The Concept Of Karma In Hinduism
Summary: Karma, meaning action, is an important concept of Hinduism. Belief in karma is deeply ingrained in the minds of Hindus, according to which actions will have consequences according to their nature. In this essay, we present the concept of karma, its origin, meaning, and the resolution of karma on the spiritual path.
The concept of Karma is India's unique contribution to the world. Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, the major religions of the world which originated in India, all acknowledge the universality of the law of karma in their own individual ways. According to Jainism, karma is not just a metaphysical law, but a real substance which flows into people and attaches itself to them like an impurity as they engage in various actions. People are born again and again until they rid themselves of the karmic substance.
According to Buddhism, Karma is an eternal law, which is responsible for the births and deaths and the suffering of beings in the causative world or samsara. While no one can really be free from the law of karma, people can minimize its negative impact by leading a righteous life, following the Eightfold Path. According to the three religions, the law of karma is applicable not only to humans but all beings, including plants, animals and microorganisms.
The early Vedic people were not familiar with the concept of karma. However they had an ethical sense and awareness of dharma (divine justice) and righteous actions. They believed that by pleasing the divinities and performing ritual acts in a prescribed manner, men could enter the higher worlds, by the path of the moon or that of the sun according to their deeds. It is difficult to say whether they believed in the rebirth or reincarnation of souls. Probably they did not.
The Origin and Development Of The Concept Of Karma
The concept of karma entered Hinduism through ancient non-Vedic sects such as Saivism and Bhagavatism and the old Samkhya school. Saivism recognized karma as one of the three impurities1 responsible for the bondage of individual souls. It emphasized that only by the grace of Siva or a guru who had realized Him, individual souls could free themselves from the impurities and attain liberation. For a considerable period of time, ancient religious sects of India debated on the question of whether it was fate or free will which shaped the lives of people upon earth. Those who believed in fatalism, such as the followers of Ajivikas, argued that everything in the world was predetermined and that there was nothing an individual could do other than accepting his lot passively and following the order of things (niyati) as they were. Those who believed in karma argued that man was endowed with free will and that he could change the course of his life, if he wanted, through his actions. They believed that desire ridden and egoistic thoughts and actions were responsible for the suffering of individual souls and their corporeal existence. According to them fate was a product of one's own actions and what might look like the intervention of chance in case of some individuals was actually a result of their previous actions done either in their present lives or in their previous ones.
It was the latter opinion that gained ground through the popularity of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Even Sikhism, which is the most recent of all Indian religions, accepts karma as an inseparable reality of the earthly life. Today if there is one concept that is deeply ingrained in the consciousness of Hindus, and for that matter a vast number of Indians, and influences their thinking and actions so deeply, it is undoubtedly the concept of Karma. They may not think of it constantly while they perform their daily chores, but it is there, deep in their subconscious minds, like a self-regulating mechanism, influencing their lives and actions. Hindus believe in the inviolable law of karma and its binding nature. Whether they are literate or illiterate, they honor it and respect it. It makes them feel responsible for their lives and accept their lot rather poignantly.
The Meaning And Purpose Of Karma
Generally speaking, karma means any action. "Kar" means organs of action and "ma" means producing or creating2. So literally speaking, karma is that which is created or produced by one's physical organs. However karma does not mean only physical actions. Mental actions also constitute karma. Hindus believe that thought has the power to create things and impact others. Harmful thoughts directed at others have the ability to hurt not only others but also the person who has unleashed them. Since ancient Hindus used mantras for everything and the mantras had great power and potency to make or break things, the practice of yoga became necessary to stabilize the minds and the thoughts of those who had the knowledge of the mantras and the ability to use them effectively. Ancient rishis had the power to materialize things through their thought power. Their blessing were as potent as their curses. When they cursed others, they lost a good part of their spiritual powers and had to spend a great deal of time to regain them by performing severe austerities and penances (tapas).
The karma incurred by a person through his actions determines the course of his life upon earth and his progression into the higher worlds. Since karma is a correcting and regulating mechanism, our actions have the potential to mitigate our suffering or intensify it. Karma is meant to teach us lessons. If we learn quickly, we will make progress towards perfection. If not we will be presented with much harder options until we realize our mistakes and correct them. Good deeds result in inner peace and happiness while bad deeds result in negative consequences for ourselves and our dependent souls.
Is Inaction Also Karma ?
