Reinterpreting Gandhi's Notion of "Dharma": An Entanglement of Duty, Religion, and Ethics

- By Satya Sundar Sethy*


The term 'dharma' is an enigmatic term. It is one of the purusarthas of Hindu tradition. Scholars belonging to classical age have described 'dharma' variously: faith in God(s), recognition of the quality of an object, and understanding the laws of the cosmos. These descriptions are found in classical manus cripts such as Mahabhrata, Ramayana, Bhagavad-Gita, Upanishads, Vedas, and Manusmruti. But there has been a gradual change in the interpretation of 'dharma' with time. In modern times, 'dharma' is interpreted as 'duty', 'ethics', and 'religion'. This paper examines the modern interpretations of 'dharma' from the Gandhian perspective and critically evaluates Gandhi's view on 'dharma' in relation to purusdrthas. It discusses why 'dharma' must be given highest priority among the purusarthas. Finally, it attempts to answer how dharma is associated with duty, religion, and ethics.

The term ‘Dharma’ is enigmatic, not just for its ambivalence but also due to the many interpretations possible for it. 'Dharma is derived from the root 'dh0', which means 'to support or hold.1 A great deal of work on 'dharma' has been explored but Gandhi's view on 'dharma' remains unattended. Some of the primal questions pertaining to Gandhi's notion of dharma are: Is dharma an ontological or a normative principle? Does it exist independently of something or someone? Is dharma a component of human life? How to interpret 'dharma' from the modern perspective?

'Dharma' is widely acceptable to people of both modern and ancient times. During India's classical age, 'dharma' was defined in terms of four subsidiary concepts: varnadharma, ashramadharma, samanyadharma, and svadharma.2 Varna-dharma explains the duties of an individual in accordance with his/her clan. Ashrama-dharma expresses about the stages of life of an individual, and offers guidelines on performing one's duties aimed at personal development, societal assistance and overall prosperity Samanyadharma elucidates the duties of an individual towards society. By performing samanyadharma, one contributes towards preserving a self-sustaining society. Svadharma guides individuals to perform their duties in accordance with time and situation. It has been believed, that one cannot evade dharma in life. Dharma, therefore, associates with a person's life eternally.

In the classical age, dharma was also understood as having faith in God(s), recognizing, the quality of an object, and understanding the laws of the cosmos.

Dharma is also interpreted as, 'having faith in God(s)', which implies a trust on an eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, and Supreme Being.

In modern times, unlike the classical age, 'dharma' is not just associated with social forms of human life but also with human values. A question arises, are these classical interpretations of dharma still valid or modern connotations must be appended to the existing classical interpretations? In this context, Gandhi's notion of 'dharma' plays a vital role in interpreting it and comprehending its complexities. According to Gandhi, 'dharma' means duty, ethics, and religion.3 This is treated as the modern interpretation of dharma.

Dharma and Its Modern Interpretations

In Hinduism, all aspects of human life are bound by dharma. In the Vedic age, precedence was given to dharma over morality, because of the belief that morality springs from dharma. But in modern times, 'dharma' is treated as a dynamic force of life, because liberalism, secularism, and globalization are believed to be the principal adherents of human life. 'Dharma' can be considered consisting of three elements; the ideas of uniformity, spirituality, and truth of life. 'Dharma' transforms human beings into "humane beings."

'Dharma guides us to be righteous. Activities with adherence to moral or social laws, or both are treated as dharma. Dharma is about human activities relating to the aspiration of material and spiritual life.

Dharma advocates duties of human beings. It gives emphasis to duties rather than rights of a person. It is so because duty must be performed in such a manner that it causes no harm to others. Everyone will do their duties and in the process they will get their rights. The Best performance of dharma brings universal peace and harmony to the society and transformation within an individual. Does Gandhi subscribe to this view? According to Gandhi, dharma means a conglomeration of duty, religion, and ethics. It is the essence of his teachings and approach to life.

Dharma as Duty

Gandhi identifies dharma as duty. Performance of the duties of an individual in a society helps the society to become self-sufficient and stable. Duties of an individual contribute not only to the growth and prosperity of the society but also assist in maintaining social order. It brings justice and peace to society.

