Humble salutations to the Supreme Intelligence, the Advaita Guru ParamparA (lineage teaching non-duality / advaita vedAntA) and my own AchAryA (Preceptor) for the content that I put forth in this blog !
The word ‘karma’, a seemingly simple word directly translates from ancient Sanskrit language to mean ‘action’. Action here covers thought, word and deed, i.e action at the level of mind and body. KarmA as a philosophical concept is a teaching originating in Vedic Scripture which was later propagated and popularised by the teachings of Buddhism and Jainism. Ideally it should be called ‘simplistic’ for it hides under it layers and layers of understanding to be uncovered. This blog and the following are a humble attempt to share what little I know and understand about this gigantic perplexity!
The basic principles of karmA
From the standpoint of karmA as action, the basic principles are as simple and straightforward as follows and can be called the Law of karma! Vedic Scripture doesn’t propose the Law of karmA for punishment but is wholly for the sake of education or learning.
- The first law is synonymous with Newton’s law which states, “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction!” or “As you sow, so you reap!” or “What goes around comes around!”
- The whole Universe is governed by cause and effect. Every cause in the form of action necessarily will have consequence, whether good or bad depends directly on the action itself. The returning result may be modified, changed or suspended, but mostly cannot be eradicated. One cannot completely escape the consequences of one’s own actions!
- Action perpetuates Life! Action is an integral tendency of any sentient object in the universe. Even a tiny atom is always acting. The present is a result of the past and the future is the result of current actions. Thus the wise warn us to always be alert with respect to our thoughts, words and deeds. Really speaking, we are the creators of our own destiny through our actions!
- More important than action itself is the intention behind it for 2 people performing the exact same action with 2 different intentions are rewarded differently. eg. A doctor performing an amputation to save ones life versus a person cutting the hand of another in a fight!
- No action is ever wasted! The result of action comes back at the doer of action, but whether immediately or later (sometimes not even in the same lifetime) depends on the nature of action itself. I chop vegetables to cook, the result of my action is immediate. I add a spoonful of yoghurt to warm milk but it doesn’t turn into yoghurt until after 6-7 hours. I buy land and plan to build a lavish home with wood from Burma, carvings from Indonesia, marble from Italy, how long will this whole process take?
- All Laws including the Laws of karmA automatically apply the same, TO ALL, whether at the individual level or cosmic level and whether we believe in it or not. This is the very fundamental mechanism of our existence in the physical realm. This is a Law not a choice!
Simply believing in karmA has no real effect unless applied smartly to our living. It would be analogous to fully knowing all the traffic laws but completely failing to comply with them. Jumping a red light automatically puts us at high probability of injury or death, whether or not we believe in following the traffic laws! Laws, whether man-made or Universal don’t need us to subscribe or believe for them to work on us. For example, did the Law of Gravitation start working on us only after we studied about it in Physics class and decided to believe in it? karmA is like one of those! We can choose to believe it or not, but it does what has to be done to maintain justice, harmony, orderliness and balance in the Creation.
Precursors to the Law of karmA
Now that we have a hold over the basic laws of karmA, let’s get to next important stage of familiarising ourselves with certain mandatory precursors without which applying this law may not work well.
1. Karma is based on the idea of multiple births or reincarnations and not a single manifestation.
There are pretty much only 2 schools of thought with respect to birth and death. One is associated with the belief connected with single manifestation on earth and an eternal Heaven / Hell. The 2nd one, connected to The Law of Karma, subscribes to the belief of multiple births / manifestations. Both beliefs thankfully agree upon one thing though, the continuity of Life! Please note the careful use of the word “belief” in both statements and that’s the truth too! Both are really beliefs in their own right, as explained by the Scripture which advocates it. Who’s really to prove that as right or wrong for it pertains to the mysteries of “after death” which are the field of the subtle? All that matters is, which explanation sits comfortably in our rational intellect so that we can comfortably subscribe to that belief.
As per the idea of multiple births, the soul is on a journey of alternate manifestation and un-manifestation until it attains Truth / Perfection / Realisation. Soul may be understood as a live or conscious mind. During manifestation, the soul acts in a physical realm through a physical body accumulating experiences helping it learn, grow and perfect itself. Once time comes for the physical body to shed, the soul gives up the current body and becomes un-manifest to perception. It then gets ready for its next manifestation in a different body and circumstance, in order to gain a different set of experiences to learn from. Thus is formed a chain of repeated births and deaths.
There is a beautiful verse in the Bhagavad Gita (2.22) which explains this beautifully, “As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, similarly, the soul accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.”
Swami Chinmayananda explains this verse so beautifully in his Bhagavad Gita elucidation, the paraphrase being as follows:
” Would you dress in your finest clothes, a tux, to get into the bathtub or go do gardening in the backyard? Would you wear swimwear to an important meeting at work? Type of experience demands that we pick the right outfit for the occasion. Totally shedding all clothes is necessary if in the case of a bath (un-manifest state between births). At the end of an experience though there is need to get into another appropriate set of clothes for the next experience, like getting out of office clothes to get into our PJ for bed.”
Looking at the word “old” in above verse one might argue, then how to explain the death of innocent children and infants who have not even begun acting in the world outside. If we understand the word “old” in the verse above to mean ‘physically old’, only then will this question arise. Old should be understood as ‘that which has lost its purpose’ (purpose being for itself to learn and grow or helps those around it evolve through the loss) and this precisely is the reason for need of a Preceptor, for words in Scripture cannot be understood at just face value.
Logical explanation for subscription to karmA theory
- We live life on earth for a finite period of time. In that time we perform finite number of actions. Add all the finite actions and the total would certainly still be finite. If one performs only a finite number of actions and if the result is based on those finite actions, then how can the result of that action be an eternal / infinite Heaven / Hell? The Law of Reciprocity becomes invalidated. i.e. for a finite number of mistakes that I commit in the physical realm, why should I get an eternal hell?
