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.
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.
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.
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.