Darhma and Karma
Concept of Darhma
Dharma is the very foundation of life. It is moral law combined with spiritual discipline that guides one’s life. Dharma means ‘that which holds,’ i.e., the people of this world and the whole of creation cannot exist without dharma to hold them in place. Dharma is an all-inclusive term used to mean righteousness, morality, religion, responsibility, and duty. Dharma includes the practice of religious disciplines and duties, such as honesty, brahmacharya, and non-violence. The purpose of dharma is not only to help one’s jiva come closer with Bhagwan, but it also suggests a code of conduct that is intended to secure both worldly joys and eternal bliss. The practice of dharma gives an experience of happiness, strength, and tranquility within one’s self and makes life disciplined.
Dharma in Hinduism, is an organizing principle that applies to human beings in solitude, in their interaction with human beings and nature, as well as between inanimate objects, to all of cosmos and its parts. It refers to the order and customs which make life and universe possible, and includes behaviors, rituals, rules that govern society, and ethics. Hindu dharma includes the religious duties, moral rights and duties of each individual, as well as behaviors that enable social order, right conduct, and those that are virtuous. Dharma, according to Van Buitenen, is that which all existing beings must accept and respect to sustain harmony and order in the world. It is neither the act nor the result, but the natural laws that guide the act and create the result to prevent chaos in the world. It is innate characteristic, that makes the being what it is. It is, claims Van Buitenen, the pursuit and execution of one’s nature and true calling, thus playing one’s role in cosmic concert. In Hinduism, it is the dharma of the bee to make honey, of cow to give milk, of sun to radiate sunshine, of river to flow. In terms of humanity, dharma is the need for, the effect of and essence of service and interconnectedness of all life.
Dharma is the path of righteousness and living one’s life according to the codes of conduct as described by the Hindu scriptures.
Moral Law of the World
Hinduism describes dharma as the natural universal laws whose observance enables humans to be contented and happy, and to save himself from degradation and suffering. Dharma is the moral law combined with spiritual discipline that guides one’s life. Hindus consider dharma the very foundation of life. It means “that which holds” the people of this world and the whole creation. Dharma is the “law of being” without which things cannot exist.
According to the Scriptures
Dharma refers to the religious ethics as propounded by Hindu gurus in ancient Indian scriptures. Tulsidas, author of Ramcharitmanas, has defined the root of dharma as compassion. This principle was taken up by Lord Buddha in his immortal book of great wisdom, Dhammapada. The Atharva Veda describes dharma symbolically: Prithivim dharmana dhritam, that is, “this world is upheld by dharma”. In the epic poem Mahabharata, the Pandavas represent dharma in life and the Kauravas represent adharma.
Good Dharma = Good Karma
Hinduism accepts the concept of reincarnation, and what determines the state of an individual in the next existence is karma which refers to the actions undertaken by the body and the mind. In order to achieve good karma it is important to live life according to dharma, what is right. This involves doing what is right for the individual, the family, the class or caste and also for the universe itself. Dharma is like a cosmic norm and if one goes against the norm it can result in bad karma. So, dharma affects the future according to the karma accumulated. Therefore one’s dharmic path in the next life is the one necessary to bring to fruition all the results of past karma.
What Makes You Dharmic?
Anything that helps human being to reach god is dharma and anything that hinders human being from reaching god is adharma. According to the Bhagavat Purana, righteous living or life on a dharmic path has four aspects: austerity (tap), purity (shauch), compassion (daya) and truthfulness (satya); and adharmic or unrighteous life has three vices: pride (ahankar), contact (sangh), and intoxication (madya). The essence of dharma lies in possessing a certain ability, power and spiritual strength. The strength of being dharmic also lies in the unique combination of spiritual brilliance and physical prowess.
The 10 Rules of Dharma
Manusmriti written by the ancient sage Manu, prescribes 10 essential rules for the observance of dharma: Patience (dhriti), forgiveness (kshama), piety or self control (dama), honesty (asteya), sanctity (shauch), control of senses (indraiya-nigrah), reason (dhi), knowledge or learning (vidya), truthfulness (satya) and absence of anger (krodha). Manu further writes, “Non-violence, truth, non-coveting, purity of body and mind, control of senses are the essence of dharma”. Therefore dharmic laws govern not only the individual but all in society.
