Dharma (Law of Life) and Karma (Right Action) - Vedic Philosophy of Dharma

Vedic Philosophy of Dharma

Vedic philosophy of dharma

(In brief and essential terms)

I

अ॒ग्निर्हि दे॒वाँ अ॒मृतो॑ दुव॒स्यत्यथा॒ धर्मा॑णि स॒नता॒ न दू॑दुषत्॥[1]

The immortal mystic fire of aspiration adores cosmic powers and beings so that the eternal principles of Dharma may not be violated.

    The concepts of Dharma and Karma have been derived from some of the important discoveries which were made by the Vedic Rishis. We shall refer mainly to five of these discoveries.

1

Greatest of these discoveries was that of the fourth world as distinguished from the world of matter (prithvi), world of life (antariksha) and the world of mind (dyau). This fourth world was called “turiyam svid, the world of truth and of everlasting light. Three words describe this fourth world: satyam, ritam, brihat, truth, right and vast.

          Modern knowledge acknowledges the existence of Matter, which we can sense through our sense-organs; it also accepts the existence of Life that pulsates in the universe through the process of association, growth and disintegration; it further admits Mind as the power and substance of Idea or Thought. But it has still not rediscovered the Vedic “fourth world” that is superior to idea and which can be described as Real-Idea, since it is regarded as capable of realising ideative concepts.

 

[1] Rigveda III.3.1

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Vedic Philosophy of Dharma

2

Going beyond the fourth world, the Vedic explorers discovered what they called ekam sat, the one Reality. It was described as wonderful since it combined in a very special way the “essence” and “power”. Somewhat as in modern Physics we have the strange nature of ultimate constituent of Matter, which is, in one sense, of the nature of particle and, in another sense, of the nature of wave, even so, the Reality which was described by the Vedic seers was at once of the nature of essence (vasu) and energy or power (ūrja).

3

Vedic seers also discovered that energy moves forward from the essence or remains contained in essence in accordance with the Will that is inherent in essence. Essence is free to exercise the Will or to withhold the Will.

When the will-force is exercised, vibrations of energy emerge. These vibrations have rhythms; these rhythms have definite measures, regularities and uniformities; these measures and regularities came to be seen as expressions of regular law of cycles of life. The Vedic seers called them the eternal law of life. In Sanskrit, it was called sanatana dharma.

For Dharma means the law of life that holds together vibrations and rhythms of life and development within definite measures and regularities. Sanatana Dharma is the law of life that holds together in a systematic manner and unfailingly the integrity and progression of all life in the universe.

The Vedic seers declared that it is by applying the knowledge of this Dharma that one can become a harmonious part of the unity of universal life.

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Vedic Philosophy of Dharma

4

Sanatana Dharma in its application to human life traces the path by which one could travel successfully to the fourth world and to the original Reality.

The question is as to how to effect this travel.

It is in answer to this question that the Vedic Rishis spoke of Agni, not the ritualistic fire, but the Mystic Fire which is described in the very first hymn of the Rigveda as the leader of the journey of life, Knower of the truth and one who can call down higher knowledge into the lower human world.

They also laid down that Agni is the upward aspiration which is seated in the heart of every living and thinking being, and that it is by kindling this aspiration that the human journey can be conducted on the right road.

They also discovered four conditions which have to be fulfilled for the attainment of the goal. These conditions are the cultivation of:

  • Universal wideness;
  • Universal friendliness;
  • Intense power of austerity; and
  • Capacity to bear the highest bliss.

In their own language, Vedic Rishis named these four conditions are related to Varuņa, Mitra, Aryaman and Bhaga.

5

Three important methods were further developed by the Vedic seers as a part of the practice of Sanatana Dharma.

