Like the delicate charm that is common to honourable women; like the distinctive greatness of saints and heroes; like the intellectual breadth of a university city; like all the finest things in the world in fact, Indian thought had remained till the year 1893 without a definition, and without a name. For the word dharma can in no sense be taken as the name of a religion. It is the essential quality, the permanent, unfluctuating core, of substance,—the man-ness of man, life-ness of life, as it were. But as such it may assume any form, according to the secret of the individuality we are considering. To the artist his art, to the man of science his science, to the monk his vow, to the soldier his sovereign’s name, to each believer his own particular belief—any of these, or all, may be dharma. There is indeed another, and collective sense—somewhat akin to the English commonwealth, or, better still, perhaps, translated as the national righteousness—but even this does not connote a creed. It applies to that whole system of complex action and interaction, on planes moral, intellectual, economic, industrial, political, and domestic—which we know as India or the national habit. It was for this dharma that the Rani of Jhansi fought. By their attitude to it Pathan, Mogul, and the Englishman, are judged, each in his turn, by the Indian peasantry. As head of this system, Judisthira, the Indian Charlemagne, received the name by which the people know him to this day, of Dharma-Raja. And what this dharma was, in all its bearings, is perhaps best laid down in the charge of the dying Bhishma to the future sovereigns of India, in the eighteenth book of the Mahabharata.
It is clear that such a conception is very inadequately rendered by the English word “religion.” It is clear also that to dissect out and set in order the distinctively religious elements in an idea so definite at its centre, and so nebulous at its edges—claiming thereby to have defined the religion of the Indian peoples—would be a task of extreme difficulty. It must have been in the face of just such problems that Max Müller exclaimed, “Ancient words are round, and modern square!”
From The Web of Indian Life.