Within Indian logic
In Indian logic in general, "dharma" also means "property", used together with "dharmin", "property-bearer". In a Sanskrit sentence like "zabdo 'nityaH" (Sanskrit transliterated according to the Kyoto-Harvard convention), "sound is impermanent", "sound" is the bearer of the property "impermanence". Likewise, in the sentence "iha ghataH", "here, there is a pot", "here" is the bearer of the property "pot-existence" - this just goes to show that the categories property and property-bearer are closer to those of a logical predicate and its subject-term, and not to a grammatical predicate and subject.
Origin and development in Hinduism
A common manner of describing Hinduism among its adherents is as a way of life, as "Dharma." It defies dogma and thus seeks to instead align the human body, mind, and soul in harmony with nature.
Our very limitation is guided under a universal understanding, that of Dharma. The Atharva Veda, the last of the four books of the Vedas, utilizes symbolism to describe dharma's role. That we are bound by the laws of time, space and causation is only a finite reality, a limitation imposed by the self-projection of the infinite Brahman as the cosmos. Dharma is the foundation of this causal existence, the one step below the infinite. Indeed, dharma is the projection of divine order from Brahman, and as such:
- "Prithivim Dharmana Dhritam"
- "This world is upheld by Dharma"
- -- (Atharva Veda)
Proto-Dharma: Rta in the Vedas
To assess a concept whose explication is bewildering in range, it is useful to trace its nascence and subsequent development in Vedic culture. In the Vedas, which span back to 2000 BCE (and further in oral tradition), the first concept that is strikingly dharmic is that of rta.
Rta literally means the "course of things." At first, the early Hindus were notably confused as to the inscrutable order of nature, how the heavenly bodies, the rushing winds and flowing waters, the consistent cycling of the seasons, were regulated. Thenceforth sprang rta, whose all-purpose role it was to signify this order, the path that was always followed. Through all the metamorphoses and permutations of nature, of life in general, there was one unchangeable fact: rta.
Soon it transcended its passive role as a mere signifier and took on a greater one, that of an active imposition of order. Not only the natural principles, but the gods and goddesses themselves, were obliged to abide by rta. Rta became the father, the law of justice and righteousness, unyielding but eminently fair. It grew, as Radhakrishnan states, from "physical" to "divine" in its purvey.
The world's seeming mess of altercating fortune, the caprice of the divinities, was now intelligible. Indeed, there was a single, unchanging harmony working 'behind the scenes.' A right path existed, ready to be taken by the righteous ones. Rta signifies the way life ought to be, shifting from physical to divine, from natural to moral order. Rta was morality, the equitable law of the universe. The conception of this all-transcending, supramental force that is, practically, the same concept as later understandings of dharma, is captured in this early Vedic prayer, preempting the liturgical strains of classical Hindu mantras involving dharma:
Thus we see the logical progression of an early 'course of things' into an all-encompassing moral order, a path and way of righteousness, an all-encompassing harmony of the universe, in the
- "O Indra, lead us on the path of Rta, on the right path over all evils."
- --(Rig Veda Book X, Chapter CXXXIII, Verse 6)