The Four Dharmas
They say of a man who speaks the truth, “He speaks the dharma” or of a man who speaks the dharma, “He speaks the truth.” Verily, both these are the same thing.
Śukla Yajur Veda, Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.14. uph, 84
What Is Dharma? What Are Its Forms?
Dharma is the law of being, the orderly fulfilment of an inherent nature and destiny. Dharma is of four main divisions, which are God’s law at work on four levels of our existence: universal, human, social and personal. Aum.
When God created the universe, He endowed it with order, with the laws to govern creation.
Dharma is God’s divine law prevailing on every level of existence, from the sustaining cosmic order to religious and moral laws which bind us in harmony with that order.
We are maintained by dharma, held in our most perfect relationship within a complex universe. Every form of life, every group of men, has its dharma, the law of its being.
When we follow dharma, we are in conformity with the Truth that inheres and instructs the universe, and we naturally abide in closeness to God. Adharma is opposition to divine law.
Dharma prevails in the laws of nature and is expressed in our culture and heritage. It is piety and ethical practice, duty and obligation. It is the path which leads us to liberation.
Universal dharma is known as Ṛita.
Social dharma is Varṇa dharma.
Human dharma is known as āśrama dharma.
Our personal dharma is svadharma.
Hinduism, the purest expression of these four timeless dharmas, is called Sanātana Dharma.
The Vedas proclaim:
“There is nothing higher than dharma. Verily, that which is dharma is Truth.” Aum Namaḥ Śivāya.
A king’s dharma—his destiny and proper path—is to rule wisely, conscientiously and with honor, as does this noble monarch, served by knowing ministers. Should he lack the strength to rule, or should he govern unrighteously, dharma would suffer.
What Is Signified by Universal Dharma?
Universal law, known in the Vedas as Ṛita, is cosmic order, God’s rule at work throughout the physical province. It is the infinite intelligence or consciousness in nature, the sustaining cosmic design and organizing force. Aum.
Ṛita is the underlying divine principle and universal law regulating nature, from the voyage of stars in vast galactic orbits to the flux of infinitesimal subatomic energies. Ṛita is the Tao. It is destiny and the road to destiny.
When we are in tune with universal dharma, and realize that man is an integral part of nature and not above it or dominating it, then we are in tune with God.
All Hindus feel they are guests on the planet with responsibilities to nature, which when fulfilled balance its responsibilities to them. The physical body was gathered from nature and returns to it.
Nature is exquisitely complex and orderly. The coconut always yields a coconut tree, a lotus a lotus, a rose a rose, not another species. How constant nature is, and yet how diverse, for in mass producing its creations, no two ever look exactly alike.
Yes, the Hindu knows himself to be a part of nature and seeks to bring his life into harmony with the universal path, the sustaining cosmic force.
The Vedas proclaim:
“Earth is upheld by Truth. Heaven is upheld by the sun. The solar regions are supported by eternal laws, Ṛita. The elixir of divine love is supreme in heaven.” Aum Namaḥ Śivāya.
The Sun and the Moon move through space together on a fanciful single-wheeled ferry. Even the great celestial bodies—the planets, stars and billions of galaxies and their atomic constituents—follow dharma, called Ṛita dharma or universal law.
What Is the Nature of Social Dharma?
Social law, or Varṇa dharma, consists of the occupation, duties and responsibilities we must fulfil as a member of our nation, community and family. An important aspect of this dharma is religious and moral law. Aum.
Every human society defines a complex stratification of community interaction.
Scholarly, pious souls of exceptional learning are the wise brāhmins. Lawmakers and law-enforcers are the guardian Kshatriyas. Bankers and businessmen are merchant Vaiṣyas. Laborers, workers and artisans are Śūdras. In addition to these four classes, or varṇas, are hundreds of castes, or jātis.
In Hindu societies, class and caste, which dictates one’s occupation and community, is largely hereditary. However, these birth-imposed categories can be transcended by the ambitious who enter new careers through education, skill and persistence.
Social dharma is fulfilled in adherence to the laws of our nation, to our community responsibilities and to our obligations among family and friends. A comprehensive system of duties, morals and religious observances make up God’s law at work in our daily life.
Rightly followed, Varṇa dharma enhances individual and family progress and ensures the continuity of culture.
The Vedas say:
“When a man is born, whoever he may be, there is born simultaneously a debt to the Gods, to the sages, to the ancestors and to men.” Aum Namaḥ Śivāya.
Social dharma entails our national, societal and occupational responsibilities. Here the loyal subjects of a kindly king bring a portion of their grains, goods and wealth to the palace. The monarch will use it to benefit his people and defend the realm.
What Is the Nature of Human Dharma?
Human law, or āśrama dharma, is the natural expression and maturing of the body, mind and emotions through four progressive stages of earthly life: student, householder, elder advisor and religious solitaire. Aum.
The four āśramas are “stages of striving,” in pursuit of the Puruṣārthas: righteousness, wealth, pleasure and liberation.
Our first 24 years of life are a time of intense learning. Around age 12, we enter formally the Brahmacharya āśrama and undertake the study and skills that will serve us in later life.
From 24 to 48, in the grihastha āśrama, we work together as husband and wife to raise the family, increasing wealth and knowledge through our profession, serving the community and sustaining the members of the other three āśramas.
In the Vānaprastha āśrama, from 48 to 72, slowly retiring from public life, we share our experience by advising and guiding younger generations.
