Category Archives: 1. Dharma


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:

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.


Related Topics for Further Investigation


The Laws of Manu








Yuga Pruana



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



Celibacy (Brahmacarya)

In classical Hinduism, the origins of ascetic practices such as celibacy are highly debated. Chastity is defined as the abstinence of all sexual intercourse and celibacy was used to describe the single relationship status of an individual, but now more recent descriptions are approaching the definition of chastity (Olivelle 151). In Hinduism, the Sanskrit word Brahmacarya is used interchangeably to describe celibacy and chastity even though it is not the direct application of the use of the word. The word Brahmacarya more precisely refers to the first of four “religiously sanctioned modes of life” (Olivelle 158) called Asramas. These Asramas are prescribed phases of life originating from laws written in the first century CE. These were treatises written on the moral duty, and the nature of righteousness, called Dharma Sastras. Dharma is the proper actions, rituals, social and personal behaviors that are supported by the cosmic order (Rta), the natural rightness of things. One example would be The Laws of Manu containing several rules of proper social and personal conduct which include the four phases of life (Asramas). The Laws of Manu was written in the first century CE therefor “reflect the social norms of the time” and were “seldom followed strictly”. While in the Asrama known as the student stage, or Brahmacarya, it is the “student’s Dharma not to work for a living and to remain celibate” and in the second stage “a householder’s Dharma to be employed and lead a conjugal life with his partner” (Narayana 50).

The Laws of Manu go into great detail of many restricting rules and systems such as the caste and class system that are supported by even older highly regarded Vedic texts such as the Rg Vedas. The laws state, that only certain classes are permitted to commence the once highly regarded religious journey of studying the Vedas through the four Asramas. Studying the Vedas is a privilege only granted to the religious classes belonging in the greater classification group named the Twice-Born. The story of creation entitled ‘Hymn of the supreme person’ from the Rg Vedas can accommodate the origin of various elements of the universe such as the class system. It is the Purusa Sukta, Purusa is believed to be the original being of the universe from which the ultimate sacrifice was made to create man. The dismemberment of Purusa is the origin of the class system. “From his mouth came the priestly class, from his arms, the rulers. The producers came from his legs; from his feet came the servant class” (Narayanan 27). The Brahmin (priestly) class, Ksatriya (ruler) class, and Vaisya (producer) class make up the twice born, but do not include the Sudras (servant) class. The Twice Born have the privilege of following the prescribed Asramas to pursue the ultimate goal of complete liberation (Moksa) following a spiritual re-birth.

A ceremony must be performed to mark the second birth of a Twice-Born male into the studies of the Vedas. The sacred threat ritual (Upanayana) is the first ritual marking the rite of passage into the first Asrama (Brahmacarya). The Upanayana and marriage are examples of Samskara; a ritual that marks the rite of passage into the next Asrama. A different stage marks the pursuit of different goals and the attainment of a different set of knowledge or values. This can be better understood with the apprehension of Dharma. The first goal is to abide by the dharmic principles of sexual asceticism while studying the Vedas, but in the second Asrama (Grhastha), the focus shifts to the pursuit of sensory pleasure (Kama) and self-empowerment (Artha). In the third Asrama (Vanaprastha) one begins to practice various methods of gaining transformative insight, and in the last Asrama (Samnyasin) the goal is to attain the highest level of complete liberation.

If an individual were to attain moksha, through devoting one’s life to following the Asramas or other practices, the individual is then liberated from Samsara. In most Hindu philosophies (Darasanas) it is believed that every action has Karmic consequences, and after death in this world the Karmic seeds will bear fruit, and be the ultimate deciding factor of the realm of rebirth. Samsara is the cycle of endless rebirth in another realm unless the cycle can be broken by attaining Moksa (Olivelle 156). Liberation from endless cycles of Karmic rebirth is attained by dispelling illusion, and gaining transformative insight on the self (Atman) or knowledge about ultimate reality (Brahman) (Narayanan 52). Those that practice sexual asceticism tend to have as a goal the pursuit of liberation (Moksa). Since detaching from the sensual world is the first step toward renunciation, “the sexual impulse was viewed as the greatest source of attachment and the greatest impediment to progress on the spiritual path” (Olivelle 160). The biggest obstacle to ascetic detachment is the natural attraction towards the opposite sex, and the sexual nature of the body which is seen as impure (Olivelle 160). One of the five preliminary restraints (Yama) that need to be practiced is abstinence as highlighted in Yoga Sutra for the pursuit of liberation. Time and time again we see that sexual asceticism is clearly favored as one of the key practices in the bigger goal of attaining liberation, nonetheless during the householder (Grhastha) Asrama stage the practice of celibacy and chastity is disregarded.

