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Myths around Law of Karma, and the difference between duty and Dharma || O.P. Jindal University (2021)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
19 min
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Questioner (Q): How to distinguish between kartavya and Dharma ? Can you give a quick distinction between the two?

Acharya Prashant (AP): You see, when you do not really know what to do, when you are not in direct touch with Krishna, Brahman , Ātman , Satya , then you need to be given duties and responsibilities. So, kartavya is only for those who do not know Dharma . Once you have the desire, the intention to be in direct contact with the Truth, then kartavya is actually an obstruction.

Seven or eight years back, I was conducting this course on the Bhagavad Gita , and there is one video from there and it is titled Kartavya saja hai nasamjhi ki (duty is the punishment for lack of understanding). Because you are not wise enough, you do not understand things, therefore you are given duties and responsibilities. And it is good that you be given duties and responsibilities because you anyway do not understand. So, to help you, some code of responsibility is handed over to you and you are told to live by it, abide by it.

But then comes a point, as had come in the life of Arjuna, when you choose to be in direct contact with Krishna, when you bow down to Krishna and say, “Well, sir, I am prepared to slaughter even my own kith and kin if you so advise.” And then Krishna says, “You keep aside all your duties and responsibilities, and come to Me. Mām ekaṁ śharaṇaṁ vraja . Keep everything else aside, come to Me.”

So, that is the distinction between kartavya and Dharma . Kartavya is not something abominable or despicable; it’s just that it is very inferior to Dharma . Kartavya is far better than just living by your whims and fancies and wanton desires. That is the way of the animal: it lives just by its prakritik composition, its intuitive urges and desires. So, man is given something higher than that, and that is kartavya . But Dharma is higher even than kartavya .

The problem with people like Arjuna is, they allow their kartavya to become an obstruction in the way of Dharma . Now, for example, it is your kartavya to not fight your brethren. It is a kartavya * —do not fight your brothers, do not place property higher than blood relations, and that is what is confounding Arjuna. He says, “But I have been taught that it is bad to kill. Why should I kill for property?” And that is what he is saying in Chapter One, * Vishad Yoga : “What will I gain by slaughtering those who have been so near to me?” And all that is kartavya . A lot of that is just pure morality.

So, Krishna says, “What you are saying holds good at one particular level of mind. Now, what I am giving you is higher than that. What I am telling you is, Krishna is higher than your brothers, your teachers, or your great grandfathers; you might have certain responsibilities towards them, and that is kartavya , but your responsibility towards the Truth is higher than your responsibility towards anything.”

The responsibility towards Truth is called Dharma , and that responsibility can actually be called as love rather than a responsibility.

So, that responsibility is a higher responsibility than the responsibility that you have towards the state, society, civilization, family members, employer, your boss, your students, your neighbor, or towards anybody. And obviously, as citizens we do have responsibility towards this and that. But if at any point in life there is a competing situation, then we must know what to pick.

The Truth is higher than any other responsibility that you have. In fact, all your miscellaneous responsibilities should flow from your first responsibility, Dharma , your love for the Truth. Let your love for Truth decide what your kartavya is. Let Dharma decide your kartavya . Instead, we allow kartavya to become an obstacle in the way of Dharma , and that is a great problem. That should not happen.

Q: What do you think is the biggest myth pertaining to the law of karma in the present age that needs to be busted?

AP: I think the way we have co-opted and deliberately misinterpreted the law of karma is quite spectacular. We have made a mess of the whole thing.

The law of karma is just not at all about doing well in whatever you do, or being immersed in whatever you take up, or that you will get good results if you perform good karma and bad results if you perform bad karma, or that there is a certain thing called karmic account or karmic balance and you need to take care of your debits, credits, and all that. The Karma Siddhānta is not at all about these things. And it is very unfortunate, and actually quite saddening, how pervasive the misinterpretations are.

The law of karma is actually the law of karta (actor). It is not the law of deeds or action; it is the law of the doer or the actor. Vedanta, comprised of the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita , and Brahm Sutras , concern themselves with addressing the mother problem: who is the actor or the doer? So, if you want to put the whole thing in the form of a law, this is what the law would say: the actor and the action are inseparable. This is the law, not all that nonsense that circulates in the name of law of karma.

The actor and the action are inseparable. You cannot continue to be who you are, what you are, how you are, and still hope that you can do something good in life. So, actually the law of karma says you should forget all about karma and have the inward sight to look at the karta , the doer. Keep karma aside; it does not matter because you have no control over it, because karma and karta are inseparable. Karta decides karma; the actor decides the action. What is the point in trying to correct action or worrying about action when the actor himself is deeply flawed and determined to remain flawed?

So, see who you are. And if you are right, then whatever you do will be right. And if you are stubbornly wrong, then whatever you do—irrespective of how it looks, irrespective of the sanction it receives from others and society—will be wrong, even though the entire world may say it is a great thing you are doing.

Now, the question is, what is right and what is wrong? When I say, “If the actor is right, the action is bound to be right,” what is meant by the right state of the actor?

The right state of the actor is a state with an intention towards self-dissolution.

