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 backward and oppressive.
Having said that, Hindus point out that dharma is of said to be very “subtle.” In other words, there’s a lot of room for flexibility and compromise within Hinduism, especially for the mid- to upper castes. The lowest cast of Sudras usually doesn’t enjoy the same degree of flexibility that the upper castes do.
Here’s what John D. Smith has to say, in the introduction to his translation of the Hindu epic, The Mahabharata.
Finally, dharma is not rigid: it may change with external circumstance. The Mahabharata devotes 39 chapters (12.129-67) to ‘dharma in times of trouble,’ and the topic is touched on at many other points too. Thus at 12.283 we are told that a Brahmin in need may follow the dharma of a Ksatriya or Vaisya, though the line is drawn at the slave-like status of the Sudra; and at 12.139 we even learn that the Brahmin seer Visvamitra, starving, considered it no breach of dharma to steal a piece of dog meat from a man of the severely degraded Candala class.
So dharma is not a simple thing; indeed, the Mahabharata repeatedly insists how ‘subtle’ (suksma) it is. This subtlety offers storytellers great opportunities for the development of narratives focusing on personal or existential dilemmas, for situations can arise – or be imagined – in which the demands of a person’s dharma seem to be mutually contradictory.¹
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.²
The idea of surrendering to God is nothing new but each religion tends to define the idea 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 Hindu view of religious duty.
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¹ John D. Smith (trans.), The Mahabharata (abridged), Penguin Classics, 2009.
² 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