Dharma and Karma: As It Is

Due to my post on sponsorships I got asked a question about karma/merit on twitter. I was asked if there is a difference between merit that affects this life, and what affects another life. Anyways, even though this doesn’t completely answer the question it had me dig out an essay I wrote for a magickal order nine years ago (!) on karma. I feel the need to clarify two things about the essay which might not be evident right away. First, this essay was a study of the textual tradition of karma within Hinduism. Buddhist and Hindu karma can be pretty different, so not everything translates (for instance Dharma means something completely different in Hinduism from Buddhism). Second, this was about the texts and the traditions, this isn’t necessarily what I personally believe, though there are parts of that. So without further ado here is Dharma and Karma: As It Is, and be gentle, like I said, I wrote it nine years ago, heh.


Karma has become an unfortunate buzz word in the occult world. You see it used by New Agers and Neo-Wiccans, by Recons and people from all walks of spirituality, regardless of how applicable karma is to their theology. It’s not unfortunate that the concept has spread into all these groups, but it is unfortunate how it has become bastardized, most often to fit a White Light worldview. The trouble arises from people using the basic concept of karma out of context, without including dharma. It is the spiritual equivalent of talking about terminal velocity without mentioning gravity. You are talking of the effect but disregarding the cause. When karma is viewed completely removed of dharma you have to balance the equation. Since this balancing is done by people who tend to view the Wheel of Life as a semicircle, what you end up with is the abstract concept of Goodness being the opposing force. Now this implies that there is a Universal Law of Good/Bad, which is a concept that does not appear (as far as I’ve seen) in Hinduism before the arrival of Thomas the Apostle and his Christian influence. Thus karma becomes the sickening sweet and simple White Light concept of “If I do good, I get good back; if I do bad, I get bad back.” In fact this has nothing to do with Karma.

So what does Karma actually mean, and what is Dharma? Karma is a Sanskrit word, which means, in the most simple form, “action,” also easily translated to “effort,” “work” and “deed,” from the root word kr (pronounced the same as the “Kri” of Krishna) meaning “to do” or “to make.” Karma as the concept applies would be much better understood by the English phrase “action/reaction,” for in many ways, it is a reactionary concept, but this is not understood by most people in the Western world today. Newton’s Third Law comes to mind: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” This is not a perfect analogy, for most people would not see the system of karma working with opposite reactions; but the reactions are definitely equal, even if it is in a way that is not understood by those still trapped in Maya. Now if karma is Action/Reaction, then the question next need to be answered is: What is Karma acting upon and reacting to?

The simple answer is dharma. Dharma is a Sanskrit word which is hard to translate to a simple meaning. The closest word would be “duty,” but that may sound a bit mundane. Understanding the root of dharma sheds some light, for dharma comes from the root word dhr (pronounced “dhri”) which means “to carry,” “to bear,” “to hold up,” “to sustain.” This root word helps show how significant the “duty” in dharma is to be taken, for dharma is what is used to uphold and sustain the universe on a profound level. This cosmic duty covers your essential reason for being. We are given Dharma by Krshna, by the Godhead, by the Divine, by the Source, by our Higher Self – by any of these. It doesn’t matter what your view is, since in the end all those Emanations come from a single Source, and in the long run they all return to a single Source. It is our obligation, to our self, to others, and to everything to follow our dharma, no matter what it is. If we follow our dharma, it affects our karma, or rather, has no effect upon it. The Purusarthas (the goal of life) is to release yourself from karma, so you can be Liberated. Lack of karma is the reward of dharma. When you do not follow your dharmic path, you begin to form karma, there is no good or bad karma. Some karma is more disruptive than others, but all karma is an obstacle on the path to Liberation. For a Brahman to act impiously, for a Ksatriya to refuse to fight the right battle, for a Vaisya to act unfairly, for a Sudra refusing to harvest, all these things will create karma for an individual. When you act contrary to your dharma, you develop Karma, and it depends on your current karma how your karma will form.

