Monday, May 28, 2007

On Karma


The word ‘Karma’ has for some time now become part of the vocabulary of the West. But the general understanding of the concept is limited to vague notions of the ‘what-goes-around-comes-around OR as-you-sow,-so-shall-you-reap’ variety, very often leaving out the theory of rebirth. This is a major lacuna. Belief in reincarnation and transmigration of the Self (samsara) is an important component of the Hindu doctrine of Karma. It is believed that the Law of Karma symbolises the perfect justice inherent to the cosmic order. Together with Dharma, it gives a more complete picture of Hindu ethics.


‘Karma’ derives from the Sanskrit noun ‘karman’ meaning an act, action, performance, work, labour, activity, etc., which in turn derives from the root verb ‘kri’, which means to do, to make, to perform, to cause, to effect, to undertake, and a whole such host of actions. Over time, the word has come to mean a whole cluster of words and ideas. Karma thus means not just the actions, but the cumulative consequence of all ones actions. The idea of Karma is so deeply ingrained in the Indic mind, so entrenched is the notion that an individual’s destiny is the direct consequence of his / her past actions, that, in popular parlance, Karma is often used as a synonym for ‘fate’.

Historical Development

Like most ideas in Hinduism, Karma traces its roots to the Vedas; particularly, the principle of ‚ta, which amongst other things envisages that an eternal moral order is involved in the very course of nature. The idea that no action by anybody is lost in vain and that a person has to undergo the consequences of his action according to its merits or demerits, is found in the Vedic literature. However, these ideas were still inchoate in the early Vedic period (1800 – 1200 BCE). These ideas start becoming more articulate from the period of the Brahmana literature (ritual commentary), till by the time of the early Upanishads (1000 – 800 BCE) the Law of Karma was well established in Hindu Philosophy. Gautama Siddhartha, (563-486 BCE), the Buddha, carried forward these ideas to Buddhism; albeit with some changes.

The Doctrine of Karma

The Principle of Karma has two aspects to it. Firstly, it states that NO action is lost in vain (kritaprasnasah); one can in no way escape the consequences of his action(s). Secondly, it also categorically states that NO one is to bear the consequences of actions which he has not one himself, (akritabhyupagamah). If somebody does not exhaust the fruits of his actions in the present life, he has to assume a future life by way of rebirth. This makes rebirth / reincarnation & transmigration of the Self, together known by the Sanskrit word ‘Samsara’, a necessary consequence of the law of Karma. Seemingly ‘undeserved’ pleasure or suffering is believed to be the outcome of meritorious or wicked deeds done in past lives. A commonly known image of the concept of reincarnation is the ‘Wheel of Rebirth’ which holds the individual in bondage. Karma leads to rebirth in order that the Self may face the consequences of its past actions which in turn causes the Self to perform more actions resulting in even more consequences for it to face. This cycle goes on endlessly; the Self is as it were in ‘bondage’ tied to the ‘wheel of rebirth’ enduring endless cycles of births and deaths. A rather gloomy pessimistic outlook for the fate of the Self, but more on that later.
While Karma literally means action of any kind done by a sentient being, only voluntary (aichchika) karma is thought to be morally significant, it is these Karmas that generate effects or consequences.

Corollary: Latent Tendencies (Samskaras)

A very important corollary to the law of Karma is the law of desires, “As is his desire, so is his will; as is his will, so is the deed he does, whatever deed he does, that he attains.” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, IV 4,5). It is believed that each action gives rise to latent tendencies (samskaras) which the Self carries forward in each successive rebirth. Good actions give rise to good tendencies and wicked actions give rise to wicked tendencies and these cumulatively reside in the karmic memory, as it were, of the Self. In effect this means that each Self, accumulates both benevolent and malicious tendencies over many births. Thus every person is born with great capacities for both good and evil. This gives rise to a strange combination of pre-destination and free-will. It is believed that each action that a person chooses to perform (free-will at work here), either good or bad, awakens a corresponding latent tendency for good or bad which in turn impels (pre-destination) the person to perform even better or wickeder actions. As these latent tendencies are awakened, it takes greater resolve, stronger exercise of will on part of the person to halt and reverse the virtuous or vicious cycle, in a persons life.

The ‘playing out’ of Karma

Depending upon the kind of influence they have on the Self, Karma is classified into four categories. Accumulated (sanchita) Karma, is the sum total of all the unrecompensed mass of Karma cumulated over many births. Matured (prarabhdha) Karma, is that portion of accumulated Karma that ‘plays out’ in a persons life as ‘fate’. It is matured karma that determines such things as the circumstances of birth, the fortunes (good or bad) that the person encounters in his life. Present wilful (kriyamana) karma, is that currently being accumulated owing to actions being performed. Immediate (agami) Karma, is the immediate consequence / recompense of our present wilful actions. To explain it differently, we are constantly performing actions some of which have immediate consequences, some of which get accumulated to be recompensed later; some of the recompense we face is on account of actions performed in this life, some on account of those performed in previous lives. For example, if I over eat today, I will face its recompense (indigestion) tomorrow. If I steal from someone, and manage to go unpunished by the law, I will have to face the consequences in some future birth.

On things to come

The Law of Karma has often been accused of being pessimistic, of promoting fatalism, and of being an explanation given by the higher castes to justify the exploitation of the lower castes by blaming their miserable conditions on wicked actions of a previous birth. Indeed, when seen in isolation, the doctrine of Karma may seem like an elaborate attempt to come to terms with the unfairness of life, by inventing a system that tries to explain the unfair events by a fictitious cause and effect logic. However, when interpreted along with the ideas of Dharma and the concept of Moksha, (the Hindu equivalent of the Christian concept of salvation), it becomes clear that the doctrine of Karma is not pessimistic or fatalistic, and that it was not propounded as a justification for an exploitative social system.

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