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Dharma, in Hinduism and Buddhism, is the law, truth, or doctrine that defines the cosmos; also duty, truth, righteousness, virtue, ideal, phenomena, and so on. Dharma has many shaded meanings depending on he context in which it is used. "Dharma" is Sanskrit from the Aryan root dhar, to uphold, sustain, or support. Its Pali form is dhamma, which is generally used in Theravada Buddhism.
In Hinduism dharma is believed to be the supreme law operating the universe, governing the world and all beings within it, and all gods in the cosmos, existing with neither beginning nor end in time. The main aspects of dharma that govern human beings and the world are samsara, or reincarnation, karma, the law of cause and effect; and moksha, the spiritual liberation from the bandage of reincarnation. Also, dharma refers to the continuous effort to eliminate karma by surrendering to divine will. Dharma is duty; it relates to moral nature and behavior rather than religious belief. Every individual has his or her personal dharma to follow in the quest toward spiritual development. Communities have collective dharmas to provide educational and social supports for their members.
Within the context of reincarnation, dharma is considered the purpose to which an individual was born, created by a need in a particular time and place. Karma is the conditioning that makes fulfillment of dharma possible.
Dharma, in Buddhism, comprises teachings concerning the universe and a discipline, a means by which one attains awakening. Its stems from humankind's attempts to understand the world; and the essence of dharma is expressed in the Four Noble Truths:
Suffering exists. There are three general types of suffering: suffering of pain, which is both physical and mental; suffering of change, which superficially appears to be pleasure but actually is suffering; and pervasive compositional suffering, which is part of karma and rebirth. (It should be understood that rebirth and reincarnation are not equivalent.)
Suffering is caused by karma and "afflictive emotions" such as desire, hatred, ignorance, lack of self-control, jealousy, and anger.
Suffering is ended by the extinction or cessation of its causes.
Causes are overcome through the Noble Eightfold Path, which consists of Right View, Right Determination, Right Effort, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Livelihood, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.
Dharma is the second of Three Treasures; the first is Buddha and the third is Sangha, or the kinship and harmony of all things. Dharma, the second Treasure, is the "truth of Buddhism" or "the way." The three poisons to Dharma are hatred, ignorance, and greed.
Buddhists do not follow Buddha; they follow the dharma, the way of Buddha. They see the dharma as the universe, which is empty and void and full and complete. Karma is the action of dharma, and freedom from karma is freedom from blind response to it. The enlightened soul sees karmic hindrances as fundamentally empty and does not become burdened by them. A gatha (verse stating major points of Buddha dharma) intended to free one from blind responses to karma is the Purification Gatha:
All the evil karma ever created by
me since of old,
on account of my beginningless
greed, hatred, and ignorance,
born of my body, mouth and
I now confess, openly and fully.
The term "dharma" also refers to attributes and phenomena called "elements of being," which are minute impulses of energy. Dharmas comprise the skandas, the karmic aggregates of form, feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness, which in turn comprise the illusory nature of sentient beings. A.G.H.
Sources: 29, 148-149; 83, 118-119.