Friday, September 21, 2018

In support of Satyapal Singh’s Private Bill against anti-Hindu discriminations

On 22 September 2018, an ad hoc group of Hindu citizens led (to my knowledge) by Rahul Dewan, Bala Ramya Rohini and Pushkar Agnihotri, will work out a charter of Hindu demands and present it to the Narendra Modi government, the public and the media. The text will be finalized during the conference, but in essence, it is a move in support of a Private Bill introduced in the Lok Sabha by Dr. Satyapal Singh prior to his becoming a Minister. It is Private Member’s Bill No. 226 of 2016 to amend Articles 26 to 30 of the Constitution, of which a copy can be found at, or below. The central request from the Government is to get it passed by the current Parliament itself at the earliest. The organizers emphasize that “this does not take any rights away from any groups, but ensures that all sections including Hindus are treated equally under the law”.

This initiative for a public statement in support of Satyapal Singh's Private ill for amendments annulling the anti-Hindu discriminations is correct and potentially historic. If the media pick it up, the government will not be able to ignore and stonewall it (which it otherwise probably would do). I had been advocating a policy in this sense since my book On Modi Time in 2015, but like so much free and unsolicited advice by pen-pushers, this had been to no effect at all. I had been wondering why, during this historic window of opportunity which may never come back, so few Indians take this issue up. Now I am relieved to note that news of Hindu society's death was premature after all. Congrats to those who took the initiative.

The Private Bill and the present initiative will surprise a part of the Indian public and the vast majority of the foreign India-watchers, as they don’t know (or the knaves among them feign not to know) that there exists any anti-Hindu discrimination at all. They are even less prepared for the fact of BJP secularism, an ideological development (described by me since a decade or so) that pin-pricks their whipped-up depiction of the BJP as a fanatically Hindu party.

For the record, I am publishing another piece of free and unsolicited advice, viz. the one I wrote on the Indic Academy forum: about how to formulate this demand towards the public.

’It is vital to publicize this as a demand for equality and secularism, rather than to focus on its importance for Hinduism. On Hindu forums like this one, you can of course discuss the beneficial implications for Hindu civilization, such as conferring the freedom to impart your own inheritance to the young generation and abolishing the main reason why Hindu communities seek to leave the sinking ship of the legal category "Hindu". Towards non-Hindus, in contrast, it will be necessary to emphasize not the way the amendments will serve Hindu interests, but why they are a necessary application of secularism and legal equality.

‘The non-Hindus are not concerned with any Hindu benefits. As far as Christians and Muslims are concerned, the only good Hindu is a converted ex-Hindu. For all the predators feasting upon the dying body of Hindu society, there is nothing valuable in trying to revive it. But in the Indian context, they are more or less forced to pay lip-service to the principle of secularity. Now, it is not hard to remind them that "secular" implies "equal before the law regardless of religion". Going by that principle, it becomes obvious that they should support (rather than oppose) the abolition of religious discriminations.

‘Since decades I hear Hindutvavadis pontificate how all Hindu problems will be solved by declaring India a Hindu Rashtra. Really? Instead, it is purely a waste of energy on an impotent symbol that had better been expended on substantial Hindu gains. The Hindu Rashtra demand can only make you enemies, or strengthen their enmity and confirm their anti-Hindu prejudices ("Hindu Taliban"). Chandragupta, Vikramaditya, Raja Bhoja and all the other Hindu kings didn't waste anything at all on declaring a "Hindu Rashtra". (Though admittedly, the Maratha "Hindu Pad Padshahi" or “Haindava Swarajya” comes close.) This is an example of how contemporary Hindus will to better to follow Chanakya rather than Golwalkar, and to go for Hindu Dharma rather than Hindutva. And in this case, for law reform rather than for hollow rhetoric.

‘As for the BJP leadership, unconcerned with Hindu interests nor with degrees of secularity but certainly understanding the language of electoral calculus, to them it must be emphasized that a principled stand is a vote-getter. You see it all the time: parties shouting lofty principles from the rooftops during election campaigns, only to relapse in humdrum everyday dealings once in office. To be sure, instituting these purely secular amendments won't endear you to the contractors of the Christian or Muslim vote-banks, who will not give the BJP their votes; but then, everybody except the occasional BJP buffoon knows that they have not done so in the past election either, no matter how secular the promise of Development. (Well, there may have been one or two, but if they could value development over their own religion, they can likewise see the fairness of equality before the law.)  Only the Hindus will ever vote for the BJP, and it is they who will turn out in vast numbers to cast their vote for the party that has freed Hindu Dharma from the legal discriminations that presently hold it back.

‘On this list, we have heard some voices pleading that the vast majority is too busy with their daily needs and duties to concern itself with this issue. It seems that there are always Hindus (BJP men and others) ready to thwart any initiative that threatens to serve Hindu interests. And indeed, Hindus are selfish and think of their own families' interests before those of their society. As a polite outsider, I would never dare to say this, but then I am only quoting what numerous Hindus have confided to me. Moreover, to whisper to you a little secret, Westerners are not much more public-spirited either. Anyway, it is true that the multitudes are not going to move a finger for this consequential matter of principle. Nor, for good measure, will they move a finger to get a toilet for their neighbour built, or any other item on the public development agenda.

