Dharma vs. Law

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Origins of the Modern Idea of Law

Modern society is based on “laws”. These laws exist in religions, social organizations, and sciences, and they are considered “universal”. For instance, the laws of a nation apply to all citizens of a nation. The laws of a religious institution or business apply to all the members of the institution or business. And the laws of science apply to all the places, times, and objects in the universe. Under these laws, there can be no distinction between rich and poor, educated and illiterate, powerful and weak, higher and lower, place and time in the universe, etc.

The idea of laws originated in the Babylonian system of trade and commerce where people would make promises to each other and those promises were legally enforeceable. It then spread into Judaism, and then into Christianity and Islam. Through Reformation and Renaissance, the idea of laws spread to all social institutions including the government. And through Enlightenment, the idea of laws spread to the study of the material world in science.

This article discusses how the idea of “laws” in religion, society, and science is false because it universalizes the nature of causality, despite differences of time and place, the persons involved, and the type of relationships between these persons which create the concept of duty. The correct understanding of causality (and its determination of human activity) instead depends on contextuality, and it is called dharma. When the idea of law is replaced by dharma then universality is replaced by contextuality. Then, the dharma of a person is also different based on the time, place, the person, and the differing relationships between the persons.

The Definition of Dharma

The first sūtra of Mīmāṃsā states its purpose—namely, that the text will discuss the nature of dharma. The second sūtra makes the bold claim that the nature of dharma is not rules, regulations, and laws. The third sūtra enjoins that the basis of dharma is parīṣṭiḥ or circumstances, situations, and contexts. In three short sūtras, the entire foundation of modern thinking is rejected, and at the very outset.

Sūtra 1.1.1

अथातो धर्मजिज्ञासा

athāto dharmajijñāsā

atha—now; atah—therefore; dharma—duty; jijñāsā—inquisitiveness.


Now, therefore, the inquisitiveness into duty.


Sūtra 1.1.2

चोदनालक्षणोऽर्थो धर्मः

codanālakṣaṇo’rtho dharmaḥ

codana—rules and regulations; alakṣaṇah—non-symptom; arthah—meaning or purpose; dharmaḥ—duty.


Rules and regulations are the non-symptom of dharma; dharma is meaning or purpose.


Sūtra 1.1.3

तस्य निमित्तपरीष्टिः

tasya nimittaparīṣṭiḥ

tasya—of that; nimitta—cause; parīṣṭiḥ—circumstance.


The cause of that meaning or purpose is the circumstance.

Understanding the Nature of Dharma

When dharma depends on contexts, situations, and circumstances, then there are no universal rules. But there are still general principles. For example, the general principle of human activity is that to survive one must cause the least amount of pain for others. This general principle has many applications. When food grains are available, then causing the least hurt to others means subsisting on grains. However, if grains are not available, and one’s life is in danger due to starvation, then one can also eat animals. The Vedānta Sūtra states that eating all kinds of food is permitted only when one’s life is in danger.

3.4.28 (453)

सर्वान्नानुमतिश्च प्राणात्यये तद्दर्शनात्

sarvānnānumatiśca prāṇātyaye taddarśanāt

sarva-anna-anumatiḥ—permission to take all sorts of food; prāṇātyaye—when life is jeopardized; tat-darśanāt—from that philosophy.


The permission to take all sorts of food (is granted) only when one’s life is jeopardized; that is the philosophical conclusion (of the scriptures).

Under universal laws, one would say that one can either eat meat or not. But under the guidance of dharma, one must generally not eat meat, although eating meat is permitted when one’s life is in danger due to the absence of other kinds of food. As result, there is no universal rule—whether or not to eat meat; there is however a general principle of not hurting other living entities for our subsistence.

Further Illustrations of Dharma

To illustrate this by further examples, the general principle is that theft is wrong and must be punished. However, theft becomes more wrong when a rich man steals out of greed, and it becomes less wrong when a poor man steals out of necessity. Generally, crimes done by a person of higher social status have to be punished more severely than if they were done by people of lower social status. However, the crimes become less punishable if the action is forced by circumstances, and more punishable if the crime is motivated by bad intentions. Therefore, deliberate cheating of a weaker person by a stronger person is a bigger crime than the cheating of a stronger person by a weaker person, or the cheating between two people of the same status, or well-intentioned activity whose unintended effect was cheating.