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Vedic Philosophy of Dharma

(a) Method of Meditative Concentration:

This implied the discovery that intellect is the most important element in human psychology and that if intellect can be concentrated on the light of the truth, the right and the vast, one can make an entry into the fourth world of everlasting light and of sacchidananda. Hence, the most important method which has become famous in the Vedic Dharma is the method of concentration and the formula that was given as an aid is called Gāyatrī mantra which is as follows:

तत्स॑वि॒तुर्वरे॑ण्यं॒ भर्गो॑ दे॒वस्य॑ धीमहि। धियो॒ यो नः॑ प्रचो॒दया॑त्॥[1]

“May we meditate on the supreme light of Truth so that our intellect be guided by it.”

While meditation is one of the methods of concentration, contemplation is another. In meditation, an idea is developed and successive steps are marked by their corresponding experiences; in contemplation, the mind is fixed on a symbol that represents an idea, and the reality behind the idea is experienced by means of penetration through the symbol.

(b) Methods of Performance of Action with a view to exchange human energies with cosmic energies:

This method of exchange was called by the Vedic Rishis as the method of sacrifice or yajña. By sacrifice was not meant the sacrifice of animals but sacrifice of psychological limitations.

Sacrifice often indicates some kind of painful abdication or renunciation; and we are often told that one should sacrifice one’s attachments, even though that may prove to be painful. But this idea of painful sacrifice is only valid at lower levels where we have not understood the secret of right action and the secret of the intention of the universal life. But when this secret is rightly understood, it is realised that the entire movement of life, entire rhythm of life, entire dharma of life, reduces itself to mutual self-giving of oneself to the universe and self-giving of the universe to each and every individual in return. With this realisation one is inspired to offer not only one’s attachments but all that one is and one has. And the resultant is not pain but joy and ever-increasing joy.

All action, Vedic seers declared, which is done in the spirit of sacrifice or yajña is Right Action or Karma.

 

[1] Rigveda, III.62.10

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Vedic Philosophy of Dharma

(c) Method of Dedicated offering of the body, life and mind to the practice of ideals:

This would mean a firm resolution to dedicate one’s life to follow dharma and karma and to practise the principles of Truth and Harmony in each and every process of thinking, feeling and acting and in every vibration of the body. This method gradually matures in the method of intense devotion or bhakti for the Supreme Reality.

It will be seen that the synthesis of knowledge, action and devotion was an ancient discovery of the Vedic Rishis, and it is this synthesis which has constantly been emphasised in all the developments of the Vedic tradition.

II

अनाश्रित: कर्मफलं कार्यं कर्म करोति य: |
स संन्यासी च योगी च न निरग्निर्न चाक्रिय: ||[1]

“One who performs his right action, without having any attachment to its results, is the one who has truly renounced (the worldly bondage) and is yet master of action – not the one who has renounced fire or his own responsibilities of action.”

Dharma is law of life.

But what is life? Life is pulsation, dynamism and growth. According to the Vedic view, the process of pulsation and dynamism is universal and it has rhythms with specific measures and regularities. These measures and regularities constitute the law of Dharma. It is when this law is observed and implemented that life grows and develops in the right direction.

Karma or Right Action is basically action that is determined by Dharma. Actions which are made without taking into account the principles of Dharma become distorted.


[1] Bhagavadgita, 6.1.

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Vedic Philosophy of Dharma

The word Dharma is often used as if it were the same as religion. This is unfortunate, and this mistake should be avoided.

There is a great difference between Dharma and religion. Dharma is law of life and development, and it is based upon the knowledge of the underlying truths of the universe. Religion, on the other hand, is predominantly a system of beliefs and practices of rituals and ceremonies; religion also tends to become an institution which pervades the structure of the society. Each religion has its own set of doctrines and system of worship. But Dharma has no creed or systems of beliefs; it is based upon knowledge and can be practised and applied; it can be verified and tested. Dharma is the inner spirit of commitment to abide by the law of life and development.

Karma is connected with inner spirit of sacrifice and self-giving. Every action that is involved in inner renunciation of the sense of possession and attachment can rightly be called Karma or right action.

