In the blog post Karma and Dharma Karma and dharma, I wrote that human birth is due to prārabdhakarma, a fraction of sañcitakarma, the soul’s total karmic load and that Karma is not Fate. Prārabdhakarma is a mixture of both puṇyakarma and pāpakarma. While puṇyakarma, the result of righteous actions from previous births, gives rise to pleasurable experiences in one’s life, pāpakarma, the result of unrighteous actions yields unpleasant or uncomfortable life experiences.
It is natural for all living beings including humans to avoid uncomfortable situations. The uniqueness of the human being is that he / she can exercise free will, however limited it may be, to overcome many of them . But in everyone’s life there will be situations that defy remedy by available methods. Under those conditions, one who believes in Karma and Īśvara, God, seeks to remedy the situation by resorting to religious actions called prāyaścittakarma, expiatory action, centered on God. In this blog post we elaborate on this aspect of action, called remedial action..
Reducing the Effect of Pāpakarma in this Life – the Role of Prayer
When one encounters hardships in life, it can be explained as a way for the soul to experience pāpakarma. Indians call it ‘bad karma’. These hardships can take the form of the loss of a loved one, a serious illness that can be physical or mental, loss of one’s livelihood, a natural calamity and so on. Human efforts to deal with them, from the karma angle are attempts to reduce this karmic effect.
In life, more often than not one cannot be successful in overcoming obstacles despite one’s best efforts. Instead of giving up, saying ‘it is my fate’ or ‘it is my bad karma’ or, worse still, blaming others or the world, a religious person can resort to prayer instead. Note that prayer is in addition to and not in place of the best human efforts. This action, called an expiatory act in religious literature, necessarily brings in the Hindu concept of God.
Prayer is common among all religions of the world. Western religions do not subscribe to karma, action and karmaphala, the consequence of one’s actions, that accrue to the soul, or to its rebirth. The expiatory rites, also called acts of atonement are primarily for ‘sins’ committed in this life. Note however, prayers and pilgrimages to holy shrines seeking cure from physical or mental diseases are not uncommon in those religions. These acts also come under the umbrella of prāyaścittakarma from the perspective of Hindu thought.
The major differences in Hinduism compared to Western religions are (1) the understanding of the role of prayer within the karma framework and (2) the multi-layered concept of the nature of God and His / Her role in helping people to reduce the effects of pāpakarma, as well as getting rid of all karma for the one interested in mokṣa, liberation.
In this blog post my focus is on the role of prayer to reduce if not annul the effect of one’s pāpakarma.
Different Types of Karma in the Tradition
Since prāyaścittakarma is discussed here, it is appropriate at this point to briefly discuss other types of karma recognized in the Hindu tradition. Though this analysis is not directly related to the topic, for the sake of completeness of analysis, these must be included. They are: kāmya-karma, niṣkāmya-karma, vihita-karma and niṣiddha-karma. Since any type of karma by definition will add to the soul’s karmic load, we will briefly discuss all types of actions and their results.
Kāmya-karma, Desire-prompted Action: Any action undertaken by a human being is prompted by desire. The basic desire common to all living beings is to continue to live; but human beings have an additional layer of desires beyond this. And it is in pursuit of fulfillment of these that dharma and adharma and consequent accrual of puṇya and pāpa come in. In general, desire-prompted action will add to the karmic load differently based on whether or not the action is undertaken in accordance with dharma. The intensity of one’s desire often drives one toward overriding the need to follow dharma, and this in turn results in adding to the load of pāpa. Scrupulously following the dictates of dharma will however add to the load of puṇya. Either way one ends up adding to the total karmic load on the soul, perpetuating the cycle of life and death, otherwise called samsāra.
Niṣkāmya-karma, Action Not Centered on One’s Selfish Desires: In contrast to self-centered desire-prompted actions, one can perform many a selfless act in life. This can arise due to a sense of empathy, compassion or a desire to follow a dharmic practice like charity as a scriptural injunction. If the underlying saṅkalpa, clear conviction or intention, is that one wants out of this puṅya-pāpa cycle (in other words, if one is clear that one’s basic desire is for mokṣa, freedom), tradition says such actions are non-binding. That is, there will be no addition to the karmic load, but there will still be results in this life itself, such as developing clarity of mind, a mind that is less and less buffeted by impulsive urges to act. An extension of this attitude toward any action is the well known karma-yoga concept described in the Bhagavadgīta.