By considering 'morality' as a source of action amongst people, Gandhi said that "if four varnas are members of one body, then how can one be superior or inferior to another?."4 "No society could survive; much less prosper, unless there is a division of labour as well as harmony between the functional units of labour."5

In his book Caste Has to Go (1935), Gandhi stated that the classic scriptures must be interpreted as per the needs of the society. Even the accepted shastras of the past cannot be accepted, if it contradicts the present. Thus, one should be a part of the changing society and contribute to its growth and progress. He recommended equality among varnas, as practiced in the Sabarmati Ashram, for caste free society. His view was to have one dharma in every ashrama, i.e., sannyasa (an ascetic life). Members of the ashrama should perform multiple tasks irrespective of their caste.

According to Gandhi, dharma should be understood as the 'quality of soul.' This understanding will assist individuals to realize two primary things about their life. First, "what are their fundamental duties" and second, "how should they put up with others?"6 The former hints at preserving one's traditions and customs while the latter deals with intelligence and will of a person. We may call the former as 'positive' and the latter as 'natural' dharma.7 The 'positive dharma' deals with actions that are judged as good. According to Gandhi, positive dharma is a consequence of natural dharma which is reposed in the soul. Natural dharma (buddhi), on the other hand, is the ability to distinguish right from wrong.8 Exercising dharmas would help an individual to lead a moral, peaceful, and non-violent life.

Satyagraha: An Approach to -Secure One's Rights

According to Gandhi, "Satyagraha is a way of defending human V rights by soul-force, not by brute-force."9 Soul-force involves sacrifice of one's self whereas brute-force is the use of violence by exercising State's laws and orders. 'Satyagraha' is also understood as 'conflict resolution.' It resolves conflicts by non-violence without compromising the fundamental rights of an individual. According to Gandhi, satyagraha is a method of securing rights by personal suffering.10

The concept of 'rights' can be linked to 'natural dharma,' where intelligence (buddhi) is treated as a practical element. For Gandhi, “conflicts have to be sorted out non-violently, not because it is expedient to do so, not because the state exists, but because it is a requirement of dharma.11

Dharma as Religion

According to Gandhi, the concept of 'dharma' should embrace all religions, not just Hinduism. He writes,

It is not the Hindu religion, which I certainly prize above all other religions, but the religion which transcends Hinduism, which changes one's very nature, winch binds one indissolubly to the truth within and whichever purifies.

Dr. Radhakrishnan invited Gandhi to contribute a chapter for his book Contemporary Indian Philosophy, where Gandhi was reluctant at first, claiming his incompetence in philosophy. After much persuasion, he answered the following questions,

  • What is your religion?
  • How are you led to it?
  • What is its bearing on social life?12

Gandhi said that religion was the 'religion of humanity.' To the second question, he conveyed that 'truth is god' is the best methodology to adapt religion. To the last question, he conferred that 'service to mankind is service to god' and it helps to attain the 'truth.' Thus, for Gandhi, "non-violent action was the only test for truth."13 In short, to love each other is the best practice of religion. Gandhi's notion of 'religion' can be listed in the following four points.

  • i) Religion transforms human beings into "humane beings."
  • It binds human beings to truth.
  • It purifies the individual's mind and soul.
  • It links the human soul to the Supreme soul.

He made a distinction between 'religion as an idea' and 'religion as an institution.'14 'Religion as an institution' relates to one's own religion, e.g., Hinduism, Christianity, Muslim, Buddhism, etc., whereas 'religion as an idea' transcends this notion and encompasses a social phenomenon within its ambit? He believed that 'Hindu dharma' is a sanatana dharma, which tries to understand the true nature of 'soul' and its relationship with God.

On the debate on whether Gandhi is to be considered as secular or communal, it is observed that, for him, secularism did not only mean having, faith in religions besides your own, but also rendering service to all. In his view, ethical rules and regulations of a society should not be based on any particular religious belief. There should be some common consensus among people of all religions on what constitutes the duties of an individual. He stated that "we needlessly divide life into watertight compartments, religious and other, whereas if a man has true religion in him, it must show in every detail of life."15

Gandhi suggested that everyone should try to understand religion as 'an idea' to gain the virtues that help human beings attain holiness in their lives.

