The theory of Karma is the application of the law of cause and effect to moral experience. The law of karma means that all actions good or bad, produce their consequences in the life of the individual who acts, provided they are performed with a desire to the fruits thereof. Now if some good or bad actions are thus found to produce certain good or bad effects in the present life, it is quite reasonable to maintain that all actions will produce their proper effects in this or another life of the individuals who act. The Law of karma is this general moral law which governs not only the life and destiny of all individuals but even the order and arrangement of the physical world. But on the psychological level the law of karma affirms the freedom of the self. Freedom is a real possibility and the individual can control his desires and direct them in a proper channel by virtue of his discrimination and reason.
Life is not a meaningless accident but a continuous process. Process means change or becoming. Life consists of events and their inter-relations. In a sense the whole life is one complete event of which relations are parts or partial aspects. Change however is not mere change, it is development. It is not a mere passage or transition from one stage of being to another. The very character of life as process means that each successive step or moment of the process is modified by all that has gone before and in its turn modifies all that comes after it. This is true of all life-physical, vital and psychological. Life is governed by two principles – Desire fulfillment and Law of Karma. Desire is the most potent force in our life and early or late all our desires get fulfilled. We get whatever we desire and work for, but at the same time we have to undergo the good or evil effects of our deeds in accordance with the strict principle of retribution. This principle of retribution is known as the Law of Karma. All our voluntary acts which affect others agreeably or disagreeably are rewarded or punished in accordance with the strict law of justice or Karma. This law of karma is just and properly maintained; cosmic justice demands that there should be strict and equable retribution in nature since there is an arrangement in it to keep balance of actions and reaction. Hence no one can escape or evade the good or evil consequences of his deeds accruing to him. If he does not meet the consequence in life here and now, he can meet in some other life, for life is vast and varied.
The ego also does not die out completely. The doer of the deeds does never vanish into nothingness. There would be chaos and rule of injustice in the universe, if one were to cease to exist without having undergone the consequences of his deeds. Death is only a change in our life; it shuts the physical world from us and awakens us into a subtler world. Why are we drawn to this physical world? It is because we have entertained many desires connected with this world which still remain to be fulfilled, and because we have to undergo the consequences of the deeds done in the our previous lives on this plane. Our desires and our record of deeds bring us back to the physical plane. Life here presupposes a life there to account for the inequalities of circumstances.
Pre-existence and post-existence are implied in the law of Karma. Rebirth or reincarnation is not only a postulate, but a fact. Some of the Western thinkers of modern times like Shirley have appreciated these two doctrines of Karma and reincarnation as worthy of acceptance. The law of Karma proclaims that we get what we give, we reap what we sow. Man has power to act but his power ends with the act committed. The effect of the act cannot be altered, annulled or escaped. The theory of Karma is the application of the law of cause and effect to moral experience. The law of karma means that all actions good or bad, produce their consequences in the life of the individual who acts, provided they are performed with a desire to the fruits thereof. Now if some good or bad actions are thus found to produce certain good or bad effects in the present life, it is quite reasonable to maintain that all actions will produce their proper effects in this or another life of the individuals who act. The Law of karma is this general moral law which governs not only the life and destiny of all individuals but even the order and arrangement of the physical world. But on the psychological level the law of karma affirms the freedom of the self. Freedom is a real possibility and the individual can control his desires and direct them in a proper channel by virtue of his discrimination and reason. Fatalism or determination is a misrepresentation of the theory of Karma. Fate or destiny is nothing but the collective force of one’s own actions performed in past lives. It can be overcome by efforts of this life, if they are sufficiently strong, just as the course of old habits can be counteracted by the cultivation of new and opposite habits.
Not in action but in desire, not in action but in attachment to its fruit lies the binding force of karma. An action is performed with a desire to enjoy its fruits, the soul is expectant and nature replies to it, it has demanded and nature awards. So every cause is bound to it effect, every action to its fruit, and desire is the cord that links them together. If this could be cut as under the connection would cease and when all the bonds of the heart are broken then the soul is free. The wheel of cause and effect may continue to turn but the soul remains unaffected.
Our desires are innumerable and unlimited. Many of them conflict with each other. We have to choose some and reject others. Man is a rational being and is endowed with a power of discrimination and control; with the help of this power he should bring about an order in the realm of desires. Some of them are for enjoyment of the pleasures of the world while others are for moral perfection and spiritual freedom. Indian thinkers realized that the whole of human life should not be dedicated to pursuit of wealth and pleasure, for the real man, the spirit within becomes atrophied by them alone. The Kathopanishad classified all the desires under two heads namely, the preya, pleasant ones and the shreya, good ones. The Upanishad emphasized that the latter should be preferred to the former. The Indian thinkers did not altogether connive at the accumulation of wealth and enjoyments of pleasure, for they knew that acquisitiveness and sex were very powerful drives of man. But they also knew that unbridled enjoyment of sensual pleasures would lead to bodily exhaustion, disease and social inharmony. Hence they have to be guided and controlled by Dharma, that is, by righteous means and moral principles such as truth, honesty, self-control, fellow feeling and moderation. The Indian thinkers knew that the law of Karma is at the bottom of law of Moral order, a law that makes for regularity and righteousness and works in all times and climes. This inviolable moral order is termed Rita in the Veda. This idea gradually shaped itself into the Mimamsa concept of Apurva, the law that guarantees the future enjoyment of the fruits of rituals performed now; into the Nyaya-Vaiseshika theory of adrashta the unseen principle which sways over the material atoms and brings about subjects and events in accordance with moral principles; into the theory of dependent origination or pratitya samutpada of Buddhism and finally into the general concept of Karma accepted by all Indian systems.
