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Monday, July 22, 2013

Karma - Part 1

The word Karma has thousand different meanings depending on the source and the philosophical tradition. Strict dictionary definition of karma is “action, deed”, based on the root word kru, meaning to do. This includes physical, verbal and mental activities. A dictionary of Indian Philosophy defines Karma as: “action, deed, cause and effect and accumulation of past actions”. This last definition dominates all of Hindu and Buddhist philosophies.

Prof. Wendy Doniger points that there are at least six different levels of meaning. 1. Action, based on the root verb, which is kru, to do. 2. Ritual action as used in the Vedas. 3. Morally charged action as shown in the Upanishads. 4. Morally charged action with consequences for the future and even after death. 5. Therefore, an action which has carry over effect in the next birth of the cycle. 6. Action with good or bad effects which can be transferred to another person. (Hindus – An Alternative History  2010. Penguin,  page 169)

According to the Mimamsa school of Vedic philosophy, Karma consists of prescribed and prohibited actions as given in the Vedas and their main purpose is liberation (moksha) of the soul. According to this school, there are four kinds of karmas. They are:  nitya karmas (to be performed daily such as agnihotra), naimitthika karmas (to be performed on special occasions such as annual ceremony for the departed), kaamya karma (prompted by a desire such as success in travel, job) and nishiddha or prathishiddha karmas (those that should be avoided).  The first two have to be to be performed by the humans to please the Gods and the Gods in turn will be pleased and satisfy the needs of the humans.

One of the basic tenets of Mimamsa school is that man’s actions in this world will have results (Phala). They may lead to accumulation of positive phala (punyam) or lead to bad results  (paapam).  Pratishiddha karma will bring about papa janma (evil births), kamya karma will bring about punya janma (good birth) and nithya karma MUST be performed in order to avoid (pratyavaaya) evil results.

According to this school, Yagna in the form of Karma and srushti (creation) in the form of praja (people) came out of the Parabrahman at the same time.  Portions of the Vedas which are commands or instructions for performance of yagnas are called Vaakyas or Vidhis. The rest of the Vedas based on mystic experience and philosophical in content is called artha vaada and these parts of Vedas “not germane to karma are of no importance”.

On the other hand, Vedanta school says that “the authority of a passage is not based on whether it states a fact or prescribes a course of action, but its capacity to generate fruitful knowledge”. Therefore Sankara says most of Vedas dealing with Karma are only to remind us (gnaapaka) not commands (karaka). However, one should perform these actions not as the sole means for liberation, but only as a mean to purify the mind (chittha suddhi), for universal welfare (lokhakshema) and prepare oneself for liberation.
In Vaiseshika school, the word karma stands for physical motion or movement in one of five cardinal directions.

The Samkhya system posits Prakriti and Purusha as the two forces at the beginning of this cosmos. Prakriti is composed of three gunas or qualities in equilibrium. They are satva (calm, pure, steady,illuminating), rajas ( active, energetic, passionate) and tamo (ignorant, lazy, inert, dull). Both inanimate (jata) and the sentient beings (Jiva) come out of prakriti. When the saatvic portion is dominant, it is the jiva. When the tamasic portions dominates, it is the jata. Karma is rajasic portion which acts on the other two in the the process by which the perceptible cosmos comes out of the imperceptible prakriti.   

Oxford English dictionary defines Karma as “a noun (in Hinduism and Buddhism), the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as affecting their future fate”. The root word in Sanskrit denotes: “action, effect, fate”.  This is the definition closest to the current understanding of the word.

Wikipedia defines Karma as “action or deed”  “which causes the entire cycle of cause and effect  (i.e., the cycle called samsara)”.

In Buddhist doctrines, Karma “is the law of moral causation” and includes concepts of rebirth. It is the law of cause and effect applied to daily life and to cycles of birth and rebirth.

The classification of Karma (like all classifications) depends on what purpose it is classified for, its origins and quality.            

Actions are meant to achieve some goal. Since the original use of the word was related to Vedic duties, karma was classified under three headings. They are: Shrauta karma as laid out in sruthi’s or Vedas to attain moksha (liberation);  Smaartha karma  performed for individual benefit (purushaartha) and based on smrithi’s and Pauraanika karmas such as pilgrimage, fasting etc also for liberation.

Action can be bodily actions (kaayika karma), vocal (vaachika) or mental (maanasika).

Karma can be of the saatvik variety (noble), raajasik ( passionate) or thaamasik (dull, not wholesome).
Karmaas can also classified as karthavya karma (duty, have to be done) and vihitha karma (proper action depending on one’s circumstances).

Bhagavatha purana divides karma into two classes: pravruthha karma and nivruttha karma. Pravruttha actions follow sensory demands and lead to worldly benefits. Nivruttha actions lead inwards and lead to activities performed for the welfare of the others and without attachment to fruits of one’s actions. Bhagvat Gita teaches this kind of actions (nivruttha).

Also, the results of one’s actions may carry over to subsequent births. This is a major feature of Hindu and Buddhist philosophies. In this interpretation, the word karma takes on a different connotation. The residue (actions whose results have not been experienced in this life) produced by acts performed earlier during this life or in a previous life is called Samchitha karma (accumulated). Accumulated karma is latent. Praarabda karma is the residue of samchita karma working itself out during the present life. Aagami karma is the result of acts performed during this life which will mature in the normal course of events and carry over into next life as Samchita karma.