The Purpose of Dharma
The purpose of dharma is not only to attain a union of the soul with the supreme reality, it also suggests a code of conduct that is intended to secure both worldly joys and supreme happiness. Rishi Kanda has defined dharma in Vaisesika as “that confers worldly joys and leads to supreme happiness”. Hinduism is the religion that suggests methods for the attainment of the highest ideal and eternal bliss here and now on earth and not somewhere in heaven. For example, it endorses the idea that it is one’s dharma to marry, raise a family and provide for that family in whatever way is necessary. The practice of dharma gives an experience of peace, joy, strength and tranquillity within one’s self and makes life disciplined.
Dharma is a key concept with multiple meanings in the Indian religions Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. There is no single word translation for dharma in western languages.
In Hinduism, dharma signifies behaviors that are considered to be in accord with order that makes life and universe possible, and includes duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues and ‘‘right way of living’’. In Buddhism dharma means “cosmic law and order”, but is also applied to the teachings of the Buddha. In Buddhist philosophy, dhamma/dharma is also the term for “phenomena”. In Jainism dharma refers to the teachings of the Jinas and the body of doctrine pertaining to the purification and moral transformation of human beings. For Sikhs, the word dharm means the “path of righteousness”.
The Classical Sanskrit noun dharma is a derivation from the root dh?, which has a meaning of “to hold, maintain, keep”.The word “dharma” was already in use in the historical Vedic religion, and its meaning and conceptual scope has evolved over several millennia. The antonym of dharma is adharma.
The meaning of word “dharma” depends on the context, and its meaning evolved as ideas of Hinduism developed over its long history. In earliest texts and ancient myths of Hinduism, dharma meant cosmic law, the rules that created the universe from chaos, as well as rituals; In later Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas and the Epics, the meaning became refined, richer, complex and the word dharma was applied to diverse contexts. In certain contexts, dharma designates human behaviours considered necessary for order of things in the universe, principles that prevent chaos, behaviours and action necessary to all life in nature, society, family as well as at the individual level.Dharma encompasses ideas such as duty, rights, character, vocation, religion, customs and all behaviour considered appropriate, correct or morally upright.
Concept of Karma
“As you sow, so shall you reap” is a common phrase in life which concisely sums up the law of karma. Karma is the universal Hindu law of cause and effect which holds a person responsible for his or her actions and effects. According to one’s good or bad actions, Bhagwan rewards or punishes. The word ‘karma’ means human action or deed; we are constantly performing karmas whether physically, mentally, or emotionally. A person’s karma is responsible for good or bad consequences in his or her life. Nothing in this world happens accidentally or coincidentally; there is a reason behind everything though it may not be clear to us at that time. Good actions produce happiness and bad actions lead to suffering and misery in the present or next life. A person’s past actions govern his present, and his present actions have an effect on his future. This means that every person is, to a certain degree, the creator of his own destiny.
All of our karmas are performed in one of two ways. The first way is called nishkãm karma, when actions are performed without any expectation of material gain, ego, or material desires. Nishkãm karmas are only performed to fulfill one’s duties and please God. The second way is called sakãm karma, when actions are performed with an expectation of material desire or purpose. Bhagwan Swaminarayan taught the ideal of performing one’s karmas without the expectation of material gain. He stressed the need for an aspirant to have one desire – to please God even while performing nishkãm karma.
In Hindu Dharma there are 3 types of karmas:
Kriyamãn karma are karmas being acquired every moment. The fruits of these karmas can be attained in this life, the next, or after many births.
Sanchit karma is an accumulation of karmas containing the sum total of all a person’s karmas from one or many past lives. The fruits of these karmas are being experienced or have yet to be experienced.
Prãrabdha karma is a part of one’s sanchit karma that is being experienced in this birth. For example, the attributes and conditions of one’s physical body and mental capacities are due to one’s prãrabdha karmas.
