What does dharma mean? When we study Hinduism in World History, we define dharma as a Hindu's religious duty. But Robert E. Buswell, Jr. and Donald S. Lopez, Jr in a essay for Tricycle Magazine note that dharma has many meanings, especially as it applies to Buddhism.
For example, Buswell and Lopez note that dharma was important before the birth of the Buddha. "In Vedic literature," they say, "it often refers to the ritual sacrifice that maintains the order of the cosmos."
Later, when the British East India Company colonized India, company agents translated dharma to simply mean "law." According to Buswell and Lopez, "this led in turn to the common 19th- and 20th- century rendering of the term as “law” in Buddhist contexts, as in “the Buddha turned the wheel of the law.”
Dharma has other distinct meanings in Buddhism. But the most common usage, Buswell and Lopez note, refers to "teachings" or "doctrines." "This sense of dharma as teaching, and its centrality to the tradition, is evident from the inclusion of the dharma as the second of the three jewels (along with the Buddha and the sangha), in which all Buddhists seek refuge."