‘But for those things, you have the elected political and the self-appointed intellectual leadership class. It is this class that expends effort and time to devise and execute development policies, or to work out matters of principle. What the overly busy multitudes are expected to do, is only to cast their votes, which is a very brief effort and in which voting for the one party takes no more breath than voting for the other. In representative democracies, people are quite accustomed to leave policy-making to a selected leadership class. Even in Switzerland with its referendum democracy, common people do a bit more deliberating on policy matters, but apart from casting their votes a few times per year, they too leave the nitty-gritty of politics to the professionals. So, the priorities on the multitudes' busy agenda do not come in the way of this Delhi conference on policy-making regarding the anti-Hindu and un-secular parts of India's legislation.’

Appendix 1: full text of Satyapal Singh’s Private Bill




BILL No. 226 of  2016

Short title.

Amendment of article 15.

Amendment of article 26.


further to amend the Constitution of India.

BE it enacted by Parliament in the Sixty-seventh Year of Republic of India as follows:—

1.  This Act may be called the Constitution (Amendment) Act, 2016.

2. In article 15 of the Constitution, clause (5) shall be omitted.

3. The existing article 26 of the Constitution shall be renumbered as clause (1) thereof and after clause (1) as so renumbered, the following clauses shall be inserted, namely:—

"(2) Notwithstanding anything contained in article 25, the State shall not control, administer or manage, whatsoever, any institution, including its properties, established or maintained for religious or charitable purposes by a religious denomination or any section thereof.

(3) All laws in force in the territory of India in so far as they are inconsistent with the provisions of this article shall, to the extent of such inconsistency, be void.

(4) The State shall not make any law which enables it to control, administer or manage, whatsoever, any institution, including its properties, established or maintained for religious or charitable purposes by a religious denomination or any section thereof, and, any law made in contravention of this clause shall, to the extent of such contravention, be void.

(5) In this article the expressions "law" and "laws in force" have same meaning as respectively assigned to them in clause (3) of article 13.".

4. The existing article 27 of the Constitution shall be renumbered as clause (1) thereof and after clause (1) as so renumbered, the following clause shall be inserted, namely:—

"(2) No moneys out of the Consolidated Fund of India, the Consolidated Fund of a State, the Contingency Fund of India or the Contingency Fund of a State or out of the fund of any public body shall be appropriated for advancement or promotion of a section of citizens solely or primarily on the basis of their religious affiliation or belonging to one or more religious or linguistic denomination.".

5. In article 28 of the Constitution, after clause (3), the following clause shall be inserted, namely:—

"(4) Nothing in this Constitution shall be deemed to forbid the teaching of traditional Indian knowledge or ancient texts of India in any educational institution, wholly or partly maintained out of State Funds.".

 6. In article 29 of the Constitution, in the marginal heading, for the words "interests of minorities", the words "cultural and educational rights" shall be substituted.

7. In article 30 of the Constitution—

(a) in the marginal heading for the word "minorities", the words "all sections of citizens, whether based on religion or language", shall be substituted;

(b) in clause (1), for the word "minorities", the words " sections of citizens" shall be substituted;

(c) in clause (1A) for the words "a minority", the words "a section of citizens" shall be substituted; and

(d) in clause (2), for the words "a minority", the words "a section of citizens" shall be substituted.

Amendment of article 27.

Amendment of article 28.

Amendment of article 29.

Amendment of article 30.









As per our Constitution, the State has no religion. The State has to treat all religions and religious people equally and with equal respect without, in any manner, interfering with their right to freedom of religion, faith and worship. As evident from the sub-text of the debates of the Constituent Assembly, the rights assumed for the majority were only made explicit to the minorities as an assurance to the latter in the backdrop of the peculiar circumstances then prevailing in the aftermath of partition. In any case, it was never the intention of the makers of our Constitution to deny to the majority the rights expressly provided to the minority. Yet, it gradually led to interpretations that only the minorities were given rights withheld from the majority generating an unhealthy feeling of discrimination among the majority community. It goes without saying that nursing any real or perceived grievance against the State by any section of citizens, majority or minority, is detrimental to the unity and integrity of the country.

Article 26 bestows rights on all religious denominations, irrespective of majority or minority, to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes, to manage their own affairs, and to own, acquire and administer property thereof. In a catena of judgements, the Supreme Court iterated the same. In Ratilal Panachand Gandhi  v. State of Bombay, it was held "in regard to affairs in matters of religion, the right of management given to a religious body is a guaranteed fundamental right which no legislation can take away. On the other hand, as regards administration of property which a religious denomination is entitled to own and acquire, it has undoubtedly the right to administer such property but only in accordance with law. This means that the State can regulate the administration of trust properties by means of laws validly enacted; but here again it should be remembered that under article 26(d), it is the religious denomination itself which has been given the right to administer its property in accordance with any law which the, State may validly impose. A law, which takes away the right of administration altogether from the religious denomination and vests it in any other or secular authority, would amount to violation of the right which is guaranteed by article 26(d) of the Constitution". The apex Court in Pannalal Bansilal Pitti v. State of Andhra Pradesh opined "While articles 25 and 26 granted religious freedom to minority religions like Islam, Christianity and Judaism, they do not intend to deny the same guarantee to Hindus. Therefore, protection under articles 25 and 26 is available to the people professing Hindu religion, subject to the law therein. The right to establish a religious and charitable institution is a part of religious belief or faith and, though law made under clause (2) of article 25 may impose restrictions on the exercise of that right, the right to administer and maintain such institution cannot altogether be taken away and vested in other party; more particularly, in the officers of a secular Government".

