Aside from being the oldest and most elaborate religion throughout the progression of human civilization, Hinduism’s tenets ascribe a way of living with principles of righteousness and service. The religious term revolves around 4 core principles of dharma (duties), karma (desires), Moksha (freedom) & Artha (prosperity).  Dharma is considered to be one of the central concepts that is synonymous with ‘duties’, ‘principles’ and ‘laws’ and, identifies with the path of righteousness. In a broader sense, it defines the way of living for a Hindu individual.   According to the Gita, dharma, or the code of ethics, is based on one’s sacred duty in the universe (Patton L., Pg. xxi). The Vedic theories assist in deriving the philosophy of karma, and categorize it as “moral law of cause” which interlinks the concepts of after-birth and cycle of life with the notion of reincarnation, that is every action good or bad, has consequences. Karma and Dharma have significantly different interpretations in the Bhagavad Gita, in comparison to contemporary vrat literature.

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Karma has been perceived as performing duties without expecting the results, and that can be explained by – “The Person who does what must be done, and does not resort to the fruit of action, is an ascetic and practitioner of yoga, not the one without a fire and without rituals” (Sixth Discourse, Verse 1), this verse from the holy Hindu book(Gita) focuses on a particular conversation where Lord Krishna tells his disciple Arjuna to do his Karma(duty) without thinking of the outcome. Bhagavad Gita has different interpretations of Dharma, which can be individualistic and different for the community at large. “Better one’s own dharma, even if effective, than the dharma of another, practiced well! Better death in one’s own Dharma! The dharma of another only brings on fear.” (Third Discourse, Verse 35) reinforces Lord Krishna’s reference about Dharma that Arjuna needs to perform his own dharma, and not reject the idea of killing his own family members in the Mahabharata war in the battlefield of Kurukshetra by neglecting and redefining his own definition of Dharma. According to the interpretation of Vedic Literatures, “dharma, implies, correct action, practice, and ethics rather than a requisite set of beliefs.” (Flueckiger J. , Pg 3 Chapter 1). According to Vedic Literatures, Dharma is not set of rules but personal values and beliefs.

Dharma is also explained by context and multiplicity using the Vedic Literatures. “In daily life, there is no assumption that there is a single dharma appropriate for all to follow”. (Flueckiger J. , Pg 6 Chapter 1). For example – A dharma for a human being can be different (based on his caste and jati beliefs) as compared to that of a married woman (stri dharma). compared to that of a widow woman. Hence, according to the Vedic literatures, Dharma of a person is context-specific. This was also highlighted by the concept of Polytheistic Imagination where Hindus accept diversity and context-specific traditions. Similarly for the karma, according to the Bhagavad Gita, every human being has a fixed life cycle and the Karmas affect the after-birth but according to the Vedic literatures, performance of a vrat will alter one’s destiny in a human being’s current life. In particular, “Transformations are made to it that allow for Karma to continue to be a major motivator in modern devotional practices” or “for the gain of some merit, to establish some karma, or by some social method to gain punya, or to accumulate merit through gaining superior knowledge – all of these are implied by vrat”. (Wadley S. , Pg. 149) This theory according to the vedic literature contradicts the traditional belief of “karma” as highlighted by the Bhagavad Gita that one shouldn’t worry about the result and must just perform their duty but the Vedic literature suggests that the results can be altered through vrats and good karma.

“Dharma” and “karma” have similar meanings in the Bhagavad Gita, but have a slightly different explanation in the Vedic literatures. Dharma and karma in the Gita can be used to perceive Hinduism as a religion which has set of rules whereas it can be considered as a way of living according to the Vedic Literatures. Both the interpretations whether it is through Bhagavad Gita or through the Vedic literatures are contextual and it’s up to the individual how they want to perceive Hinduism and adopt in their daily lives of what their Dharma and respective Karma should be.

  • Bhagavad Gīta
  • Joyce Flueckiger, Everyday Hinduism (pp. 1-9)
  • Susan Wadley, “Vrats: Transformers of Destiny”