Sri Ramakrishna, a divine avatar in the 19th century, whose conversations on Hinduism have been extensively recorded in The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, has spoken very widely about “trigunas.”
Triguna means thee qualities, comprising of satva (purity and holiness), rajas(action and drive) and tamas(laziness and inertia). (To understand more about Trigunas, please read: Trigunas – Sattwa, Tamas and Rajas – The ancient Hindu Psychology) first.
Sri Ramakrishna says “God can be reached through satva guna. Rajas and Tamas separate us from God. Some compare sattwa to white color; rajas to red color and tamas to black,”
Sri Ramakrishna – He has elaborated a lot about Trigunas
Characteristics of People With Trigunas
Ramakrishna explains: “Pride, sleep and excessive eating are some of the identities of people of tamas. People with rajas engage themselves in many activities. Their dress will be pompous and shiny; their houses will display grandeur and be cleanly maintained; they will hang the portrait of the ‘queen’ (queen Victoria of British empire – it was the period when India was under British Rule)”
On the other hand, Ramakrishna says that, “People of sattwa guna will be soft and calm. They will earn just to have enough meals to live; they will not go out to sing praise on the rich to get money; their houses will not be properly maintained and may look unkempt. They will not bother about dressing impressively. They will not run around in hunt of name and fame.”
Play of Trigunas in Devotion to God
People’s gunas will be exposed in their attitude towards worship of God and in the practice of religious austerities too. Ramakrishna’s described his observation about devotees as follows:
Rajasic worship of God?
“The rajasic devotees would wear silk clothes at the time of worship. They will wear a rosary made of ‘rudraksha’ around the neck and the rosary will have golden beads interspersed between rudraksha seeds. If someone visits their Puja Room, they will proudly take the visitor to show them around. Come this side; here are more to see; the floor is made of white marble; the ‘mantap’ (wooden enclosure where the God’s image is placed) has excellent carvings,” they will explain. They will donate to charities in a way visible to all.
As regards people of Sattwa guna, their contemplation about God, their acts of charity and their meditation will all be done secretively without the knowledge of others. They will sit inside the mosquito net and meditate. Others may think, “this man must have had poor sleep last night; that’s why he is sleeping so late.”
Ramakrishna says, “Sattwa is the last step in the stairs. By the next step, one can reach the roof. Once sattwa is in full measure, there won’t be much of delay to getGod’s vision. A little more progress will make one attain God.”
Trigunas – The Three Thieves
“The trigunas keep man under their spell; If sattwa is present, it drags rajas with it; If rajas is present, it drags tamas with it; All the three gunas are like thieves.
“Tamas destroys; rajas binds and sattwa releases one from bondage; but still, sattwa by itself cannot take you to Godliness, it can only show the way to God,” says Ramakrishna
He explains this concept of trigunas through the following story:
Once a rich man was traveling though a forest. Midway, he was suddenly surrounded by three thieves and they relieved him of all his possessions. Then one of the thieves said, “What’s the point in leaving him as such? Let’s kill him;” so saying, he advanced towards the rich man with his weapon. At that moment, the second thief intervened and said, “No. There is no use killing him; let us bind him thoroughly so that he cannot go and complain to the police.” So saying, he bound the man with a rope and all the thieves left the place.
After a while, the third thief returned to the place alone. He came near the rich man and said, “I am really sorry about the shabby treatment we have done to you. I will release you right now.”
So saying, he unbound the rich man, took him along showing the way through the winding paths of the jungle; finally they reached the outskirts of the forest and the highway was now visible. The thief said to the rich man “See, this is the road you can take now to reach your home.”
The rich man was moved. He said, “I am so grateful to you; won’t you please accompany me to my house? Our family will be very much pleased.” The thief replied: “I can’t come there. I will get caught by the police.” Saying so, he bidgoodbye to the man.
Ramakrishna explains that in the above parable, the thief who wanted to kill the rich man represents tamo guna. Tamas destroys. The second thief is rajas. It binds. It binds people to activities and make them forget God. The third thief is sattwa. It shows the way to reach God. Qualities like devotion, compassion, charity etc come from Satta. The rich man’s “own house” is the “Parabrahman.” One cannot attain the knowledge of the Brahman without transcending the three gunas.”
