The following is a shortlist of prominent terms used in Vaiṣṇava literature to define the word “dharma.” Being familiar with these terms—and in what context they are used—will aid in understanding the real goal of dharma. Our goal in compiling this list, along with its definitions, is to minimize confusion and to inspire more in-depth study and discussions on this vital subject.
“Varṇāśrama-dharma, the system of four spiritual orders and four social orders of life, is of two kinds: demoniac and transcendental. They have nothing in common.” [Śrīla Prabhupāda / RTW 1.9]
“The purpose of varṇāśrama-dharma is saṁsiddhir hari-toṣaṇaṁ — one must offer the results of his activity for the pleasure of Lord Hari, hari-toṣaṇa. If one uses the results for his own enjoyment, for one’s dharma, artha, kāma, or mokṣa, then he is not following the principles of daivī-varṇāśrama-dharma but is following the principles of āsurī-varṇāśrama-dharma. If one acts selfishly — and even acting for mokṣa, for liberation, is selfish — that becomes duplicity, kāpaṭya.” [Gour Govinda Swami / PoI 3: The Fruit of Varṇāśrama-Dharma]
“Bhāgavata-dharma means living according to the instructions of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. In Bhagavad-gītā we find that the Supreme Lord has arranged human society in four social divisions, namely brāhmaṇa, kṣatriya, vaiśya and śūdra. Again, the Purāṇas and other Vedic literatures set forth four āśramas, which are the divisions of spiritual life. Therefore bhāgavata-dharma means the varṇāśrama-dharma of the four social and four spiritual divisions.” [SB 6.16.43 / Purport]
“Bhāgavata-dharma, bhakti-dharma, and bhāgavata-sevā-dharma are different names for the proper religious principle. To serve Kṛṣṇa and His devotees is a proper religious principle. Apart from this, everything else is temporary or conditioned dharma, or even an improper religious principle. Devotional service to the Lord is the soul’s eternal occupational duty, and that is why it is called a ‘proper religious principle.’” [Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura / Amṛta Vāṇī]
“Daivi-varnasrama-dharma is Vedic dharma understood as Vaiṣṇavism. It is the meeting point of gauna-dharma and mukhya-dharma. It is varnasrama in the transcendental mode of vasudeva-sattva, where Viṣṇu is known by liberated sages to be everything.” [Suhotra Swami / DGE 4: Chapter Four, Gauṇa-dharma and Mukhya-dharma]
“Someone may say, ‘Yes, I am following the principles of varṇāśrama-dharma.’ But if you are not engaged in hari-bhajana, if you are not utilizing the fruit of your occupational duty for the pleasure and satisfaction of Lord Hari, if you are only doing your duty for your own pleasure, then you must go to the hell named raurava.” [Gour Govinda Swami / PoI 3: The Fruit of Varṇāśrama-Dharma]
“Daivī-varṇāśrama-dharma is gauṇa-bhakti, gauṇa-patha, an inferior, indirect path. Gauṇa-bhakti is a bhakti-patha, a path of devotion, but it is secondary, not chief. Varṇāśrama-dharma is meant for conditioned souls, not for liberated souls who are situated in their constitutional position. It is not pure devotion.”[Gour Govinda Swami / PoI 3: The Fruit of Varṇāśrama-Dharma]
“Entering the airport (cultivating goodness) is termed gauṇa-dharma or secondary religion, and flying in an airliner to one's destination (going back home, back to Godhead) is termed mukhya-dharma, or primary religion.” [Suhotra Swami / DGE 4: Chapter Four, Gauṇa-dharma and Mukhya-dharma]
Naimittika-dharma and Nitya-dharma
“The inherent nature, svabhāva, is the eternal religion of a vastu—the nitya-dharma. In contrast, the assumed nature of a vastu—the nisarga—is its naimittika-dharma, temporary nature. One who possesses vastu-jñāna, knowledge of the Absolute Reality, is able to discriminate between nitya-dharma and naimittika-dharma, temporary, material, religious performance. However, without this knowledge, a person will falsely consider the temporary nisarga and resultant naimittika-dharma to be the nitya-dharma.” [Śrīla Bhaktivinode Ṭhākura / JDH 1: Nitya-dharma]
“This statement establishes the principle of an inherent and eternal relationship between the infinitesimal jīva and the infinite Supreme Lord. This relationship becomes obscured however when the spirit soul turns away from Kṛṣṇa. But when by good fortune the jīva's consciousness becomes purified, then the eternally mutual relationship between the Lord and the jīva is rejuvenated; just as a clean and shiny piece of iron is most efficiently magnetic prone. Purification is thus necessary in order to manifest their inherent and eternal relationship; other than this the process of purification has no real function. Therefore the purified jīvas who are sadhakas of the prema-dharma, or the path of loving devotional service to the Supreme Lord, should realize that this path is highly allergic to all other results, save and except kṛṣṇa-prema.” [Śrīla Bhaktivinode Ṭhākura / SS 8: Śloka Eight / Prema is the only result of bhakti]