The word karma stands for both the actions and their consequences. The way the word is used, it stands not only for our actions in this life but also for actions in the “previous” lives. It assumes that rebirths and previous lives are given. According to this philosophy, the entire purpose of human life is to work out one’s karma. Once we have experienced the results of all past actions and do not accumulate any more “karma” in this life we can obtain liberation (moksha).

If we accept such a definition of karma, we also accept that all events in life, good and bad are consequences (papa and punya) of our past karma, in this life and in previous lives. This attitude has the advantage of making us deal with misfortunes and suffering in this life with equanimity.  Faith in this concept will lead to a fatalistic attitude and a tendency to attribute our misfortunes to karmas from our past life.

If we accept such a definition of karma, we accept the concept of rebirth also. Indeed, the concepts of karma and rebirth are inseparably linked in the Vedic and Buddhist philosophies.

It is very clear in the writings of several philosophers that the Karma theory was developed to explain the common observation that some good people and innocent children suffer in this world, whereas some “horrible and cruel” people enjoy all kinds of wealth and luxury. How can that be? If you say that God is responsible, God becomes an unreasonable, non-benevolent, and unfair entity or one who plays favoritism.  You need a different explanation. The theory of Karma provides this explanation.

The other possible reason for this karma theory is that we are all afraid of death and we wish to have some hope for a better place to “live” after death. By saying that good karma accumulates punyams and takes you to heaven may be a motivation for a few to be good. The fear that bad karma will lead you to hell may be a deterrent for a few people.

Those are the two possible reasons for the development of this concept of Karma. But, how did the concept of karma get connected with the concept of rebirth? Where is the philosophical support for the concept of rebirth?

This question is important for a skeptic like me because I do not find any fact that is visible, verifiable or can be deduced by inference to support the idea of rebirth. I find these concepts depend on circular reasoning and assertions without proof. How can “I” living in this impermanent body come back and enter another physical body. That assumes that a spirit which is very specific but different from the body exists. I do not see how “I” which is a concept created by my impermanent brain, can “live” once the physical body is gone. There is no logic or physical proof to support this idea. But the karma philosophy thinks otherwise. It does so by introducing concepts of Gross body (sthula sarira) and subtle body (sukhsma sarira).

To understand this we have to understand some fundamentals of Samkhya philosophy and its view of of how cosmos and life originated. According to this materialistic, atheistic philosophy, evolution of cosmos was a gradual process starting with the original matter (Prakriti) and energy (Purusha) and ending in individual lives with their organs of sensation and actions. The sequence is follows.

In the beginning there were two self-created, subtle (imperceptible) entities called Prakriti and Purusha. Prakriti stands for matter and Purusha stands for emerging pirnciple. Prakriti is mutable and needs Purusha to become active. But Purusha is not associated with any qualities or action. Although it gives power to prakriti to evolve, it is actionless, untouched and unattached. Purusha of Samkhya is called jiva or atman of an individual person by the Gita and the Vedanta literature.

               The Prakriti  evoles with the help of Purusha into
Percpetible and subtle -  Mahat (reason) (also called buddhi, mathi, gnana)
               Perceptible and subtle-   Ahamkara (individuation) (taijasa).
At this stage there are two major subdivisions.  1. Perceptible and subtle forming the basis of the organic world coming out of the saatvik aspect and consists of organs of senses (5), organs of action (5), and the mind.
2. Also perceptible and subtle coming out of the taamasic aspect and the basis of inorganic world. They form the basis of smell, sound, sight, taste and touch. These are called panchatanmatras.
 These panchatanmatras in turn give rise to panchaboothas or primordial visible or Gross elements of smell, sound, sight, taste and touch. When the five gross elements or panchaboothas come into contact with the eleven subtle organs, organic universe starts. This applies to every individual creature.

In other words, only the five boothas (the final step) which make the gross body of each individual are visible. The other 18 elements are not. But they exist.

In this order of evolution, the concept of Karma applies only to Reason and Intellect (mahat,buddhi,ahamkara) , which are evolutes of Prakriti. It does not apply to Purusha or the spirit which is quality-less. Karma does not apply to Atman (individualized aspect of the spirit or purusha) which is identical with Brahman and therefore free.

Purusha is the force that activates the various subtle organs and mind which evolved out of prakriti. When purusha is united with the panchaboothas, the living world begins. At a global level (samashti) this Purusha is also called Prana or Hirankyagarba. It is called Atman at an individualized level of life (Jivatman).  This Atman which is none other than the Brahman becomes entangled in the web of life and forgets its original free state. In one view, this is maya. When the spirit (Jivatman, purusha) realizes that it is independent, forever free and is different from prakriti, the maya is dissolved and the jivatman reaches its original state of sat chit ananda. This is moksha.

Bhagavat Gita (7:14) implies that the three gunas (sattva, rajas, tamas)on the basis of which the universe evolves out of Prakriti is the Maya. Tilak (Gita Rahasya Vol II, page 1018) refers to a sloka in Sandilya Sutra which says: “O Narada, that which you see, is the Maya, which has been created by Me. Do not think that I possess the qualities, which are to be found in the created world”.  Maya is the Ignorance inherent in the quality of the senses and of the body which came out of the embodiment of the three gunas of the prakriti. The Atman is free from maya and is not the quality of the atman since it is purusha. But the Atman is thrown into confusion by the maya due to identification.


As stated earlier, most of us do not realize the identity of atman and Brahman in this life. What happens to this individual atman of a person who dies before such realization? He/she has to be born again and again till he/she works out his or her samchita karma and attains realization that he (atman, purusha) is different from prakriti and forever free and thus attains oneness with the Brahman. 

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