Hindu and Buddhist Meaning of dharma and Dharma

The Hindu meaning of dharma (little d), and Buddhist Meaning of Dharma (big D)

In translating Buddhist Dharma texts from Thai to English I have come across various distinctions and similarities between the early Hindu meaning of dharma and the later Buddhist meaning of Dharma.

When I first began studying Buddhism my teacher Ajahn Buddhadasa Bikkhu taught me that the ancient meaning of dharma, little d, came from the Hindu religion, and has 4 general meanings:

  1. dharma means nature
  2. dharma means the laws of nature
  3. dharma means the duties, functions or acts that all beings must follow to harmonize with the laws of its individual nature
  4. dharma means the effects that arise from following the very distinct duties according to its very specific laws of nature that are necessary in life, or not following the duties.

Thus, Dharma, little d, encompasses all of nature. It is similar to the Judeo-Christian God, or a pantheistic (God is in everything) or even panentheistic concept (that God is in everything and in the divine universe). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panentheism

For example. . . Looking at the Earth’s very own Moon. The magnetic laws of the Moon direct it to stay close to Earth; to raise and lower the tides within a completely dependable time table. All of what the Moon does within its cycle around the Earth, is totally designed by the Sun. If the Sun is shining brightly on the Moon when it is directly across from it, we call that a Full Moon. When the Moon is completely hidden in the sky (no clouds) it is a New Moon because the Sun and Moon are right next to one another and the Sun is so strong and bright it blocks our view of the Moon. In fact the Moon is more or less married to the Sun. And our biology is extremely influenced by the laws of this Sun-Moon marriage and how they will act on us according to our harmonious or tempestuous biology.

Furthermore, because we have little knowledge of our biology and this relationship we can relax and just watch the Moon a good portion of the month—from New Moon to Full Moon and from Full Moon until just a few days before the next New Moon.

What I am getting at, is that each entity (Sun, Moon, human being, brain, liver, etc.) organism, each organ, cell and atom performs according to its very own particular laws of nature. They interact with one another. (This topic will be discussed in the future.)

Ancient India

In ancient India the religion of Hinduism came from a fusion of various Indian cultures and traditions, with diverse roots and no one progenitor. There were three distinct periods, all of which go hand in hand with dharma.




In a bit more detail:

The Vedic Period originally was passed down in oral form until around 800 BCE. It focused on the Vedic (Rig Veda) teachings that . . .

*Worshipped a pantheon of gods and goddesses, and was Polytheistic;

*Prayed for Materialistic success for crops, livestock, money, shelter, health and strong children;

*Had total belief in the power of the Priests to officiate rituals, speak with the gods, teach, and perform mystical acts that brought forth auspicious results;

*Emphasized the necessity of Rituals performed by priests to please the gods and goddesses;

*Made Sacrificial offerings to the gods and goddesses.


The Upanishadic Period also existed in oral form for several centuries until it was written about 500 BCE. This period of Hinduism was formed as a reaction against the Vedic period of believing in priests and gods to help them with their worldly life. Instead individuals independently focused on their inner cosmic being through:

*Practicing Yoga for a spiritual life;

*Becoming a Renunciant, following very austere practices that left behind the material world and the traditions;

*Believing in divine oneness of Monasticism and not the gods or goddesses;

*Going inward, becoming Introspective;

*Trusting in the Personal Mystical, self-designed, religious experience, with consciousness raising practices that were not prescribed rituals.


Bhagavad Gita or Gita is a section of a much greater work called the Mahabharata. Considered the longest poem ever written, it spans the story of Krishna’s instructions to Arjuna about how he should perform his duties as a warrior to his people with a pure heart and the right intentions to avoid creating bad karma.

The Gita period stressed:

*Believing in one God, or Monotheism;

*A Communal relationship with their community;

*Love and Devotion to God;

*Following proper behavior and fulfilling duties Ethically;

*Living as a householder according to one’s caste was acceptable—no need to renunciate the world as in the Upanishada period.


Each of the different periods came about as a reaction to the previous period.  Each of them very different but yet all three are considered Hinduism.



The Four Purusarthas

Dharma is incorporated into the The Four Purusarthas which are the chief aims in life in the Hindu religion and Vedic teachings.

These aims are: 1. dharma-moral and ethical duties bringing on the right consequences; 2. artha-acquiring the means for living and being prosperous in the material world; 3. kama-all of the desires for sex, money, pleasure and physical satisfaction in one’s life. . .

The first 3 Puruasarthas bring forth number 4. Moksha-the ultimate aim to be liberated from the material world in life.

The Four Purusarthas are the chief aims in life in the Hindu religion and Vedic teachings. These aims are: 1. dharma-moral and ethical duties bringing on the right consequences; 2. artha-acquiring the means for living and being prosperous in the material world; 3. kama-all of the desires for sex, money, pleasure and physical satisfaction in one’s life. . .

The first 3 Puruasarthas 1. dharma, 2. artha and 3. kama came from the early Vedic teachings that pursue the goals of a human life. While they bring forth number 4, Moksha which came from the Upanishads, and represents the ultimate aim to be liberated from the material world in life.

