Guest Post Part Two: Dharma is Not the Same as Religion

On occasion, State of Formation is pleased to offer its readers and contributors selections from guest bloggers. Over the next week we will publish four part series containing excerpts from a recent book authored Rajiv Malhotra  entitled Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism. More information about Rajiv Malhotra is located at the bottom of this article.

The word “dharma” has multiple meanings depending on the context in which it is used. These include: conduct, duty, right, justice, virtue, morality, religion, religious merit, good work according to a right or rule, etc. Many others meanings have been suggested, such as law or “torah” (in the Judaic sense), “logos” (Greek), “way” (Christian) and even ‘tao” (Chinese). None of these is entirely accurate and none conveys the full force of the term in Sanskrit. Dharma has no equivalent in the Western lexicon.

Dharma has the Sanskrit root dhri, which means “that which upholds” or “that without which nothing can stand” or “that which maintains the stability and harmony of the universe.” Dharma encompasses the natural, innate behavior of things, duty, law, ethics, virtue, etc. Every entity in the cosmos has its particular dharma — from the electron, which has the dharma to move in a certain manner, to the clouds, galaxies, plants, insects, and of course, man. Man’s understanding of the dharma of inanimate things is what we now call physics.
British colonialists endeavored to map Indian traditions onto their ideas of religion so as to be able to comprehend and govern their subjects; yet the notion of dharma remained elusive. The common translation into religion is misleading since, to most Westerners, a genuine religion must:

  1. be based on a single canon of scripture given by God in a precisely defined historical event;
  2. involve worship of the divine who is distinct from ourselves and the cosmos;
  3. be governed by some human authority such as the church;
  4. consist of formal members;
  5. be presided over by an ordained clergyman; and
  6. use a standard set of rituals.

But dharma is not limited to a particular creed or specific form of worship. To the Westerner, an “atheistic religion” would be a contradiction in terms, but in Buddhism, Jainism and Carvaka dharma, there is no place for God as conventionally defined. In some Hindu systems the exact status of God is debatable. Nor is there only a single standard deity, and one may worship one’s own ishta-devata, or chosen deity.

Dharma provides the principles for the harmonious fulfillment of all aspects of life, namely, the acquisition of wealth and power (artha), fulfillment of desires (kama), and liberation (moksha). Religion, then, is only one subset of dharma’s scope.

Religion applies only to human beings and not to the entire cosmos; there is no religion of electrons, monkeys, plants and galaxies, whereas all of them have their dharma even if they carry it out without intention.

Since the essence of humanity is divinity, it is possible for them to know their dharma through direct experience without any external intervention or recourse to history. In Western religions, the central law of the world and its peoples is singular and unified, and revealed and governed from above.
In dharmic traditions, the word a-dharma applies to humans who fail to perform righteously; it does not mean refusal to embrace a given set of propositions as a belief system or disobedience to a set of commandments or canons.

Dharma is also often translated as “law,” but to become a law, a set of rules has to be present which must: (i) be promulgated and decreed by an authority that enjoys political sovereignty over a given territory, (ii) be obligatory, (iii) be interpreted, adjudicated and enforced by courts, and (iv) carry penalties when it is breached. No such description of dharma is found within the traditions.

The Roman Emperor Constantine began the system of “canon laws,” which were determined and enforced by the Church. The ultimate source of Jewish law is the God of Israel. The Western religions agree that the laws of God must be obeyed just as if they were commandments from a sovereign. It is therefore critical that “false gods” be denounced and defeated, for they might issue illegitimate laws in order to undermine the “true laws.” If multiple deities were allowed, then there would be confusion as to which laws were true.

In contrast with this, there is no record of any sovereign promulgating the various dharma-shastras (texts of dharma for society) for any specific territory at any specific time, nor any claim that God revealed such “social laws,” or that they should be enforced by a ruler. None of the compilers of the famous texts of social dharma were appointed by kings, served in law enforcement, or had any official capacity in the state machinery. They were more akin to modern academic social theorists than jurists. The famous Yajnavalkya Smriti is introduced in the remote sanctuary of an ascetic. The well-known Manusmriti begins by stating its setting as the humble abode of Manu, who answered questions posed to him in a state of samadhi (higher consciousness). Manu tells the sages that every epoch has its own distinct social and behavioral dharma.
Similarly, none of the Vedas and Upanishads was sponsored by a king, court or administrator, or by an institution with the status of a church. In this respect, dharma is closer to the sense of “law” we find in the Hebrew scriptures, where torah, the Hebrew equivalent, is also given in direct spiritual experience. The difference is that Jewish torah quickly became enforced by the institutions of ancient Israel.

The dharma-shastras did not create an enforced practice but recorded existing practices. Many traditional smritis (codified social dharma) were documenting prevailing localized customs of particular communities. An important principle was self-governance by a community from within. The smritis do not claim to prescribe an orthodox view from the pulpit, as it were, and it was not until the 19th century, under British colonial rule, that the smritis were turned into “law” enforced by the state.

