Karma (consequence of action),
svarga (heaven) and mokṣa (freedom)
Karma, consequence of action: In my previous three blogs I covered a few topics centered on karma – that it is not fate, what dharma is, and the role of prayer in mitigating karma’s effects.The word karma has two distinct meanings. One, the actual etymological meaning of the word, is action. The other is the more popular meaning in the world at large: the result of action, more precisely called karmaphala. There is a better English word for karmaphala, namely ‘‘consequence of action”. If the word is used in this sense, karma implies that every deliberate action has a consequence, not just within this birth but one that gets added to the soul’s store of ‘consequences’, that is, sañcitakarma .
Svarga, heaven: This Sanskrit word is derived from the verb ṛj (to obtain, acquire, gain) with the prefix su (well) and suffix a (to arrive at the noun form). Thus etymologically it means a state acquired or gained. That is, one gains svarga after death due to deliberate actions performed in this world while alive. The English word nearest in meaning to Svarga is Heaven.
Mokṣa, freedom: This Sanskrit word is derived from the verb muc meaning to liberate, to release, to be free. Another synonym for mokṣa is mukti, also derived from the same verb. There are many words pointing to the same meaning in different philosophical systems of India and of the rest of the world – nirvāṇa, satori, asamprajñāta-samādhi, nirvikalpa-samādhi, liberation, freedom, salvation – to name a few.
These two words, svarga and mokṣa are well known to most Hindus and to those who are familiar with Indic culture, with diverse religions subscribing to different philosophies and theologies. Despite this diversity of Indic systems, there is a common thread, one of freedom for the saṁsārin, the human being, from this world called saṁsāra.
The two words heaven and liberation mean two different ends that can be sought by a human being. In the current blog post we discuss the idea of svarga and will take up the concept of mokṣa in later posts.
The idea of svarga, heaven is common to almost all religions of the world, not unique to Hinduism, though details and descriptions of heavens differ. The commonality is that one reaches heaven after death as a result of righteous actions performed while living on this earth. The opposite, naraka or hell also has commonality in all theologies in that unrighteous actions performed on the earth result in a trip to this place after death.
The meaning of righteous and unrighteous actions, called dharmika or adharmika karma, starts at the societal level, centered on actions that maintain harmonious living. Thus it includes desisting from actions such as stealing, telling lies, coveting others’ possessions, greed etc. In addition, there is a set of positive actions to engage in — charity, helping the needy, selfless actions and so on. Religious theologies postulate ‘consequences’ to these actions that accrue in another world, call it heaven or hell. No point is served in exploring hell since no one wants a continuation of suffering either here or hereafter in another place called hell.
Despite diversity of religions, there is a consensus that leading a righteous life in this world will result in the posthumous reward of heaven. There are differences relating to whether one goes to heaven with this earthly body or gets a different body or something else, but this also is not the focus of discussion here.
Eternal stay in svarga
This vision of heaven as the posthumous reward for leading a righteous life here is common to Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, particularly in bhakti-mārga, the path of total devotion to God. All these theologies postulate a heaven after death to be eternal. That is, there is no more suffering, including the suffering inherent in life on this earth being born again. The latter is a central focus for Hindus who believe in karma and thus countless rebirths on Earth. Thus, it is a common custom in India, even today to use the expression “xxxx gained Kailāsa (abode of Śiva), xxxx gained Vaikuṇṭha (abode of Viṣṇu)” in obituary notes reflecting this belief, in a way giving the benefit of doubt to the departed one that he or she is in the eternal heaven of the Lord.
Eternal Svarga-stay: reconcile with karma concept?
A person subscribing to the concept of karma may have difficulty in understanding this theological certainty of eternal stay in heaven. This is because sañcitakarma, the total load of ‘consequences of action’ is so vast that it cannot be exhausted in any number of human births. If one’s stay in svarga were eternal what happens then to this total accumulated karmic load, the sañcitakarma?
But no such conceptual contradiction arises in western religions since the belief system is based on the view that the current human birth for the soul is the only one and the karma in this life determines afterlife. But most religions of Indic origin subscribe to the concept of karma and consequent countless births and deaths.
A Hindu devotee does not have a problem with this either! Because the Hindu idea of God is that He/She is beyond the bounds of karma and is full of compassion for the Created. One of the names of God is Karuṇānidhi, repository of compassion. Out of compassion, God absolves the devotee of sañcitakarma, total accumulated karmic load, and at death of the body, the soul is totally free of rebirth and gains eternal stay in Heaven, the abode of his / her favorite God. This freedom from saṁsāra after death is expressed as eternal sojourn in Heaven, being in the Lord’s presence, be it Kailāsa (abode of Śiva), or Vaikuṇṭha (abode of Viṣṇu), or whatever the devotee believes in.
