The Doctrine of Karma –

The Doctrine of Karma


Hinduism believes in the doctrine of cause and effect, which in Sanskrit is called Karmavada—the theory or doc­trine of karma. The word karma means action. Sometimes the word is also used to mean the effect of action. According to this doctrine, all good actions produce good effects, and bad actions bad. The effects or fruits of action are generally called karmaphala[1] in Sanskrit. The fruits of good deeds bring pleasure and enjoyment to the doer, while the fruits of bad deeds cause him suffering and pain.

Physics tells us about the theory of conservation of energy. According to this theory, energy is never destroyed; rather, one kind of energy becomes trans­formed into another kind of energy. Using this idea as an analogy, it can be said that energy expended through any action of the doer only changes its form and becomes karmic force or karmaphala. This force, like a boomerang, inevitably comes back to the doer sooner or later. Return­ing to the doer the karmic force starts acting on his mind and body causing either pleasure or pain. No doer can escape this karmic force. After working on the mind and body of the doer, the karmic force is spent. It leaves the doer and becomes a part of the vast storehouse of cosmic energy.

According to this doctrine, God is not responsible for the pleasure or pain of His creatures. It is the creatures who are responsible for their own enjoyment or suffer­ing. They suffer or enjoy owing to the consequences of their own bad or good deeds. According to Hinduism, God is karmaphaladata—the giver of the fruits of action. He is the ultimate dispenser of justice. He makes sure that everyone gets his own karmaphala, not someone else’s.

During an average lifetime a doer performs innumera­ble deeds, the effects of which are equally countless. All the effects of his actions do not immediately return to him, although some of them may. For instance, if a per­son plants an apple sapling in his orchard it will be years before he can get the fruits. But if he puts his hand into fire it will have immediate effect; his hand will be burnt.


Some actions, owing to their inherent nature, yield late effects. They are like term deposits with late maturity dates. Some may mature years from now. Similarly, the late-bearing fruits of some actions may not come during the doer’s lifetime. Such fruits of action or karmaphala will remain stored up until their “maturity” dates. They may come in a future lifetime of the doer. Thus, in Hin­duism, the doctrine of karma is also tied in with the doc­trine of reincarnation.

Stored up karmic forces are the effect of the deeds done by the doer in his past lives. These forces are called sanchita karma or accumulated karmic forces. They remain in a potential state like so many term deposits with different maturity dates in a bank. When one matures, it becomes kinetic and starts acting on the mind and body of the doer. The karmic force in this kinetic form is called prarabdha karma—the karmic force which has started yielding effect. According to Hinduism, prarabdha karma causes a person’s birth and determines how long he will live. It also causes pleasure or pain dur­ing the lifetime of a person. When the force of his prarab­dha karma is exhausted, his body dies. It is as though the body is a clock, the main spring of which has been wound up by the prarabdha karma to go on ticking for a certain number of years. When that energy is used up the clock stops.


Any action done in this life, or its effect, is called kriyamana karma or agami karma in Sanskrit. The Hindu scriptures tell us which kind of kriyamana karma or action done in this life will yield immediate effect. A per­son who has committed extremely heinous crimes,[2] like killing a saintly soul or a woman, will suffer from their bad effects in this very life. Other good or bad actions, which are relatively trivial, may not yield immediate effects. These actions go on accumulating during a per­son’s lifetime as kriyamana karma and eventually join the vast storehouse of sanchita or accumulated karma.


If a person stops his “body clock” prematurely by com­mitting suicide, he commits a great mistake. His karmic force does not stop with his death. It goes on hounding him even in the other world. For this unnatural death caused by himself, the karmic force inflicts many times more suffering and pain on him than what he would have suffered had he been alive. Therefore, Hinduism very strongly condemns suicide.


In the light of reincarnation, Hinduism does not necessarily consider a newborn child to be a “pure” or an “innocent” soul. Nor does Hinduism believe that a child who dies shortly after birth goes to heaven or becomes liberated. Every birth is an opportunity for an individual to grow and progress spiritually through the bitter and sweet experiences of life. Those dying in infancy do not get that opportunity. A person with a lot of bad karma to work out may be repeatedly born just in order to die again and again in his infancy. He works out his bad karma by going through the painful process of repeated and fruitless births and deaths. The short duration of his life on earth prevents him from making any spiritual progress.


There is a wrong notion in some people’s minds that a real saint must not suffer any physical illness or mental pain. Their notion is based on the supposition that the saint, being perfect, must not suffer like other people. But many genuine saints have been seen to go through a lot of physical and mental suffering in their lives. The say­ing, “A saint has a past, and a sinner a future,” may explain why a saint suffers in this life. The saint must have done some bad deeds in one or more of his past lives. He is working out the effect of those deeds in this life in the form of physical or mental suffering. Even though spiritually illumined now, he still must work out his prarabdha karma until the force of that karma is exhausted.[3]

According to the doctrine of karma, when a person becomes a saint by having the ultimate spiritual experi­ence, all his sanchita or accumulated karma is, as it were, burnt to ashes. But he cannot get rid of his prarabdha karma until his death.

Hinduism uses a beautiful analogy to explain this. A hunter has his quiver full of arrows. These arrows are his sanchita or “accumulated” karma. He takes an arrow from his quiver, puts it in his bow, and shoots it. The arrow shot by him is his prarabdha karma. Once the arrow is released from his bow he does not have any more control over it. It keeps on going through the air and drops to the ground when its energy is completely exhausted. Prarabdha karma is like the arrow over which the hunter does not have any more control. Prarabdha karma creates a man’s body and goes on bringing pleasure and pain until all its karmic force is exhausted, and then the body dies. Even saints are not exempted from this process.


