Dharma is one of those Sanskrit words that defy all attempts at an exact rendering in English or any other tongue.
In the hymns of the Rig-Veda ( ऋग्वेद) the word Dharma seems to be used either as adjective or a noun (In the form "DHARMAN" (धर्मान्) generally NATURE of things and comes at least 56 times.
It is very difficult to say what the exact meaning of the word Dharma was in the ancient period of Hinduism. The word is clearly derived from root
"Dharma" (to Uphold,to Support,to Nourish).
In most cases the meaning of Dharma has "Religious Ordinances or Rites as Rig-Veda The ref. "tāni dharmāṇi prathamānyāsan" (तानि धर्माणि प्रथमान्यासन्) from Purusha suktam.
Similarly we have words "Prathama Dharma" (प्रथम धर्मं i.e., The Primeval first ordinance) - Rig-VEDA.
We can see that the word "SANATA DHARMANI" ("सनात धर्माणि") (Ancient ordinance) occuring in Rig-Veda".
In these passages the meaning seems to be "Fixed principles or Rules of conduct.
In the "VAJASANEYA SAMHITA"(11.3 and 5.27) the above sense of the word "Dharman" are found. And we have words (acitti yat (AV. acittya cet) tava dharma yuyopima RV.7.89).
In "VAJASANEYA SAMHITA" 10.9.17 the word Dharma seems to be used in the sense of "Merit acquired by the performance of religious rite".
In the Aitareya Brahmana (ऐतरेय ब्राह्मण) the word Dharma seems to be used in an abstract sense. eg. "The whole Body of Religious Duties"
In the Chandagya upanishad (छान्दोग्य उपनिषद् ) , there is an important passage talking about the meaning of the word Dharma. According
to it there are three branches of of Dharma.
1) Constituted by austerities (i.e. being stage of BRAHMACHARYA) that is dwelling in house of Guru and following the rules of school.
2) Constituted by sacrifice, study and charity(i.e., the stage of House holder or Grihastha).
3) (Sanyasi संन्यासि) i.e. Retired life or living non materialistic life.
The word Dharma has passed through several transitions of meaning throughout time and finally the most significant meaning has come to be "The privileges,duties and obligations of man ,his standard of conduct as a member of community.
"Taittirīya -upanishad तैत्तिरीय उपनिषद् 1.2 says " Speak the truth ,practice your own Dharma. (स्वधर्म).
Similarly Shree Baghavad-Gita uses the word Svadharma
श्रेयान्स्वधर्मो विगुणः परधर्मात्स्वनुष्ठितात् |
स्वधर्मे निधनं श्रेयः परधर्मो भयावहः ||
śreyānsvadharmo viguṇaḥ paradharmātsvanuṣṭhitāt |
svadharme nidhanaṃ śreyaḥ paradharmo bhayāvahaḥ ||
The Manu-smriti मनु-स्मृति(1.1) tells us that sages or Rishis requested Manu to impart instructions in the dharma of all the varnas.
The Yājñavalkya -Smriti) याज्ञवल्क्य स्मृति uses the word in the same way.
Ref: The Vedic and Buddhist concept of "Dharma" (book) by Prof. P.G.Yogi
Towards the end of the story of Mahabharata (महाभारत),Veda Vyasa (व्यास)
through the five slokas known as the "Bharatasavitri" (भारत सवीत्री) emphasizes as to how important the quality of righteousness is to both the human life and the society and that if righteousness is abandoned and unrighteousness supported, not only is the entire clan ruined but it also causes a great deal of harm to the society. In order to attain Artha and Kama, one has to tread the path of Dharma. Ved-Vyasa (व्यास) expresses by raising both his hands up and shouting aloud as if to convey the agony he felt about not being heard. The following sanskrit sloka explains this:
उद्धव: बहुविरोमंयेषु नच कश्चि चरोतीम।धर्मःधर्मेच: कामे:च साधर्मातः
नजातकामः नाभयः नं लोभाः। धर्मम त्याजे जीवितःस्याः पितार्थो।
नित्यो धर्मः सुखःदुःखेत यानीत्ये।। जीवो नित्यो हेतू ऱ्हासयातवनित्यह
"Najatakama nnabhaya nnalobhath dharmam thyaje jeevitha syapihethoho
nithyo dharmaha sukhadukhethyanithye jeevo nithyo hethu
Dharma should never be forsaken for artha, kama, fear of or for
protection of one's life. Dharma lends happiness to living beings.
Happiness and sorrow are temporary phases of life. If the 'jiva'
abandons dharma which gives everlasting contentment, then it causes
धर्मेच: अर्थे: चकामेच: मॊक्षेचं भरतहर्षभ:।
यद्यस्ती तद अन्यत्र येनेस्ती नतत क्वचित: ॥
Adi Parva , Mahabharat
Ved Dharma (वेद धर्म) according to Vedas.
What is the Veda Dharma outlined by Ved Vyasa (व्यास)? It is the predefined frame or Niyati (नियती) which is the basis of the ancient Hindu culture, lifestyle and civilisation. This Dharma holds together the entire universe.
Paramacharya Kanchi Kamakoti Peethadipathi Sri Chandrasekharendra
Saraswati (परम आचार्य कांची कामकोठी पीठाम श्री. चांद्रशेखरानंद
सरस्वती) asserts "Dharma contributes to both spiritualism and
worldliness. "Dharma is 'vishwambhari' (विश्वम्भरी) i.e., the entire
universe is supported by dharma. The qualities of stability and purity
of the universe is attributed to Dharma".