For thousand of centuries, India’s great seers have expounded spiritual wisdom from what is widely believed to be the world’s oldest religion. Despite the fact that the like of Bogar, Trailanga Swami, Paramahansa Yogananda and Amma have taught with their own unique styles and recommended different spiritual paths to follow, each of them has aimed to help their devotees fully understand and act in accordance with a number of foundational truths that are deeply rooted within the Hindu scriptures. By doing so, the great sages have told us, each individual can move closer towards the ultimate goal of Moksha, or liberation, while simultaneously improving themselves as individuals, their relationships with others and most importantly their connection with God.
When exploring the iconic Hindu texts and teachings of the immortalized sadhus, it becomes clear to see that two of these most important truths are that of karma and dharma, or action and duty. In fact, because these two terms have been relevant across India’s holy lands since ancient times, the country’s other great religions of Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, which were assuredly influenced by Hinduism, have incorporate them into their own theologies, albeit with slightly different meanings. Yet still, it is certain that the roots of these two great spiritual concepts trace back to the Hindu scriptures and it is there we can turn out attention to gain understanding of the laws of karma and dharma.
In what assuredly is the most cherished tale of the great Hindu epics, the Bhagavad Gita tells the story of a young warrior prince named Arjuna as he struggles to come to terms with leading the Pandava army into a righteous battle against their deceitful and power hungry neighbors the Kauravas, many of whom are Arjuna’s cousins, friends and past teachers. Just as the Kurukshetra War is about to commence, however, Arjuna’s charioteer Lord Krishna guides the horse drawn chariot in between the two opposing armies and makes time stop. What ensues, and what makes the Bhagavad Gita so beloved, is a lengthy dialogue between Arjuna, who’s still struggling to make sense of his undesirable situation, and the great Hindu God Krishna.
While many important spiritual truths are symbolically illuminated throughout the iconic conversation between Arjuna and Krishna, the topics of karma and dharma are assuredly some of the most prevalent. For this reason, we’ll return to the Kurukshetra battlefield throughout this article to immerse ourselves in the supreme wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita, while also calling upon the insights of India’s great sages, all with the hopes of gaining complete understanding of the spiritual concepts of karma and dharma.
Karma – The Law Of Cause and Affect:
Whether it’s described as the law of cause and affect, the law of action and reaction or the law of karma, it is certain that this all important foundational Hindu principle transcends far beyond India’s borders. In fact, because the overarching idea of karma is widely considered as true, great Greek philosophers such as Aristotle, eminent scientists such as Isaac Newton and iconic spiritual figures from nearly every religion, including Jesus and the Buddha, have uniquely taught about this abstract truth. In the simplest of terms, the concept of karma, which translates to mean ‘action’, ‘activity’ or ‘work’ in Sanskrit, suggests that every mental and physical action a person undertakes comes with a closely related reaction that’s determined by the action itself. Just as positive thoughts and behaviors typically result in desirable outcomes, unwholesome ways of thinking and living generally come with undesirable consequences. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the great Hindu guru who developed Transcendental Meditation (TM), tells us:
Problems or successes, they all are the results of our own actions. Karma. The philosophy of action is that no one else is the giver of peace or happiness. One’s own karma, one’s own actions are responsible to come to bring either happiness or success or whatever.”
While the basic premise of cause and affect is widely recognized as valid throughout the world, the great Hindu sages speak of a far more intricate karmic reality that governs over us all. Because Hindus believe in the process of samsara or reincarnation, which is inseparable from karma, the causal relationship between our actions and results go well beyond this lifetime. The great mystics tell us that the karma we accumulate throughout our current life and past lives determines the position we’ll be born into next. This means that while an individual who acts piously throughout their life will be born into more favorable circumstances in their next life cycle, an individual who acts unethically will be placed in a worse situation than the one they currently enjoy. Yet still, despite the fact that many assume this equates to a God-given fate, the Hindu scriptures tell us that since each of us has the power to think and act out of free will, we are in fact the masters of our own destinies. The celebrated Hindu guru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami tells us:
Karma is not fate, for man acts with free will, creating his own destiny. The Vedas tell us, if we sow goodness, we will reap goodness; if we sow evil we will reap evil. Karma referee to the totality of our actions and their concomitant actions in this and previous lives, all of which determines our future.”
