Karma, Definition

The Webster dictionary’s definition of the word karma
(1) In Buddhism and Hinduism, the totality of a person’s actions in one of the successive
states of his existence, thought of as determining his fate in the next.
(2) Loosely, fate; destiny (Webster’s Universal Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd Edition).

To understand the first definition one has to delve into Indian thought on action and its results. Thus one has to bring in the theory of reincarnation (punarjanma), the seemingly endless cycle of births and deaths (saṁsāra), and the exercise of self-effort or free-will (puruṣārtha) to fashion our lives while living, despite being subjected to the force of karma.

The concept of liberation or freedom is called mokṣa in Hinduism, nirvāṇa in Buddhism and satori in Zen-buddhism. In many bhakti, that is, devotional traditions (in both Indian and Western religions) this freedom is considered to be eternal life in Heaven after death. Attaining liberation is the primary goal of spiritual and religious practices such as yoga in India, as well as in the three principal ancient religions of India – Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. These practices that are actions (physical or mental) are also called karma – the etymological meaning of the word karma is action. The dictionary citation here has a philosophical overlay on this word, and this overlay is the focus of this blog.

Subtle Result of Karma, Action, also called Karma

Creation in Indian thought and mythologies is cyclical. The usual term used for creation is anādi (beginningless). In this beginningless creation, birth is a soul gaining a physical body on this Earth at any one time. The soul comes with a collection of karma, but it is just a fraction of the karma accumulated over countless births through choosing good and bad actions. In this context, this word karma does not mean action but the subtle results of actions, more precisely called karmaphala in Sanskrit. Unfortunately, it is common practice to use the same word karma to mean both action and result of action. As the English dictionary definition above refers to the subtle result of one’s actions in countless births, we will also use the word karma to mean only karmaphala, the subtle results of one’s actions in this blog post.

Note the important words ‘subtle results’ and ‘by exercising one’s choice (exercise of free will)’ in defining karma. The subtle results that occur are technically called adṛṣṭaphala (adṛṣṭa-unseen, phala-result of an action). This is a religious concept: if a person steals from another, the action can be punished in the perpetrator’s lifetime if he is found by law enforcement. This may be called dṛṣṭaphala, a seen result in this world while the person is alive. In addition, the result of this harmful action still accrues to his soul, and this subtle or unseen result is also called karma. The same is true for an act of kindness, compassion, helping the needy etc… The word ‘sin’ (pāpa) refers to the result of harmful actions, and ‘virtue’ (puṇya) to the effect of beneficial actions. Note that there is no cancellation of sin and virtue, it is not a zero sum game! This fact that there is no escape from the result of one’s harmful or beneficial actions, simply because one is not caught by man-made laws in this lifetime is a concept common to both Eastern and Western religious traditions. The result of good karma is to drive a person toward pleasant experience while that of bad karma is toward painful experience. Karma can be exhausted only by experiencing the effect (as a positive or negative experience).

Three types of Karma: Sañcita ‘total-collected’ ,
Āgāmi ‘to come in future’ and Prārabdha, ‘well-begun’

Karma is grouped under three classes – sañcitakarma, āgāmikarma and prārabdha- karma. The first one, sañcitakarma literally means wellearned results of actions. This represents the accumulated results of a soul’s actions while embodied in a life form capable of choice, that is, by exercise of free-will over eons of birth/death cycles. This, according to tradition can be only possible by humans in this world. Since creation is cyclical, that is beginningless, any soul has a big total karmic load.

The second one, āgāmikarma means results of future actions of the soul when embodied as a human being. In our lives we do many good and bad acts by exercising our free-will. The results of these acts will result in future karmic load. This potential karmic burden is  āgāmikarma.

Now to the question of a birth of a living being, and this is where the third type of karma comes in. The birth can be that of a plant, an animal, bird or human. According to the doctrine of karma, a small fraction of the total karmic load of sañcitakarma, called prārabdhakarma (karma that has begun fructification) gives rise to entry of the soul in a body and thence to the birth of a living being. Thus birth really means a soul acquiring a physical body to use up this prārabdha-karma, and death is dropping off the mortal coil when this quantum of total karma is used up. This specific karma load that results in a birth is always a mixture of good and bad karma. Thus every living being is subject to ups and downs of experiences in life.

This karma concept explains countless births and deaths – the different physical bodies the soul inhabits for some time. This also explains how two living beings born at the same time and place, and even identical twins, can have entirely different sets of life-experiences. Being brought up in this tradition in India, when I see a person here carrying a little poodle dressed in velvet, I think “The soul in that dog’s body is born with good karma, while many dogs in my country of birth are being pelted by little stones by street urchins!”

To the question “why not keep taking births and deaths, for at each birth a bit of the karma is used up, and eventually this sañcitakarma will be gone, and the soul will be free?” The answer is that samsāra, the cycle of births and deaths is endless as long as the soul, born as a human being can and will add to the karmic load. So, there is no end to transmigration and thus no freedom for the soul.

The Concept of Karma and Respect for Every Life Form

First let us answer the question ‘how does karma apply to other living beings’? It is clear from the theory of karma that all living beings are equal in the sense that souls have no inherent distinction among them except for their their karmic load.  This idea, in a practical sense manifests as treating all life forms as sacred, since one soul inhabiting a body is not superior or inferior to any other soul. The difference is just the body which the soul inhabits limits the capacity of the soul to manifest. Thus the ‘higher forms of life’ only have better equipment through which the soul can manifest.

