The concept of Karma


S. Ainavolu

5/2/2022 6 min read


We often hear the word Karma. It is often heard in suffering contexts or to mean justice got done. The embeddedness of the notion of Karma in Indian ethos and culture is old and strong. Most of the “schools” in Indian Philosophy subscribe to the concept of Karma. Karma means work or action. It may also mean effort or action’s results. Karma is the effect of the action done consciously, with an expectation of a favourable result to self or unfavourable result to opponent. This gives a huge discerning ground and also possible nuances in interpreting. If any action is motivated by the outcome or “fruit” of the action, then Karma is applicable. So the outcome of the action, good or bad, becomes sticky with the person who planned and/or executed the action and the people who have had a hand in it. An extension of the above is, if the person or the doer is not motivated by the outcome and is discharging it as a duty, then the stickiness of the Karma won’t be there.

The process lag

Philosophy is said to be the mother of all knowledge systems. Newton’s third law says every action has an equal and opposite reaction and is similar to the concept of Karma. It sounds logical too. If the equation has to balance, the left and right-hand sides must match. If we are giving X input, then the output has to correspond to it, minus the process overheads (including losses, if any). In any small system, the result may be immediately visible upon action on inputs. For instance, if we pour a glass of water into another of the same size, the second gets full almost instantly. However, there may be examples like breaking a stone where a number of hits may be required to get it into pieces. There is a substantial delay or gestation period before the outcome appears in this case. We may appreciate that initial hits were required for making the structure weak, before finally it yielded.

Another example that gets quoted is that of Chinese bamboo, which may take years to appear to grow and grow fast during later years. These initial years were required to make the roots strong, strong enough to help it take the load of the fully grown entity. Similarly, there may be a lag or delay in case of Karma too. Thus, a difference exists when we mention Newton’s law where intuitively we mean an instant reaction. In the case of Karma, there may be a delay, short or long. We observe this lag in the case of Shishupala in Bhagawata Purana. Lord Krishna waited till hundred abuses were not completed. Thus, when the concept of Karma is discussed, it has the potential of holding up, and getting accumulated before the action happens. When the unleashing happens, it may be sudden or the outcome still can be in tranches.

Life is continuous

Most schools in Indian philosophy believe in the notion of life as continuity. Probably Charvaka school is an exception, which only counts and recognizes what is now and what is visible. Other schools are more complete and accept other “proofs” and also subscribe to the Karma notion. It is said that the birth-death-re-birth cycle continues till one achieves liberation. Thus, the closing balance of the previous life’s actions becomes the opening balance for the next life. This concept can be equated to the similar one used in the accounts. However, the subtle difference between the two is, in the accounts, when it is carried forward and available instantly. In the Karma concept, it may not be available instantly. Both good and bad Karma portions are drawn out for “undergoing” a chosen life. This is what we know as Prarabdha. The rest remains to be spent in the future.

Fruit or no fruit?

It is stated and believed that “Nishkama” Karma won’t generate a Karmic impression. Nishkama means without any attachment to the “fruit of the action” or the outcome. When the notion of self is not involved, the action performed is like a Yagnya or worship. If one is not craving for a specific result and doing the act of “doing” with all the detachment, then the stickiness of the Karma won’t affect such an actor, in that particular instance. Here, we have to note the point that the actor involved is not doing perfunctory actions or mere mechanical motions. He or she is serious in efforts and sincere in commitments. The efforts are for a definite outcome, but the person is not attached to the outcome's directionality or quantum. He/she had done the very best and left the outcome to “happen”. The important question is, how the nishkama karma happens or what can be called nishkama karma. The answer is simple and straight. Any action whose outcome may never benefit the actor in any manner, directly or indirectly, materially or otherwise, offer recognition or goodwill or similar, can only be called a nishkama karma. If the thought of the benefit exists, it can’t be called Nishkama.

