Monday, 5 November 2012
Dharma: etymology and a brief account of its evolution
Dharma is undisputed as the most central and pivotal concept in Indian, particularly Hindu culture. Etymologically, it derives from the root √dhṛ meaning to bear, to support, to uphold. From the same root we get dharti, dhāri, dhruva, dhartṛ, and dhāraṇā, dhīra and dhairya. It is notoriously difficult to translate into English, and it takes a range of words to convey its meaning as understood within Indian culture context: righteousness, religion, law, morals, ethics, correctness, duty, upholding faith etc.
So it may come as a surprise, that for the first 1,200 years (apprx) of textual history, from the earliest strata of the Ṛgveda to the Brāhmaṇas (2000 BCE to 800 BCE) it was not a central term, in fact one could say it was even marginal. In the RV it appears as a neuter noun, dharman and occurs merely 67 times; in the Atharvaveda 13 times; in the corpus of the Yajurveda brāhmaṇas (the three main ones being Aitareya,Taittirīya, and Śatapatha) it occurs 11 times; In the corresponding Araṇyakas only three times.. And in the earliest upaniṣads that are written in prose (Bṛhadaraṇyaka, Chāndogya, Aitareya and Taittirīya) it occurs in only 9 passages.
In the early Vedic period dharman is associated with Mitra-Varuṇa operated in the ritual and ethical sphere, carrying the meaning of a command, rule or law. It’s application in sacrifices related to royal consecration is significant – especially the rājasūya. The connection with Varuṇa, and the duties of a king in maintaining social order based on a divine law are evident.
Moving on to the period when the earliest Dharmasūtras are written (6th to 2nd century BCE), dharma has moved from the periphery to become the central concept in the Brāhminical religious vocabulary. How this change came about, the socio-political causes behind this transformation are complex and of tremendous interest to historians of Hinduism.
Sufficeth to say that from about the 2nd cen BCE, when pivotal Hindu texts were being crystallised especially the epics and the dharmaśāstras, dharma was indeed centre stage, and included all aspects of proper individual and social behaviour as demanded by one’s role in society and in keeping with one’s social identity according to age, gender, caste, marital status and order of life – best exemplified by the sva-dharma the Bhadvad Gita expounds in the instruction of Arjuna.
Today the ‘dharma’ we understand is an amalgamation of 4000 years of a rich and variant religious tradition. It is not merely about caste laws, civil & criminal law, or the duty of a king, a prince or a householder. It has sensitivity at its core; deep and significant moral-ethical tones about how we conduct ourselves and treat our fellow beings, brought to the forefront by pivotal ancient śramaṇa movements, by the yoga tradition (yama-niyama) and very importantly the Bhakti movement.
Hinduism has grappled with dharma for centuries, most richly depicted in the Mahabharata. For a modern perspective, I recommend “The Difficulty of Being Good”, By Gurcharan Das. 0670083496 | ISBN-13: 978-0670083497
Material for this blog post has been taken from the following sources:
“Between the Empires: Society in India 300BCE to 400CE,” Oxford University Press, 2006
“Dharmasutras: The Law Codes of Ancient India,” trans, Olivelle, Oxford University Press, 1999