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Coming to Terms with Essential Terms

Parsing Vedanta, Yoga, and Dharma

Understanding words like Vedanta and Dharma is difficult on several counts. Ancient words from south Asia, they have infused the religions of the East. They are often used as ‘religious’ words, but religion means different things in Indic traditions than in Abrahamic traditions.

Vedanta and Dharma both bulge with meaning. Each one opens the door to libraries of commentary, dozens of schools of thought, and radically different interpretations. Each one is essential to South Asian religion. So what is a beginner to do?!!!

TIO’s staff agreed to craft the following descriptions of these two important Sanskrit words with enough detail to provide a general, lay person's understanding of what they mean without upsetting academics who know all the nuances.

Vedanta & Yoga – Wisdom Distilled and Practiced

Adi Shankara, an early proponent of Vedanta – Graphic: WikipediaThe word Vedanta means literally “the end” or “culmination” of the Vedas, Hinduism’s most ancient scriptures. Most scholars believe they were composed between 2,500 and 3,600 years ago.

The essence of Vedanta is held to be contained in the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Brahma Sutras, which date from the end of the Vedic period to the post-Vedic period. The Gita is revered as the crown jewel of Hindu texts, in which the core teachings of Vedanta and Yoga are revealed in a battlefield conversation between a renowned warrior, Arjuna, and his charioteer, who turns out to be Lord Krishna.Against this rich background, and without simplifying too much, these are the main philosophic premises of Vedanta.

  • God dwells in all beings.

  • Human beings essentially are one; each is priceless and deserving of love.

  • One's truest self is divine and eternal; the individual ego, or personality, is a transient embodiment or an illusion.

  • The Veda says Ekam sat vipraha bahudhga vadanti, or “Truth is one, the wise call it by many names.”

  • God is conceived as both formless or as manifest in multiple forms.

  • The highest goal of life is to realize your ultimate nature, which is one with the divine.

Living into these Vedantic truths and working towards personal liberation is the domain of Yoga. The word, which derives from the same root as yoke, can describe a path or discipline or a state of being that is characterized by union with the divine. One could say that the methods of Yoga lead to the attainment of liberation.

Classical yoga offers four basic approaches for working towards that liberation. All are considered essential, but individuals typically emphasize the one that best suits their personalities. They are: the path of love and devotion (bhakti), the philosophical/intellectual path of discernment (jnana), the path of selfless service (karma), and the path of mental and physical disciplines, especially meditation (raja). All four complement one another and can be woven into the liberated life, along with a relative latecomer, hatha yoga, which emphasizes the physical postures known as asanas. (Hatha is sometimes included under raja yoga.)


Dharma is one of those terms for which there is no adequate English equivalent. It’s usually translated as “duty,” but that doesn’t quite capture the essence of the term. Other attempts, like “law,” “right behavior” and “responsibility,” are no more accurate, and in many ways further off the mark. Dharma doesn’t traverse the distance from East to West, or span the time from ancient to modern, very well.

“Dharma” in Sanskrit – Calligraphy by Stewart J. ThomasThe word stems from a Sanskrit root meaning “to uphold” or “to support” (or “that which upholds/supports”). Upholds what? Basically, everything good. Action in accord with dharma supports all that is life-enhancing, healthy, natural, sacred, and in harmony with the evolution and fulfillment of the individual, the group, and the environment. Though it is thought of as a religious concept, it is actually closer to what scientists and philosophers would call natural law than the codes, creeds, and commandments of Western religion — or to civil laws for that matter.

Every entity in creation is said to have its own dharma. In human terms, each individual has his or her dharma, as do families, communities, and nations. And while Westerners often use the term as a synonym for “calling,” linking it to one’s natural, or destined, profession, that is only one aspect of dharma. Each of our roles has its dharma: the dharma of a child, a parent, a sibling, a student, a citizen, and so on. In each aspect of our lives, behaving in accord with dharma means acting in a way that promotes and maximizes the well-being of all. In Sanskrit it is caught in a single image, seen here in the hand of calligrapher Stewart J. Thomas

There is also a kind of universal dharma, shared by all beings, which is to evolve toward unity, or oneness, with all that is — the ultimate fulfillment that Hindus call moksha and Buddhists call nirvana. Does a particular action, behavior, or tendency support the evolution of the individual, the group, and the totality of beings, toward that yogic ideal? That would be the ultimate criterion for righteousness in dharmic terms.

Because this rich and complex concept is central to the four religions birthed in India — Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism, as they have come to be called — they are known collectively as the Dharmic traditions. (Buddhists use Dharma to signify the teachings of the Buddha, and many Hindus prefer the ancient term Sanatana Dharma, i.e. “eternal way,” to the post-colonial term “Hinduism.”) Understanding the nuances of dharma is a useful way of discerning the differences between Eastern and Western religions — and why Western religious categories often miss the mark in defining the Asian traditions.