Dharma (Law of Life) and Karma (Right Action) - Dharma and karma - Reflections on Applications

Dharma and karma - Reflections on Applications

There is today a deep but painful search for the fundamental ideals of social reconstruction, which is being attempted under the influence of three principles of progress, which came to be formulated in the West under the interrelated concepts of liberty, equality, and fraternity, which, in turn, have been imprinted powerfully on humanity under the impress of the French Revolution. The history of the modern West, as also of the developing nations in the world, can be studied as an account of social, economic and political experimentation the aim of which has been to implement these three principles.

But in several ways, these principles seem to collide powerfully with some of the ancient Indian ideas that had shaped its social, economic and political structure. Again, that structure of ancient India passed through several stages, and in the declining period it gave rise to increasing rigidities, disabilities, distortions and mechanical absurdities, – some of which were combated by a number of Saint-leaders, who had understood better the deeper spirit of the ancient social structure, as also by other leaders who, in our own times, have understood, adequately or inadequately, the inner meaning of the Western message of freedom, equality and brotherhood. But this combat has not been successful and we are still in the midst of a battle which is not only bewildering and perplexing but which is also ridden with confusions and blind prejudices and passions. India's progress is thus greatly obstructed and halted, and we cannot expect to advance further if we cannot resolve this battle to a successful conclusion. In this context, one of the central issues on which we shall be required to have great and fresh clarity is that of Dharma and Karma and its applications in the individual and collective life.

The current economic field, whether competitive or socialistic, is a field of the job market, which is being fed by human resources trained by educational factories providing courses and programmes not related directly to the needs of the job market nor to the demands of the fulfilment of intrinsic human ends. An individual who gets a bit of training in English literature finds a job in a pharmaceutical shop, and a scientist may get a job in a factory that produces spectacles. The relationship of training with work and the relationship of work with the deeper spirit of the

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Dharma and karma - Reflections on Applications

individual are hardly taken into account. And yet, the Indian mind, consciously or subconsciously, wants to arrive at some meaningful connection between the process of education and preparation for a work that might truly express the individual's inmost nature and inmost means of fulfillment. There appears to be thus a great disequilibrium between the Indian cultural concepts of life, work and fulfillment and what the present structure proposes to the individual to expect from the field of work. Work, according to the deepest cultural ethos of India, is connected not merely with the processes and skills of a job, but also with a profound series of ideas and aspirations connected with "kartavyam karma", the work that has to be done not optionally but inevitably as a part of the inmost fulfilment of swabhava and swadharma, − as a part of the expression of the inmost recesses of the being to be executed according to the right law of development of the being. In other words, the inmost demand of Indian culture is to create a society in which every individual is trained for a work by performance of which one can attain, gradually and increasingly, highest fulfillment, − ­cultural, ethical and spiritual.

On the other hand, many current ideas, practices and customs in India betray casteism, which has its own attitudes towards work, duties and responsibilities. Happily, casteism is being rejected by the growing enlightened opinion. This opinion is largely guided by the concept of individualism, − an off-shot of the modern principle of Liberty, − which notices that casteism binds the individual to a small group, − both in regard to relationship and function, − while individualism liberates the individual from narrow loyalties and fixed grooves of accident of birth into larger universe of free growth and participation in larger ends of the society and even humanity. It also notices that while casteism imprisons the individual in a network of hierarchy, inequity, and perpetual social injustice, modern advocacy of a socialist structure of social equity is evidently superior, since it offers to the individual equal opportunity and equal dignity with everybody else as a human being. And socialistic equality, it is further noticed, if and when realised, would bring to every individual freedom from the tyranny of injustices that are inherent in hierarchies. It is also rightly seen that casteism is a great divisive force and its perpetuity imperils the spirit of unity, harmony and oneness.

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Dharma and karma - Reflections on Applications

This enlightened opinion has, however, not yet become so powerful as to root out casteism nor has it as yet succeeded in developing an alternative structure which can not only provide individual freedom but also eliminate injustices of domineering individuals and groups that perpetuate themselves on the strength of their past history, accident of birth, and exploitation of the noble idea of individualism for wrong ends. Again, this enlightened opinion has not yet discovered or invented a social system in which equity is really enjoyed and not constantly endangered by increasing mechanisation, impersonalisation, and dehumanisation. And, still again, this enlightened opinion has not yet discovered the alchemy by which universal brotherhood can be rightly practised both in inner and outer life. This enlightened opinion, therefore, has yet to grow, and in this process of growth, secrets of the ancient Indian concepts of work in relation to Dharma and Karma may prove to be highly useful.

