धर्म - धारयति स: धर्म - One which "holds on" is "Dharma" (literally - holder, stabilizer)
In the Rigveda, the word appears as an n-stem, dhárman-, with a range of meanings encompassing "something established or firm" (in the literal sense of prods or poles), figuratively "sustainer, supporter" (of deities), and semantically similar to the Greek ethos ("fixed decree, statute, law"). In Classical Sanskrit, the noun becomes thematic, dharma-. It is a derivation from Proto-Indo-Iranian root *dhar- ("to fasten, to support, to hold"), in turn reflecting Proto-Indo-European root *dʰer- ("to hold"), which in Sanskrit is reflected as class-1 root √dhṛ. Etymologically it is related to Avestan √dar- ("to hold"), Old Persian √dar- ("to hold, have"), Latin frēnum ("rein, horse tack"), Lithuanian derė́ti ("to be suited, fit"), Lithuanian dermė (agreement), darna ("harmony") and OCS drъžati ("to hold, possess"). Classical Sanskrit word dharmas would formally match with Latin o-stem firmus < *PIE *dʰer-mo-s "holding", were it not for its historical development from earlier Rigvedic n-stem. (From Wiki)
There are various interpretations of "Dharma" in all the different philosophies. These interpretations can be easily found on Wiki. In this post, I would try to understand what do people (wise-men and aam abdul) mean when they use this term.
Dharma is commonly used as synonym for following three words.
3. Nature (as in nature of an individual OR object)
All three meanings are interlinked with each other, trying to search for the concept of "righteousness" gives us the agreement with other two terms as well.
Righteousness - To understand the concept of "righteousness" in Indic context, we have understand the concept of "Satya". I shall present it briefly.
There are three levels of "existence" in Indic world-view.
1. Satyam - One which exists in all times and places.
2. Rutam - One whose existence is limited in space and/or time.
3. Asatyam - One which never exists in space and time.
Satyam is equated as Brahman, Parabrahman, Supreme principle which makes up the very fabric of this universe and space-time continuum. An assumed entity which forms something that is "most fundamental" in universe which makes up everything around. This is post Vedic concept, in Nasadiya Sukta, sages say there was no Satya, nor Asatya before creation. They say further, that Satya is brother of Asatya. In other words, Existence and Non-Existence are kin, one can't exist without another. The very concept of "existence" is meaningless without the concept of "non-existence".
Any behaviour which is in accordance to Satyam and Rutam is typically considered "Righteous". Any behaviour which favours "Sajjan (Sat-Jana)" is Righteous. When asked, what is that, who are "Sajjan" people, various people have various answers. Typically answer is people following their particular "Moksha-Maarga" are Sajjan. This does not necessarily mean rest are Durjans because "Durjana" not an antonym for "Sajjan". The real antonym for "Durjan" is "Sujan".
Sajjan refers to those who follow the path of eternal truth/existence. What is this path? Who Qualify as "Sajjan". I have asked this question to many learned and "Awakened" and "Enlightened" men from various Indic moksha-Margas. When asked to answer this question theoretically based on the Moksha-Shaastras they follow and propound, they came up with standard answer - People following the teachings in those Shastras are "Sajjan". However, when asked to explain, there was a surprising agreement in their answers. It was tricky to find precise words for identification of "Sajjan" and hence "Dharma".
The precise words were found while having a conversation with a "Shaakta" priest. I recount his narration verbatim,
"Every Jeeva and object possesses an intrinsic drive to evolve and achieve equilibrium with the surroundings. In a complex system of individual "Jeevas (all species)" and objects, all of them arrive at a mutually acceptable solution (or set of solutions) so that everybody's intrinsic drive is addressed. This set of mutually acceptable solutions (or rules) is called Dharma. And those who follow this "Dharma" are "Sajjan" people"
Inanimate objects do not evolve, but they tend to achieve most stable configuration. Jeevas do show this drive to evolve.
Continuing, he said, " This intrinsic drive is real Dharma. The solutions arrived upon to address this drive of every player in the game is "Baahya-Dharma" and subject to change and update with change in space and time and conditions.
So far as my experience goes, every Indic system means more OR less same thing, when asked to "elaborate" upon their understanding of Dharma and Sajjan people. This includes Tantra.
Thus, Dharma forms the fundamental "Scaffold" against which another common factor of Indic religions "Karma" is measured.
Before going further, I feel it is appropriate to define and answer following questions.
1. What is Karma (Deed)
2. How is it different from "Kriya" (Action)?
3. When does an action (kriya) qualify as deed (karma) and vice versa?
There are various understandings of Karma and Kriya. The famous "Kriya-yoga" of Paramhansa Yogananda deals with this question in an interesting fashion. While my discussion with Dr. P.V.Vartak (The Mahabharat date fame), he explained this concept to me rather lucidly. (BTW, apart from his books on dates of MBH and Ramayan, his commentaries on Upanishads, Geeta and Yoga are awe-inspiring and lucid. Whilst I am a sceptical about his dates of MBH war, I highly recommend his commentaries on philosophical treatises.)
Quoting the words of Dr. Vartak,"any action by a sane human being with respect to any other living being is a karma and not a kriya". I checked this definition with other followers of Indic paths, they seem to have no qualms with this framing of the definition.
Why "sane human being"? - because he understands the motive and hence has the ability to appreciate the "kaarya-Kaaran bhava". On asked, when does an individual become "sane", the answers were varied and contradictory. Some said, upon accepting their Moksha-Maarga, does an individual become sane; others said after the age of 12; few said after the "upanayanam (thread ceremony)". Law says after age of 18. Thus, this aspect is heavily contested.
Anyways, Dharma is the fundamental scaffold against which "sane" human beings measure the acceptability of their deeds (karma).
This set of mutually acceptable set of rules varies with space and time. Since Dharma is the standard to measure all of the human karmas, Dharma influences and pervades all aspects of human life - material and spiritual; as well as individual-communal-national-universal. Based on incumbent set of rules (Dharma-Shastra) in our space-time, we deem the deeds of us and fellow human beings as "Dhaarmik (Righteous)" or "Adharmic (Unrighteous)". In other words, Dharma-Shastra (set of mutually acceptable set of rules) is the constitution of a given society in given time and space under given conditions.
If we study the famous "Dharma-Shaastras" which were incumbent in India throughout past, we find out that they in fact are the rule-books. Of course, their expanse was much more than the one of incumbent constitution and Indian penal and civil code. Eg. Manu Smriti, Vaajasneya Smriti, Medhatithi Smriti; Vidura-neeti and many others. Thus, the most precise synonym for Dharma arrives - Dharma = Justice. In modern times, Constitution is Dharma-Shastra.
In all Indian languages, Dharma=Justice=Duty=Righteousness is the unspoken understanding. As it is evident, Dharma is nothing to do with Religion. Why and How did Dharma translated as religions by British people is beyond my comprehension. The very meaning of the term Dharma is forgotten by Indian public. What more is Dharma's Glaani? This understanding needs to be popularized.
Deracination - Simple - dharmasya Glaani: Bhavati - those who have forgotten the real meaning of dharma and assumed that Dharma = Religion are Deracinated