There has been widespread legitimate grievance and feeling of discrimination among Hindus that despite the Constitutional provisions and judicial decisions, Hindu temples and religious and charitable institutions are routinely taken over by  the secular State on the pretext of maladministration, mismangement, etc., whereas mosques and churches of the minorities are allowed to be exclusively managed by the respective communities even though article 26 confers right equally upon all sections of citizens. Hindus also genuinely feel that such State control results in despoiling the Hindu religious centres, large scale misappropriation of the temples' income and properties and its redirection to secular purposes by the State, which is a major factor in the grinding poverty afflicting most Hindu temples, priests and their families. In order to maintain the secular character of the State and prevent it from usurping the religious and charitable institutions of any religious denomination or a section thereof, it is felt necessary to amend article 26 of the Constitution.

Article 27 provides that no person shall be compelled to pay any taxes, the proceeds of which are specifically appropriated in payment of expenses for the promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religious denomination. Hon'ble Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi as the then Chief Minister of Gujarat had in his speech to the National Developmental Council on 19th December 2007 took the stand that discrimination amongst the eligible beneficiaries based on religion will not help the cause of taking the people of India together on the path of development, and the correct criteria for flow of funds for various schemes and programmes should be based on principles of equity by taking only socio-economic criteria alone. In the interest of maintaining true secular character of the State, there is imperative need for amendment of article 27 forbidding expenditure from the Consolidated or Contingency Fund of Union or any State or from the funds of any public body for any purpose premised solely or primarily on the religious affiliation or language. Language as a primary or sole consideration should also be excluded as certain languages have exclusive association with certain religions which may be used as subterfuge to circumvent the proposed embargo.

Article 28 rightly keeps religious instructions out of public educational system in the country. However, it was never the intention of the framers of the Constitution to keep the study and learning of traditional knowledge systems and civilizational heritage including study of such great texts like the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, etc. from out of public education system, yet, these have been completely kept out of education system leading to deracination of Indians from their cultural and civilizational moorings which does not augur well for the future of the country. There is thus a case for amendment of article 28 to provide for teaching of our traditional knowledge and ancient texts.

Article 29 confers cultural and educational rights to all sections of citizens, majority or minority, having distinct language, script or culture of their own. However, the word 'minorities' in the marginal heading of article 29 is incongruent with the body of its contents as also with the group heading 'cultural and educational rights'. Such incongruence has the potential for misunderstanding as if these rights are conferred only on minorities. It is, therefore, felt necessary to amend article 29 to remove any doubts.

Our Constitution mandates that the State shall not discriminate on grounds only of religion, race, caste, language or any of them. Article 30, as it stands, confers educational rights on religious and linguistic minorities without saying anything about the majority. If it had not assumed the same rights for the majority, it would not had been passed by the Constituent Assembly. An eleven-Judge Bench of the Supreme Court in T.M.A. Pai Foundation v. State of Karnataka expressed an expansive opinion when it said, "The right to establish and maintain educational institutions may also be sourced to article 26(a), which grants, in positive terms, the right to every religious denomination or any section thereof to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes, subject to public order, morality and health". Further, the aspirations for conserving and communicating religious and cultural traditions  and language to succeeding generations is legitimate and applies to all groups, big or small. It is, therefore, felt that the scope of article 30 of the Constitution should be widened to include all communities and sections of citizens who form a distinct religious or linguistic group. Consequent to such proposed amendment, clause (5) of article 15, inserted by the Constitution (Ninety-third) Amendment Act, 2005, loses its relevance and accordingly it is proposed to omit clause (5) of article 15 of the Constitution.

Hence this Bill.


July 6, 2016.

Appendix 2: Syed Shahabuddin’s Private Bill

(A Private Bill with similar implications had been proposed before by a Muslim MP deemed a religious fundamentalist, the late Syed Shahabuddin.)

Bill No. 36 of 1995 LOK SABHA A Bill further to amend the Constitution of India. Be it enacted by Parliament in the forty-sixth year of Republic of India as follows: 1. This Act may be called the Constitution (Amendment) Act, 1995.  2. For article 30 of the Constitution, the following article shall be substituted, namely:—  “30. (1) Any section of the citizens residing in the territory of India or any part thereof professing a distinct religion or having a distinct language, script or culture of its own or forming a distinct social group shall have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of its choice.  (2) In making any law providing for the compulsory acquisition of any property of an educational institution established and administered by a section of citizens, referred to in clause (I), the State shall ensure that the amount fixed by or determined under such law for the acquisition of such property is such as would not restrict or abrogate the right guaranteed under that clause.  (3) The State shall not, in granting aid to educational institutions, discriminate against any educational institution on the ground that it is under the management of a particular section of citizens referred to in clause (1).”. 