Active Engagement in Charity Work – Rajas or Satva?
During his meeting with Easwara Chandra Vidyasagar ( a great and well renowned scholar and philanthropist who lived during Ramakrishna’s period), Ramakrishna explained it this way: “Sir, what you are doing are acts of Sattwic karma; your rajas has its origins in sattwa. Out of sattwa comes compassion; even if your activities are based on compassion, activity by its very nature is rajasic. So, I would say, your activities are “rajasic sattwa;” so, they are harmless.”
Triguna and little children
When one studies the life of Ramakrishna, it is possible to understand how he himself lead a life of divinity, by transcending the trigunas. Ramakrishna used to frequently state that little children are divine because they too are beyond the fetters of Triguna. Only when a child grows, the three qualities start establishing their dominance on the character permanently. Sri Ramakrishna had a very keen eye to observe the behavior of children and he used to give very vivid and practical explanation of children’s behavior and how they are not bound by Trigunas.
We shall study further what Sri Ramakrishna says about Triguna and the behavior of children in the subsequent article.
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Hindu philosophy gives lots of weightage to grasping what mind really is. At the pinnacle of its conclusion, the whole universe is nothing but a projection of mind. A man thinks he and the world around him exists because his mind makes him believe so. Where the mind ceases to exist, everything in the perceptible world ceases to exist. For ordinary mortals, the mind stops to function only during deep sleep state and at that state one forgets the existence of his body and the world around him.
In absolute reality, it is just the Atman that exists; Atman has two projections born out of maya in an individual soul: One is the mind and the other is prana, the life force (which is usually associated with breathing, whose existence is basic for the existence of the physical body ). Prana and mind are intricately interconnected.
It can be easily observed that when mind is agitated, breathing also becomes fast. When the mind is calm, breathing also slows down. When the mind stops, breathing also stops. Great yogis in deep Samadhi state totally calm their minds and during such periods their breathing also stops, though they continue to be alive.
The converse is also true. If one can control and slow down breathing, the thought flow in the mind also is controlled and the mind gets slowed down. This is the basis on which the practice of Pranayama was evolved by yogis as a means for practicing meditation.
What is mind? Mind is nothing but thought flow. Mind is like a river. A river exists only when there is a flow of water. Mind is frequently compared to a monkey. A monkey can hardly remain unperturbed even for a moment at one place. It keeps swinging and jumping from one branch of a tree to another. Likewise, the nature of mind is to keep swinging from one thought to another with seemingly no respite during waking state.
Here is an analysis of what sort of activities the human mind keeps engaging itself unceasingly and an attempt to put them into some typical categories, with examples, that most of the people can easily relate to.
Relishing and rewinding past sweet memories: Like the games you played with your street children / class mates and your winning a particular game in a spectacular way that made you a hero for an evening
Licking the pain by rewinding past bitter memories: Like your first girlfriend ditching you right royally and then flirting with your staunch enemy…
Regretting the past mistakes/ rewinding guilt : like the blatant lie you made knowingly about a friend of yours to his girlfriend that ended up in breaking their relationship and making your friend near mad afterwards.
Justifying your past mistakes and acts: You fumbled up in a decision making in your office and the repercussions were bad. You are asked to appear before the CEO for an explanation. You mind churns out excuses and justifications to justify your decision.
Rehearsing a talk: In the above case, you have formulated your justifications. Now you keep thinking on how you will word your explanations, how you will counter the accusations and how you will put the blame on others very smartly.
Thoughts of hate: Your boss insulted you publicly in a meeting. You keep on thinking about his act and you anger and hatred against him keeps on rewinding in your mind.
Scheming vengeance: It is the continuation of and aggregation of hatred. You start scheming as to how to insult or offend your boss in the next opportune moment to teach him a lesson…
Thoughts of love: “Oh! The first meeting I had with my girlfriend… In the cool breeze at the sea shore, when she came with a bright smile that seemed to light up the whole beach…”
Grieving: “I just can’t bear the death of Johnny, my little younger brother…”
Arguing in absentia: You picked up an argument with your friend about something and he cornered you; you could not defend your viewpoint at that time. Now your mind works overtime to get you points over points to counter his argument !
