The three principles—maya, karma, and dharma—have been called the school, the instructor, and the lesson a number of times. The school, or “maya,” is life. Our individual nature, the fact that we progress through several developmental stages in life, the reality of being interdependent social creatures, and the ultimate necessity of having some sense of where we fit in the grand scheme of things all affect our lives greatly.
The Vedic system outlines four basic human pursuits in life: Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Moksha. Artha is the desire for money, while kama is the desire for pleasure. Pursuing wealth and pleasure without understanding the true nature of reality is called maya. When the bliss of Maya fades, something within us calls out from the depths of our soul. Our dharma, or life purpose, is calling us to action. Once we find and stick to our purpose in life, we become free from the struggles and unhappiness that come with being human. We also develop a strong connection to our spirituality. Moksha is the state of freedom. We experience maya and karma – or actions and consequences – in never-ending cycles throughout our lives as we attempt to complete dharma, until we get closer to the soul’s center in this lifetime than ever before possible. Though the journey may be straightforward, it is the composition of a lifetime.
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We all begin this journey through ignorance. We are born without any knowledge of the world or our place in it. We become wiser when we realize that our experiences are our best teachers. They show us the effects of our actions, and help us learn from our mistakes. We all have the potential to learn from our experiences and grow in ways that we may not have thought possible. Each stage of life provides us with new opportunities to change and develop in specific ways, and it is through our interactions with others that we are able to find ways of living that work for everyone involved. Our individual lives are expressions of the great life force working its way through each one of us, shaping us into who we are meant to be.
Maya: The School / The “real World”
The world we see every day is only one level of reality; it’s not the whole story. This dimension is real, but it’s limited. The daily grind where we go to work, the need and desire to fit in, and experience love and heartache is just the surface layer of what’s really happening. In Hinduism, this veil over reality is called maya.
The word maya is often translated as “illusion,” but this does not give the full picture. The Hindu religion believes that the world is an illusion, yet we must still regard it seriously because as long as it seems real, we must acknowledge it. However, in contrast to the world as it is, the created reality is a restricted one when compared to the soul. The word maya is a Sanskrit term that can be translated as “illusion.” It might also be interpreted as either a god who appears in the physical world and joins humans together or an idea representing the creative force. Simply said, maya is the driving force behind creation, and what enthralls us. We are not the only expressions of the cosmic creative force–the world around us is too. Most of what we see has been designed by people. It’s not just the roads, buildings, and other inanimate objects that we have to think about – the way we’re raised affects us emotionally and mentally shaping our expectations until we are let down or feel lost. We assume that what we see is all there is.
Karma: The Teacher
Karma is a term derived from Sanskrit that means “action.” The law of karma claims that the entire cosmos is based on an eternal moral order. There is an intelligence behind the mechanical forces that govern the universe, a power that controls nature and guides humanity. According to the principle of Karma, we are free to choose our actions, which will then shape our future experiences. The law of karma reflects that our future will contain the visible results of our past actions. Even though this may be true, we always have a choice in what we do presently. When we understand the law of karma, we realize that destiny is not a matter of fate or chance, but rather the result of our own actions and choices. Our present isn’t caused by random chance–it’s the result of the choices we made in the past. In the present, our actions create our future. By evolving spiritually, we have the opportunity to set in motion courses of action that will bring beneficial consequences rather than painful ones.
Though we might think our current actions benefit us most, these same actions could either be based in maya or take us further from the soul. There are two types of karma: mayic karma and spiritual karma.
Mayic karma is the type of karma that comes from doing things to serve ourselves. This can help us reach our goals, but if we don’t have a strong spiritual life, we might suffer karmic consequences. The karmic consequences we create–for good or bad–determine whether we end up in a cycle of suffering or fulfilling our goals. The rush we feel from our accomplishments can lure us into more materialistic pursuits that come with their own negative consequences. But when the agony of existence outweighs the allure of success and acquisition, life compels us to seek something deeper or of greater significance. Once we reach this point, we can start to take spiritually-based actions that will help us connect with our souls.
