The mission of the Dharma Academy of North America (DANAM) is to identify strategies for, and undertake, the recovery, reclamation and reconstitution of Dharma traditions for the contemporary global era, with initial focus on Hindu Dharma and subsequently on other Dharma traditions. It seeks to define the unifying vision that underlies all Dharma traditions as well as to communicate the rich diversity of Dharma philosophy and theology, by providing bridges between, and networks among, the practicing Dharma scholars and the Diaspora Dharma communities in North America. It aims to devise methods for the study and resolution of the problems caused by the juxtaposition of religious and national identities within a given cultural context by using the category of Dharma, in contrast to that of ‘Religion’, as the lens through which to view faith and belief systems.


The word religion is often employed to refer to the four ‘religions’ of Indian origin: Hinduism, Buddhism Jainism and Sikhism, which consider themselves as dharma-s, or systems belonging to what might be called the network of Dharma traditions.

The use of the word religion, which arose in the context of Christianity and was subsequently secularized into global use, to denote the religions of Indian origin is, however, not unproblematic. Three features are closely associated with the concept and, therefore, the definition of religion in a Western context: (1) that it is ‘conclusive’, which is to say that it is the final religion; (2) that it is ‘exclusionary’, which is to say that those who do not belong to it are excluded from salvation; and (3) that it is ‘separative’, which is to say that one who belongs to it, separates oneself from allegiance to other religions.

The religions of Indian origin – the Dharma-s – do not share these features. They are non-conclusive, in the sense that they are not the only path to salvation; they are non-exclusionary, in the sense that their membership is a sufficient but not a necessary condition for salvation; and they are non-separative, in the sense that one need not necessarily negate one’s previous identity to join them, or to disown one’s culture, ancestry, or name.

It, therefore, makes more sense to refer to these ‘religions’ by the term ‘Dharma’ than by the term religion. At this point, the question might arise, what is the need to draw this distinction now.

Prior to the emergence of the academic study of religion in the 1860s, most of the communication taking place in religious studies, broadly speaking, followed an “insider-to-insider” pattern, namely, most Hindus wrote for an audience of other Hindus, Christians, for other Christians, and so on. However, as the West expanded imperially during the 17th and 18th centuries, Westerners began to write about the various religious traditions they encountered for the benefit of other Westerners, so that “outsider-to-outsider” also became a major mode of communication. With the establishment and spread of imperial educational systems in the colonized world, the colonized peoples themselves increasingly began to acquire knowledge about their own religious traditions through the works of the Western scholars about them, resulting in communication being acquired in an “outsider-to-insider” mode.

After the 1960s, with the end of the colonial era, the followers of the religious traditions in the formerly colonized nations began to react to the often unfavorable depiction of their religious traditions by outsiders, causing the emergence of an “insider-to-outsider” mode of communication. The growing sentiment in favor of using the proper term Dharma rather than “Hinduism” (or some other term or terms) to describe the ‘Hindu’ religious reality reflects this development.


The term “Religion’ is derived from the Greek word ‘religio’, meaning ‘to bind again’, that got interpreted as being bound again to sets of doctrines (or laws) and their respective founders, as opposed to God alone or the individual’s inner self. Thus, each religion requires that adherence to its doctrines and its founder is the only path to attain salvation, as mentioned earlier.

The term ‘Dharma’, like many other Sanskrit words, has no exact equivalent in English, so its exact translation is rather difficult. It has been variously translated as ‘religion’ (which strictly is incorrect, as described earlier in this section), ‘law,’ ‘duty,’ ‘religious rite,’ ‘code of conduct’, etc. It can mean one or more or all of the latter, depending upon the context. The reason seems to be that the word itself has been used in various senses throughout the ages, and its meaning, as well as scope, has been expanded.

However, it is universally accepted that the word ‘dharma’ is derived from the Sanskrit root ‘dhri’ (‘to uphold,’ ‘to support,’ ‘to sustain’). An often quoted verse Mahabhaarata states: (‘dhaaranaat dharmam ityahuh dharmo dhaarayate prajah,’) ‘They call it dharma, since it upholds; it is dharma that upholds the people (of the world).’ That which upholds, supports or sustains this universe, without which the universe would disintegrate, is dharma. (Ref. 1)

From the perspective of the Hindu tradition(s), Dharma is none other than the Supreme Being or Godhead (Brahman, Ishvara, or Paramaatma), or what the Upanishads describe as sat or tat, the very essence of one’s being. In addition, whatever conduct or way of life helps us to reveal this fundamental principle (that is, our inherent essence or nature) in us, can also be called dharma, though in a secondary sense. Hence, ‘religious’ rites, cere­monies and observances; fixed principles of conduct, privileges, duties and obligations of a person depending upon ones stage of life and status in society; and even rules of law, customs and manners of society – everyone of these (categories) can be included under the term Dharma.