The reduction of dharma to concepts such as religion and law has harmful consequences: it places the study of dharma in Western frameworks, moving it away from the authority of its own exemplars. Moreover, it creates the false impression that dharma is similar to Christian ecclesiastical law-making and the related struggles for state power.

The result of equating dharma with religion in India has been disastrous: in the name of secularism, dharma has been subjected to the same limits as Christianity in Europe. A non-religious society may still be ethical without belief in God, but an a-dharmic society loses its ethical compass and falls into corruption and decadence.


Rajiv Malhotra is an Indian–American researcher and public intellectual on current affairs, world religions, cross-cultural encounters and science. A scientist by training, he was previously a senior corporate executive, strategic consultant and entrepreneur in information technology and media. He is the author of Breaking India (Amaryllis, 2011), was the chief protagonist in Invading the Sacred (Rupa & Co.), and is an active writer and speaker. He is chairman of the Board of Governors of the India Studies program at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.

Photo credit: Photo used from this site with permission with Rajiv Malhotra.

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11 thoughts on “Guest Post Part Two: Dharma is Not the Same as Religion

  1. Thanks Rajiv for clearly & succintly explaining dharma, vis-a-vis Western concepts of Law & Religion.

    I’m looking forward to comments from the readers here, and to read & participate in a lively discussion.

  2. This is a difficult subject matter. you have clarified the misinterpretation of work Dharma from different angles. I really salute your work. Tough I am a Vedanta student for many years, sometime I wonder whether my actions are Dharmic or Adharmic. I remember one of my teachers explaining that if a person performing an action without Kama, Krodha, Lobha, Mada and Mathsarya (greed, anger, arrogance, jealous) will be a Dharmic action. Please correct if this is not right.

    Western religion can easily misuse these words for their own selfish gain.

  3. Rajiv,

    As all your other articles, this one too is educative and objective and has been written succinctly yet lucidly. I hope many people would be driven now to understand what dharma actually stands for. I speak from personal experience that just understanding its actual meaning itself is quite enlightening and valuable and corrects many crooked notions about the Hindu worldview.

    In a way dharma is the only concept that unifies and harmonises the subjective (all aspects of human existence) and the objective (the entire universe.) All sciences, religion, ethics, philosophy, etc. are intertwined together through dharma alone. You have so rightly pointed out that the entire physics, like any other science, is just a small branch of dharma, which is basically THE universal law, comprising ALL laws, that keeps the universe in harmony, encompassing both the subjective and the objective.

    How far removed it is from the usual definition of religion, especially the ritual and history-centric aspects of it (which is essentially unscientific), does need to be understood as the very primary step. Understanding this concept is itself enlightening, and opens up a new perspective on the way we see things around us and how one should conduct oneself.

    Thanks and keep up your invaluable work.

  4. Wonderful writing! Thank you for taking the time to shed some light on this topic.

    In appreciation,

  5. I am a regular reader of Rahiv’s writing and this was truely rewarding to know the concept of dharma. Dharma is aking to human and not to religion. It will be good to know how dharma is mis-understood by people of different faiths to drive the point of its concept and its meaning. I am sure day to day problems like terrorism, human exploitation, evironment pollution will have its base on misuse of dharma at some stage of life by people or a community.

    Many thanks for your post on ‘Dharma’ and explaining the problem of finding a correct term to convey this concept in English language. The term ‘nature’ could be useful, particularly when we look at ‘Dharma’ in the context of human nature. Man is a moral being; he has the power called discernment, he makes distinction between right and wrong, he distinguishes good from evil. This moral aspect of the human being is ruled or governed by the spiritual nature of man. Spirituality is a defining feature of man’s corporeal substance and this nature helps in harmonious interrelationship between the cells, the tissues, and the organs, the constituent parts of man. When we carefully look, all of these cells enjoy cellular autonomy, and man has no ability to directly rule or govern even a single cell in his body. Yet man lives and exists because of the functions of these trillions of living cells which behave as Individuals, free, and autonomous. These Individual Cells display functional subservience to serve the purpose of the Human Individual that we recognize as man. If Dharma is the source of harmony, balance, and existence, I would apply that concept to the term ‘spiritualism’ and define that term as an internal, mutually beneficial partnership between cells of the human organism and the Whole Organism that represents it as a Human Individual.

  7. Clear explanation but ultimately Western traditions also are from aryan roots eg Bible corrupted Manu sastra.

  8. Is it okay to place part of this on my web site if perhaps I post a reference to this web page?

    1. Yes, you’re following good “fair use” policy by copying with attribution. So IMO you can & should post this on your site with attribution / link to this article / site.

  9. Very interesting blog. Alot of blogs I see these days don’t really provide anything that I’m interested in, but I’m most definately interested in this one. Just thought that I would post and let you know.

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