The Hindu Doctrine of Karma – in brief

(Dr. Sethu Raju and Pundit Pramod Sharma)

Aeons ago, the wise sages stood on the riverbanks of ancient India and sang their exalting devotional songs that were as if “by the breath of God”. Out of these chants and out of the profound wisdom and spirituality of the sages in the centuries has since grown the Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism, the religion of the Hindus. It contains solid and uncorrupted principles (shrutis and smritis), which may be called the doctrines, to appeal to the vast masses of the followers of this ancient religious faith or the way of life in the world. One of the eternal smritis is the doctrine of Karma.

What is Karma? Karma is one of the most important spiritual concepts described in the ancient Vedas (religious scriptures) of the Hindus. Historically, the religious and societal significance of Karma appeared during the period 800-200 BC and eventually became progressively well established during the period what is regarded as “Classical Hinduism” 200 BC – 1100 AD in India. The Sanskrit word Karma is derived from the root kri meaning to do, to act or to work. The principles and the ethical significance of Karma, developed and elaborated by many Indian sages of the past, do correspond to the universal concept of the physical world, the law of “cause and effect” founded by the modern scientists. According to the Vedas, every human action, in thought, word or deed will inevitably end in punya (good or positive result) or paapa (bad or negative result). This concept, which includes the human actions and their appropriate results or events, regulating the infinite cycles of birth, death and rebirth (samsaara of Hinduism) in humans, is Karma.

Some Religious Beliefs: Beliefs are absolutely needed by people to belong to a religion. The Vedas say, each living human body (Shariram) has lodged in it a soul (Aatman) which fills it with life and changes an ‘unintelligent mass of inanimate material’ into a living being. Each soul is inspired by the Supreme Soul (Paramaatman) which gives the individual soul its being and its quality as a soul. Just as the soul gives to the body the capacity to function as a living being, so does the Supreme Being give to the soul its capacity to function as an individual soul. This belief is very important in the understanding of Karma and possibly also other doctrines of Hinduism.

Karma, which is a retribution for the acts carried out during the life of an individual, is theologically linked to the transmigration of the soul. This means, the Hindus believe that every living being has an ephemeral body clothing the inner eternal soul. The interpretation is that the living being goes through cycles of birth – death – rebirth, thus establishing Samsara and also suggesting that death does not end the chain. Whatever acts that one is engaged in, the body is not the agent but that which (soul) dwells in the body which does not die with death but takes lodging in another tenement by transmigration (reincarnation). The soul or the spirit within continually shapes itself through its previous Karma and builds its future accordingly. The new tenement is one that suits the shape the soul has worked and identified itself into by its own karmic actions. Furthermore, when once it has lodged in a particular body, it has no memory of its past or knowledge of its own true identity. In essence, as far as Karma is concerned, every act has its appointed effect on the soul of a person whether the act is thought, word or deed, the effect being inherent in the cause.

It is believed that the body is not the person, but the person’s tool with which the craftsman, the soul, somehow becomes completely one and inseparable for the time being. The soul must also be looked upon as an instrument of God who resides within every soul and uses it, as a craftsman uses his tool. The relationship between soul and body, as well as that between the soul and the universal Causeless Spirit (Paramaatman) is a mystic one in which tool and craftsman are merged inextricably. This mystery, of course, cannot be unravelled, and the Hindus believe this as God’s leela (play).

Who experiences Karma? It is believed that only the living beings that are capable of discriminating good from bad, right from wrong, etc., can perform karmic acts and also experience their effects. It means then, the plants, animals and young children (yuan) that are basically instinctual, are excluded from their karmic effects. They are regarded as sinless and remain, therefore, beyond the effects of Karma. So, only the adult humans, who are the sentient beings, can perform karmic acts and experience their inescapable effects or events.

Kinds of Karma: A Hindu belief recognizes four kinds of Karma in relation to the present life. 1. Sanchita Karma may be defined as the absolute sum of the karmas (actions) accumulated in the past lives the effects of which need to be resolved in the current and future lives. 2. Agami Karma is that emerges from one’s current life and the consequences of which will be experienced in the future lives and thus becoming part of the Sanchita Karma. 3. Praarabda Karma represents that part of the Sanchita Karma that is in force in the current life and whose results will be experienced in the present or future lives. 4. Kriyaamana Karma represents the creation of the new karma which will be experienced actually in the present life or future lives.