Since both action and inaction have consequences, the law of Karma is equally reticent about what we do or do not do in our lives intentionally. We all are aware of the importance of inaction or non-performance of certain actions in our lives. What we intentionally do in this life is as important for our future as what we do not intentionally do. Both produced positive and negative consequences according to the choices we make. If we shun evil actions, we earn good karma. However, if we shun good actions also or if we do not respond righteously or adequately to evil in our lives and environment for some personal or selfish reasons, we may suffer from the consequences of our passive complicity and cowardice. We have to be therefore very careful about our intentions and sincerity behind our actions and inaction. The Bhagavadgita touches upon this subject in the following verses (Ch. 4:17 & 18).
"Certainly one should have a clear knowledge of what is action, what is inaction and what is wrong action, for mysterious are the ways of action.
"He who sees action in inaction and inaction in action, is wise among all men. He is the accomplished yogi who has succeeded in performing actions.
References To Karma In The Hindu Scriptures
References to the concept of karma is found copiously in the scriptures of Hinduism. Almost all of them identify desires as the root cause of our suffering and caution us against actions that are motivated by desires. The scriptures leave no doubt that every living being, including gods and celestial beings are bound by the law of karma.
In the Vedas, Karma primarily means any sacrificial action. Hence, the knowledge of the Samhitas and Brahmanas, which deals with the sacrificial rituals is known as Karma Kanda. According to the Vedas, sacrificial rituals are ordained for the householders as their obligatory duties, and by performing, they should uphold Dharma and serve the Creator. Sacrifices should be performed strictly according to the prescribed procedures since those who do not follow them will incur sinful karma and suffer consequences. Accordingly, they recognize three types of karma: sakarma, akarma, and vikarma. Sakarma means sacrificial actions or obligatory duties that are ordained by the Vedas and performed strictly as prescribed by them. Akarma means not performing or neglecting them. Vikarma means performing actions that are prohibited or not prescribed or performed against the established procedures and injunctions. The Vedas also divide the sacrificial duties into daily (nitya) and occasional (naimitta karmas). The daily sacrifices are meant to nourish gods, ancestors, seers, sages, birds, animals, and those who seek alms or depend upon others. Occasional sacrifices, such as fire sacrifices, horse sacrifices, etc., are meant to be performed on specific occasions. The Bhagavadgita cautions people against practicing obligatory duties or sacrificial rituals to fulfill desires since it leads to bondage and prescribes karma-sannyasa in which one has to renounce desires and attachments and perform actions selflessly without desiring their fruit or offering it to the Supreme Lord as a sacrifice
The Upanishads and some Aranyakas deal with the knowledge of the Self and constitute the Jnana Kanda or the knowledge portion of the Vedas. Although they focus mainly on the transcendental reality and the nature of Atman and Brahman, some of the early texts do contain references to the concept of karma and the importance of doing good deeds. The following passage found in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is perhaps one of the earliest references to the subject of karma in the Hindu scriptures.
" Accordingly as one behaves so does he become. The doer of good becomes good, the doer of evil becomes evil. One becomes virtuous by virtuous actions. Others become bad by bad actions." (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Chapter 4, Brahmana 4, Verse 5)
The next passage in the same verse identifies desire as the root cause of all human activity.
"Others however say that a person consists 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."
The following verse in the same Upanishad deals with the consequences of actions performed by people out of desire. According to it, deeds attach themselves to the soul and go to the other world upon its departure, where they determine its further existence.
The object to which the mind is attached, the subtle self goes together with the deed, being attached to it alone. Exhausting the results of whatever works he did in the world he comes again from that world to this world for (fresh) work. This is for him who desires. But he who does not desire...his breaths do not depart. Being Brahman he goes to Brahman."
In the Svetasvatara Upanishad there are many passages that deal with the subject of karma such as the following, which declares that the embodied self wanders in this world and assumes many forms and lives according to its karma.
"Because of thoughts, touch, sight and passions, and because of the availability of food and drink there are the birth and growth for the individual soul. The embodied soul assumes various forms in various places according to the nature of his deeds.. (Svetasvatara Upanishad Chapter 5 and Verse 11)
In the Bhagavadgita there is an entire chapter dealing with the subject of karma yoga or the yoga of action. The scripture repeatedly emphasizes the binding nature of desire ridden actions and how we can free ourselves from the consequences of such actions. It affirms God as the real Doer. In the scripture, Lord Krishna informs Arjuna, His disciple, that our actions arise from our desires, which in turn are caused by the triple gunas or qualities that are inherent in us and in the entire creation, namely sattva, rajas and tamas. Karma binds each soul to the cycle of births and deaths until it manages to find a way out by completely and unconditionally surrendering itself to God and by performing actions without desires and expectations.