STATEMENT OF OBJECTS AND REASONS  Article 30 of the Constitution, as it stands, applies to religious and linguistic minorities. By judicial interpretation, the term ‘minority’ has been extended to include identifiable social groups which form a minority in the population of a State even if they form a majority in the Union as a whole. Similarly, the meaning of the term ‘minority’ has been broadened to include denominations and sects which are generally considered to be part of a larger religious group. In a vast and complex plural society, almost every identifiable group, whether identifiable by religion, including denomination or sect, or by language, including dialects, forms a minority at some operational or functional level, even if it forms a majority at some other levels. In the age of ethnicity that has dawned in the world, all identifiable groups are equally anxious to maintain their identity and they too wish to have the privilege of the right to establish educational institutions of their choice. Indeed, many caste groups have established educational institutions primarily for their own community and, in practice, enjoy the same privileges in matters of administration and management as were originally envisaged for religious and linguistic minorities.  The aspiration for conserving and communicating religious and cultural traditions and language to succeeding generations is legitimate and applies to all groups, big or small. It is, therefore, felt that the scope of article 30 of the Constitution should be widened to include all communities and all sections of citizens who form a distinct social group at any level. Of late, article 30 has been criticised as bestowing a privilege on the minority communities which the majority community does not enjov. The majority community or any section thereof should also be allowed to establish and administer educational institutions of its choice, if it so desires.  Hence this Bill. 



April 20, 1995.

Read more!

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Is the term Dharma untranslatable?

(in Saradindu Mukherji, ed.: Prabodhan 2, Delhi 2018) 


Does the central Sanskrit term dharma have an exact equivalent in English or other languages? Rajiv Malhotra recommends to use the word dharma in English untranslated. At first sight, we must admit that no English word does justice to the range of meanings of dharma. But the dharma translators should not go down without a fight: we are at least going to give it a try.

The question presupposes another one: what does dharma mean? Once we agree on an answer, we are free to spot equivalents in other languages, if we can find them. Whether we will be able to do so, we can only say at the end.

The Vedic concept ṛta

Before focusing on the Hindu concept of dharma, it is common to study the Ṛg-Vedic concept of ṛta, “the going”, “pattern of motion”, “sequence”, “cosmic order”, “natural law”. It is represented by the night sky and thus the sequence and orderly motion of the stars; as well as by the orderly sequence of the seasons (ṛtu). Its natural visual glyph is the svastika, embodiment of the archetypal cycle with distinct phases. Its antonym is anṛta, “disorder”. 

The parts together form a whole, the seasons form the year or the “seasons’ cycle” (ṛtucakra); but each of them is different. A cycle of different phases connected with the seasonal cycle and the nightly cycles, that is what we know as a zodiac. We are not specifying here which division our zodiac uses, into how many phases per revolution: 2 (northern & southern half, dark & light, elsewhere yin & yang), 4, 6, 12 (later called rāśicakra), 24, 27 or 28 (Vedic nakṣatracakra), 360. Nor by which name or symbol, if any, these parts of the whole are characterized; we merely mean any cycle within which distinct phases are discernible.

In some contexts, ṛta is treated as more or less synonymous with satya, with both translated as “truth”. Its antonym anṛta is therefore also translated as “untruth”. Classic example is the maxim from the Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad, now India’s national motto: Satyam eva jayate na anṛta, “Truth truly prevails, not untruth.” While “order” and “truth” may be related concepts, they are nonetheless distinct. In what context are they brought so closely together that they can be summed up in a single word, ṛta?

Imagine that an adolescent son is announcing to his father that he plans to do one of the foolish things that young lads happen to do. His father warns him that this will lead to sorry consequences. The son, headstrong, proceeds anyway, and feels very brave and independent. But all too soon, unfortunate things happen as a consequence, and he comes to regret his initiative. He returns home to his father, who (perhaps, like in the Gospel, forgives the Prodigal Son, but nonetheless first) says: “I told you so!” Being a father myself, and having been a headstrong son myself, I know from experience that fathers do say this. This does not come from some shady oracular knowledge of the future but from life experience, i.e. from having lived through (or having seen) sequences of events in reality where one type of action typically leads to a corresponding type of reaction.

Some actions invariably lead to the same consequences. When you see clouds gathering, you can predict that it is going to rain. Then, once it does start raining, you can say: “I told you so.” Prediction is based on the knowledge of sequences, at some point further explained as “cause and effect”, which later becomes a central theme in Indian philosophy. “Orderly sequence”, “sequence following an established law”, is thus intimately connected with “true prediction”, and hence with “speaking truth”.

There is also a more direct link between “cosmic cycle” or “cosmos”, and “truth”. Anyone with a bit of experience of reality knows that certain statements which cannot be shown to be mistaken, nevertheless make no sense when put in context; or that a conduct that is defensible in itself, becomes less advisable when seen against the background of the whole. One has to consider the further ramifications before taking a decision on a course of action, or to check with the larger framework before making a truth claim. As GWF Hegel, the German philosopher best known in India for his hostile commentary on the Bhagavad Gītā, said: Das Wahre ist das Ganze, “the true is the whole”.

