Dharma (devanāgarī: धर्म) is a concept of central importance in Indian philosophy and religion. It has multiple meanings in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. In Hinduism, dharma signifies behaviours that are considered to be in accord with the order that makes life and universe possible (Ṛta), and includes duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues and "right way of living." In Buddhism, dharma means "cosmic law and order", it is frequently used to refer to "phenomena," and it is also applied to the teachings of the Buddha.
There is no equivalent single-word synonym for dharma in western languages. The Sanskrit noun dharma (धर्म) derives from the root dhṛ, which means "to hold, maintain, keep or bear." It takes a meaning of "what is established or firm", and hence "law". It is the thing that regulates the course of change by not participating in change, but that principle which remains constant. The meaning of the word dharma depends on the context. There are numerous definitions such as that which is established or firm, steadfast decree, statute, law, practice, custom, duty, right, justice, virtue, morality, ethics, religion, religious merit, good works, nature, character, quality, property. In common parlance dharma means "right way of living" and "path of rightness".
Annie Besant described the Theosophical meaning of the term "dharma" as follows:
Dharma may now be defined as the “inner nature of a thing at any given stage of evolution, and the law of the next stage of its unfolding”. . . . Take those two thoughts together, and then you will understand why perfection must be reached by following one’s own Dharma. My Dharma is the stage of evolution which my nature has reached in unfolding the seed of divine life which is myself, plus the law of life according to which the next stage is to be performed by me. It belongs to this separated self. I must know the stage of my growth, and I must know the law which will enable me to grow further; then I know my Dharma, and by following that Dharma I am going towards perfection.
The word dharma is sometimes translated as "duty", which may be seen as one aspect of it. Even the Masters of Wisdom are bounded by duty although it is a willingly accepted one. In one of his letters Master K.H. wrote:
My first duty is to my Master. And duty, let me tell you, is for us, stronger than any friendship or even love; as without this abiding principle which is the indestructible cement that has held together for so many milleniums, the scattered custodians of nature's grand secrets — our Brotherhood, nay, our doctrine itself — would have crumbled long ago into unrecognisable atoms.
- Dharma at Theosophy World
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- Annie Besant, Dharma, (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 19869), 17.
- Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 126 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), ???.