Dharma is a Sanskrit word, based on the root √dhŗ, (uphold, support), and can be defined as the law, duty, religion, responsibility, path, or nature, which upholds the underlying order of the universe. Sri Eknath Easwaran has defined it, intriguingly, as “that which makes us secure.”  Dharma is a key component of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, and in one form or another the underpinning of all major religious systems. Gandhi believed, and there are passages to this effect even in the earliest Upanishads, that by applying the natural laws of dharma directly, unjust man-made laws can be overcome.

The Indian worldview has a unity-in-diversity structure. Thus there is one overriding law that governs all life, expressed as ahimsa paramo dharma, (nonviolence is the supreme law).  As life evolves from unity to diversity there are what might be called sub-dharmas that guide the evolution of creatures through the divisions of space and time, all of them remaining in consonance with the supreme law of nonviolence. In the phenomenal world individuals, have their swadharma (own-dharma), to discover and fulfill, which is the purpose of life. Central to the idea of nonviolence is that no one’s svadharma is in real conflict with that of another. Indeed, the diversity of humanity supports the path of each individual. Martin Luther King gave a vivid expression to this principle, “I can’t be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be; and you can’t be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”

Sub-dharmas include:

• Yuga Dharma: ‘Dharma of an age.’ According to Gandhi and others, the dharma of our age is Truth.

• Nimisha Dharma: ‘Dharma of the instant.’ Every moment there is a choice to follow dharma or adharma, anything else.

• Varna Dharma: ‘Dharma of a community’ (varna, literally ‘color,’ was the term for caste)

• Svadharma: ‘One’s own dharma.’ The articulation of your capacities with the needs of the world in which you find yourself.. Gandhi realized his svadharma when he was thrown out of the train at Pietermaritzburg station for being an Indian riding in the first-class carriage even though he held a valid ticket. He realized that it was his path to find the underlying causes of racial discrimination so that he could put a stop to it in South Africa – a path that developed into the struggle for a Free India.