The actor is his own problem. The actor is his own disease. The actor is the ego itself. Therefore, the actor must have an intention towards his own disappearance, dissolution. “I want to reduce”—that is the right actor. And when you have that intention then you act accordingly, and that is the right action.

The right action, therefore, is an action performed with an intention to reduce yourself, not with an intention to bloat yourself even further, to aggrandize yourself, or to fatten yourself; no, that is just the wrong action, and that is the litmus test. How do you know whether you are doing something rightly? See where you are coming from. See what is your intention. What do you want to do to yourself? Do you want to become more of what you already are? Please stop, don’t do that; that is the wrong thing. Do you want to get rid of what you are? That is the right action.

And therefore, Shri Krishna talks of niṣkāma-karma . What does niṣkāma-karma mean? It means: Do not do anything for yourself, do not do stuff as per your desires. That is niṣkāmtā . Do not do things as per your desires, because whatever you do as per your desires will have only one objective: to preserve you, secure you, fatten you, make you even bigger in the inner sense. So, don’t do it for yourself, and that is all. Don’t do it for yourself— niṣkāma .

What to do, then? If not for myself, then for whom? It doesn’t matter. Neti-Neti (not this, not this) is the way of Śruti , of Vedanta. Whatever you feel like doing—and you always keep feeling like doing this or that, right? We are always with desires, are we not? Desires never leave us free. When these desires come to you, just keep investigating them, and that will anyway take up all your time and energy. Keep rejecting everything that comes to you proposing to make you bigger; reject all the desires in which you have a personal stake. That is the right position of the karta , and that is law of karma.

Take care of where you are coming from, and everything else needs to be left to Krishna. Because we want to be assured that we are leaving it to somebody trustworthy and reliable, therefore we need to say that the results will be taken care of by Krishna. Actually, truthfully, what the Gita is saying is: you just keep negating your own self, your own desires, and beyond that you need not think of anything. Actually, you won’t even be able to think of anything beyond that because all your energy and all your time will be just taken up in the struggle against that which is despicable, inferior, and unworthy within you. So, that is the way you need to operate.

Q: The conversation between Krishna and Arjuna happened five thousand years ago. It is considered to be relevant even today, and it is also said to be timeless. How is it timeless? Which part of the Gita is still relevant today? What does timelessness mean in this context?

AP: You see, the Gita, as we read it, has been addressed to a person in a particular problematic situation. So, it is obvious that as long as there are similar persons facing similar problematic situations, the Gita will continue to be relevant.

What is the problem that Arjuna is facing? It is the problem of indecisiveness. He does not know what to do. On one hand, he is troubled by attachment and moral concerns; on the other hand, he is reminded of the personal troubles he faced at the hands of the Kauravas and the insult his brothers, his wife, and others had to bear. Then there is also the angle of who the rightful ruler should be. So, all these things are pressing on him, and there are several angles to decision-making, and he cannot decide.

As long as you have the human mind sandwiched between competing priorities, buffeted by attachment, greed, fear, anger, lust, and the urge to know the Truth, the Gita will continue to be relevant. The day we have human beings who are no more prone to vacillations in decision-making, the day we have human beings who have complete clarity in whatever they do, who operate from a center of understanding—that would be the day, theoretically, the Gita will no longer be needed.

But be it a world of Arjuna’s times of five thousand years back, or a world belonging to the middle ages of six hundred to eight hundred years back, or these modern, post-modern times, or a world of future that you may envisage—the human mind will continue to remain the same. The human mind, by its very definition, by its very birth, is prone to a lot of ignorant tendencies. As long as the human mind remains like that, every single person ever born would need the light of clarifying knowledge; not ordinary worldly knowledge that talks of things, objects around you, but knowledge that talks of who you are, your identity; not the subjects that you perceive, but the perceiver himself.

Who is talking? Who is seeing? Who is feeling attached? Who is feeling afraid? Who is dithering? Who does not know what is right at this moment? Who needs to be told the distinction between kartavya and Dharma ? So, that is the subject matter of the Bhagavad Gita , and this subject matter will continue to hold relevance today and always because the human mind continues to be what it always was.

You had the Kauravas and Pandavas fighting over property, throne, land, power, and real estate; you have similar battles going on today. You had the deluded ego in operation at that time; you have the deluded ego in operation today as well. So, inwardly not much has changed, and therefore the solution that was applicable to the inward situation then is applicable even today.

And not only is the solution applicable throughout the length of time, it is also applicable irrespective of what your nationality, ethnicity, race, gender, economic condition, or ideological affiliation is. Because at the core of the mind the same tendencies operate irrespective of your situations, therefore the Gita will continue to have timeless significance. It is never going to become outdated.

The other thing you asked was, which parts of the Bhagavad Gita continue to hold relevance today? Yes, that is something we must focus on. Anything that deals with the fundamental nature of mind will always be relevant—always. It is never going to go out of circulation. And those parts of any religious scripture that deal with stuff that is contextual only to the prevailing conditions of those times, they will lose their relevance.