“Neither ordinary materialistic yoga processes meant for achieving mystic powers nor impersonal processes based on speculation have the power to purify immediately those who have fallen into sinful behavior. Sad-dharma, or bhāgavata-dharma, pure devotional service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is unique in that even the most fallen souls can immediately rise to the highest perfectional stage by surrendering at the lotus feet of Kṛṣṇa or His pure devotee. This was vividly demonstrated in the preaching work of Caitanya Mahāprabhu, especially in the case of the sinful brothers Jagāi and Mādhāi.” [Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (Bhāgavata Purāṇa) / SB 11.2.12 / Purport]
“So Kṛṣṇa is sanātana, that world is sanātana, we are sanātana. Therefore we should meet together. And the process which helps us to go back to home, back to Godhead, and stay in that sanātana place with the sanātana Lord, that is called sanātana-dharma. Sanātana-dharma does not mean that a particular class of men having a particular type of dress or hair. No. Sanātana-dharma is meant for all living entities. They are rotting in this material world, repetition of birth and death. That is asanātana.” [Śrīla Prabhupāda / Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 1.3.1 -- November 14, 1972, Vṛndāvana]
“There are two kinds of sva-dharmas, specific duties. As long as one is not liberated, one has to perform the duties of his particular body in accordance with religious principles in order to achieve liberation. When one is liberated, one's sva-dharma—specific duty—becomes spiritual and is not in the material bodily concept. In the bodily conception of life there are specific duties for the brāhmaṇas and kṣatriyas respectively, and these duties are unavoidable. Such sva-dharma is ordained by the Lord, and this will be clarified in the Fourth Chapter. On the bodily plane sva-dharma is called varṇāśrama-dharma, or man's steppingstone for spiritual understanding. Human civilization begins from the stage of varṇāśrama-dharma, or specific duties in terms of the specific modes of nature of the body obtained. Discharging one's specific duty in any field of action in accordance with the orders of higher authorities serves to elevate one to a higher status of life.” [Śrīla Prabhupāda / Bhagavad-gītā As It Is / Contents of the Gītā Summarized / Bg 2.31]
“Vaiṣṇava dharma is the supreme religious principle, the ultimate occupational duty of all living entities. All other forms of religious systems are either supports of Vaiṣṇava dharma or perversions of it. When they are supportive, particular classes of transcendentalists will accept them, and when they are perverted, they are completely rejected.” [Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura / Amṛta Vāṇī]
“The conception of four castes and four orders of life, as planned by the Lord Himself (Bg. 4.13), is to accelerate transcendental qualities of the individual person so that he may gradually realize his spiritual identity and thus act accordingly to get free from material bondage, or conditional life. In almost all the Purāṇas the subject matter is described in the same spirit, and so also in the Mahābhārata it is more elaborately described by Bhīṣmadeva in the Śānti-parva, beginning from the sixtieth chapter.
The varṇāśrama-dharma is prescribed for the civilized human being just to train him to successfully terminate human life. Self-realization is distinguished from the life of the lower animals engaged in eating, sleeping, fearing and mating. Bhīṣmadeva advised for all human beings nine qualifications: (1) not to become angry, (2) not to lie, (3) to equally distribute wealth, (4) to forgive, (5) to beget children only by one's legitimate wife, (6) to be pure in mind and hygienic in body, (7) not to be inimical toward anyone, (8) to be simple, and (9) to support servants or subordinates. One cannot be called a civilized person without acquiring the above-mentioned preliminary qualities. Besides these, the brāhmaṇas (the intelligent men), the administrative men, the mercantile community and the laborer class must acquire special qualities in terms of occupational duties mentioned in all the Vedic scriptures.
