Sat-karma itself is dharma. It is of three kinds:
- Laukika (pertaining to the world)
- Vaidika (pertaining to the Vedas)
- Pāramārthika (pertaining to the ultimate truth)
Laukika dharma is what we commonly follow in the world – bhūtadayā (compassion towards all creatures), sadācāra (virtuous conduct), satya(truth), ahiṃsā(nonviolence), śauca(purity), kṣamā(mercy), dīnavātsalya (tenderness towards the wretched), para-hita-cintana (thinking of others’ well-being), paura-rāṣṭraka-kartavyas (the duties of citizenry) – all these virtuous behaviours and noble qualities are expected of all and accepted by all.
Vaidika dharma is mainly of two types: one is in the form of saṃskāras and the other is in the form of sādhana (performing actions). Saṃskāra refers to rituals such as jātakarma (rituals performed soon after birth), nāmakarana (naming ceremony), upanayana (the ritual that marks the entry into student-hood), vedādhyayana (the study of the Vedas), vivāha (wedding), etc. They purify the jīva by means of mantras and rites sanctioned by the śāstras. Bathing in holy rivers and going on pilgrimages belong in this category.
The Gītā says that sādhana rituals are of three kinds – yajña, dāna, and tapas. All meritorious undertakings can be added here. Under yajña, we can include actions such as worship of deities, devoted service to gurus and elders, and studying the śāstras. In the Gītā, there is the mention of yajñas like dravya-yajña (yajña performed by offering āhuti into the sacred fire), jñāna-yajña (learning something deeply), svādhyāya-yajña (studying something deeply by oneself), dhyāna-yajña (meditation) and so on. Yajña is worship. All work that we do to make others happy is yajña.
Dāna is giving away something that belongs to us to someone who is deserving. There are many kinds of dāna. Before dāna, there should be a feeling of belongingness about the asset that is going to be given away. Later, when the object is given away willingly, when we say “na mama – not mine”, then it is dāna.
Tapas means penance or intense meditation. Being moderate with respect to food and enjoyment; to control the mind and the senses by prayer and study of sacred texts; to teach the mind to understand and practise profound topics: to repeatedly remember, meditate upon and practise a great ideal, a great quality, a great virtue; to constantly strive towards a noble cause – all this is tapas.
Thus, yajña, dāna, and tapas – all three are the instruments to attain something higher. The aforementioned saṃskāras and these instruments follow tradition, according to śāstras. Believers follow the rules laid out for them by their religious sanctions. Fasting during Ramzan for Muslims, penance during Lent for Christians – all these are duties stipulated by their scriptures. Followers of the Veda believe that they yield benefit not only in this world and this life but in other births and other worlds. Indeed, for many acts of worship, the benefit obtained is more in the other world than in this world.
The third is pāramārthika karma. Both laukika and vaidika karmas have associated fruits. Pāramārthika karma does not desire fruit. It is performed without any hunger for reward, with the single view that it is one’s duty, the duty performed to please Paramātmā. Pāramārthika karma is dhārmika and is beyond it as well. From the point of view of usefulness to the world, it is dharma. From the point of view of the doer, it is beyond dharma. Therefore it can be called ‘adhi-dharma’ – something that is over and above and beyond dharma. When Bhagavān said ‘nis-trai-guṇyo bhavārjuna’ this is what he meant. This is how an equanimous person behaves in this world. He performs his dhārmika duties without expecting any reward. Ordinary people perform virtuous deeds out of a desire for worldly pleasures and wealth, or dread of naraka, or longing to attain a place in svarga. In contrast, a pāramārthika person, without any desire or fear or longing, conducts himself with everyone mindful that he is one with the entire universe – ātmaupamyena sarvatra. Sat-karma is natural to him – just as perfume is natural to sandalwood or coolness is natural to the moon. It does not need any effort or exertion; this is the best of best states – the Brāhmī state.
Karma in common parlance can also mean ’the fruit of karma.’ When we say: “He is experiencing his karma,” we imply that he is experiencing the good and bad results of his deeds. Prācīna, prārabdha, prāpti – all these are synonyms for the karma of the past. In the fourth, seventh, and fourteenth chapters, the word karma is used to mean prior deeds, including actions performed during previous births. We shall analyse this interpretation later, as we look at those contexts. The meaning of karma as the fruit of prior deeds is not relevant to us for now.
Arjuna had his doubts. Kṛṣṇa once advised him thus – ’Yuddhāya yujyasva’ – engage in battle for the sake of battle, ’Karmaṇy-evādhikāras-te’ – your right is only to perform karma and ’Kuru karmāṇi’ – perform your karmas. Again he said ’Avaraṃ karma’ – karma is inferior, ’Buddhau śaraṇamanviccha’ – find refuge in buddhi, ’Yogāya yujyasva – be engaged in yoga’. Thus Kṛṣṇa’s instruction was a mixture of two seemingly mutually exclusive things; it looked absurd. Arjuna’s mind was therefore perplexed. He asked Krishna – ”Karma and jñāna – which of these two should I pursue? Please tell me with certainty.”
Kṛṣṇa says: Arjuna, jñāna and karma are not contradictory to each other, they complement each other. Initially, karma is the means for knowledge. Once knowledge is acquired, karma becomes its result. Karma is, anyway, ever present. The jīva cannot escape the stain of karma by only giving up action. Just assuming the state of an ascetic does not bring you knowledge. Then what is meant by “leaving karma”?
na hi kaścit kṣaṇamapi jātu tiṣṭhatyakarmakṛt।
kāryate hyavaśaḥ karma sarvaḥ prakṛtijairguṇaiḥ॥ BG 3.5
“No one can exist for even a second without performing any kind of karma. Nature herself pushes intrinsic qualities out into the world, holds our hands, and gets work done. When senses are being rankled by worldly objects and are inflaming the mind, hiding this agony inside and showing off a stiff exterior is just hypocrisy. On the contrary, one who controls his senses and makes his limbs perform karma only for the sake of dharma, without caring for any benefit for himself, is a Karma-yogi.”
karmendriyāṇi saṃyamya ya āste manasā smaran।
indriyārthān vimūḍhātmā mithyācāraḥ sa ucyate॥ BG 3.6
One who subdues his outward senses but dwells on carnal pleasures in his mind is a hypocrite. He does not know what has to be purified. There is no use of restraining external organs and giving up karma. Bhagavān says:
niyataṃ kuru karma tvaṃ karma jyāyo hyakarmaṇaḥ। BG 3.8
“Perform the karma that is designated for you (niyata-karma). Do whatever has to be done. Performing such karma is better than giving it up altogether.”
Here, the distinction between niyata-karma and aniyata-karma (designated and undesignated karma) is the key. Suppose a family member, old or young, is bedridden at home. Then, suppose there is a bhajan programme in the neighbour’s house, is it niyatam–designated–karma to go and ensconce oneself there? A lot of good deeds are seen in this world. Are they all prescribed for everyone and appropriate for everyone? Is India’s dash to Korea or elsewhere to resolve a dispute justified when the Chinese are marching against us? No. Is there anything to be achieved in your neighbourhood? Where does your responsibility lie? Reflect upon that. It is essential to fulfil duties enjoined by the śāstras after careful thought.
To be continued...
The present series is a modern English translation of DVG’s Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award-winning work, Bhagavad-gītā-tātparya or Jīvana-dharma-yoga. The translators wish to express their thanks to Śatāvadhāni R Ganesh for his valuable feedback and to Hari Ravikumar for his astute edits.