Extrapolated imagination: Your boss scolded you this morning about a serious lapse of you on your job. Your ego refuses to believe that the mistake was yours, though deep within you, you know it. Now you find your colleague walking with your boss in the corridor and both of them are laughing together. “Ah! It is this fellow who must have informed the boss about my lapse; I know he was always conspiring to corner me in some issue or other. See! Both of them are laughing together about me, for sure. Rascal! I know this useless fellow wants to snatch my promotion …”
Worrying about body/ health: “My face looks ugly; my body stinks; this dress does not suit me. This cold is going to lead me to fever and I am afraid I may become bed ridden. This back pain is unbearable…”
Day dreaming: “If I were to be the President of USA, I will …..”
Planning, Problem solving: Your computer broke down this evening. Tomorrow you have to prepare a spreadsheet present it in a meeting. How to rectify the computer yourself, how to find alternative means of preparing the spreadsheet, how to postpone the meeting ….
Creative thinking: Remembering a past incident and then trying create a short story out of it that you can write later. Seeing a movie and then thinking “If I were the director of the movie, I could have ended the story this way…”
Imagining/ planning for future: “If the appointment order comes from the company that interviewed me last week, I am sure they will agree to double my current salary; I will dispose my old car first and buy a new one…..”
Worrying about the future: “What if I don’t do well in the examinations? What if I don’t get a job? …”
Harping on the current anxiety: Your dearest mother is hospitalized. You are sitting beside her and nursing her. Her pain, her suffering, the worry about the possibility of her dying keep on nagging your mind.
Praying: “Oh God! Please give peace and quick recovery to my mother. Don’t take her life away now…..”
Worrying about the world: “What will happen if another great earthquake triggers a huge tsunami across several continents?”
Frustrating/ negative thoughts, feeling helpless: “Oh! My country is going to dogs. There is so much corruption, inefficiency, useless politicians, overpopulation, traffic problems on the roads, accidents, pollution,…..” “Right from childhood, I was not lucky. I was not the favorite child of the parents…”
Analyzing / criticizing others: “ K. is very greedy; B. is very moody; F. is too talkative……”
Self analysis: “For the past three days, I am able to get up promptly at 5:00 AM. I should strengthen this habit further; I eat too much sweet. This is one bad quality that I should get rid of”. “I thought it was a harmless joke, but my father-in-law was very visibly offended by it. I think I should not have said it….”
Understanding and absorbing: “This specific piece of advice I read in that book today is very apt for me to follow. However the author said something differently in another chapter that ….”
Feeling proud/ pampering the ego: “Ah! I felt so happy when my boss said in front of the CEO that I am the most valuable person in his team….” “My writing must be really impressive. See many appreciative posts have come from readers for my blog….” “ I predicted one year back that this government will fall within one year and it just happened! I seem to have the right political acumen…”
The funny way of working of the mind is that it may not cling to any one stream of thought for long. If you are in a despondent mood, your mind may start with a current anxiety, then switch to a worry about future, then go back to thoughts of hate on somebody, and then start worrying about the world next. In moments of despondency, your mind will refuse to entertain any positive thoughts or joyful thoughts. Likewise, when your mind is particularly upbeat, it will refuse to entertain negative and depressing thoughts at that juncture.
If the mind is just allowed to go on and on with the thought flow day and night, one will end up a lunatic. That’s why nature has provided sleep to give a forced rest to the mind.
However, for a person to evolve spiritually, resting the mind only through the normal process of sleep is just not adequate. The mind has to be stilled when it is awake. Only in a stilled mind, the reflection of the Atman can be seen. Meditation is the way for it.
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The concepts of Karma and rebirth are two major pillars of Hindu philosophy. Buddhism and Jainism, the two other religions which have their origins in Hinduism too accept the concepts of Karma and rebirth.
What is Karma?
Karma means work or action. When you perform a work or action, it is bound to produce an effect, a reaction or a result. If you are the doer of karma with a desire, you are to own up the result or the fruit it produces. Whatever actions we did in our previous births, earlier in the present birth, are currently doing, are going to do later in this birth and also in future births are all Karmas. Karmas can be good, neutral or bad. Good karma will get you good effects and bad karma will get you bad consequences. This is the simplistic explanation of the law of Karma, but it is not really as simple as that!
