dharma: My understanding(partial)
dharma is not a religion. Merriam-websters defines religion as: the belief in a god or in a group of gods; or an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods; or a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith. dharma is neither of these. dharma doesn't require a belief in any god. Different people may follow different ceremonies; they might have different beliefs related to god(from atheist to monotheist to polytheist); but they do have dharma. there are no rules on how to worship in dharma. dharma is not restricted by a cause, nor by a principle; nor by a belief system. As nothing in the definition characterizes religion, dharma is not religion. Let me try to explain this better.
Water, whether it is taken from well, river, pond, lake or ocean; is just water, or plain old H2O. No matter what you do to it, the molecule of water has exactly two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen. The moment it ceases to have these, it ceases to exist as water. So is water from the well sweet, or from the ocean salty? based on the place from which water is taken, will it's taste change? If one accepts that water is the molecule and nothing but the molecule containing the three atoms, it obviously can't have different tastes just because we collected from different places. However, we can sense different taste for different water. Tap water doesn't taste the same as bottled water. To know that it is water, do we need to assign a taste to it? Can one water be more 'water' than another water? I think it is clear from this argument that one cannot distinguish water from multiple sources. Similarly, dharma is not restricted by either belief or non-belief of god.
Water may be flowing down a stream. It might be getting accumulated in a lake; and discharging from the lake through a river into a sea. It might be getting evaporated, getting stored in clouds, and drenching earth in the form of rain. When one looks at a stream or a river, one can perceive the banks that water rarely crosses. One might be able to hear the rhythm of water flowing. One might be able to see the color of the flowing water. Just because we are perceiving through the multiple senses, water doesn't cease to be water. Just because water came down one side of mountain instead of another, it doesn't cease to be water. Just because a person follows a set of ceremonies instead of another, he doesn't stop to follow dharma.
Having seen that dharma cant be restricted by a notion of god or by a notion of customs, ceremonies, etc. let me try to analyze whether dharma has a predefined system. To take the analogy of water again, let us try to look at how water is made. Without going into much of chemistry, we know that water is the result of many reactions. Having made water, will it really matter how the specific molecule of water was made? Similarly, once someone is following dharma, does it really matter how he managed to follow dharma!
Having denied that dharma is a religion, let me next show why dharma is not a definition of a hypothetical ideal person. One of the things that people try to do is to define dharma as an embodiment of a person. You may want to call hero-worship. You may want to call this as reliving the way greats have lived. People-based religion want to emulate the life of their favorite "saint". If dharma is really about conforming to a mold, then there are so many people who claim to be followers of dharma. Why aren't we having replicas of the initial saint? Why are people waiting for the next Moses, the next Jesus, the next Nabi? If rAma is the ideal man, why are we not molding ourselves into a rAma? Why are we not trying to get one more Adi shankara? The question can also be rephrased as: why did only one type of monkey evolve to be a human while others didn't? Here in lies the difficulty of providing a template to dharma.
dharma, ultimately, is about the individual. I am not denying that it can never be with respect to a collective. The understanding of what constitutes as dharma also evolves with the individual. It is really about understanding what are the choices that a person can make, cannot make, ought to make, ought not make. These are not rules of engagement. These are basically a bunch of frameworks. The choice I was referring is the choice of the framework at the current point of time.
We, as human beings, make a lot of choices. Some of them are very small ones. for example: should i type with one finger or many fingers? Some are "big" choices: do i quit this job? Is there religion behind these choices? Some might want to dogmatically say yes; but we all know that none of these choices have any significance in isolation. How we make these choices depend on dharma.