There is dharma or way of right action relative to all aspects of
human life and culture: a dharma of art, a dharma of business, a dharma
of communication, a dharma of relationship, a dharma of science, a
dharma of religion, and so on – each of which requires its own
examination. What is done according to dharma is performed with grace,
intelligence and respect for the natural order. Each different domain of
our lives has certain principles and practices necessary to unfold its
full potential, which constitute its dharma. If we follow the dharma in
what we do, we will not only be successful, but will act so in a way
that promotes the well-being of all.
We have our own individual or ‘svadharma’ that reflects our capacities
and aspirations in life. Yet this is not something that divides us from
others. Each person has similar potentials that we must honor.
The Social Dharma: Relative to society, the term Dharma is used
in a special way as indicating the right way for society and its
members to operate in harmony with their natures, with the environment
and with the universe as a whole. This is what we could call the ‘social
Dharma’. For social well being, there must be a proper understanding
and implementation of Dharma on all levels.
In Vedic thought, human society is looked upon like the human body as a
single organism with different limbs, organs and functions, which all
serve the benefit of the whole. The social organism is one in essence,
but the role of different individuals, communities or professions must
vary in order to fulfill the diverse and specialized needs of the whole.
Such social differences should not become a matter of high and low or
good and bad, but an organic necessity in which each particular role is
vital, just as each organ of the human body has an important and
irreplaceable role in the well-being of the entire body. We cannot
forget society’s connection with the Earth and nature, if we want
society to be healthy, harmonious and without violence.
There are special principles of Dharma or right living for society,
nations and communities, including special guidelines for men and women,
the young and the old, for different professions and for different
stages of life. There is an organic order to life, even at a social
level, as there is in how our body functions.
However, Dharma also requires that our outer actions and life-styles
change along with changing times and cultures. Dharma does not consist
of rigid rules that can be blindly applied to all circumstances, but of
guiding principles that require adaptation according to the differing
needs of time, place and culture. The social Dharma cannot become rigid
or the social organism will decline. This means that the vision of
Dharma is more important than any specific formulation of dharma in a
particular book or by a single person, though we should not
discountenance the value of the dharmic wisdom from the past.
Today we need a new social dharma that can integrate what is best in
science and technology while restoring our deeper connection with both
Nature and the Spirit, such as the great seers of India maintained.
Dharma and Human Rights: Western political thought and modern
democracies in general are based upon the idea of “human rights”, which
are primarily defined on an individual basis, according to political
ideals of freedom, equal opportunity, and justice for each person. These
democratic principles have helped protect the individual, reducing
oppression and discrimination on various levels within the society
relative to race, ethnicity, gender, class, occupation, or other social
Yet, on the negative side, an over fixation on “individual rights”
encourages a mere outer freedom to do what one wants that can make
people more aggressive and acquisitive, lacking an inner dimension of
spiritual search. Outer freedom without a corresponding inner aspiration
can become a license for the ego to do what it wishes, even if it
causes eventual harm to others or to the environment. It often becomes a
hectic pursuit of the material world, a running after the external
allures of Maya.
The American Declaration of Independence is a very interesting document
in this regard. It is based upon the three principles of “life, liberty
and the pursuit of happiness” as the inalienable rights of man. Life and
liberty are our inalienable rights to be sure, but the “pursuit of
happiness” taken only at an outer level easily promotes an external
seeking of enjoyment, pleasure and power. What you pursue or run after
usually runs away from you! This pursuit of happiness or desire has
given rise to the current commercial society that in many ways is
becoming increasingly vulgar and destructive. Each individual tends to
seek his or her rights, which easily lends itself to self-promotion over
the greater good of all.
Dharma, on the other hand, teaches us that life, liberty and happiness
are our inherent nature and can be found within ourselves, without the
need for external seeking or accumulation of possessions. Dharma
promotes freedom from any sort of outer dependency. This includes
freedom from commercial exploitation and an inner orientation to life,
which implies a spiritual search. Our role in life is not simply to gain
what is due to us, as if the universe owed us a favor, but to help in
the well-being of the world as a whole, which is part of our own greater
nature. Our place in life is not simply to take, as if we existed in
isolation, but to give, reflecting our relationship with the whole and
the wholeness of who we really are.
Dharma and Duty: Dharma indicates duty, obligation, and
responsibility as well as rights and freedom. Rights can never exist
without corresponding duties and obligations. Unless rights and duties
are balanced, the society itself will become imbalanced and disturbed.
