In Hinduism, the word Dharma, although difficult to pinpoint exactly, refers to the general reverential attitudes and interactions with the orders of life. The concept can be thought of as a code of conduct, one that permeates the cultural community of the Aryans. Dharma in the Hindu world is synonymous with varnasramadharma, meaning the Dharma of Hindu castes and the life stages prescribed to these castes. The Dharma texts distinguishes both the four caste recognized in Hinduism, those being brahmins, ksatriyas, vaisyas, and sudras, as well as their respective duties and special class specific dharma (Hacker 481-483)

The concept of Dharma is also geographically defined in some dharmasastras, such as The Laws of Manu (or the Manusmrti). The location is specified as the land between the two sacred rivers Sarasvati and Drsadvati, therefore the idea of Dharma in Hinduism is meant to be mapped onto a very specific group of people (Klostermaier 31).      Dharma is also recognized as one of the four life goals worthy of pursual, Dharma being the goal of righteousness, or the religious life (Hacker 484) The idea of Dharma has bled into so many different parts of Hinduism and is integral to the religions existence. What can be concluded about the definition of Dharma is that it is an inseparable component of the Hindu religion.

Dharma is written about extensively and thoroughly in Dharmasastra, (legal treaties that deal with Dharma). This genre is possibly the largest in the entirety of Indian literature due to the importance of the subject and the inherent difficulty of applying its principles to real life situations (Klostermaier 32).

According to Alf Hiltebeitel, the Dharma texts can be described as texts that have dharma as the central topic and the text could not exist or be imagined without the concept. (Hiltebetiel 36).

Kolstermaier breaks the text down into the useful catagories or major and minor dharmasastras, and they are also separated into chronologically ordered clusters. The major classical Dharma texts contain a first cluster (early Maurya) that includes The Asokan Edicts, Apastamba Dharmasutra, and the Buddhist Nikayas. The second cluster (later Maurya) includes Buddhist Abhidharma, Buddhist Vinaya, Gautama Dharmasutra, and Baudhayana Dharmasutra, the third cluster (Sunga-Kanva or slightly later) which includes the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Manu Smrti (The Laws of Manu) and the fourth cluster (post-Kanva to early Kusana) which includes Vasistha Dharmasutra and Asvaghosa’s Buddhacarita. The minor classical Dharma texts include Yuga Purana and the Prophecy of Katyayana (Klostermaier 8).

The first of the dharmasastras that could be clearly defined are Asoka’s Inscriptions/Edicts. Asoka was an emperor who converted to Buddhism and used his dharma edicts to broadcast his imperial program to his subjects (Hiltebeitel 36). It is important to note that within his edicts one notes that Asoka was aware of the historical Brahmanical implications of dharma, despite identifying as a Buddhist. Through the lens of the edicts it can be observed that even in the very beginning the concept of dharma was multifaceted and spanned many diverse categories. Asoka’s inscriptions described dharma in both the personal and family spheres, to the imperial and even cosmological realm (Hiltebeitel 36-45).

Another dharmasastra of pivotal importance is The Laws of Manu (Manusmsmrti). In Hindu tradition Manu is the mythical ancestor of all humans; his ordinances are therefore the law of human kind, or natural religion (Klostermaier 32). The Laws of Manu are widely acknowledged as the most comprehensive and authoritative treaties on dharma and were composed at the turn of the first millennium when India was facing rampant political and social change (Glucklich 165). The Laws of Manu are presented as if they are treaties from the creator god himself, which leaves no room for debate or a scholarly give and take, something that is possible with some of the other dharmasastras (Hiltebitel 208-209).

Within the Manusmrti a distinction is made between two types of dharma, these types being pravrtti and nivrtti dharma. Manu explains that, pravrtti dharma secures the cultivation of happiness (sukha) and can be described as an “advancing act”; conversly nivrtti dharma produces the supreme good (sreyas) and can be described as an “arresting act” (Glucklich 167).  Manu also structures his explanation of dharma with a wide arrangement of rewards and punishments. The rewards include things such as wealth, health, and happiness, while the punishments include things such as lowly rebirths, painful hells, and social ostracism (Glucklich 171).

Some Sanskrit epics can also be categorized as Dhramasastras due to their explicit and implicit engagement with the concept. Mahabharata is one such epic that contains many ideas on dharma. In the epic Mahabharata, a serpent named Sesa separates himself from the other serpents because he finds that they are too hostile. Sesa then goes on too preform austerities (tapas) until the creator God, Brahma, notices him and bestows the serpent with the idea of Dharma. After Brahma puts the idea of Dharma into Sesa’s head he makes Sesa the God of Dharma and entrust the serpent too uphold the earth. Sesa, with the mindset of Dharma does not only uphold the earth in space, but also in time in order to show the continuity of Dharma through the yugas   (Hiltebeitel 261). This story in the Mahabharata serves to express how Dharma is a necessary competent of an orderly world.