It may be instructive to note two more ancient words, rta and satya (truth), that are closely connected with, if not forms of, dharma. The word rta, used profusely in the Vedas, especially Rgveda and Krishna Yajurveda, in its simplest form, seems to indicate ‘a straight or direct line’, and hence, ‘universal laws of nature, an impersonal order’. When extended to the ‘moral’ world, rta denotes a ‘straight conduct’ based on truth, which itself is also ‘dharma’. Used in the sense of an inner awareness of what is true, as expressed through words and actions based on the scriptural teachings and needs of duties on hand, rta becomes satya (Truth). Thus, the meanings of all the three words, rta, satya, and dharma, more or less coalesce.

The Sanskrit word for world is ‘jagat’, literally meaning that which is continuously changing, which embodies that change occurs in a periodic (cyclic or pulsating) or phase-changing manner without beginning (creation) and without end (destruction), then the question arises what is the foundation on which this jagat is being continuously sustained. According to Chandogya Upanishad 6.2.1-3, ‘in the beginning sat alone existed, the One without a Second. It (sat) reflected, “May I become many! May I be born!”’. The ‘many’ that emerged, needed a central integrating principle, or law; otherwise, chaos would result. This law or principle is ‘Dharma’, which emerged from Godhead itself, per Shukla Yajur Veda, Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.14, Godhead ‘specially created that dharma, in the form of the highest good — therefore, there is nothing higher than dharma—verily, that which is dharma is satya’. This dharma is the firm foundation upon which the entire universe stands (‘dharmo visvasya jagatah pratistha’ Mahanärayana Upanisad 79.7). Obviously here, dharma means righteous conduct based on truth (satya) and knowledge of the unity in spite of the diversity, and capable of bringing the highest good to the whole of cosmos (jagat). All other meanings, senses and derivations of Dharma in later literature are corollaries of this central idea.

The word dharma occurs in the Rgveda fifty-six times (e.g., 5.63.7, 5.72.2, 9.7.1, 9.25.2, 10.88.1, 10.170.2). But in almost all these places it has been used in the sense of duty or action which contributes to the sus­tenance of the world or cosmos (‘jagad-dhãraka­karma’). In the Upanishads, this sense becomes more explicit. Each member of the society has certain duties and obligations that must be discharged by performing the prescribed actions in order to sustain its structure. Similar­ly, in one’s path towards perfection one has to pass through several stages of spiritual development and each such stage devolves upon one certain duties or a code of conduct. This helps to sustain one’s inner development and simultaneously con­tributes to the well-being of the society also. The seeds of this – which is well known as ‘varna-ashrama-dharma’ in later literature­ — are to be found in the Purusasukta and in the earlier Upanishads also. (–Ref. 1: This and other excerpts above are adapted from “What is Dharma?” by Swami Harshananda, Ramakrishna Mission, Bangalore, India.)

From the perspective of Buddhist tradition, the use of the term Dharma is instructive in that, at a basic level, Dharma is taken to mean “the teachings of the Buddha.” But these teachings are seen as embodying Truth itself. Thus, the deeper understanding of Dharma (in Pali, Dhamma) is linked to the foundation of Reality. The Buddhist Abhidhamma literature, for example, does a thoroughgoing enumeration and classification of what it calls the ‘dhamma-s’ (in Sanskrit, dharma-s). These are the fundamental patterns–including certain groups of spiritual qualities–which comprise the underlying networks that generate the processes of psychological and physical phenomena. The word “dhamma” is used to convey both the ongoing process of the constant arising and passing of events of fleeting duration as well as the events themselves. The Abhidhamma breaks down forms and phenomena into component dhamma-s that form the fundamental patterns nesting within the Greater Network that is the very nature of Ultimate Reality (Dhamma).

The concept of pratitya samutpada, Conditioned Arising (also referred to as dependent origination, and co-dependent co-arising), is fundamental to the Buddhist understanding of the nature of Ultimate Reality (Dhamma). The Majjhima Nikaya (1.191) states: “Whoever sees Conditioned Arising, sees Dhamma, whoever sees Dhamma, sees Conditioned Arising.” The experience of Conditioned Arising engendered by meditative disciplines, is key to developing an appreciation for interdependence (or, as Buddhist teacher Thich Nat Han suggests, “interbeing”) of all component functions of physical reality. Thus the term Dharma-kaya (Dharma-body) of the tri-kaya doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism, has a two-fold meaning whereby it refers both to the ultimate “body” or form of Gautama Buddha (and, indeed, all Buddhas), as well as the self-existent form (svabhavika-kaya) of tathata (things-as-they-are, thus-ness, such-ness), of sunyata (emptiness) or the non-essential nature that is the true nature of all dhamma-s. As the Astasahasrika Prajna-paramitaSutra (307) proclaims, the such-ness of the Tathagata (Buddha) and the such-ness of the all dharma-s are not two separate things but an undivided reality.

IMPORTANCE OF DHARMA as the Paradigm for Harmony amidst Diversity

We believe, and the history of the past two millennia demonstrates, that Dharma, in contradistinction to Religion, provides an appropriate methodological and experiential lens by which to view and appreciate diversity. It is, therefore, worth examining whether the concept could be expanded beyond India to serve as a model for interfaith interactions, in general.