Karmas as Dharma: A Hindu Point of View

A man never exists in vacuum and while living he has to exist in the already obtainable surroundings. He inherits social, economic and religious life the moment he takes birth and this situation becomes a learning school for him from the day he begins crawling and mumbling in apparent innocent selfless smile with light of hope and curiosity in the eyes. As he grows up, he begins to speak, walk and gradually understands human relations, society and the moment he is out of the college, he somewhat knows what he is to do in life with the available social, economic and political scenario. A simple thesis it is and everyone knows. As a man struggles, encounters difficulties leading to sufferings, he evaluates his acts – karmas as each person understands. He learns one should speak the truth. Many thoughts of ethical nature assault and he faces a situation where he has to decide between the good and the bad in life as every bond in the society, known or unknown teaches that moral values strengthen life.

Until then, a man lives life as it comes to him but slowly as he learns vagaries of life and existence constituting joys and pleasures, sufferings and pains of earthly life and gets ready to confront realities of worldly life. Apparently, a man understands that agonies and miseries are inseparable from life but surprisingly, he fails to grasp the causes and if he understands, he tries to ignore. When sufferings are primary in life then, why a man does not make efforts to find a way out. If remedy exists for a disease ailing a body, why then sufferings and anguish of the mind and body, should not find an answer. Genuine efforts are made to eliminate sufferings and pains whether mental or physical from life but after one gets relief, one forgets and restarts life. No one can escape work – either obligatory or otherwise. Karma defines and expresses life. A life of activity is much more significant and superior than a life of idleness or lethargy. In Bhagavad-Gita, lord Krishna says:

Niyatam kuru karma twain karma jyaayo hei akarmanaha
Sarirayatra-api cha te na prasidhyeda akarmanah

You should perform allotted duties –the obligatory functions, because action is superior to inaction. If you abstain from action, you cannot maintain your body even. (Chapter III, Verse 8)

Karma is essential and none can say that he does not know the causes of pain but search for a permanent resolution remains incomplete, for a man very soon learns that joys and pains in life are concomitant, and not a moment goes without experiencing pleasure and suffering while a man is engaged in karma. If pleasures gain ascendency, the sufferings subside but the incidence of the twin attributes continues. Sufferings in a man’s life originate from certain obvious or imperceptible backdrops of flaws or intuitive limitations (negative/unethical or positive/ethical qualities) when he fails to adjust or rearrange priorities of life. Sufferings born of the failure of fulfillment of desires after putting in efforts with sincerity usher in a life of miseries or delight with offshoots of reward or punishment and here, one infers that a man cannot grow or progress without a life of activity.


A man is aware of the consequences of his acts and words spoken. He understands the virtues or the sins inherent in the spoken words as well as acts, and invariably knows the retribution for acts/karmas performed with malevolent intent. For an ordinary man, it is essential to know the fundamental reasons. He questions within. Why he did a wrong or right and what far? What was the purpose? When he analyzes each word and act, he arrives at the probable cause of thoughts, words and actions. He realizes that the ethical worth in words, thoughts and acts is superior, meaningful and inspiring than acts done with iniquitous objective. Moral quality leads to joy abundant while unethical conduct brings miseries. A question naturally disturbs as to why this happens. Whatever may the consequences of a life of activity or inactivity, one must continue to do his duties irrespective of the results that is what one learns when the great Lord says:

Karmani eva adhikaraste mah phalesu kadachana
Mah karma phala hetu bjur mah te sango astu akarmani

Your right is to work (duty) only but you have no right over the fruit. Neither you should become an instrument in turning your karma (act) bear fruit (reward) nor should you incline towards inaction. (Chapter II, Verse 47, Bhagavad-Gita)

One should perform his duties well without ever thinking of the fruit. To engage oneself selflessly in some work for the wellbeing of people is a virtue, every man should imbibe.

Karmas and the Three Gunas

Living with a sense of truth and probity brings happiness while pretense and depravity cause sufferings. An ordinary man undergoing sufferings would seek refuge at the feet of god or goddess or consult pundits or astrologers for getting rid of the agonies. He would slowly comprehend the nature of acts –karmas, and with a hesitant mind turn to prayer and worship, as life of dharma appears a better solution to pains and afflictions. A man begins exploring the nature of karmas and steadily understands that every act originates from attributes of three gunas namely sattva, rajas and tamas. The conduct and nature of man depends upon the impact of gunas on him. When he turns to religious books, he knows the true meaning of sattva, rajas and tamas. Various scriptures exhort men to live honestly and candidly, which is nothing but a life of dharma. In karma of truth and upright nature is inherent the dharma of man, for karma performed with a clean motive to serve man is dharma, for religion is not the subject of scrutiny where it functions as a motivating factor in life of a man.

