Dos and Don’ts


What a Hindu should do and should not do? There are two concepts in Hinduism – Dharma and Karma, understanding which one can know what is to be done and what should not be done.

All Hindu schools of philosophy accept the doctrine of karma and rebirth. As you sow, so you reap. A person is free to do good or bad deeds in life. Accordingly he will also get good or bad results. The intensity of such deeds may be such that the result cannot be exhausted in one life. Hence one has to take future births to exhaust the karma.


The concept of Dharma and its application to the various aspects of life is of fundamental importance in Hinduism. The word Dharma has been given different meanings –duty, right, justice, morality, virtue, religion, good works, etc.

The Mahabharata defines Dharma as ‘Dharanat dharmamityahuh Dharmo Dharayate Prajah – They call it dharma since it upholds; it is Dharma that upholds the people. That which upholds this created universe, supports it and sustains it, without which the universe just falls apart, is Dharma. Hence, Dharma is none other than God Himself.

Dharma in the Bhagavadgita is righteousness, the basis of all purusarthas. It is one’s duty ordained by the scriptures, by properly performing which, man attains both well-being in this world and highest good.

A detailed treatment of the subject of Dharma is found in the Smrtis which is also known as Dharmasastras. Manu Smriti, Vasistha Dharmasutras, Gautama Dharmasutras, Apastamba Dharmasutras, Yajnavalkya Smrti are some of this Dharmasastras. All the Dharmasastras owe their allegiance to the Vedas. In addition, they also accept the words and conduct of saints, sages and seers well-versed in the knowledge of the Vedas, as authoritative in determining Dharma.

The four sources of Dharma are:

  • Vedas
  • Smrtis – secondary scriptures not opposed to the Vedas
  • Sadacara – conduct of good people
  • Atmanah Priyam – what is sanctioned by one’s pure conscience

Hinduism considers man’s life as a long journey towards perfection. In this journey, natural desires and inclinations of man to possess and enjoy the good things of life cannot be overlooked. Hence the Dharmasastras provide for these in their scheme of life while amplifying the theory of the purusarthas.

Great care has been taken to give detailed rules and regulations in the acquisition of artha (wealth) and kama (enjoyment of fleshly desires) within the framework of Dharma. However, they always stress the importance of trying for moksha or liberation as the ultimate goal of life.

If all the members of the society act according to Dharma, there is no reason why all should not live in happiness and peace as the Mahabharata assured us ‘Dharmo rakshati rakshitah’ – Dharma protects those who protect it.

And Hinduism has provided this through the principle of Samanya-dharmas (ethical values common to all) and the institution of Samskaras (sacraments). The samanya dharmas train a person to tune his life to be in harmony with the society whereas the samskaras prepare him to refine his own life.

Sadharana Dharma

This Dharma is common to all walks of life and applicable to everyone. The Vamana Purana gives a list 10 virtues common to all:

  • Ahimsa – not harming others
  • Satya – truth
  • Asteya – non-stealing
  • Dana – giving charity
  • Ksanti – forbearance
  • Dama – self-control
  • Sama – keeping the mind at peace
  • Akarpanya – not demeaning oneself
  • Sauca – cleanliness and purity
  • Tapas – austerity


The Samskaras, which exercise a subtle purifying and refining effects on the psychic personality, are sixteen. However only six are in vogue even today and may, therefore, be considered as important. They are: jatakarma, namakarana, anna-prasana, upanayana, vivaha and antyesti.

