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What is dharma?

In Vedic culture, the word dharma carries many meanings. At the subjective level, it is mostly about how one conducts oneself. For the individual, there is samanya dharma (universal values, such as “do no harm”), personal dharma or swadharma; (values relative to your nature; your position in life), vishesha dharma (situational dharma; values dependent on a given situation), everyday dharma (social, political, economic and legal rules), and even body dharma (such as eating the right foods and avoiding the wrong ones). The basic idea is that within the field of experience there exist certain laws that when crossed, inevitably cause pain. Therefore, the premise is simple: to avoid pain, follow dharma.

There are three kinds of universal laws for which human beings must abide or feel the unpleasant consequences: physical laws, psychological laws and moral laws. Very early in life, we all learn that we must obey the laws of gravity because falling and getting scraped knees is painful. We also quickly learn that putting a hand near fire burns. Both gravity and fire are just a few of the physical laws that we must abide by in order to avoid feeling pain. We also have psychological laws that govern us, so that sorrow, fear and anger will always feel bad, and security, peace and happiness will always feel good. We know that certain actions cause psychological damage—mostly by being on the giving or receiving end of abuse and injustice—and so we try to avoid them or seek help when needed. Lastly, there are moral laws that generally keep us from causing harm to others—usually in the form of lying, stealing or killing. Moral laws are, in essence, what in the West we refer to as The Golden Rule—“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” As intelligent beings, not only do we avoid doing harm to others out of empathy, but we also avoid doing harm in order to protect ourselves from any possible retribution.

For the most part, universal laws needn’t be taught because they are common sense. As beings with an intellect, we’re able to see and evaluate the cause and effect of our actions. While the mind may have likes and dislikes that encourage us to flout the universal laws, a fully functioning intellect is able to discriminate and know that certain actions have the potential to create unpleasant results. In short, dharma helps keep us and everyone else safe. It’s for this reason that it’s important dharma be upheld, because without dharma chaos quickly ensues leading to a lack of discrimination (between right and wrong), anger, delusion and eventually, a loss of peace and freedom (both personally and collectively).

In general, it could be said that what is dharmic or “good” is that which is in harmony with God. But a dharmi doesn’t necessarily need to be religious, they just need to recognize they are in a special relationship with nature that includes, other beings. In other words, they need to set aside their sense of small-self in order to reap the benefits of being a part of something much greater.

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