However, when a man confronts difficulties in life, he turns to religion and god. For a while, peace and inspiration permeate mind and heart. Noble thoughts encourage him to act elegantly. Life of a contemporary man irrespective social, economic or other status is contaminated as negative qualities of jealousy and hatred, passions, greed and aggrandizement determine his life one witnesses around. Unfortunately, even those who should lead the people to growth and prosperity are unquestionably not carrying out their duties, and so a depressing scenario engulfs.

Mind is ever active and moving, as words, thoughts and feelings at the experiential level within bear the burden of corporeal world. Acts/karmas are inscrutable in nature and inherent instincts of survival decide the individual’s course of life. Acts/karmas are precursors to relations with created beings so feelings of love, passion, anxieties, thirst, uncertainties, jealousy, hatred, greed and attachment take birth. Karma carries the yearning for reward of whatever nature it may be. Social obligations presuppose definiteness and thus, liberation from worldly joys or sufferings thereof becomes difficult.

Karmas, if understood correctly, guide a man to freedom from earthly shackles. Karmas acquire varied characteristics depending upon man’s nature. Karmas connect him to societal relations in totality and prove bondages. Karmas, pleasant and enjoyable when do not create obstacles, are preyas, for such karmas cause attachment to material joys transient, and therefore, fleeting nature of enjoyment brings pain, grief and sorrow. Virtuous and humanistic thoughts originating from acts enrich man with inner ecstasy and bliss, for at this moment, karmas are bereft of the thoughts of reward. Impassiveness towards fruit brings inner peace, and proves enlightening not only to man as such but also to the world. Here, karmas attain a unique characteristic called shreyas.


A dialogue on the meaning of preyas and shreyas forms a solid background of conversation of tremendous purpose between a young Nachiketas and Yama. Lord Yama in chapter I, valli ii (valli is attached to different branches of holy Vedas as if a creeper or a division) of Kathopanishad explains that shreya means good or in other words, good means sattva gunas or virtues. It is knowledge that takes a man to deliverance – the final liberation. On the other hand, preya relates to sensual joys and enjoyments, having basis in tamas gunas. It is also obvious that rajas gunas do contain elements of tamas and thus, a life of purity appears illusive. Human beings engaged in acts/karmas definitely attain what is good and noble and what is pleasurable and enjoyable. Therefore, it is apparent that the objective of karmas is to infuse inner joy and delight to man and society. Karmas put on the face of dharma – truth and uprightness, when these provide joy and happiness.

Virtuous conduct encompasses truth and forthrightness in acts and therefore, thoughts and words justify acts and then, karmas become dharma and this unique merger glorifies man’s existence. It is oversimplifying a complex issue but for an ordinary man, it is so simple and yet, has great significance. Through righteous and truthful acts, he can spread message of love and peace, truthfulness and justice, self-sacrifice and abandonment of attachment to the material world. Ethical approach to relations and material joys around transforms every word and act into an undividable commitment to human beings and society as such. In other words, it is a spirit of disinterestedness in the reward or fruit of karma. To perform one’s duties whether social or otherwise, is the real dharma of man irrespective of the status or position he holds in the social, economic or political hierarchy. In this light, if one weighs up words and acts of a modern man, the decay ubiquitous would be obvious.

Undoubtedly, religion or dharma means scriptural knowledge and adherence to the principles of dharma but from a realistic perspective, it relates to routine ennobling activities of man. In reality, karmas infused with the spirit of morality determine the entire social life from the social, economic, psychological and philosophic, political and religious aspects. Karmas are integral to the essence of dharma and evaluate man, performing duties with a sense of integrity, truth, principles and uprightness essential for the growth, evolution and affluence of man and humanity. Enrichment of man not only relates to material opulence but growth of inner man that begins to tread the path to truth and salvation spreading light and hopes around.


Our saints and sages have always exhorted us to perform duties religiously and righteously. In simple words, one is attracted to these words of Veda:

O citizens of the world,
Live in concord and harmony
Live properly organized and show cooperative spirit
Speak truth with one voice
And resolutions and decisions should be made in unison,
This is what our great ancient seers and sages,
The great leaders and wise teachers and preceptors
Have said and adhered to these principles righteously.
In the same way, O citizens, you should not falter
When carrying out your duties.

These unadorned words speak of perennial truth. If a man accomplishes his work religiously, it means he is selfless and not attached to the fruit of karma. Only this spirit among men will lead to peace and harmony, which a modern man needs so urgently. The nobility and selflessness in karma encourages love and respect for the society while helping the distressed, for when a man invokes innate energy born of pure and righteous karma one espouses a great cause for the benefit of society and humanity. Karma, not conducive to the ethical growth of man and society and destroys the objective of life, is adharma – immoral or destructive acts, words and thoughts. An act of adharma or unrighteousness or dissipation does not benefit or purify man but contaminates and wipes out refinement. Adharma, in truth, does not contribute to the true development of man and humankind.

