Definition - What does Dharma mean?

Dharma is an important Hindu, Buddhist and yogic concept, referring to a law or principle which governs the universe. For an individual to live out their dharma is for them to act in accordance with this law. Dharma is considered to be one of the three jewels of Buddhism, alongside sangha (spiritual community) and buddha (enlightened one), together paving the path to personal enlightenment. Enlightenment is a state of attainment that is beyond all suffering.


Dharma can also be understood as a law of righteousness and satya (truth), giving order to the customs, behaviours and ethics which make life possible.

The implication of dharma is that there is a right or true way for each person to carry out their life in order to serve both themselves and others. Dharma is closely related to the concepts of duty and selfless service, or seva, and is therefore a fundamental principle of yoga. Although it can be a challenging concept to grasp since it has no single-word English translation, a close adaptation is “right way of living”.

The word dharma comes from the Sanskrit root word dhri, which means “to hold,” "to maintain," or "to preserve." In the early Vedas and other ancient Hindu texts, dharma referred to the cosmic law that created the ordered universe from chaos. Later, it was applied to other contexts, including human behaviors and ways of living that prevent society, family and nature from descending into chaos. This included the concepts of duty, rights, religion and morally appropriate behaviour, and so dharma came to be understood as a means to preserve and maintain righteousness.

On an individual level, dharma can refer to a personal mission or purpose. Traditionally, an individual’s dharma is thought to be pre-determined. Depending on karma, a soul is born into a particular caste or social group, either as a reward or a punishment for actions in their past lives. Their path in life is set by universal laws, and the only way to progress is to live within this path and work toward their destined purpose. According to the Bhagavad Gita, it is better to do your own dharma poorly than to do another's well.

It is said that all beings must accept their dharma for order and harmony to exist in the world. If an individual is following their dharma, they are pursuing their truest calling and serving all other beings in the universe by playing their true role.

To Hindus, all entities have their own dharma: even the sun must shine and the bees must make honey. In Buddhism, dharma additionally means acting in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha and the Four Noble Truths.

The result of living in this “right way” is believed to be self-realisation and enlightenment. Above all, when your life is aligned with your dharma, it brings a sense of joy and fulfilment.

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