The Law of Karma

The Law of Karma, or Action, forms the corner-stone of Vedic Philosophy, without which life itself would become meaningless. The basic law is well-known and can be stated as – What you sow is what you reap. However, there are many more dimensions to this law that are detailed by Vyasa in his commentary to Patanjali’s Yogadarshanam. For the benefit of modern youth who may not be conversant with either of these texts, this article describes some of the salient points.

First, we must understand Karma. Karma can be performed in three ways –

  1. Physical Action – These are actions that we perform with the physical body, e.g., walking, eating. This is what is usually understood as Karma.
  2. Speech – An important way in which we influence others is through our speech. Speech may be for the benefit of others, or it may be detrimental to them. This has a corresponding influence on our future. Therefore, it is Karma.
  3. Thought – Our thoughts are precursors to our actions. They may be beneficial or not. Beneficial thoughts alone can lead to beneficial actions. So, the thought is Karma, too.

We casually classify Karma as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – Punya or Paapa. However, it can be defined more elaborately as follows –

  1. Black (Krshna) – As the name suggests, these are black deeds done with an evil intent, by evil means, for evil goals. They include murder for wealth, verbally insulting one’s parents, baseless hatred for a friend, etc.
  2. Black-and-white (Shukla-Krshna) – These are deeds that have a mixture of both good and bad in them. Thus, one cooks food and kills some bacteria in the process, one yells at somebody who is not doing one’s work, one thinks of obtaining political freedom by harming another. Most normal, day-to-day activities involve both these opposing facets. This is because they typically have a selfish or limited motive that goes against another creature – small or big. We may not mean it, but our act lands up hurting another. The act of breathing itself takes in some bacteria that our disposed of by our antibodies!
    The level of Paapa and Punya inherent in each deed may vary – it is not necessarily 50-50. Accordingly, we classify them as Punya if they contain more good, and Paapa if they produce more evil, but actually, they are all shades of grey.
  3. White (Shukla) – These are deeds that are devoid of any hurt to any creature, including ourselves. In reality, these deeds can only be thought-based. Thus, when we plan for a better future, we are doing good to ourselves and not harming anybody else in the process. Similarly, all benign thoughts – for oneself or for another – are all Shukla Karma.
  4. Non-black-and-white (A-Shukla-Krshna) – These are rare deeds performed by only the enlightened. They are deeds that are done without any desire for a result of the action (Nishkama Karma). Yogis perform actions to keep only their body and soul together. They eat without any desire for the food; they bathe without any enjoyment of the action, but only to maintain their body clean; they preach to others just because it is their duty to transmit their knowledge. They do not look forward to any outcome from their action in terms of happiness and sadness. These actions do not produce any residual Paapa or Punya, which would need to be played out in the remainder of their life or in lives hereafter.
    These Yogis, thus, become ready for Moksha, or salvation from the Cycle of Birth and Death, that moves on the spokes of the Law of Karma. They transcend the Law of Karma.

Now, let us look at the result of the action. We understand Paapa and Punya as the type of action. Actually, these are the results of the action, before they play out in the form of sorrow or joy. In the shastras, they are known as ‘Karmashaya’ or ‘Adrshta’. They are like debits (Paapa) or credits (Punya) in your bank account, waiting to be encashed. The account entries are of the following types–

  1. Accumulated (Sanchita) – The Paapa and Punya accumulated over the various past births. This is like your savings account balance, with debit and credit account entries maintained separately.
  2. Current (Praarabdha) – Some of the accumulated karmas are moved into a current account at the time of your birth. These start playing out during the course of this birth, giving you happiness or tears.
  3. In Process (Kriyamaana) – These are the results of the deeds you perform in this birth. They are kept in this ‘suspense account’. Some of them will be withdrawn into Praarabhda, and some will become Sanchita after your death.

Just like your bank account, entries are carefully monitored and never disappear till they have borne fruit. That is why having a bath in the Ganga cannot wash away your sins!

The question that arises next is – What is the form in which deeds fructify? Sage Patanjali has said in Yogadarshanam that there are three forms of the end-result of deeds –

  1. Species (Jaati) – There exists a hierarchy among living things – trees are at the bottom of the pyramid, humans on the topmost rung. This hierarchy is based on the freedom you have in your actions and the level of knowledge that you can acquire. As you can see for yourself, trees are at the mercy of Nature and other creatures. Animals can beat Nature to some extent, by building shelters, migrating to better climates, etc. However, they are severely restricted in the range of their actions, and the capacity of their intellect. They are mostly driven by instinct and cannot go beyond a certain level of knowledge, e.g., they can never build a car.
    Humans, obviously, are far above any other animal in terms of their brain capacity and their range of action and knowledge. While, they can behave much worse than animals on the one hand, on the other, they can expand their knowledge to seek the ends of the Universe!
  2. Lifespan (Aayu) – The years we get to live determines how long we can enjoy the pleasures of life. For example, a child that dies soon after birth does not experience life the way that a 100-year old does.
  3. Pleasures (Bhoga) – Humans enjoy many pleasures of life, in comparison to animals. Thus, they enjoy music, games, movies, food, gossip, etc. None of these are available to animals. How much of these pleasures you get in your life, and how many difficult situations you encounter, are the third way in which deeds are rewarded. While a prince’s every desire is fulfilled from the time of birth, the poor boy has to work for his bread.

Here, one must understand that one deed does not necessarily translate into one result. For example, many deeds go into determining your birth. Similarly, one deed may be spread over many results. That is why the Gita says that it is impossible to understand the formula by which results are meted out for each action. All that can be said for sure is that each action will have a reaction and that that reaction will not be in our control – there is a Higher Authority, a Higher Judge overseeing the judgement and its execution!

Understanding the various dimensions of Karma in this manner, we start understanding the value of each thought, word and action that we perform. Our belief in a just system is reinforced, as also an understanding of Dharma and Adharma. Reaching God then remains only a step away!