Some Thoughts on Karma in the Hindu Tradition

“You are what your deep, driving desire is. As your desire is, so is your will. As your will is, so is your deed (Karma). As your deed (Karma) is, so is your destiny”. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 

“Consciousness permeates reality. Rather than being just a unique feature of human subjective experience, it is the foundation of the universe, present in every particle and matter. This panpsychist view is increasingly being taken seriously by credible philosophers, neuroscientists and physicists as traditional attempts to explain consciousness continue to fail” according to Olivia Goldhill. She goes on to explain that “every single particle in existence has an unimaginably simple form of consciousness. This is not to imply that particles have a coherent world view or actively think, merely that there is some inherent subjective experience of consciousness in even the tiniest particle.”

Indian philosophy has always held a similar belief that everything in the universe is interconnected by a common consciousness and links all forms of life through the theory of reincarnation or transmigration of the soul. This theory expounds the belief that the soul passes through several species based on its karma. The Vishnu and Padma Purana state that there are 8.4 million types of living beings which can be categorised as below:

  • NABHA CHARA – living beings that exist in the air
  • THALA CHARA – living beings that exist on or under the earth
  • JALA CHARA – living beings that exist in  water.

The three types of  living beings are further divided into four different classifications in the Garuda Purana based on their method of birth:

  • Jarayuja is born of a placenta (viviparous) eg., humans, cows, elephants
  • Andaja is born from eggs eg., fish, birds, etc.,
  • Swedaja is born through division eg., lower forms of life, bacteria, etc.,
  • Udbhija comes into being through seed eg., trees, vegetation

Each group possesses its own attributes and aptitudes.  While plants and animals not born through Jarayuja have some ability to feel, they are not endowed with the capacity to think or act on their own volition. Animals born as mammals are more highly evolved with the ability to feel, think, act and discriminate to a limited extent. It is only humans who are endowed with the ability to consciously shape and control our environments with freedom of choice and by exercising a comprehensive discrimination between right and wrong, good and bad, true and false. This sense of self which gives us the ability to make independent decisions comes with a responsibility for our own actions and hence the law of karma applies to humans alone.

A human birth therefore offers the soul an opportunity to end the cycle of death and rebirth because of our ability to live more consciously than all other life forms. Only humans are capable of questioning the meaning and purpose of life and only they have the unique ability to find answers to these existential questions. This brings us to the law of karma.

Tolkappiyam, the oldest Tamil book dated to 1st century BC, says that living beings are classified in to six categories depending upon the level of their evolution. It placed human beings at the top with ‘six senses’. The living organisms with one sense are trees and grass. They have the sense of touch. Living beings with two senses are snails and oysters. They can taste and feel. Beings with three senses of taste, touch and smell are ants and termites. And with four senses are crabs and dragon flies. The fourth sense added here is vision. Living organisms with five senses are horses, elephants, pigs and birds. They have the hearing as the extra sense. Humans are the only living beings with SIX SENSES. They have mind, meaning able to think. Taken from The Speaking Tree Santanam Swaminathan Knowledge of Biology in Hindu Scriptures.

In our times,  the word karma is understood to mean something like retribution or payback , as “in the end justice will catch up with the wrong doer” which in no way reflects its original meaning. We see posts on social media all the time declaring “Dear Karma, I have a list of people you missed”; “Karma – no need for revenge. Just sit back and wait. Those who hurt you eventually screw up themselves and if you are lucky, you will get to watch.” And “Karma is a Bitch”.

But what really is the law of karma as expounded in the Hindu tradition?