"He who is free from attachment, who is liberated, whose mind is established in knowledge, whose actions are but actions of sacrifice only, his actions are completely dissolved.
"His offering is Brahman, his oblation is Brahman, his sacrificial fire is Brahman, the sacrificer is Brahman. He certainly attains Brahman who finds Brahman situated in all activities. (Bhagavadgita Ch. 4: Verse 23 and 24)
We cannot fail to notice the symbolic representation of desire in the Hindu Puranas and Hindu mythology and how it motivates people and gods alike in performing various kinds of actions. Desire was the great serpent Vrata that Indra slew. Desire was the dark serpent Kali whom Krishna tamed after a bitter fight and on whose head He danced, symbolizing His complete mastery. Desire was the mischievous god of lust whom Siva reduced to ashes with His third eye. Desire again was the reason why Kaikeyi decided to insist upon Lord Rama going to the forest. Desire and ambition made Dhritarashtra, the father of the Kauravas, to remain passive while his sons indulged in evil actions to usurp the throne from their cousins, the Pandavas. Desire ruined the life of Ahalya and the wives of Rishis when they succumbed to the temptations of gods. Desire made Varudhini seduce Pravarakhya, her father's sincere disciple. So it was in case of Yami who approached her own brother Yama with lustful intentions. Even Brahma, the creator, was overcome with desire to marry Saraswathi, the goddess of learning, who was his own creation. It was because of the desire to outdo each other, the gods and demons fought with each other several times. It was out of the desire to achieve immortality the gods and demons churned the ocean and extracted amrita or the elixir of life. Desire is the multi-headed Adishesha on which Lord Vishnu rests, while the Goddess of wealth, whom every one covets, sits at His feet. True to the tradition, it was desire which Lord Buddha, Mahavira and later Guru Nanak identified as the root cause of all human suffering.
Which Karma is Binding?
According to the tenets of Hinduism, actions performed out of desires bind all living beings. Actions that are rooted in ignorance also bind us. Even the most natural acts like breathing and sleeping are part of our karma. Our minds and bodies are made of the various principles or tattvas of Nature. Actions arising out of our inborn qualities3 are also binding.
"But he who has qualities and is the doer of deeds that bear fruit, he is the enjoyer, surely of the consequences of whatever he has done. Assuming all forms characterized by the qualities, treading the three paths he, the ruler of the vital breaths wanders about according to his deeds. "(Svetavatara Upanishad V.7).
In the Bhagavadgita we see a more detailed description of the nature and manner in which our actions arise and impact our lives individually and collectively. According to the scripture, contact with the sense objects results in attachment. Our attachment is responsible for our desires. From desire comes anger. Out of anger comes delusion. Delusion leads to confusion of memory and confusion of memory in turn leads to the loss of buddhi or discrimination. With the loss of buddhi man perishes. (Bhagavadgita, Chapter II).
Non-Action Is No Solution
If our actions are responsible for our karmic consequences, it follows logically that by inaction we can resolve the problem of karma and break the chain of cause and effect. However it is not true. Non-action is not a solution to the problem of karma because firstly it is practically impossible to live without doing something even for a moment. Even when we are seemingly inactive, there are still some activities that take place in us like breathing, thinking, blood circulation, digestion and so on. Secondly as we discussed in the previous paragraphs, deliberate inaction may sometime produce negative and harmful consequences.
Renunciation of Desire
Actions by themselves do not cause bondage. It is the attitude with which we perform our actions, which is more important. Good actions do not necessarily always produce good consequences. Our morals and values are relative. Killing a person in the battlefield is valor. But killing him on the street is a mortal sin. Thus, the context and the intention with which we perform our actions are important. Equally important is the reason why do them. Work done with an egoistic attitude, with a desire to enjoy its fruit, results in our suffering and bondage to the cycle of births and deaths. The Bhagavadgita makes this point very clear in the following verse.
Certainly one should have a clear knowledge of what is action, what is inaction and what is wrong action, for mysterious are the ways of action. (Bhagavadgita Ch4:17)
Then what is the solution? Again we find a clear answer in the scripture:
"He whose all undertakings are devoid of desires, whose actions are burnt in the fire of knowledge, he is declared as a scholar by the wise.
