There are two important terms in the path of yoga: dharma and karma. Many times I’m asked: “What’s the relationship between these two terms?” Here I’ll explain in simple terms the meaning of each, how they are connected and why this knowledge will help you live better.
Karma in Sanskrit means “action.” The law of karma is thus the law of action. Beyond the Newtonian law of action and reaction governing the physical world, the law of action and reaction also affects the experience of embodied souls. Karma should be understood as one of the laws of nature, acting on the metaphysical plane.
Dharma is a rich concept, and the word has many meanings, but my focus will be on dharma as that which needs to be done – essence and duty. Duty can be imposed; essence cannot. Dharma is thus that duty born of who you truly are, of your nature. It’s not an external or social imposition. It’s what you need to do at any given moment to be the best person you can be. It’s doing the right thing at the right time. Being dharmic is more than just doing good or avoiding hurtful or violent behavior, though that is certainly included in the concept, and it can’t be boiled down to a list of don’ts or things to be avoided. Dharma is fluid and alive and sensitive to different aspects of your life. Major changes to your dharma can occur from one second to the next. One way to understand dharma is to rephrase the classic line: “Don’t ask what the world can do for you, but ask what you can do for the world.”
The law of karma is an educational system built into nature, designed to help the embodied soul improve its moral, or dharmic, behavior. Every action you perform has a moral quality to it. Was it the right action? Was it within your dharma to be doing it? If so, did you do it with attention, with care? Did you do your best? If so, then you generated an appropriately positive result. If not, then you get an appropriately negative result. The law of karma puts a mirror in front of you. You get what you give. Or as the Bible says, you reap what you sow.
The reactions produced from our actions come in the form of objects, facts, and situations in life. Everything in your life now – your DNA to your social status, bank account, job situation, neighborhood, planet, health, and everything you own – is the result of your past activities. At every moment, the entire configuration of external reality in your life is a karmic reaction. The only exception is divine intervention. The more you develop your spirituality, and especially your devotion to God, the more your karma may be adjusted by God to suit your spiritual elevation. It’s like getting a presidential or royal pardon. You were tried and found guilty, but the ruling power of the country pardons your crime. Or to give an even better example, if you become a star pupil, then the school may take special interest in your education and adjust your syllabus to help you develop your full capabilities.
Thus, dharma shows you what should be done. Karma, in the sense of the Law of Karma, is the reaction you get according to how “dharmic” your action was. The closer to your dharma, the better the material reaction, the better will be the karma you accumulate. The further from your dharma, the worse the reaction, the worse will be the karma you accumulate.
A yogi, however, doesn’t want any kind of karma. Karma keeps us bound to birth and death, stuck in the material world. Yoga, in its primary application, is a technique for overcoming and eliminating your karma, once and for all, and with that attaining liberation.
So, the yogi will follow his or her dharma, but now as offering to God, with no desire for future reward. This technique is the basis of Krishna’s teachings to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-gita and is called karma-yoga. There are three key aspects to transform a mundane action into a transcendental action in karma-yoga: 1) be in harmony with your dharma, 2) do the action as offering to God, for His ultimate satisfaction and 3) be in the here and now, without desiring future results from your action. With this you won’t accumulate any karma in the act and gradually you’ll become liberated from material existence.
In the book The 3T Path – Self-improvement and Self-realization in Yoga, available here: http://3tpath.com/books/, you’ll get a much more in depth understanding of dharma, karma, God and how to put it all together in the practice of karma-yoga.
Watch my video on this topic here.
Look what they’re saying about The 3T Path book: “Excellent roadmap for the Bhakti path. This book has a neat and clear step-by-step process for one to engage in authentic Bhakti Yoga. The practical, organized, and simplified format was a welcome contrast to some books which are too complex for beginners.” – Billy Kubina Jr.