What is ‘Dharma’? Creating the Dharma of Sustainable Educational Models

What is ‘Dharma’? Creating the Dharma of Sustainable Educational Models

Dharma? Is it complicated to explain? Is it a simple concept? What is “the dharma”? How to define it? It’s said to be full and empty, nothing and everything, unqualified, unformed, unknowable, all knowing, formless, above and beyond, integral to, all-in-all, in everyone, also nonexistent, a non-identity, unfathomable. Dharma is everything; it is nothing; the one and the many, simultaneously.

Is Dharma a difficult concept to define? A myriad complexity that is everything, everywhere, all at once… and nowhere. All knowledge, all wisdom, and tangible consciousness, alive, intangible, aware and filled with light and unqualified love and reflecting back qualities of wisdom. Is that Dharma? What is Dharma? Considering how central the concept of Dharma is to the belief systems of billions of people on planet Earth, it is startling how few Americans actually know what Dharma means. I conducted an unofficial poll sporadically over the last thirty years, and asked dozen’s of Americans “What is the meaning of ‘Dharma’? Many people replied, simply, “Doesn’t it have something to do with ‘karma’?” Everyone knows what karma is, you reap what you sow… follow the golden rule, or the rock and roll lyrics, “instant karma’s gonna’ get you”, and all that… but Dharma? Dharma… they’re clueless… mostly. The most common, and at least geographically correct response was that Dharma “has something to do with Asia, doesn’t it?”

In response to the question, “What is the meaning of ‘Dharma’?” Old timers will give you a far away look and remember the Dharma Bums, or Allen Ginsberg. The answers changed somewhat through the years, for instance, two decades ago many answers mentioned the TV show, “Dharma and Greg”. Nowadays, people drink Dharma coffee beans. Only a fraction of the people have responded with a suitable reply such as “Dharma means something like ‘the way’ or ‘the path…. maybe like the ‘Tao’ in Chinese.” Probably about 15% of Americans had this sort of appropriate reply to the question, “What is Dharma?” Even the common colonial mistranslation of the word ‘Dharma’ to mean ‘Religion’, was welcomed as a better informed reply.

To Hindus and Buddhists, Dharma is the light in the world, the jewel in the lotus, the Dharma- it’s complicated and simple at the same time. It means ‘the truth’, the ‘path through illusion’, the ‘meaning of life’, and the processes of striving towards goodness. The ‘Yin and the Yang’ working together. The Dharma can be the path to God. It can be the messages along your path that give you strength and wisdom to ‘weather-on’- inspiration, guidance. Dharma can be your life’s passions, your karmic duty, your moment of truth, and/or your inner drive. Dharma can be the little bits of light that always surround us, or perhaps those life-altering crescendo moments. It’s simultaneously the dark cloud and the silver lining. Dharma is grace and sometimes grace can be fierce.

Your Dharma is the journey or the search for your true self. Many American people are just learning the meaning of the word Dharma and many Dharmic peoples are learning the deeper meanings and changing contexts of the law or concepts of Dharma, which comes from the Sanskrit root dhr – to hold firm, that which upholds or supports. It also means Law or Natural Law -as in the natural order of things. In the Rg Veda, the word appears as, dhárman, meaning literally, that which is established or firm and figuratively the name of the divinity, the “sustainer, supporter”.

One of the world’s most famous mantras is “Aum Mani Padme Hum” literally meaning: “Aum” – praise, hail, honor, “Mani” – the jewel that stands for the Dharma, in the “Padme” or lotus, which means the world. The lotus blossom floats in the sunlight on the top of the pond or lake, but its roots go down to the dark mire and mud at the bottom. The jewel in the lotus is the Dharma in the world. Aum Mani Padme Hum: Hail the jewel in the lotus… Praise the Dharma in the world.

In classical Sanskrit, the word is dhárma- and in Pali, it takes the form dhamma and has come to mean the teachings of the Buddha’s Dhamma- the turning of the wheel of Dharma. The term Dharma is often used in reference to the philosophies and religions of Indian origin—sometimes summarized under the umbrella term of ‘Dharmic faiths’— including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. It is difficult to provide a single concise definition for Dharma. These comprise the Dharmic faiths in contrast to the Abrahamic faiths originating in the Middle East, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which have very different perspectives about the meaning of life and death.

