The Meaning of the word 'Dharma'

Discussion in 'Comparative Religion' started by Yazata, Jun 1, 2014.

  1. Yazata Valued Senior Member

    The Sanskrit word 'dharma' appears to be derived from an Old Indo-European word meaning something like 'hold'. We still see remnants of that meaning in some IE languages. (I believe that there's a Lithuanian derivative that means 'horse's reins'.) Apparently sometime in its movement into Central Asia, the word took on the meaning of 'uphold', as in the idea of a tent-pole.

    By the time we encounter it in India, the word seems to have become much more generalized. "Dharma upholds both this-worldly and other-worldly affairs" (Mahabharata 8.69.58). The Dharmashastras ('dharma treatises') kind of mix together moral, political and ritual concerns. Proper morality upholds social life, proper politics upholds the state, while the proper performance of the Brahmanical sacrifices upheld man's relationship with the gods.

    In its most cosmic sense, dharma upholds the order of the cosmos (rta) itself. And as the centuries passed, the concepts of dharma and rta merged, so that what upholds the cosmic order became identified with that cosmic order. So dharma is identified with truth. "Verily, that which is dharma is truth... Verily, both these things are the same" (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.14).

    It also becomes identified with karma since behavior that upholds the cosmic order brings good results while behavior that subverts it brings bad results.

    The different Indian religions all absorbed this idea of dharma.

    In Buddhism, the idea of dharma becomes psychologized, as referring to what upholds the practitioner in the search for the end of suffering. But the ontological meaning is still prominent in Buddhism as well, so that dharma is simultaneously true knowledge of the principles that uphold reality. Thus the goal in Buddhism is to get one's psychology more in tune with the way things really are. It appears that the earliest Buddhists referred to what we today call 'Buddhism' as 'dharma-vinaya', or 'dharma discipline'. This band of ancient forest ascetics saw what they were doing as a path of self-discipline.

    As time went on, as Buddhism became a popular religion and as its doctrines were committed to writing, the word 'dharma' takes on yet another meaning, that of the Buddhist teachings in written scriptural form.

    Finally, it needs to be said that there's another more technical meaning of 'dharma' that one sometimes sees. This one seems to be ultimately derived from the Sanskrit grammarians. They started using 'dharma' to mean something like 'property', perhaps because they thought of the properties of objects as being what upheld the objects' identities as whatever they are. And we see the Buddhist scholar-monks adopting and making use of this technical usage in their abhidhamma project, in which they tried to disassemble all possible experience into not-further-reducible psycho-physical atoms, which they called 'dharmas'. (Kind of reminiscent of the role that 'elementary particles' play in modern physical thinking, perhaps.)
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  3. shawn_michael Registered Member

    Dharma can be roughly translated into "righteousness". There is no English or western equivalent of this word like many words in Sanskrit. This word -dharma - is purely Sanskrit.

    Indo-European classification of Sanskrit was primarily due to the result of rise of European nationalism during the period of IndoMania. This is also the reason as to why there is no western equal of a lot of words in Sanskrit. Of course, Sanskrit has influenced many languages during this period as well.

    Having said that if old Hindu epics like Mahabharatha and Ramayan are true, then Hindus (not to be confused with modern day Indians) were living in what is modern day Iran-Iraq all the way up to possibly Armenia. If this is true (which I doubt is provable since these epics date thousands of years back), then perhaps Sanskrit can be regarded as an Indo-European language.

    Coming back to Dharma, As far as I am aware, in all religions of Indian origin, Dharma has the same meaning.

    I am not familiar with the last meaning of Dharma that you can outlined here, but it sounds interesting though.
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  5. Dr_Toad It's green! Valued Senior Member

    A koan to soothe you:

    What guides the oxen?
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  7. spidergoat pubic diorama Valued Senior Member

  8. C C Consular Corps - "the backbone of diplomacy" Valued Senior Member

    That seems to be the nearest candidate for walking distance from the neighborhood of the peculiar usage that Kelley Ross refers to below. Presentism reigns therein, apparently.

    There are some philosophical doctrines that are so early and so fundamental to Buddhism that denials of them tend to be regarded as profoundly non-Buddhist heterodoxies. All forms of Buddhism endeavor to maintain these principles.

    1. Momentariness: Nothing exists for any length of time. There is no substance or duration to things. Each moment is an entirely new existence, which is succeeded by an entirely new existence. The only connection between one thing and the next is that one causes the next. This doctrine sounds much like the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. The "things" tend to be called the dharmas in Buddhist thought.