  1. Jatakarma performed as soon as the baby is born, is aimed at giving it a long life, good health and intelligence.
  2. Namakarana is the ceremonial act of naming the baby, generally performed on the 10th or the 12th day after birth. The name chosen is usually that of a god or a goddess or a saint.
  3. Annaprasana is feeding the child for the first time with solid food, normally in the seventh month. The food should have been consecrated by ceremonially offering it to the family deity.
  4. With upanayana begins a period of vedic studies and spititual discipline. It indicates a second-spiritual-birth. Initiation into the Gayatri mantra and investiture with the yajnopavita (sacred thread) are the main items of this rite. The Gayatri-mantra is a universal prayer whereas the yajnopavita is a symbol which indicates to the boy that his life hence-forward is dedicated for the good of the society.
  5. Vivaha or marriage is considered cardinal among all the sacraments. Since the grhastha (the householder) is the supporter of the other three asramas, his role has been eulogized highly. Kanyadana (gifting of the bride to the groom by the father of the girl) and saptapadi (walking seven steps together) are the most important parts of this sacrament.
  6. Antyesti (the last sacrifice) is the last of the sacraments. It is the consigning of the body of the dead person to the fire after death. This is performed by the relatives of the deceased. The ashes are generally disposed off in the waters of a river or sea Sraddha rites is performed as directed by the scriptures.

Out of these samskaras, namakarana, vivaha and antyesti are common to all sections of hindu society, though there may be variations in details.

The Doctrine of Karma

Karma means ‘that which is done’. In this sense it means work, profession and duty. However, in a technical sense, Karma means an action that binds one to Samsara or transmigratory existence. This type of Karma can be done through the body, speech or by the mind. This means, everything that a person does, speaks, or thinks become Karma. All actions done by us have a twofold effect: that which is seen here and now; and, their future effects, depending upon whether they are punya (good) or papa (bad).

Karma is not only the action but also the result produced by the action. Here it can be classified as:

  • Sancita Karma – Karma accumulated over several lives
  • Prarabdha Karma (Karma that has begun to produce result in this life)
  • Agami Karma (Karma performed now and in future)

All the Darsanas that accept the theory of Karma also agrees that:

  • The effects of Karmas done in one life cannot be expected to be exhausted in that life itself. Hence, Punarjanma or rebirth has to be accepted.
  • Jnana or spiritual wisdom resulting in the realization of one’s nature as the immortal soul, destroys Sancitakarma completely and makes Agami incapable of producing its results even as a burnt seed cannot sprout. However, prarabdhakarma, since it has already started giving its results, has got to be exhausted only through experiencing it.

Types of Karma

Vihita Karma or actions ordained by the Dharmasastras as duty to be performed. This is of three types:

  1. Kamya Karma – desire-motivated actions. These are Karmas performed to fulfill certain desires like, observing vows, or performing sacrifice.
  2. Nitya Karma – daily duties like Sandhya-vandana, repetition of the Gayatri  or other mantra, Devapuja, contemplation on God and holy beings, study of holy scriptures.
  3. Naimittika Karma – occasional duties performed under certain conditions like fasting during Ekadashi, other religious performance and sraddha ceremony.

Niskama karma – any good work done without any selfish motives or desires like service to others or as an offering to God. This type of work purifies the mind, ultimately leading to the realization of the Self within.

Nisiddhakarma or prohibited or sinful actions like stealing, drinking liquor and other intoxicating drinks, rape and murder. (Please see below for more details on sins.)


The test of Ahimsa is absence of jealousy. So long as this jealousy exists in a heart, it is far away from the perfection of Ahimsa. The cow does not eat meat, nor does the sheep. Are they great Yogis, great non-injurers (Ahimsakas)? Any fool may abstain from eating this or that; surely that gives him no more distinction than to herbivorous animals.

Strength (Anavasâda)

The strong, the hardy” are the only fit students. What can puny, little, decrepit things do? They will break to pieces whenever the mysterious forces of the body and mind are even slightly awakened by the practice of any of the Yogas. It is “the young, the healthy, the strong” that can score success. Physical strength, therefore, is absolutely necessary. When the miserably weak attempt any of the Yogas, they are likely to get some incurable malady, or they weaken their minds. Voluntarily weakening the body is really no prescription for spiritual enlightenment.