In addition to what’s already been discussed, there are a number of other important Hindu believes about karma that should be pointed out. First, it’s worth noting that although it’s easy to assume that one’s actions alone determine particular results and consequences, what’s actually most important is the purpose driven intentions they hold. If an individual preforms charitable deeds with the underlying intention of personally benefiting in someway, for example, they won’t reap the same karmic rewards if they had acted selflessly out of good faith. Second, while the idea of karma is mostly discussed in relation to individuals, Hindus believe that groups of people such as families, communities and entire nations also accumulate karma. Finally, the great Hindu sages tell us that the karmic process plays out over a set of distinctive stages, resembling the growth of a plant, and that karma will transform between four different types: sanchita, agami, vartamana and prarabdha or stored, forthcoming, present and matured. The iconic yogi Rama Swami tells us of karma:
One has to reap the fruits of his karma. The law of karma is inevitable and is accepted by all the great philosophies of the world: ‘As you sow, so shall you reap.’”
Karma In The Bhagavad Gita:
In the Bhagavad Gita’s iconic conversation between Lord Krishna and Arjuna, we are exposed to a number of other important truths about karma that haven’t been discussed. Throughout the 18 chapters of the cherished text, Krishna systematically lays out the way to free one’s self from the cycle of samsara through the three classical Hindu yoga paths. While the beloved God discusses the importance of knowledge and devotion, or Jnana Yoga and Bhakti Yoga, later in the dialogue, the earliest portions of his sermon focus on Karma Yoga or the path of action.
When studying the book Mahatma Gandhi considered to be ‘The Gospel of Selfless Action’, it becomes clear to see that Karma Yoga, which is said to purify the mind, is based upon individuals undertaking their obligatory moral, religious, social, personal and professional duties with an attitude of detachment to the results. In other words, individuals strive to selflessly act in accordance with God’s divine plan while reaming free from desire, unconcerned with the potential fruits of actions and indifferent to both positive and negative outcomes. Subsequently, those who undertake this approach will sacrificially offer any potential rewards to God. Krisha told Arjuna of Karma Yoga:
You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself – without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat.”
To build upon his teachings, the great Lord Krishna additionally references three types of karmic activities which come with their own unique outcomes. While it’s fairly easy to recognize how positive thoughts and actions lead to desirable outcomes and how negative consequences come from unwholesome ways of thinking and behaving, called karma and vikarma activities respectively, there are also said to be akarma activities, or inactions, which are considered to be of a higher and purer nature because they come with no reactions at all and are not subjected to the material laws of nature. It is believed that acting in this way helps individuals clear their karmic bank account which leads to the end of the cycle of samsara and the ultimate goal of Moksha. During the cherished conversation of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that he can move closer towards liberation by undertaking the path of selfless action, developing indifference towards whatever results may come, and seeing inaction in action and action in inaction. He says:
One who sees inaction in action, and action in inaction, is intelligent among men, and he is in the transcendental position, although engaged in all sorts of activities.”
Despite the fact that we have now explored the Hindu concept of karma in great detail, the question of which actions one should undertake still remains. To find this answer, we’ll now shift our focus towards the equally important principle of dharma or righteous duty.
Dharma – The Law Of Righteous Duty:
Where as the idea of karma is to at least some extent relevant to all of the world’s religions, the spiritual concept of dharma is unique to India and takes on different meanings in the country’s four great faiths. In Hinduism, the term dharma derives from the Sanskrit word ‘dhri’, meaning ‘maintain’, ‘sustain’ or ‘preserve in work’, and is considered to be an abstract truth which has significance at both the universal and individual levels. While dharma is thought to be the cosmic law which maintains harmony and governs creation at the level of the universe, it represents a unique life purpose or a code of living for individuals. Specifically speaking, the ancient Hindu scriptures outline four specific types of dharma which should be understood and adhered to:
Universal Law (Rta): The cosmic law which we briefly touched on above is called Rta and it’s believed that this all-encompassing dharma controls everything in existence from the tiniest sub-atomic particles to the most expansive galaxies. Since Hindus consider themselves to be part of this universal cosmic order, they aim to bring themselves into harmony with it by adhering to their own personal dharma.
