Hinduism: Dharma | 4


The Code of Conduct

Hindus today use the word “dharma” to refer to religion, ethics, and moral behaviour in general and to their religion in particular.

Since the 19th century the term Sanātana dharma (the eternal or perennial dharma) has been used to designate the Hindu tradition.

Buddhists, Jains, and Hindus use the term “dharma” to indicate a fairly wide variety of concepts and issues.

In the last two centuries the texts on dharma (composed in the beginning of the Common Era) also formed the basis for formulating the administration of law in India.

The “moral code” for most Hindus is a combination of traditional customs and practices that are ordinarily even more important than the code of behaviour advocated in the texts on dharma.

Hindus have been concerned with ritual purity and impurity and auspiciousness and inauspiciousness as areas of importance in correct behaviour.

In philosophy and in ordering their lives the two categories that have had overriding importance are dharma and moksha (liberation).

The meaning of dharma depends upon the context; further, there have been changes in the emphases over the centuries:

Dharma may mean religion, the customary observances of a caste or sect, law usage, practice, religious or moral merit, virtue, righteousness, duty, justice, piety, morality, or sacrifice, among other things.

The word “dharma” appears several times in the early Vedic texts. In many later contexts it means “religious ordinances and rites,” and in others it refers to “fixed principles or rules of conduct.”

In conjunction with other words, “dharma” also means “merit acquired by the performance of religious rites” and “the whole body of religious duties.”

The prominent meaning of dharma eventually came to refer to the duties and obligations of a human being (primarily a male) in connection with his caste and particular stage of life.

Texts on dharma both described and prescribed these duties and responsibilities and divided the subject matter into various categories.

For many educated Hindus dharma deals with behaviour, justice, repentance, and atonement rites.

Dharma also includes:

- the duties of each class or caste of society;
- sacraments from conception to death;
- the duties of the different stages of life;
- the days when one should not study the Vedas;
- marriage; the duties of women;
- the relationship between husband and wife;
- ritual purity and impurity; rites of death and rituals for ancestors;
- gifts and donations; crime and punishment; contracts; inheritance;
- activities done only at times of crises;
- and rules concerning mixed castes.

It is obvious that the areas and concerns of what is deemed to be righteous behaviour in the Hindu tradition differ from the Western notions of ethics.

The earliest texts on dharma are the Dharma Sūtras. These are part of the Kalpa Sūtras, which are considered to be ancillaries to the Vedas.

By the first centuries of the Common Era many treatises on the nature of righteousness, moral duty, and law were written. These are called the Dharma Śāstras and form the basis for later Hindu laws:

The best known of these is the Manava Dharma-śāstra, or the “Laws of Manu.” These were probably codified in about the first century and reflect the social norms of the time.

Far better known than these treatises on dharma are the narrative literature of the epics (the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata) and the Purāṇas (“Ancient Lore”):

Hindus in India and the diaspora understand stories from these texts as exemplifying values of dharma and situations of dharmic dilemmas. The people in these epics are paradigms to be imitated or avoided.

Dharma is not homogenous, and there are many varieties that are discussed and practiced:

There are some virtues and behaviour patterns that are recommended for all human beings; others are incumbent on the person’s caste, stage of life, and gender.

Many Hindus in the 19th and 20th centuries emphasized what has been called the common (sāmānya or sādhāraṇa) dharma for all human beings; some speak of this as the “universal” dharma. The epics also call this the Sanātana dharma (eternal dharma).

Gautama’s Dharma Sūtra, one of the earliest texts on dharma, extols the ultimate importance of 8 virtues:

1. compassion toward all creatures; 2. patience; 3. lack of envy; 4. purification;
5. tranquillity; 6. having an auspicious disposition; 7. generosity; and 8. lack of greed.

A person with these qualities may not have performed all sacraments but will still achieve the ultimate goal of being with Brahman, the Supreme Being.

While these virtues and recommendations for behaviour are considered to be common to all human beings, the texts on dharma really emphasize the specific behaviour enjoined for people of the 4 major castes and for male members who are in various stages of life.

There are also considerable discussions on women’s duties (strī dharma).
The longest discussions focus on marriages, death rituals, food laws, and caste regulations.

While there are common virtues that all human beings should have, the texts on dharma speak of context-specific dharma that is incumbent on the different classes (Varṇa) of society:

The texts say that male members of the upper three classes—the “priestly” Brahmans, the rulers, and the merchants—should ideally go through 4 stages (āśrama) of life.

The behaviour recommended for each class and each stage of life is called varṇa-āśrama dharma. The responsibility to behave thus is called sva (self) dharma.

Whenever books describe the decline of the social order in the world, they refer to the abandoning of the duties that are incumbent upon a person by virtue of his or her station in life.

The “Laws of Manu” and the Bhāgavad Gītā say that it is better for a person to do his or her own dharma imperfectly than to do another’s well. The law books, however, acknowledge that in times of adversity a person may do other tasks.

In many parts of India custom and tradition override the dharma texts.

While the moral codes of Manu were much exalted by colonial rulers, scholars have shown that they had limited import—that in fact the law was mitigated by learned people, and each case was decided with reference to the immediate circumstances.

The texts of law recognized 4 stages of life, called the āśramas, for males of the upper three classes of society:

First, a young boy was initiated into the stage of a student; his dharma was to not work for a living and to remain celibate.

After being a student, a young man was to marry, repay his debt to society and his forefathers, and repay his spiritual debt to the gods.

A householder’s dharma was to be employed and to lead a conjugal life with his partner in dharma.

The “Laws of Manu” give details of 2 more stages: those of a forest dweller and an ascetic:

Manu says that when a man sees his skin wrinkled and his hair grey or when he sees his grandchildren, he may retire to the forest with his wife and spend the time in quietude and in reciting the Vedas.

The final stage, sannyāsa, was entered by few:
A man apparently staged his own social death and became an ascetic:

The ascetic owned nothing, living off the food given as alms and eating but once a day. He was to spend his time cultivating detachment from life and pursuing knowledge about salvation.

With the increasing popularity of the Bhāgavad Gītā, which stresses detached action, the need to enter formally into this stage of life diminished considerably within the Hindu tradition.

Sanskrit and vernacular texts on dharma extol the importance of becoming an ascetic (sannyāsī). Indeed, in India (and wherever Hindus have travelled) there are such ascetics in ochre or saffron clothes.

While the texts on dharma specify that only male members of the upper 3 classes of society have the right to become ascetics, women have also embraced this stage of life.

When a person enters this stage, he or she usually conducts his or her own death rituals:

The ascetic is now socially dead and is formally disassociated from all relationships. An ascetic is religiously (and in India legally) a new person without connections.