Vihita-karma, Action Enjoined by the Tradition: The life of a Hindu is governed by scriptural injunctions that mandate certain actions. These enjoined actions can be nitya-karma, daily actions (e.g. scriptural study, daily prayers) and naimittika-karma, actions for certain occasions (e.g. rituals at birth of a child, initiation to Vedic study, marriage, end-of-life rituals).
Niṣiddha-karma, Actions Prohibited by the Tradition: Prohibited actions are those that are not dharmic – they can be ordinary unethical actions (stealing, lying) with a religious overload or purely scripturally prohibited actions.
Prāyaścittakarma, Remedial Action to Mitigate Unfavorable Effects of Pāpakarma: This remedial action is prayer. The necessary ingredient for prayer is acceptance of a Being above all that we know in this phenomenal world. This Being is otherwise denoted by the common, though loaded word God.
The common issue one faces regarding prayer as prāyaścittakarma, is that it does not seem to work always – there are at least as many who pray but their wish to overcome a difficulty is not fulfilled, as those who can attest to the fact that prayer indeed was effective. To understand the role of prayer, one has to discuss the Hindu concept of God and how it dovetails with karma framework.
The Multi-layered Hindu Concept of God
My prefered Sanskrit word equivalent to God is Īśvara. It is derived from the verb Īś meaning to rule, to lord over. The more apt English term would thus be The Lord, a phrase common in Christianity. There is no easy way to characterize God. I think the following Sanskrit verse succinctly states about God.
“Oh Effulgent One! I know not the Truth of You, how, what or where You are.
Oh Great Lord, whatever, whoever or wherever You are, my salutations!” l
In Hinduism the idea of God covers a large spectrum.
- The totally dualistic view of God the Creator, different from the creation and the souls that are incarnated in different physical bodies. This God-World-Me separation is taken as the basis for worship and prayer. Many believe that the role of the human being is to worship God and that by the Grace of God the human being will be saved. After death the person resides in Heaven with God. This is what one commonly observes in Hindu practices of temple worship as well as worship at an altar in people’s homes. This is not too different from western religions.
- God is described with multifarious anthropomorphic forms including with non-human head(s), multiple arms and legs. One typically encounters these as idols in temples and as described in very many purāṇa-s, mythologies. The central theme is that God takes these forms to protect the innocent and punish cruel demonic ones who are against dharma.
- There are many purāṇas (mythologies), based on this concept of World-God dualism with the anthropomorphic representation of God and Goddess. There are about 18 purāna-s in which many other Gods and their exploits are described. They provide a rich source of stories that enthrall both the young as well as not so young even today. An Indian publishing house has taken up the task of making a scholarly translation of these works in English for the benefit of most of us who do not know Sanskrit.2 There are also many such works in many regional languages.
- Not unlike God in Western religions there is also the Hindu idea that God is One. With reference to the three features one observes in this phenomenal world – creation, sustenance and dissolution – the one God is represented as Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Śiva respectively, often referred to as the Hindu Trinity, like the Christian Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
- Intelligence and Power: Creation presupposes knowledge and power. Power of knowledge (śakti) is represented as the Goddess Sarasvatī, consort of Brahmā. Sustenance needs the power of wealth, and this is Goddess Laksmī, Viṣṇu’s wife. And, destruction needs power, represented by Durgā, Śiva’s spouse. In actual practice, to an ardent devotee of any Goddess or God, his/her God represents all three aspects of creation, sustenance and destruction as well as knowledge and power rolled into one, which the devotee worships. This favorite God, called iṣṭadevatā in Sanskrit need not be the Gods described above. It can be Ganeśa, Kārtikeya, Rāma, Kṛṣṇa and others. The common expression used in the West is ‘the Hindu pantheon’. But for an informed Hindu, this popular expression only shows lack of an in-depth understanding of the Hindu idea of God.