“The word [Dharma] has a long and varied history and straddles a complex set of meanings and interpretations.” Dharma is a lens “through which humans plan and perform their interactions with the world. Through the Dharmic lens, one focuses on doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong. Dharma – anything that helps to unite all and develop pure divine love and universal brotherhood, is Dharma. Anything that creates discord, split and disharmony and foments hatred, is adharmic, ‘a- Dharmic’.” <>

Dharma sustains harmonious life. The basic nature or function of Dharma regulates and guides worldly (and ‘other worldly’) affairs, which, as a consequence, brings happiness and harmony. Dharma is the sole refuge of humanity, only through Dharma, are all things born and dissolved. Dharma elevates us, sustains us, leads us to the path of love and light and helps us to realize our relationship with divinity and learn the processes of the spiritually evolved essence. Dharma is the source and the destination. Self-realization is top most on the list of Dharmic responsibilities or aspirations, and all other duties such as getting an education, making a living, or raising family, (Artha, Kama) are stair steps towards the final evolutionary goal of Dharma, which is Moksha or complete self- realization, that is characterized as “infinite bliss, supreme peace and highest knowledge … the crowning glory of all human endeavors”. Hence the essence of the source or origin, the substance or meaning of the underlying goals, the sustainability factor, and the overall function or motivating matrix of Dharma is a movement towards the clear light that shines with love and wisdom. Light, love, and wisdom… very sustainable…

The ‘Dharma in the World’ and ‘Sustainability Education’ are linked through a similar message, a parallel methodology, and mutual goals. Sustainability Education while creating the study of sustainability models, also models sustainability through the creation of sustainable pedagogic and andragogic models that can be used and adapted and reused. Sustainability is a pedagogical paradigm that maintains homeostasis or equilibrium by applying and adapting its inherent flexibility (it remains in the Dharma, by using the tools of Dharma…). Sustainability models are simultaneously grounded as well as flexible, and though well centered they are also multi-perspectival, with a fluidity flowing between internal contradictions – like the Dharma. This fractal equilibrium is an adaptive manifestation of the workable functioning paradox of radical inclusivity that includes the mutually exclusive, or excludes exclusivity, depending on the perspective. Dharmic observations and sustainability models link the observer with the observed thus linking the origins with the end, sending light throughout. The light is the essence of everything, symbolic of love and wisdom, inherent goodness and kindness and vast understanding; it’s steady and flickering at the same time. Divine qualities of self- sustaining love and ever growing, evolving wisdom imbue the basic nature of the “real world” – a sublime consciousness of the Dharma working in the world

Though cloaked in alternative academic or pedagogic terminology, nonetheless the essential processes of Sustainability Education investigate how the Dharma maintains within the systems, how the Dharma moves through and plays out in the world. Dharma is the sustainability principle –operating within the dukkha or disquietude, the imbalance. It is responding to the instability… Dharma is what works…. the smooth wheel, or no need for a wheel. Dharma is that which is sustainable- Truth, ‘Dhruv’ – True North, Dharma = Stability Principle/Natural Law… dhr – that which holds up, the basic nature is the “up-holding of”.

Instability is inherent in the apparent yet incomplete stability or solidity of nature, and therein the instability is the very source of stability, which is Dharma. And naturally this is built into the basic structure of Sustainability Education that must respond to changes in the topic under discussion and adapt to the incorporation and absorption of new viewpoints and data or adjust to the decoupling or jettisoning of old assumptions and discarded information. The sustainability principle is the underlying pedagogic vehicle or the personification of the methodology, itself a reproducible, reflexive, living ‘systems thinking’ model, that can adapt to changing conditions or principles, much less changing data. Dharmic Learning is an understanding of the processes of sustainability, an active process, an ‘all parts engaged’, systems approach.

The innately and absolutely unstable nature of the instability principle is the underlying power (Sanskrit: shakti) or energy source. Fluidity guided by that uncertain flickering light of certitude, personifies the aggregates internally, providing an inherent thematic and systemic continuity, stability …and as some say, giving rise to Consciousness. The sustainability paradigm exemplifies the core of the Dharma. Drawing from this simultaneously ‘centered’ and ‘responsive’ dichotomy, pedagogic approaches or perspectives have evolved, envisioning ‘System Thinking’, Sustainability Education– implementing programs such as ‘STEM Learning’ (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) that further the understanding of harmonious workable activity within the unstable, the insubstantial, providing an unscripted scheme, a spontaneity within an all-inclusive theme. The sum-total of which incorporates and transcends disquietude and instability, as does the Dharma in the world.

Liberal Arts education has long sought to extol an educational model that reflects sustainability constructs, by introducing students to wide raging concepts and perspectives. “A central tenet of a liberal arts education is to broadly educate students so that they may become responsible citizens who can understand and respond to the complex issues that they face or will face in the future. Sustainability represents a complex, interconnected and ever-changing set of issues.” Sustainability paradigms are reflected in the Liberal Arts in so far as sustainability is the inherent core methodology found within traditional Liberal Arts education that presents a multi-faceted approach and learning to how to adjust to these changing paradigms and approaches. In this context, “sustainability is a natural progression of Liberal Arts because it is what is needed for students to be prepared for the future. While there are many interpretations and applications of sustainability across the vast spectrum of issues, the fundamental issues and our need to address them in a way that perpetuates human life is clear.”