Culture of values and graciousness harmonizes social, economic and political thought, proves therapeutic little by little but definitely as it cleans not only an individual but also the polluted system. A contemporary man adopts a negligent and deceptive approach deliberately, for he cannot fight against the forces of greed, hatred, corruption and dishonesty but wishes to progress materially with the support of these negative qualities. He refuses to follow laws of dharma or righteous act, and thereafter, disfigures and contaminates cultural values based on karmas as dharma or dharma as karmas or religious dictums. The acts or karmas are causes of not only joys and pleasures but also afflictions as said earlier. The real joys of life relate to inner man – the self. If a man lives with truth, integrity, honesty, uprightness, ethical principles, he becomes a source of strength to the society.


The Mystifying Play: Prakriti and Purusa

It is important that a discriminating man comprehends the nature of man. Karmas depend upon the nature of man – prakriti, having dominant components three gunas – sattva, rajas and tamas. A man ought to exercise control over nature and conduct. Without restrain, prakriti brings aberration, failures, transitory joys and victory, and illusory notions about life and existence. The ingredients of prakriti determine total existence of man with its social and intellectual life and if prakriti is predominant, it causes instability and disarray because it is further determined by the gunas – evolved from prakriti, namely sattva, rajas and tamas, which review and appraise the attitude and conduct of man. Therefore, one can conclude that prakriti is the mother of creation.

The truth and fact reveal another implication of karmas – the consequence of above three gunas born of Prakriti:

na hi kaschit kasanami api jatu tisithati akarmakrit
karayate he a-vash karma, sarvaha prakrit jaiha gunaiha

No one can ever really stay action-less even for a moment because everyone is helpless and is driven to action by the force of gunas – qualities that are born of nature – prakriti.
(The Bhagavad-Gita Verse 5 Ch. 3)

It is obvious that prakriti is the origin and source of wide-ranging karmas and its related ramifications and thus, the individual soul is the field of experiences of enjoyments and grief or distress. Purusa symbolizes father and as such, nature appears ubiquitous and pervasive, and the birth of created beings represents and signifies the principles of sacred union between the prakriti and the purusa. In other words, it means it is the birth of soul (individual) in wombs of purity/good – optimistic/affirmative or pessimistic/negative qualities.

The knowledge of nature – prakriti and purusa, and its influence on man and society would reveal many essential features of human behaviour. An analysis of the power of the three constituents of nature – sattva, rajas and tamas would facilitate correct approach to man’s acts, words and thoughts. These characteristics of nature operate in the life of man ingeniously and unnoticeably. Its subtle, indirect and invisible working in the life of man brings many changes.


These gunas function inside the man – in the mind and heart, and effectively influence the intellect and psychological frame. Disguised inner man remains unnoticed and undetected until it signals its presence in acts and thoughts – in truth the pattern of karmas. Sattva guna symbolizes purity, grace, decency, truth and honesty in words and acts. It illuminates the man within and creates an aura outside spreading message of love, peace, compassion and harmony. Sattva chases away miseries, vices, greed and maliciousness from life. If men inculcate sattvic qualities – purity and sacredness in conduct, thoughts, feelings and acts, society and the world will become supremely blessed. It is ascendancy from the material world to the intellectual, the ethical and finally a step towards the spiritual.

Virtuous qualities (sattva gunas – truth, righteousness, serenity and poise) fill with inner harmony and pure thoughts and at that moment, a man turns into an embodiment of love and compassion so essential for the growth and progress of man and society. In truth, good things happening around bring brilliance on the faces of people –consequences of virtuous life. A man with rajasic temperament harbors feelings of passion, attachment and infatuation for money and power, magnificence and splendeur. He is more interested in the pleasures of the world and aspires to collect material comforts and power. The preponderance of rajas qualities distracts him from sattvic living. At times, he displays interest in virtues and performs certain karmas that help man and society.

If he acts with sattvic propensities, it is a temporary phase because he is more eager to enjoy life of wealth, comforts and power that damage, destroy and impair sattva gunas. He undoubtedly, contributes to life of men around because he is dynamic and active in diverse endeavours, which bring achievement and brilliance but these attainments give transitory joys while the self – the inner man, remains partially gratified. One can infer that sattvic qualities bring meaning to life. A sattvic man glorifies and brightens up the inner man and spreads goodwill and purity outside, and thus, such a man proves an asset to the society. Whereas a man of rajasic nature though brings material brilliance in life but the inner man –the self is rarely at peace, for passions and ambitions disturb and provoke him so the man is ever disgruntled and yearns for more power and wealth. Outer embellishments fascinate this man rather than the beauty and glory of self – the soul, the inner man. If ever he evinces interest in sattvic qualities of life, it is a short-term journey, for he is uncomfortable. He is more inclined towards the tamasic areas of activities one can conclude.

