Dharma And Karma: How Does It Work?
Around the year 300 BCE, there lived a rishi named Valmiki (Ramayana). One day, while Valmiki and his youngest disciple were on the banks of the Tamasa, they saw a bird and his mate (Menon 5). Suddenly, a hunter appeared and shot the bird, eliciting a curse from Valmiki. The event continued to plague Valmiki for the rest of the day. That night, Brahma visited Valmiki and told him to write down an epic in the same meter with which he had earlier cursed the hunter. In just a week, Valmiki wrote twenty-four thousand verses of poetry. He named the masterpiece the Ramayana, after the main character, Rama.
Valmiki then taught the Ramayana to two twin brothers who learned it by heart and recited it in the court of Rama himself, who was the twins’ father (Menon 7). The forces of good and evil battle through the entirety of the Ramayana, with many characters on both sides. In the end, though, good triumphs as it must. Throughout the Ramayana, two main themes emerge. These themes are dharma and karma, two forces that seem very different yet are rather similar and work together, weaving themselves in and out of each other to create the masterpiece that is life.
The American Heritage College Dictionary defines dharma as “the principle or law that orders the universe” and “individual obligation with respect to caste, social custom, and law” (Dharma). This should be the driving force for the actions of humanity. Dharma, or righteousness, defines how one should live and act in any situation. It is inside everyone, yet many choose to ignore it and pursue their own interests and passions instead. This leads to the spread of adharma, or evil, in the world. There are three basic rules for dharma. The first is that, under dharma, one should not lie. Dharma is truth, and as such, it has no place for lies in its perfection. The second rule of dharma is that one should be faithful to his or her husband or wife. Dharma is faithfulness and perfection, leaving no room for unfaithfulness. Those who are unfaithful are not under dharma and must suffer punishment for their wrongdoing. The third rule of dharma is that one should not kill without cause. The dharma of kshatriyas, the caste of royal warriors, is to judge the people of the earth and punish them for their evil deeds. Therefore, their dharma is to kill those who need punishment, but not innocent people as well. Along with dharma comes a force called karma.
Karma is, according to the American Heritage College Dictionary, “the total effect of one’s actions during the successive phases of one’s existence, regarded as determining one’s destiny” (Karma). Karma is one’s reward or punishment for one’s actions, usually in the negative sense. This is not confined to only one life, however. Karma carries over throughout every life in which a being exists. When one breaks the rules of dharma, karma punishes them. This can take many forms, depending on what the person did to break dharma and who cursed them in the person’s previous life or lives. Karma builds up throughout a person’s lives until they are punished for it, so a person who broke the rules of dharma many times in a past life must pay for their errors in their future lives until they pay the debt of their broken dharma.
Dharma and karma work together to form what life is. Dharma is the “rule book” for life and karma is the penalty for not following the rules. If a person is a kshatriya, his dharma is to execute justice when someone has broken dharma. While most people’s dharma is not to kill, kshatriyas have a different dharma because that is the caste to which they belong. People who are sudras, those of the lowest caste, cannot kill people because of their dharma. If a sudra kills a kshatriya or even another sudra, a kshatriya must judge the sudra because he or she violated dharma. If the sudra is then reborn, he or she will pay the price of breaking dharma through karma. Things will go wrong and the sudra will see the consequences of his or her adharma. Often, karma corresponds to the adharma the person committed. For example, if a sudra stole food from a rishi, the rishi might curse the sudra that his or her food would be stolen many times either in the current life or the next. This would come true because of karma. Thus, all of life is made of dharma, truth, and karma, punishment for violating the truth.
In the Ramayana, the themes of dharma and karma are quite prominent; in fact, the entire reason Rama came to earth was to establish dharma and save the world. Rama, the central character of the Ramayana, was the god Vishnu incarnate. Vishnu created Brahma, who in turn created the world and everything in it. Everything was perfect, but Brahma also created rakshasas, demons who were not necessarily evil but almost always turned evil. Adharma came into the world and dharma suffered. Therefore, Vishnu came as a man to rid the world of evil. Though Vishnu was a god, he still broke dharma before he was Rama. This meant that though Rama himself never did anything wrong, he had karma from his past lives because of things Vishnu did to break dharma.
In a past life, the god Vishnu killed the maharishi Bhrigu’s wife after a battle. Bhrigu found out and cursed Vishnu that he too would lose his wife in a later life (Menon 604). When Rama was born as a human, he did not do anything to break dharma. However, since Rama was Vishnu incarnate, he suffered the curse of Bhrigu for Vishnu. Rama had to send his wife Sita away after he saved her from the rakshasa Ravana. Rama’s subjects were convinced that Sita was unable to resist the charms of Ravana and did not stay faithful to Rama. This was untrue, but the people believed it nonetheless. Therefore, since Rama’s dharma was first to his people, he had to send Sita away so as not to disgrace his name or title as king. This was all to fulfill Rama’s debt to dharma, through the karma of losing Sita. Though Rama himself was blameless, he suffered because of Vishnu’s anger.
Another character dharma and karma greatly affected in the Ramayana was Rama’s father, Dasaratha. When Dasaratha was young, he became very skilled at hunting. He could even hit a target he was unable to see, as long as he could hear the sound it made. One day while he was hunting, Dasaratha mistook the sound of a man for the sound of an animal and shot him. The man lived with his blind parents, who were understandably upset about their son’s death when Dasaratha told them. The man’s parents cursed Dasaratha that he should lose his son as well and become blind right before he died (115-117). This came true when Dasaratha’s wife Kaikeyi forced him to banish Rama so her own son could rule the kingdom. Just days after Rama left Ayodhya, Dasaratha lost his eyesight and died. Thus, dharma and karma worked together yet again in the lives of the characters.
A third character in the Ramayana that dharma and karma ruled was Ravana. Born a rakshasa, Ravana followed dharma at the beginning of his life. As time went on, however, Ravana became more and more hungry for power. He attacked countless cities simply to establish his dominance and lordship over all the earth. On the way, Ravana collected women from all over the earth, and none could resist his charms. Ravana was practically the incarnation of adharma, or evil, in the world. Therefore, he accumulated quite a bit of karma throughout his life. The world needed Rama to save it from Ravana, among the various other evil things that existed in that day. When Rama killed Ravana, he fulfilled both his dharma and Ravana’s debt to karma.
Thus, dharma and karma work together in one’s life. Though they appear to be opposites, they really go together, as one must follow the other in a general procession. First, dharma exists. Second, as must happen, one breaks dharma and throws off the balance of everything. Third, karma is accumulated and dispensed according to one’s violation of dharma. Rama, the savior of the world, came to free the world from adharma and to establish dharma everywhere. His actions against Ravana and other rakshasas showed their adharma and karma and that he must, under his dharma, punish them for it. Rama was perfect in his dharma; in fact, he was the incarnation of dharma itself. Throughout the Ramayana, the themes of dharma and karma are very prominent. The entire epic depicts the struggle for righteousness and punishment for the wrong that people do. Yet, through all the unrighteousness, the bright light of dharma continues to shine. It will never go out, despite how depraved the world may be. Dharma will continue. Dharma will survive. Dharma will triumph.
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