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What is Dharma?

by Pankaj Seth August, 2015


What is Dharma? There is Hindu Dharma. There is Buddha Dharma. The root of Dharma means ‘support’, so Dharma is ‘that which supports’. Dharma refers to teachings and a way of life which support what the Rg Veda calls ‘Rta’ or ‘Rtam’. The words ‘rhythm' and 'ritual' are derived from ‘Rta’. The movement of the stars, the flowing of rivers and seasonal and biological rhythms are all aspects of Rta. Rta is the cosmic order observed with the senses, discerned through reason, and directly known via moral awareness.

From the Dharmic point of view, the cosmic order is not restricted to a mathematical or mechanical order but also includes the moral dimension. This is so because the Dharmic teachings forward a consciousness-first view of reality. Consciousness is not seen as an evolute of inert matter but as the basis of all perceived phenomena. Consciousness is not like an inert sensor of things but is inherently alive and aware, with freedom of choice and creativity, and depending on the material context that enfolds it, consciousness makes diverse moral judgements possible.


Due to its own history, the West has become fractured into Science and Religion. Of the two, the Dharma is closer to Science than Western Religion. The various religion-like elements are applications of the truth found via the Dharma's epistemic approach, as Ananda Coomaraswamy points out:

“The original intention of intelligible forms was not to entertain us, but literally to “re-mind” us. The chant is not for the approval of the ear, nor the picture for that of the eye (although these senses can be taught to approve the splendor of truth, and can be trusted when they have been trained), but to effect such a transformation of our being as is the purpose of all ritual acts. It is, in fact, the ritual arts that are the most “artistic,” because the most “correct,” as they must be if they are to be effectual.”



Of all the arts, the ritual arts were the first and remain the most sublime. They exist within a worldview where a form of transformation called wholeness is explicitly sought. Ritual is a process whereby an inspired picture of the world is entered. It’s also a cure for the stance of the distant, disinterested observer who feels alienated from the world. It is a cure for the 'world negating' attitude of the modern era.

Ritual joins the finite to the infinite, joins the mortal human being to eternal cosmic rhythms, saying ‘this is you’. You are the temple where divinity lives. In you is Immortality and Illumination.


The Orientalist views projected onto the non-dual Dharma make it look more like dualistic Western religion than it is, and thus causes the Science-dominated West to see it improperly, leading to the situation where Westerners want to associate with some aspects like Yoga, but not with other aspects like 'empty ritual'.

But in the Dharma, what exists is not empty ritual to supplicate an a priori God (like in the Religions), but rather as Coomaraswamy said above, "The Ritual Arts" are part of an epistemic approach as well as a way of life that respects not just Science but Art. What in the West are called Art, Science, and Religion, in India co-exist as an integrated approach, not fractured and thus fractious.


What is meant by 'SEEING' in the Dharmic/Vedic/Yogic context?

Meditation and Puja are part of the epistemic approach of the Dharma, for knowledge acquisition, and are not reducible to prayer as it exists in the context of religions. The example of the mathematician Srinivasan Ramanujan is instructive in this regard.

Ramanujan has been called the greatest of mathematicians. His colleague Hardy said: "Here was a man who could work out modular equations and theorems... to orders unheard of, whose mastery of continued fractions was... beyond that of any mathematician in the world, who had found for himself the functional equation of the zeta function and the dominant terms of many of the most famous problems in the analytic theory of numbers..."

Ramanujan credited his acumen to his family goddess, Mahalakshmi of Namakkal. He looked to her for inspiration in his work, and claimed to dream of blood drops that symbolized her male consort, Narasimha, after which he would receive visions of scrolls of complex mathematical content unfolding before his eyes.

Professor Bruce C. Berndt of the University of Illinois, during a lecture at IIT Madras in May 2011, stated that over the last 40 years, as nearly all of Ramanujan's theorems have been proven right, there had been a greater appreciation of Ramanujan's work and brilliance. Further, he stated Ramanujan's work was now pervading many areas of modern mathematics and physics.



The word ‘religion’ historically exists to define monotheisms which hold a belief in a transcendent, all-controlling deity. They are credal in their beliefs, so that nothing may be admitted as evidence against those beliefs. Religions are also exclusivist in that their beliefs define ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups, and these lines lead to the concepts of conversion, deconversion, blasphemy and apostasy. However closely the Dharma might appear to be like the Religions on the surface, the Dharma has none of their features.


Western science both converges with, and diverges from, the Dharma.