A similar Chinese concept

Among the Chinese, a narrowly corresponding term for ṛta is dao, “path”, “way”, and more precisely 天道 tiandao, “way of heaven”. Its visible embodiment was the daily (seeming) course of the stars around the earth, the orderly movement of constellations, the day cycle and year cycle.

This character does not, however, have the meaning “truth”. No translatable of  ṛta there. For this second meaning, we need a different character: zhen, “true”. Well, at least, that is its modern meaning. But the word has a history that illustrates well how “sequence” may have shaded over into “truth”.

The character is used in the oracular Book of Changes (易經 Yijing, -11th century), especially in the frequent expression 利真 li zhen. li means “auspicious”, and the expression is often translated as “fixity/constancy is auspicious”. But that is the modern meaning, “modern” here meaning younger than Confucius, who lived around -500. From then on, the old text is given moralistic meanings, but the ancient meaning was another one, purely divinatory: “auspicious oracle”. Indeed, nowadays means “true”, and has also carried extended meanings like “reliable”, “constant”, but few modern people would think of the meaning “prediction, oracle”. Yet, that was the meaning in the Book of Changes, the most influential text in Chinese civilization.

The semantic span from “prediction” to “truth” in the Chinese word zhen echoes the span from “heavenly cycle” to “truth” in the Sanskrit word ṛta. The basis of prediction is in either case the knowledge of patterns and sequences.


The personification of ṛta among the Vedic gods is Varuṇa, lord (Asura) of heavenly hosts, the star-studded night sky, the oceanic expanse above us. His counterpart Mitra represents the day sky, monopolized by the sun. In the Iranian tradition and its derived Mithraic cult among the Romans, Mithra c.q. Mithras is simply the sun.

In another dimension, his counterpart is Indra. Foremost among the Gods are Indra and Varuṇa: “One kills Vṛtra etc. in battle, the other protects religious observances.” (RV 7:83:9) Whereas Indra is the God of strong vs. weak, of vigour and power, Varuṇa is the God of good vs. evil, of law-compliant vs. law-defiant, of norms and morality. In the war between Iranians and Vedic Indians, the former will veer towards Varuṇa, the latter towards Indra, but originally both gods were worshipped by both peoples.  

Varuṇa is the first one of the twelve Ādityas, “suns”, also named the “charioteers of ṛta”. He is iconographically depicted as sitting on a makara, a sea monster that in different contexts may be a dolphin or a crocodile. Makara happens to signify Capricorn in the Hellenistic zodiac (rāśicakra), meaning the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, when the sun’s northward course (uttarāyaṇa) sets in, the Hindu equivalent of the Yuletide. Prehistorical woodhenges and stone circles with astronomical alignments teach us that it was the principal feast of the year worldwide.

He disciplines sinners, but also confers mercy: “Have mercy, spare me, Varuṇa.” (RV 7:89:1) Or: “Free us from sins committed by our fathers… Not our own will betrayed us, but seduction, thoughtlessness, oh Varuṇa, wine, dice, or anger.” (7:86:5-6) He makes his devotee medhira, “wise” (RV 7:87:4), meaning that he has and confers medhā, “wisdom”, the Sanskrit equivalent of Iranian mazdā.

Ṛta international

Varuṇa is even more present in the Iranian tradition, though known by his form of address Ahura Mazdā (corresponding to Sanskrit Asura Medhā), “Lord Wisdom”. There too, he is the personification of cosmic order and truth, aša or arta, best known as a prefix in proper names, such as of the several Achaemenid emperors called Artaxerxes.

(It is even thought that British king Arthur, folk-etymologically derived from Welsh artus, “bear”, actually refers to a Roman officer of Iranian provenance, because after the withdrawal of the Roman army in the 5th century, the Roman veterans settled in Britain were the only ones capable of organizing a defence against the Saxon invaders; namely to one Artorius, who had been recruited at the empire’s Hungarian border, where Iranian Sarmatians had settled.)

That Ahura Mazdā is the equivalent of Varuṇa helps explain why the polarity good/evil becomes so central in Mazdeism. Friedrich Nietzsche considered this god’s prophet Zarathustra as the pioneer of moralism, of an exaggerated sense of good and evil, which is why his book on his vision of a post-moralistic world order (in which the prophet is cured from his moralistic “folly”), was called Also sprach Zarathustra, “thus spake Zarathustra”.

It is possible, though not obvious from the Vedic text, that Varuṇa’s identity with the Iranian enemies’ god Ahura Mazdā had something to do with his decline and gradual disappearance from the later Ṛg-Vedic horizon. Book X has no hymn for him anymore, and later Hinduism forgot him. He declines both in power and in moral stature, so that the Yajur-Veda treats him with wariness. Likewise, the Varuṇa-related concept of ṛta, “righteousness”, “world order”, “normative succession of phases in a cycle”, “truth”, dwindles and vanishes. It is more or less replaced by Dharma.


The term dharma , which for now we will leave untranslated, comes from the root *dhṛ, “bear, support, sustain, keep”. It is related to Latin firmus, “firm, closely-knit”, and Old English darian, “lie motionless, lurk”; its reconstructed Indo-European root connotes fixity, keeping motionless. Within Sanskrit, it is distantly related to dhruva, “pole star”, “earth axis”, and more closely to the suffix -dhara/-dhāra, “carrying” (as in vasun-dharā, “goods-bearer, earth”); and dhṛti, “steadiness”. In the body, it may be likened to the hard part, the skeleton with the backbone, which gives structure to the whole. Dharma is symbolized by a bull standing firm.