Dharma also appears in other narratives within the Mahabharata. One of these narratives opens with the cosmological sequence in which Brahman is not considered to be fully complete until dharma has been created (Hiltebeitel 261). Another narrative involves dharma being depicted in human form, known as Lord Dharma; he is birthed forth from the right nipple of Brahma and brings much happiness into the world (Hiltebeitel 262).

Hiltebeitel also mentions a minor category of dharmasastras that includes the text known as the Yoga Purana (Hiltebeitel 274). The Yoga Purana is a short dharma text, of only one hundred and fifteen verses that prophesizes the degradation of dharma at the end of the kali yuga. The Yuga Purana has one main goal embedded into its verses: to produce an account and outline of the important principles and peoples of the four ages to express what will happen in time as Dharma degenerates through time (Hiltebeitel 274)

Dharma also functions as a type of law in Hindu society by giving instructions on legal procedures, contracts, corporations, and partnerships (Davis 241). Dharmasastras can be seen as a type of rhetoric, with dharma being its rhetorical tool; law. Law in Hindu religion is mediated through the pivotal theological idea of dharma. The legal influence of dharma can be observed in the Hindu community’s strong emphasis on legal/ethical disputes and norms (Davis 258). Things such as issues of caste, property, purity, marriage and adoption have religious ties that are of a legal nature. It can also be observed that the centrality of Dharmic rules, found in all of the different stages of Hindu life, is a norm in Hindu religion. The stage that has holds the most importance is that of the householder stage which can be concluded by observing how many Hindu texts highlight the ethos and Dharma of that particular stage (Davis 259), so one of the ways that religious meaning is made possible in Hinduism is by means of legal touchstone found in the householder prescriptions supplied by dharmasastras (Davis 258-259).

As mentioned before, dharma is considered to be one of the four worthy pursuits in the life of a Hindu. The four worthy pursuits are dharma, which is the righteous life, artha which is the life of wealth and the attainment of materials, kama which is the goal of sensual love and the artistic life, and moksa, which is the life of spiritual freedom. While the life goals of wealth and happiness are considered legitimate life pursuits in Hinduism, they must be gained in the ways of dharma if they are ever to lead a person to the ultimate goal of moksa (Kumar and Ram 83).

The dharmic path is the path that is in conformity with the truth of all things and the path that is opposite it is adharma, or disharmony with the truth. In order to for a Hindu to reach spiritual liberation they must not act in adharma and stay on the noble dharmic path. Hindu dharma says that a person must live by his life of spirit (Kumar and Ram 84), meaning that within acts of dharma the end result of moksa should be the main focus. The three appropriate dharmic pathways to moksa are, jnana, meaning wisdom, bhakti meaning devotion, and karma meaning service. The three pathways are not exclusive but bhakti is the most popular of the three (Kumar and Ram 84).

Dharma is clearly a ritually important part of Hinduism, as it has roots in just about every part of Hindu life and it supplies the rules and regulations by which Hindus are expected to live. Simply acknowledging the multitude and vastness of the dharmasastras collection in Hindu literature gives one and idea of how intrinsic it is to the religion and through the exploration of the different texts in this genre a bolder and more tangible sense of dharma emerges. The Hindu concept of dharma is so important and specific that it is said that it is better to do ones own dharma poorly, then to do the dharma of another perfectly (Klostermaier 34). With ties also in the world of law and the world of spiritual liberation, it can be said that the concept of dharma reaches all folds of Hindu life, and must not be looked over in any conversation about the religion.     


Davis, Donald R. (2007) “Hinduism as a Legal Tradition.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 75:241-67. Accessed October 8, 2018. doi:http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.uleth.ca/stable/40006370

Glucklich, Ariel (2011) “Virtue and Happiness in the Law Book of Manu.” International Journal of Hindu Studies 2:165-90. Accessed October 9, 2018. doi:/10.1007/s11407-011-9102-y

Hacker, Paul (2006) “Dharma in Hinduism.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 34:479-96. Accessed October 4, 2018. doi:10.1007/s10781-006-9002-4.

Hiltebeitel, Alf (2011) Dharma: Its Early History in Law, Religion, and Narrative. New York: Oxford University Press.

Klostermaier, Klaus K. (2007) A Survey of Hinduism. New York: State University of New York Press, Albany, N.Y.:

Kumar, R. and S. Ram (2008) Hinduism: Religion and Philosophy. New Delhi: Crescent Publishing Corporation.


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Article written by: Jamie Bennett (October 2018) who is solely responsible for its content.