Conversely, the good deeds of a person are also rewarded contextually. The general principle is that charity is a good deed. However, the contextual adaptation of this principle is that charity by a rich man to a poor man is a good deed, but not as great as when a poor man performs a charity toward another poor man. Similarly, the charity by a rich man toward another rich man is not such a great deed.

Likewise, the general principle of work is that there must be some reward or profit in return. As a result, poor people cannot become lazy and live off the dole-outs of the rich without violating dharma; everyone has to work to get something in return. However, the rich who profit disproportionately from the work of the poor are in greater violation of dharma than those poor and lazy people living on dole-outs. The capitalist opposed to dole-outs is not entirely wrong, as the general principle is that each person must work for something in return. However, the capitalist stealing from hard-working honest people struggling with bad circumstances is significantly more wrong than a poor person being lazy.

Cause and Effect

The complex nuances of dharma can be simplified by looking at the underlying causes of actions. All actions have three causes—ability, opportunity, and desire. If the ability to perform a duty doesn’t exist, then not performing the duty is not a violation of dharma. If there is no opportunity to perform one’s duty, then we cannot call that violation of dharma. However, a person with good intentions will try to struggle against missing abilities and opportunities, and try to accomplish something rather than nothing. If instead that desire for performing a duty is also missing, then there can be violations of dharma. We can declutter all the complexities of dharma by looking at what lies behind the visible actions.

Even though duty is enjoined, the person incapable of performing the duty due to physical or mental incapacities is not as much in violation of dharma as those who are perfectly capable. A physically incapacitated person who cannot work has to live on dole-outs. Even though the general principle is providing fair work in return for fair compensation, when a person is incapacitated or incapable of doing any work, then surviving on dole-outs is not contrary to dharma, because a person’s abilities must be considered.

Then, the opportunities available to perform a duty are also important. If a duty is prescribed, but there is no opportunity to perform that duty, or one person’s opportunities for working are being hindered or destroyed by the influence of other people, then the person failing to do his duty is not violating dharma. For example, if machines and industrialization destroy the capacity for capable people to work—because all the work is taken away by machines—then the person who is not working (although living on dole-outs) is not acting contrary to dharma. They can work, but they don’t have an opportunity to work.

Finally, the intentions of duty performance are also important. A malicious person will try to exploit his abilities and opportunities, and willingly violate the principles of dharma. A well-intentioned person will try to use the same abilities and opportunities to fulfill the expectations of dharma. With bad intentions, the outcomes are generally always bad (unless bad intentions are hindered by inabilities and the absence of opportunities). With good intentions, the outcomes are generally good despite the absence of abilities and opportunities. The bad outcomes resulting from bad intentions and lack of ability and opportunity are more adharma than the bad outcomes resulting from good intentions and lack of ability and opportunity.

Thus, dharma is extremely complex; it depends on a person’s abilities (incapable people are not violating dharma); it depends on a person’s opportunities (those lacking opportunities are not violating dharma); and it depends on the intentions, desires, or other emotional states of the actors involved. Once the extent of dharma and adharma is understood, then their consequences (reward or punishment) can also be understood. Greater dharma means greater reward, and the reverse means more punishment.

The Significance of Contextuality

The incorporation of ability, opportunity, and intention means that we cannot decipher the consequences of actions simply based on observable facts; we have to look behind these facts. Since the same facts can be explained by different causes, therefore, the laws based on observable facts can never be complete or accurate. This doesn’t mean the absence of laws; it just means that the laws are based on the causes rather than merely effects. And these causes include the abilities, opportunities, and desires of a person. The abilities and opportunities themselves can change based on time, place, and situations. As a result, the injunctions of dharma change based on time, place, situation, person, and their relationships.

Even as the observable facts seem to be physically measurable, the causes of these observations are not physical; they are different kinds of meanings. Therefore, the determination of dharma depends on these meanings. We can illustrate this by the example of money and its meaning, which is called “value”.