Casteism often tends to defend itself on the confusion it makes between itself and the ancient system of chaturvarnya and it arrogates to itself profounder ideas of kartavyam karma, niyatam karma, sahajam karma, swabhavajam karma, and even profounder ideas of swabhava and swadharma. It is by this false arrogation that it proposes to perpetuate itself and portray itself as the right expression of the Indian concept of dharma and karma. But it must be stressed that the caste system is quite different from the ancient chaturvarnya system and must be seen as the later disintegrated degeneration and gross meaningless parody of the ancient system.

The theory of the ancient system of chaturvarnya proceeded from the supposition that each individual has his own peculiar inner nature, which is born from and reflects one element of the divine nature. It further supposed that the human being falls into four types of qualities and functions, guna karma. There is, first and highest, the personality of learning and thought and knowledge; next the personality of power and action, ruler, warrior, leader, administrator; third in the scale, the economic personality, the producer or the wealth-getter, the merchant, artisan and cultivator; and last, the personality of labour and menial service. The economic order of society was cast in the form and gradation of these four types; even ethical and psychical culture of the society came to be designed on the same pattern of the fourfold order, which created the framework of training each individual according to the predominant nature, swabhava, that the individual represented. But the deepest justification for this fourfold order was spiritual in character.

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Dharma and karma - Reflections on Applications

The entire system emphasised that the intellectual, ethical and spiritual growth of the individual is the central need of the race, and that the individual and social life should be so organised that the work that the individual was expected to do was in consonance with the inmost nature, swabhava, which originated from a certain still deeper spiritual stuff and power. The rule and law of development of that inner nature, dharma, guided the development of the individual, and work that the individual performed was expected to be utilised as the material for self-experience and self-expression, and as a means of self-finding and self-realisation. The laws of the society and the laws of individual's development constituted a harmony and a complex of dharma. Karma, or action, was understood, not as a job to be performed merely for economic sustenance of the individual or the society but chiefly as the means of inner growth of faculties, powers, personality and processes of knowing oneself and fulfilling oneself.

Karma came, therefore, to be understood as niyatam karma, action regulated by the process of self-development, swabhava, and the law of self-development, swadharma; karma or action came to be understood as sahajam karma, action that is born along with oneself, one's inmost self; karma came to be understood as swbahavajam karma, action born from one's deepest nature and one's self-becoming. On the other hand, vikarma came to be understood as an action opposed to one's nature and one's own law of self-development, — opposed to swabhava and swadharma. And akarma came to mean a state that lies above work, the state that is not attached to work, a state similar to the lotus leaf, which can bear on its surface drops of water without yet becoming wet. For it was recognised that work has its ultimate origin in what the Bhagavadgita calls Purushottama, Supreme Purusha, who is at once akshara and kshara, the immobile and the mobile, the one who remains akarmi —  uplifted and untouched by action, —  even when manifesting, controlling and ruling the billions and trillions of forces of work. Karma, as understood in the Bhagavadgita, is an instrument of lifting the individual from the circle of ordinary qualities of dullness, feverish dynamism and of light and harmony, —  qualities of tamas, rajas and sattwa, —  by ever-increasing and progressive climbing so as to reach a simultaneous status of akshara and kshara, of immobility and mobility, —  but both free from the three qualities of gunas of sattwa, rajas, and tamas. The ideal to be reached by karma, by action, is to be a channel entirely passive for the free and unobstructed passage of the divine will. All this and much more was implied when Sri Krishna announced that the fourfold order of the society was created divinely, on the basis of quality and action, guna and karma. The implication was that the individual could work out the stair of development by utilising guna and karma to reach the divine source.

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Dharma and karma - Reflections on Applications

The guidance that we get from the Bhagavadgita on this important subject can be stated in the form of three propositions:

All actions must be determined from within man because each action has in it something his own, some characteristic principles and inborn power of his nature. That is the efficient power of his spirit, which creates the dynamic form of his soul in nature, and to express and perfect it by action, to make it effective in capacity and conduct and life is his work, his true karma. That points him to the right way of his inner and outer living and is the right starting-­point for farther development.

