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M ost people in the West have heard the terms “karma” and “dharma,” but many associate them with a static reading of Hinduism. What’s exciting today is that there is growing energy among Hindus for arenewalofthesecategoriesinwaysthatmakeHinduismalessstaticreligious tradition. Let me explain. Karma and dharma constitute two key terms in Hindu religious and moral discourse. Bothtermshavemultiplemeaningsandarevirtuallyuntranslatable,butitispossibletoindicate the manner in which they orient our thinking in accordance with the concepts they encompass.Thewordkarmaisderivedfromarootthatmeans“toact”andemphasizesthe linkbetweenanactionanditsresult.Someone-linershelphighlighttheconceptsunderlying karma: “One reaps as one sows,” “What goes around comes around,” “Life is the sum of our choices,” or that “karma is unfinished business.” The word dharma is derived from a rootwhichmeans“touphold”andsodenotesthecourseofmoralactionwhichupholdsour personal, professional, moral or religious integrity, as the case may be. The famous statementofRabbiZusya :“IntheworldtocomeIshallnotbeaskedwhyIwasnotMoses.Ishall be asked: Why I was not Zusya,” captures one semantic flavor of the word dharma admirably . The relation between karma and dharma within Hinduism is particularly fraught and possesses several dimensions, both historically and potentially. One way in which they are related in classical Hinduism is that our past karma determines our present station in life, for which a particular dharma or moral lifestyle is deemed appropriate. It is of course true that moral choices made in an earlier life are responsible for our present station in life, whichdecidesourpresentdharmaorwebofduties,butclassicalHinduismwasbackwardlooking rather than forward-looking in this respect. It focused more on where we are and how we got there, than on where we can go from where we are now. In this respect, the response of classical Hinduism was conventional rather than creative, inasmuch as it encouraged us to perform our duty in the position we found ourselves in. Perhaps such an approach is to be expected in a society which tended to be static and in which the circumstance of birth determined the basic contours of one’s life. We now live, however, in a more dynamic world, in which longevity and geographical mobility combine to ensure that one can be reborn within a lifetime; that is to say, one can compressseverallivesinoneasitwere.Thispermitsthereformulationofthekarma-dharmalinkfromabackward -lookingoneintoaforward-lookingone,andmakestherelationship between the two capable of a radical reformulation in our increasingly morally complexworld.Thekeytothisreformulationconsistsoftherecognitionthatinmodernlife we confront genuine moral dilemmas of greater range and intensity than perhaps was the case earlier. Now what does it mean to say that modern life presents us with genuine moral dilemmas ? This is best understood by contrasting this position with that represented by fideism 14 T I K K U N W W W. T I K K U N . O R G M AY / J U N E 2 0 0 8 BECKI JAYNE HARRELSON F. DOUGLAS BLANCHARD Karma and Dharma: New Links in an Old Chain by Arvind Sharma Religion_2.qxd:Politics rev. 4/7/08 3:32 PM Page 14 and rationalism. Fideism represents the view that all moral dilemmas would be resolved if only we possessed enough faith. Rationalism would represent the view that all moral dilemmas would be similarly resolved if only we possessed enough reason. The view that we confront genuine moral dilemmas implies that we rarely if ever have, will have, or even can have, such faith and such reason, so that in life one will have to make agonizing moral choices. Hindu ethics has always recognized this fact. This is one reason why Hindu texts constantlywrestlewiththequestionofdharma—ofwhatistherightthingtodoinaspecific set of circumstances. It also accounts for the fact that Hinduism has never confused a search for truth with a search for certainty, on account of its awareness of the claims that multiple values can lay upon us, and the matrix of multiple possible paths this generates, including the less traveled ones. LetussupposeaHinduwomanhasanunwantedpregnancy.IntheclassicalHinduway of looking at it, this would be attributed to bad karma of the past and the present dharma would consist of giving the child up for adoption, as abortion was considered un-dharmic. If, however, we take a more creative and progressive view of the matter in keeping with modern developments, then one would weigh the moral or dharmic choices concerned as involvingeitherabortion,orcarryingthechildtoterm.Thenonecouldeithergivethechild upforadoption,orbringitupasasinglemother.Shewillofcoursehavetoliveouttheconsequences of whatever decision she takes. This new range of choices was not available earlier and this fact enables us to propose a more...