The one fundamental principle that sustains order in this world is the sense of right vs wrong. Hindus of course are very familiar with this and use the term Dharma to refer to this principle.
There is a prevalent opinion in intellectual circles that the word Dharma has manifold meanings and represents a collection of inferences. I beg to differ on this and think that the fundamental principle behind all these definitions are actually the same.
Doing that which brings order and stability (in the long run) is Dharma for that context. This applies to all three categories of entities in this world – insentient beings, sentient beings without intellect, sentient intellectual(ly capable) beings.
The key question is – who decides what is Dharma in each of these cases? Who decides what is right or wrong?
In the case of insentient beings, it is Prakruti that controls this completely. The Sri-tattva, with Mahalakshmi being the presiding deity of it, fully decides what is Dharma or Adharma for a jada vastu (insentient being).
The stone does not have a choice in deciding whether it can be hard or soft. A bale of cotton cannot choose to be hard instead of its regular texture. A proton doesn’t get to decide whether it can be ‘negative’ for a few hours. Nature decides their inherent property – which is their Dharma. The world would collapse if you couldn’t bank on the fact that stone used in the foundation of a house will remain hard forever. The world cannot function if cotton did not *always* give itself into threads! There would be destruction in the world if opposite polarities of a magnet did not always attract each other.
Thus Nature is the sole arbitrator of Dharma for insentient beings.
When it comes to sentient beings that lack intellect, who plays a bigger role in deciding Dharma? Nature does play a role but in this case the instinct of the jeeva or the janma-svabhava kicks in. These beings are driven by their instinct into doing what they are supposed to do.
It is the Dharma of a flowering plant to produce attractive flowers. It is similarly the Dharma of a bee to suck nectar out of such a flower.
Imagine what could happen if a flower were to choose whether or not it will produce attractive flowers. Imagine the chain of reactions that would take place if a swarm of bees refused to suck nectar out of flowers for a whole year! The natural ecosystem of our world would collapse. The colour of the flower and the nectar-sucking habit of the bee have a direct role in ensuring the stability of this world. Their activity “bears” or “does dharana” of this world (in their own small way). That is why it is their “Dharma”.
When it comes to sentient beings with intellect – human beings – who then decides what is right and wrong? Who decides what is Dharma?
Shastra says the jeeva or soul has an inherent mind of its own – the swabhavika manas. In addition, each jeeva begins with an “anaadi karma” that is in line with the inherent nature of the jeeva. Both these strictly speaking are distinct from prakruti. Hence they have an agency of their own. This agency is controllable by Paramatma of course but they are still distinct than him.
This is why Dharma for humans cannot be left to be decided by nature or the instinct of man. The intellect possessed by humans is again unique and therefore each person’s idea of what is right and what is wrong will vary. The end result of such a system is guaranteed chaos.
The inherent nature of the jeeva, his samskara or upbringing and the karma that the jeeva carries into this janma will bear a significant influence in the jeeva’s judgement of things. Such a judgement will not always be favourable towards “sustaining order”. In other words, these factors will cloud the judgement of what is Dharma.
Saying lies when in grave danger may be acceptable to some. Others may think that lying to sustain oneself is perfectly ok. Imagine a world where you cannot simply trust the words of another under any circumstances! Killing a person may be abhorrent for some. While some may justify violence and killing saying that it is nature’s way of ensuring the survival of the fittest!
Imagine if the government were to make paying taxes (of any form) optional! Some may still pay taxes (their interpretation of what is right) but then such people could claim a more privileged right over resources in the country! Recipe for chaos certainly.
It is for this reason that our ancient Rishis and Acharyas have pointed towards Shastras as being the most reliable source of Dharma for us. The collective wisdom of sajjanas (noble people) gathered over thousands of years, and subject to careful samskara (refinement) gives us a much greater chance of doing the ‘right thing’ under any circumstance. All of such Shastra is of course rooted to the apaurusheya or revealed Vedas. Not being the product of human intellect, the Vedas naturally do not suffer from any defects introduced by mortals.
Being loyal to such Vedas, Shastras therefore offer a most reliable source of ‘Dharma-Adharma Viveka’ for us humans.
It has become a fashion these days to say ‘Dharmo Rakshati Rakshitah’ to qualify any seemingly right work done. The ‘rakshana’ of Dharma is not possible without the ‘rakshana’ of ‘Dharma moola’ i.e. the source of Dharma.
Preservation, refinement by the right authorities, respect and propagation of Shastras – the moola of Dharma – is therefore an extremely important duty for all “true” Hindus.