Both espouse a non-dual view. Western science militated against the dualistic view of Christianity, where Creator-Creature is a duality never to be reconciled. Western science seeks to know the Universe as a self-created reality, and not as being created by something outside the Universe, for by definition there can be nothing outside 'all there is', or the Universe.


Western science in its current iteration tends to be strongly Materialistic, seeing awareness as an historically arisen 'phenomenon'. However, science more and more acknowledges that awareness is not a phenomenon, but is instead the a priori condition for the arising of phenomena.

Due to seeing awareness as epiphenomenal, Western science has no choice but to see values as secondary in its Materialist view, whereas the Dharma sees values as primary, because it sees Awareness as primary.


The Materialist, Neo-Darwinian view is now being severely challenged, in particular because consciousness is coming to be seen as ‘irreducible’.

The Dharma is not credal, belief/faith based, exclusionary as is Western religion, nor is it a search for truth limited to the confines of Western science, as meditative methods refined over millenia enable a direct seeing for oneself that is central to the Dharmic approach.


The Dharma is, from its own epistemic point of view, a search for the truth, Satya, or ‘that which is’. A study of Dharmic texts yields much in terms of arguments and methods to ‘see for oneself’. Belief is not enough, so arguments which help with understanding, and meditation methods which enable a direct knowing are forwarded.

Dharmic epistemology sees two kinds of knowledge, Gyana and Vigyana. Vigyana is Science, the method of measurement, thought, and theory and since it relies upon causality but invariably gets stuck at the ‘first cause’ it is understood as useful but limited. It could be said that as early as the Vedas and Upanishads, an epistemic approach like Logical Positivism (featured in Scientism) was seen to have the limitations that have now seen about Science by the Philosophers of Science in the West.

While Vigyana is divided or dualistic knowledge, Gyana is non-dual knowledge, transcendent of measurement and thought, and in the context of self-knowledge transcendent of even the subject-object distinction. This is the goal of Yoga.

In the Mundaka Upanishad, we hear that there are two kinds of knowledge, historical and timeless, and that thought cannot reach the timeless. This is why Yoga is important towards achieving knowledge, an experiential not discursive knowledge about the nature of being, consciousness, and the self. So the approach in the Dharma to knowledge is eminently clear-sighted and accurate, and Yoga fits into that. Here we don’t need loosely defined words like ‘mystical’ or ‘spiritual’ because they cause confusion, not being welldefined. As Sita Ram Goel said in contrasting Dharma with Religion, “I dwell in a different universe of discourse which begins with ‘Know Thyself’ and ends with ‘That Thou Art’.


Shiva and Ganesh

The Purusharthas, or ‘The Four Aims of Life’, comprise the over-arching organizational scheme in Indic thought. The four aims of life are Dharma/ Virtue, Artha/Prosperity, Kama/Pleasure and Moksha/Enlightenment.

There are teachings and texts for each of the four aims, such as the the Arthashastra, a voluminous text on statecraft and worldly wisdom, the Kama Sutra, Dharmashastras like the great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, and Mokshasashtras like the Yoga Sutra.

In the context of the four aims of life, Dharma refers to practices that reinforce a way of life which is virtuous, which is supportive of Rta, and which is true to oneself. Here, the term ‘Svadharma’ applies, and means ‘one’s own dharma’ or way. A Dharmic life is dutiful towards others and not just oriented towards material prosperity (Artha) or pleasure (Kama). Dharma, Artha, and Kama are known as the Trivarga, or the ‘Three-fold path’, and is fused within the temporal aspect of reality.

Along with the Trivarga, there is Moksha, knowing and becoming ‘the deathless’. What is deathless? The deathless is without end, infinite, beyond measure. This refers to one’s deepest identity... irreducible, deathless consciousness.

Pankaj Seth

by Pankaj Seth

August, 2015

About Pankaj Seth

Dr. Pankaj Seth is a Naturopathic Physician, Yoga/Meditation teacher and filmmaker based in Toronto. His Naturopathic medical practice of 25 years features Ayurveda, Yoga, Pranayama and Acupuncture, where self-care is a prominent aspect of the approach to wellness.

He is experienced in the deployment of a multidisciplinary approach to clinical and educational services as former Director of the Canadian School of Eastern Medicine (Toronto), has spoken at numerous venues and been published in various fora, including 'Ayu', the journal of Gujrat Ayurved University, where he resided as ‘Visiting Scholar’. He has recently liaised with the Dept. of Philosophy and Religion at Benares Hindu University (Varanasi) for his upcoming film on Yoga Philosophy, ‘Soma: The Yogic Quest’.

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