Human Rights and the World's Major Religions

By William H. Brackney | Go to book overview

ELEVEN
Dharma (Duty) and Human Rights

THE MEANING OF DHARMA FOR HINDUS

Vasudha Narayanan, a specialist in Hindu religion at the University of Florida, Gainsville, offers a concise survey of the various ways in which Hindus today use the term dharma.1Dharma (from the root dhr, “to sustain, to uphold”) is used to refer to ethics and moral behavior in general and to the Hindu religion as the sanatana dharma—the eternal dharma. Writings on dharma have been used in the formulation of law codes and their administration in India during the last two centuries, thus the direct relationship between dharma and human rights. The Monier-Williams Sanskrit–English dictionary gives about 17 meanings for dharma, including religion, the customary observances of a caste or sect, law usage, moral merit, righteousness, duty, and justice, which shows the wide range of the concept and practice of dharma. In the early Vedas, the word dharma appears many times, and in later texts, it means “religious ordinances and rites,” or sometimes, “fixed principles or rules of conduct.” When paired with other words, dharma can mean “merit acquired by the performance of religious rites” and “the whole body of religious duties.”2 According to Pandurang Kane, in his authoritative five-volume History of Dharmasastra, the main meaning of dharma came to be “the privileges, duties and obligations of a man [or woman] his [or her] standard of conduct as a member of the Aryan [Hindu] community, as a member of one of the castes, as a person in a particular stage of life.”3

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