In my blog post last month I introduced the word karma, meaning the results of actions that accrue over an infinite number of incarnations of jīva, the soul, as a human being. To summarize – Karma that is related to a soul is three fold
- Sañcitakarma, total karmic load
- Āgāmikarma, future karmic load that will accumulate when the jīva incarnates again as a human being, and,
- Prārabdha-karma, the infinitesimal fraction of the total karmic load, that gives the soul a physical body. This fraction of the karmic load can give rise to the birth of a plant or animal or a human being on Earth.
The type of body that a soul enters depends on prārabdha-karma. If this is all puṇya-karma, the soul incarnates as different gods (depending on the karmic load) in many heavens described in Indian tradition. If it is all pāpa-karma, the soul is born in a body appropriate to exhaust that karmic load. In both these two types of incarnations, the soul can only exhaust prārabdha-karma. On the other hand, if this prārabdha-karma is a mixture of puṇya-karma and pāpa-karma, the soul incarnates as a human being. According to the Karma concept, both puṇya-karma and pāpa-karma are acquired by the soul in human incarnations only, which are considered to be infinite, thus resulting in endless transmigrations of the soul, till it is liberated.
According to the concept of karma, being born as a human being is unique because, among all living beings, only the human can
- Add to future karmic load by performing any karma, action.
- Reduce the bad effects of past karma that brought about this birth by performing remedial actions – well known in many religions as acts of expiation (called prayaścitta-karma), and also
- Perform actions directed towards what is called mokṣa, salvation or freedom from total karmic load.
In this blog post I plan to focus only on actions that lead to āgāmikarma, that is, addition to future karmic load.
Adding to future karmic load (āgāmikarma) by actions
What is action?
One can wonder what kind of actions count toward adding to future karmic load. Obviously, actions necessary for maintaining the body such as breathing, eating, sleeping and other bodily functions do not contribute to this addition. Only volitional actions contribute toward addition to karmic load. For example, though eating is not an action that can generate an additional karmic load, stealing food for fulfilling one’s hunger is an action that will result in addition to it.
This ability of choice in action by the human being is illustrated by a favorite saying of one of my Vedānta teachers “If a donkey feels like kicking, it kicks; it cannot but do so. But if you feel like kicking somebody, you have choice. It is this choice that differentiates you from the donkey.”
In India, the words karma (meaning action), dharma and duty are sometimes used interchangeably. Webster’s New World Unabridged Dictionary defines the word dharma – “In Buddhism and Hinduism, religious observances, conformity to the Law, duty, virtue.”
What is Dharma?
Etymologically, the Sanskrit word dharma is derived from the verb meaning ‘that which sustains the world’. Based on etymology alone, this applies to any action undertaken by the human being to sustain the society, ecology and natural systems of the world. Thus one can say the word inherently has no religious connotation of heaven or hell, sin or virtue. But, primarily this word is used in a religious connotation and thus is centered on religious laws and religious codes of conduct. Thus any action that conforms to the tenets of a religious code of conduct is called right or righteous action, and also called dharmic action. Actions contrary to this code of conduct are unrighteous or wrong, or adharmic actions. If one looks at all religions of the world, one sees that many ‘shalls‘ and ‘shall nots’ are but a religious overlay on actions that sustain the world.
And this potential to choose dharmic life is what separates a human being from animals. All animals including humans have the ability to choose what is necessary for perpetuation of life, though to varying degrees. Mere choice for maintaining life is not the point here. But ability to choose the right action, that is dharmic action, is the mark of a human being. A Mahābhārata verse describes this unique difference between human beings and animals thus.
“Food, sleep, copulation and fear are common to animals and humans.
What is special for a human being is dharma.
Being devoid of dharma is equivalent to being an animal.”1
In Hindu thought, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ action is only adding a religious dimension to actions typically considered socially responsible or ethical or moral actions. Though one does not have to be religious to choose to act ethically, from the religious standpoint, any action, whether ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ (righteous or unrighteous, dharmic or adharmic) results in addition to the karmic load; right action adds to puṇya, called virtue, while wrong action adds to pāpa, sin. But both result in further impetus for rebirth, in order to exhaust one’s puṇya-karma and pāpa-karma through experiences during the life of a living being.
It is neither easy to understand the concept of dharma and adharma (not-dharma), nor to choose to perform only dharmic actions, eschewing all adharmic actions. Even if one focuses primarily on common sense moral and ethical actions, without delving into complexity of dharma, the human being is unable to desist from all adharmic acts due to the pressure of impulses. Leading a life driven by one’s impulses, that is, following impulses is far easier than deliberately choosing dharma, the right thing to do. This human condition is expressed by king Duryodhana in Mahābhārata:
” I know what is dharma but have no inclination to follow,
and know what is adharma but am unable to desist….”.2
According to the concept of karma, this assiduous avoidance of doing the right thing and tendency to do the wrong thing will add to the karmic load of pāpā. What is less understood however is that the opposite is also true – undertaking right actions by leading a deliberate way of life will add to the puṇya karmic load as well. Thus, no matter what the human being does, there is potential for adding to the karmic load, and hence rebirths. This idea is highlighted by Saint Rāmānuja’s saying that while pāpā is like an iron shackle, puṇya is a shackle made of gold. His teaching is that both are going to bind you to future births by adding to the karmic load and one’s real goal should be to get out from under it all.
I do not discuss here the complexity of dharma since this is a big topic. Any human being can face such conflicts in life, and the solution typically consists in choosing the greater good not based on selfish ends. What is dharmic under one set of conditions can be adharmic under a different set of conditions. Many of our epics and mythologies highlight this complexity as it is played through characters such as Rāma in Rāmāyaṇa, Yudhiṣṭhira and Karṇa in Mahābhārata, to mention a few.
Prārabdha-karma, the infinitesimal fraction of the total karmic load gives the soul a physical body to exhaust the karmic load. As a human being endowed with the ability to choose a righteous / dharmic or unrighteous / adharmic action, the soul in this embodiment will add to the karmic load.
Two other possibilities exist for soul incarnated as a human being. They are (1) the ability to remediate the effect of pāpā-karma in this life, which typically this manifests as an uncomfortable and / or unhappy life experience, and (2) the ability to eradicate the entire karmic load. How these two can be accomplished is the subject matter of subsequent blog posts.
1 Āhāranidrābhayamaithunam ca, sāmānyametat paśubhir narāṇām
Dharmo hi teṣām adhiko viśeṣo dharmeṇa hinaḥ paśhubhis samānaḥ.
2 Jānāmi dharmam na ca me pravṛttiḥ jānāmyadharmam na ca me nivṛttiḥ
[Tvayā hṛṣīkesa hṛdis sthitena yathā niyukto’smi tathā karomi. not cited].
I wish to express my thanks to Phillipe and Richard for their continued help in reviewing and
offering valuable suggestions to make my blog posts more effective.