Each one of us no doubt has our individual place in the universe that
must be honored and a destiny of our own to be fulfilled, but we must
also respect the universe upon which we depend and realize that our well
being can never be secured at the cost of that of others.
In this regard, Dharma is connected to the idea of giving, offering and sacrifice -what Vedic teachings call yajna.
Yajna is symbolized by a fire sacrifice. Fire can only burn if given an
offering of the proper fuel. Our place in life is to make the proper
offering so that the universal fire of Dharma can illuminate both
ourselves and the world around us. Ultimately, we must ourselves become
an offering for all, rather than holding to our personal existence or
private property as final.
Yajna says that our lives should consist of worship and honoring,
including relative the Divine, our ancestors, other living creatures,
all human beings, and the spiritual heritage of the entire human race.
If each one of us acts for the good of all, we will all certainly
flourish. If we act only for the good of ourselves, our family or our
particular community, we will breed long term division, inequality and
Broader Human and Universal Rights: According to the principles
of Dharma, it is not only individuals that have rights but all aspects
of the social organism and the world of nature as a whole. Families have
rights, as do communities, including the right not to be interfered
with or to be broken up. Cultures have rights not to be denigrated or
exploited, even in the name of progress. Today in the name of individual
human rights many traditional communities and cultures are being
devalued and denigrated, if not eliminated, often paving the way for
The non-human world also has its rights. Animals have the right to live
without human interference or exploitation and to have their natural
space to move freely. Plants do so as well, as the plant also has
consciousness and feeling. The world of nature does not exist solely for
our own personal advantage as human beings. Each creature has its own
existence that we must honor. Ecosystems also have a right to remain as
they are and evolve according to their own energies, without being
turned merely into human habitations or recreation sites.
When human rights do not respect the rights of other creatures, they
invariably lead to conflict and problems in human society as well in the
world of nature. The greater life organism of the biosphere gets
damaged, which means that human beings will also not have a harmonious
natural environment that can provide for health and well-being. This is
what we are seeing today in which our environment has been damaged by
making human needs, desires and profits predominate over the natural
rights of other creatures and the sanctity of the Earth itself – in
which we are failing in our duty to the universe in the blind pursuit of
Dharmic Pluralism: Dharma reflects a pluralistic view of life
which honors unity in multiplicity. It recognizes that there is a
diversity of human beings, with each individual being unique in one way
or another. There cannot be one job all for all, one medicine for all,
or even one religion or spiritual path for all.
Therefore, there should be a corresponding diversity in society in terms
of culture, philosophy, art and spirituality so that each person or
group has something that their particular Dharma can relate to and find
fulfillment in. According to Dharma, unity lies not in uniformity of
name, form or action but in the inner freedom that allows the individual
to move through and beyond all outer forms to the inner essence that is
one with all.
Dharma and Relativism: Dharma holds that we must look at each
individual and circumstance according the particular situations,
energies and capacities involved. For this reason, a Dharmic approach
remains flexible and does not seek to impose any absolutes or rigid
rules upon humanity. For example, if you are driving down a road you
cannot follow a rigid set of rules or formulas; you have to actually see
the movement of traffic moment by moment. Similarly, Dharma rests upon
perception more so than any doctrine.
Yet Dharma is far removed from an ‘anything goes’ attitude or a mere
moral relativism. Dharma says that there is a right and appropriate way
to do each thing, whether it is right way to eat, a right way to
breathe, or a right and respectful way to organize our societies,
reflecting individual circumstances as well as the broader principles
existence. This way of right action cannot be reduced to a fixed pattern
but is not without enduring principles either. Dharma requires
consciousness in its application and cannot be turned into a
standardized creed or mechanical set of rules.
Dharma and Secularism: Dharma does not imply a rule of religion
over life or society. Dharma and secularism, the idea that church and
state should be separate, share certain attitudes, values and concerns.
Dharma holds that a government should not be used to promote one
religious belief or another. It holds to freedom of religion and says
that the individual should have the freedom to pursue their own Dharma
in life, free of control by the state or by any external institution.
Yet Dharma is different from secularism in certain ways as well. Dharma
regards all life as sacred and so cannot accept a merely commercial view
of life, which is the tendency of so-called modern secular cultures.
Dharma says that we must respect the sacred aspect of human life and try
to make our social actions into something respectful of the greater
universe. Dharma can project a spiritual vision without violating the
principle of individual freedom. This is because it sees the spiritual
path as a matter of individual practice, an expression of freedom, not
something enforced from the outside.
