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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Karma - Part 2

As stated earlier, most of us will 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 (jata) and forever free and thus attains oneness with the Brahman.  Some do not attain this status even after several cycles of birth and death. They have to wait till the ultimate dissolution (mahapralaya) of this universe for such union.

When the body dies the gross portion is dead and is recycled. But the atman belonging to the subtle body portion of that individual needs support. This is provided by the subtle body composed of the other 18 elements of that person. In other words, portions of that “person” survive even after the physical body has died. This “person” attaches him or herself to another body that is born in the future to work out his/her “karma”. It is also called “the self that attaches itself to another gross body”. This process is explained in Brihadaaranya  Upanishad (4:4;3) as similar to a leach moving from one blade of grass to another. This cycle continues till there is realization and merger of the atman and Brahman of that person.

This logic of a subtle body staying alive to work out one’s karma becomes necessary for the following reasons. If you say that the atman (purusha, spirit) of a person who dies without realization (that atman is Brahman)  gets liberation or moksha automatically , then you accept that there is no virtue (punyam)or sin (paapa) as a result of your actions. That means you can do whatever you want since you will attain moksha anyway. This is what the one Indian system of philosophy (Caravaka system) says. 

If you say that the spirit alone survives and continues to act of its own accord, it is against the principle characteristic of purusha, which by definition does not act and is apathetic. Purusha does not take birth of its own accord and fall into the cycle of birth and death (samasara) since by definition purusha or spirit does not act and is apathetic. Therefore, it is necessary to postulate that the Atman of the unrealized man who has died has to remain united with something so it can get new births and get a chance for this unrealized soul to realize its own true nature (Brahman).  That something is the jata portion of the “person”  which perishes at death. Therefore, the only way the remaining sukshma or subtle portion of the person whose body has died is to take on the body of another “person”.

When the gross body disappears at death what can the associated Atman attach to? That is where the whole idea of the Atman in its subtle body attaching itself like a leech to the gross body of another individual comes in. The argument goes on to say that out of the 23 elements of the Samkhya system listed earlier, (starting with mahat, ahamkara, 5 gnanendriya, 5 karmendriya, manas, 5 panchatanmatras and 5 panchaboothas), only the 5 panchaboothas are lost at death. The Atman stays attached to the other 18 elements of that individual, until it realizes its separateness from prakriti (matter). The “body” which remains after death as the continued union of the spirit (purusha) with the 18 other elements of that individual is the sukshma sarira or Linga sarira. This is destined to take birth after birth.

There are different views on what the constituents of the sukshma sarira are. One group (Samkhya) says that there are 18 elements and another says 13 elements. Vedantha says that there are only 6 elements (thejas, apa and anna, prana, karma and dharmadharma). There is also a concept of another sarira or body subtler than the sukshma sarira between the sthoola sarira and sukshma sarira!! Buddhism has a whole different interpretation.

There are several sources for these ideas. One is Brahma sutra 2-3-15 which says “the mahat, the buddhi and the indriyas are effects of the elements and therefore can come into existence only after the elements are created”. The obvious question is   “how can they survive or live after the gross body is gone?” Brahma sutra goes on to clarify this in the next sutra (2-3-16) by stating that birth and death are associated with the body and not the soul. The soul lives forever till it attains moksha by realizing its unity with Brahman! To do that, it needs a body and therefore takes rebirths.  Another source is Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (Chapters 4:4 and 6:2).

This is obviously a complicated concept to explain the unexplainable. Even the words used are vague and denote nothing tangible. In my personal view, this complicated thinking was necessitated both to explain the fear of death and to explain the reasons for differing conditions of the human beings. How else can you explain the suffering of innocent children? How can you explain good people suffering and evil-doers thriving? The concept of Karma and rebirth also served a social function namely control of human behavior, encouraging people to behave well and accumulate punya (merit) so they can attain moksha at least in the next birth.

