Karma

Written by  //  September 26, 2010  //  Philosophy, Religion, Culture  //  11 Comments

(This is a guest post by blogger Akshat Rathi where he narrates his experience with the Hindu concept of Karma)

I was born and brought up in a progressive Hindu family. Everyone around me was ‘mildly’ religious. We celebrated all the usual festivals and said the mantras and recited prayers. Customs and traditions were followed with a certain degree of flexibility. I have some of my fondest memories associated with these festivals because they were, more than anything, a time to meet people and celebrate. And as such, during all those days even though I did all the religious things asked of me, I was never forced to believe in God. I am very glad that I have always had the freedom to have my own religious views and my own philosophy of life.

Yet, that freedom could not stop me from absorbing many of the core values of Hinduism. During those years, sometime quite early in my life, I was introduced to the concept of karma which is undoubtedly one of the core values. As most of us know, the laws of karma are quite simple: “Every action has a reaction” or “What goes around, comes around”. It seemed like a beautiful concept and everyone around me believed in it; some even without consciously treating it as karma. Some people strongly believed that God plays a role in the delivery of karma and such divine intervention then put the concept beyond the realms of reason and doubt.

Then somewhere along the way, I transformed that concept into something that seemed more practical to me. I started treating ‘efforts’ as a way of building up ‘good’ karma or countering ‘bad’ karma. I thought that if I worked hard and put in enough efforts then, of course my ‘good’ karma bank will increase and I can cash it for good results.

What I did not realise at that point was that the underlying assumption of all this philosophy or the basic tenet on which all this was based on was that ‘the world is a fair place’. And that thought became an integral part of my way of thinking, unfortunately, unknowingly so. Once I started viewing the world through these glasses, it was very easy for me to start strongly believing in a meritocratic society and a just world. It wasn’t that unnerving to see corruption or crime in the media because, of course, the karmic balance will be preserved; the corrupt will be caught and the perpetrators punished. I believed, naively so, that people who made use of their clout to achieve something or earn a business contract or gain some fame must not be happy or satisfied people. They must not have a good night’s sleep or even a peaceful conscience.

It was a great coping mechanism; when things did not work my way, I partially blamed my karma but mostly blamed my efforts.  When things did not work my way and worked for someone else who used unfair means then I would partially blame my karma but mostly blame their karma and believe that someday they will learn their lesson. Often without my knowledge, I would was also filter the kind of friends I made by simply understanding if their beliefs aligned with mine. All the news about corruption or violence or discrimination did not affect me as much because I believed that justice will be served ‘someday’. My way of studying was literally governed by these rules, I used put in a certain amount of effort and then only take a short break to save my karma points. I helped others because that gained me more karma points. It let me be selfish and selfless at the same time.

It soon became of a way of living. I mostly saw things that reinforced my belief like the time when my exam results came out as I had expected, or a politician got caught and was sentenced or a friend suffered when he cheated. I opened myself to these experiences because they could be aligned with my philosophy. When things did not work the way karma should have made them work, I closed myself to those experience.

Just when I started to be critical of things around me, I stumbled upon the most common excuse that spiritual leaders make: “In a complex world, it’s too simplistic to always expect thing to work immediately. What goes around will come around one day”. And, of course, it was easy to believe in that excuse because it helped me align the irregularities to my beliefs. So questions about unfair means could be countered with an argument that karma is not bound by time and thus justice will be served in this life or the next or the next or questions like ‘what about the innocents who die in a terrorist attack, did they all deserve it?’ could be countered with ‘Surely not, but karma can be carried to the next life and then they will live a better/happier/longer life then’ or the questions like ‘what about the massive inequalities that we see around us?’ could be countered with ‘those who are on the richer end of the scale must’ve got good karma from their previous life or vice-versa’. All this logic helped me to preserve my view of the world and NOT change it.

But finally, I’ve broken out of this bubble and I know now that the world is a fairly random place where events are dictated by several uncontrollable factors. Thinking back, it seems that we were introduced to this ideology of karma to help us develop our moral values. And even if it seems to be a good tool to teach kids, I think it is important to realise (at some point) that believing in karma makes no rational sense.

About the Author

I am a lawyer by training. Deeply interested in Indian religion, history, art, literature, music and philosophy. Looking to contribute pieces and participate in discussions relating to any of these subjects.

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11 Comments on "Karma"

  1. Shivprasad September 26, 2010 at 1:48 pm ·

    Akshat,
    I have a few things to say about your understanding of Karma. But before that could you please tell me how did you arrive at this conception of Karma? Did you read it in any Upanishad or the Gita or elsewhere. I am aware that this is the ‘pop’ conception of Karma. But I am wondering if there is any scripture that I have been missing , which supports such an understanding.