Secondly, there are broadly four types of nature, each with its characteristic function and ideal rule of work and character, and the type indicates man's proper field and should trace for him his just circle of function in his outer social existence.

And thirdly, whatever work a man does, if done according to the law of his being, the truth of his nature, can be turned Godwards and made an effective means of spiritual liberation and perfection.

It must not be thought that the fourfold order of the society was peculiar to India, although its cultural, ethical and spiritual character was unique. The fourfold order came to be evolved at a certain stage of social evolution in other ancient or medieval societies with certain differences. It may also be noted that the old system everywhere broke down and gave place to a more fluid order. In India, this old system broke down and gave place to a confusion and complex social rigidity and economic immobility degenerating towards a chaos of castes. But still, no society can function without the fourfold order, since in every society there is the need of four functions and four types of individuals to fulfil those functions. Even if one could create a purely productive and commercial society such as modern times have attempted, even then, there would emerge thinkers moved to find the law and truth and guiding rule of the society, the captains and leaders utilising productive activity as an excuse for the satisfaction of their need of adventure and battle and leadership and dominance, the many typical purely productive and wealth-getting men, and finally, the average workers needing and provided with the modicum of labour and the reward of the labour. This shows that there is some inherent truth in the fourfold order, even though the framework in which this truth comes to be expressed may not be adequate, and, therefore, liable to disruption, distortion or degeneration.

We may, therefore, ask the question as to whether this concept of fourfold order has any meaning and utility for social reconstruction and whether it should be re-studied and re-formulated as an aid to the contemporary need to evolve a new social order. In any case, a study of this problem is necessitated by the fact that India has reached a stage of development where, on the one hand, the modern wave of liberty, equality and fraternity has already altered the framework of our economic, commercial and political life and yet, on the other, casteism still persists and seeks to perpetuate itself by taking resort to the deeper concept of dharma and karma, which had led to the formation of the ancient system of chaturvarnya.

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Dharma and karma - Reflections on Applications

The advantages of the modern framework of society where every individual is expected to fulfil certain common obligations, which are not specific only to one particular type of people belonging to one sector of human activity but to all sectors of life and in all the main departments of human activities, are mainly the following: (i) this framework helps to promote greater solidarity, unity and fullness in the life of the community; (ii) it also promotes a more all-round development of the complete human being as opposed to the endless divisions and over­ specialisation and the narrowing and artificial shackling of the life of the individual to which the Indian system eventually led.

On the other hand, the ancient system of chaturvarnya had achieved three important gains: First of all, it could make its chief aim to minimise the incidence of war. For this purpose, it limited the military obligation to the small class who by their birth, nature and tradition were marked out for this function and found in it their natural means of self development through the flowering of the soul in the qualities of courage, disciplined force, strong helpfulness and chivalrous nobility for which the warrior's life pursued under the stress of a high ideal gives a field and opportunities. The rest of the community was in every way guarded from slaughter and outrage.

The second gain of that system was that life was elevated to pursuits, which were not strictly economical, although the economic activities of the Vaishya were concentrated on personal prosperity and also of social prosperity. And although all the members of the society could pursue wealth and collection and storing of wealth, one was encouraged in the case of brahmins, kshatriyas and shudras to keep the economic motive subordinate to those motives, which were appropriate to the function and type of qualities, which were recognised as uniquely their own. This also helped in their retaining artha and kama as important parts of the scheme of the purushartha, but it emphasised the overarching control of dharma and ultimate pursuit of moksha.

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Dharma and karma - Reflections on Applications

And the third gain of that system was the support and aid it gave to lift the culture from lower pulls of economic barbarism and vital philistinism to greater heights of rational, ethical and aesthetic culture as also to still higher heights of religious and spiritual culture.

Let us note the main stages through which the ancient system of chaturvarnya passed. According to the Indian theory, the chaturvarnya system was based upon the typal principle, and the typal principle is not suitable either to the periods of highest attainment of humanity or to the eras of its lowest possibility. It is neither the principle of the ideal age, the age of the perfected Truth, satyayuga or kritayuga, in which the human being moves according to some high and profound realisation of the divine possibility, nor of the iron age, the kaliyuga, in which the human being collapses towards the life of instincts, impulses, and desires with the reason degraded into a servant of the lower life. The typal order is the appropriate principle of the intermediate ages of the human cycle in which attempts are made to maintain some imperfect form of the true law, of dharma, by will-power and the force of character in the treta, and by law, arrangement and fixed convention in the dwapara. Therefore, it is said that Vishnu is the king in the treta, but in the dwapara, he becomes the arranger and codifier of the knowledge and the law. In these intermediate ages, the principle of order may take refuge in a limited perfection, suppressing some elements to perfect others.