The greatest fear of human beings is that of disintegration; this fear impels them to acquire support of objects and relationships by means of which they try to overcome the process of disintegration. It is this acquisition of objects and relationships that creates attachments and sense of possession. Human beings are thus sustained by a net of objects and relationships, the strongest thread of which is the sense of attachment and possession. But, however, strong this net may be, it is built by ignorance of true Self. For when the true Self is realised, one finds that it does not need to have the fear of disintegration, since it is by its very nature permanent and indestructible. Renunciation of attachments and sense of possession is the means by which the true self is realised.

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Vedic Philosophy of Dharma

III

इदं शरीरं कौन्तेय क्षेत्रमित्यभिधीयते |
एतद्यो वेत्ति तं प्राहु: क्षेत्रज्ञ इति तद्विद: ||[1]

“O Son of Kunti, this physical life is called the field of circumstances and the one who knows it is called the knower of the field.”

Two Things That Cannot Be Doubted:

The Indian idea of the application of Dharma and Karma begins with two things that cannot be doubted. There is, first, the experience of each individual as an observer who observes, experiences, acts and reacts. And there is, second, a field of circumstances in which the individual finds himself or herself and in which he or she works, learns, and struggles to arrive at mastery.

Circumstances are favourable, unfavourable or indifferent, depending generally upon how the individual looks upon them. Even a blooming garden may appear to be a desert, if one is depressed; on the other hand, everything may seem bright and friendly, if one is in a serene state of mind and heart. But often one finds oneself quite oppressed by circumstances and one seeks to change them or even to escape from them, if that were possible.

Formulas of Application:

The following ten formulas can be regarded as basic to the application of Dharma and Karma while dealing with life and circumstances. And if one abides by them, one can easily graduate to higher levels of maturity and dexterity in dealing with life and circumstances.


[1] Bhagavadgita, 13.2.

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Vedic Philosophy of Dharma
  1. Do not allow circumstances to overpower you to such an extent that you cannot observe them with impartiality and objectivity.
  2. Learn to observe your state of mind and heart and register your reactions to your circumstances.
  3. When you are happy with your circumstances and when you find that your life is proceeding smoothly, avoid excitement. Remember that happiness is enjoyed best and lasts longer when law of restraint is followed. This means that nothing is done in excess. Speak only what is indispensable; think with quietude and seriousness; act with generosity and nobility; enjoy with increasing sense of detachment and renunciation of the sense of possession.
  4. Even when circumstances are unfavourable, avoid sense of disappointment and depression.
    Remember the wise maxim: This will also pass.
  5. Do not try to escape from circumstances.
    Take them as opportunities to learn and to grow.
    Even difficulties are there to be overcome. At the end of the tunnel, there is light. If stones are metaphors for hardships in our lives, remember that even stones can teach useful sermons if we decide to confront hardships as experiences to learn from.
    You can also arrive at a state where you can have a dialogue with stones.
  6. Do not do anything merely to seek pleasure; but find pleasure in whatever you do or whatever you are required to do.
    Concentrate on the work that you are engaged in and perform it as perfectly as possible, but take care that the work is completed at the needed hour.
  7. Nothing gives greater happiness than the cultivation of your potential capacity in whatever you are best at: writing, painting, conversing, listening, or even contemplation in silence.
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Vedic Philosophy of Dharma
  1. There is always something in you that is responsible for the circumstances in which you are situated.
    If you want to change them, find out what vibrations there are in you that correspond to what you dislike or disapprove of in your circumstances.
    Change your inner vibrations and you will see that the outer circumstances will gradually change.
    Do not expect, however, immediate changes; both your inner vibrations and outer circumstances have the force of habit and they have the tendency to recur.
    You are bound to succeed.
  2. Devote some of your time everyday as a routine to think over yourself, in particular about:
    Your natural inclinations and your highest aspirations.
    The natural inclinations and the highest aspirations of the individuals around you.
    The characteristics of your circumstances.
  3. For any problem of life, there are temporary solutions, which can all serve as provisional solutions; but prepare yourself for what can be called permanent solutions, which alone can really be satisfying and durable.

Temporary solutions depend upon devices and their applications that can be conceived at various levels of our thinking and mental judgements.

They will inevitably present themselves in our journey of life, and they can all be utilised to uplift ourselves on a truer level of our being.