Karma and Fatalism: Some people believe that Karma is fatalism. In actual fact, it is not. The Sanskrit twin terms described in scriptures are Karma and Vidhi. They mean work and law respectively, and they cannot be equated with either fatalism or predetermination. Humans are endowed with free will and can create their own ultimate goals or destinies by their karmic actions, comparable to “sowing seeds and reaping the benefits”. Karma is, therefore, the unalterable law of effect following previous causes. In other words, from a theological point of view, Karma refers to the cumulative effects of the deeds committed, during the current and the past lives, by an individual. The effects could be punya or paapa. One does not have to refer the process to the operation of some external pre-determination or fatalism factors, but rather it can readily be compared with the universal law of cause and effect. The Geeta (Ch III, 37- 43) clearly affirms the human free will and responsibility in the control and regulation of senses which bring about Karma. When one does not know the cause(s) which has produced an event, the resulting destiny is referred to as fate or chance (luck). In Sanskrit, the word that is used for luck is adrishta, meaning literally what was not seen. It does not mean that it is not subject to law. It is simply what was not previously observed. The Hindu view of Karma then strictly obeys the universal law of cause and effect and, therefore, it is not fatalism. Vedanta is not fatalism.

Commentary and summary: Every human being is endowed with the basic senses (indriayani) which aid humans remain part of nature (prakRit), and also help perform karmic actions. As the Geeta (Ch II 64; Ch V 7) says, an individual with free will must remain devoted to God and have one’s senses controlled (jitendriyah) to perform Karma responsibly and with accountability. Because of the availability of abundant non-spiritual resources in the natural world (environment), the adult humans are tempted to react and to perform karmic acts some of which may be of negative value, such as excessive desires, attachment, greed, lust, crime, etc., thus making the individuals the sinners. If Karma is bad and inescapable, and the sinful must go through what they have earned unfortunately, then is there no room for grace? Yes, there is room for God’s grace, according to Vedanta, through penitence and prayer. The Puranas (ancient religious scriptures) do give some instances of God’s intervention to help the sinful. For example, Markandeya, a young clever sage, born of a boon of choice from Shiva in a respected rishi family, was destined to die very young. As he was an ardent believer and a devotee of Shiva, his destined early-death was redeemed by Shiva’s grace. So, Markandeya was able to live a long and happy life. Similarly, Ajamila, a high caste figure in the Puranas was a respected and learned family-man. According to the story, in his later life, he became morally and sexually corrupt and got involved in lust and prostitution, and was, therefore, sinful. In his old age, he was about to be punished by the Yamadutas (soldiers of death) for his sins. Ajamila was, however, always reciting the name of Narayana which coincidentally was also the name of his favourite child. Because he was reciting the name Narayana (Vishnu), the Vishnudutas (soldiers of God) intervened and cleared him of all his sins by overruling the impending punishment decreed by the Yamadutas. Thus, Ajamila was able to obtain God’s grace by his sincere devotion and prayer. The Mimamsakas (a sect of Hinduism), on the other hand, believe that all karmic acts are man-made, and that they follow the universal law of cause and effect; the individuals must bear the consequences of their actions. God’s intervention is, therefore, not needed. In a different and possibly an intermediate way between the two extremes, the Geeta recommends God’s intervention only to His devotees to mitigate adverse karmic effects.

According to Karma, at death, the character that has been designed by thoughts, deeds and also repentances of the life that is closed, continues to attach itself as the initial start for the eternal soul in its journey into the new tenement. It is believed that an individual evolves himself exactly according to his positive karmic acts, the process (punya) being unbroken by death and passing on to the next life. This self-cleansing or self-refining process of the soul by appropriate Karma at the individual level together with the continuity of evolution through many lives, including their past and future, is highly desirable for soul to mature, and it is unique to Hinduism. The same at the population level would, undoubtedly, create and enrich the quality of life of future generations of people and also their spirituality in the world. The doctrine of Karma is, therefore, regarded as the law of cause and effect of the spiritual world, thus following the age-old adage, as you sow, so you shall reap.

Upanishads (philosophical treatises of Vedanta) proclaim, “Uttishthata, Jaagrata” (Arise and Awake), to make one aware of the existence of the Paramatman in every human being. Believing in the eternity and transmigration of soul, every adult Hindu must have a yearning desire to disentangle oneself from the infinite cycles of Samsara and to become finally one with the Paramatman in the transcendental realm of Moksha (liberation). Karma shows the way to reach Moksha. However, to achieve this, three important prerequisites are needed. Firstly, it is believed that, as only a mature soul can seek Moksha, the soul has to go through many reincarnations (rebirths) to become mature. Secondly, the soul has to undergo refinements by the addition of more positive karma. Finally, the soul also needs to be influenced by Kriyaamana karma wherein more positive karmas are generated and the effects of which are resolved in the current life.

The senses, which are the wondrous gifts of the Supreme Being, are translated into Karmas through appropriate thoughts, words and deeds in every human life. Such karmas, good or bad, are bound to boomerang in one’s life. After all, we are what we think, say and do. The Hindu belief is that good Karma is the only vehicle with which one can sail through the ocean of Samsara to reach Moksha (salvation). Therefore, the awareness of this concept should be made known to every human being, both young and old. The doctrine of Karma, corresponding to the universal law of cause and effect, is as suitable for modern times as it was for ancient India, and more especially so, as the world is permeated by the discipline and knowledge of science.