Concept of Rita and Dharma
Dharma is so called, because it holds; Dharma holds the people. Etymologically, Dharma is derived from the root Dhr—to hold—and its meaning is ‘that which holds’ this world. Rita is predecessor to Dharma and is the Original Rig Vedic concept which refers to the principle of natural order which regulates and coordinates the operation of the universe and everything within it. Rita is described as that which is ultimately responsible for the proper functioning of the natural, moral and sacrificial orders. In Rig Veda, Rita appears as many as 390 times. Rita has been characterized as “the one concept which pervades the whole of Rig-Vedic thought.
In the early Rig Vedic era, Rita was abstract; slowly the universal principle started mingling with the anthropomorphic tendencies of the Vedic period. In due course of time, it became associated with the actions of individual deities. The Rita became associated with Varuna, the omniscient, all pervading sky God. Adityas became the Chariotters of Rita. Varuna became the friend & keeper of Rita. Varuna became the universal Power, which maintained Rita and was celebrated as having “separated and established heaven and earth, spreading them out as the upper and lower firmaments, himself enthroned above them as the universal king, ordering the immutable moral law, exercising his rule by the sovereignty of Rita”. (James 1969)
Eventually Dharma overshadowed Rita in the later Vedic Era. While Rita encompassed the ethical principles with a notion of cosmic retribution, Dharma was said to be a path to be followed as per the ordinances of Rita. Failing to follow this path meant appearance of various forms of calamity and suffering. Committing to the path of Rita was “Dharma” so we can say that Dharma was originally conceptualized as a subordinate component Rita Dharma became a very useful instrument in framing religious, moral and social regulations, that interest in it and discussion of its applications to social and moral order eclipsed all discussions of metaphysical and theological ideas.
There was also an important change in later Vedic and Epic Era. The notion of Dharma shifted emphasis away from nature as executor of Rita and now it became more or less an individual duty to uphold the Dharma through one’s actions. This was called Karma. Karma is what one does to uphold the Dharma and thus, the emphasis from the natural order vanished and it became essentially related to the pains and pleasures one experiences in life, and this tried to explain the gross inequality and injustice in the world. So, Karma was somewhat opposite to Rita as well as Dharma. Karma became the central piece of Hindu philosophy in later Vedic era.