Perspectives on What Karma Means

Hinduism Essay Subject Image

by Jayaram V

Karma is a very important concept in Hinduism closely associated with the concept of dharma and liberation. A study of the Upanishads suggest that the idea developed in the Upanishadic philosophy gradually, as part of the ritual terminology and become an integral part of Hindu metaphysics by the time many early Upanishads were composed such as the Katha and Svetasvatara Upanishads. The implications of karma in Hinduism are profound.

Associated with it are the ideas of duty, sacrificial actions, bondage to the cycle of births and deaths, afterlife and reincarnation. The theory of karma puts the onus of living in the mortal world upon humans and their intelligence. It finely balances the opposing theories of fate and freewill in Hinduism and puts a price upon the freedom you enjoy.

In life, whether it is of an individual or a group, freedom arises from their commitment to duty and responsibility. There are only two ways to achieve freedom. Either you do your part in the world and earn your freedom or you give up everything and go the way of a  renunciant (sanyasi) or an ascetic (sadhu). The former approach requires the acceptance of limited freedom within in the constraints of societal laws and moral obligations and the latter involves complete indifference to freedom itself and equality or sameness towards all. These two approaches take precedence in Hinduism and define the Hindu way of life.

They are also implied in the four aims of human life (Purusharthas). When God manifests in the world, he adheres to them and accepts them as facts of life. The idea is simple and practical. It does not put the onus of living your life upon God or an external entity, but upon yourself. You are responsible for your life and your liberation. You are free but not really free because you are bound by a divine covenant to protect and uphold the order and regularity of the world as God's true ally or servant, which you can break only at your peril. If you do not engage in righteous actions as God does and succumb to the evil of selfishness, you will suffer from the consequences These are the underlying implications of karma and why it is rooted in Dharma or our commitment to obligatory duties.

Remarkable thoughts on karma

The following statements are some important perspectives on Karma, made by some scholars and religious leaders of Hinduism.

Cause and effect

Swami Bhaskarananda, The Essential of Hinduism, p. 79.

Hinduism believes in the doctrine of cause and effect...the theory of doctrine of karma. The word karma means "action". Sometimes the word is also used to mean the effect of action. According to this doctrine, all good actions produce good effects, and bad actions bad....The fruits of good deeds bring pleasure and enjoyment to the doer, while fruits of bad deeds cause him suffering and pain.

Fate and karma

Swami Bhaskarananda, p. 186

"Hinduism does not believe in fatalism. According to the doctrine of karma, a person's future is his or her own creation. The good or bad action done in the present will cause enjoyment or suffering in the future. To create a better future one must wisely utilize the present moment by performing good activities."

Karma and suffering

R.N. Dandekar, "The Role of Man in Hinduism", in The Religion of the Hindus, p. 127.

"The doctrine of karma is the solution offered by Hinduism to the great riddle of the origin of suffering and the inequalities which exist among men in this world. According to the Hindus, the law of causation operates in the moral world in as invariable and inviolable a manner as it does in the physical world. Every action of an individual inevitably leads to some results, good or bad, and the life of the individual who acts becomes conditioned by the consequences of those acts. We cannot think of any acts which fizzle out without producing results, nor of any results which have no antecedents in the form of acts. This is the inexorable law of karma, the law of actions and their retribution.

Karma means

Jayaram V, From Introduction to Hinduism.

Karma means any action. "Kar" means organs of action and "ma" means producing or creating. Literally speaking, karma is that which is created or produced by one's bodily organs (karmendriyas). However, karma does not mean only physical actions. All actions performed by us constitute karma, whether they are intentional or unintentional and physical or mental. Actions performed by groups and by individuals in association with others also create consequences for the individuals as well as the groups. Both intentional and unintentional actions are part of one’s karma.

Karma Yoga

Sri Ramakrishna, from the Condensed Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna.

