The Dharma is a key concept in Buddhism and Hinduism. In English there are generally two distinct (but connected) meanings. The first is that The Dharma (when capitalized) simply means the collective teachings of The Buddha. In this respect, you might think of the Dharma as simply meaning “The Teachings.” (See also: Buddhism 101 for an introduction to the basic teachings of the Buddha)
The second meaning is usually associated with the lowercase dharma, and translates as “the way things are.” This may seem overly vague, until you understand that the word “dharma” has been used to imply “the laws of nature” or “that which sustains the universe.” Sometimes it is synonymous with the English word nature. (In Thailand, where I am from, we use the word Thamma-Chart [from Dharma and Charti] to say “Nature” or “Environment”.) It is this second meaning that we will focus on.
One thing to remember is that throughout ancient times, since the era of the Vedas some several thousand years BCE, dharma has been thought of as an unchanging universal law, similar to the laws of gravity, mathematics, and fluid dynamics. As gravity is thought of as a universal law no matter what it is called in different languages, dharma is also considered a universal law no matter what it is called in different religions.
The earliest writings on dharma (from the Vedas) implied that only sages could experience it, and needed to pass it on to the laymen through mantras and other acts. Later on, the writings known as the Dharma Sutras gave a different meaning and implications about dharma: They implied that dharma was the performance of duties in accordance to Vedic law. Dharma was taking on the meaning of “one’s role in Vedic society.”
Unfortunately, later writings did not help to clear up the loose meanings of the word dharma. They tended not to present a uniform meaning to the word. Further, they gave no practical steps to the lay person on how to realize the dharma for themselves.
The dharma is touched upon at length in The Bhagavadgita (The Song of God), a section of the epic poem The Mahabharata. In it, Krishna explains the meaning of righteousness in sustaining the world order. It is implied that everyone has a path that they must follow in order to uphold righteousness and lead to their individual salvation. Krishna stated that of the three paths that lead to salvation – yoga and ascetic practices, bhakti or devotion, and Dharma or wholesome activities according to your role – it was the latter that was most effective because it contribute to both the individual and the world as a whole, while the two former practices only helped the individual.
Those familiar with Buddhism know that the dharma was the main focus of the Buddha’s meditations. These were the main characteristics of the dharma:
1) Namely, that it was infinite and spanned both the material (mundane) and spiritual (supra-mundane) worlds.
2) The dharma could be thought of as the mental “sense.” That is to say, while the eye has sight and the ear has sound and the nose has smell, the mind has dharma.
3) The dharma was the carrier of goodness and wholesomeness, and thus the word dharma good be used to imply a good sense, while the word adharma would imply a bad sense.
4) Dharma was a person’s duty, those acts which were fit to be carried out according to their responsibilities.
5) Dharma is a permanent universal truth, including the laws of nature and the nature of laws.
It is through the meditations of the Buddha that he tried to realize the true meaning of the dharma. It is through insight meditation (Vipassana) that the Buddha instructed that lay people would be able to realize the dharma themselves. The Buddha taught that direct realization on an individual level was superior to relying on speculation or traditional beliefs.