  2. Akshat Rathi September 26, 2010 at 2:14 pm ·

    Hi Shivprasad,

    I did not arrive at this concept of Karma through the study of any religious scriptures (I don’t think I was capable of understanding them at 8 or so). I learned them through stories or parental preachings (grand parents, parents and relatives).

    Having said that, the religious texts might or might not agree to the exact words I use to define Karma but the broad meaning of those words is similar to them.

    I’d be glad to hear your thoughts on my understanding of karma.

    Cheers!
    Akshat

  3. Shivprasad September 26, 2010 at 8:53 pm ·

    Akshat,

    If your understanding of the concept of Karma is not based on a reading of any scriptures what gives you the confidence that you have still managed to understand it correctly? Of course what you set out is the pop understanding of the concept. Sadly, the pop understanding is a misleading caricature of the Upanishadic philosophy. Be that as it may, what you have been alluding to in your post as ‘Karma’ is actually not the concept of ‘Karma’ at all. Karma means the notion of ‘I am the doer’ of action. (See Ch III of Bhagavad Gita for Karma Yoga). This, according to the Upanishads and the Gita, is a wrong projection of the ego which causes bondage. By bondage is meant recurrent births and deaths. Karma Yoga is giving up the notion of ‘I am the doer’ thus cutting asunder the bondage of recurrent Samsara . All that you have said here actually points towards the concept of ‘Prarabhda’. However, I do not agree with your understanding of Prarabhda either.

    Today’s Karma is tomorrow’s Prarabhda. That is to say, you are re born because you have thought yourself to be the doer. See this quote from the Nada Bindu Upanishad.

    “23(b)-24. That Karma which is done in former births and called
    Prarabdha does not at all affect the person (Tattva-Jnani), as there is no rebirth to
    him. As the body that exists in the dreaming state is untrue, so is this body.”

    I do not understand the basis on which you import this elaborate desert based super structure of ‘as you sow so shall you reap’ and superimpose it on the concept of Karma/Prarabhdha . No scripture tells that if you do a wrong you will suffer a wrong. No Indian scripture suggests that what goes around comes around. That understanding is at odds with the whole of Indian philosophy. There are no ‘objective’ concepts of right and wrong , papa and punya in Indian philosophy. The concepts of objective right and wrong, as the philosopher Richard Rorty points out, are ideas inspired by Judeo Christian ethics.

    Prarabdha is a tool for making you realize that whatever comes your way in your life must be accepted by you, not because you have brought the specific good or evil upon yourself( as you understand); but rather because you have brought birth upon yourself, by the bondage of Karma. Thus total randomness of life is actually wholly consistent with the concept of Prarabdha.

    The Upanishads make it abundantly clear that even Prarabhda is nothing more than a mere illusion. In reality there is no Prarabdha because the fact is that there is no Karma( and enlightenment is a realization of this). See this quote from the Nada Bindu Upanishad.

    28-29(a). So when he knows the eternal substratum of everything and all the
    universe becomes (therefore) void (to him), where then is Prarabdha to him, the body being a part of the world ? Therefore the word Prarabdha is postulated to enlighten only the ignorant .

  4. Subramanian September 27, 2010 at 5:21 am ·

    Akshat -

    Apart from Shiv’s very valid and pertinent comments above, I have a couple of questions myself:

    a. You say: “But finally, I’ve broken out of this bubble and I know now that the world is a fairly random place where events are dictated by several uncontrollable factors.”
    The hyperlink takes us to a page which looks like some quote from a self help book. How do you exactly “know” this? Without sharing with us the basis for this knowledge, we are unable to make our minds up on your opinion because it lacks any basis whatsoever.

    b. You also say: “I think it is important to realise (at some point) that believing in karma makes no rational sense” Your essay does not detail in any manner why it makes no rational sense. Why do you think it makes no sense?

  5. Abhilash September 29, 2010 at 7:14 am ·

    @Shiv, Subra: I find that in debates like these a fair amount of energy is expended in what terms “actually” mean which distracts people from the key issues at hand. As far as I know (and I know a lot of people who will agree with me on this) Akshat’s understanding of Karma is what is widely shared amongst Hindus. While the true meaning of the word might well be very different (as Shiv points out) that is not how *most* religious Hindus/laymen understand it (in keeping with the spirit of our age, check this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karma).

    Akshat’s arguments hold for this “pop” conception of Karma: from what I understand he finds it irrational because there is no *natural* and *inevitable* chain of causality between one’s actions and their fruits. Results of our actions are contingent on several other random factors which we have no control on. Maybe he should harped a little more on this.

    A more eclectic understanding of Karma might very well render these arguments futile- but that’s not the point because most people do not share that understanding of the word.