“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction” — says the science. “Thou shall reap what thy sow” says the English proverb. These two statements are at the best only incomplete approximations to the law of Karma. Nevertheless, action and reaction constitute the first dimension of Karma.
Karma — inter-woven with time and God’s will
Karma and fruits of Karma are interwoven with a second dimension — Time and a third dimension — Divine will. This is the crux of the law of Karma of Hinduism. This fact is not well grasped by many.
What baffles and troubles many people in life is a commonly perceived reality that nice and honest people of good conduct and character seem to suffer more in life,whereas those not endowed with such qualities mostly seem to lead a happy-go-lucky life!
One can also observe in life that when you have really done a good job and expect a positive outcome, you may get something contrary to it. Also, when you have done some blasphemy and you expect a terrific consequence on account of it, you may perhaps go scot-free. Why is that so?
Karma is unpredictable
People who tend to analyze such occurrences many a time feel extremely bad about the divine law of justice, which seems to be distorted. They tend to feel, considering the happenings in this birth alone, that the proverb “thou shall reap what thy sow” does not seem to work justly.
Perhaps such a stark contradiction is one reason that made saints to analyze Karma and come out with the finding of its continuing effect birth after birth. That is how the second dimension of ‘Time’ comes in to recognition. Any out-of-the-way suffering or enjoyment that you get in this birth, which does not seem to have any seed sown in this birth, must have its origin in some previous births. This is the “Time” dimension of Karma.
At a macroscopic perspective, the entire creation, the living beings, their birth, sustenance and decay are within the overall divine play called Maya. As a divine play, it has all the elements of fun, suspense, unexpected twists and turns of a game, some basic rules and also some breaking and bending of the rules by the Umpire — the God himself!
Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886) says “One can not know the truth about God through science. Science gives us information only about the things perceived through senses, as for instance, this material mixed with that material gives such and such a result, that material mixed with this material gives such and such result. A man cannot comprehend spiritual things with (this sort of) his ordinary intelligence”.
Avatara Purushas (God descended in human form) and mahatmas (great souls), who transcend all dualities of creation and establish themselves in Brahman (the all pervading God), are the ones who understand the play of Maya; they explain to us about the utter difficulty in bringing the ways of working of Karma to any predictable and comprehensible level.
Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa declares “To tell you the truth, this world is God’s Maya. And there are many confusing things in the realm of Maya. One can not comprehend them”. He further says, “One can by no means say that “this” will come after “that” or “this” will produce “that” “.
Thus any presumption that the law of Karma is infallible and rigid is not true. Any rigid suggestion that there shall be a good reward for the good Karma and a bad reward for the bad Karma and that the intensity of reward or punishment shall be directly proportional to the intensity of the Karma, is not entirely true. In other words, Karma is NOT self-propelling — this is what great Hindu saints declare.
Bhagwan Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950), a Jnyani par excellence, in his Upadesa Undhiyar, says “Karma is just jata — non-sentient. The fruits of Karma are decided only by the will of the Creator (God). Can you ever think Karma as God? (You can’t)” This indeed the crucial the third dimension of Karma, namely, “God’s will”.
With all these three dimensions in place, we can comprehend that
For every Karma done, there will be a result/ a fruit/ an effect (Karma phala) which can not be wished away by doer. (When we say “I am suffering from my Karma”, we refer to Karma phala only).
The time at which the result/ the fruit/ the effect will manifest need not be immediate. It has its own humanly incomprehensible time frame cutting across several births.
When the effect will manifest and to what degree or intensity, to what extent of benefit or damage — it lies purely at the will of God.
With this basic understanding, we shall now proceed to understand the classifications of Karma.
Three Types Of Karma
From a theoretical and to a large extent practical and comprehensible standpoint, Hindu scriptures classify Karma in to 3 catagories.
(1) Sanchita Karma (2) Prarabhdha Karma and (3) Agamya Karma.
Sanchita Karma & Prarabhdha Karma
Assuming that we have taken so many births in the past, we should have accumulated quite a huge baggage of Karmas . That huge baggage of karma (i.e. fruits of Karmas) is called the Sanchita Karma. Even in this current birth, whatever effects of karmas you have done since birth till now is also part of your Sanchita Karma.