The law of Karma works ingeniously in the building up of the human individual. In the early stages of the individual’s growth his progress will be extremely slow, for he will be led hither and thither by desires, following all reactions on the physical plane. The mental images he generates will be mostly of the form of passion and hence the psychic images will be violent and short lived rather than strong and far-reaching. According to the composition of the mental images, steady and sustained thought will form. During a man’s life the forms are innumerable assemblage of mental images; some are strong, clear and continually reinforced by repeated mental impulses; others are weak, vague and just formed. Each individual has his own consciousness crowded with these mental images, and all these mental images he carries away with him when he passes through death into the other planes. Mental images which have been constantly repeated with aspiration become tendencies of thought-grooves into which mental energy runs easily and readily. Hence is the importance of not letting the mind drift aimlessly and many insignificant objects idly creating trivial forms and letting them dwell in the mind.
These will persist and form channels for future outpourings of mental force which will be led to meander about on low levels, running into the accustomed grooves as the paths of least resistance. The mental images stored up by the memory as the experiences through which the individual has passed during his earthly-life, will also have to be worked on by individual. By the study of these and by meditation upon them, he learns all the lessons which they teach, “Lessons of pleasure and pain, of pleasure, of pleasure breeding pain and pain breeding pleasure; lessons of success and failure, of achievement and disappointment, of fears proving groundless, of hopes failing realization, of strength collapsing under the trial, of false knowledge betraying itself as ignorance, of patient endurance wresting victory from apparent defeat, of recklessness changing into defeat – On all these the individual ponders and the law of Karma with the conscious effort of the individual transmutes all this experience into the gold of wisdom, so that he may return to the earth plane as a wiser soul.”
It is from the mental images of experiences that conscience is born and is developed. The individual during his successive earth-lives is constantly led by desire to rush after some attractive object and in his pursuit he dashes himself against Law and falls bruised. Many such experiences teach that gratification sought against Law are but series of pain, and the memory of past experiences asserts itself as conscience. It cries aloud its forbiddance when the astral body would carry the individual into enjoyment which is determined to the higher pursuits of the soul. Here the will to obey sets the individual in line with the Divine Will on the higher planes, gives him the joy of fuller knowledge of God in nature, of self conscious accord with the law of life and self-conscious co-operation in the work of evolution. Thus the Law of Karma, working with mental images, transforms aspirations and desires into capacities, repeated thoughts into tendencies, will to perform into actions, sound experiences into wisdom and painful experiences into conscience.
The Law of Karma, that works in all its might on the physical, mental and moral planes, ceases to be all-powerful on the spiritual plane. On the religious level, Karma loses its might and assumes an attitude of surrender to God. Mukti or spiritual freedom would be impossible if divine justice functioned through mathematical rigour of the law of Karma. Religion therefore requires that the legal concept of Karma should be transformed into the religious concept of Kripa. Kripa or the grace of God transfigures the rigorous law of Karma and becomes the redemptive principle of religion. From this point of view even the law of retribution has redemption as its inner motive, for the law of retribution does not inspire any hope of Mukti or salvation, while the law of redemption leads to salvation. The dualism between karma and kripa cannot be overcome by mere ethics or ethical religion. The seriousness of the moral consciousness and the reality of the sinfulness of sin fail to bring out the spontaneity and freedom of the divine life. This defect is removed by the loving nature of God who is the ruler as well as the redeemer. The individual soul achieves his spiritual freedom by immediate contact with God.
The whole discussion of the theory of Karma, in its last analysis, amounts to this that Karma is the result of knowledge, that it is the spontaneous expression of real understanding. By knowledge is meant the appreciation of the truth that God is the all-doer, without this appreciation no Karma, no moral activity is worth recognizing. Those who hold that Karma is prior to knowledge on the supposition that it gives purity of mind labour under the false sense of agency. It is the possession of knowledge that makes out morally pure. The thought of individual doership is a case of illusion for God is the all-doer. The appreciation of the all-doership of God does not make an individual inactive but makes him full of activity. Hence to think that an individual is the doer is to arrest activity.
Karma or activity of the individual becomes free and spontaneous only when he realizes that it is the supreme energy which works through him. This does not negate the individual, only negates the illusion of personal doership which restricts the range of activity. There are some Existentialists who separate essence from human existence and assert that there is no God and no objective value. But it is difficult to realize how and to whom I am still responsible especially when there is no standing I to bear the burden. It is good to be reminded that in our real existence we enjoy an inner subjective Being, call it God or Truth which in its depth cannot be reached or represented by any generality.
– OM SHANTI | OM SHANTI | OM SHANTIHI –
This article ‘The Theory of Karma’ is taken from H.H.Mahatapasvi Shri Kumarswamiji’s book, ‘Dimensions of Yoga’.