For the intelligent men [the brāhmaṇas], controlling the senses is the most essential qualification. It is the basis of morality. Sex indulgence even with a legitimate wife must also be controlled, and thereby family control will automatically follow. An intelligent man abuses his great qualifications if he does not follow the Vedic way of life. This means he must seriously make a study of the Vedic literatures, especially of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam and the Bhagavad-gītā. For learning Vedic knowledge, one must approach a person who is cent percent engaged in devotional service. He must not do things which are forbidden in the śāstras. A person cannot be a teacher if he drinks or smokes. In the modern system of education the teacher's academic qualification is taken into consideration without evaluation of his moral life. Therefore, the result of education is misuse of high intelligence in so many ways.
The kṣatriya, the member of the administrative class, is especially advised to give charity and not to accept charity in any circumstances. Modern administrators raise subscriptions for some political functions, but never give charity to the citizens in any state function. It is just the reverse in the injunctions of the śāstras. The administrative class must be well versed in the śāstras, but must not take to the profession of teachers. Their energy should be especially directed toward killing the thieves, the dacoits, the black marketeers and all such undesirable elements of society. The administrators should never pretend to become nonviolent and thereby go to hell. When Arjuna wanted to become a nonviolent coward on the Battlefield of Kurukṣetra, he was severely chastised by Lord Kṛṣṇa. The Lord degraded Arjuna at that time to the status of an uncivilized man for his avowed acceptance of the cult of nonviolence. The administrative class must be personally trained in military education. Cowards should not be elevated to the presidential throne by dint of numerical votes only. The monarchs were all chivalrous personalities, and therefore monarchy should be maintained provided the monarch is regularly trained in the occupational duties of a king. In fighting, the king or the president should never return home without being hurt by the enemy. The so-called king of today never visits the warfield. He is very much expert in artificially encouraging the fighting strength in the hope of false national prestige. As soon as the administrative class is turned into a gang of mercantile and laborer men, the whole machinery of government becomes polluted.
The vaiśyas, the members of the mercantile communities, are especially advised to protect the cows. Cow protection means increasing the milk productions, namely yogurt and butter. Agriculture and distribution of the foodstuff are the primary duties of the mercantile community backed by education in Vedic knowledge and trained to give in charity. As the kṣatriyas were given charge of the protection of the citizens, vaiśyas were given the charge of the protection of animals. Animals are never meant to be killed. Killing of animals is a symptom of barbarian society. For a human being, agricultural produce, fruits and milk are sufficient and compatible foodstuffs. The human society should give more attention to animal protection. The productive energy of the laborer is misused when he is occupied by industrial enterprises. Industry of various types cannot produce the essential needs of man, namely rice, wheat, grains, milk, fruits and vegetables. The production of machines and machine tools increases the artificial living fashion of a class of vested interests and keeps thousands of men in starvation and unrest. This is not the standard of civilization.
The śūdra class is less intelligent and should have no independence. They are meant for rendering sincere service to the three higher sections of the society. The śūdra class can attain all comforts of life simply by rendering service to the higher classes. It is especially enjoined that a śūdra should never bank money. As soon as the śūdras accumulate wealth, it will be misused for sinful activities in wine, women and gambling. Wine, women and gambling indicate that the population is degraded to less than śūdra quality. The higher castes should always look after the maintenance of the śūdras, and they should provide them with old and used garments. A śūdra should not leave his master when the master is old and invalid, and the master should keep the servants satisfied in all respects. The śūdras must first of all be satisfied by sumptuous food and clothing before any sacrifice is performed. In this age so many functions are held by spending millions, but the poor laborer is not sumptuously fed or given charity, clothing, etc. The laborers are thus dissatisfied, and so they make agitation.
The varṇas are, so to speak, classifications of different occupations, and āśrama-dharma is gradual progress on the path of self-realization. Both are interrelated, and one is dependent on the other. The main purpose of āśrama-dharma is to awaken knowledge and detachment. The brahmacārī āśrama is the training ground for the prospective candidates. In this āśrama it is instructed that this material world is not actually the home of the living being. The conditioned souls under material bondage are prisoners of matter, and therefore self-realization is the ultimate aim of life. The whole system of āśrama-dharma is a means to detachment. One who fails to assimilate this spirit of detachment is allowed to enter into family life with the same spirit of detachment. Therefore, one who attains detachment may at once adopt the fourth order, namely, renounced, and thus live on charity only, not to accumulate wealth, but just to keep body and soul together for ultimate realization. Household life is for one who is attached, and the vānaprastha and sannyāsa orders of life are for those who are detached from material life. The brahmacārī-āśrama is especially meant for training both the attached and detached. [Śrīla Prabhupāda / Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (Bhāgavata Purāṇa) / SB 1.9.26 / Purport]
The universal religion [Vaisnava-dharma]