  6. Shivprasad September 29, 2010 at 8:46 am ·

    Abhilash

    You say:

    “I find that in debates like these a fair amount of energy is expended in what terms “actually” mean which distracts people from the key issues at hand.”

    Are you suggesting that any discussion of Indian religion or philosophy is futile? Would you say the same about a dicussion of Kant or Plato? Or do you suggest that nothing that does not solve ‘issues on hand’ must be discussed?

    And is our discussion really futile? Akshat here points out that he organized his life around his understanding of Karma.Thus these things can impact people in the deepest of ways. I argued that this understanding of Karma is no more than a superstitition and has no basis in any authority. Is it futile to call a superstitition a superstitition? Maybe many people could come to realize this and shed the pop conception as nothing but supersitition. Would you still call the discussion futile?

    You make it seem as though Subra and me on one hand and Akshat on the other hand have been in some hyper technical logomachical debate about an interpretation of the passage of the upanishad to understand what it “actually” means. Here the contest was between popular superstitition and the upanishads which even remotely have no connection with the supersitition. An attempt to made to clarify that.

  7. Subramanian September 29, 2010 at 4:42 pm ·

    Abhilash-

    Firstly, I did not assert anythng in my query. I merely raised 2 questions at places where I did not understand Akshat’s essay – one, where he says he “knows” that this world is random and – two, where he says Karma is irrational. If my questions sounded too confrontational, I apologise, it was not intended. I just wanted clarity.

    Secondly, on your discussion with Shiv. I think even at a “pop” level there are many understandings of Karma. For instance, “Karma Yoga” is a form of discipline towards the attainment of enlightenment elaborated in Chapter 3 of the Bhagavad Gita. The discipline involves working WITHOUT expectation of result. As Krishna puts it (in Chapter 2, Verse 47):

    “You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty. ”

    This, as you will no doubt agree is very popular in India. Anyone on the streets parrots this line as the “Gita Saar”. You dont need any analysis of scripture to know this. Yet, this is the exact opposite of the meaning of Karma in Akshat’s post. There – Karma is a system of desert – where one is supposed to behave in one manner or the other depending on what the result of that action is (in this life or another). In other words, purely result oriented or consequantialist behaviour (maybe a bit postponed). Could there be anything more opposed to the notion of Karma Yoga, posited by Krishna above?

    I am not saying either one is the correct version of Karma. My point is that, even discussing things at a pop level, one is forced to go to the scriptures to get clarity. There are bound to be confusions without such study. This is perfectly understandable. Would we, to echo Shiv’s words, ever even concieve of discussing relativity or quantum mechanics at a “pop” level, say with absolute no referenece to what either Einstein said or what Max Planck said? We would not.

    Why is that?I think that is becasue, somewhere deep down there is a feeling in India, that Indians could never have carried out any sytematic, scientific or “rational” analysis. I implore you to look at the Upanishads and you will rid yourself of that feeling immediately.

    Subra

  8. Akshat Rathi October 17, 2010 at 3:41 pm ·

    Forgive me for my silence all this while. I will try to answer as many questions as I can but do have a read of the post that explains my transformation.

    First of all, this has been an enlightening discussion. I did not know all this about ‘karma’ as it is defined in the religious text.

    @ Subra: I hope I have replied to both your points in my new post. I would be happy to discuss it further.

    @ Abhilash: You do hit the nail when you say that
    Results of our actions are contingent on several other random factors which we have no control on. I have only elaborated your point in the new post by discussing the various factors, albeit not all of them.

    @ Shivprasad: I think you have many valid points to add to this discussion. I think I would have been all the trouble I have been through had I read something of this sort before or met a person like you who had the right knowledge. I do hope you can write a blog post explaining what karma really should mean and I will do all I can to spread those words. As for my new post please do ignore the ‘right’ definition of karma and read it taking into consideration my ‘wrong’ but more popular definition of karma.

    As for the point about ‘Gita Saar’, I am very well aware of it and yes you may be right when you say Anyone on the streets parrots this line. Yet, I believe you will agree that there is an equally well known notion of efforts-bear-fruits. Not just because we observe that in everyday life and it has been proven to be right time and again. And as much as I am saddened to say this, it is true that people (including myself) have treated karma to be that and not what the Gita says. I plead guilty.

    If there is something we can do to cure the society of this wrong notion of karma, then I am all for it.

  9. Vikash Kumar Jha August 5, 2011 at 11:25 am ·

    @ Shivprasad – When you say, “If your understanding of the concept of Karma is not based on a reading of any scriptures what gives you the confidence that you have still managed to understand it correctly?”, do you really mean that one necessarily needs to have read and understood the scriptures for confidently saying what ‘karma’ is or for that that matter anything?
    This is just a genuine query.

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