A polysemic term, the more precise meanings of which depend upon the context in which it is used. Less precise meanings range from ‘truth’ and ‘order’ (both cosmic and social), to ‘law’ (both universal and particular), ‘teaching’, ‘duty’, ‘virtuous behaviour’, and ‘religion’. The term first appears in the Rg Veda, referring to those (predominantly ritual) actions and laws (dharmas) that maintain ṛta, the inherent active power, or truth, which informs and orders the universe and human society. (The Mīmāṃsaka ritualists systematized this view: for them dharma and Veda are synonymous; moreover, the sole means of knowing dharma is through the ritual injunctions—the prescribed ritual actions or vidhis.) Subsuming ṛta, dharma subsequently becomes synonymous with the underlying order itself, as well as with the activities—prototypically, sacrifice (yajña)—which express and maintain it. The concept has therefore been characterized as being both descriptive—it designates the way things are (ideally), and prescriptive—it specifies the way things should be. It is dharma in the latter sense—the maintenance of what, at one and the same time, is both the cosmic and the social order—which becomes the prime concern of the Brahmanical dharma literature. In other words, if the responsibility of the brahmins is to (re)- create universal order in the sacrifice, then what that order should look like in terms of both the individual, and an increasingly complex society, also needs to be delineated. Taking their cue from the sacrificial ordering of society into a hierarchy of classes (varṇa) (evoked, for example, in the Puruṣasūkta), the Dharmasūtras were concerned to explicate the ritual, moral, and social question of how people should conduct themselves in relation to varṇa and āśrama (‘stage of life’) in the light of Vedic injunction and customary practice. These and other concerns were taken up in an expanded form in the Dharmaśāstra literature, which addressed such topics as ācāras (‘rules of conduct’)—the orthodox, and therefore ‘correct’, perfor- mance of social and ritual duties (including saṃskāras) in the light of varṇāśramadharma; prāyascittas—reparations for infringements of dharma; and vyavahāra—the civil and criminal law through which kings should administer their justice, the king being dharma's instrument on earth. At its widest, dharma in this context therefore refers to the rules governing any traditional occupation or social role (e.g. strīdharma (‘women's dharma’) in the light of Brahmanical precept.
Another way of expressing this Brahmanical obligation to conform to certain predefined patterns of behaviour (dharma) was to cast it in terms of an individual's ‘inherent duty’ or svadharma. In the Bhagavadgītā, it is the negative consequences of failing to comply with one's svadharma that are stressed, even when following it is perceived as bringing one into conflict with other values (such as ahiṃsā). In an explicit rejection of the institution of renunciation, Kṛṣṇa tells Arjuna: ‘It is better to practise your own inherent duty (svadharma) deficiently than another's duty well. It is better to die conforming to your own duty; the duty of others invites danger’ (3.35). In other words, contravening svadharma—in this case, the kṣatriya's obligation to fight, or more widely the king's obligation to maintain the dharma of his kingdom through force—engenders the imbalance and disorder which characterize dharma's opposite, adharma. And yet, at the same time, Kṛṣṇa shows the warrior how, through an internalization of renouncer mores, he can achieve the soteriological goal of the renouncer even while conforming to his prescribed svadharma.
Universal ethical principles (such as ahiṃsā, truthfulness, control of the senses), as opposed to the particularized ethics of varṇāśramadharma, begin as alternatives to the latter in the shared codes of conduct common to members of particular renouncer groups. Such principles are, however, incorporated into Dharmaśāstra as adjuncts to the dharma of ‘class’ and‘stage of life’, and themselves classified as ‘common’ or sādhāraṇa dharma, i.e. dharma common to all people regardless of varṇa, āśrama, or gender. It is precisely this juxtaposition (particularly of sacrificial and martial violence with ahiṃsā) which creates the internal tension in a tradition striving to reconcile itself to dharma in both these senses.
Although the Bhagavadgītā developed its own, ‘best of both worlds’ compromise, in the Mahābhārata in general, dharma is represented as being in perpetual crisis at all levels—individual, social, and cosmic. This is evoked through dramatizations of the tension which exists between those newly or partially assimilated values and practices, such as ahiṃsā and yoga, with their goal of mokṣa, and the older, svadharmic values, rooted in a ritually ordered society and cosmos, designed to secure good things in both this life and the next. Nowhere is this tension more evident than in the perpetual agonizing which afflicts the person responsible for maintaining the dharma of the realm, Yudhiṣṭhira, the ‘King of Dharma’, himself. The developed āśrama and puruṣārtha schemes—the latter including both dharma and mokṣa among the four legitimate ‘aims of human life’—were further attempts from within Brahmanical orthodoxy to resolve this ambiguity or paradox in a system striving to incorporate both svadharmic and renouncer values.
At the same time, the Epics, in so far as they reflect and embody the rise of devotional religion (bhakti), foreshadow a different solution, since, in a monotheistic context, dharma and the will of the omniscient, omnipotent deity are necessarily conflated. (Although received understandings of dharma and God's will may by no means coincide.) For bhaktas, therefore, the theoretical problem of apparently antithetical dharmic values is to some extent resolved, or perhaps simply subsumed in the actions of the great gods, and their avatāras, such as Kṛṣṇa and Rāma. Similarly, Purāṇic cosmology envisions dharma as subject to cyclical fluctuations of decay and renaissance, synchronized to the appearance of avatāras, and the creative and destructive powers of the great monotheistic deities. At an individual level, devotion to God, therefore cuts across dharmic considerations, nowhere more clearly than in the antinomian poetry of many of the medieval sants.
Dharma has, however, remained a potent and multivalent concept, not just for Brahmanical orthodoxy, but also, in the modern period, as a badge of the eternal and universal truth (sanātana dharma) which, for Neo-Hindu reformers, underwrites the Hindu tradition. See also ethics; kingship.