"Renouncing all attachment to the fruits of his actions, ever satisfied, without seeking shelter or protection, depending upon nothing, he certainly does nothing though he is engaged in actions. (Bhagavadgita Ch4:19-20)
We have to realize that actions by themselves do not bind us. God Himself is a dynamic and active Principle. Our world is a world of movements and living within it we cannot remain inactive. We cannot control the world or its myriad things. But we can control our actions and our thoughts and desires behind them. We can change the way we think about ourselves or the way we look for security through material things. We can also relinquish our doership, acknowledging sincerely that we are mere instruments in the hands of the divine and that He is the real Doer.
Accepting God As The Doer
The law of karma does not apply to God because He is complete in Himself and there is nothing that He desires or does not have. He is all, is in all and around all. Actions do not bind Him as He performs all His actions without desire and without attachment. As the Indweller of everything, He is at the center of all our actions and inaction. His will or intention reigns supreme. All that is here and whatever we have moves according to His inviolable Will. He is also the true enjoyer (bhogi) of the results of our actions. The whole creation exists for His enjoyment. He is the Creator and also the created. He makes the offering, is the offering and also the recipient of the offering. He is the priest who performs the rituals, the things that are offered in the rituals, the divinities who receive the offerings, the people who participate in it and also the mysterious and silent witness watching all these things simultaneously. Therefore, the first and the most important step in freeing ourselves form the consequences of our actions is to acknowledge the supreme Will of God and surrender to Him unconditionally.
Make Your Life A Sacrificial Offering To God
Renunciation, detachment and sacrifice go hand in hand with the true virtues of self-surrender, faith and selflessness. The best way to renounce the fruit of our actions is to make an offering of it to God with humility, devotion and detachment. In the very first verse of the Isa Upanishad, we come to know why we should live in this world with a sense of sacrifice.
All this is inhabited by God, whatever that moves here in this moving universe. Therefore by renunciation alone enjoy all things. Do not covet what belongs to others.(Isa 1.1)
When the whole universe is inhabited by God and everything belongs to Him, what else is there that we can call as our own? Can we hope to own something that is not ours? True enjoyment, according to the Upanishad, is possible only when we free ourselves from the burden of ownership and egoism and transfer our problems and responsibilities to God, surrendering ourselves unconditionally to Him. When we detach ourselves from all the bonds, we become free from the compulsion of carrying our burdens entirely upon our shoulders and in that freedom we begin to enjoy our earthly existence.
True Renunciation Is An Attitude
Renunciation does not mean that one should leave behind everything physically and live a reclusive and depressed life of self-negation and self-denial. Mental renunciation of things and ownership is much more important than the outward and superficial renunciation. One has to be inwardly free from the encumbrances and burdens of life, without feeling oppressed or intimated by the suffering that is part of our existence. It means that one should live with the spirit of renunciation and inner detachment and enjoy life as it comes, without any preferences, expectations and the need to own and possess or promote oneself. We find this theme in the next verse of the same Upanishad.
Always performing works here (with the spirit of renunciation) one should wish to live a hundred years. There is no other way by which karma would not adhere to you." (Isa I.2).
A similar idea is echoed by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavadgita, when He suggests that it is not renunciation of action but renunciation of the fruit of action which is the key to liberation.
"By renouncing mentally all his actions, the self-controlled karma yogi lives happily in the city of nine gates( the body) neither doing anything nor making other do any thing. (Bhagavadgita Chapter 5:13)
Actions performed without desire do not bind man to the cycle of births and deaths. Actions performed without any seeking do not bind.
"He who is free from attachment, who is liberated, whose mind is established in knowledge, whose actions are but actions of sacrifice only, his actions are completely dissolved." (Bhagavadgita Chapter 4:22)
Therefore if one wants to remain free from the consequences of ones actions, one should perform them with a sense of detachment, without any desire for their fruit, surrendering oneself completely to God and offering all His actions to Him, acknowledging him as the real doer.
The Consequences of Karma
There is no definite time frame in which the karma of an individual bears fruit. The consequences of one's action may manifest immediately or after a certain gap. In the latter case it may happen in this lifetime or in some future birth. This mechanism explain clearly reasons for the sudden and inexplicable ups downs in our lives.
In the course of its long existence, which may stretch over millions of years, an individual soul carries the burden of its own karma upon its shoulders, like a baggage from its past. This is a baggage which no one can just leave behind. It is something that keeps growing continuously and uninterruptedly during our existence upon earth since we cannot live here without doing something each moment of our lives. And as we have seen earlier, it even follows us in death to the other world.
