranslated. In the present context, Dharma means the pattern for proper and appropriate living. It is in another words the moral law. Yet it is more than this, because it shares a cosmological dimension with the older Vedic idea of Rita (the cosmic order). This cosmological element conveys the sense that the pattern for appropriate living is rooted in the order and nature of things. It is not based on the whims of human beings.

The Axial Age, when Hinduism was started, was a time of new or perhaps renewed interest in the proper regulation of human behavior. Confucius in China, the prophets in Israel and Plato and Aristotle in Greece were deeply concerned with the way human beings should treat other humans. In India as well, new codes for human action were elaborated in this early period of Hinduism.

Dharma, as a moral principle, is rather abstract and requires concretization to make it applicable to daily life. Accordingly, numerous attempts to specify and codify the Dharma were made. There emerged a whole genre of literature known as the Dharmashastras, which has since become the largest literary genre in India.

The Laws of Manu

The most important and influential representative of the Dharmashastras were the Laws of Manu, which were written down at about the time of Jesus but probably reflect earlier understandings of the structure of society. These laws were believed to have been given by Manu, who according to myth was the primal ancestor of all humanity.

What is important about Manu’s laws is that they assign different dharmas to the strata of Indian society. In another words, dharma is specific to one’s caste. One of the most interesting meditations on the subject of the caste-specific dharma is the Bhagavad Gita, perhaps the most beloved of Hindu scriptures.

Further Reading: The Caste System

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