Spiritual karma or the spiritual principles that guide our karmic action toward the soul are guided by dharma. The karmic consequences we experience show us another layer of reality. We become aware of a life beyond our expectations. The life that exists beyond what we can see awakens us to the hidden purpose and mystery of our lives—our dharma. However, before we can establish a dharmic attitude, we must first cultivate a karmic one. This means that we have accepted responsibility for the world as it is and understand that much of what we confront is a result of our actions. Our dharmic attitude develops as we become more attuned to the whispers of the soul with our karmic perspective.
Vishnu/Laxmi then guides our steps into the world of dharma once we’ve prepared the foundation for our new life in this manner. Vishnu is the Hindu god who maintains the continuity of existence and order in nature. He connects all that exists. Laxmi is the goddess of wealth, prosperity, and peace. She helps keep the world in balance. Vishnu, one of the three major deities in Hinduism, believes in a timeless order and periodically reincarnates to help maintain it. Vishnu/Laxmi can also work through our friends’ time-tested wisdom.
The deities Vishnu and Laxmi may communicate with us through religious texts such as the Bible, Koran, Tao Te Ching, or Bhagavad Gita. They may appear as a wise old man or woman, an animal that speaks to and guides us, or as a talking stone or tree in our dreams. Sometimes, Vishnu/Laxmi confronts us with our dharma—our spiritual tasks and path—in a life-threatening or near-death experience. This can help us to see what is truly important and prioritize our goals accordingly. When we work together, Shiva and Shakti help us find our way to the soul. Vishnu and Lakshmi guide us on the path of dharma, which leads us toward enlightenment.
Dharma: The Lesson
The “timeless order of nature”, dharma, can also be seen as natural laws and patterns. These are the governing structures that dictate how animals behave instinctually, develop, feel emotions, and so on. They’re similar to natural law in physical science. There are four main aspects to dharma– from the individual level all the way up to the cosmic scope.
Lesson #1: Svadharma:
Maya and karma can teach us that our individual patterns manifest themselves in our physical, mental, and emotional make-up. Svadharma is the command to respect and actualize one’s personal distinctiveness. It means being happy with what you are good at, like an oak tree that produces acorns instead of desiring to be an apple tree. The fairy tale “The Tree That Wanted Other Leaves” is proof of this truth: we can only achieve the other three dharma by being who we truly are.
Svadharma is a particular form of dharma that is determined by someone’s karma, gender, race, social group, physical features, health, mental capacity, emotional state, desires and interests, and strengths and shortcomings. An astrological birth chart can tell us what our svadharma is. This tells us how our assets and liabilities are interconnected. We fulfill the remaining three dharmas within the constraints set forth by our svadharma and the obstacles it presents for us.
Lesson #2: Ashrama Dharma
As we go through life, new challenges and stages present themselves that call on us to develop and grow. Ashrama dharma refers to the different tasks we need to fulfill at each stage of life. For example, during adolescence, children experience many new challenges that change them. Marriage and family also present young adults with responsibilities that turn them into parents and homeowners. When our children leave home, we enter another developmental stage. This stage calls us to change and transform from parenting children to mentoring younger adults. We often mentor other people’s children and younger colleagues and coworkers. As we age, we tend to care less about the material world and more about searching for meaning in life.
Lesson #3: Varna Dharma
According to Varna dharma, we have a responsibility to our community. We need each other in certain ways, and we cannot go beyond a certain point in changing what we need from each other. In other words, our social needs are innate rather than simply a personal choice. Varna dharma (“the law of one’s kind”) outlines our responsibilities to those within our family, community, class, occupation, society, and nation.
Lesson #4: Reta Dharma
Of the four lessons, reta dharma is the most ethereal. Reta refers to the beckoning of a greater power that encompasses everything. Reta dharma is the innate human drive to connect with a “higher power.” This can be done through prayer, meditation, service to others, or any number of other spiritual practices. We all have a yearning for something that is beyond us. This fourth dharma helps us to remember our place in the universe and to act accordingly.
Maya, karma, and dharma are interconnected. They work together to teach us lessons about ourselves, others, and the world around us. These lessons can be difficult, but they are essential to our growth and development.