Various texts emphasize that the Four Purusarthas are “the objects of human pursuit;” or, the “meaning” or “purpose” of a human being. According to Wikipedia, Purusartha mean “human being”, “soul”, or “universal principle or soul of the universe.”

Out of the Four Purusarthas dharma is the most encompassing and it is the most difficult to interpret. It has multiple ancient meanings found in Hinduism—the Vedic Scriptures, Buddhism and Jainism. Due to this dilemma few scholars have been able to agree on how to appropriately translate it. From my study it is very evident that the word dharma goes beyond our Western mind and conception and there is no definitive translation. Actually there is no one word in any of the Western languages that can be a perfect fit. One scholar of the Rig-Veda incorporates 20 meanings of the word dharma. In any Thai dictionary there are over 300 words with the word dharma in them. Never the less a good list of possibilities will help us understand the extent to which dharma, as the first Purusartha, is found in our lives and how to interpret it.

First the root for the word dharma is “dhri”, which means ‘to support, hold firm, keep constant’. Dharma directs all that changes in the material world, but does not take part in that change—dharma remains constant. It is pure consciousness. Meanings abound, such as:

Nature,  decrees, divine laws, practice, custom, duties, justice, virtue, morality, ethics, religion, merit, good words, character, behavior, profession, a moment in time, qualities, objects, and finally cosmic justice

An important consideration is the context of the meaning of the word. In the earliest Vedic texts dharma meant “cosmic law, the rules that created the universe from chaos, as well as rituals.” As stated in Wikipedia:

“In Vedic texts, the Upanishads and other sacred scriptures the meaning of the word dharma became refined. . . In certain contexts, dharma designates human behaviors considered necessary for order of things in the universe, principles that prevent chaos, behaviors and actions necessary for all of life in nature, society, family as well as at the individual level. . .”

With all of these different interpretations and meanings of the word dharma Dr. Horacio Francisco Arganis Juarez, in his book Dharma as Law, focuses on one :


“Although some scholars invariably translate the Sanskrit word dharma with the English word “law”, in fact dharma, even in its sense of a binding rule, goes beyond the Western notion of law. For example, we can easily speak of an unjust law, but we can hardly speak of unjust dharma. That is because dharma is the sacred law, invested with divine authority, for dharma is based on the Vedas, sacred scriptures revealed by the Divine to highly qualified sages.” . . .

“The word trayi refers to the three principle Vedas, the Rg-, Yajur-, and Sama-veda; and the word mula means the “root, foundation or basis”. According to Sanskrit grammar, the expression dharme trayi-mule can be understood in two ways: a) that the three Vedas are the root of dharma; or b) that dharma is the root of the Vedas.”

Now that we understand the Vedic and Hindu meaning of dharma we are more prepared to understand the meaning of Dharma in Buddhism.

Buddha Dharma

Buddha Dharma is the quintessential teachings toward enlightenment that the Buddha set in motion (the First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma) just after his enlightenment. Dharma, big D, is one of the Triple Jewels, or the Three Gems, or Three Refuges, which include Buddha—the teacher; Dharma—the teachings of the Buddha; and the Sangha—the community of disciples of the Buddha. Taking refuge in the Triple Jewel is the heart-felt commitment that a person makes as a Buddhist. According to Wikipedia:

The Triple Gem is in the center of one of the major practices of mental “reflection” in Buddhism; the reflection on the true qualities of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. These qualities are called the Mirror of the Dharma in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta and help the practitioner attain the true “mind like a mirror”.

Dharma, big D, is considered the Middle Path, Maccimapatipatha, the path of which a human being can follow, step by step, without moving to extremes of asceticism or annihilation, to become an enlightened, awakened being, a Buddha. In every teaching we are reminded that each of us has the Buddha nature within to cultivate, with a strong emphasis that . . .

Buddha Dharma puts great attention to the idea that the highest Law and Authority is you, and your education and understanding of yourself

I believe that the dharma as the first Purusartha, of the Vedas, is woven into the Buddha Dharma; as dharma, meaning nature, cosmic law and divine authority is the root foundation of an awakening being on planet earth, and is completely integrated within an enlightened person’s life path.

History of Buddhism

On Asahara Bucha Day, 543BC, Buddha gave his first sermon called Dharma Jakra Pawatana Sutra to his first 5 disciples; translated as the Sutra of which brought forth the beginning of “The Wheel of Dharma”.

In this first Sutta the Buddha spoke about two of the most important principles of the Buddhist tradition. The first principle was Machima Patipata—The Middle Path, to follow which lays out the way to alleviate suffering.

The second principle of the Sutta is called Ariasaj See—The Four Noble Truths, which present the 4 most authentic, basic steps out of suffering; along with The Eight Fold Path toward Nipana or Enlightenment. (Click for further detail)

It was on this day that Buddhism became a religion, as http://latzgardening.wordpress.com/ the first teachings in Buddhism marked the beginning of a New Age for the Dharma. Thus, the “dharma-little d” became The Dharma, big D. 

