What is Dharma?
Sister Nivedita

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.

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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.