Gandhi assigned two values to the concept of religion: one must have reason(s) to tolerate other religions and one must allow dialogues among people with different religious beliefs. Having a dialogue with people of other religious beliefs does not impede presentation of one's ideas to others, rather it discourages hate and suppression.16 Gandhi opined that the outcome of dialogue would enable an orthodox Hindu to remain what he was, and yet to respect on orthodox Muslim for what he was."17 By considering dharma as an inclusive religion, he, believed that "dharma should enable its followers not merely to respect other religions but also to admire and assimilate whatever is good in them."18

Dharma as Ethics

Gandhi also interpreted dharma as ethics. Quoting Gandhi, “as there can’t be an ideal higher than truth similarly there can’t be any duty higher than non-violence.”19 Ethics of non-violence was the primal principle of Gandhi’s life, which he followed incessantly through his actions, speeches, and writings. Gandhi said that non-violence (ahimsa) may be deduced from 'truth' or may be paired with 'truth.' "Truth and ahimsa are one and the same thing… Truth is the end, ahimsa is the means thereto."20 "Truth is the ultimate criterion of judging whether non­violence is the right ethics for a given context."21

In Gandhi's view, "most instances of human violence arose from disputes on what was 'mine'."22 Thus, one should listen to his/her 'soul' before acting on anything. To maintain peace and harmony within himself/herself, one must adopt and practice universal dharma, i.e., svadharma. Svadharma suggests that one must act in conformity with what is desired in a given situation.

‘Dharma’ for Gandhi is nothing but an amalgam of duty, ethics, and religion. An individual must understand his/her duties, social obligations, and religion to lead a peaceful life. Further, one must perform his/her duties while living in a society, and judge which actions must be performed and which not. In addition to these, one must learn to respect other religions besides his/her own religion, and shouldn't disrespect others' ideas and principles in his/her life endeavour.

A Concise Historical View of Purusarthas

Purusarthas explain the nature and types of action that one should adhere to while living in a society. Dharma, artha, kama, and moksha are the four purusarthas accepted by Hindus of all ages.23 In Hinduism, 'kama' is interpreted as desire, 'artha' as money, 'dharma' as faith in god(s), and 'moksha' as emancipation from worldly miseries. The nature of each purusartha is unique and distinct from others, however they form a knot. The knot is the result of the ways of approach to life by human beings.

In Hinduism, purusarthas or "aims/goals of humanity" are said to be the unifying and fundamental principles of Hindu identity.

Gandhi's Notion of Dharma in Reference to Purusarthas

Gandhi has discussed purusarthas in his works24 and followed the noble ideas of purusarthas in his life.

In Hind Swaraj, Gandhi suggested that every individual should contribute to the larger benefit of Indians. To unite all Indians against the British, he advised that we must perform our duties and that must be our dharma. Here, 'dharma' embraces two modern interpretations; faith in God(s), and practice of non-violence. Dharma, is not limited to religious faith. It encompasses norms and guidelines of the society.

Gandhi said that the actions (dharmas) of human beings are either deliberate or accidental. In case of deliberate actions, purusarthas play a pivotal role.

According to Gandhi, purusarthas depict the goals of human life which human beings pursue and ought to pursue in a social world. Practicing purusarthas assist individuals to grow in personal ana social fronts.25 It regulates societal affairs and guides individuals to do the desired, required, and demanded tasks of social concerns. It further offers moral and spiritual guidance to human beings. In these ways, purusarthas are socio-politically associated with a human beings' life.

Gandhi's Remarks on the Relationship of Purusarthas /Gandhi opined that artha and kama are secular values whereas dharma and moksa are spiritual values.

For Gandhi, purusarthas can be paired as, artha and dharma; kama and moksha. The former is considered as means and the latter as their ends. For example, the source of ‘moksa’ is dharma, but not vise versa. One can perform certain dharmas without obtaining moksa, e.g. tapa, japa etc. But without dharma one can’t attain moksa.