For practicing Buddhists “the Dharma”—or “Buddha-Dharma”, generally means the teachings of the Buddha and is commonly known and practiced throughout China, Japan, Korea and most of  Southeast Asia including Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Viet Nam, parts of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. . And today with the increasing number of Buddhists throughout the Western world The Dharma is becoming worldwide.


There are 84,000 Dharma teachings that go with the 84,000 physical, emotional and mental challenges that human beings face on their way to becoming enlightened beings. Dharma encompasses the original sayings of the Buddha as well as more sophisticated additions and expanded interpretations made by the various schools over the many years since the time of Buddha.  To many Buddhists, Dharma simply refers to:

“The ultimate reality (which) is the way that things really are.”

The Dharma is one of the Three Jewels, or Triple Jewels, or Triple Gem of Buddhism in which practitioners of Buddhism seek refuge, or upon which one relies for his or her lasting happiness. In Buddhism those who practice Dharma take refuge in The Three Jewels of Buddhism or The Triple Gem, or The Triple Jewel. These are The Buddha the great teacher who is enlightened; The Dharma the teachings, called the way, or Middle Path toward becoming a Buddha; and the Sangha those who have chosen the path of the Buddha as their way of life by taking refuge in The Triple Jewel: The Buddha, The Dharma and The Sangha.

The Buddha Dharma is the Middle Path, or called Machima Patipata the path we follow to awaken our Buddha nature. The Middle Path also happens to be the path that brings awareness to our physical and spiritual interface— the interface between our blood and Qi, our body and mind/emotion. The Middle Path brings Light from within, that ‘enlightens’ the journey of truth and that nurtures our vision and intuition to live in harmony with the earth, and all living beings.

For our purpose, I do not believe we need to commit to the Triple Jewel or any one religion or belief for that matter. What we need to commit to is ourselves and each other. (Back to home page)


Ways in Which Buddhism and the Hindu Teachings Differ

  • In Buddhism there is no cast system. There are no priests, such as Brahmins of a higher cast who perform rituals. In Buddhism anyone can become a monk or become a Buddha within this lifetime.
  • In the Vedic texts only the Brahmins can achieve moksha; although in Buddhism anyone can enter Nirvana, and attain total freedom from their Karma, no matter what their past is.
  • Theravada Buddhism is considered the purest form of Buddhism, there are no gods, as in the Hindu tradition. The Buddha is not a god. (In some former *Mahayana Buddhist practices, Hindu gods are used; and in the Vajrayana tradition and Pure Land Buddhism gods are used)
  • In the Vedas Karma is not changed by following the dharma of your caste. In Buddhism whatever a person’s Karma is/was they have the opportunity to change it, by following the Eightfold Path.
  • The idea in Hindu and Vedic tradition is extreme asceticism, where in Buddhism there is The “Middle Path” of Dharma for the lay person who basically rejects all extremes, especially extreme asceticism and excessive wealth. And in the Mahayana tradition there is the Bodhisattva—a studied master who has the choice of becoming a Buddha but instead continues incarnating in order to help all living beings become enlightened first. https://buddhism.stackexchange.com/questions/10095/what-is-the-theravada-buddhist-lay-lifestyle?newreg=86c2686d0fc144d0965301b327bc69c0
  • In Hindu teachings there is belief in God. In Buddhism there is no God, Buddha believed that human beings have volition over their existence; Buddha taught that the concept of god or God was in response to fear; and that if we try to understand our fears, while accepting our past karma we can take charge of the things we can change, as we replace fear with rational investigation, insight and wisdom. One’s Karma determines causes and effects. Thus an individual determines their own fate and Karma and has the volition to rewrite their life for the future.
  • In Buddhism the Dharma is more than nature, the laws of nature, the duties followed or not and the effects. In Buddhism the Dharma incorporates human beings and an individual’s path to follow Dharma to become an enlightened Buddha. It is human centered; where dharma from the Hindu tradition is broad just as nature or God are.

Ways in Which Buddhism and Hinduism or Vedic teachings are Similar

  • Both religions believe in reincarnation
  • Both religions believe that the ego-self is impermanent, as is everything of the physical world
  • Both religions believe there are many different origins to enlightenment
  • Both believe that our dukkha, suffering is caused by excessive attachments in the physical world, of which are never permanent—ego-self, things and people.
  • Both believe in an ultimate spiritual reality beyond the illusions of the impermanent physical world
  • Both practice meditation and other forms of Yoga
  • Both religions believe that eventually all living beings will achieve Enlightenment and liberation, even if it takes many incarnations. Although, as stated, in Hinduism, if not a Brahman, one may need to incarnate again and again, to raise his caste; where in Buddhism anyone can become enlightened in this lifetime.
  • Both religions use the eternal, universal sound of Aum as the highest state of silence.
  • It is very interesting that in the Mahayana Buddhist practice in China, Japan, Korea, Viet Nam, some areas of Malaysia and in other parts of the world, the original Theravada teachings of the Buddha are combined with Hindu practices, including prayers, gods (even the Buddha as god in all his many incarnations). Mahayana Buddhism also introduces the idea of (temporary) heavens and hells in Tibetan Buddhism and Pure Land Buddhism from China and Japan.