Dharma may imply firmness, but in Hindu belief it is not always evenly firm. In the Golden Age (Kṛta Yuga) the dharma-bull is standing on all fours, in the Silver Age (Tretā Yuga) on three feet, in the Bronze Age (Dvāpara Yuga) on two, and in the Iron Age (Kali Yuga) on just one foot. This differentiation in time is the basis of a division between eternal sanātana dharma, which is always valid, and yuga dharma, the norms specific for a particular age. It is a typically Vaiṣṇava belief that whenever dharma risks getting defeated, it is restored by divine intervention, especially by Viṣṇu’s incarnations such as Rāma and Kṛṣṇa. Though very widespread, however, such beliefs postdate the first use of the term dharma and are not part of its definition, so here we need not consider them further.

In the Ṛg-Veda, the term dharma already appears dozens of times, often connected with ṛta. It takes centre-stage in the Mahābhārata, a story illustrating the decline of dharma and the effort to uphold it through a dharmayuddha (usually translated as a “war of righteousness” or “just war”; definitely not “war of religion”), with the formal though bitter victory being scored by the dharmarāja or “king of righteousness”, Yudhiṣṭira, whose biological father is called Dharma.

But it also continues the meaning “truth” from the older term ṛta. As the Bṛhadāraṇya Upaniṣad (1:4:14) says: “Nothing is higher than dharma. Thenceforth even a weak man rules a stronger with the help of dharma, as with the help of a king. Truly that dharma is the truth (satya); therefore, when a man speaks the truth, they say, ‘He speaks the dharma’; and if he speaks dharma, they say, ‘He speaks the truth.’ For both are the same.”

The concrete details of the application of Dharma are elaborated in the Dharmaśāstras, usually rendered as “Law Codes”. The most famous is the Mānavadharmaśāstra, attributed to the patriarch Manu. Some forty times, the Ṛg-Veda mentions him: as an ancestor, as the Father of Mankind, and implicitly as a law-giver. The extant text of his Mānavadharmaśāstra hardly predates the Christian age, but the idea of a normative system established anciently by Manu, though its details must have evolved, was already present in the Veda.

Dharma itself is the word used by Hindus for what we translate as “Hinduism”. An expression attested only in the last centuries, and that modern Hindus will use when asked for the self-designation of Hinduism, is Sanātana Dharma, “eternal dharma”. Though probably recent, this usage is based on the ancient assertion, both in the Mahābhārata and by the Buddha, that “this Dharma is Sanātana”, eternal. Normally the term dharma by itself is enough to designate Hinduism in the large sense, i.e. including Jainism, Buddhism, Veerashaivism, Sikhism, the Ramakrishna Mission and other sects whose belonging to the Hindu fold has been rendered controversial.

Dimensions of dharma

From the actual usage of the word by Hindus, we gather that there are two dimensions to dharma. One is vertical and concerns the relation with the divine, including the required rites, observances, pilgrimages and celebrations (yes, it can be a duty to celebrate). Here it approaches the English word religion in meaning. The Constitutional term secularism, in the sense of “religious neutrality”, is therefore often translated in Sanskritized Hindi as dharma-nirpekṣatā.

However, serious Hindus reject this choice of translation because to their minds, dharma is an entirely positive concept, so you don’t need to keep it at arms’ length the way Western secularism was meant to keep the Churches away from state power. For them, Nehruvian secularists only express their ignorance by treating dharma as a synonym for “religious denomination”. Rather, it approaches “religiosity”, not the series of denominations such as Shiism, Sunnism or the Christian Churches. They prefer pantha-nirpekṣatā., “sect neutrality”, in the more precise sense of impartiality vis-à-vis all religious denominations. 

The second meaning is horizontal and concerns the relation with your fellow creatures, human and other. Here, it comes to mean “righteousness”, “ethics”, “deontology”, “law”, “justice”, “responsibility”, “rules of conduct: duties and prohibitions”. As they say in Hindi: Yeh merā dharm hai, “this is my duty”.

To sum up: dharma has two dimensions. One is the correct relation of the part to the whole, of the lower-order entity to the higher-order entity: religion. The other is the correct relation of the part to the other parts: ethics, duty.

This combination promises to militate heavily against the translatableness of the term dharma. It is not equal to “righteousness”: at least its religious meanings fall outside of this domain. Conversely, dharma is not equal to “religion”: the latter term would exclude the purely ethical dimension, even when “religion” has its most uncontroversial sense of “awe for the sacred”. Moreover, there is also a specific contrast with the typically Christian overlay of the originally more general term “religion”.


English has been taught to Indians mostly through mission schools, and has even more outspoken Christian connotations than it would already have acquired by a thousand years of Christian dominance in England. The result is that Indians entirely conceive of “religion” as a Christian term: a box-type system, to which you either belong or not, and of which you have to unquestioningly accept the items of belief, regardless of what science would say about them. It is a system to which you can convert, viz. by “burning what you used to pray to, and praying to what you used to burn” (as Clovis was told by his baptizer, 496). That is about as far away from dharma, in any attested sense, as you can get.