Social Dharma (Varna Dharma): Where as Rta encompasses everything in the greater universe and beyond, social or varna dharma represents both religious law and the harmonious order of families, communities, cities and nations which is maintained by individuals adhering to and undertaking the correct responsibilities, duties and occupations. India’s caste system, for example, relates directly to varna dharma as it’s believed that accumulated karma determines social class which in turn determines the professional path individuals are supposed to follow.
Human Law (Ashrama Dharma): Within Hindu theology there are said to be four distinctive life stages in which the body, mind and soul naturally evolve throughout life. The ashrama dharma system is based upon this belief and offers individuals general guidelines to follow and activities to undertake at different ages of life. The four stages are studentship (age 8 to mid 20s), householder (mid 20s to mid 50s), forest dweller/traveller/pilgrim (mid 50s to mid 70s) and renunciation of worldly pleasures (mid 70s to death).
Self-Dharma (Sva-Dharma): The last type of dharma, self or sva-dharma, represents an actionable life path that’s in accordance with an individual’s own unique nature. It is said that sva-dharma is determined by the karma an individual accumulates throughout many lifetimes and consists of their rights, duties and roles that are in harmony with cosmic order. To adhere to one’s own self-dharma, individuals want to fully utilize their unique talents and skills while acting in adherence with their social class and age.
Because it is believed that an individual will eventually achieve liberation by living their dharma over many lifetimes, Hindus consider it to be the most important aim of life. In addition to what’s already been discussed, the great Hindu seers also tell us that it’s vitally important to think of sensual desires and material wealth as secondary goals to upholding our dharma and to view our lives as a sacrifice to God. The immortalized sage Anandamayi Ma, who was nickname the ‘The Bliss Permeated Mother’, tells us of how we should carry out our everyday duties:
With earnestness, love and goodwill carry out life’s everyday duties and try to elevate yourself step by step. In all human activities let there be a living contact with the Divine and you will not have to leave off anything. Your work will then be done well and you will be on the right track to find the Master.”
Dharma In The Bhagavad Gita:
Just as the Bhagavad Gita offers deep insights into the spiritual concept of karma, so to does it perfectly illuminate the Hindu principle of dharma. In the earliest passages of the sacred text, we find Arjuna in a deeply conflicted emotional state as he wrestles with the idea of going into battle for a righteous cause against many people he’s grown close to throughout his life. Despite Arjuna’s conflicting feelings, and also his argument that killing so many influential men goes against his dharma because doing so will weaken families and destabilize communicates, Krishna enlightens the young warrior prince with wisdom that relates directly to his dharma.
Not only does Lord Krishna tell Arjuna that he must uphold his obligatory duty to fight for justice as a righteous warrior, but he also that because his inborn qualities, character and nature, which are based upon his karma, are that of a honorable combatant, he’d eventually be drawn into battle even if he initially tries to avoid it. Furthermore, Krishna tells Arjuna that it’s a barren excuse to not uphold his duties because the circumstances aren’t advantageous, as no situation is ever completely perfect. He says:
No one should abandon duties because he sees defects in them. Every action, every activity, is surrounded by defects as a fire is surrounded by smoke.”
While what we’ve discussed about the Bhagavad Gita up until now illuminates only a few of the many reasons it’s received praise from the likes of Albert Einstein, Henry David Thoreau, Carl Jung and Albert Schweizer, what makes the sacred dialogue so incredibly special is how Lord Krishna systematically leads Arjuna to a deeper spiritual understanding of the true meaning of dharma and the realization that the dharma supreme is in fact to surrender one’s self completely to God. Throughout the later verses of the Gita, Krishna helps Arjuna see that all worldly dharmas are nothing other than preliminary steps meant to bring individuals closer towards complete understanding of God until the point in time which they completely surrender themselves to him. In the Gita’s last chater, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna:
Abandon all varieties of dharmas and simply surrender unto me alone. I shall liberate you from all sinful reactions; do not fear.”