The general characteristics of the Dharma are summarised in an ancient stereotype formula which occurs repeatedly in the sutras and which is still widely used for liturgical purposes. The Dharma is well taught; it belongs to the Lord, and its results, when it is put into practice, are visible in this very life. It is timeless; it invites the inquirer to come and see personally what it is like; it is progressive, leading from lower to higher states of existence.
The Dharma consists of various doctrines or teachings. These represent neither speculative opinions nor generalisations from a limited range of spiritual experience, but are, for the Buddhist, conceptual formulations of the nature of existence as seen by a fully enlightened Being who, out of compas¬sion, makes known to humanity the truth that he has discovered. It is in this sense that Buddhism may be termed a revelation. According to the most ancient basic accounts of a crucial episode, the truth, law, or principle which Lord Buddha perceived at the time of his Enlightenment, in the percep¬tion of which, indeed, that Enlightenment consisted and which, on account of its abstruseness, he was at first reluctant to disclose to a passion-ridden generation, was that of the ‘conditionally co-producedness’ (paticca-samup-panna) of things. Conditioned Co-production is, therefore, the basic Buddhist doctrine, recognised and taught as such first by the Buddha and his immediate disciples and thereafter, throughout the whole course of Buddhist history.
Dharma is a philosophical entity that highlighted the high ideals and spiritual enlightenment as a key to successful life. When Pillar Edict II in India was translated, it described the “middle path”, the way to enlightenment through Dharma that Buddha taught in his first sermon. Ashoka, the Mauryan emperor, aspired for a harmonious environment where everyone could co-exist peacefully irrespective of his or her caste creed and religion. Some of his ideals were to shun war and spread peace, stop animal sacrifices, respect elders, masters treating slaves like humans, promoting vegetarianism, etc. These ideals if followed correctly led one to a higher level of living and one could finally attain nirvana. Ashoka appointed Dhamma Mahamattas who were basically officers looking after the spread of these principles across Ashoka’s empire. Ashoka propagated the principles of Dharma not just in India but also in countries like Sri Lanka, Burma and other South East Asian nations. Ashoka’s religious policy of Dharma had carved out a permanent place for him in the niche of ancient Indian history. Dharma as reported by the historians was a policy of Ashoka in order to unify a nation so large that the people of one region could share the little in common with those of other regions. Dharma would bring harmony to India in the form of compassion. Serving as a guiding light, a voice of conscience, dharma can lead one to be a respectful, responsible human being.
As interpreted by the gifted early Buddhist nun Dhammadinna, whose views were fully endorsed by the Buddha with the remark that he had nothing further to add to them. The doctrine of Conditioned Co-production represents an all-inclusive reality that admits of two different trends of things in the whole of existence. In one of them the reaction takes place in a cyclical order between two opposites, such as pleasure and pain, virtue and vice, good and evil. In the other the reaction takes place in a progressive order between two counter¬parts or complements, or between two things of the same genus, the succeed¬ing factor augmenting the effect of the preceding one. The Samsara or Round of Conditioned Existence represents the first trend. Herein, as depicted by the ‘Wheel of Life’, conscious beings under the influence of craving, hatred, and bewilderment revolve as gods, men, demons (asuras), animals, ghosts (pretas), and denizens of hell in accordance with the law of karma, and experience pleasure and pain.
The process is set forth briefly in the first and second of the Four Aryan Truths, the Truth of Suffering and the Truth of the Origin of Suffering, and at length in the full list of twelve ‘nidanas’ or links. This is often, though wrongly, regarded as exhausting the entire content of Conditioned Co-production. Conditioned by spiritual ignorance (avidya) arise the karma-formations (samskara); conditioned by the karma-formations arises con¬sciousness (vijnana); conditioned by consciousness arises name-and-form (nama-rupa); conditioned by name-and-form arise the six sense-fields (shaday-atana). Moreover, conditioned by the six sense-fields arises contact (sparsa); conditioned by contact arises feeling (vedana); conditioned by feeling arises thirst (trishna). In addition to these, grasping (upadana) arises conditioned by thirst; conditioned by grasping arises ‘becoming’ (bhava); conditioned by ‘becoming’ arises birth (jati); decay-and-death (jaramarana) with sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair arises conditioned by birth. These twelve links are distributed over three lifetimes, the first two belonging to the past life, the middle eight to the present, and the last two to the future.
No Indian ideal could be inconsistent with dharma, ‘righteousness’. This word tends to bring cosmology down into touch with the mundane details of private law. Without dharma, in however blanched a form, fertility, peace, civilized life are considered to be jeopardized. Dharma is in one sense natural, in that it is not created or determined and in another it is always to be striven for. Dharma is unnatural in that to achieve it one must put forth uncongenial efforts of self-control, irrespective of popular reactions. If dharma (as contrasted with positive legislation) only in part re¬sembles natural law it is nevertheless a code of moral obligations to which tin, uninstructed nations (mlecchas), innocent of brahmanical learning, cannot attain. Dharma, indeed, means duty (kartavyata), and the study of dharma in¬volves a discovery of the duties of individuals, groups, and, among them, their political leaders. Dharma is an abstraction of ‘sva-dharma’, the ‘own dharma’ of each caste and category of person.
Dharma derives linguistically from a root meaning ‘to hold’. Dharmas vary according to the person’s varna (his ‘quality’, class, or ‘caste’) and his asrama (stage of life, or status). The ideals of the ‘dharma-sastra’, the ‘science’, or rather ‘teaching’ of righteousness, proceeded far beyond these classifications. Dharma had an isolated existence of its own. It was not adjustable to suit opinions and occasions. The goals themselves were a product of the rationalizing of that caste society. We have seen them in connection with the ideals, conventionally phrased as dharma, artha, kama, and, ultimately, moksha, ‘release from re¬birth’, ‘salvation’.
The discovery in the Arthasastra of recommendations which are un¬ethical by Indian standards is thus to be reconciled, for without artha (material advantage) dharma cannot be practiced, nor kama obtained, without which sons cannot be born to worship gods and ancestors, and thus moksha itself is in jeopardy. The need, psychologically, for moksha explained all aspects of the ancient Indian polity, in theory and in history; and with the decline of the desire for moksha we now find a redefinition of values, and a different con¬ception of the state.