by Prem Prakash
Three men see a homeless little girl, and each is moved by her plight. The first recognizes the social and political influences that result in her fate. He sees the pain of the child but is so consumed with his own life and burdens that he cannot find a way to help. The second man perceives the same influences plus he understands the law of karma, of cause and effect, so he appreciates the predicament of the child from a vaster perspective. As a person of some wisdom, he expresses his compassion by donating a portion of his time and resources to easing her plight.
The third man understands the viewpoints of the other two, but he also sees the child as no different from his very self. He knows her pain because he knows his own pain. His desire to help arises spontaneously, without rational survey, just as his right hand would help his left hand should it fall into a fire. Whether he can practically assist or not, a tenderness born of recognized identity arises in his heart and he longs to do all he can to eliminate her suffering.
The yogic tradition refers to three types of actions: karma, dharma, and seva. These are the three ways of responding to life and they are based on the manner in which we perceive ourselves and the world. Karma and dharma are closely related and, in a sense, they are actions which are required of us by nature, by social law, or by conscience. Seva is activity of a different quality, however, occurring as a result of spiritual maturity.
The term "karma" has entered colloquial usage and, like most subtle concepts that have become popularized, it is mostly misunderstood. Country & Western singer Willie Nelson had a hit song in which the chorus went, "It really ain't hard to understand/If you want to dance you got to pay the band/Just a little ol' fashioned karma goin' round." Willie's right about paying for the band, but that's not the whole story.
Karma literally means "action," and is used in yogic texts to designate the binding nature of action. Action is binding because of the law of cause and effect, which provides that every cause will eventually have an effect upon the causal agent. This means that all of our thoughts, words and deeds will result in consequences suitable to our intention and energy extended. Most action is binding because it perpetuates the cycle of cause and effect, pleasure and pain, life and death.
On a microcosmic level, each individual generates his own karma as a result of selfish drives that arise from the conscious or sub-conscious areas of the mind. On a macrocosmic level, karma is Nature's means of balancing the books, ensuring that like provides for like. Karma ensures that there are no errors, that nothing is earned that is not deserved and, until spiritual growth makes the will powerful enough, very little takes place in our lives outside the parameters of cause and effect. *
Dharma is a fascinating concept with a multitude of connotations. In the field of ethics, dharma signifies virtue, righteousness; dharma is the doing of what is right and the avoidance of what is wrong. Although there are a few general principles of dharma in yoga -- such as non-violence and truthfulness -- it is understood that each individual has his own dharma unique to his life situation.
Dharma is the acceptance of obligation and the undertaking of duty, both personal and social. Dharma is the fulfillment of the law of karma, recognizing the need for right action, right speech, and right thought if individuals and societies are to be healthy and prosperous. To follow one's dharma is to hear the beat of one's own drummer, knowing that this inner rhythm is in harmony with the cosmic drum in every heart. To act in a dharmic manner is the antithesis of the selfish egoism which insists on the fulfillment of pain-producing desires. To be dharmic is to be sensitive enough to intuit what is right for you and to have the courage to walk that path.
A dharmic person is good-hearted, but it takes more than this to break the shackles of cause and effect. For being good, though an improvement on being selfish, is still limiting, since good acts also have their effects. What we might call good karma is every bit as binding as what we call bad karma: gold chains bind the prisoner as tightly as those made of iron. To shatter all chains, seva is needed.
Seva simply means "service," traditionally to one's teacher or community, but it
* See the essay in this book entitled "Karma" for a complete
analysis of this phenomenon.
also carries a deeper connotation. It is service above and beyond the call of necessity (karma) or duty (dharma). It is service offered out of love. Seva is the offering of one's self into service of the Self that we all share. As such, it is an affirmation of unity. Seva places what is part in service to the whole. Seva is the fuel that keeps the fire of love alive.
Seva is the offering of oneself as a natural response to suffering in the world, in the same way that the sunflower naturally lifts its head to the sun. It is service without intent for reward, recognition, or even personal betterment. It arises from love for God within one's own heart, and it is offered to the God of love that lives in all hearts.
Seva transcends the cycle of cause and effect because it is transpersonal action, undertaken without personal motivation or concern. Seva arises spontaneously, and one feels as if acts are being accomplished through him rather than by him. It's sort of like being Jerry Garcia's guitar; it was an important part of the show but certainly doesn't deserve any of the applause. The divine maestro is the one playing through the instruments of our bodies and minds, performing the great acts of seva. Karma makes life a scripted journey, dharma makes life a battle for right, while seva makes life a dance.
We all find ourselves confronted with internal and external problems.
How we view ourselves will determine how we see those trials and will precipitate
how we respond. To live only within the boundaries of karma is prison. To
live only within the boundaries of dharma is society. To live for seva,
though, is to live a life without boundaries-- in other words, to be free.
Let us be honest with ourselves and acknowledge where we are at in the various
spheres of our lives, and then let us continue our work and prayer that
we may transform our every action into an act of seva.
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