- The result of certain actions takes long to materialise. If one dies before the result is achieved that would imply that the action was wasted or simply went into thin air! As someone beautifully said,
“Thou canst not stir a flower, without troubling of a star!”
- The theory of karmA best helps in explaining young geniuses and child prodigies in many fields in addition to past life recollections. Vedic Scripture takes explaining these details seriously. It gives prodigies and geniuses the name ‘yogaBrashtA’ which simply means ‘one who missed the bus in the previous incarnation to catch up quickly after birth in the next’. After all, the one who missed the previous bus would be first in line for the next, isn’t it! How else can the prodigious ability of people like Mozart be explained who is known for first composing when he was 5. We the average people need 3 years of intense music training just to figure out that there is not a musical bone in us, haha!
2. Nothing is random or freak in this brilliantly intelligent universe of ours.
Look at the magnificent Creation around us. Absolutely EVERYTHING is in perfect working order, adhering to laws it complies with! Throw a ball up in the air and the Law of Gravity immediately brings it back down. Throw a ball at the wall and the Law of Reciprocity brings it back at a speed keeping with what it was thrown at! Has the sun ever taken a break from rising in the East? Has day ever suddenly turned into night? If all this is true, how can the intellect suddenly come to terms with “randomness” when it comes to humans and their suffering alone?
Haven’t we all seen a certain person or family suffer terribly in life and wondered why they suffer so much when they lead a simple, pious life of values? The explanation that this is a “random test of God” which they are put through to endure and prove their faith simply doesn’t sit well in an intellect which sees no randomness anywhere else in the Creation. Whereas, the same suffering when explained with continuity of life and accumulated results of action gives deep and clear understanding that even though the cause is currently unclear, the suffering is a result of their own past action!
Logical explanation for subscription to karmA theory
1. To say that suffering is a result of ones own actions is not in the sense of sadism but simply comparable to the wisdom of looking at wet roads in the morning and deducing that it should have rained the previous night, even without actually witnessing the rain!
Can effect exist without cause? Every effect necessarily is the result of a cause. Yes in certain instances the cause may not be immediately known but that doesn’t mean there’s no cause at all! Imperceivable doesn’t translate to non-existence! For example, when sudden flash floods and tidal waves cause deluge in parts of the world, at best the ignorant can say that they are unaware of the cause. The wise, aware denizens of earth on the other hand clearly see the connection between indiscriminate felling of trees and pollution which results in less rain, which in turn results in temperature rise causing the polar ice caps to melt thus causing ocean levels to surge. In short, there is no room for any kind of randomness in this highly organised Creation.
Where is room to accommodate a Conscious entity called God in this karmA theory?
Someone at this point might argue, “Ok, if all that the law of karmA focusses on is action and as we all know, action automatically produces result and action itself perpetuates more action which keeps life going, can we completely eliminate the presence of a Conscious entity called God?” That is, the good and bad I do itself continually perpetuates and dictates my life? Then why should we unnecessarily drag in an entity called God if he anyways is not throwing either good or bad at me? To answer this I am going to recount something that happened to me in the recent past:
I had gone out for lunch with friends and parked my car in a parking lot that I was unfamiliar with. I promptly placed parking tickets on the front dashboard where they would be visible from for the entire time that I would
be away and extra (if there was unforeseen delay). Only thing I missed was, the same parking lot had short term visitor slots marked in white and season pass visitor slots marked in red. Having received validation from other friends in the car too, I went ahead and parked right by the entrance in an empty spot marked in red and we all happily chatted our way to the restaurant. However, after the fun ended I came back to the car in which was flapping a parking violation ticket of $100. I was really upset and disappointed for this was the first offence I had ever received. I drove back home in low spirits and immediately called the LTA (Land Transport Authority) department to make a sincere appeal with an apology for my offence. Much to my surprise, within a few days I received a letter saying the fine had been waived and that I should henceforth park with caution.
Let’s make note of some very important points in this recount:
- There are traffic laws alright but do these laws come out of nowhere? Laws are essentially inert themselves, that is they don’t have the capacity to themselves act intelligently. They necessarily spring out of a conscious being / principle, in this case the LTA which is a group of human (conscious) beings who put forth the laws and carefully administer and govern them too. The laws don’t just randomly appear out of thin air!
- When I broke the law by parking in a wrong spot there was need for a conscious principle again, in the form of a traffic violation officer to recognise the violation. Left to itself, I being oblivious to the violation and the law itself being inert, nothing would have happened! The conscious entity that becomes aware of the violation can probably be compared to the conscious intention that we act with. They say that a person indulging in a wrong act invariably is fully aware that it is wrong. Yet we indulge in it is another topic for discussion! That is why things are done to hush up and hide the very act.
- Me appealing to the higher authority of the LTA is where enters God and prayer! God may be comparable to the higher authority of the LTA out of which the inert traffic laws sprang forth. Of course in the case of the entity called God, he is the conscious principle out of which EVERY LAW, whether pertaining to the physical, mental or spiritual dimension comes forth. Prayer is nothing but an appeal to this higher entity. I was really lucky that the LTA officer was sympathetic towards me and let me walk away scot-free since it was my first offence and he probably understood that my intention wasn’t to cheat the system. We may make our appeal through prayer to the highest conscious authority God, but what might come out of the prayers is absolutely his discretion, which fully depends upon on our intention.
We are just about getting our feet wet in the karmA waters but the blog has run quite a length already. So I think it would be wise for me to break off at this point. Please watch this space for more on karmA……