Categories of Karma

Karma in terms of undergoing the effect of the work done is of two types; arabdha (Prarabdha) and anarabdha, meaning “begun” and “not yet begun,” respectively. The effects of cumulative actions get collected continuously. Only a portion of accumulated Karma gets expended in a given life. This we know as Prarabdha. One may have an opening stock of a hundred but only twenty has to be expended in this lifetime. So eighty still remains. In addition to this eighty, the individual shall do many acts because additional Karma accumulates in the present lifetime. Say this is ten. Thus, the closing balance for this life shall be (100 – 20 + 10) or ninety. This becomes Anarabdha Karma meaning “yet to begin” at the end. Closing balance in Accounting parlance. Anarabdha is again of two types: Sanchita, the Karma still pending from previous lives, and Sanchiyami, the Karma getting created in current life. In the above example, the Sanchita is eighty (100-20) and the Sanchiyami shall be the extra ten that got accumulated from this birth.

Another question that prevails is whether good Karma can negate the bad? In other words, one who did many negative acts can make the ill effects of these acts get cancelled through positive acts. The wise take the view that one has to undergo both the positive and the negative outcomes if these were done with an intent to gain from or were “non-Nishkama” acts. Puritan view about good and bad may be different but the intent behind it counts for such taking view. We have the story of Dharmavyadha, one who butchers animals for a living teaches the sage Kaushika when he approaches him on the advice of the housewife who snubs Kaushika for his arrongance, gained after burning a crow. The acts that are done as duty won’t generate Karmic stickiness is the understanding we can gain here.

Definitiveness of Karma

One important question often posed is whether Karma is definitive in the sense that it has to be “suffered or undergone”? Is it rigid? Here, there are two views. Some Indian Philosophical schools propose that the effect of Karma is autonomous to GOD and has to be mandatorily undergone. A few schools propose that GOD may moderate the Karma effects but the onus is on the individual to “become eligible” for divine grace. Many believe this happens through current life’s right conduct and repentance. Earning the grace of the GOD is proposed by a few schools through fasting, prevalent practice across overseas cultures. Charity is another means of “addressing”. Visiting pilgrim places is another. All with an intent of trying negating the negative Karma. Another confusing notion is how can bad people enjoy their current life and good people suffer around. In a typical 2X2 grid, bad-bad and good-good are easily understood. Good people ending up receiving bad things or bad people enjoying good things in life become difficult to explain otherwise. X-axis represents the nature of the person and the Y denotes the nature of the outcome.

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|| BAD-BAD | | GOOD-BAD ||

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Above, we appreciate by now that can be explained by the “carry forward” nature of the concept of Karma. Bad people enjoying good things can be explained as carrying a large positive balance. Good people suffering can be understood through a negative opening balance notion.

On a closing note

‘To be or not to be’ is a question that humans face in their day-to-day lives. The context we witness around supports the argument that ‘by any means’ achieve the things. However, when the cultural embeddedness makes one ‘stop, look, and go’; mostly it will be a “no-go” situation in moral dilemma cases. Are these losing out? How can theoretical frameworks derived from the Indian Philosophy aid and empower and reduce the burden of guilt on account of “missing out”? After all, the subject matter of Philosophy should also cover Ethical choices and Logical processes. Tradition answers it simply in a line; “Paropakaraya punyaya, papaya para-peedanam”. To the extent possible, try doing good to all. If you can’t, atleast don’t harm the entity or its interests. Suffering by others gives one negative Karma. Causing happiness (sustainable) gives one positive residue. With the sharpness of mind, one can discern whether one is on a positive or negative impression/samskara creation track.

If clearing the pending burden of Karma takes lifetimes, then why create new, one may ask. Here lies the wisdom. Be in action and with the intent of helping others. Try to contribute positively to the context. Remembering the Stakeholder theory, address as many concerns of the maximum number of stakeholders positively. The overall outcome should make more numbers better than what they were. Indeed, this is positive Karma. Forget not the Sustainability; forget not the invisible or “voiceless” stakeholders. The “representative” of such may be invisible but omnipresent and omniscient! Thus, the practical implication of Karma is, that one should be aware of the result of one’s actions. Better conduct shall lead to better outcomes. We all heard of “what one sows, one reaps”! Responsible conduct by all involved shall make the world a better place. The fairness principle needs to catch up to make this world a better and more sustainable place. This can be our sincere prayer.