Gandhi's notion of 'dharma' is promulgated through the concept of oneness of all. ‘Dharma' for him is one that is conducive to the integration of the society. This notion binds people together. The concept of 'oneness of all' can be maintained and protected by practicing moral laws.26 According to Gandhi, a law-abiding citizen should accept the relation between one's nature and one's social role to maintain the peace and harmony in the society.27 In addition to this, Gandhi held that cultural unity, uniformity, and homogeneity are the essential conditions among others to practice dharma to bring social solidarity and stability.28

In Gandhi's view, dharma should be observed as a functional goal of human life. Although everyone must adhere to his/her dharma, to hold on to dharma, one must understand the stages of life and the expectations of a society. Thus, "Dharma of a person is linked to the performance rendered by him/her which have been socially allotted to him/her."29

Gandhi's interpretations of dharma, highlights the duties and rights of an individual. Dharma is invariably and inalienably associated with human life. It is a basic principle of human life and starts when the human being is born. Dharma thus implies subsistence of human life, and therefore an integral part of human life.

Notes and References

  1. Dhr Dharma-posanyao: Panini-dhatupatha. See B. Holdrege, In S. Mittal, and G. Thursby (Eds.) The Hindu World. (New York: Routledge, 2005), p.213.
  2. R. Prasad, The theory of Purusarthas: Revaluation and Reconstruction. Journal of Indian Philosophy 9, (1981), pp. 57-59.
  3. A.J. Parel, Gandhi's Philosophy and the Quest for Harmony (New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 87, 99, and 117.
  4. M. K. Gandhi, (1958-1994). Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Hereafter, CW), (New Delhi: Publications Division), Vol. 59
  5. Parel, 2006, op.cit., p. 88.
  6. CW, Vol. 32, p.ll.
  7. Parel, 2006, op.cit., p. 92.
  8. S. Radhakrishnan, (Ed.), The Principal Upanishads. (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1963), p. 154.
  9. Hind Swaraj, p. 90.
  10. B. Chakrabarthy, Social and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi. (London: Routledge, 2006), p. 20; A.J. Parel, (Ed) Gandhi, Freedom, and Self-Rule. (New Delhi: Vistaar Publication, 2000), p. 90.
  11. Parel, 2006, op.cit,, p. 95.
  12. CW, Vol. 60, p. 106.
  13. Chakrabarty, 2006, op.cit., p. 12.
  14. M. Chatterjee, Gandhi's Religious Thought (London: Macmillan Publication, 1983).
  15. CW, Vol. 69, p. 29.
  16. Parel, 2006, op.cit., pp. 108-110.
  17. CW, Vol. 19, p.305.
  18. Ibid., Vol.35, pp. 166-167.
  19. Ibid., Vol. 62, p.224.
  20. Ibid., Vol. 44, p.90.
  21. Parel, 2006, p. 117.
  22. Detailed discussion is found in Apastambha-dharmasutra. Here the term 'ages' refers to classical and modern age.
  23. M.K. Gandhi, An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments With Truth. Translated by Mahadev Desai (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House). V.R. Howard, Gandhi's Ascetic Activism: Renunciation and Social Action (Albany: University of New York Press; 2013), p. 217. Also see, V.S. Hegde, "Gandhian Thought in the Twenty-first Century," in J. Pandey (Ed.), Gandhi and 21s' Century (New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company, 1998), p. 200.
  24. P. Shukla, "Concept of Purusarthas and the Voluntary Reformatory Measures for Human Development: Gandhian Perspective," in S. Choubey, N.G.Pendse, and N. Shukla (eds.), Economic Reforms in India: Need, Efforts and Suggestions (New Delhi: Sarup and Sons Publications, 2005), pp.277-290.
  25. Sharma, 1999, op. cit., p. 228.
  26. See S. Nikhilananda, Hinduism and human Situation. In L. Bryson et al. (Eds.), Conflicts of Power in Modern Culture. (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004), p.305. See also Creel, op.cit., p. 169.
  27. Creel, 1975, op.cit., p. 170.
  28. Ibid., p. 167.
  29. Prasad, 1981, op.cit., p. 56.

Source: Gandhi Marg, Vol. 37, No. 2, July-September 2015

* SATYA SUNDAR SETHY is Associate Professor at Department of Humanities & Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Madras, Chennai, India. Email: