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A Sanskrit term with a wide variety of uses in religious and philosophic texts. It is derived from the root dh (hold or uphold, carry or bear, preserve, etc). Hence, in Hindu social theory dharma is that which upholds society, i.e., what the West would consider the social and moral law; as such it is the third of the four aims of an ideal human life (purusartha). In Buddhism dharma is the Buddha’s teaching which holds together the community of monks and lay followers. In some Indian philosophic systems, it is the substance which “holds” qualities or attributes, while in others it is those attributes themselves. In Jainism, it is the medium of motion, single and eternal, pervading the universe. Theosophists tend to use the term in its social or moral sense, although often giving it a more extensive interpretation: what one ought to do in any specific situation, given one’s present state of evolution and the obligations one has to one’s family and associates as well as to the political entity in which one lives (neighborhood, city, state, or nation). It is sometimes suggested that karma is what puts one in one’s present situation while dharma is what one is supposed to do with it in order to progress to a better situation, ultimately to free oneself from the necessity for rebirth.

It is common to identify six different spheres of dharma:

1. Sva-dharma: one’s individual duty or responsibility.

2. Varna-asrama-dharma: one’s social responsibility or duty based on one’s social status or caste and stage of life (i.e., student, householder, retiree, or religious renunciate).

3. Sanatana-dharma: one’s eternal religious responsibility or duty.

4. Apad-dharma: modification of one’s duty allowed in a time of adversity.

5. Yuga-dharma: one’s duty, taking into consideration the time in which one lives (see YUGA).

6. Sadharana-dharma: the duty of every individual to cultivate the virtues of self-control, kindness, honesty and compassion.


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