The word ‘karma’ means ‘activity.’ In a narrower sense, it can also mean the Vedic rituals of yajña and yāga, building of socially useful amenities such as lake and ponds, and observance of pūjā and rituals that are prescribed in the Purāṇas, Smṛtis, and Āgamas. In common parlance, it also refers to a bad action that leads to sin. Yajñas and yāgas are mainly performed to please nature deities such as Indra and Agni.
There are times when we face difficulties as a result of our own ignorance, indiscretion, dullness of intellect, stupidity, etc., but at other times, we face difficulties because of the ignorance and indiscretion of other people. Sometimes we face difficulties due to reasons beyond us. Thinking this way, we may assume that humans are responsible for wars; however, what can be said of calamities such as earthquakes, cyclone, famine and flood – these are, i.e., acts of the divine.
The Vagaries of Comforts and Discomforts
Why are there difficulties, troubles, sorrows, and atrocities on earth? Nobody desires for these. Everyone wants to be comfortable and happy. Merely by aspiring to be free of troubles doesn’t lead to such a state; just because one wants to be happy, it is not easy to attain. Some have only happiness in their lives while some others have only difficulties.
Mahābhārata - Ahiṃsā
By the time of the Mahābhārata, it seems that several people had given up worldly life and had taken up saṃnyāsa; they practiced abstinence and lived on roots and fruits in āśramas (hermitage) that they constructed in the wild. It was common for the kings to take up the lifestyle of a muni (sage, ascetic) during old age. Saṃnyāsa is the fourth āśrama (stage of life).
Bhīṣma, Yudhiṣṭhira, and Kṛṣṇa have been portrayed as the noble characters in the Mahābhārata. Among these, Yudhiṣṭhira looks upon Kṛṣṇa as an elder brother and a guide to their family; and as for Bhīṣma, he looks at Kṛṣṇa as a devata. Therefore, in the poet’s vision, in the whole of the Mahābhārata, Kṛṣṇa is the noblest of them all, and the most worthy of worship. It is not surprising that fantastic tales have been weaved around his character. As mentioned earlier, his influence is the strongest in the epic.
According to the Gītā, dedicating every activity to the all-pervading brahman or working with divine inspiration is called ‘arcana’ (roughly translated as ‘worship’ or ‘praise’). The means of this worship is sva-karma, i.e., activity attuned to the temperament (sva-dharma) of the individual. Only this kind of worship leads an individual to perfection.
येन सर्वमिदं ततम्।
सिद्धिं विन्दति मानवः ॥
We have seen earlier that prakṛti undergoes metamorphosis due to the loss of equilibrium of the three guṇas (sattva, rajas, and tamas) and this instability is instigated by the puruṣa – this cause sentient creation. Prakṛti can only be under the influence of either the puruṣa or īśvara. This īśvara-saṅkalpa (the ordinance of the Supreme Being) is destiny.
The word ‘yoga’ has several meanings. In the Bhagavad-Gītā (2.48,50; 5.1,5,7), yoga is used in the sense of karma (activity) or karma-yoga (activity without selfish motives, work without expectations).