The value of $100 is low for a rich man, but the value of $100 is high for a poor man. Therefore, when a rich man gives $100 to a poor man, he is losing little value and the receiver is gaining more value. When the same $100 is given by a rich man to another rich man, then both the value given and received are low. Conversely, when a poor man gives $100 to another poor man, then a greater value is lost and gained. Based on the situation, we can determine the merit of the deed, and the conclusion will be that the order of greatness of the deed is: (a) the poor man giving to another poor man is greatest, (b) the rich man giving to the poor man is greater, and (c) the rich man giving to the rich man is ordinary.

In simple words, taking a great loss to provide a great gain is the greatest. Taking a small loss to provide a great gain is greater. And taking a small loss to provide a small gain is ordinary. The sacrifices we make to create value for others are greatest when (a) we take the greatest losses, and (b) the receiver gets a great gain. Even when the gain is great, but the giver’s loss is small, the activity is good, but not the greatest. Finally, when the giver is not losing much and the receiver is not gaining much, the act is ordinary.

Value Computation is Complex

Values constitute an incredibly complex hierarchical system. Maslow’s hierarchical system speaks about a bottom-up system of needs in which food, security, and survival are the initial values. When those are satisfied, then love and emotional needs arise. When these are fulfilled then the need for esteem arises. Finally, one seeks self-actualization. But this hierarchical system misses a deep point about values that sometimes self-actualization needs can be so high that basic needs of food, security, survival, love, and esteem can be discarded; many people want to sacrifice their safety for perfect self-actualization.

This cannot be understood in Maslow’s hierarchical needs because self-actualization appears after security and safety are fulfilled, and this self-actualization never violates the basic needs. The fact is that self-actualization can violate basic needs. The hierarchy of needs is correctly known only if we think of the hierarchy as top-down. That is, self-actualization is the highest need, which then leads to the lower needs for self-esteem, love, safety, security, survival, etc. Thereby, giving someone self-realization is the fulfillment of a higher value and thereby this type of charity is the highest. Conversely, giving people food, security, love, etc. are also valuable, but considerably lower in value than that of self-actualization.

However, it may also be true that the receiver doesn’t value self-realization as much as food and safety. By their estimation, therefore, food and security are higher values than self-realization. Thus, a contradiction between values is created because self-realization is objectively greater than safety and food, but each person can subjectively value food and safety over self-realization. Now, the mundane calculation of value generation would say that giving a person food and safety is more dharma because they value these things over self-actualization. However, the transcendent calculation of value generation would say that giving a person self-realization is more dharma, even if people don’t value it as much.

This leads to a schism in the understanding of dharma because there are factually two systems of dharma, which are called temporary and eternal dharma. The former is just called “dharma” while the latter is called “sanātana dharma”. By the calculation of dharma, giving food and security to people is better and by the calculation of sanātana dharma, giving them self-realization is better.

These two types of dharma can also be called “material” and “spiritual”. The goodness of material dharma leads to materially good consequences for us—e.g., that by giving others food, we also become prosperous in future lives. But the goodness of spiritual dharma takes us out of the cycle of birth and death—i.e., by giving others self-realization, we can become better devotees and be liberated.

The two types of dharma are based on value computation, but the material dharma is based on what the receiver values, while the spiritual dharma is based on what is objectively more valuable. Thus, giving food to someone hungry is good material dharma because the hungry man values food greatly. However, once the hungry man is fed, he might go about committing many crimes. What seems very valuable in the short run can turn out to be not valuable in the longer run. The performance of spiritual dharma involves no such risks; nothing bad can come out of the performance of spiritual dharma, although from a material perspective it can seem that something good (e.g., food and security) is not happening presently.

The Trappings of False Laws

When we think of the world in terms of laws, then many adverse outcomes are produced. We start looking at superficial facts, rather than their deeper causes. For instance, we can simply observe that one man gave $100 to another man, but if we don’t see the underlying causes of ability, opportunity, and desire, then we cannot know if that act was great, good, ordinary, or a crime (for instance, the giving of money by one person to another could also have been a bribe). Similarly, when the money is not given, then we cannot know if the act was great, good, ordinary, or a crime. By simply observing superficial facts, we lose the judgments of right and wrong, good and bad, and just rely on fact observation.

