What is dharma and how can it help bring you contentment?

Despite being an ancient concept, discovering your dharma, or true calling in life, couldn’t be more relevant than it is today. The natural desire to carry out a duty that is both in line with what you believe is right and brings you inner contentment is good not only for your mental health, but also for others, if it brings a service. Rebecca Woodland, professor of educational leadership at the University of Massachusetts, talks us through the meaning of dharma.

Illustration: Maggie Stephenson
Words: Lucy McGuire

Where does dharma come from?

The origins of dharma go back a long way, to the spiritual literature of India, when the Mahabharata, often referred to as ‘the Great Epic’ or the world’s longest poem, was created. According to Hindu belief, dharma is, in its simplest form, the ‘quality that epitomises what it is to be truly human’.

As Sanskrit literature evolved, the meaning of dharma became more multi layered across faiths. In various schools of Buddhism, for example, it refers to the path of enlightenment or universal truth that followers of the Buddha must seek, while in Jainism, it can be interpreted as moral virtue or an eternal substance, or dravya, that allows beings to move. Sikhs often refer to dharma in the context of a spiritual path that leads to a connection to one’s divine truth, while for Hindus, it’s used to describe a code or set of rules, ethics and duties that must be followed to enable social order and harmony to exist.

But to embrace a dharmic way of life, from an ancient Hindu perspective, it’s necessary to carry out day-to-day duties with full acceptance, regardless of how onerous or challenging they may become.

How to embrace dharma in modern Western society

While dharma can be seen as a duty or state of mind, many western interpretations view it as a unique life purpose that each individual personally discovers. The self-help and life coaching industries have also embraced the dharmic philosophy as a way of helping people find a new direction in life.

While the notion of stumbling upon a true calling in life and living more altruistically sounds desirable, the practice of dharma doesn’t have to be as full-scale as these examples. Nor does it require the constant seeking of some great epiphany or quitting a job for a vastly different way of life, especially when financial and societal pressures come into play.

So, while life might feel messy and flawed and not at all in service to anything, the truth is, you could already be living out your dharma in more ways than you realise.

Five questions to tune into your personal dharma

  1. What are the toughest life events and challenges you’ve had to overcome and how have they shaped you as a person? How can you turn these experiences into ways of helping or educating others?
  2. What kind of activities are you naturally drawn to and what brings you a feeling of pure joy? It could be gardening, baking or playing with children. How can you use these as a way of giving back to your community?
  3. What are the key responsibilities in your daily life and how can you apply a mindset of kindness or service to these things?
  4. Do you have a unique strength or trait that your friends or family compliment you on? Can you use it to help others?
  5. If fear or other limiting factors didn’t stand in your way, what would your life purpose be?

The benefits of building a dharma team

The path to your truest self can become clearer in the company of friends. Discovering your dharma has many benefits but staying true to it is challenging in the face of everyday demands. One-way of holding reality at bay to create space for exploration, discussion and meditation is to build a dharma team. This is a small group of people who recognise and appreciate the aspects of dharma and have a desire and commitment to seeing each other flourish.