Bhagwan Swãminãrãyan has explained in His discourses that God has given every person the freedom of action, and therefore, he or she is responsible for performing karmas that either result in punya (merits) or pãp (sins). Furthermore, Bhagwan is the giver of the fruits of one’s good and bad karmas when He determines the consequences of one’s karmas. No karma by itself can produce or give results, but when Bhagwan so decides, only then can one experience its good or bad effects. The karma principle is not a self-operating system in which karmas automatically bring or give one results. This is because karmas by themselves are inanimate.
The self-controlled person, moving among objects, with his senses free from attachment and malevolence and brought under his own control, attains tranquility.
~ Bhagavad Gita II.64
The law of cause and effect forms an integral part of Hindu philosophy. This law is termed as ‘karma’, which means to ‘act’. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English defines it as the “sum of person’s actions in one of his successive states of existence, viewed as deciding his fate for the next”. In Sanskrit karma means “volitional action that is undertaken deliberately or knowingly”. This also dovetails self-determination and a strong will power to abstain from inactivity. Karma is the differentia that characterizes human beings and distinguishes him from other creatures of the world.
The Natural Law
The theory of karma harps on the Newtonian principle that every action produces an equal and opposite reaction. Every time we think or do something, we create a cause, which in time will bear its corresponding effects. And this cyclical cause and effect generates the concepts of samsara (or the world) and birth and reincarnation. It is the personality of a human being or the jivatman – with its positive and negative actions – that causes karma.
Karma could be both the activities of the body or the mind, irrespective of the consideration whether the performance brings fruition immediately or at a later stage. However, the involuntary or the reflex actions of the body cannot be called karma.
Your Karma Is Your Own Doing
Every person is responsible for his or her acts and thoughts, so each person’s karma is entirely his or her own. Occidentals see the operation of karma as fatalistic. But that is far from true since it is in the hands of an individual to shape his own future by schooling his present.
Hindu philosophy, which believes in life after death, holds the doctrine that if the karma of an individual is good enough, the next birth will be rewarding, and if not, the person may actually devolve and degenerate into a lower life form. In order to achieve good karma it is important to live life according to dharma or what is right.
Three Kinds of Karma
According to the ways of life chosen by a person, his karma can be classified into three kinds. The satvik karma, which is without attachment, selfless and for the benefit of others; the rajasik karma, which is selfish where the focus is on gains for oneself; and the tamasik karma, which is undertaken without heed to consequences, and is supremely selfish and savage.
In this context Dr. D N Singh in his A Study of Hinduism, quotes Mahatma Gandhi’s lucid differentiation between the three. According to Gandhi, the tamasik works in a mechanic fashion, the rajasik drives too many horses, is restless and always doing something or other, and the satvik works with peace in mind.
Swami Sivananda, of the Divine Life Society, Rishikesh classifies karma into three kinds on the basis of action and reaction: Prarabdha (so much of past actions as has given rise to the present birth), Sanchita (the balance of past actions that will give rise to future births – the storehouse of accumulated actions), Agami or Kriyamana (acts being done in the present life).
The Discipline of Unattached Action
According to the scriptures, the discipline of unattached action (Nishkâma Karma) can lead to salvation of the soul. So they recommend that one should remain detached while carrying out his duties in life. As Lord Krishna said in the Bhagavad Gita: “To the man thinking about the objects (of the senses) arises attachment towards them; from attachment, arises longing; and from longing arises anger. From anger comes delusion; and from delusion loss of memory; from loss of memory, the ruin of discrimination; and on the ruin of discrimination, he perishes”.
Karma has become a controversial subject. One hears from a lot of people who want to know why they’re struggling with their health when others are not. Many of them think their poor health is karmic retribution for some past bad action, and that they’ve become sick because they have to work off this “bad karma.” They see karma as a kind of external justice system where they’re doomed to suffer based on some bad act they can’t even remember.
With sincere respect for other people’s views, I don’t believe this is consistent with what the Buddha taught. Plain and simple, in Buddhist psychology, karma is about the nature of our intentions—our intentions at this very moment. The literal translation of karma from Sanskrit is “action,” but the Buddha often said that karma means “intention”:
Intention, I tell you, is karma. Intending, one does karma by way of body, speech, and intellect. (AN 6.63)
To understand what the Buddha meant, think of our actions as having two components: (1) our “bare behavior” and (2) our intention behind that behavior. (The word “action” would include physical action, speech, and thoughts—the equivalent of “body, speech, and intellect” in the above quotation from the Buddha.) What matters to forming our character is not the “bare behavior” that makes up our action but our intention in engaging in that action. And, as the Buddha said: intention is karma.