Castes as part of the Body of Brahma

Castes as part of the Body of Brahma

So what Action/Reactions are there to be taken as dharma? Dharma in Hinduism is classically split between the Castes – Brahman, Ksatriya, Vaisya, and Sudra. The castes dictate what field of ’employment’ you are to take up. Simply put the castes and the dharma break up as follows: the Brahman (Of Brahma) are the Priests, the Teachers, and similar ‘thinking’ jobs; the Ksatriya are the warriors, the military, the nobles, and others in a ruling position; the Vaisya were the business people, the merchants; and the Sudra were the more traditional working class, farmers, artisans and the like. Outside of the caste system all together were the Untouchables (now called Harijan, the Children of God), whose role was to do the Unclean tasks (which compounded their nature as ‘untouchable’). They would handle the dead and the ashes, clean the sewers, and so on. The castes also functioned as a hierarchy that was maintained by karma, for as one worked towards Enlightenment/Liberation/Moksha, one would be born into a Higher Caste (Brahman being at the highest, Sudra at the lowest, and Untouchable outside of the system, but technically even lower than Sudra). Dharma is far more complex than five basic roles in life, and it is understood that within each one, hundreds of “sub-Castes” or rather “sub-Dharmas.” The castes mentioned above are simply the most common divisions. This is loosely analogous to astrological signs, granted one might be a Libra and that influences the personality, but there is so much more in the person, and their chart, that makes them more than a cookie cutter Libra description. There are more than twelve types of people in the world, there are more than five dharmas.

Karma exists in three states: Prarabadha, Samchita, and Agami. Each of these karmas can form from the same Dharmic Transgression, but they are manifest in your lives in different ways. Prarabadha Karma is the karma that creates the ‘foundation’ for your next life: it is the karma that dictates a person’s caste, their family, body, time of death, and the like. It is karma that cannot be changed within the span of a single life; it is the framework that is created for a certain incarnation. Samchita Karma is the karma that creates the personality for your next life: it carries personality traits, talents, likes/dislikes and abilities. Agami Karma is the karma of the present incarnation: it acts as punishment for the transgressions in the here and now, though if Agami Karma remains unfulfilled at the time of death it can become another form of Karma (usually Prarabadha Karma).

Arjuna's "Say what?" facepalm.

Arjuna’s “Say what?” facepalm.

Now that karma and dharma are explained, the problem still stands of the White Light conception of karma, and the problems that arise there. As karma has been explained, you may not see much of a difference from “Do good, get good, do bad, get bad”, for most people will agree you are to do your job, but what if your job is something considered “bad?” What if your dharma was to fight? Or worse, to fight and kill your entire family – to take your sword, and end the life of most of the people you hold dear? This is precisely the scenario that Arjuna finds himself in during an epic battle in the Bhagavad-Gita (to over-simplify the background scenario). As a Ksatriya, refusing to fight would make him gain karma, but he is being asked to kill his family, which is something most people today can barely fathom. Krshna, as his best friend, and the Godhead, convinces him things are all right, because he must understand that the body is temporary, but the Soul is eternal: he is releasing them from one form so they can grow in another, and in return he fulfills his dharma and comes closer to Liberation.

Now even the above scenario can be considered a straight-cut dharma. But what if someone’s dharma involved a violent transgression; murder, assault, or stealing, for example? These cause physical, and emotion trauma, which in the broad view of Wheel of Life, is something that, according to some understandings of reincarnation, needs to be understood, and overcome by every individual to help further themselves towards Liberation. As mind-boggling as it may sound, especially in a world view that is not based around dharma and karma, there are times when such things are the ‘right’ thing to do on a cosmic scale. It doesn’t make it pleasant, but it is necessary. Death is needed for life, light is needed for dark, and violation is need for security. There are theoretically people out there whose Dharma relates to the “Dark” side of life, and as bizarre as it may seem, these people are only doing their job when they murder, violate and steal. As it may be in their Dharma they are in their “right” to do these actions, but it must be noted that this does not mean they should be allowed or accepted, for if your dharma is on the more “Light” side of life, and you allow these events to happen without trying to stop them, then you are not fulfilling your dharma either, for “evil” unchecked is “evil” supported. It may be their dharma to try to act that way, but perhaps not to succeed, it may be in someone else’s dharma to prevent the atrocities they set out to accomplish.

In the end, the truth of karma bears little resemblance to the Karma of the Western world. Gone are the quasi-scientific use of a three-fold return concept, erased are the Abstract Concept of Good and Evil – all that remains is our Duty, and our growth towards Perfection.


2 Responses to Dharma and Karma: As It Is

  1. […] Dharma and Karma: As It Is […]

  2. […] I shared a ten (!) year old essay of mine on karma as it is presented textually in Hinduism, which I’d recommend reading […]

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