A man of tamas nature casts a magic spell on men with sattvic and rajasic qualities, for in the initial stages these qualities appear pleasing to the mind, heart and senses. A tamasic person pollutes the environment where sattva and rajas gunas survive. Lethargy, neglect, violence, inertia, passions, cruelty, harshness and callousness are the overwhelming qualities of tamasic man. He is deadly inhuman and unsympathetic and least obliging to man and society. Without agreeable characteristics, he enjoys hurting others. He is violently sardonic and derives pleasure in the sufferings of fellowmen while compunction and love for humanity are absent.

In depth, analysis reveals that rajas and tamas qualities are less demanding and more pleasure giving and therefore, drive a man to materialistic consideration where tamasic man is more spiteful, atrocious, sadistic and violently heartless, and viciously contaminates the surroundings. To love and acquire wealth and power are the characteristics of rajasic nature, and rajasic man directs energies and endeavours towards the attainment of material objects. Rajasic is not only interested in self-promotion and glory but also exercises authority and resources for the wellbeing of man and humanity.


Sattvic symbolizes virtues, moral principles, love, worship, prayer, effulgence, compassion and understanding of self and a wish to go beyond the earthly existence one concludes. A sattvic man loves man, humanity, and works for the objective of bringing happiness and prosperity to all irrespective of caste, colour or creed. He is a true humanitarian. He is calm, serene and loves to live in harmony with all created beings. A man of rajasic temperament is unsympathetic to sattvic life. Rajasic man wields terrific energy, force and enterprise, opulence, power and brevity and deep deliberation and planning, and loves to control men and material and thus, for the attainment of these objectives makes efforts and tends to adore tamasic qualities.

Indulgence, immoderation, ferocity, wickedness, repulsion, hatred, lethargy, indolence, and a sense of destruction, ignorance, foolishness and violence, impudence and recklessness, sadism and pathetic lack of love and compassion govern the mind and heart of a man with tamasic qualities. One cannot expect anything from such a man, for he spreads malice and hatred and loves to hurt others. All the three qualities are born of karmas one knows. In other words, one concludes that a sattivic man abandons material gains and bodily enticements with a sense of total detachment. He is aware of life’s ultimate reality and purpose. Consciousness of the self grants him blissful state of mind and heart. If a man of rajas nature abandons excitement, he is full of sorrow and miseries, and instinctive predilection to outshine, forces him to acquire worldly pleasures, power and wealth again. However, for a man of tamas nature, existence is at the animal level one is prone to observe.

A tamasic man is wicked, sluggish and immensely apathetic, lives a life of disrepute and humiliation contributing to his failure and defeat, for he does not grow or progress, but lives like an animal. An alert and moving man upholds rajasic values of life, and thus, a life of activity and incessant efforts lead him to growth and prosperity. Karma’s role is easily discerned in men nurturing tamasic and rajasic qualities. In such men, one notices either suffering or demoniac life or transitory joy, power and adventure. A life of dharma engulfs a man in purity, blissful illumination and enlightenment inner peace, harmony and sanctity.


In other words, one learns that life of a man on earth in multifaceted forms and shapes depends upon the nature of karmas born of gunas. The words of Swetasvatara Upanishad (Verse 11) are so pertinent here:

Sankalpana sparshana drishti mohaiha grasamabu vrishtya atmaviviridhdhiajanama
Karmanugnaya nukramena dehi sathaneshu rupayana abhi samprapada yate

The verse makes it quite clear that as food and drink contribute to the growth and energy of physique, similarly the progress and growth of an individual soul – inner self, depends upon or is the result of various karmas – actions performed by the being in various stages of life in different forms or shapes. The performance of virtuous karmas help a soul, grow rapidly. One infers that the righteous and truthful actions – karmas purify the heart as food nurtures body. Virtuous karmas/ actions born of sattvic gunas nourish the inner self – the soul. Qualities of mind and heart determine the growth of man. If these are virtuous and chaste, a man proves beneficial to the society and if not, he brings misfortunes.

Man is a wonderful creation of the Invisible – the Supreme Lord. If a man lives with sattva qualities, he achieves freedom. A man of rajas qualities must move life towards sattvic region of living while a man of tamasic nature needs to ascend from the qualities of tamas to the rajas, and then, make genuine efforts to gain purity and bliss. This would enrich life provided he strives hard to fill life with sattva gunas and this path would lead him to freedom from worldly bondages. Sattva, rajas and tamas characteristics guide and control a man. Ultimately, sattivic life fills life and existence with supreme ecstasy, inner knowledge, wisdom and harmony. Probing into the living conditions from the modern background, one finds a disgusting and unforgivable split in the words and acts of man. Disturbing surfeit of rajas and tamas gunas with deadly prevalence of tamas gives birth to greed, violence and corruption without compunction.


More by :  P C K Prem

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