There is, however, an exception to this rule. A Divine Incarnation is never controlled by the forces of karma, nor is his body caused by any prarabdha karma. God, in order to incarnate on earth in human form, creates an earthly body for Himself through His inscrutable magical power or maya and enters into it. By His maya He gives others the impression that He is born of human parents. Out of compassion for His creatures who take refuge in Him, He absorbs their sins or bad karma in His earthly body, and suffers on their behalf. He works out their bad prarabdha karma to give them relief and salvation. Nei­ther does a Divine Incarnation generate any karmaphala for whatever he does during his earthly existence.


Why one child is born blind while another is born with a perfect body cannot be explained by saying that it hap­pens according to God’s will. In that case God would be either biased or whimsical. Hinduism explains this dis­parity in terms of both reincarnation and the doctrine of karma. The child has been born blind as the result of bad deeds done in some previous incarnations. The stored up karmaphala of the past births has taken effect as blind­ness in this birth.


It should be clearly understood that Hinduism never says that everything that happens in a person’s life is the result of his actions from previous births. Karmic force is just one of the many forces which control his life. In spite of these forces working on him, he has quite a bit of freedom of action as well. He should exercise this free­dom by acting in a manner which will spare him suffer­ing or pain in the future and help him to attain liberation through the realization of God.

The scriptures of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita in partic­ular, also tell us that a person can get rid of all his karmic forces, except those of prarabdha karma, if he performs his activities without expecting the fruits of his own actions. A devotee of God is encouraged to develop the attitude that his actions are not for his own sake but for the pleasure of God. Work done with this attitude helps him to become free from the late-bearing effects of actions (kriyamana karma) done in this life. It also purifies his mind and thereby enables him to have the vision of God. After God vision he gets rid of all his san-chita or accumulated karma. Thus he attains liberation from the cycle of repeated births and deaths. Neverthe­less, he has to work out his prarabdha karma, from the grip of which no mortal can completely escape. Some say, however, that even though one cannot completely escape from one’s prarabdha karma, the intensity of its forces can be considerably reduced if one surrenders to God completely. Shri Sarada Devi (1853-1920), one of the greatest women saints of India, supports this view. She says, “By surrendering to God a devotee can considerably reduce his prarabdha karma. For instance, had he been fated to have a sword injury owing to his karmic forces, he will have a pin-prick instead.”


In the light of the doctrine of karma it may seem that man is responsible for whatever happens to him in his life in the form of pleasure or pain. Since God is only the giver of man’s karmaphala, His role is no different from the role of a cashier in a bank. The cashier cannot give any money to the depositor other than his invested capi­tal and its interest. Where then is the scope for God’s grace in Hinduism?

In reply, Hinduism says that God’s grace cannot be con­ditional. Any conditional gift cannot be called real grace. Therefore, God’s grace has to be unconditional, unbiased and impartial. Just as the sun shines on both the good and the wicked, so also God showers His grace impartially on everyone, whether good or evil. The good use God’s grace for good purposes. The wicked use God’s grace for bad purposes.

Shri Ramakrishna explains this with the help of a beau­tiful analogy. In a small room a candle is burning. By the light of the candle one person is reading a holy book, while another person in the same room is forging dollar bills. In this analogy the candlelight represents God’s grace. It is impartial; it shines equally on both. The two persons are using God’s grace for two completely differ­ent purposes—one good, and the other bad. Perhaps one of them will eventually turn into a saint, while the other will end up in prison.

According to Shri Ramakrishna the breeze of God’s grace is always blowing. Everyone in this world is like the owner of a sailboat. As long as the sail of the boat is not unfurled one cannot take advantage of the breeze—one cannot get the benefit of God’s grace. But as soon as the sail is unfurled, the breeze of divine grace starts moving the boat. In this analogy the act of unfurling the sail is no other than making self-effort. Without self-effort one will neither be able to appreciate nor enjoy the benefit of God’s grace.

The Doctrine of Predestination

According to the doctrine of predestination, every event in the life of an individual has already been deter­mined by God—everything happens only according to God’s will. Individuals do not have any control over events. In the light of the doctrine of predestination the doctrine of karma cannot be accepted as a valid doctrine, and vice versa.

Hinduism, however, accepts both of these doctrines as valid. According to Hinduism, the doctrine of karma is valid for a person who has the sense of agency or doer-ship. Such a person holds himself responsible for his actions, whether good or bad. But through intense spiri­tual practice a spiritual aspirant’s mind can be made to acquire higher and higher degrees of purity. At a certain high level of mental purity the spiritual aspirant com­pletely loses his sense of agency. He gains the firm con­viction that he is not the doer of any of his actions. He becomes convinced that God has been doing everything by using his body, mind, energy and the senses. He feels that he is only an instrument in the hands of God, and whatever God has been doing to him is for his ultimate spiritual good. At this high level of spirituality the doc­trine of predestination becomes the only valid doctrine to him. To him the doctrine of karma ceases to be a valid doctrine.

Therefore, these two doctrines, even though apparently contradictory to each other, are valid for people at differ­ent stages of spiritual growth. At an intermediate level of spiritual growth, however, a spiritual aspirant may inter­pret some events of his life in terms of the doctrine of predestination while he may interpret other events of his life in terms of the doctrine of karma.


Swami Bhaskarananda

President of “Vedanta Society of Western Washington” – Seattle – WA (USA)

[1] Sanskrit: Karma=work; phala=fruit

[2] In Sanskrit, atyutkata karma.

[3] In the context of Hinduism, a saint is one who has experi­enced God face to face in this life. It may also be said that a saint is one who has attained perfection by manifesting his or her inherent divinity.


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