Understanding Karma

There are so many different schools of thought under the broad umbrella of Sanatana Dharma, or what we call 'Hinduism' today. Broadly, these are divided into:

  1. Astika: Orthodox - Those schools which believe in the authority of the Vedas.
  2. Nastika: Heterodox - Those schools which do not believe in the authority of the Vedas.

These are then broken down to include everything from Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Purva Mimansa, Uttar Mimansa (Vedanta) and other schools including Charvaka philosophy, Buddhism and Jainism. Though these varied schools of spiritual understanding contain some fundamental differences, there is one thing that remains steady through all the different ideologies. This is the law of karma and reincarnation. This stands like a lighthouse amidst the contradiction and debate between the various schools. This one common thread unites these philosophies in an irrefutable way and it is also this one vital concept that differentiates Sanatana Dharma from the Abrahamic religions of the world.

Before we look at how this understanding can influence society today, let us evaluate what Karma actually is. What is this Law of Karma?

The word Karma originally stems from the word Kṛ, which means ‘do’. This root word Kṛ is the origin of many words, for example: Kartha, Karma, Kriya, etc.

Traditionally, in the Vaidika tradition, where rituals were given a very high significance, karta is the host of sacrifice and karma or kriya is the sacrificial action itself. As time progressed and the complexity of human society increased, the popularity of such traditional rituals waned. People began to internalize traditional fire rituals and perceive human life itself to be a sacrifice, wherein one must offer thoughts and actions as offerings to God for preservation, procreation, continuity, order and regularity, rebirth and liberation. At the level of the macrocosm, they perceived creation itself as an act of sacrifice by God, with God becoming all the three, namely karta - doer, karma - creation and kriya - act of creating. This shift in ideology made Karma become all important and God became the source of all karma (actions) and their consequences.

The result of actions are not bound to a specific lifetime. These results are bound to the Jiva, as it travels from life to life. This is why the concept of karma also hinged on the belief in rebirth, because if life in itself is an action, then the doer must necessarily be an entity beyond a single action of life, who can experience the results of their actions in a subsequent lifetime. The consequences of karma are considered as karmaphalam which accrue to the doer either as the punyam or papam.

It is called the law of Karma. It literally means, "The Law of action." It is not called the Law of Prarabdha. Why? We consider the law of Karma to be like Newton's third law of physics: "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." Yet, this concept of, "Good begets good and bad begets bad," is only one small part of the law of Karma.

According to the Upanishads, Karma is the main cause of suffering - though it is not the only cause. Our very existence in a mortal world, as we are identified to the individual self instead of our Supreme Self and hence stuck in the cycle of births and deaths, is in itself a major source of suffering, which the consequences of bad actions further intensify or prolong. Karma is a product of our deluded acts in an illusory world because of our wrong identification to our ego.

One of the earliest references to the doctrine of karma can be found in the following Shloka from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad(1)

सर्वमयस्तद्यदेतदिदंमयोऽदोमय इति; यथाकारी यथाचारी तथा भवति—साधुकारी साधुर्भवति, पापकारी पापो भवति; पुण्यः पुण्येन कर्मणा भवति, पापः पापेन ।

अथो खल्वाहुः काममय एवायं पुरुष इति; स यथाकामो भवति तत्क्रतुर्भवति, यत्क्रतुर्भवति तत्कर्म कुरुते, यत्कर्म कुरुते तदभिसंपद्यते ॥

“He consists of this (what is perceived) and he consists of that (what is inferred). As he acts and as he behaves, so does he become. The doer of good becomes good. The doer of sinful actions becomes sinful. By virtuous actions, he becomes virtuous; and by evil actions evil.' Others, however, say, 'This person consists of desires only. As he desires, so is his will. As is his will, so does he act. Whatever actions he performs, that he attains.”

The next verse reads, "That one who performs actions with desires in his mind, his subtle body goes together with the deed, being attached to it alone. Having exhausted the results of whatever actions he performed in this life, he returns from that world to this world for doing (more) actions. This is with regard to a man whose mind is filled with desires. Now, regarding the one who is free from desires. He who is without desires, who is freed from desires, whose desire is satisfied, who desires only the Self, his breaths do not depart. Being Brahman only, he goes to Brahman."

These verses explain the very fundamental concepts of the law of Karma.

  1. All action arises from desire.
  2. Karma begets a result only if it is performed with desire.
  3. We only experience the results of our Karma performed of desire - Good action brings good experiences and bad action brings bad experiences.
  4. As long as we live at the level of cause and effect, action and reaction, we must necessarily experience the results of all actions - Not at the level of the individual birth, but at the level of the Jiva, the ignorant self.

This is the complete Law of Karma, which includes the concept of reincarnation. It's not only about Punya and Papam, merit and sin. It also includes the actual crux of the law - how our actions have consequences, and how they are not simply a product of the action itself but also of our attitude(2). It states how to use action to become free from all results, how to convert Karma into Karma Yoga.

******************************************* To be continued *******************************************

References:

  1. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (4.4.5/4.4.6)
  2. Reichenbach, B. R. (1988). The Law of Karma and the Principle of Causation. Philosophy East and West, 38(4), 399. doi:10.2307/1399118 

Author Profile

Dr. Priya Nair is currently working as Assistant Professor at the Gastroenterology and Hepatology Department in Amrita Hospital. She is an alumni of Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences, Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Kochi.

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This article belongs to the author in full, including opinions and insights. Amrita University is not responsible or liable for the information contained in this article, or its implications therein

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