If we must choose one word to describe the essence of Hinduism, it is ‘conduct.” The Hindu sages emphasized that perfecting one’s conduct is far more important than faith or dogma. Two important concepts that relate to conduct in Hindu philosophy are dharma and karma. While dharma is a code of conduct, karma is the manifestation of dharma in daily life.
How we conduct ourselves in our daily life is influenced by our thoughts. Our good thoughts lead to good conduct and bad thoughts about bad conduct. Karma, therefore, is the accumulation of both our good and bad thoughts and actions. This accumulation of karma over our lives ultimately determines what kind of life we are entitled to. We can, therefore, assume that when good things happen to us, it is because of good things we did in the past and when bad things happen to us because we did bad things in the past. Since our karma is determined by our past actions, we must view karma as an educative doctrine that shows us that we have the power to change our destiny by improving our conduct.
What improves conduct? Conduct improves when we act in harmony with dharma, and when our thoughts and deeds embrace the principles of Nishkama karma. Nishkama karma, the Gita says, are actions that are not motivated by personal desires or motives. We may ask, how can one act without desires or motives after all desire is the motivator of all actions? Nishkama karma does not ask us to give up desires but only ‘selfish’ desires. If we want to do something good to others, let us do so because it is the right thing to do – without worrying whether the actions will be pleasant or unpleasant to us or whether the outcome will fulfill our prior expectations. The following two events provide a simple illustration of Nishkama karma. Ramesh received a substantial inheritance after his father’s demise. In memory of his father, Ramesh gifted a significant amount of money to an educational institution with a precondition that a new campus building is named after his father. In the second instance, Srini and I were standing near a busy road when Srini observed an elder woman struggling to cross the busy road. He immediately walked towards her, held her hand, and carefully took her across the road. When they both reached the other end, he humbly greeted her and left. Which of these two acts best symbolizes Nishkama karma? The answer: Srini helping the elderly woman. Why? Srini helped the woman because it is the compassionate thing to do. He did so without expecting any recognition or appreciation in return for his good deed.
The Ramesh and Srini events highlight the importance of doing a good deed without regard to the benefits that accrue to the doer. As Gandhiji says, “We have the right to our actions but not to the fruits of those actions.” Acting such detachment – nishkama karma – however, comes only from a lifetime of efforts expended towards that objective. As Eknath Easwaran says, “karma in its effect on character is the most tremendous power that man has to deal with.”

Dr. Ram S. Sriram