- The physical forms of the God/ Goddess represented and worshipped separately in temples in India do not mean that they are separate. That they are inseparable is seen in the icon of Ardhanārīsvara with the right side as the male form and the left as the female form. Poet Kālidāsa expresses this inseparability by the simile of the inseparability of a word and its meaning in his invocatory verse in Raghuvamśa3
- The Yoga system of Patañjali, on the other hand treats Īśvara, God as a special puruṣa, soul who, unlike other souls is not conditioned by karma. 4 God, souls and prakṛti, Nature are independent realities.
- No God is postulated in the karma-kāṇḍa, the ritual section of the Vedas, to grant the wishes of ritualists. The view is that the very acts themselves yield the desired result due to the power inherent in rituals, called apūrva. There is thus no need to postulate the presence of an independent single conscious entity to bestow the result of Vedic rituals. Note that the Vedas are not ‘Godless’, in the sense of being atheistic! A number of devatā-s, deities/Gods are mentioned, including the Hindu Trinity and their consorts. There are several hymns dedicated to them. The only difference is there is no single overarching God. The Hindu view is that the Vedas are Divine, more akin to western Holy scriptures. The word Veda in Sanskrit means knowledge, and a Hindu considers the book as a source of knowledge.
- In contrast to the karma-kāṇḍa, the jñāna-kāṇḍa, knowledge section of the same Vedas, also known as the Upaniṣads, or Vedānta (end portion of the vedas) has a totally different vision of God and world. This section of the Vedas has a non-dualistic vision. Sometimes one sees a similar vision in mystical literature in the West. The non-duality underlying the perceived Creator-Created duality is the pāramārthikasattā, Absolute Reality. This Reality, called Brahman, Conscious Limitless Being, is the substratum of all the observed world-man, man-God and God-world duality. From the standpoint of the perceived phenomenal world, the duality of souls, world and God is not imaginary or illusory but real, thus validating the role of prayer and karma. This reality of duality is called vyāvahārika-sattā, relative reality. As a student of science, this makes me think of the reality of atoms being discrete entities from the standpoint of chemistry, though in the reality of modern physics, there are no discrete Daltonian atoms; the reality is mostly just empty space with very little ‘matter’, and this too present in a way difficult to define categorically. But within the level of chemistry the acceptance of discrete atoms does not impinge on or interfere with any of the laws of chemistry.
Despite the diverse movements of idol worship, pantheism, polytheism, panentheism, henotheism and so on, in practice any informed Hindu understands that the physical representation is just a form symbol to focus the mind on the One-Beyond-Many conceptualization. When the conditions are right and the mind has enough focus, one transitions from this worship through physical form to the mental repetition of sounds called mantra-s which are specific to the God of one’s choice. The idea here is to provide a basis of worship suited to a diversity of situations and people, rather than to force fit one way to all with a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude.
The Role of God in prayer to mitigate the effect of karma
My Vedanta teacher used to illustrate the role of Īśvara 5 by comparing it to the application of Nature’s laws; if one trips and falls breaking a leg, one does not blame Nature. Nor does one say that Nature blesses us by our success in launching a rocket beyond the gravitational pull. Similarly, neither can human beings attribute their misfortunes to God’s capriciousness, or the receipt of prayed-for results to God’s favoritism.
In contrast to our notion of Nature, which we consider to be inert and insentient, Īśvara, God is considered to be a Sentient Being according to all religious theologies. Three words attributed to God are Omnipotence, Omniscience and Omnipresence. The equivalent Sanskrit words used in Hindu thought are sarvaśaktimān, sarvajñaḥ and sarvāntaryāmī, respectively. From the karma viewpoint, however, Īśvara has two roles – as karmādhyakṣa, or overlord of all karma, and also karmaphaladātā, the giver of the fruits of one’s karma. Īśvara’s role is to follow the laws of karma.
If one experiences a series of misfortunes or gains an unexpected fortune in life, the Lord’s role has been just that of the giver of the results of that person’s puṇya or pāpa karma, the fraction of the total karmic load or prārabdha-karma that has been given through this human body for the soul to experience. This idea frees God from the notion of being uncompassionate or capricious or beneficent or vengeful.
