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Karma and Dharma posted 30 August 2017

Karma and dharma are two terms associated with yoga and sometimes found in the offerings that yoga teachers make to their students when speaking at a philosophical level.  From where do they originate?  What do they mean?    What is their purpose in our modern world?

Both are Sanskrit terms.  Sanskrit is an ancient but relatively un-used language.  It is the parent of more modern languages but exists as an entity in its own right now only in relatively small communities in India.

Sanskrit was a language widely in use among Hindus in ancient times two or more thousand years ago.  Karma and dharma are both terms that represent concepts from this time in Hindu culture.

Karma, in particular, is well-rooted not only in Hindu culture but in the religions that had their origins in that society: Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism for example.

Karma is often equated with fate or destiny and there is an element of those notions in its meaning and usage.  However, it is much more complex than that.  In the Bhagavad Gita, karma is explained in terms of action or deeds.

In the Bhagavad Gita there are two paths to the liberation of the soul: one is through contemplation and worship of the divine, Jnana Yoga, and the other is through good deeds and actions performed as a sacrifice, Karma Yoga.

In this sense, the word “yoga” qualifies the word “karma”.  Karma is not, in and of itself, morally correct action or behaviour.  Karma can be good or not.  The quality of yoga attached to the action makes the karma of a morally good quality.

The place that fate plays in karma is that in the period when it was in current usage in Sanskrit and in Hindu culture there was a belief in the afterlife.  The belief is, and here I summarise in a very general way, that one’s conduct or actions during the course of one’s lifetime would attract a colour or taint to one’s soul.  Once liberated from this mortal body the soul survived.  Depending upon the colour, taint or karma the soul was re-allocated a new mortal existence.

In very simple terms, the soul would pick up in a new life where it left off in its previous existence.  A thief and scoundrel in one life would be born into a life of thieves and scoundrels in the next.

The way in which karma differs from some notions of fate is that there is nothing immutable about one’s future when one is born into a particular life.  The power of choice in respect of one’s actions or karma means that, however bleak, desperate or hard one’s circumstances are, one has choice as to how one lives one’s life.

There is a lot of yogic principle in that notion of choice.  Yoga is the process of stilling the distractions and disturbances of the mind.  A principal cause of there being distractions and disturbances in our minds is our aversion to things and circumstances that are uncomfortable, painful or unpleasant and our attraction to those things or circumstances that are pleasurable.  Yoga as a process is one which teaches us how to be equanimous, how to practice samadhi (neutral vision) with respect to all things without being influenced by the dualities of pleasure and pain.

In the concept of karma there is also an element of the law of attraction.  The Law of Attraction can be understood by understanding that ‘like attracts like'. What this means is that whether we realize it or not, we are responsible for bringing both positive and negative influences into our lives. A key part of the Law of Attraction is understanding that where you place your focus can have an intense impact on what happens to you. If you spend your days wallowing in regrets about the past or fears of the future, you’ll likely see more negativity appearing, but if you look for the silver lining in every experience then you’ll soon start to see positivity surrounding you every day. Therefore, the Law of Attraction encourages you to see that you have the freedom to take control of how your future develops, shaping it in the ways you choose.

Karma suggests that by doing good you will attract positive outcomes to you.  This ought not to be the motive for doing good, however.  In these columns we have previously discussed the gunas or states of nature.  There is tamas, rajas and sattva.  Tamas is a state of ignorance, indifference and inertia in an imbalanced way.  Rajas is a state of high energy and drive and desire in an imbalanced way.  Sattva is a state of awareness, truth and intelligence in a balanced way.  A rajasic person may engage in “good” conduct but they do so for a personal advantage.  They will contribute to charity in order to receive plaudits for their generosity (and perhaps then deride people as being lipstick on a pig?).  They will support a cause so as to off-set that portion of their income against tax obligations.  These actions, ostensibly “good” do not, in the sense of karma, attract good outcomes for the doer of these acts.

According to the Bhagavad Gita good karma is action done with no personal motive but action which is done as a sacrifice.  Here lies the significance of karma for present day purposes.  Religious belief and belief in an after-life are on the wane in modern western society but that does not mean that we should disregard ideas of karma and become a competitive group seeking self-gratification.

Reflect on your greatest moments of fulfilment.  Did they come from doing something selfish or something selfless?  Do people speak of selfishness as being a good character trait?  Are you inspired by stories of white collar criminals who perpetrate fraud to maintain an extravagant lifestyle?  Are you inspired by stories of sportspeople who use illegal drugs to obtain success by illegitimate means?  Or are you inspired by stories of leadership such as Sam Johnson rallying the Student Army at the time of Christchurch’s earthquakes?  Are you, instead, uplifted by Captain Oates who stepped out into the ice to die to prolong the chances of his comrades trapped on Antarctica?

Ultimately, doing good and showing up well for others is more rewarding than being self-focussed and driven by personal gain.  Karma need not wait for an after-life.  Make your actions/karma a service to the good of others and experience a sense of self-worth, purpose and fulfilment in this life-time.

What of dharma?  In some definitions dharma is a decree or custom.  The sense in which it is used in the Bhagavad Gita is that of calling or vocation.  The customary nature of calling or vocation is that in ancient Hindu society as in many cultures all over the globe a family would pursue the same line of work generation after generation.

The idea of dharma is connected with the original source of the caste system.  One commentator asserts that the roots of the caste system were not racist or based on stigma but were a recognition of farming families being farmers, merchant families being merchants, fishing families being fishermen and so forth.

The concept of dharma proclaims that each person has a true vocation and purpose in their life.  The sense of purpose is an important one.  Just recently I worked privately with a student who was undergoing many changes in their life, some of these being forced upon them rather than chosen.  The student felt that she was lacking purpose.  She had great insight into this and was resolved to find a purposeful path for herself.

Dharma requires that we find the path that is right for us.  It may not be the path at which we succeed the most.  Indeed, in the Bhagavad Gita it is said that it is better to be a failure pursuing your own true dharma than to be a success in performing someone else’s dharma.  That means something to me as I was successful enough and effective enough at practicing the law to suppose that being a litigator was my dharma.  But I never felt the same level of connectedness and purpose and the good fit with what I was doing when I practiced the law that I now experience as a yoga teacher.

Baron Baptiste quotes the saying attributed variously to notable figures such as Pablo Picasso that the meaning of life is to find your gift and the purpose of life is to give it away.  This saying encapsulates for me the notion of dharma: find what is your unique, special gift and then apply yourself in sharing that gift with the world.  This idea does not change from one era to another but is as applicable now as ever it was in India before the current era.

The beauty of this is that it ties with karma.  If karma requires us to act in a good way for no selfish motive and dharma calls for us to find our gift and then give it away we can apply ourselves to our true calling, do good for the world and receive a sense of inner purpose and self-worth all at the same time.  Karma and dharma may be of ancient origin but as a simple prescription for life they are as relatable to the modern day as ever they were.

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