But religion has a pre-Christian meaning which would bring it already much closer to dharma. In Latin, religio originally had a meaning still enunciated by Cicero. It came from a verb religere, “to reread”, “to verify”, “to do something with utmost care” (just like in Hindi dhyān se), “to pay full attention”; exactly the way the word regio, “administrative zone”, “province”, is derived from the verb regere, “to administer”. So, religio meant “scrupulousness”, “full attention”, and in fact it sometimes still has that sense in modern English: to do something “religiously” means doing it very carefully, with utmost attention.

But with Christianization, religion became “belief system”, or “set of truth claims about the divine”. The Church father Lactantius wrongly analysed religio as a derivative from religare, “to bind anew”, “to reunite”. This perfectly fit Christian theology, which saw man as severed from his original closeness to God in the Garden of Eden through original sin, suffering from his separation from Him in this vale of tears, but now brought back closer to God by Jesus. (In India, there is a parallel dispute about the word yoga: pious types say it means “union” with the divine, sceptics that it merely refers to “yoking” the thoughts and “disciplining” the mind into focusing and becoming still.) At any rate, it is only after this Christian reading of religion has been pin-pricked that an approximation with dharma can even be considered.


In Chinese, the Buddhist term dharma in the sense of “the Buddhist system” (a combination of liberation-orientedness and a daily morality of compassion and virtue) is translated as fa , “law”. It carries through the Indian meaning of “the Buddhist way”, but has not been chosen at random. It was selected for its already ancient meaning of “law”, “method”. And indeed, when you look at Buddhism from the outside, what you get to see is not so much the Buddhist doctrine but mostly the observance of the Buddhists injunctions. A very large part of the Buddhist canon is made up of prescribing a set of rules, a way of life deemed conducive to meditation and ultimately to liberation.

The translation of Dharma Śāstra as “law book” is only approximative. It has excursions into cosmology and the religious sphere, and when dealing with human conduct, it is partly descriptive before being prescriptive. In turn, its prescriptions are partly a matter of general moral norms and only partly specific enforceable laws. These are moreover limited in reach, because the final word of pañcāyat (village or caste council) decisions is also admitted, as well as the right of competent specialists in council to introduce changes in the letter of the prescribed law all while maintaining its spirit. But the translation does have a basis in reality.

The Mānava Dharma Śāstra distinguishes between different levels of dharma. Sāmānya or sādhāraṇa dharma consists of “universal” do’s and don’ts, paralleled in the religious sphere by some festivals and forms of worship in which everyone participates. The following ten prescriptions given by Manu have universal application: dhṛti, “steadiness”; kṣamā, “forgiveness”; damā, “discipline”; asteya, “non-stealing”; śauca, “cleanliness”; indriya-nigraḥ, “sense control”; dhī, “mindfulness” ; vidyā, “knowledge”; satya, “truthfulness”; akrodha, “non-anger”.

People with a Christian frame of reference, such as India’s Nehruvian secularists, often make the comparison with the Ten Commandments, but this is superficial. The Ten Commandments are given on two stone tables. The second one contains practical injunctions: “Thou shalt not kill”, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife”, etc. These do correspond to similar injunctions in the Dharma Śāstras and have a similar intention, viz. guaranteeing a harmonious life in society. Moralists in both the Biblical and the Dharmic traditions might add that they also make for harmony with yourself since, in Baruch de Spinoza’s words, “virtue is its own reward”. They stem from the experience of the earlier generations: a society is successful (and an individual is more contented) if it abides by these rules, but falls apart if it does not. By contrast, the first stone table contains something unrelated: a brand-new theology, featuring monotheism, rejection of icons, and a taboo on uttering the Yahweh’s name. Apparently Moses tried to give more credibility and authority to his new-fangled theology by linking it with an old and widely respected morality, as if the latter logically followed from the former.

Other “lawgivers” propose variations on Manu’s list, with synonymous or different virtues, but we get the idea. In fact, one of the possible translation of dharma is a generalization of these separate virtues as “virtue”. The several virtues are synthesized in the Golden Rule, e.g. in the Mahābhārata (Śānti-Parva 167:9), adviser Vidura recommends to king Yudhiṣṭhira: “Study of the scriptures, austerity, sacrifice, generosity, social welfare, forgiveness, purity of intent, compassion, truth and self-control — these are the ten treasures of character. (…) Therefore, one should live with self-restraint and by making dharma the main focus, one should treat others as one treats oneself.” This Golden Rule is found back also in the Tirukkural (316), the Padma Purāṇa (19:358), and elsewhere.

Next to these general ethical rules, Manu acknowledges a viśeṣa dharma, “special dharma”, or svadharma, “own dharma”: specific duties and taboos for every age group and class, paralleled in religion by specific festivals and forms of worship for every community.

Svadharma is rarely conceived as individualistic, the way Westerners would understand the term. It reminds them of Friedrich Nietzsche’s maxim: “There is only one way in the world that no one can go except you. Don’t ask where it leads. Follow it!” When Kṛṣṇa advises Arjuna to take up his svadharma, he doesn’t mean some hyper-individual duty but the duty of his entire warrior caste, viz. to accept the challenge of battle.