This underlies vegetarianism and the idea of ahimsā, to not willfully do violence to other life forms by thought, word or deed. But one may argue that vegetables also are life forms, not superior or inferior to the human. It is also known that life lives upon life, so the tradition recommends doing the least harm consistent with keeping the human life going. Thus vegetarianism centers on not killing a life form that is manifest in bodies that are capable of moving away from you when you try to kill them. Doubtless it is arbitrary, but the line is drawn at as low a point in the food chain as is feasible.

A small digression here to highlight this aspect of being a vegetarian: In the 1980s when I was working for a high-tech company, one of my colleagues, a microbiologist, questioned me on being a vegetarian. “Ram, how do you justify being a vegetarian since yanking a carrot to eat also is killing a living being according your religion?” I had to explain to him this principle of doing least harm and eat as low in the food chain as possible adding “If one of these days, an eggplant starts running away from me, I will stop picking and eating egg plants!” He persisted “How about eggs? They cannot run away from you. Why don’t you eat eggs?” I have to be honest here (though I do not eat omelettes or other dishes where the egg looks at me which is just an emotional rather than rational reaction) I do eat ice cream and cakes! My reply to him was “True, but I still look upon the eggs as potential chickens! I do eat cakes here since in this country it is illegal to sell fertilized eggs, and so there is no potential for life to manifest in them. I also take milk products since they are not obtained by killing cows.” That seemed to satisfy his curiosity about vegetarianism. The idea of veganism is based on the premise of not treating as commodities sentient animals – vegans do not use any animal product including milk, honey, wool or  leather. Even stricter are many Jain monks who wear a mask to avoid inhaling some life form, and use a broom to clean the area where they step to eliminate the possibility of accidentally killing insects.

All living beings other than humans are born just to use up the small quantum of karmic load that gave birth to a specific body for the soul to inhabit. They live that life subject to ups and downs which are the effects of karma, with no ability to do good or bad actions, being entirely driven by instinct. The tradition thus calls such a body a bhoga-śarīra, a body for enjoying/enduring the karma the soul came with. Humans are given a special place since only the human being can exercise free will, however limited it may be, by choosing to do a good action or desist from doing a bad action.

Human Being and Karma – Is Karma fate?

The second definition in the dictionary is
Loosely, fate; destiny” (Webster’s Universal Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd Edition) .

Indian religious and or philosophical systems stress that the human birth is unique and special since only the human can either increase the karmic load by choosing bad or good actions, or strive towards liberation, by exercising his/her free will. Thus one can choose to overcome impulse-driven action by using viveka, the discriminative ability of the human intellect. This exercise of choice is the basis of human advancement. Thus it was possible to ‘liberate’ us to some extent from the ravages brought about by Nature. I use ‘liberate’ here in the sense of using appropriate measures to minimise Nature’s impact on man.

A minority of people in India believe that Karma is fate or destiny, the second meaning in Webster’s Dictionary cited earlier. This idea of total determinism or preordination by some Superior Power is reflected in almost none of the cultural, religious and philosophical pursuits common in India for millennia. For example, the primary emphasis of vedic astrology is interventional and not just predictive of potential life events. Also, there are many temples in India which are centuries old, with idols made before sculpting of granite or marble was known. Thus we know temple worship has been there for a very long time. Worship is an act of choice, and even today there are billions all over the world who believe in the effect of prayer and find it provides both mental and actual relief from problems.

The concept of liberation of the human being from this cycle of lives is the basis of Yoga, Vedānta, Buddhism, Jainism and several other theological or purely philosophical systems. All these point to the human being choosing to act. This choice is by execise of free will. These actions are able to mediate the effect of past karma.

In actual life, karma must be looked upon as predispositions, certain urges to act in a particular way, resulting in pleasant or unpleasant experiences in life. But the uniqueness of human beings is that one is endowed with a certain amount of free will / choice, which one can and must exercise to mediate this rather powerful karmic predisposition, though apparently going against karma’s mandate. Based on my science background, I look upon karma like genes with which one comes into life. Genes show a predisposition to certain diseases but do not predetermine their incidence. An informed human being can and will take actions to minimise or forestall the effect of the genetic predisposition. It is also seen that despite the best actions taken by exercising choice one can still succumb to the disease due to genetic predisposition and environmental factors. Similarly, one’s actions to mediate the ill effect of karma can be looked upon as an attempt at a karmic override by human effort.

I look upon the interaction between the effect of one’s karmic repository and actions by choice / free will to go against it, to be similar to  a tug of war. I would like to end this section with a favorite story of the late Swami Chinmayananda, one of my two Vedānta teachers. “Imagine a cow tied to a post with a very long rope. It is free to graze as far as the rope will allow. Beyond that, however much the cow tries, it cannot go farther. Your karma is like that long rope. Just as the cow does not know the length of the rope, you too do not know what is the force of karma to pull you back, but you have to push as far as you can go (like the cow in this story) using your limited free will.” This is what the tradition calls exercising one’s puruṣārtha (the Sanskrit word equivalent to free will or choice).

In conclusion, the connotation of karma, meaning results of actions of previous lives, does not mean it is totally deterministic. Fate or destiny, as commonly understood is not the correct way to look at one’s karma. The other meaning, the primary etymological meaning of the same word karma is action. Exercise of free will, that is, choice is karma, meaning action. This also is a very important and relevant topic that needs exploration, and I will take it up in my next blog post.