Dharma is the idea of sacred duty in Hinduism. The concept originates from India’s ancient legal texts, so it’s not surprising that “doing the right thing” within this belief system is usually bound up within specific caste and gender biases, which many today would see as hopelessly backward.
As a Hindu ideal, dharma is doing one’s divine duty in an apparently impersonal manner. In essence, the mind is said to be fixed on God while correct action is performed without care for the personal “fruit” of those actions.
The belief that one’s actions may be entirely untainted by personal biases and desires seems questionable. And this is no scholarly quibble. Orthodox Hinduism, for instance, advocates killing as the appropriate dharma for members of the kshatriya caste. And in domestic affairs, the dharma of the wife is often marked by servitude to her husband and family, a position widely held to be sexist.¹
The idea of surrendering to God is nothing new but each religion tends to define the notion of appropriate surrender differently. Despite the obvious problems with the idea of dharma, recent social movements within India are compelling the middle classes, especially, to become increasingly aware of the often conflicting distinction between the idea of universal human rights and this ancient view of religious duty.
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¹ India, where 80.5 % of the population say they’re Hindu, has recently been labelled the worst place to be a woman, with Canada being the best. http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/06/13/us-g20-women-idUSBRE85C00420120613
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