Karma is a word in Sanskrit language. It is very frequently used in Vedic Scriptures. As is often the case in Sanskrit, the same word takes on several meanings depending on the context in which it is used. Karma is used to refer to the rituals to be performed in honor of the elders who have passed away. It also refers to religious practices or daily activities required for good health. One could also say “It is my Karma” to imply that which is pre-ordained. Karma could also imply duty or the right thing one is supposed to do. There are many prefixes such as Nitya Karma, Naimithya Karma, Sanchitha Karma, Prarabdha Karma, etc. But all of these words and their meanings surround the common theme, which comes from the root of the word, which is Kri; it means to do or to act. Hence Karma refers to an action.
The guiding principle from Bhagawath Geetha states: Your responsibility resides in performing your duty (Karmaani Eva Adhikaaram Asthi). B.G. 4.27.
What is this duty? Does it change with time and circumstances? Are my duties different from your duty? Are there many duties? What are the shades of the duty? Shades of Karma?
Following is an illustrative story I heard while watching a YouTube clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ac7QzXeLtJM Once upon a time there was a king who found no happiness in his life. He prayed to God, long and hard seeking ways to find happiness. Finally his prayers were answered and the Lord told him, “Find the poor man in the far off village, in a remote area tending to the field. He will explain to you the source of happiness”! The king travelled to the far off village and found the poor man. He was in his tattered clothes and with bare minimum of resources. But, he was happily tilling the field, to grow crops. His happiness seemed to know no bounds. The king asked, “What is your source of happiness?” The poor man replied, “My king. I am certainly very limited in my means and resources. But, I have figured out how to divide my resources for proper use. I share a quarter of my resources to feed my parents. That is my obligation, as I am nothing but a shade of the past generations. I share the second quarter of my resources with my wife. This is our commitment, to care for each other and at all times. She is an integral part of who I am. I share my third quarter with my siblings and neighbors who are in need, for reasons and circumstances beyond their control. This is my righteous behavior, to the society, to be the keeper of my brothers and sisters. Finally I share the fourth quarter of my resources with my children. This is my preparation and planting the seeds for my future. So, my King, I grow whatever I can in the field, just as a means for taking care of these four quarters. Since my entire life has a meaning and purpose, I have little time to worry about anything else. I am happily engaged in all my life activities merely as a means to carry out this duty – my Karma”.
The story is illustrative. It need not be taken literally. Yet, it gives a broad framework for the advice, “Do your duty”. Each of us has three dimensions of time to contend with – the past, present and future – and the obligations that pertain to these three time periods: Preserve and protect our legacy (what made us who we are today); Strengthen the present as a core; Plan and ensure that the future is well paved for. In many respects these three dimensions of duty based on the time frame, pertain to every one of us. While the past and the future are always aspects external to oneself, the present has two components: one component is intimate and personal (represented by the care for the wife in the above story); second component is external to the self represented by the siblings and the neighbors.
Thus we have only four shades of duty: Pertaining to the past, present (internal and external) and the future. Looked at this way life seems very simple after all!
The above story can give us a universal frame work to focus our efforts, to carry out the duty and find a genuine sense of happiness in the process. Then why is it so difficult?
If we look at the story closely it suggests that all four parts of the duty pertains to the self – my elders, my family, my children and I. When one sees one’s duty only through this narrow prism of “I” and what pertains to the self, then even the very duty becomes narrow and self-centered. When we never grow out of these narrow confines, the very prescription for boundless joy through carrying out one’s duty becomes self-limiting, desire driven with all the attachments that come with it. There begins the slippery slope of a well-intended objective devolving into a self-driven process of lack of satisfaction and hence the unhappiness that come with it.
Now let us apply the principle: ThathwamAsai (You and the universe are integral in each other). This principle helps to broaden our perspective of our duty. We can think of our duty in every aspect of life: our land, air, water, space, nature, our work place, our thoughts, ideas, emotions, people we know, ………. We are connected and part parcel of this larger universe. Each of these aspects of our universe and many more, have four dimensions: past, present (intimate and external) and the future. Our duty then broadens to all these aspects. Viewed from this perspective the duty is boundless and never self-limiting. They are the limitless shades of Karma!
Renouncing activities which a person is obliged to perform (Karma) is not proper. Such abandonment arises out desires and it is declared as a result of ignorance B.G. 18.7.
The work or activity which is perceived as an obligation to be carried out (Karma), but it is not performed for reasons of fear, sorrow or physical pain. Such withdrawal from duty arises out of emotional or agitated state of mind. In this case the person does not even gain the fruits of such action, since such abandonment is a response to decisions arising out of desire or attachments to the “pairs” such as pleasure/pain, fear/bravery, love/hatred, etc. 18.8
All activities which should be performed (Kaaryamityeva Karma) and are carried out appropriately, while abandoning attachments or influences caused by desires and while also abandoning the expectation of results of such actions are described as tranquil activities. 18.9
The ACTIVITY (Karma) which is appropriate to be performed (Niyatham Karma) and which is to be carried out by a person who seeks no results from such activity and which is carried out without attachments to “pairs” such as love/hate, happiness/sorrow, etc. is called an act of tranquility (Saathvikam Karma). 18.23
All activities carried out to meet one’s desires and with a need to full fill personal or self-driven preferences (Sva Ahankarena Karma), even though carried out with great deal of effort or labor is described as agitated or turbulent activity (Rajasam Karma). 18.24
All activities undertaken for reasons of uncontrolled desires without any consideration to the effects or consequences, loss or negative impact, injury or harm and beyond one’s capability are declared as acts of ignorance (Thamasic Karma). 18.25
Every person at any moment in life has activities to be performed (Karma) which are appropriate for the moment However limited in merit they may appear, it is better to perform such activities of obligation belonging to one self (Sva Dharma) rather than attempting to perform the roles or activities belonging to others (Para Dharma). 18.47.