Yes, perform good deeds, but know there is more involved in the soul-maturing process leading to freedom from rebirth

By Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami

In Hinduism, human conduct is summed up by two salient terms—papa and punya. Papa refers both to unethical action and the demerit earned through wrongdoing. Indian texts provide various lists of wrongful actions. Among all transgressions, injuring others, himsa, is considered the most serious offence. Conversely, refraining from injuring others, called ahimsa, is the foremost virtue. The Mahabharata extols its supremacy: “Ahimsa is the highest dharma. It is the highest purification. It is also the highest truth from which all dharma proceeds.”

 In ashthanga yoga, the idea of avoiding wrongdoing is called yama or restraint. Sage Patanjali, in his Yoga Sutras, lists five famed restrains, of which ahimsa is the first. An excellent definition of ahimsa is found in the Shandilya Upanishad: “Ahimsa is not causing pain to any living being at any time through the actions of one’s mind, speech or body.” The text points out that the virtue is not limited to injuring others with one’s body but also one’s speech and even thoughts. So subtle is this transgression that one is admonished for hurting someone in a dream.

A common justification for resorting to violence is in retaliation for injuries inflicted on you, members of your family, your religion or nation. Many in the world today believe that in those instances, retaliation is not only permitted, it is one’s duty. Hinduism does not support this “eye for an eye” mentality. In fact, our oldest scripture, the Rig Veda, speaks against it: “Return not blow for blow, nor curse for curse, neither meanness for base tricks. Shower blessings instead.” Mahatma Gandhi put it boldly, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Individuals who have harnessed the instinctive tendencies to become angry and hurtful naturally manifest a greater concern for others.

This brings us to the opposing term—punya—virtuous action and the merit earned through right thought, word and action. Charity is a common way to earn punya, which is a kind of karmic bank account—giving to others—donating to Hindu temples, ashrams and community activities.

As we know, 21st century society is highly materialistic. Hindu youth are growing up with worldly, self-oriented motivations: wealth, career, name and fame. For the greater good, this materialistic tendency should be balanced by helping others. As I jokingly say in my talks, two Mercedes in the family garage is enough, meaning we want to be surrounded by quality possessions, but having no limits on luxuries one enters the slippery path of self-indulgence. It turns out the happiest among the wealthy are those who use their abundance for high purpose and avoid excessive gratifications. The noblest among them are turning their immense wealth over to humanitarian causes. For example, Bill Gates, one of the world’s richest men, founded the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to improve healthcare and reduce poverty worldwide. He has stated that wealthy people have a responsibility to use their resources to make the world a better place.

A second way to earn punya is selfless service, or seva, which is traditionally done at a temple or ashram, for example helping with the many tasks involved in preparing for a festival. In modern cities, this approach may not always work, especially when traveling from home to a temple or ashram takes a long time. There is a solution: redefine selfless service to include helping others wherever we are: at home, work, school, in the neighborhood and community. In its broadest sense, seva includes anything we do to help others that we are not being paid to do or don’t have to do. Our recompense is good will, merit and good karma.

A Sanskrit term that describes the earning of punya, merit, is ishthapurtam. Swami Harshananda, in his A Concise Encylopaedia of Hinduism, gives this explanation. “The term refers to the cumulative spiritual result or merit due to a man’s performance of ritual worship and charitable acts. Ishtha includes all types of ritual worship, including the gifts given during its performance. Purta indicates the various acts of charity and public utility such as building and dedicating deep wells for the good of the public, building temples and gardens, free distribution of food, giving gifts, nursing the sick, and many other acts of charity sanctioned by the holy books.” Swami Harshananda advocates sponsoring ritual worship, including yajna, or fire ritual, often conducted by many priests for the upliftment of the world.

A popular concept in Hinduism—in other religions, too—is that if we live virtuously, earning abundant punya, then after our transition from life on Earth we will permanently abide in the heaven worlds. The Mundaka Upanishad decrees this concept to be false. While the punya earned by ishta and purta does grant access to the heaven worlds, eventually that punya is used up and the soul is reborn once again. Verse 1.2.10 explains, “These deluded men, regarding sacrifices and works of merits as most important, do not know any other good. Having enjoyed in the high place of heaven won by good deeds, they enter again this world or a still lower one.”

What is it, then, that grants the soul freedom from rebirth? It is Paramatma Darshana—the jivatma experiencing itself as Paramatma in the state of jnana, enlightened wisdom. Thus we can say that the fruit of jnana is moksha—total liberation from the cycle of birth and death on Earth.
My guru, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, gave a succinct description of this idea: “Deep inside we are perfect this very moment, and we have only to discover and live up to this perfection to be whole. We have taken birth in a physical body to grow and evolve into our divine potential. We are inwardly already one with God. Our religion contains the knowledge of how to realize this oneness and not create unwanted experiences along the way.”

In talks on how we can grow and evolve into our divine potential, I use the analogy of dance. I ask the audience, “What is most needed for a youth to become good at Indian classical dance?” Invariably, many give the answer I have in mind: “Practice!” Reading books about dance won’t make you a good dancer. Nor will attending classes without practicing what you have learned. Regular, disciplined practice is needed. Likewise, to grow and evolve into our divine potential—to manifest our inner perfection in our outer intellectual and instinctive nature—requires regular practice, called sadhana.

In dance, it is clear you need to start by making the body strong and limber. Then you systematically master the various movements, positions, gestures and expressions, combining them to perform simple dances. After that, more and more complex dances can be perfected.
We can think of the basic practices of selfless service and devotional worship as equivalent to the simpler dance steps. These steps are important but are not the entirety of the path to mastery. Philosophically, their practice creates a dualistic relationship with the Deity, called dvaita in Sanskrit. There are always two of you, the devotee and the Deity who is the object of your worship

Meditation, a further step, is a deeper type of practice. In its most profound form, there are no longer two. You and the Deity are the same. However, it is not the personal God that you are one with, it is the impersonal aspect of God, Satchidananda or Omnipresent Consciousness. Beyond that there is an even deeper experience, which is oneness with the transcendental Source of Satchidananda. In philosophical terms, this experience is nondualism, called advaita in Sanskrit. It is the state of the jivatma experiencing itself as paramatma. This is Paramatma Darshana, Self Realization. The Mundaka Upanishad 2.2.3-4 instructs, “Taking as a bow the great weapon of the Upanishads, one should place in it the arrow sharpened by meditation, drawing it with a mind engaged in the contemplation of that (Brahman), O beloved, know that Imperishable Brahman is the target. The syllable Aum is the bow, one’s self, indeed, is the arrow. Brahman is spoken of as the target of that. It is to be hit without making a mistake. Thus one becomes united with it as the arrow (becomes one with the target).” Translation by S. Radhakrishnan.

Good works are needed to control the mind and enter deeper states of consciousness. They are fundamental steps on the spiritual path. While one is creating papam, he cannot really meditate. Karmas pile up, consuming mind and emotions, creating barriers, boulders, life after life. Deep meditation comes only when the mind is clear, the heart is pure, actions of past and present are resolved and dharma is fulfilled. Yes, perform good deeds, but know there is more involved in the grand, soul-maturing process leading to liberation.