Out of this huge baggage, by God’s will, some amounts of Karmas are taken out and given to you for enjoyment or suffering in this birth. That portion is called the Prarabhdha. Prarabhdha is indeed the cause of this birth. In a way, we can also say that Karmas remaining in the baggage after taking the Prarabhdha are sanchita Karmas.
In other words, Sanchita Karmas are the potential Prarabhdhas for the future (in this and also future births). They are the prarabhdhas in the waiting list! Sanchita Karmas are like the arrows remaining in the arsenal of the hunter. He may use them at any appropriate time in the future.
Whatever suffering or enjoyment you are experiencing in this birth are due to your Prarabhdha. It is like the arrows that an archer has already shot from his bow; they will have to hit the targets and they can not be withdrawn. Prarabhdhas have nothing to do with whatever Karmas you are currently doing. Prarabhdhas are effects, while your current activities are your current Karmas, not linked to the current enjoyment or suffering you undergo.
This is precisely where people get confused! This is where the questions like “Why is he suffering while he is doing good things only?” are raised.
As already said, for which Karma done on which birth has the Prarabhdha now started taking effect, no one would know, except God. Some saints say that Karma done earlier in this present birth too can become Prarabhdha later in this very birth, since every thing is subject to God’s will. Sri Ramakrishna says that any undisciplined activities done in the youth may start producing their ill effects at older age in the same birth.
Doing of Karma based on our wishes, needs, desires and in-born tendencies (called vasanas) is a continuous process. Karmas that you are doing right now and Karmas you are going to do in the future are Agamya Karmas; (Once those Karmas are done, they get added to the bundle of Sanchita Karmas. Agamya Karmas are like the new arrows that the hunter makes which he transfers to his arsenal once the weapons are made.
Thus Hinduism beautifully and almost scientifically classifies the Karmas without ambiguity.
Prarabhdha Karma And God’s Intervention
The general rule is that once the prarabhdha karma starts working, you can not escape from it totally; the recommended way to tackle it is to accept and bear it. Hinduism lays great emphasis on “Saranagathi” — total surrender to God as the best way to tackle the evil effects of prarabhdha. By developing firm faith that it is God who is the dispenser of the effects of Karma, accept everything as His will. If the suffering becomes intolerable, pray to him for succor. Saints declare that the more you try to fight out the evil effects of prarabhdha using your egotism, the more you get deeply entangle into it.
Holy Mother Sarada Devi (1853-1920) declares that God is all merciful and he would not bear a true devotee suffering excessively. If your prarabhdha is such that you have to suffer from a snake bite, she says that by God’s will it may just turn out to be a prick of a nail.
What if the prarabhdha is to cause you an unexpected windfall of enjoyment in life? In reality, it may have more potent traps for you to accumulate new Agamya karmas. Any unusual windfall of luck and gratification has every chance to boost your ego and make you forget God; instead of grasping that what you are enjoying right now may not have anything to do with your present actions or merits, you may be tempted to loosen up your morals and go in for more indulgence. That may sooner or later trigger the arrival of bad prarabhdhas.
Mata Amritanandamayi says that a person starts getting trouble in life particularly in a period when his egotism peaks.
One who remains surrendered to God understands that any out-of-the-way windfall of merry or prosperity was endowed to him by the will of God and he would be ever watchful so as not to get carried away by the lure of transitory pleasures.
Does Repentance Help?
Another question normally comes up in mind is whether honest repentance about an evil act done in the past decreases the bad consequence of the Karma? Can a good act of charity cancel out the evil effect of some other bad karma?
It is generally perceived that that good karmas and bad karmas have their own independent line of existence; It might be like the “credit” and “debit” having their independent entries in a double-entry book keeping system!
However, an honest repentance does seem to have a sobering effect on its specific consequence of punishment for the evil act. But, “canceling out” of a bad karma by an independent good karma doesn’t seem to be a practical proposition, though it may have a definite bearing in “lessening” the burden of the bad karmas. Doing “prayaschitta” (making some amends by doing good act) is generally recommended by saints to lessen the bad impact of prarabhdha.
Can Karma lead to lower births (like animals)?
Hindu scriptures say that human birth is rare to get and it should be rightly utilized to elevate oneself to become a better human being and evolve spiritually. We all have freedom of choice in doing Karmas and the actions we chose should never be leading to our mental and spiritual deterioration.