We may suggest that there was a stage where the framework of fourfold order had not got crystallised. There was also a period when there was a rivalry between the brahmins and kshatriyas for supremacy. But when the fourfold order became crystallised and was practised with some kind of ideality, the important factors in determining the test of varna were the intellectual capacity of the individual, the turn of the temperament, ethical nature and spiritual stature. In Guna karma vibhagashah, as the Bhagavadgita puts it, the test was based on quality and work. There had come about the erection of a rule of family living, a system of individual observance and self-training, a force of upbringing and education, which would bring out and formulate these essential things. The individual was carefully trained in the capacities, habits and attainments, and was habituated to the sense of honour and duty necessary for the discharge of his allotted function in life. The concerned individual was scrupulously equipped with the science of the things he had to do, the best way to succeed in it, and to attain to the highest rule and recognised perfection of its activities. The Indian idea in its purity fixed status of a person not by birth, but by the capacities and inner nature.

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Dharma and karma - Reflections on Applications

In this stage, the great social ideals were built and a great emphasis was laid on the idea of social honour. The honour of the brahmin rested in purity, piety, high reverence for things of the mind and spirit and a disinterested disposition, exclusive pursuit of learning and knowledge; the honour of a kshatriya lived in courage, chivalry, strength, self-­restraint and self-mastery, nobility of character and the obligation of that nobility; the honour of the vaishya was maintained by rectitude of pooling mercantile vitality, sound production, order, liberality and philanthropy; the honour of the shudra consisted in obedience, subordination, faithful service, and disinterested attachment. This system was supported by the ashram vyavastha, and the idea of fourfold purushartha, that aimed at a regulated enjoyment of artha and kama under the guidance of dharma and ultimate seeking of spiritual liberation, moksha. Ashram vyavastha was based upon the psychological understanding of the needs of human personality that arise at different stages of life and it provided guidance to each as to how best to meet these needs so that the ultimate ends of spiritual life could be served on a sound foundation of progressive growth.

But these ideas and sense of honour gradually began to become a matter of convention. In the end, when the typal stage passed into the conventional stage fully, these noble things became a tradition in thought and on lips rather than a reality of life. At the conventional stage, the external supported the outward expressions of the spirit and outer form became more important than the ideal; the body or even the clothes came to be regarded as more important than the person. At first, the birth did not seem to have been of the first importance in the social order. But afterwards, the son of a brahmin came to be looked upon conventionally as a brahmin; birth and profession were together the double bond of the hereditary convention. The maintenance of psychological and ethical qualities passed from the first place to a secondary or to even a quite tertiary importance. They even ceased to be indispensable, and they came to be dispensed with as an ornamental fiction. In the full economic period, the priest and the pundit bore the name of the brahmin; the retrograde and feudal baron flourished under the name of the kshatriya; the trader and the money-getter enriched himself under the name of vaishya; and the half-fed labourer and economic serf suffered under the name of shudra. Finally, even the economic basis began to disintegrate. Birth, family custom, deformations, new accretions of meaningless or fanciful or religious sign and ritual became the important links in the system. The caste system of the iron age came in full swing. The whole system began to crumble, and what remained was a name, a shell which must either be dissolved by a new emphasis on individual perfectibility, or else it would continue to affect the entire society fatally with weakness and falsehood. That is the last and the present state of the caste system in India.

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Dharma and karma - Reflections on Applications

At this stage, it appears that the Western ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity can be utilised by India profitably, if we look into them with deeper understanding. They have come upon India in their imperfect formulations and in their unripe stages of experimentation. As such, they need to be formulated more adequately and experimented upon with greater wisdom, and that should be the task of all who are keen to clarify the confusion and re-build the life of India on new lines, not by abandoning the rich and valuable heritage of the spiritual, ethical and cultural experience, not also by abandoning the lessons of dharma and karma, but by deriving deeper truths of that heritage and developing new knowledge and a new fund of wisdom.