The universal causal law by which good or bad actions determine the future experiences of an individual’s existence is known as the law of karma. This is an autonomous, causal law – no divine will or external agent intervenes in the relationship of the moral act to its inevitable result. Karma therefore represents the ethical dimension of the process of rebirth (samsara). This law suggests that our present lifetime is conditioned by the accumulated effects of actions performed in previous lives and that future births and life situations experienced therein will be conditioned by actions performed during one’s present life. The law of karma suggests the possibility of a  release (moksha) from the cycle of birth and death while also serving  two main functions:

  • it provides motivation to live a moral, righteous life
  • it offers an explanation as to why evil exists in this Universe

All actions start with a “vasana” or “the seed of one’s personality”, subtle remnants from past lives and past actions that remain in the subtle body and take birth again with the gross body.  These vasanas are responsible for thoughts which in turn produce desires which eventually leads us to act. From where does “vasana” arise? From our past karmas. Much like a seed turns into a seedling which grows into a tree which gives seeds, so also our karma determines our vasana and in turn vasana leads to karma.

The Bhagavad Gita lists human actions as belonging to one of these categories:

Karma – actions which elevate a human’s consciousness

Vikarma – actions which degrade

Akarma – actions which are neutral, neither good or bad

We therefore create Karma through:

  • Our thoughts, intentions, motives
  • Our words
  • The actions we carry out ourselves
  • The actions that are carried out by others based on our inputs

The word karma comes from the Sanskrit verb “kra” meaning “to act”. Our Scriptures delineate four types of karmas:

1.       Sanchita Karma

Sanchita or stored karma is the sum total of all our accumulated karma from all of our previous lives. Sanchita is the storehouse of every action ever undertaken and all unresolved actions which await a resolution can be found stored here. It would be impossible to experience and endure all karmas in one life, and so we bring only a small part of this karma with us into each birth to resolve and move on.

2.       Prarabdha Karma

Prarabdha karma is that portion of Sanchita karma that we have chosen to bring into this lifetime. It is therefore action which needs resolution over the course of this lifetime.

3.       Kriyamana Karma

Kriyamana Karma is the actionable, present karma which we are currently actively involved in and it is also everything that we produce which then adds up to the Sanchita Karma.

3. Agami Karma

Future actions that result from present actions are known as Agami karma. In attempting to resolve past karmas, we inevitably create more karmas.

Let me try to explain the four karmas by using a simple analogy. You have a piggy bank in which you put in coins of all kind – tarnished ones and clean, shiny ones. All the coins you have ever put into the piggy bank can be seen as the Sanchita Karma. Now, when you know that there is a forthcoming event for which you will need some money to spend, you remove a certain amount that you deem fit for expenses. This can be seen as the Prarabdha Karma. Some are good coins and some are bad and based on whether you had more of one kind than the other, the possibility of the picking the one which is more is likely. In much the same way, if your Sanchita karma has more good deeds then you can expect to be born in better circumstances and lead a more comfortable and fulfilling life. On the other hand, if your Sanchita karma is filled with bad deeds, then you can expect to face more difficulties and problems.  The money that you actually spend out of this withdrawn amount is your kriyamana karma. In the process of spending the money, it is possible that you saved some or added a few more coins to what you already had. This goes back into the piggy bank as Sanchita karma. All the money that you continue to deposit in the piggy bank over the course of the days becomes the Agami Karma or that which will be utilised in the future.

The law of karma clearly says that each action brings about an energetic vibration which will inevitably return with similar or same qualities at some point in existence. Our actions therefore are the “seeds” of our future and the circumstances of our present birth is nothing but the fruit of our past actions. Does this mean that we accept this “fatalistic” approach and see ourselves as merely puppets in the hands of karma? Not at all. Even though the events of our destiny are caused and steered as a consequence of earlier actions, in this lifetime as a human, we now have the opportunity to alter the course and reduce the impact through our present actions.

We are therefore in a position to change the course of our destiny. Through positive actions such as good thoughts, pleasing words, helpful actions, love, forgiveness, gratitude and meditation we are able to resolve the influence of the karmas from which we are suffering in this present life, and in this way we can turn our destiny around for the better. On the other hand negative thoughts, harsh words, wrongful deeds lead to additional bad karma which will then play a role in what we experience in our future lifetimes.  Our Vedic texts state that when we die, our physical body perishes but the subtle sheaths persist and they are the repositories of our thoughts, words and deeds. However, since we do not have a physical body, we lose the ability to act and hence we await another physical incarnation to resolve our karmas.

