Dharma is not religion

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The Sanskrit word dharma is commonly translated in English as ‘religion’. Religion usually refers to a system of practices based on a belief in a particular God or gods. Dharma, however, has a much vaster meaning in the Indic religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. In the Vedas, dharma was used to refer to cosmic laws that resulted in the creation of the universe from the initial cosmic egg. In later texts, like the Upanishads, Puranas and the epics, the meaning of dharma expanded and came to be applied to human behaviours that enabled the maintenance of order in the universe. In Buddhism, dhamma, as dharma is called, refers to cosmic law and order, as well as Buddha’s teachings.

In Indian texts, dharma is often used in contexts that have no religious connection. For example, it is said that the dharma of fire is to burn. Fire does not belong to any religion, but has a dharma. When translating such texts, translators have faced the problem of identifying a suitable term in translation. Since the word ‘religion’ does not convey the correct meaning in many contexts, translators have had to rely on multiple terms like ‘law,’ justice,’ ‘duty,’ ‘morality,’ ‘ethics,’ etc. Due to the lack of a suitable word, dharma itself has been loaned into English and has entered the dictionaries as an entry separate from religion.

Some texts discuss dharma according to varna (caste). This implies that the four varnas have different rights and duties. Manusmriti is one such text. Most texts, however, make no such distinction. Dharma does change according to ashrama—the stage of life one happens to be in. So, there is a particular dharma for a brahmachari (student), which is different from that for a grihastha (householder with family and social responsibilities), or a vanaprastha (retiree dwelling in the forest), or a sanyasi (renunciate monk).

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