This ideal situation where homeostasis finds balance through instability can only happen if citizens or participants are informed and involved and have internalized personal and cooperative creative problem-solving skills. Such balanced educational experiences result in people learning to become responsible individuals committed to social actions that promote and support interactive and appropriate solutions to problems, internalized commitment to the techniques of personal nonviolent conflict resolution. Call these systems “Sustainability Theories”, or anything else that is working to make the planet a peaceful prosperous place for all sentient beings, describe this force through various theoretical constructs, and it is still indicative of the Dharma in the world.

Dharmic awareness or understanding can be examined through the academic model of ” Sustainability Education “, a corollary methodological approach were many aspects in Sustainability Theories are parallel and reflected in Dharma. The concepts inherent in Sustainability Theories are in the process of being enthusiastically embraced by mainstream academia and western institutions and are recognized as essential components of a more harmonious and equitable world in the future. Concepts such as equanimity, impartiality, broadmindedness, synthesis, and cooperation are inherent in sustainability models and also are the essence of the Dharma. A sustainable world is one that is characterized by peaceful coexistence, in which environmental protection, economic equity, and social justice are linked together—the methods of Dharma.

This seemingly dualistic approach can consider questions from a Dharmic perspective informed within a Sustainable Educational paradigm – how can Education and Curriculum be taught incorporating Dharmic intentions? Also using Sustainable Educational analyses to deconstruct and understand the manner in which the Dharmic Traditions were traditionally taught in secondary and tertiary academia, tracing the sources of the educational models and their trajectories.

The union of Dharma and Sustainability Education can show how life’s systems are interconnected. And bring recognition to the learner when human activities lead to systemic failures across a broad spectrum of social and philosophical ideas and strategies that should focus on the needs of a finite planet and human evolution. Such awareness can give rise to appropriate responses to unsustainable models that tax the earth’s resources causing environmental degradation, species extinction and pollution and divide humanity into self-centered competitive factions. The Dharma is the key to survival and sustainability.


Dr. Chris Chapple – Nonviolence to Animals, Earth, and Self in Asian Traditions (1993), Hinduism and Ecology (2000), Jainism and Ecology: Nonviolence in the Web of Life (2002) and Reconciling Yogas (2003).

Pankaj Jain – “Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities: Sustenance and Sustainability” (May 2011)

Sustainable Development – Anita Komanduri, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX, USA, from “Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace, and Conflict” (Elsevier-Academic)
Editor-in-Chief: Lester Kurtz George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, USA

Dictionary- Dharma: duty, virtue, cosmic order, and religion

The value of sustainability does not obligate; it only orients. And the fact of sustainability as such is neither good nor bad; it just is. It’s a question of how we discern the relevant and right conduct, in light of what we know, and grounded in our lived, meaningful, embodied experience here on Earth. It’s how we flesh it all out in our practical choices that count. At times we may even need to choose against the force of some better argument, since the logic of experience does not always accommodate the logic of our favored ideas and our best advice. If we are to negotiate effectively the social and environmental difficulties we face in the coming decades and centuries, a critical mass of persons around the world will need to act upon an experientially grounded awareness of our belonging as earthly beings amidst myriads of other earthly beings. We will need to recognize the relevance and the rightness and the efficacy of a more participatory understanding of our place in the broader earth community.

-Matthew C. Ally, “Glimpses of Earth: Sustainability in the Crucible of Experience,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review, Volume 63: 1&2. (2008)

“It is not enough just to ‘love nature’ or want to be ‘in harmony with Gaia.’ Our relation to the natural world takes place in a place, and it must be grounded in information and experience.” —Gary Snyder


Dharma in the world – flickering, forever, glistening with a self-sustaining nature, the essence of creative energy,
 producing varying densities and shades of light and love:

Dharma in the world… love and light …. light and love, 
both elements mutually conducive to the movement of vitality and goodness… light and love…. vitality and goodness… Dharma in the world – flickering, forever,

inextinguishable by its very nature, light and love… filled with goodness from its very core….
Dharma – flickering… forever… self-sustaining…
Dharma in the world…

The essence of light made manifest through the power of love

The movement of light meeting love

In every moment…
Spreads wisdom in all directions…

Light permeated space with wisdom and love… Light up your life!

Dharma in the world

Aum Mani Padme Hum

Featured Image: Bullfrog Power

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

Yvette Rosser

Dr. Yvette Claire Rosser, was given the name RamRani by her Guru Neem Karoli Baba. She is an American writer and scholar, who self-identifies as Hindu. Dr. Rosser has investigated the ubiquitous Indo-phobic bias that is found in secondary level social studies textbooks used in American classrooms. She had taught Westerners, especially teachers, the basics of Hinduism. See her research at: Her Ph.D. dissertation, "Curriculum as Destiny: Forging National Identities in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh," is a study of the politics of history in South Asia. The book, "Islamization of Pakistani Social Studies Textbooks", (RUPA, New Delhi, 2003) grew out of her dissertation study. (See this review: Rosser is currently working on her next book titled, "The Politicisation of India's Historiography"