‘What is karma’ was a simple question asked by Ahemed (from Maldives) who came to the ashram with Anugrah for Pongal celebration (2013). To his simple question, we had a complicated response, as the very topic on karma is very complex one.
In my response, I gave a short survey on few doctrinal aspects of karma (various kinds of karma like sanchita, prabdha, kriyamani, jnana as an antidote to karma, and bhakti as a synthesis of the two etc.) and pointed out the difference between ‘fate’ and karma. Karma accepts personal responsibility (others might read it as ‘moral responsibility) @ whereas fate is arbitrary and even gods can’t change it. Though common people do not bother about all the hair splitting differences, carry their lives switching between karma and fate that suits to their particular need and mood. While fatalism often cripple a person, yet karma helps a person carry her life, accepting the situation as it is, at the same time giving space to work out the solution as per the orientation of her personal life (seeking remedy through prudence, bhakti or rituals [visiting temples, doing remedial pujas, seeking the help of astrologer etc.]). However one thing is sure that, irrespective of their personal (religious) faith, no one can escape from the reality of ‘karma’ in their life.
But for me, the right approach to karma is to seek the help from dharma. As dharma is an all-inclusive term, it could help one to carry the karma without going to one extreme like fatalism or too rationalistic. For me dharma helps me to approach karma not merely as a ‘duty’ but a duty with moral responsibility. That is why for me karma has only personal responsibility whereas dharma makes it a ‘moral responsibility’. This will help one to do her duty with moral responsibility. However the subtle danger in such dharma is that for many it might lead them to do it as mere duty out of compulsion as part of their ‘moral obligation’ (as a son, husband etc.). Then there will be a lack of personal touch. And in the long run, such dharma without a personal touch will become even a burden not only to the person who is doing it, but also once receive it.
A small digression will help me to explain my view about the lack of personal touch while doing karma as dharma. For many there is not hope and place for emotion or sentiment in disposing one’s dharma. However for me not having any emotion itself is a kind of emotion. According to me, emotion is a beautiful feeling that we have and no human can live without any kind of emotion. Few may not show their emotion like others, yet not showing one’s emotion with some outward expression like laugh, weep, sorrow etc., doesn’t prove any lack of emotion. There exists no tastelessness. We call a food tasteless if we are not familiar with that particular taste. So ‘no taste’ itself is a different kind of taste. Similarly ‘no emotion’ is another kind of emotion.
But to change dharma not remaining just as a duty with ‘moral responsibility’ without a personal touch, we have to make it as seva. What is seva then? My definition is this: a thing needs to be done. There is no one to do it. And if one does it voluntarily without expecting any recognition or reward; acceptance or award, then that is seva. Seva not only help one to do her dharma joyfully but also will make happy the one who receives it. Then dharma will never remain a burden even with moral responsibility but add richness and meaning to life to all
So the Indian worldview of ‘karma, dharma and seva’ could help one to enjoy the life, provided if approach all three as complement to each other than try to handle them independently from each other.
January, 17, 2013
@ Though ‘personal responsibility’ and ‘moral responsibility’ are one and the same, in order to make a progress from karma to dharma and to seva, I want to differentiate both with my own interpretation. Let me explain it bit further:
For me just doing a duty with mere personal responsibility could be termed as karma. Because I born with that responsibility as a son etc., I cannot run away from it. The rule of a given society, which now could be enforced by law (parents can go to the police station and take legal help to get support from their children now in India) will force me to my duty as a personal responsibility—which others too can do as a charity. This kind of karma with personal responsibility could be termed as mere ‘work’. If I don’t work, I won’t earn. Then to work in order to earn to survive for me personal responsibility.
However the morality of a given society/religion/culture could create a (guilty) conscience to do my work with moral responsibility without having any kind of emotion with that person and also with my work. Then for it becomes ‘dharma’. Several children know that their parents won’t go to the police station or approach the court to get help. But driven by a guilty conscience, because of the personal ethics shaped by the moral standard of the society, the children could do their dharma. They will send money regularly and make arrangement to take care of their parents etc. For me here karma (with personal responsibility) becomes dharma (moral responsibility).
However when personal ethics shaped by bhakti, faith, ideology etc. when helps me to do my dharma realizing the emotional need of that person whom I have to do my dharma, could become a seva. The emotional need is not only for the person whom I serve but I too need it. Otherwise my dharma will become a burden for both of us.
In Tamil we have a saying, ‘kuulikku maaradikkaradu’. In certain places in Tamilnadu, professional mourners will be hired to weep for a dead person. Though they are not personally affected by the death, yet they will really weep with lot of tears. Otherwise they won’t be hired for another time. So doing their job with personal responsibility of weeping is their karma.
Let me take another example: As most of the people don’t know the only heavenly language on earth, viz., TAMIL, I have to write in English. This is my personal responsibility. But for all the mistakes that I make when I write in English, I need not take any moral responsibility—because the dharma (nature=pravrti) of English gives this scope and my editors don’t have time to do their dharma (moral responsibility) or seva (to ease the burden of many). Contractors, in order to impress us and get other contract may do their work with personal responsibility. But if they make any mistake in the construction, generally they don’t take any moral responsibility to rectify it. And even if they do it, they do it at our cost or the rectified work looks bad than the previous mistake. With the mistake that the contractor (and also the architect) made at least dhyanamandapa looked a (Kerala) style temple in our ashram. But they accepting their personal responsibility rectified the mistake, now it looks more like a tent. And when I pointed out this and my disappointment, they cannot take any moral responsibility to re-do it as I expected them to do it.