The ideal of liberty is fundamentally the ideal of the individual self-­determination and its message is consonant with the Indian idea to lift the individual from the bonds of mechanical necessities to the heights of spiritual freedom, individual integrality and individual fullness that can contain both the universal and transcendental reality. The ideal of equality is the idea of mutuality and harmony and its message is to restore sound equation between the individual and the individual and between the individual and the collectivity. Its call is to awaken into us the vision of one underlying reality that can harmonise diversity into unity. It is consonant with the ancient Indian vision of samam brahma, one equal brahman, and it counsels us that when this vision is introduced practically into all aspects of our dynamic life, we can bring about the true reign of harmony. And the ideal of fraternity fulfils both liberty and equality, extracting them both from their antinomies, and it provides to both of them the alchemy of living realisation. Its message is none other than the Vedic message, which calls upon all to move together and to commune together in common partnership, comradeship and brotherhood, − samgacchadhvam samvadadhvam. These three ideals are entirely capable of being harmonised with the Indian ethical and spiritual ideals, and they can be perfectly welcomed and embraced in the new fabric that is being woven for our social reconstruction.

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Dharma and karma - Reflections on Applications

On the other hand, the truths of chaturvarnya need to be distilled and they can even be further deepened, heightened and enriched. The hints and clues are already available in the Indian experience. The Purusha Sukta, which is often cited in support of the chaturvarnya, when rightly understood, gives us the underlying truth of the integrality of the four divine qualities. Its description of the creative Deity, from whose mouth, arms, thighs and feet, the four orders are said to have sprung, is not merely a poetical image. The Creator's body was to the Vedic poet more than an image; it expressed the divine reality. Human society for them was an attempt to express in life the cosmic Purusha. Man and cosmos are both are symbols and expressions of the same hidden Reality. This image expresses the divine as the integrality of knowledge, power, harmony and skill. And although at that typal stage of human civilisation these four powers got developed, each somewhat independently of the others, they are not really independent of each other. The integrality of the Divine can be integrally expressed only when these four powers are developed in their combination and mutuality, and if this meaning is extracted and implemented properly, we can easily see in what new direction we can reconstruct the Indian society. The profound ideas of ethical and spiritual aims that lie at the root of chaturvarnya need not be given up; only the emphasis laid on the relative independence of four powers of personality will have to be brought into harmony with the demands of their integrality. Each individual will have to be developed and educated in such a way that, by taking advantage of predominance of knowledge, power, harmony or skill, each of these four powers can be balanced with others and all of them can be integrated.

Creation of increasing number of individuals, embodying in themselves all the four powers of personality and all of them expressing the inmost integrality of perfection, their integral divinity, would avoid the necessity of social stratification and division of the society in castes or classes. The greater the perfection of the individual, the greater will be the need of the perfection of the society, and this cannot but culminate in the operation of the ideal law of social development, where both the individual and the society grow from within and aid each other in their progressive growth towards increasing harmony and unity. And such a development would perfectly harmonise with the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity.

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Dharma and karma - Reflections on Applications

The Bhagavadgita, too, seems to indicate the path of further development of dharma in some such direction, so that a greater dharma, even while abandoning all dharmas, can be arrived at in complete freedom and integrality of the divine's expression in the individual and in the society. Bringing out this clue from the Bhagavadgita, Sri Aurobindo concludes in his "Essays on the Gita" in these words:

"Then as we get beyond the limitation of the three Gunas, so also do we get beyond the division of the fourfold law and beyond the limitation of all distinctive Dharmas, sarvadharman parityaijya. The Spirit takes up the individual into the universal Swabhava, perfects and unifies the fourfold soul of nature in us and does its self-determined works according to the divine will and the accomplished power of the godhead in the creature.

"...Our work should be according to the truth within us, it should not be an accommodation with outward and artificial standards: it must be a living and sincere expression of the soul and its inborn powers. For to follow out the living inmost truth of this soul in our present nature will help us eventually to arrive at the immortal truth of the same soul in the now superconscious supreme nature. There we can live in oneness with God and our true self and all beings and, perfected, become a faultless instrument of divine action in the freedom of the immortal Dharma."*

* Sri Aurobindo: "Essays on the Gita", Centenary Edition, Vol. 13, 507.

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