Dharma as Righteous and Just Conduct

Dharma as Righteous and Just Conduct

(Glorious Indian Heritage- Part 18)

Dr. Gauri Shankar Gupta

Dharma as Righteous and Just Conduct

As explained in the previous article, dharma as defined in the Indian writings, is not confined to human race alone. Rather, it encompasses the entire cosmos and the eternal natural order which upholds and sustains all that exists. This includes the movement of all heavenly bodies and their characteristics; and orderly conduct of all-natural forces. For example, the movements of the Sun giving rise to day and night as well as the change of seasons and its properties of heat and light are considered to be the dharma of the Sun. The reflection of light by the Moon, which is essential for healthy growth of vegetation and the Moon’s properties of waning and waxing constitute the dharma of the Moon. Sustaining the variety of life forms through its fertility is considered to be the dharma of Earth. In order to ensure the smooth functioning of the Universe, each element of nature has been endowed with specific characteristics and has been assigned a task. These characteristics and tasks are considered their respective dharma. Imagine the consequences if fire abandons its dharma and refuses to burn, water abandons its normal cycle and glaciers do not melt nor are clouds formed, the wind stops blowing and the sun fails to rise and set as per the order laid down by nature. We cannot even imagine the magnitude of disasters if the stars deviate from their path and start colliding in the space, if the ocean does not respect its boundaries and starts invading the continents, if the oxygen we inhale stops sustaining human life, if the seasons deviate from their path and start appearing randomly and the rivers start changing their courses at will.

When spring arrives, regeneration of vegetation sets in motion. Trees start getting new leaves. Flowers start blooming. Imagine what would happen, if all this stops when spring comes! Even minuscule deviations by the forces of nature are enough to frighten us. Flooding, draughts, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis are nothing but minuscule deviations. Even these minuscule deviations, if start happening regularly, are enough to wipe out the existence of life from the face of the Earth and perhaps the Earth itself. Signs of climate change are already sending shivers down our spines as these changes could annihilate the very existence of humanity. Therefore, every constituent of nature has its own defined laws or dharma which must be respected. Any deviation from their prescribed dharma by natural forces could lead to a catastrophe of unimaginable magnitude. The Creator has done a gigantic task of balancing and fine tuning of billions of natural forces to ensure the orderly conduct of these forces. This natural order is the core for the very existence of the universal. Thus, in the cosmic sense dharma signifies the eternal order of the natural forces upheld by the Creator. Since the conduct of cosmic forces is repetitive or rhythmic in nature it is also described by another Sanskrit root called ‘ritam’.

Returning back to human race, the observation of dharma (or the code of conduct) by an individual constitutes the foundation of human and social relationship. Imagine the consequences if mothers stop loving their children and start abandoning them soon after their birth or individuals stop respecting other humans and start killing them at will or we stop respecting the plant and animal regimes. Peaceful, orderly and harmonious human existence is possible only by observing the code of conduct prescribed for us. However, in a large number of cases the code of conduct for individuals is not so well-defined. They are expected to do introspection and find answers for themselves from within. The harmony of the self is the fundamental test for finding these answers. Since the soul constitutes the primeval, everlasting, non-changeable and non-perishable part of an individual, every individual must discover the ground of his own conduct in his own self. Without observing the path of dharma, a person cannot hold himself together. He will feel tormented and torn from inside due to the feeling of guilt. He will not be at peace and harmony with his own person. He will have continuous inner struggle with considerable stress and agony. Dharma therefore helps us to maintain our natural self in harmony and peace. Thus, the concept of dharma implies the application of the universal eternal law of existence to the practical life of every individual. Those persons who follow the path of dharma stay calm, cool and collected. Harmony and inner peace characterize their individual behavior. That is why all individuals, societies and nations evolve a code of conduct for themselves.

Nations are held together by the harmonious behavior of their citizens governed by their constitutions and laws. Similarly, a culture defines a society or a civilization. Imagine a nation without a constitution and laws, written or non-written. It will fall apart sooner or later as citizens will behave at will without any harmony. When governments deviate from the established legal and customary order anarchy and chaos follows, heaping misery on people. Similarly, when the citizens start disrespecting the laws, conflicts and anarchy follows. When the management behaves in an arbitrary fashion, organizations crumble. When cultures lose their harmony, civilizations fall and societies disintegrate. They are defining elements.     Dharma is therefore the defining element of humanity. It lays down the fundamental rules of human behavior. Thus, in the context of human race dharma can be broadly defined as ‘right conduct’ or ‘righteous and just behavior’ or ‘duties and obligations of a human being’ or ‘the rules of conduct’. Dharma holds a person in harmony with his own self. To summarize dharma is the code of conduct for humanity in the social context and right and just behavior in the context of an individual. Dharma brings cohesion, unity, peace and harmony in the society based on morality, ethics and just behavior. As gravity keeps cosmic forces in their right places maintaining the cohesive nature of the Universe, dharma helps maintaining the social order and harmony. Dharma is subject to the context of time and place (देश एवम् काल). What is just and ethical in one place could be unjust and unethical in the context of another place or time. The concept of dharma is also relative to age, gender and the status of a person. The code of conduct cannot be identical for a person of 25 years of age and that of 80. Nor could it be identical for a male and a female. Similarly, identical yardsticks cannot be applied to the rich and powerful and the poor and destitute. The intellectual level, the physical capacity and the financial and social status of the person have a direct bearing on the definition of righteous and just behavior. This decision has to be taken by the individual based on his best judgement. The following verses for the Mahabharata explain this concept.


तस्मात् कौन्तेय विदुषा धर्माधर्मविनिश्चये।

बुद्धिमास्थाय लोकेऽस्मिन् वर्तितव्यंकृतात्मना।। शान्ति १४१.१०२।।

One should depend upon one’s intellect to decide between dharma and adharma (wrong or unjust conduct) and act accordingly.

(Shanti 141/102)


शास्त्रं यदि भवेदेकं श्रेयो व्यक्तं भवेत् तदा।

शास्त्रैश्च बहुभिर्भूयः श्रेयो गुह्यंप्रवेशितम्।। शान्ति २८७.१० ।।

Were there only one source of knowledge and only one means of gaining the good,       the situation would have been clear; but there are many sources describing        the good in many different ways, they have to be taken together to decide what is right.

(Shanti 287/10)

अद्वैधज्ञः पथि द्वैधे संशयं प्राप्तुमर्हति।

बुद्धिद्वैधं वेदितव्यं पुरस्तादेव भारत ।।शान्ति १४२.८।।

The same act depending upon circumstances could be dharma and then adharma. Not understanding their essential relativity leads to doubt. The only way to remove the doubt is to understand their relative nature through intelligence.

(Shanti 142/8)

स एव धर्मः सोऽधर्मस्तं तं प्रति नरं भवेत्।

पात्रकर्मविशेषेण देशकालाववेक्ष्य च।।शान्ति ३०९.१६।।

The same act could be dharma or adharma for different people depending on the time, place and the individual.

(Shanti 309/16)

(Writer is former Ambassador/High Commissioner of India)

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