When the judgments of right and wrong, good and bad are destroyed, then people slowly start doing immoral things. This immorality then leads to adverse consequences and suffering, but nobody is able to trace this suffering back to the original adharma. Thus, the cycle of suffering becomes endless.

Finally, due to the absence of the understanding of material dharma, and its replacement by laws, we can never progress into sanātana dharma, which has the inverted top-down system of values, instead of the normal bottom-up system of values. Without understanding this top-down system of values, we cannot sacrifice ordinary pleasures and can never become disentangled from the cycle of suffering. The transformation of natural order from dharma to laws makes everyone incapable of understanding the deeper causality, removes their judiciousness about good and right, produces an incessant cycle of suffering, and takes away the capacity to endure sacrifices and difficulties to get liberation.

Replacing Laws by Dharma

In all Eastern philosophy, the natural system of governance is called dharma; thus, for instance, even Buddhism and Jainism recognize the contextualized principles of dharma apart from Hinduism. All Western thinking is conversely based on laws; there are laws of religion, laws of society, and laws of science. When a society replaces dharma with laws, then it becomes ensnared by adharma. As it violates the true natural system of governance, it is trapped in endless suffering, ignorance about the higher purpose of life, and incapable of thinking about transcendence from the world and liberation.

Therefore, whether we want to be materially happy or spiritually enlightened, we have to give up the idea that nature is governed by universal laws; we have to instead embrace the idea of contextual dharma. That in turn requires us to look into the underlying causes of ability, opportunity, and desire that combined to produce the superficially observable facts. For example, we cannot simply look at the quantitative measurement of money; we have to look at the value of that money for different kinds of people. This system of values is not restricted to money; it extends into a hierarchy of values in which money can provide us food and security, but it cannot fulfill the deeper and higher needs of life. When money becomes the sole arbiter of life, then all the deeper and higher values of life are progressively neglected. Then, even if everyone has a lot of money, they always remain unfulfilled and unhappy.

The understanding of dharma prevents such an outcome because it brings into focus the true system of values in which even a person who may not have enough money can be perfectly happy. This is not to say that one must immediately reject the worldly dharma of earning money, putting food on the table, and making life secure. But it is only to say that these are not the most important values of life. Objectively great value lies in self-realization. However, when the value system is bottoms-up (safety first and self-realization last), then focus must be incrementally shifted from bottom to top. When that focus reaches the top, then the value system becomes top-down (self-realization first and safety last).

Theory and Practice of Dharma

Thus, there is a scientific theory underlying dharma, and there are its practical applications. The theory discusses the observable effects and their underlying causes; by knowing the causes of effects, we can understand the consequences apart from the effects. This profound understanding of true causality—i.e., cause, effect, and consequence—leads to the rejection of universal laws and reinstatement of contextual dharma. The practical application of this contextualized dharma is that even as there is an objective top-down system of values, each person can have a different subjective system of values, which can be bottom-up, and the goal of life is to transform this bottom-up value system to top-down.

Knowing the theory is important because otherwise, we can never produce the bottom-up to top-down transformation. But theory alone will not produce a change in our life; we have to find a way to incrementally transform the bottom-up value system to a top-down value system. This latter practical system of transformation is called yoga. There are many ways in which we can change the value system, and all those systems are good as long as they are progressively taking us toward higher values.

Since the theory underlying dharma progressively takes one to transcendence, therefore, there is no contradiction between “natural science”, “social organization”, and “religion”. There is no need to separate the principles of organizing a state from those of religion, and there is no need to separate the practice of religion from the objective study of nature in science. Contradictions between religion, science, and society are created when dharma is replaced by laws, contextuality is replaced by universality, the true underlying causes of observable phenomena are replaced by artificially concocted physical properties, followed by the envisioning of mathematical laws based on physical properties rather than the personal and objective system of values. Since all these things are in principle reversible, hence, dharma is also scientific, but it rests on different principles than the “science” based on laws, materialism, and restricting oneself to sense perception alone.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "Dharma vs. Law," in Shabda Journal, October 7, 2021, https://journal.shabda.co/2021/10/07/dharma-vs-law/.