This (Karma yoga) is communion with God by means of work. It is what you are teaching. Ashtanga-Yoga or Raja-Yoga is Karma-Yoga if practiced without attachment. It leads to communion through meditation and concentration. The doing of duties of householders (of the citizens) doing them without attachment to the end that God may be glorified - also Karma yoga. Again worshiping according to the Sastras, silent repetition of the name of God, and other karma of the kind, is Karma-Yoga if done without attachment, for the glorification of the God.

Importance of virtue

S. Radhakrishnan, from India Philosophy, Volume 1.

There is no doctrine that is so valuable in life and conduct as the karma theory. Whatever happens to us in this life we have to submit in meek resignation, for it is the result of our past doings. Yet the future is in our power and we can work with hope and confidence. Karma inspires hope for the future and resignation for the past. It makes men feel that the things of the world , its fortunes and failures, do not touch the dignity of the soul. Virtue alone is good, not rank or riches, not race of nationality. Nothing but goodness good.

Karma and wisdom

Yoga Vasistha, translated by Swami Venkatesananda.

When one engages oneself in the performance of right action, his intelligence rests in peace and reflects the truth like a perfect mirror. It is then that the meaning of the scriptural declarations becomes abundantly clear. The wise man radiates wisdom and goodness. Then seeking to free himself from the cage of ignorance, he flies away from pleasure towards the uncondionted bliss.

Karma and intention

Sri Aurobindo from the Integral Yoga.

The only work that spiritually purifies is that which is done without personal motives, without desire for fame or public recognition or worldly greatness, without insistence on one's own mental motives or vital lusts and demands or physical preferences, without vanity or crude self-assertion or claim for position or prestige, done for the sake of the Divine alone and at the command of the Divine. All work done in an egoistic spirit, however good for people in the world of the Ignorance, is of no avail to the seeker of the yoga.

Action as a sacrifice

Jayaram V, Essays on the Bhagavadgita.

Karma yoga is the highest form of sacrificial action (yajna). It disciplines the mind and purifies the body, establishing a firm foundation for one's liberation. It is the simplest form of physical austerity, although not everyone can practice it with utmost perfection. No special knowledge is required to practice this yoga. However, sincerity and right attitude are very important to control one's desires and expectations in performing actions.

Karma and belief in God

Swami Vivekananda

Karma-yoga, therefore, is a system of ethics and religion intended to attain freedom through unselfishness, and by good works. The Karma-Yogi need not believe even in God, may not ask what his soul is, not thing of any metaphysical speculation. He has got his own special aim of realizing selflessness; and he has to work it out himself. Every moment of his life must be realization because he has to solve buy mere work, without the help of doctrine or theory, the very same problem to which the Jnani applies his reason and inspiration, and the Bhakta his love.

Karma as agent of absolute consciousness

Jerome A Anderson From Karma: A Study of the Law of Cause and Effect in Relation to Rebirth...Etc.

Karma, then means that divine, omnipotent, omniscient Power, which adjusts each effect to its originating cause. It does this consciously, wisely and unerringly; therefore it is more than the mere operation of even an immutable law, if we regard this as acting mechanically or automatically, for Karma is the agent of Absolute Consciousness, and not one phenomenon occurs in all this manifested universe of which it does not take consciousness note.

Karma as compensation

Ralph Waldo Emerson, from Compensation.

The dice of God are always loaded. The world looks like a multiplication table, or a mathematical equation, which, turn it how you will, balances itself. Take what figure you will, its exact value, not more nor less, still returns to you. Every secret is told, every crime is punished, every virtue rewarded, every wrong redressed, in silence and certainty.

Karma and rebirth

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (4.4.6) Translated by Jayaram V

"Of this, there is this verse, 'That one who performs actions with desires in his mind, his subtle body goes together with the deed, being attached to it alone. Having exhausted the results of whatever actions he performed in this life, he returns from that world to this world for doing (more) actions.' This is with regard to a man whose mind is filled with desires. Now, regarding the one who is free from desires. He who is without desires, who is freed from desires, whose desire is satisfied, who desires only the Self, his breaths do not depart. Being Brahman only, he goes to Brahman."

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