Here it is also important to understand that we are all influenced not merely by our individual karma but we also face the repercussions of family karma (we could be suffering from a genetic disease such as thalassemia or leukoderma as a result of being born in a certain family), community karma (look at the Jewish community as a whole who have suffered tremendously through the holocaust years), national karma (the collective karma of a country, say for example what Japan had to suffer after the nuclear bombing) and eventually an Universal karma (the recent COVID-19 virus is a good example of the entire inhabitants of our planet suffering from one single cause).

It  is also important to understand that more than even the action, it is possibly the intention that determines whether the action leads to good or bad karma. For example, a surgeon goes into the Operating Theatre with the intention of saving the life of a seriously ill patient who needs urgent surgery. But something goes wrong and the patient dies on the table. Now, will this mean bad karma for the doctor? No, because his intention was never to cause harm. In much the same way, negative actions can be of two types. There are those that we perform unconsciously ( say for example, a road accident which leads to a death or suffering but not because of any wilful intention on the part of the driver) and those we perform consciously and against our better judgement (a premeditated murder or planned crime).  No doubt the latter action will weigh more heavily because of the wilfulness of the intention.  An action whose outcome is bad but which was a result of a mistake or ignorance will not invite as much bad karma as an intentional act to harm or hurt. The Vedas explain this beautifully stating that poison will do its damage regardless of whether it is consumed unknowingly or taken with knowing its outcome fully well.

One may ask if a negative act can be offset by a positive one. The Vedas state clearly that the law of karma does not work this way. Each of these deeds will deliver their results independently and therefore it does not help to make a big charitable donation after having committed a crime.

OM Swami further clarifies in “ 4 types of Karma explained” : At this point, the question may arise – how does one know the difference between a situation which is a result of a past karma and a situation which is causing us to create a new karma?

The answer is quite simple when you do something out of choice; you are creating new karma, and, when you are forced to do something, you are simply repaying your karmic debt. That’s Karma explained.The former will have the consequences, good or bad, drawn up for you; the latter can be tended by managing your karmic store or sanchita karma in other words.

In conclusion to the discussion on karma, I refer to Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev’s note on the subject where he speaks about “how to live with karma”. The primary step, he suggests is that we have to take responsibility. “Even if what befalls you may be the consequence of collective karma, but if you want to live an autonomous, full-fledged life – not as a puppet of your heredity or environment – you must first become an individual and stop outsourcing the responsibility to parents, teachers, politicians, countries, god and fate. Karma means becoming squarely responsible for your own destiny.” He goes on to add that “Yogic science is about ensuring that the future is no longer a repetition of the past. By refusing to pass the buck, by living consciously, you ensure that you are no longer a victim of collective karma, but the maker of it. By taking responsibility for your life, you transform not just yourself but also the very planet you inhabit.”

Pain, sorrow and suffering are an inevitable part of everyone’s journey on this planet. Making an effort to understand the origin, causes and categorise them helps an individual to find his own ways of dealing with and eventually overcoming them. All pain and suffering can be seen as rising from the three miseries which our Vedas called “Tapatreya”. They are forces beyond our control which determine the nature of our journeys throughout our life but they are by no means accidental. They adhere to the law of karma. The three miseries are:

  • ADHIBHAUTIKA pertaining to living beings.
  • ADHIDAIVIKA pertaining to unseen forces
  • ADHYĀTMIKA pertaining to the individual (body and mind).

ADHIBHAUTIKA are the troubles experienced because of other living entities (from external elements including obstacles imposed by society) examples of which include attacks by animals, difficulties in our relationships with people, etc.,.

ADHIDAIVIKA are experiences which are brought about by higher forces. The word daiva can be seen as pertaining to the power of time, nature and the unseen hand.  Miseries inflicted upon us by natural disturbances such as earthquakes, droughts, floods, epidemics come under this category.