Consider the physical action of wielding a knife. The bare behavior = wielding a knife. But the intention behind that action could be to perform life-saving surgery or it could be to stab someone in anger or to steal from him. The Buddha identified six intentions that are the motivating force behind our actions:
good-will (or kindness)
ill-will (or anger)
Notice how the first three intentions mirror the last three: good-will/ill-will; compassion/cruelty; generosity/greed.
Actions that are based on the first three intentions are non-harmful to ourselves and others and result in relieving suffering. The intention of the surgeon who wields a knife in order to save a life is one of good-will, and perhaps even compassion and generosity.
In contrast, actions that are based on the last three intentions are harmful. The intention of the person who wields a knife in anger or in order to steal from another is one of ill-will or greed and intensifies suffering in this world.
The same analysis that applies to the physical act of wielding a knife applies to speech. If a man yells at someone, “Don’t move!” that’s his “bare behavior.” But his intention could be based on good-will (trying to stop the person from stepping in front of a moving car) or it could be based on ill-will (the words “don’t move” being spoken with a gun pressed against the other person’s back).
The same analysis applies to thoughts. If we’re thinking about the homeless, that’s the bare content of our thoughts. But our intention behind that thought could be compassionate (hoping they find a place to stay warm in the winter) or it could be cruel (hoping they get frostbite in the cold).
Planting behavioral seeds that form our character
Karma is crucial to our development as wise, caring, and loving human beings because, if we act out of a non-harmful intention, we predispose ourselves to act that way again. In other words, we plant a behavioral seed. We begin to form a habit. Conversely, if we act out of a harmful intention, we predispose ourselves to act that way again, making it more likely that the next time our behavior will be harmful.
Here’s what the Buddha said on this subject:
Whatever a person frequently thinks and ponders upon, that becomes the inclination of his mind…If a person’s thinking is frequently imbued with ill-will… his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with ill-will…
The key word in that quotation is “inclination.” Each time our intention is one of ill-will, our inclination to respond with ill-will is strengthened. In other words, we’re more likely to act out of ill-will in the future. Conversely, each time our intention is to be kind, our inclination to respond with kindness is strengthened. We’re, in effect, learning how to be kind and so we’re more likely to be kind in the future. The same analysis applies to the other four intentions.
And so, by responding with kindness, compassion, and generosity, we are turning ourselves into a person who is kind, compassionate, and generous. We are forming our character. This, in turn, has a positive effect on the world around us. (And of course, the converse is true, should we respond to the world with ill-will, cruelty, and greed.)
The key to learning to incline ourselves toward non-harmful intentions is to reflect on whether our proposed speech or action will intensify suffering for ourselves and others or will ease it. Practicing mindfulness helps because it makes us more aware of our reactive tendencies. Then, instead of acting impulsively out of habit, we’re better able to examine our intentions before we act.
The implications of this can be life-changing. It means that we have the ability to change ourselves no matter how ingrained our habits are. As the Buddha said, “Intending, one does karma…” Thus, with the intention not to harm, we “do” karma, meaning that the person we become is kind, compassionate, and generous.
Karma is a profound teaching, one worthy of our careful attention.
Postscript: Speaking personally, I believe I’m sick because I’m in a body and bodies get sick and injured and old. That’s the essence of the Buddha’s first noble truth.
Its basic meaning is simple enough — action — but because of the weight the Buddha’s teachings give to the role of action, the Sanskrit word karma packs in so many implications that the English word action can’t carry all its luggage. This is why we’ve simply airlifted the original word into our vocabulary.