    2. Relative Existence or No Self Nature: Nothing has a essence, nature, or character by itself. Things in isolation are shûnya, "empty." The nature of things only exists in relation to everything else that exists. Existence as we know it is thus completely relative and conditioned by everything else. Only Nirvâna would be unconditioned, although we cannot know what it is like. The distinction between the conditioned reality that we know and the unconditioned reality that we do not know is similar to the distinction between phenomena and things-in-themselves made by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. The notion that the dharmas derive their nature from everything else has led to comparison with the "monads" of another German philosopher, Leibniz. The monads also represent the whole universe. However, since the dharmas are momentary, this is actually more like the actual entities postulated by Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) in his "Process" philosophy.

    Shûnyata, "Emptiness," is easily misunderstood. It is not nothingness. Emptiness is neither existence, nor non-existence, nor both existence and non-existence, nor neither existence nor non-existence. At the very least, this means that we don't know what is left when we take away all conditioned relations. Beyond that, it can mean that we cannot know what that is. No Self Nature means that there are no essences, just as Momentariness means that there are no substances. [...]
    --Basic Buddhist Philosophical Doctrines
  9. Landau Roof Registered Senior Member

    Dharma means the law, the logos, the Word, or as what we nowadays like to call it, information. There are not just two things, there are three: matter, energy and dharma.
  10. Xanthippe Registered Member

    Is that your own speculation or are you relying on some scholarly references?

    I think you have to factor in among the I.Es, how the horse-driven chariot was a metaphor for mantras and chants as mediating link between the micro-cosmos and the gods. Mantras were seen as weaving a fabric, constantly 'holding' the loom that Is the cosmos. Life is interconnectivty. Later on fire and then the figure of the Poet/shaman took on this function.
    Dhr* was to 'hold' that link or axis of communication between the two realms made possible by sacrifice. The pole of the tent was more originally the Sacrificial pole, also symbolized by the axle of the chariot wheel like a cosmic pillar of Stability between the two worlds.

    Dharma then gradually takes on the connotations of this 'stability' into righteousness, universal and social order, etc. and finally into Buddhism as inner order of an entity - dharmas in the sense of aristotle's entelechy.
  11. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

    Although not about the meaning of any word, readers here may find this interesting:
    It tells a little about how we learn words and their roles (build our "lexicon") - and part of the way our DNA makes that possible.
    Even deeper / older knowledge than Chomsky's language acquisition device (LAD)
    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 2, 2014
  12. kx000 Valued Senior Member

    A cosmic order of transcendents and abstracts. Maybe its like ordering knowledge, time, and consciousness.
  13. Amar Nath Reu Be your own guru Registered Senior Member

    No word is purely Sanskrit. Since Sanskrit is a derivative of PIE, there are always related words, like in case of Vedas (vid - knowledge). Dharma is also defined in grammar as 'Dharayet iti Dharma' or 'What is good to uphold is Dharma'.

    252-552. dher-, dherə-IE to hold, support
    Sanskrit: dṛ́hyati vb to be strong
    dharúṇa-ḥ adj holding, supporting
    dhartrá-m n support, prop
    dharma n conformity to one's duty/nature
    dhāráyati vb to hold, bear, keep
    dhṛ́ti-ḥ n firmness, resolution

    A related word - Dharati-Earth, Dera-Camp, etc.
    Last edited: Dec 8, 2014
  14. rcscwc Registered Senior Member

    If Dharma is not purely Sanskrit, it should be possible to translate in other languages. But there is no satisfactory translation. But one thing is sure. It Does Not translate as religion or even fail. Nearest translation as I could attempt is NATURE.

    It is the dharma, nature, of water to flow downhill, quench fire etc.

    Dharma of a tiger is kill its prey for food.
  15. Landau Roof Registered Senior Member

    I don't buy this concept that a word in one language is untranslatable into another language. Sure, it may be that there is not a single word for dharma in English, for instance, since that is the topic here, but languages are not stupid, I contend that in every and any language it is possible to compose a phrase or clause that will explain the meaning of any word in any other language. Apologies, but the Arabs are guilty of this misconception. They say Allahu akbar is untranslatable because Allah is beyond human comprehension and akbar means greater than great, really really super, hyper, mega great and no other language can express this incomprehensible god that is really really super, hyper, mega great, but, hey, I just did in English, didn't I? I didn't use the words Allahu akbar, but of course I didn't since they are not English words, although Allah arguably is in that it is a word/concept that most English speakers will understand. My work here is done.
    Last edited: Dec 11, 2014
  16. rcscwc Registered Senior Member

    OK, try to translate.