Not only the Bhagavad Gita , all the scriptures in the world have verses or utterances of both kinds. We have to be careful that we are able to distinguish the timebound stuff, the temporal stuff, from the timeless stuff. The timebound must be seen as distinct from transcendental. If these two are mixed, then we start giving importance to what holds no value today, and equally we fail to give importance to what is critically important.

Q: What solution does the Gita offer for contemporary socio-political issues like global warming? Could Shri Krishna have anticipated back then that the planet would be facing such a crisis now?

AP: You see, the crisis that you are talking of is manmade. You call it anthropogenic global warming, right? It is not just global warming or climate change; it is AGW (anthropogenic global warming); we did it.

So, it is not of much use to talk about the problem without talking of the problem-creator. We created that problem, the human mind created that problem, and the human mind created that problem because the human mind is infested by and is vulnerable to certain malicious tendencies right from birth. We have almost a design flaw: the child is born enveloped in ignorance, and that ignorance displays itself in everything that we do throughout our lives.

As the flow of history would have it, today we have more material power than we have ever had in the course of time. Now, that is a deadly combination. One, we have tendencies pertaining to accumulation, consumption, ignorance, violence, fear—these are deep-seated tendencies sitting within everyone—on the other hand, we have a lot of destructive power in our hands. And these two things have combined to give us this gruesome specter of biodiversity loss, ecological catastrophe, the total vandalization of Prakriti (physical nature) that we see around us, extinction of species, and, obviously, climate change that you are referring to.

It cannot be solved by just talking of the problem; you will have to go into the mind of the human being. Unless the mind of man is addressed, understood, and purified, these problems will continue to exist. You can probably, to console yourself, take care of one form of problems, but the underlying reason will continue to exist; therefore, the same mother problem will manifest itself in some other way. And then you will say, “Oh! Now we have a fresh challenge in front of us. Let’s occupy ourselves in addressing this challenge”—and that is a great timepass.

One after the other problems will keep appearing, and we will continue to feel great about ourselves by fighting those problems, and we will continue to distribute Nobel prizes and pat our own backs by saying that such problems came to trouble us and we were able to successfully negotiate them, even if partially. And we do not understand that no problem is ever solved till its root is taken care of. It is like having cancer in your body and giving it some kind of superficial or incomplete treatment, and allowing the root of the cancer to exist. And there will be metastasis: the cancer will show up in some other way, at some other place, at some other time, because you are not addressing the root.

The root is called aham-vṛtti (‘I’-tendency). The entire scripture of Bhagavad Gita , the entire domain of Vedanta is devoted to nothing but this one thing: how to placate that primordial tendency, that ancient animal within man? Outwardly, we are cultured and civilized; inwardly, we are what I just referred to as an ancient animal. That ancient animal has started working on laptops, wearing modern clothes, and speaking contemporary jargon, but it wants just the same things as animals in the jungle do, but in a far more powerful and destructive way.

So, all religious scriptures—and I am especially referring to Vedanta here, and Gita is one of the three canonical texts in the Prasthānatrayī of Vedanta—they have no other business to take care of. This is the one thing that they want to take care of: the root problem, the mother troublemaker.

Unfortunately, a lot of our energy and attention goes towards clipping the leaves, the twigs, the branches of the problem tree, and that helps us remain blissfully ignorant about ourselves; that helps us continue our worldly business as it does; that helps us evade the real problem. Because if you address the real problem, you will have to admit that there are a thousand times more problems than you ever want to acknowledge. You acknowledge one problem as a problem and the other nine hundred and ninety-nine things in your life you take as normal, whereas the fact is that all thousand decisions or actions in your life are coming from the same problematic and diseased center.

Therefore, really, everything needs to change, because the very center, the very origin, the root itself is flawed. We do not want to address the root, and that is the extent of our delusion. That is what is referred to as Maya : you suffer, but you want to continue suffering. Not only that, to remain in your suffering state you just take care of teeny-weeny, little, peripheral symptoms of suffering. That is what man is designed to do.

Scriptures like the Bhagavad Gita want to disrupt that design; they want to do something that is actually against our prakritik constitution. As we are born, we are not predisposed towards the Truth or liberation or freedom; we are designed to remain in bondages and continue suffering in our problems. Gita is like a circuit breaker; the Gita is an intruder, so are the Upanishad, and so are the Vedanta Sutras . If they are not there, we will happily continue to move about in our circuit of suffering without ever even realizing how badly we are trapped.

So, once you address the mind of man, not only climate change but so many other problems—in fact, all other problems are taken care of. And it might sound a little incredible, but do understand that all the problematic situations we face, inner or outer, are actually one. You cannot look at one problem as distinct from the other because the problem creator is one.

So, you cannot address climate change in isolation. You cannot have great international conferences that want to look only at climate change and hope for those conferences to bear results. Has anything really happened in the last forty or fifty years? Now you know why things have not happened: because we are not addressing the root.

Unless there is wisdom education in the family and in the curricula of schools, colleges, universities, unless the very wisdom quotient of the population in general is uplifted, we will just continue to hop from one problem to the other.

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