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The word 'dharma' was used before the time of buddha, such as in the Brahmanism scripture Rigveda (a scripture mentioned in the Pali suttas as existing before the Buddha). From Wikipedia, it means:
In the history of Buddhism, one of the first five disciples, Assaji, was met by Sariputta (who would become the Buddha's chief disciple). Sariputta, a non-Buddhist, asks:The Classical Sanskrit noun dharma is a derivation from the root dhṛ, which means "to [up]hold, maintain, keep", 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 is used in most Indian religions:"Serene are your features, friend. Pure and bright is your complexion. Under whom, friend, have you gone forth as an ascetic? Who is your teacher and whose doctrine (dhamma) do you profess?"
https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/aut ... 090.html#i
I personally prefer to focus on the root meaning, highlight above, namely, "upholder, supporter, maintainer, sustainer". This allows giving a common meaning to the different common contextual uses of dhamma, such as "phenomena", "law", "truth", "practise", "path", "teachings", "doctrine", etc. In other words, dhamma such as phenomena, law, truth, practise, path, etc, are dhammas because they "uphold", "sustain", "maintain" or "support" life so life is free from suffering. Thus, the most important meaning of "dhamma" is its soteriological (salvation; survival) purpose.Dharma is a concept of central importance in Indian philosophy and religion. It has multiple meanings in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.
From what I've read Pali is important as Sanskrit was an exclusive Brahmin caste language and that Pali was to differentiate Buddhists from Brahmins and their caste system. I'm not sure how valid this is, but I read this from PhD scholar on Buddhism a while ago.
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