Satya or truth has been accorded the pride of place among the virtues recommended to be cultivated by man. In some Sahasranama Stotras, the word Satya is used to denote God. One should avoid speaking falsehood, partial truths and even unpleasant truths. Unpleasant truths, when they must be spoken, should be presented in a pleasant way.

Charity (Dana)

Dana is gift, benevolence, charity – giving away something to another without any expectation of return. The idea of Dana or charity is one of the three cardinal ideas in the Gita. The other two are sacrifice (Yajna) and austerity (Tapas).

Dana is a divine quality as it originates from God. Sri Krishna asks the devotees to perform all actions as an offering to God. Then they generate no evil effect and produce the best results.

Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer in sacrifice, whatever you give away in charity, whatever austerity (Tapas) you practice, O son of Kunti, do that as an offering unto Me.

Swami Vivekananda says: “Do you ask anything from your children in return for what you have given them? It is your duty to work for them, and there the matter ends. In whatever you do for a particular person, a city, or a state, assume the same attitude towards it as you have towards your children expect nothing in return. If you can invariably take the position of a giver, in which everything given by you is a free offering to the world, without any thought of return, then will your work bring you no attachment.”

However, certain rules have to be observed by the giver and the recipient:

  • The giver must be healthy, free from heinous sins, virtuous, clean, and must have acquired his wealth by right means.
  • The giver must have faith in the act of giving as religious or meritorious.
  • The receiver should not accept gifts or charity from a person who have amassed wealth by unrighteous means.
  • One should not give beyond one’s means and capacity.
  • Gifts should not be given to evil persons, gamblers, cheats, drunkards, or criminals.
  • Gift can be given on auspicious day like, during winter and summer solstices, days of eclipses of the sun and the moon, new-moon day, full-moon day and festivals day.

For more reading: Evolution of The Concept of Gifts in Hinduism

Papa & Prayascitta

The Hindu scriptures have again and again stressed the importance of strict ethical life as a pre-condition to spiritual enlightenment. Hence, it recognizes certain transgression of the laws of the moral and the spiritual world as enunciated by the scriptures as ‘pataka’ or ‘papa’, which means sin.

The Bhagavadgita declares that kama (lust), krodha (anger) and lobha (greed) born out of the rajoguna (in the mind) is the cause for a person to commit sinful acts.

The Dharmasastras and the Puranas generally classify sins into two main categories:

  1. The Mahapatakas – major, most heinous sins like prohibited sexual relationships like incest, murder, killing a fetus, drinking liquor, theft, reviling the Vedas, giving false evidence to harm others and associating with the sinners who commit such deeds. The prayascittas or expiations for the mahapatakas range from voluntary death to long years of very severe penances.
  2. The Anupataka – secondary sins Though this is not a grievious as mahapataka but in effect almost approaches it like false accusations against one’s guru (father or teacher) and sexual relationship with another’s wife.
  3. The Upapatakas– minor sins like killing insects, stealing fruits and flowers, eating things which might come into contact with liquors. Observing Candrayana for a month expiates such sins. The prayascittas for the upapatakas are similar to mahapataka and also visiting holy places.


Atmahatya or suicide has been considered as a great sin by the Dharmasastras though it was prescribed as the ultimate punishment for sinners of most heinous crimes.

Redemption of Sin

To err is human, to forgive divine. For the Divine to forgive, the human being must make himself pure by recorgnising his own sins and repenting for them. The Dharmasastras have given us a detailed treatment of the various kinds of sins and necessary expiations or prayascittas.

Hinduism prescribes various Prayascitta (expiation) for redeeming the sins:

Papanivedana or confession should be done before God or the sacred fire. This should be followed by Pascattapa (repentance) and firm resolve, not to repeat the sin.

Pranayama or restraint of breath burns up the impurities of the mind and purifies it. The number of pranayama should be as prescribed in the sastras.