But when we try unpacking the connotations the word carries now that it has arrived in everyday usage, we find that most of its luggage has gotten mixed up in transit. In the eyes of most Americans, karma functions like fate — bad fate, at that: an inexplicable, unchangeable force coming out of our past, for which we are somehow vaguely responsible and powerless to fight. “I guess it’s just my karma,” I’ve heard people sigh when bad fortune strikes with such force that they see no alternative to resigned acceptance. The fatalism implicit in this statement is one reason why so many of us are repelled by the concept of karma, for it sounds like the kind of callous myth-making that can justify almost any kind of suffering or injustice in the status quo: “If he’s poor, it’s because of his karma.” “If she’s been raped, it’s because of her karma.” From this it seems a short step to saying that he or she deserves to suffer, and so doesn’t deserve our help.
This misperception comes from the fact that the Buddhist concept of karma came to the West at the same time as non-Buddhist concepts, and so ended up with some of their luggage. Although many Asian concepts of karma are fatalistic, the early Buddhist concept was not fatalistic at all. In fact, if we look closely at early Buddhist ideas of karma, we’ll find that they give even less importance to myths about the past than most modern Americans do.
For the early Buddhists, karma was non-linear and complex. Other Indian schools believed that karma operated in a simple straight line, with actions from the past influencing the present, and present actions influencing the future. As a result, they saw little room for free will. Buddhists, however, saw that karma acts in multiple feedback loops, with the present moment being shaped both by past and by present actions; present actions shape not only the future but also the present. Furthermore, present actions need not be determined by past actions. In other words, there is free will, although its range is somewhat dictated by the past. The nature of this freedom is symbolized in an image used by the early Buddhists: flowing water. Sometimes the flow from the past is so strong that little can be done except to stand fast, but there are also times when the flow is gentle enough to be diverted in almost any direction.
So, instead of promoting resigned powerlessness, the early Buddhist notion of karma focused on the liberating potential of what the mind is doing with every moment. Who you are — what you come from — is not anywhere near as important as the mind’s motives for what it is doing right now. Even though the past may account for many of the inequalities we see in life, our measure as human beings is not the hand we’ve been dealt, for that hand can change at any moment. We take our own measure by how well we play the hand we’ve got. If you’re suffering, you try not to continue the unskillful mental habits that would keep that particular karmic feedback going. If you see that other people are suffering, and you’re in a position to help, you focus not on their karmic past but your karmic opportunity in the present: Someday you may find yourself in the same predicament that they’re in now, so here’s your opportunity to act in the way you’d like them to act toward you when that day comes.
This belief that one’s dignity is measured, not by one’s past, but by one’s present actions, flew right in the face of the Indian traditions of caste-based hierarchies, and explains why early Buddhists had such a field day poking fun at the pretensions and mythology of the brahmans. As the Buddha pointed out, a brahman could be a superior person not because he came out of a brahman womb, but only if he acted with truly skillful intentions.
We read the early Buddhist attacks on the caste system, and aside from their anti-racist implications, they often strike us as quaint. What we fail to realize is that they strike right at the heart of our myths about our own past: our obsession with defining who we are in terms of where we come from — our race, ethnic heritage, gender, socio-economic background, sexual preference — our modern tribes. We put inordinate amounts of energy into creating and maintaining the mythology of our tribe so that we can take vicarious pride in our tribe’s good name. Even when we become Buddhists, the tribe comes first. We demand a Buddhism that honors our myths.
From the standpoint of karma, though, where we come from is old karma, over which we have no control. What we “are” is a nebulous concept at best — and pernicious at worst, when we use it to find excuses for acting on unskillful motives. The worth of a tribe lies only in the skillful actions of its individual members. Even when those good people belong to our tribe, their good karma is theirs, not ours. And, of course, every tribe has its bad members, which means that the mythology of the tribe is a fragile thing. To hang onto anything fragile requires a large investment of passion, aversion, and delusion, leading inevitably to more unskillful actions on into the future.
So the Buddhist teachings on karma, far from being a quaint relic from the past, are a direct challenge to a basic thrust — and basic flaw — in our culture. Only when we abandon our obsession with finding vicarious pride in our tribal past, and can take actual pride in the motives that underlie our present actions, can we say that the word karma, in its Buddhist sense, has recovered its luggage. And when we open the luggage, we’ll find that it’s brought us a gift: the gift we give ourselves and one another when we drop our myths about who we are, and can instead be honest about what we’re doing with each moment — at the same time making the effort to do it right.