Table of contents
Karma – An Ethical Foundation
The literal meaning of the word Karma in Sanskrit is “work,” “action,” or “deed”. This is in the sense of ‘an action carried out externally in the world’, as opposed to the Sanskrit word Kriya, implying ‘an action carried out intrinsically’. Generally, the law of karma says that every action has fruits, i.e. has implications manifesting in samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth. An action done with good intention creates good karma, while one that is done with bad intention creates bad karma. The fruit can manifest in this lifetime or in the next incarnations. The intention, approach, and desire of the doer affect the karma, but also, to a certain extent, the outcome of the action. A common example is envisioning two men standing with a knife over a man lying on the ground. One of the men standing is a surgeon, and the other is a murderer – both are performing the same action – stabbing the man lying in front of them, but their intentions are quite different. In that sense, the concept of karma differs from the principle of pure causality found in the natural sciences. However the result of the operation, also counts since it’s evident that if the surgeon was to be successful, his feelings will be very different than if the patient dies, and this affects his karma as well.
As a man himself sows, so he himself reaps; no man inherits the good or evil act of another man. The fruit is of the same quality as the action.Mahabharata, XII.291.22
The connection between karma and causality is a central motif in various schools of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. According to these traditions, both the individual’s actions as well as his intentions affect the course of his life. Any actions carried out with expectation (an outcome in mind) result in an accumulation of karma, as opposed to actions carried out without such expectation, which leave karma intact. Good karma has a positive effect on the life of the doer, and leads to happiness, while bad karma negatively influences the doer and leads to unhappiness. The effect of karma is not limited to the individual’s current life and may also influence his next incarnations.
The concept of karma is therefore used as the ethical basis in various schools of Eastern philosophy. However, it’s not a punishment and reward system. There is no one to grant rewards or punishments. It’s just the way things are – natural law. Although it’s not always clear to us, the law of karma states that it’s simply a fact that any action done with an expectation for an outcome creates karma, actions carried out with good intention will produce good karma, while those done with bad intention will produce bad karma.
Chapter two of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali describes the law of karma thus:
|English (B.K.S. Iyengar’s rendering)
|klesha-mula karma-ashaya drishta adrishta janma vedaniyah
|The accumulated imprints of past lives, rooted in affliction, will be experienced in the present and future lives
|sati mule tat vipakah jati ayus bhogah
|As long as the root of actions exists, it will give rise to class of birth, span of life and experience
|te hlada-paritapa-phalah punya apunya hetutvat
|According to our good, bad or mixed actions, the quality of our lives, its span, and the nature of birth are experienced as being pleasant or painful
Sutra 34 states that negative thoughts have infinite consequences. Thoughts create karma that the individual carries with him onto future incarnations:
|vitarkah himsadayah krita karita anumoditah lobha krodha moha purvakah mridu madhya adhimatrah dukha ajnana ananta phala iti pratipaksha bhavanam
|Uncertain knowledge giving rise to violence, whether done directly or indirectly or condoned, is caused by greed, anger, or delusion to a mild, moderate, or intense degree. It results in endless pain and ignorance. Through introspection comes the end of pain and ignorance.
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The Application of Karma
There are three types of impressions through which karma is applied in our reality:
- Phala (fruit) – Karma has an immediate impact. It is the result of an action that is expressed immediately, or sometime during the life of the doer, whether overtly or covertly. For example, the good feeling one has after doing an act of kindness, generousity or compassion is an example of phala.
- Samskara – Karma has a hidden influence. It is expressed internally in the life of the doer, influencing his behavior and his degree of happiness (in the current life and in certain schools even in future incarnations). Samskara is often the focus of discussion in Eastern philosophy. Karma sows tendencies (vasna) in the individual’s life, which affect their behavior as well as their vision of themselves and the world, thus dictating their experience of life.
- Reincarnation – The principle of rebirth (samsara) appears in various schools of Eastern religions. All forms of life undergo a process of reincarnation – that is, a series of births and deaths, whereby each birth can manifest in a different life form than the one that preceded it (for example, what was a pig in a previous life can be born again as a human being). The accumulation of karma collected during a creature’s lifetime continues with it even after death in the next incarnation and determines the shape and nature of life to which they will be born. This process of death and rebirth continues indefinitely and the only way to stop it is by consciously reaching a release, or Moksha.
For the Western mind, the prospect of reincarnation may seem comforting. After all, death isn’t the final and absolute ending. But in the Eastern traditions, the endless cycles of birth and death – the samsara, is replete with suffering. In fact, it seems like a prison that one is doomed to be in, endlessly. As long as we have a karmatic store or samskaras we are doomed to return to this wheel of samsara. So the only way to extricate oneself from it, is to clean our samsakaras. The actions of the yogi, done without desire and without expecting reward or personal benefit, do not produce any samskaras.
The end of chapter 1 of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali describes the process of clearing the samskaras, in order to reach the utmost Samadhi – Samadhi without a nucleus:
|nirvichara vaisharadye adhyatma prasadah
|From proficiency in nirvicara samapatti comes purity. Sattva or luminosity flows undisturbed, kindling the spiritual light of the self.
|ritambhara tatra prajna
|When consciousness dwells in wisdom, a truth-bearing state of direct spiritual perception dawns.
|shruta anumana prajnabhyam anya-vishaya vishesha-arthatvat
|Thus truth-bearing knowledge and wisdom are distinct from and beyond the knowledge gleaned from books, testimony, or inference.
|tajjah samskarah anya samskara paribandhi
|A new life begins with this truth-bearing light. Previous impressions are left behind, and new ones are prevented.
|tasya api nirodhe sarva nirodhat nirbijah samadhih
|When that new light of wisdom is also relinquished, seedless Samadhi dawns.
Chapter four comes back to the subject of purifying the samskaras and describes the action of the Yogi, as actions that leaves no residue or traces of her or his karma and are therefore transparent:
|karma ashukla akrisnam yoginah trividham itaresam
|A Yogi’s actions are neither white nor black. The actions of others are of three kinds, white, black or grey.
|tatah tad vipaka anugunanam eva abhivyaktih vasananam
|These three types of actions leave impressions which become manifest when conditions are favourable and ripe.
|jati desha kala vyavahitanam api anantaryam smriti samskarayoh eka rupatvat
|Life is a continuous process, even though it is demarcated by race, place and time. Due to the uninterrupted close relationship between memory and subliminal impressions, the fruits of actions remain intact from one life to the next, as if there were no separation between births.
|tasam anaditvam cha ashisah nityatvat
|These impressions, memories and desires have existed eternally, as the desire to live is eternal.
|hetu phala ashraya alambana samgrihitatvat esam abhave tad abhavah
|Impressions and desires are bound together by their dependence upon cause and effect. In the absence of the latter, the former too, ceases to function.
Lotus Blossom – Transcending Difficult Circumstances
The lotus blossom symbolizes karma in many religions, as the lotus contains its seed while blooming. The seed traditionally symbolizes the cause, while the blossom symbolizes the result. In addition, the lotus grows in murky water, while its flower floats above the surface of the water; it is a metaphor that one can transcend difficult circumstances without being influenced by them.