It is the dharma of a married householder to raise children, therefor there are no negative karmic consequences. Offspring and marriage are undesirable to a renounced individual seeking liberation because they cannot help nor hinder the present Karmic state of the individual. Choosing not to practice celibacy, or believing in the institution of marriage and the action of procreation,  is closely tied to the rejection of ritual activity, and is seen as harmful to spiritual progress. This can explain why the acceptance of householder ideals such as procreation bears no fruit in the search for Moksa but one can also argue that it is indeed necessary for some Hindu religious practices. The Vedas talk about a great spiritual and physical debt that is owed to the gods since birth. Two of them are “offering sacrifices and procreating sons” (Olivelle 154). Vedic religion used sons for death rituals and thus, the birth of a son is “viewed as ensuring immortality of the father” (Olivelle 153). Some Vedic theology promotes the married householder way of life as being the ideal, while other Vedic theology also supports ascetic and celibate ideologies. These contrasting principles warrant different outcomes, but are supported and followed equally.

An unbalanced ratio of renouncers who neglect the benefits of the householder stage would be devastating for the continuity of the population and would require adjustments to the Asrama system over time to promote healthy proliferation. The four Asramas were originally meant for an individual wanting to pursue a sacred ascetic life; free of unnecessary ties with the artificial world. In the old Asrama system, after graduating from Vedic studies, the individual was able to choose between four modes of life to pursue permanently for this persons entire lifetime. There was the option to continue the Asrama of a student through adulthood and devote one’s life to the study of the Vedas while remaining celibate (Olivelle 159). Another Asrama was the forest-hermit, where the individual could roam the forest, and most texts mention the ability to have a wife or family while other texts order celibacy. And the last Asrama from the old system was the world renouncer, marked by celibacy and no familial ties (Olivelle 159). Years after the Common Era, the reformed version of the four Asramas were known to be temporary stages of life. Nonetheless, celibacy and chastity played a major role in all four Asramas. In the second Asrama, the Householder (Grhastha) stage, the pursuit of sensory pleasure (Kama) and self-empowerment (Artha) is permitted. The aims of each Asrama can be pursued in moderation and in the order prescribed (Narayanan 50). If one chooses, Brahmacarya is also practiced during the householder stage, as the term is adapted to justify the Dharmic duty to create offspring. Throughout time, The Laws of Manu closely guarded by the Brhamin class needed to change in order to more accurately parallel other popular Vedic beliefs. To further promote the highly reputed concept of Brahmacarya in the context of sexual asceticism, Brahmanical adaptations were made to integrate sexual asceticism in all Asramas including Grhastha. The householder equivalent to sexual asceticism is sexual intercourse with one’s wife at night if the sole purpose is procreation (Olivelle 162).  Domesticating the practice of Asceticism during the householder stage would be justified with Dharma. The Third Asrama is the Forest-Dweller (Vanaprastha) and the last is the renouncer (Samnyasin) Asrama, where death rituals are performed to shed the bonds of family, marriage, kids or sexual activities to facilitate the detachment from the world in the pursuit of Moksa (Olivelle 159).

Mental and Physical powers such as the ability to fly, the ability to see into the future and read minds are said to be related to the retention of semen, while the opposite effect of physical and mental impotence is related to sexual relations (Olson 165). “The celibate body is extremely fit, and as such evokes a divine and heroic mystique of epic proportion” (Alter 46). The internal, unnatural heat (Tapas) found in a celibate renouncer can lead to the acquisition of powers. Comparing the celibate renouncer to the sexually active householder, who generates a different kind of natural heat with no control over the excessive indulgence of sexual behavior, reveals a theme. The heating of the renouncer and cooling of the householder is the tension visible throughout the history of devotional Hinduism (Olson 167).

Brahmacarya is used to describe the model example of celibacy in Hinduism, referring to the stage of ascetic study of the Vedas, but not directly meaning chastity or celibacy (Olivelle 152). Brahmacarya comes prior to the accepted but unstable sensual release in the householder Asrama. This is followed by the necessary condition of sexual continence for the pursuit of liberation while renouncing the world. Celibacy, chastity, marriage, and procreation are all supported by the Hindu tradition, but at specific times throughout life and also within moderation.



Alter, Joseph (1994) “Sexuality and the Transformation of Gender Into Nationalism in North India.” The Journal of Asian studies 53:45-66.Accessed 07/01/2009.

Buswell. R, Lopez. D (2014) The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Narayanan, Vasudha (2002) “Chapter One: The Hindu Tradition.” In World Religions, Eastern Religions, edited by Willard G. Oxtoby, 12-125. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Olivelle, Patrick (2008) “Celibacy in Classical Hinduism.” In Celibacy and Religious Traditions, edited by Carl Olson, 151-164. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Olson, Carl (2008) “Hindu Devotionalism, Tantra, and Celibacy.” In Celibacy and Religious Traditions, edited by Carl Olson, 165-180. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Article written by: Uriel Karerwa (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.