ADHYATMIKA are the troubles that we face with suffering of the mind and body. Illnesses such as cancer afflict the body causing pain and discomfort while ailments such as depression, schizophrenia and dementia cause mental suffering. Anxiety and stress can also be attributed to this category.

We can only protect ourselves against these through prayer, mantra and SHATSAMPATTI – the six treasures.

  1. Kshama – to develop an inner tranquillity of the mind
  2. Dama – control of the senses and the mind. To restrain oneself from negative actions, such as stealing, lying and negative thoughts.
  3. Uparati – to  develop a sense of enthusiasm, to stand above things.
  4. Titiksha – to be steadfast, disciplined. To endure through and overcome all difficulties.
  5. Shraddha – intense faith and trust in the scriptures, in one’s guru and most importantly, in oneself
  6. Samadhana – to be content in whatever circumstance one finds oneself

Each one is called a wealth because, like any wealth, some of it comes to us easily in life, while others we must make efforts to acquire. Some wealth must be maintained, otherwise it will disappear. (Sri Sri Ravishankar, Art of Living)

There are three hindrances to our development on the spiritual path. Offences we may have committed in our previous lives are imprinted upon our samskaras and are carried through into this lifetime. These past actions come up as active hindrances (impurities that need to be cleansed) which inhibit us from spiritual growth and evolution. They cause three types of distortions of the mind:

  • MALA – impurity or dirt
  • VIKSHEPA – constant wavering of the mind
  • ĀVARANA – a curtain that inhibits us from seeing our real self

MALA is impurity of the mind that is a result of “vasana” as discussed earlier which need to be wiped clean before we move further in the journey of evolution to a higher self. Mala is reflected in our desires, lust, anger, attachment and greed. Mala can be removed to some extent by gaining control over our senses and being mindfulness of all of actions.

VIKSHEPA is mental oscillation or tossing of the mind. It is very difficult to bring about a stillness of the mind and this stillness is an absolute prerequisite for progress on the path. This wayward nature of the mind can be controlled by the practice of meditation, chanting, satsang and eventually by surrendering oneself to the situation at hand.

Avarana is the curtain of “not knowing” that clouds our consciousness. There is a very interesting story in the puranas that explains Avarana. A lion cub is left abandoned in a forest upon his mother’s death and he has to fend for himself to stay alive. He sees a group of goats grazing nearby. He stays with them as they offer him companionship and solace. Soon, he learns all the habits of the goats and finds no reason to believe that he is any different from them.

One day, after many years, a lion, in search of prey, attacks the group and the lion who thinks of himself as a goat. They, along with the lion cub, flee to save their lives. Seeing this, the older lion calls upon the cub and asks him why he is afraid as he is not a goat. The younger lion is surprised as he has no idea that he is anything but a goat. The older lion takes him to the river to show him his reflection in the water. The younger lion then realizes his true self.

In the same way, we are all bound to progress in our paths unaware of our mistaken identities about ourselves and only a realization of our true nature can free us and put us back on the path in a new light.

Clearly, Karma is a law and not a choice we make. It is a universal law, in the same way that gravity is a law of nature. With every single thought, word or deed we plant a seed and we will have to reap what we sow. The consequence of the seeds that we sow can either be:

  • Phala – fruit which is an effect which is felt in this lifetime
  • Samskara – an invisible effect which possesses the ability to transform and determines our experiences in this or future lifetimes.

Karma therefore is a principle of psychology and once it is truly understood, it makes offers a great deal of clarity to the meaning and purpose of life. Understanding that we are solely responsible for our present condition is actually a very empowering thought. We no longer feel the need to be victim of either circumstance or chance and can face life knowing that we are accountable therefore, we will choose to lead a more conscious, mindful, intense life. Understanding karma explains why bad things happen to good people and vice versa and lends to our grasping of the inherent connectedness of everything in the Universe. We understand that suffering and happiness are both related to karma and no thought, word or deed is unaccounted for hence good thoughts, words and deeds are the only gateways that can lead us to break the bondage of the life-death cycle and eventually attain moksa or liberation.

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