But when we are really uplifted, we shall find increasing quietude, control over our passions, inner harmony and serenity, and genuine humility that eliminates selfishness and egoism.

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Vedic Philosophy of Dharma

Two things will aid us in arriving at permanent solutions:

Goodwill and Fearlessness

Yajurveda expresses the aspiration for Goodwill in the following words:

सुशारथिरश्वानिव यन्मनुष्यान्
नेनीयतेऽभीशुभिर्वाजिन इव ।
हृत्प्रतिष्ठं यदजिरं जविष्ठं
तन्मे मनः शिवसंकल्पमस्तु ।।[1]

“Our mind is like a good charioteer driving mighty horses by means of reins. Mind leads men constantly while remaining unaging, most speedy and being established in the heart. Let that mind be filled with goodwill.”

On fearlessness, we have the following Vedic hymn:

अभयं मित्रादभयममित्रादभयं ज्ञातादभयं पुरो य:।
अभयं नक्तमभयं दिवा न: सर्वा आशा मम मित्रं भवंतु।। [2]

“(Let there be) fearlessness from the friend as also fearlessness from the enemy, fearlessness from the known as also fearlessness from what is ahead. (Let there be) fearlessness in us during the night as also during the day; let everything in all the quarters of the world be friendly to me.”

When In Crisis:

Crisis is a situation where a problem or a group of problems becomes extremely oppressive because its solution is urgent and imperative but seems to be almost impossible. In the life of individuals, as in that of nations or of the world, critical situations do arise and they constitute most important episodes of life during which radical changes occur or when desperate urge arises to escape rather than to confront the burdens of responsibility.

Greatest aid should, therefore, be provided to all those who are passing through a crisis.


[1] Shukla Yajurveda, XXXIV.6

[2] Atharvaveda, 19.15.6

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Vedic Philosophy of Dharma

The following preliminary advice relating to Dharma and Karma may perhaps be found in order:

  1. The urge to escape from the problem should be discouraged; it should at the same time be emphasised that no crisis can be overcome by allowing the crisis to persist in the hope that it will disappear by lapse of time. This leads to escapist measures.
  2. There are some who tend to become flippant and stoop to ignoble means to resolve the problem. Both these tendencies should be strictly eliminated.
  3. The most important thing to be done is to remain utterly quiet and unshaken in the faith that the right solution will open up if one sincerely aspires to get the needed help.

One should remember how Arjuna in his moment of crisis at the battlefield of Mahabharata approached Sri Krishna and asked for his advice. His humility led him to declare to Sri Krishna: “Rule over me”, shādhi mām.

In the moment of crisis, one must turn to the wisest advice that may be available in the given situation.

One must remain calm and aspire in the faith that the right solution will be found from within oneself or from the wisest who may be around us. It is equally important to prepare oneself to make whatever changes one is required to make in his personal attitudes, thoughts, feelings and activities.

Sacrifice of one’s attachment to preferences and to egoism is needed to overcome crisis.

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Vedic Philosophy of Dharma

IV

यत्सानोः॒ सानु॒मारु॑ह॒द्भूर्यस्प॑ष्ट॒ कर्त्व॑म्।[1]

“As one ascends from peak to peak, there is made clear the much that has still to be done.”

While the whole world is a vast system of universal rhythms of development, human life has its own specific rhythms for development, which are subordinate to the universal ones. The law of life that is observed in the development of human begins would constitute a special application of Sanatana Dharma, eternal law of life.

What distinguishes human beings from animals is that there is in him a conscious urge to exceed himself. It is rightly said that discontent with oneself is a distinguishing feature of the human being. At every stage of development, the human being ultimately aspires to cross the limitations of that stage and to climb upwards to the next higher stage of development.

Four Aims of Human Effort:

Normally, a human being has a composite personality expressing physical life (annamaya), vital life (prāņamaya) and mental life (manomaya). How to harmonise rhythms of these three aspects and how to exceed them is the main domain of dharma.

