In Vedic culture, the word dharma carries many meanings. At the personal 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 reap the unpleasant consequences of ignoring them. They are 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 couple 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 receiving end of abuse and injustice—and so we try to avoid them.
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. Most are able to see and evaluate the cause and effect of their 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 it be upheld, because without dharma chaos quickly ensues. A lack of discrimination between right and wrong leads to unpleasant outcomes, which leads to anger, which leads to delusion and eventually, a loss of peace and freedom.
In general, it could be said that what is dharmic is that which is in harmony with God. But a practitioner of dharma doesn’t necessarily need to be religious, they just need to recognize they are in a special relationship with nature that includes, among many things, 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. Only then, can they lead a relatively peaceful life.