One other aspect of the Karma and rebirth concepts is the idea of samskaras or innate dispositions. Indian psyche does not consider an infant a clean slate or tabula rasa of the western ideas. Each child is born with certain innate tendencies or samskaras as a residue from the karmas of the past lives. In his remarkable book on the portrait of the Indian people Sudhir and Katharina Kakar  write: “ The karmic balance from a previous life and thus the innate dispositions with which one enters the present one serve to make a Hindu more accepting of the inevitable disappointments that afflict even the most fortunate lives. Yet whereas the notion of inherited dispositions can console and help to heal, it can also serve the purpose of denial of individual responsibility’. (The Indian: Portrait of a People. Sudhir and Katharina Kakar. Penguin Books. 2007. Pages 195-196)

To my way of thinking, Karma and rebirth are concepts that have been accepted as if they represent reality.  Just because there is a word to express a concept, just because it was given to us by our ancestors whom we respect and adore, just because the word has been repeated for several centuries and just because several people believe these words and associated concepts, the word karma and the concepts the word stand for, do not become real. (See my posting on Words).

We have to accept the fact that once the body dies, it is dead! Nisargadatta Maharaj says that it becomes “dead-meat”. There is no way of proving or disproving the existence of subtle body and its re-entry into another physical body. Nor can we experience such a possibility if it were true since the body and its circumstances will be different. As my mother said: “ no one who died has come back and told us what happens next”. It is reasonable to question old concepts. Questioning the concepts and realigning them to current knowledge is not being disrespectful to our elders.

Part of the problem is that we retain the old idea of panchaboothas (space, air, fire water and earth) as the basic elements. They are philosophical concepts. According to earlier Upanishads, only three elements were posited as making up the substance of this universe.  But these elements based on philosophical speculation will have to be replaced by physical elements that have since been proven to make up the structure of everything in this universe, namely carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, iron etc. These elements get recycled.

As I said earlier, it is reasonable to question the concepts developed by our earlier. In fact, our elders would want us to keep asking and seeking. Any good teachers would. In fact, Adi Sankara recommended that we reinterpret old dogmas when new facts emerge. In his book on Gita Bhashya he says:  “Certainly sruti cannot be an authority as against observed facts. Even if hundred Veda texts declare that fire is cold and devoid of light they cannot become an authority on this point”. (Na hi prathyaksha virodhe shrutheh praamaanyam. Na hi shruthishathabhih sheethognih. Aprakaasah ithi bruvath praamaanyma upaithi). (quoted from Sankara’s Teachings in His own Words by Swami Atmananda. Bharathiya Vidya Bhavan, 1964, page 75)

Here is how Buddha puts it:   “Do not believe in what you have heard; do not believe in doctrines because they have been handed down to you through generations, do not believe in anything because it is followed blindly by many; do not believe because some old sage makes a statement; do not believe in truths to which you have become attached by habit; do not believe merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Have deliberation and analyse, and when the result agrees with reason and conduces to the good of one and all, accept it and live up to it”. (This is a reproduction of advice from Buddha, according to the translation of original Buddhist canons by Paul Carus published in 1894. I have not laid my eyes on the original. But found this on a statement about this book with the title The Gospel of Buddha by Paul Carus, published by Samata Books of Chennai. This was on the cover of another book by Samata Books on Yoga vasishta.)

It is interesting to note that the theory of karma (Indian), the theory of providence (Christian) and the theory of natural laws (materialistic) are equivalent concepts. They try to explain why good people suffer and bad people enjoy and also why innocent children suffer. They also give some hope for the future.


There is a concept in the western traditions similar to that of Atman which suggests that the “soul” needs a “body” to occupy at the time of final “Judgment”.  The human being is considered a compound of soul and flesh. The soul is divine, immortal and immaterial. (Compare with the Parkriti of Samkhya or Parabrahman of Vedantha) This soul enters the fetus and animates it. (Look at the common roots of the words animal and prana; anema stands for breath, wind and life in Latin and the word an is breath or life in Sanskrit). The soul stays with the flesh during life. At death, the soul departs the body but continues to be sentient. Now, the soul is a spirit. This spirit reunites with the body at the time of last Judgment. Based on the sins and merits of the person, the reunited soul and flesh go either to heaven or fry in hell. So the body is needed for this final event. This may explain the system of burial in the western cultures. 

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