On Dharma

 On left: Eve offering the apple to Adam in the Garden of Eden and the serpent (detail), c.1520-25 (oil on wood) by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553).  On right: murti of Lord Buddha displaying the “dharma chakra mudra” (detail).

On left: Eve offering the apple to Adam in the Garden of Eden and the serpent (detail), c.1520-25 (oil on wood) by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553).

On right: murti of Lord Buddha displaying the “dharma chakra mudra” (detail).

Dharma is often translated as “religion”, “righteousness”, or “virtue”. But its meaning goes deeper, referring to the “nature” of something, its “essential characteristic”. Dharma is also closely related to the concept of “ṛtaṃ” meaning “ordered movement”, “rhythm” (ṛtaṃ is the Sanskrit origin of our English word “rhythm”). So we could say that dharma refers to our natural spiritual rhythm, as well as to the practices that attune us to that rhythm. Hindu sacred texts identify four qualities inherent to us all: truthfulness; purity; intelligent self-discipline; and compassion. These qualities become the active principles which allow us to hear that rhythm and move our lives to it. We all struggle to live up to these principles. And though we may fall short at times, that underlying understanding of our true nature is there.

This is in contrast to most Western religious paradigms, where “religion” is seen as the embodied struggle against a “sinful” nature, a battle against a core self that is worthy of damnation. In the dharma traditions, one is deemed “righteous” or “virtuous” not by their alignment with a particular covenant or institutionalized code of conduct or salvific belief structure. Instead, dharma is an active process, a set of practices through which we pursue and encounter our true selves by discovering, by discerning this rhythm from the dissonance of selfish, ego-fed ignorance. Religion, righteousness and virtue gather meaning—grammatically, practically, spiritually—insofar as they correspond to and are in sync with our divine rhythm. Once attuned, no outside person or institution is needed to tell us what's right and wrong, or to define for us what it means to be truthful, pure, self-disciplined, and compassionate. We are capable of distinguishing. We know intuitively, at our deepest level. Because that divine nature yearns to manifest, and must. It drives us to act. It becomes a deep-seated passion—the passion behind the principles that compels us to pursue the sadhanas, make the sacrifices. It is the dharma of fire to burn, the dharma of water to flow. And it is our dharma as human beings to discover our divinity.