Filed in History

The Many Meanings of Dharma

Deciphering Buddhism’s most common wordRobert E. Buswell, Jr. and Donald S. Lopez, Jr.

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The Sanskrit term dharmadhamma in Pali, chos (pronounced chö) in Tibetan, fa in Chinese, ho in Japanese, and pop in Korean—is a term of wide import in Buddhism. It is also notoriously difficult to translate, a problem acknowledged in traditional sources, where as many as ten different meanings are enumerated. Dharma derives from the Sanskrit verbal root dhri, which means “to hold” or “to maintain.”

The term dharma was important in India even before the rise of Buddhism. In Vedic literature, it often refers to the ritual sacrifice that maintains the order of the cosmos. In Hinduism, there is an important genre of literature called the Dharmashastras, “treatises on dharma,” which set forth the social order and the respective duties of its members in relation to caste, gender, and stage of life. Indian kings used the term to refer to the policies of their realms.

In the 18th century, officers of the British East India Company were instructed to educate themselves in the fine points of the Hindu legal system. After consulting with Brahmin priests...

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