By indulging in evil activities in this birth, we may accumulate negative karmas that have the potential to lead us to a lower birth like an animal. Definitely it delays and affects our spiritual progress. Mata Amritanandamayi says that excessive attachment to our wealth, children etc may also add to bad karmas leading to our birth as a dog in order to fullfil our desire to be with our kith and kin and safeguard our possessions, by living with our family members of the previous birth.
Karma And Duty
One thing to be clearly understood in karma is that you are bound by the effects of karma only if you have attachment / personal motive / desire behind doing karma. For example, a policeman shooting at rioters on the orders of his officer carries it out as his duty and hence he shall not acquire the karma of killing or wounding some of the rioters.
You Can’t Claim To Be The Executor Of Karma
Suppose you kill a person who has done a grave harm to you in the past; You can not claim “It is his prarabhdha karma that he had to be killed by me; I won’t accrue any sin because I acted as God’s instrument in executing it. Killing him is also my prarabhdha; I can’t help it”. It could be true that getting killed is his parabhdha, but your killing him is clearly an act of your Agamya Karma; you have had a motive, a vengeance in killing him and you have to face the consequences of it. Ordinary mortals can not usurp the role of God and claim justification by lopsidedly interpreting the law of Karma.
Know The Difference Between Kartha And Bhogtha
When you enjoy or suffer as a consequence of your past karmas, you are a “bhogtha” — the experiencer. When you do a karma, you are a “kartha” — the doer. You do not have the freedom of choice as Bhogtha — you have got to experience your effects of karmas of the past (to what ever degree God proffers to you). But you do, to a fair degree, have the freedom of choice as Kartha — doer. If you have a wick lamp, you can use its light to read Bhagavad Gita and get enlightened or you can use it to burn the Gita. This is the freedom of action available to you.
Regarding free will, Sri Ramakrishna says that as long as one has the idea of good and bad, the acting of free will (to choose between the two) too will be there; for one who has surrendered himself fully to God, there is no question of existence of free will; for him, everything is God’s will.
Swarga (Heaven), Naraga (Hell) and Earth – How do they fit in in Karma?
According to puranas, a jiva, when he does extraordinary good deeds on earth and acquire punya during his life time, enjoys life in heaven till he exhausts the punya. Heaven is the place where everything is joyful, no trace of any pain or unpleasantness. The jiva has no physical body; he has only a sukshma (subtle) body and all the enjoyments are only sensual enjoyments, enjoyed at mental body. Once punyas are exhausted, the jiva has to necessarily come to birth to take up a human life to clear all the other karmas.
In the same way, the jiva has to undergo extreme suffering in hell for all the atrocious crimes and evils that he commits in human birth. The Garuda Purana elaborates the various punishments that awaits the jivan for different heinous crimes he commits in earth. Here again, all the sufferings are at the sukshma body, experienced at mind. Here again, once the evil karmas are exhausted through punishment in hell, the jivan has to return to earth to taka a new body.
Ultimately, the earth is the only “Karma bhoomi” where the jivan has scope for totally playing out his good and bad and evolve spiritually by being a kartha as well as bhogta. In heaven or hell, he is just a bhogta. He is not a kartha.
There are also view points saying that the very earth itself is both Swarga and Naraga because all sorts of enjoyments and sufferings exist here itself.
Karma Yoga – The way to escape the Karma cycle
As long as one has desires, ambitions and motives and engages in action to satiate them, the cycle of karma will never get severed. Man will have to keep taking births over births to enjoy the good effects of good karma and evil effects of bad karma. Hinduism says that human birth is not meant to be wasted for ever in this seemingly never ending cycle. It is simply the divine play of Maya that keeps deluding men into sensual, intellectual and egoistic pleasure-seeking, thereby subjecting them into countless cycles of birth and death. Getting caught in this never ending cycle of birth and death is known as Samsara.
But at some point of time, those who wake up to the hopelessness of this mad running around turn to true spirituality to seek a solution. Hinduism says that it is your attachment to fruits of actions that binds you to karma. If you can perform work with detachment towards the fruits, if you surrender all the fruits of actions to God, then you are not bound by the consequences of the Karma. This is the secret of attaining liberation and this is known as Karma Yoga — a great doctrine elaborated by Sri Krishna in the Holy Scripture Bhagavat Gita.
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