Tapas or austerity has many aspects such as fasting, celibacy, truthfulness, bathing thrice a day, wearing of wet clothes until they dry up (on the body), sleeping on the ground, not injuring others, serving the guru and so on. The period may extend from one month up to 12 months, depending on the nature of the sin.

Performance of Homa like Kusmandahoma, Ganahoma and Gayathrihoma using the mantras of the Taittiriya Aranyaka (2.3-6).

Dana or giving gifts such as gold, cow, clothes, land, food etc. Gifts may be offered to temples and religious institution also.

Tirthayatra or pilgrimage should be undertaken to well-known and highly recommended places like Kasi, Badari, Kedara and Rameswaram. A dip in the holy river Ganga also can remove sin. Association with a saint and serving him is also an aspect of pilgrimage.

Upavasa or fasting, which can be total or partial fasting. To give a general idea about the various Upavasa, we give here some sample.

Padakrcchra – A person who has committed a sin has to observe a fasting in the following manner:

  • On the first day of expiation, he has to eat only once during day time
  • On the second day, eat once only by night
  • On the third day, once at any time, if he gets the food unasked
  • On the fourth day, observe total fast.

Ardha-krccha – This is an expiation for minor sins. Fasting is observed in the following manner:

  • On the first three days, eat only food obtained without asking for it, and
  • Complete fasting for another three days.

Atikrccha – This is a penance for all sins except the mahapatakas. It has to be observed for twelve days in the following manner:

  • For the first 3 days, can eat only one morsel of food in the morning
  • For the next 3 days, can eat one morsel of food in the evening
  • For another 3 days, can eat one morsel of food received without asking
  • For the last 3 days, observe total fast.


This is a universal expiation for almost any sin, especially where no other specific remedy has been suggested. In this penance, the eating pattern follows the phases of the moon.

  • Pipilikamadhya (middle of an ant)
    Starting from 15 morsels of food (per day) on the full moon, the amount is gradually reduced by one morsel every day, ending in total fasting on the new-moon day. Then it is again increased, from 1 to 15 morsels, till the full moon day. This is one cycle and it can be repeated as many times as needed.
  • Yavamadhya (middle of the wheat grain)
    Starting with one morsel on the first day after the new moon, increasing to 15 morsels on the full moon, and again reducing to nil on the new moon.

The size of the morsel is that of a big myrobalan fruit. While performing all these prayascittas, one must also observe brahmacharya, avoid luxury and sleeping in day time, perform prayers, reading the Holy Scriptures and chanting holy names.

Chanting the Name of God

The Bhakti movements lay great importance to Nama-Japa and Kirtana, singing of God’s name and glory as the best way to wash off all sins. Well-known mantras like the Gayatri, the Pancakshari, the Asthakshari and the Rama Mantra are some of the Mantras prescribed for chanting.

The Six Vices

Hinduism also has given a list of six vices which one has to be avoided or eliminated. The Arisadvargas or six enemies (or evil qualities) in the path of moral and spiritual evolution are:

  • Lobha
  • Kama
  • Krodha
  • Moha
  • Mada
  • Matsarya (jealousy)

Lobha (‘greed’)

Lobha is excessive desire, especially the desire to appropriate to oneself what belongs to others; that too, against the principles of Dharma. The Isavasya Upanishad in its very first verse advises us not to covet anyone’s wealth or possessions. The Bhagavadgita calls it as a gateway to hell and exhorts the aspirant to give it up.

Mada (‘intoxication’)

Mada is intoxication born out of several factors. At the psychological level it is translated as arrogance. Some of the factors which produce this mada or arrogance are: vidya (learning), dhana (wealth), kula (lineage), yauvana (youth), bala (physical strength), rupa (beauty), adhikara (power).

Moha (‘delusion / confusion’)

That state of mind which causes delusion and confusion, leading to either ignorance or false knowledge, has been termed as moha. It is caused by the excessive

For more reading:

The Doctrine of Karma and Reincarnation