Physical and vital life have to be developed gradually and should be regulated by the general principles of mental development. The principles of mental development are those of the pursuit of truth, harmony and goodness. These principles are the central core of Dharma.

At more advanced stages when the mental life begins to predominate, more rigorous methods of Dharma should be applied. Here, the laws that would govern the processes of crossing the limitations of ordinary manhood should be applied.


[1] Rigveda, I.10.2.

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Vedic Philosophy of Dharma

Manusmriti presents ten constituents of Dharma in one brief verse as follows:

धृतिः क्षमा दमोऽस्तेयं शौचमिन्द्रियनिग्रहः ।
धीर्विद्या सत्यमक्रोधो दशकं धर्मलक्षणम् ॥[1]

“Perseverance, forgiveness, discipline, non-covetousness, purity, control of senses, intellectual insight, knowledge, truthfulness, non-irritability – these are the ten characteristic constituents of dharma.”

At a still later level, the aim should be not only perfection of the physical life, vital life and mental life but also attainment of the status of liberation (moksha) and perfection.

Three Levels of Human Life:

Without going into details, it may be said that methods of dharma are the methods of human ascent. Human ascent consists also of gradual crossing of limitations of tamas and rajas to reach sattva.

Life of tamas is a life of sloth, attachment to ignorance, mechanical routine and concern for maintenance of physical life.

The life of rajas is the life of desire and ambition, of struggle and competition, and of aggrandisement and increasing acquisition, possession, domination and enjoyment. It is the life of passion and drive and dynamism. At certain levels, the life of rajas tends to become even gigantic and titanic.

The life of sattva is marked by pursuits of knowledge and light, balance and harmony, purity and nobility, impartiality and universality. It has its spontaneous orientation towards self-control and self-knowledge and it tries to break down the limitations of egoism in order to become sympathetic to all beings and creatures of the world.

The development of the qualities of sattva is given the highest importance in Dharma.


[1] Mansmriti, VI.92

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Vedic Philosophy of Dharma

Four Types of Human Beings:

It is also recognised that there are four deeper springs of human personality which emanate from the inmost recesses of the soul. These are impulsions towards knowledge, power, harmony and skill.

While all human beings have these four impulsions, only one of them normally predominates. Hence, there are four types of human beings, -- those who pursue knowledge, those who pursue power, those who pursue harmony, and those who pursue skill.

The original Dharma visualised that the laws of development of these four types cannot be identical. Each type has its own rhythms of development which should be perfected and transcended. At the highest level, one can integrate the qualities of all the four types; this integration would result in the perfection of integral personality.

Four Stages of Human Life:

Dharma also recognises that there are four main stages of development through which every human being normally passes; stage of childhood and studentship; stage of adulthood and life of responsibility of family life; stage of widening and heightening which require deeper reflection and selfless action beyond the confines of one’s own family life; and the last stage is that of real maturity, renunciation, self-mastery and widest interest to serve the entire humanity and the world.

The result of this complex understanding of human life is that one should not impose the rhythms of development which are valid at one stage of development to another stage of development; that one should not impose rhythms of development which are reserved for one type of personality on another type of personality; and that one should not impose an effort which any individual at a given stage of development cannot bear and fulfil.

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Vedic Philosophy of Dharma

But four general principles of application can be discerned:

  1. Everyone should devote himself or herself as a student engaged in the task of learning and growing;
  2. Everyone should find out his or her own teacher, recognising that the mother and father are his or her first teachers and that one who has attained to higher levels of knowledge and realisation has yet to be sought after and his instructions should be followed and practised;
  3. One should increasingly gain the knowledge of the secret meaning of life and also the art and science of living; and
  4. One should recognise one’s true nature to understand the right rhythms of development that are appropriate to oneself in order to live according to them and achieve further development towards one’s true self.

    The following three methods also can be applied generally to all at every level of development:

  1. To aspire with enthusiasm and burning zeal to grow and develop;
  2. To cross always the limitations of selfishness and egoism; and
  3. To develop higher and higher levels of sincerity to achieve peaks of excellence and perfection.
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