According to Hindu beliefs, when a person of good deeds dies, he goes to the next world through the path of light and enjoys the heavenly pleasures. When his karma is completely exhausted, he returns to the earth to continue his life again. A person of evil deeds on the other hand goes to the darker world through the path of darkness and suffers there till he exhausts his bad karma and returns to the earth.
In either case karma is a binding factor and has to be exhausted. It does not liberate man. It offers no greater rewards except a little relief if the actions are meritorious. It may provide temporary distractions for the embodied souls, but keeps them confined to the illusory world. What leads to their permanent liberation is the renunciation of the doership and detachment from the fruits of their actions.
Does Belief In Karma Makes One Fatalistic?
The answer is certainly no. If you truly believe in the theory of karma you will not lead a passive and irresponsible life. You will live and act with the understanding and the belief that every event and circumstance in your life is your own creation. You will take responsibility for your life and actions. You will become more sensitive and mindful to what you do, whether you live and act ethically, and whether you are on the right side of things. You will listen to your conscience and do things that are good for you and others. You will not blame others for your problems or expect others to come and save you. You will not live and act like a victim of your circumstances. Nor you will try to victimize others as you know the consequences of it. Most importantly, as you begin to look for solutions to the problem of your karma, at some stage in your life you will begin to accept God as the doer of your actions and surrender to Him unconditionally.
A true believer in karma would not blame anyone or anything for his or her difficulties in life. He knows that he creates each and every moment of his life through his own actions and intentions. He also knows that while there is nothing much he can do about his past, he can neutralize the effects of his karma and create a new future for himself through his present actions or by seeking the grace of God. This makes him feel more optimistic about his future and more sensitive about his present life. It also widens his vision and makes him look at himself and his life in a much larger and vaster timeframe encompassing not just this life, but countless lives stretching over millions of years.
When you truly believe in karma, you will take responsibility for your life.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- Karma, the law of action
- Principles and practice of karma yoga
- Karma yoga
- Hinduism and belief in reincarnation of soul
- Buddhism, the concept of karma
- Jainism and the theory of karma
- Hinduism, suffering and fatalism
- Hinduism and karma
- The Samkhya Philosophy and 24 Principles of Creation
- The Bhagavadgita On The Problem Of Sorrow
- The Concept of Atman or Eternal Soul in Hinduism
- The Practice of Atma Yoga Or The Yoga Of Self
- The Problem of Maya Or Illusion and How To Deal With It
- Belief In Atman, The Eternal Soul Or The Inner Self
- Brahman, The Highest God Of Hinduism
- The Bhagavad Gita Original Translations
- The Bhagavadgita, Philosophy and Concepts
- Bhakti yoga or the Yoga of Devotion
- Hinduism And The Evolution of Life And Consciousness
- Why to Study the Bhagavadgita Parts 1 to 4
- The Triple Gunas, Sattva, Rajas and Tamas
- The Practice of Tantra and Tantric Ritual in Hinduism and Buddhism
- The Tradition Of Gurus and Gurukulas in Hinduism
- Origin, Definition and Introduction to Hinduism
- Hinduism, Way of Life, Beliefs and Practices
- A Summary of the Bhagavadgita
- Avatar, the Reincarnation of God Upon Earth
- The Bhagavadgita on Karma, the Law of Actions
- The Mandukya Upanishad
- The Bhagavadgita On The Mind And Its Control
- Essays On Dharma
- Esoteric Mystic Hinduism
- Introduction to Hinduism
- Hindu Way of Life
- Essays On Karma
- Hindu Rites and Rituals
- The Origin of The Sanskrit Language
- Symbolism in Hinduism
- Essays on The Upanishads
- Concepts of Hinduism
- Essays on Atman
- Hindu Festivals
- Spiritual Practice
- Right Living
- Yoga of Sorrow
- Mental Health
- Concepts of Buddhism
- General Essays
1. The three impurities are anava or egoism, karma or binding actions and maya or illusion
2. The word 'amma' which means mother, is actually a combination of "am" or "aham" and "ma". Aham means ego and ma means producing. Thus the word "amma" means that which produces or creates aham or ego. This is a reference to a mother as the producer or creator of children or embodied souls. This is also what the Divine Mother or Shakti does at the highest level of creation. As the dynamic energy of God, she creates the world and its individual entities. She brings forth the individual souls as jivas or embodied souls. She is the true Mother (amma) of all.
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