After age 72, as the physical forces wane, we turn fully to scripture, worship and yoga. This is the sannyāsa āśrama, which differs from the formal life of ochre-robed monks.
Thus, our human dharma is a natural awakening, expression, maturing and withdrawal from worldly involvement.
The Vedas say:
“Pursuit of the duties of the stage of life to which each one belongs—that, verily, is the rule! Others are like branches of a stem. With this, one tends upwards; otherwise, downwards.” Aum Namaḥ Śivāya.
What Is the Nature of Personal Dharma?
Personal law, or svadharma, is our own perfect individual pattern in life. It is the sum of our accumulated seed karmas as they relate to the collective effect on us of ṛita, āśrama and Varṇa dharma. Aum Namaḥ Śivāya.
Each human being has an individual, personal dharma. This dharma is determined by two things: the karmas, both good and bad, from past lives; and the three dharmas of this life—universal, human and social.
Svadharma, “one’s own law,” is molded by our background and experiences, tendencies and desires—indicated by astrology—all of which determine our personality, profession and associations.
The key to discovering and understanding personal dharma is the worship of Lord Gaṇeśa, the God of memory, time and wisdom, who knows our past lives and can clarify our most perfect pattern, our right path in life.
When we follow this unique pattern—guided by guru, wise elders and the knowing voice of our soul—we are content and at peace with ourselves and the world.
Dharma is to the individual what its normal development is to a seed—the orderly fulfillment of an inherent nature and destiny.
A Vedic prayer implores:
“That splendor that resides in an elephant, in a king, among men, or within the waters, with which the Gods in the beginning came to Godhood, with that same splendor make me splendid, O Lord.” Aum Namaḥ Śivāya.
We all have various thoughts and plans, and diverse are the callings of men. The carpenter seeks out that which is cracked; the physician, the ailing; the priest, the soma press.
Rig Veda 9.112. ve, 279-280
The daughter of heaven has revealed Herself in the eastern region, all clothed in light. Faithfully She follows the path of ṛita dharma; well understanding, She measures out the regions.
Rig Veda 1.124.3. ve, 808
The hands are alike but in their work they differ. So also, two cows, offspring of a single mother, may yet give differing yields of milk.
Even twins are not the same in strength, or kinsmen in bounty.
Rig Veda 10.117.9. ve, 851
A man should think on wealth and strive to win it by adoration on the path of Order, counsel himself with his own mental insight, and grasp still nobler vigor with his spirit.
Rig Veda 10.31.2. rvg, 459
Who, weary of Brahman studentship, having fully learnt the Vedas, is discharged by the teacher he had ever obeyed, such a one is called the āśramin.
Choosing a wife of equally high birth, he should deposit the sacred fires, and bring to those Deities the Brahman sacrifice day and night until, dividing among the children his property, abstaining from conjugal pleasures, he gives himself to the forest life, wandering in a pure region. Living on water and on air, and on such fruit as proper, fire within body, he abides on Earth without obligations, without tears.
Atharva Veda, Sannyāsa Upanishad 2.1-4. upb, 735-36
In how many parts was He transformed when they cut the Purusha in pieces? What did His mouth become? What His arms, what His thighs, what His feet? His mouth then became the brāhmaṇa, from the arms the rajanya was made, the Vaiṣya from the thighs, from the feet the Śūdra came forth.
Rig Veda 10.90.11-12. upb, 894
A hundred uninitiated are equal to one brahmachari. A hundred brahmacharis are equal to one grihastha. A hundred grihasthas are equal to one Vānaprastha. A hundred vanaprasthas are equal to one sannyasin.
Atharva Veda, Narasimha Upanishad 5.10. upb, 832
The works of brāhmins, Kshatriyas, Vaiṣyas and Śūdras are different, in harmony with the three powers of their born nature.
The works of a brāhmin are peace, self-harmony, austerity and purity, loving forgiveness and righteousness, vision, wisdom and faith.
These are the works of a kshatriya: a heroic mind, inner fire, constancy, resourcefulness, courage in battle, generosity and noble leadership.
Trade, agriculture and the rearing of cattle is the work of a Vaiṣya.
And the work of the Śūdra is service.
They all attain perfection when they find joy in their work.
Bhagavad Gītā 18.41-45. bgm, 118-19
A man attains perfection when his work is worship of God, from whom all things come and who is in all. Greater is thine own work, even if this be humble, than the work of another, even if this be great. When a man does the work God gives him, no sin can touch this man.
Bhagavad Gītā 18.45-47. bgm, 119
A sāttvic he is, his thoughts centered on Paratattva, his vision clear through conflicting faiths, abhorrent of recurring cycles of births, straight in dharma’s path he easy walks. He, sure, is disciple good and true.
Tirumantiram 1696. tm
He who casts out love and dharma and chooses self-denial so wealth can pile high will see it seized by strangers. He who understands the duty of giving truly lives. All others shall be counted among the dead.
Thirukural 214 & 1009. ww
More imposing than a mountain is the greatness of a man who, steadfast in domestic life, has mastered self-control. Morality is the birthright of high families, while immoral conduct’s legacy is lowly birth.
Thirukural 124 & 133. ww
By the laws of dharma that govern body and mind, you must fear sin and act righteously. Wise men, by thinking and behaving in this way, become worthy to gain bliss both here and hereafter. God lives in this house built of earth, water, fire, air and ether. Therefore, keep the house clean and the mind pure, and conduct yourself with calmness.
Natchintanai, Letter 7. nt, 20