Yet, Hinduism does have some very individual path stipulated for you. You and your siblings come from the same gene pool, had the same types of food, the same education etc., and yet your destinies can be very different. Ever since the Chāndogya Upaniṣad introduced the notion of reincarnation, on which the doctrine of karma (roughly, ethical causality between incarnations) was superimposed, most Hindus will say that these individual destinies are the result of each brother’s very individual itinerary through successive incarnations. So the weight of all your past incarnations with their unfinished agendas, their action-at-a-distance (karma) into the present, imposes a unique life-duty on you.

This may well be true, but is not what we mean by dharma, a notion that predates the doctrine of karma in its reincarnationist sense. Whether one believes or not in reincarnation, in an afterlife, or in God: the notion of dharma always applies. Indeed, dharma is secular par excellence: it is a common ground, a meeting-place between people of all persuasions.

A Greek equivalent?

In the case of Greek, Indians themselves have chosen a term translating dharma. Translation of Hindu terminology is not some colonial ploy, as many Indian chauvinists think. In one of Aśoka’s rock edicts (-258 BC) in Afghanistan, the Prakrit text comes with a translation in Aramaic and Greek. There, dharma is translated as eusebeia.

Eusebeia is derived from eu, “good”, “in harmony with”, “tending towards”; and sebomai, “to revere”. Thus it means “awe for the sacred”, “piety”, a reverential attitude: the defining core of religion, even more fundamental than venerating gods. By extension, it also means “conduct pleasing to the gods”, or to others above you, as in “filial piety”; and “spiritual maturity”. Its opposite is dyssebeia, “mindlessness”, “irreverence”.

In certain contexts, however, is can also mean “right conduct towards others”, both relatives and strangers; “public-spiritedness”. It is then personified as wife of nomos, “law” in the strict juridical sense. So, it is both religion and ethics, like dharma.

A Semitic equivalent?

One of the best semantic approximations of dharma is the Semitic root D-I-N. In Arabic, دين dīn means “debt”, “obligation” (Sankrit ṛṇa), “duty”, “system of duties”, “law”; but also “religion”.  Thus, Arabian Paganism is called the dīn al-abā’ikā, “the ancestors’ dharma. When Moghul emperor Akbar launched a newly minted religion, he called it dīn-i-Ilāhī, “divine religion”, symbolized by his newly built city Ilāhābād, “divine city” (called Allahabad by the British), on the confluence of the Gaṅgā and the Yamunā, symbolizing the synthesis of Hinduism and Islam.

The related Hebrew, however, has developed the term more exclusively towards the sphere of “right relation to others”, “law”. Thus, dīn, “to judge”; dīnah, “judgment”; dayān, “judge”.

Like with Christianity appropriating the term religio, Islam has appropriated the term dīn, as witnessed in names like Saifu’l-dīn (Saifuddin), “sword of islam”. But as is well-known, Islam is both a doctrine-cum-worship and a political-juridical system. Thereby, and in spite of the ideological reorientation that Islam brought, it continues the combination of both dimensions that inhered already in the pre-Islamic term dīn.

A Germanic equivalent?

The same shading-over between devotion and a way of life is found in Scandinavian trú (Dutch trouw), as in Asatrú, “loyalty to the Aesir/gods”, Vanatrú, “loyalty to the Vanir” (another class of gods, like in the early Ṛg-Veda the Asuras next to the Devas), Vortrú, “loyalty to the early (customs)”. These are names modern neo-Heathens give their own religion. It contains a certain worship of the ancient Germanic gods but also a code of conduct, largely of modern coinage, such as the list of “the nine virtues”, another variation on the list of virtues given by Manu.  

In Britain, similar movements exist, also harking back to the ancestors’ pre-Christian religion to the extent it can be reconstructed. They speak of truth, one of the meanings of ṛta and dharma, or rather its more romantic-sounding variation, troth (as in the Rolling Stones song: “I pledge my troth to / Lady Jane”). “The Troth” is how many neo-Pagans refer to their own religion. It mainly means “to be true”, e.g. to one’s give word, “loyalty”, “being faithful”, “solidity”.

This word trú/true/trouw is related to trust, but ultimately derives from the same root as tree: Indo-European *deru, whence Sanskrit daru. As an icon of robustness and solidity, the tree has come to be used figuratively. Semantically, this corresponds neatly with the term dharma’s connotation of “sustaining”, “conferring a backbone”. Nevertheless, its range of meanings does not entirely match that of dharma.


After examining a few foreign candidate-equivalents to the concept of dharma, we find that at least pre-Christian Greek and pre-Islamic Arabic approximate it very well, though still not perfectly, with Chinese and pre-Christian Germanic not far behind. Nevertheless, a perfect translation that could be introduced to simply replace the term dharma, remains elusive. For now, the best thing to do is simply to leave the word dharma untranslated.

We hope, nonetheless, that this failed attempt to find a perfect equivalent outside Sanskrit has had is uses. In particular, it should stimulate a rethinking of the distinction, but also the relatedness, between the religious and the ethical dimensions of human life. The one does not need the other, but man needs both.

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