    Dharma is different for different conditions. One single condition cannot be applied universally.

    Muder is a crime established dharma and law.

    It is your dharma to abide by laws relating to murder.

    A killing in course of lawful duty is NOT crime, therefore sin/crime of murder is not there if a soldier kills in defence of state.

    A students dharma is to study whole heartedly with fullest concentration and effort. But a person is student at one point, but plays a game at other. See, dharma changes.

    In none of the Indian language there is a translation, but dharma is used in all, without exception.
    Last edited: Dec 11, 2014
  17. Landau Roof Registered Senior Member

    I think you did just translate. Dharma is now an English word as well, and it can be defined by pre-existing English words, just as it can and doubtlessly is in those Indian languages you mention.
    noun, Hinduism, Buddhism.
    essential quality or character, as of the cosmos or one's own nature.
    conformity to religious law, custom, duty, or one's own quality or character.
    law, especially religious law.
    the doctrine or teaching of the Buddha.

    Pali dhamma

    1790-1800 1790-1800; < Sanskrit: custom, duty, akin to dhārayati holds, maintains
    Related forms

    dharmic, adjective Unabridged
    Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2014.
    Cite This Source

    Examples from the web for dharma

    British Dictionary definitions for dharma


    (Hinduism) social custom regarded as a religious and moral duty


    1. the essential principle of the cosmos; natural law
    2. conduct that conforms with this

    (Buddhism) ideal truth as set forth in the teaching of Buddha

    Word Origin

    Sanskrit: habit, usage, law, from dhārayati he holds
  18. rcscwc Registered Senior Member

    All of them together, not singly, might perhaps define dharma. But even then it is insufficient.

    Dharma is an unintelligent, indiscriminate and inexorable. If you don't conform, you will be the sufferer, not dharma. Take it as natural force.

    PS: Can apple be defined as a fruit which misled Adam and is a means of procreation? NOPE. Same with all the above definitions of dharma.
  19. Landau Roof Registered Senior Member

    First of all, ask any Bible scholar. It never says anywhere that the forbidden fruit was an apple. It's just tradition that pictures it as such. Secondly, there is a lot more to apples than their association with the Fall of Man. You're right. It is not the apple's fault that man is 'evil from the days of his youth'. For the rest of what you say, I fail to see that you have countered my view that any word/concept is translatable to any other language. It's odd that you say 'All of them together, not singly, might perhaps define dharma' and then immediately offer an additional definition/explanation of dharma. And you know what? I get it! Your definition is also good and adds to the overall definition. Certainly the precise meaning dharma is hard to pin down, but that can be said of nearly every word in any language. Take the English adjective sweet, for example. Does it really capture the essence and transcendence of the concept it means to identify? Of course not. Words never do. Then, how to explain different sorts of sweetness?

    Suffice to say, some of us, myself included, accept dharma as a reality (although again, do you see how poorly words represent things?) and we 'get the gist' of the meaning in plain old English. It may not be the queen of languages as Sanskrit is said to be, or as pure and high and holy as Pali, but it will have to do, and it does.
  20. Amar Nath Reu Be your own guru Registered Senior Member

    Wikipedia is our friend. Here is the etymology of 'dharma':

    The word dharma derives from Proto-Indo-European root *dʰer- ("to hold"), which in Sanskrit is reflected as class-1 root √dhṛ. Etymologically it is related to Avestan √dar- ("to hold"), Latin frēnum ("rein, horse tack"), Lithuanian derė́ti ("to be suited, fit"), Lithuanian dermė ("agreement") and darna ("harmony") and Old Church Slavonic drъžati ("to hold, possess"). Classical Sanskrit word dharmas would formally match with Latin o-stem firmus from Proto-Indo-European *dʰer-mo-s "holding", were it not for its historical development from earlier Rigvedic n-stem.
  21. madethesame Banned Banned

    i am not a expert or anything similar.
    dharma can be broken into 2 words : 1. dharm a 2. dharm.
    dharma has never meant religion. it is the universal code of conduct such that 'goodness' in your interaction with yourself and the way yourself and you interact with the people, beings, creatures, materials, objects is called dharma.
    the 'godness' doesnt mean acting good. it is being good.
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  22. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    A tradition established by the people who wrote the Bible. There were no apple trees in Mesopotamia in ancient times. Botanists tell us that the only large, red, edible fruit, in that region in that era, was the pomegranate.
  23. Amar Nath Reu Be your own guru Registered Senior Member

    Thyen, kindly do not break in to two what is one.

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