The Classical Sanskrit noun dharma is a derivation from the root dhṛ, which means "to hold, maintain, keep",[note 3] and takes a meaning of "what is established or firm", and hence "law". It is derived from an older Vedic Sanskrit n-stem dharman-, with a literal meaning of "bearer, supporter", in a religious sense conceived as an aspect of Rta.
In the Rigveda, the word appears as an n-stem, dhárman-, with a range of meanings encompassing "something established or firm" (in the literal sense of prods or poles). Figuratively, it means "sustainer" and "supporter" (of deities). It is semantically similar to the Greek Themis ("fixed decree, statute, law"). In Classical Sanskrit, the noun becomes thematic: dharma-.
The word dharma derives from Proto-Indo-European root
- dʰer- ("to hold"), which in Sanskrit is reflected as class-1 root √dhṛ. Etymologically it is related to Avestan √dar- ("to hold"), Latin firmus ("steadfast, stable, powerful"), Lithuanian derė́ti ("to be suited, fit"), Lithuanian dermė ("agreement") and darna ("harmony") and Old Church Slavonic drъžati ("to hold, possess").
- Classical Sanskrit word dharmas would formally match with Latin o-stem firmus from Proto-Indo-European dʰer-mo-s "holding", were it not for its historical development from earlier Rigvedic n-stem.
In Classical Sanskrit, and in the Vedic Sanskrit of the Atharvaveda, the stem is thematic: dhárma- (Devanāgarī: धर्म). In Pāli, it is rendered dhamma. In some contemporary Indian languages and dialects it alternatively occurs as dharm.