If there is any word which is repea-tedly and most extensively used in the Hindu (as also Jaina and Buddhist) reli-gious works, it is the word ‘dharma.’ Out of the several connotations that have evolved over the centuries, ‘code of conduct’ and ‘duty and responsibility’ are two which have been more widely accepted.
This interpretation has been almost universally applied to the varṇa-dharmas (See VARṆĀŚRAMA-DHARMA.) and āśrama dharmas. Members of each of the four varṇas (brāhmaṇas, kṣattriyas, vaiśyas and śūdras) have been allotted their respective duties and responsibilities; as for instance, Vedic studies and preaching for the brāhmaṇas, fighting and administration for the kṣattriyas and so on. They are normally expected to follow these avocations. However, in times of great calamities like war, floods or famine, when the whole social fabric becomes disturbed, or during a period of severe crisis in the individual’s life, it may not be strictly possible for them to do so.
At such periods of āpad or calamity, the dharmaśāstras allow people to take to any dharma or avocation, even the ones allotted to others, as an emergency measure, to sustain themselves. Thus a brāhmaṇa can take to fighting or trade, or a kṣattriya to agriculture or commerce. Both may accept menial service under others. However, even in dire calamities one is advised not to accept service under evil persons. As soon as normalcy returns they are expected to go back to the original way of life.
Since life is most precious, to save it in times of grave danger, one can transgress all normal rules. Viśvāmitra’s readiness to consume the flesh of a dog after stealing it from the house of an outcaste during a severe famine is the classic example quoted in mythological works to illustrate this point.
See Manusmṛti 10.98-118 for a few interesting details.
See also DHARMA.