Prayer is a volitional act or karma by a human being with a specific saṅkalpa, an intent to seek relief from a difficult situation in life. Since every karma has to have a result, God, as karmaphaladāta, giver of fruit of karma, bestows upon the devotee the result commensurate to the action of prayer.
Why Prayer is Not Answered All the Time
We all know that our prayers are not answered all the time. The result of prayer appears to be random. The explanation based on the karma framework is as follows: prayer is a karma that is pitted against the unknown force of pāpa karma. And the Lord as the giver of the result of an action has no partiality to the devotee which could lead Him / Her to override the karmic force if the counter effort of prayer is not strong enough. This does not mean the Lord is either unkind or capricious. Since a priori we do not and cannot know the power of karma, religious traditions always recommend prayer as a means of seeking Divine help to get over difficulties not amenable to other efforts.
Praying for Others
A related issue is how to explain the role of prayer on others’ behalf within a karma framework. This selfless act of prayer is common across all religions. In the Hindu tradition, it is common to offer a daily prayer for the good of all beings in the world before one goes to bed. The karma concept extends to all beings. Thus when a priest or a well-wisher performs an act of prayer for the wellbeing of a person, this interacts with that person’s karmic load. In my own life, when a member of my family was gravely ill, our relatives in different parts of India offered special prayers for her recovery, and the effect was nothing short of miraculous. I have to add here that the person was given the best medical attention possible, and prayer may have added the unquantifiable plus that made the difference. When our family was going through this period of intense and directed prayer activity, I was reminded of some lines I memorized while I was in school, from Morte D’ Arthur by Tennyson, a 19th century English poet.
“More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.”
I also remember a favorite verse of my father from Śivānandalaharī by the 8th century Advaita exponent Śaṅkarācārya with the following statement in the last line – ‘Oh! What devotion cannot accomplish”.6
Prārabdhakarma, the fraction of the total karmic load that results in a human birth for a jīva, the soul, is a mixture of puṇya and pāpa karmas, the latter giving rise to painful or unpleasant life experiences for the human. Despite the best efforts by the person, if such experiences do not get better and if he or she has a belief system, there is a way to resort to remedial action, called prāyaścittakarma and this is a kind of prayer to Īśvara, the Lord.
There can be a complete or partial remedy of the situation as a result of this remedial action centered on God. His/Her role in the result is simply one of karmaphaladātā, giver of the result of one’s action and not as a special favor to the devotee praised. But if the remedial action is not adequate when pitted against the pāpa karma force, the effect can be less than total removal of the obstacle, or in some instances the prayer may have no impact at all. This too, based on the karma framework does not mean that God does not care since He / She is also the giver of the result of all actions, including the pāpa karma. The karma concept thus explains how prayer works sometimes but not always. It also helps one to own up to one’s karma, whether done in this lifetime or in previous lives. A natural consequence of this is not to excuse oneself and blame others for misfortunes. Nor does it allow a person to gloat about great successes in life, since this too is the result of puṇya-karma in addition to exercising best efforts for success.
1Tava tattvam na jānāmi kīdṛśosi mahādeva
Yādṛśosi maheśvara, tādṛśāya namo namaḥ.
2Mahapuranas ISBN(Hardbound): 8120802896, 978812080289, Translated into English 100 Vols. by J.L Shastri, G.P. Bhatt Motilal Banarsidass
3 Vāgarthāviva smpṛktau vāgarthapratipattaye Jagatafpitarau vande Pārvatīparameśvarau.
4 Kleśkarmavipākāairaparāmṣṭapuruṣaviśeṣa Īśvaraḥ. (yogasūtra 1:24)
5For those with a smattering of Sanskrit knowledge – note that the masculine gender form used here does not mean that God is a male! As Jewish mystic tradition mentions, it is impossible to attribute sex to that One from whom creation came about. It is just that gender is formal in Sanskrit, more akin to German and French than to English.
6 “…..Bhaktiḥ kim na karoti …….” (Saundaryalaharī, Verse 63)
I thank my dear friend, one of my gurubhais, Richard Goeller for his insightful comments and technical editing.