This may raise a valid question “If God were so compassionate, why does he not get rid of all of my karma now, so that I can start having an eternal stay in heaven instead of continuing to live in this limited world of pain and sorrow?” This is more a rhetorical one than real, since no human being who has a ‘normal’ life wants to die now for the promise of eternal heaven! This is illustrated by a story I heard somewhere. A small digression:
There was a dedicated pastor who lived in a small town tending his flock of believers. He went one day to a neighboring town and much to his dismay found a number of his parishioners gambling. He felt gambling was a sin, so the next time at the church he gave a sermon taking pains to explain the effects of sin and how it prevents the soul to enter heaven. At the end he accosted his audience “Those who want to go to heaven, go to the right side of this hall”. All moved to the right except an old man with a cane. The pastor was shocked and asked him “Why, you do not want to go to heaven? Do you want help to move over to the other side of the chapel?” The man replied, “Padre, I thought you asked us about going to heaven now. I do not want to die today to go there!”
Joke apart, this represents the desire for any living being not to die “now”. And, God the Compassionate One does not end the devotee’s life! His/Her reason for not taking the devotee right away to heaven is also based on, and not incompatible with karma theory: this life is the result of fructification of a portion of total accumulated karma, and is called prārabdha-karma. It is more like an arrow that has been taken out of the quiver, attached to the bow, aimed at a target and let go. Once the arrow has left the bow, it cannot be stopped even by the archer. Thus God, the One who is the Lord (in charge of doling out to the soul all karmic load) cannot stop the effect of what has already begun. This seems to be a satisfying explanation to a devotee, if ever he were to venture asking such a question, which is construed as questioning God’s Limitless Powers.
There is another way to look at this issue by going to the very foundation of karma theory. Karma is the subtle result that accrues to the soul, the result of a deliberate action undertaken by the human being (or similar being capable of deliberate action). An action is typically possible only by total identification of the person with his or her mind and body, that is, ego and desire-prompted actions arising in the mind. If one surrenders the ego at the altar of God and performs all actions as an offering to God, then the person can gain the vision that there is nothing but God, dissolving his ego-centered individuality.
Such a true devotion is defined as bhakti by the sage Narada in his Bhaktisūtra:
परमप्रेमस्वरूपा भक्तिः। सा त्वनन्या।
Paramapremasvarūpā bhaktiḥ, sā tu ananyā.
“Devotion is of the form of limitless Love, it however does not allow otherness”
Lord Kṛṣna states this in simpler terms in bhakti-yoga chapter in Bhagavadgītā:
मय्येव मन आधत्स्व मयि बुद्धिं निवेशय।
निवसिष्यसि मय्येव अथ ऊर्द्ध्वं न संशयः।।
Mayyeva mana ādhatsva mayi buddhiṁ niveśaya
Nivasiṣyasi mayyeva atha ūrdhvaṁ na samśayaḥ. (12:8)
May you fix your mind in me, may your intellect be directed towards me,
You will indeed reside in me, there is no doubt (about this).
Again, in a different chapter he says
यत्करोषि यदश्नासि यज्जुहोषि ददासि यत्।
यत्तपस्यसि कौन्तेय तत्कुरुष्व मदर्पणम्।।
Yat karoṣi yadaśnāsi, yajjuhoṣi dadāsi yat
Yattapasyasi Kaunteya tat kuruṣva madarpaṇam. (9-27)
Whatever you do, enjoy, offer as a sacrifice, or give
Whatever austerities you perform, Kaunteya! May you do it as an offering to Me! (9-17)
Svarga only as temporary sojourn – The Contrarian Vedic View and gaining Mokṣa
In contrast to this Bhakti-view, both Sāṅkhya and the Vedānta (the last section of Vedas) take a different view of heaven – that it cannot be eternal, that any heaven gained by action for a limited time while alive must result only in a limited duration of stay in Heaven, and the soul will get back to this earth endowed with a physical body. This more logical view appeals to me. These systems say that the only place where one can gain total freedom, that is mokṣa, is on this earth where the soul is reincarnated as the indweller in a human body. An elaboration of this contrarian thought of svarga as a return trip to the Earth, the reason for the sense of bondage and the way to gain mokṣa constitute topics of my next few posts.
I thank my dear friend and gurubhai, Richard Goeller for his helpful comments and edits.