Dharma and Religion: Religion is often translated as Dharma in
Indian thought today. This reflects another side of its meaning. Dharma
like religion states that we should recognize the universal and the
eternal and base our human culture on a spiritual goal or higher
consciousness. However, Dharma cannot be reduced to one particular
religion, book, teacher, revelation or another. Dharma is not based upon
belief and does not seek to spread, much less impose, a single belief
upon all humanity. Dharma accepts freedom of religion as well as a
freedom of the individual not to follow any religion at all. Above all,
it places individual spiritual practice over any overt religious
Dharma places the need to act for the good of all above any religious
labels or differences. Dharma says it is what we do that matters, not
what we call ourselves, and that truth ultimately transcends all names
and boundaries. Dharma says that the supreme truth is impersonal, apaurusheya,
and cannot be reduced to a human formulation or representative that all
must follow, however helpful these may be for certain groups or
Yet a dharmic approach does recognize that different individuals, groups
and communities may want to follow different spiritual and religious
paths – which need not all be the same – and which may have their own
respective practices, formulations and values. Dharma accepts pluralism
in religion as in all of life, including the freedom of individuals to
differ and disagree on matters of religion, as long as they do not turn
these differences into a pretext for conflict and violence.
At a higher level, Dharma embraces Yoga as its Moksha Dharma or teaching
about the liberation of the soul, which is a matter of sadhana or inner
spiritual practice through the science and art of meditation.
Dharmic Values and Ethics: Dharma rests upon certain clearly
defined universal values and ethics. These are not simply dictates, laws
or commandments but a recognition of how life works and how we can
attune ourselves to the consciousness of the greater universe. Such
dharmic values are perhaps most simply defined in the basic principles
behind Yoga practice of non-violence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya),
self-control (Brahmacharya), non-stealing (asteya) and
There is no living being that wants to be hurt. We ourselves do not want
to be hurt, so honoring the universal dharma, the universal culture as
it were, we do not seek to harm anyone. Similarly, we do not want to be
deceived. There is no creature that wants to be deceived, so honoring
the universal dharma we tell the truth. Dharmic ethics therefore are a
matter of universal courtesy, as it were, not only towards others but
also towards ourselves. Without such dharmic ethics we cannot have
access to the cosmic mind or the greater civilization of the universe,
which is one of consciousness, not merely of science and technology.
Towards a New Dharmic Movement: Today humanity is suffering
from a global crisis, which is not simply a lack of resources but a
crisis of values. Today we must learn to coexist and pluralism, not only
at a political level but also at cultural and religious levels, is
essential. We cannot survive as a planet by promoting national, cultural
or religious boundaries as final, as that is to deny the greater unity
and value of humanity as a whole. A new vision of Dharma can help us in
this direction because Dharma does not divide human beings up into
opposing camps. It says we are all of one family and must all eventually
come to the same truth and self-realization, albeit according to our
own path and in our own time and manner.
Great modern teachers from India like Sri Aurobindo, Mahatma Gandhi,
Swami Dayananda (of the Arya Samaj) and Swami Vivekananda, and many
others from all over the world have looked into and provided their
insights about creating a new social order or Dharma. Many Buddhist
teachers, like the Dalai Lama are also promoting a greater dharma for
Ultimately, there needs to be a new renaissance in dharmic thinking.
This implies a great deal of questioning, deep thought and profound
meditation – an endeavor that may take decades to come to real fruition.
It must rest upon an uncompromising pursuit of truth, not simply an
attempt at social accommodation, appeasement or pleasing everyone. A new
dharmic order is not a simple matter of a new political party but an
infusion of higher values into our social interactions, which means a
new approach to politics that considers not only the outer human being
but the inner essence of the soul.
Unfortunately, the political world today tends to rely upon slogans,
vote banks and appeals to mass fears and desires, looking forward only
to the next election. The personality of the political leader is made
more important than any deeper vision for humanity. Political parties
today are lacking in any real idealism and vision and quickly compromise
in order to gain power or influence. Even modern education is aimed at
training a person more in a particular technical profession, rather than
providing a well rounded education that includes an examination as to
what is the ultimate meaning of life. Clearly Dharma must be brought
back into education and into social service for it to affect society as a
A new world order defined by Dharma – not simply by religion, politics,
or commercial concerns – is crucial for our way forward as a species and
can help promote and preserve the good in all. It is important that a
regard for the universal Dharma is brought into both our personal lives
and into our societies. Otherwise our civilization may continue to
flounder and is unlikely to find peace or harmony with life. This is a
matter first of all of upholding Dharmic principles and practices in how
we live and think. The work begins with each one of us.