Karma and Dharma: New Links in an Old Chain

By Sharma, Arvind | Tikkun, May/June 2008 | Go to article overview

Karma and Dharma: New Links in an Old Chain


Sharma, Arvind, Tikkun


MOST PEOPLE IN THE WEST HAVE HEARD THE TERMS "KARMA" AND "dharma," but many associate them with a static reading of Hinduism. What's exciting today is that there is growing energy among Hindus for a renewal of these categories in ways that make Hinduism a less static religious tradition. Let me explain.

Karma and dharma constitute two key terms in Hindu religious and moral discourse. Both terms have multiple meanings and are virtually untranslatable, but it is possible to indicate the manner in which they orient our thinking in accordance with the concepts they encompass. The word karma is derived from a root that means "to act" and emphasizes the link between an action and its result. Some one-liners help highlight the concepts underlying karma: "One reaps as one sows," "What goes around comes around," "Life is the sum of our choices," or that "karma is unfinished business." The word dharma is derived from a root which means "to uphold" and so denotes the course of moral action which upholds our personal, professional, moral or religious integrity, as the case may be. The famous statement of Rabbi Zusya: "In the world to come I shall not be asked why I was not Moses. I shall be asked: Why I was not Zusya," captures one semantic flavor of the word dharma admirably.

The relation between karma and dharma within Hinduism is particularly fraught and possesses several dimensions, both historically and potentially. One way in which they are related in classical Hinduism is that our past karma determines our present station in life, for which a particular dharma or moral lifestyle is deemed appropriate. It is of course true that moral choices made in an earlier life are responsible for our present station in life, which decides our present dharma or web of duties, but classical Hinduism was backwardlooking rather than forward-looking in this respect. It focused more on where we are and how we got there, than on where we can go from where we are now. In this respect, the response of classical Hinduism was conventional rather than creative, inasmuch as it encouraged us to perform our duty in the position we found ourselves in. Perhaps such an approach is to be expected in a society which tended to be static and in which the circumstance of birth determined the basic contours of one's life.

We now live, however, in a more dynamic world, in which longevity and geographical mobility combine to ensure that one can be reborn within a lifetime; that is to say, one can compress several lives in one as it were. This permits the reformulation of the karma-dharma link from a backward-looking one into a forward-looking one, and makes the relationship between the two capable of a radical reformulation in our increasingly morally complex world. The key to this reformulation consists of the recognition that in modern life we confront genuine moral dilemmas of greater range and intensity than perhaps was the case earlier. …

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