Does the concept of karma have a logical basis?

by January 24, 2012

Question: Does the concept of karma have a logical basis?

Answer: Certainly. Let’s see how.

Karma as a word has gained mainstream acceptance today, as is evident from the fact despite its Sanskrit origin it has gained place in the English dictionary. However, karma as a philosophical principle has not yet gained similar mainstream understanding or acceptance. Some still consider to be a sectarian belief system that has little basis in fact or logic. In this article, we will analyze from the Vedic perspective the logic basis of the principle of karma.

The Logic of Karma

The law of karma, stated simply, is: For every action there is a reaction. In the Biblical tradition, it is phrased as: As you sow, so shall you reap.

Science has discovered that all of nature obeys laws. From the microscopic to the macroscopic, for any interaction of any kind, nature follows laws. In fact, science is nothing but a study and application of nature’s laws. If all of nature is governed by laws, why should we humans be an exception to such laws?

There is a saying: we can never break God’s laws; we can only break ourselves against God’s laws. If a group of people say, “We don’t believe in the law of gravity” and jump from the top of a ten-storied building, what will happen? They will definitely not break the law of gravity, but surely they will break themselves against the law. They will fall down and break their leg, or, God forbid, even their heads. Similarly, we can never break any of the laws of God. Just as the law of gravity impartially acts on physical objects without discrimination, the law of karma impartially acts on living beings without discrimination.

Doubts About Karma

1. Why not action-reaction in one life?

Somebody may ask, “Why should I suffer now for my actions in a previous life? Why so much delay?” Different seeds fructify after different time durations: some like rice seeds produce grains after a few months; some like mango seeds produce fruits after several years. Every action that we do is like a seed sown. The reactions will come, but different types of karma seeds (actions) have different time durations after which they fructify. The difference is that a cultivator can throw away certain unlikeable fruits, whereas we have to eat, that is, suffer, every single karmic fruit that we have sown.

Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita (4.17) gahana karmano gatih, that the way in which action and reaction works is very complex. God knows best which reaction has to be given at what time in what condition. Therefore, some reaction may come in this lifetime, some in the next and some in a distant future lifetime.

There is a saying, “The mills of God grind slow but they grind exceedingly fine.” So, every single action will be accounted for, sooner or later.

2. Why are the ignorant not excused?

Once a person driving on a bike came across a red signal and slowed down. Then he saw a buffalo walking confidently without considering the signal. Seeing this, he also started, and immediately, the traffic policeman stopped and fined him. He asked the policeman, “You didn’t fine the buffalo, why me?” The policeman replied, “Because you are a bigger buffalo!”

The buffalo does not have the intelligence to understand the law, but we human beings do. If we are driving, it is not the government’s duty to educate us about the laws of the state. It is our duty to learn the state laws. Similarly, if we are living in this world taking air, water, sunlight and food from nature, we need to follow the rules laid down by God.

If one stays at a hotel, eats, sleeps and watches TV, and so on, then obviously he will have to pay for all the facilities provided by the hotel for his comfort. If the bill is not paid, a few reminders will come. And if the bill is still not paid, severe reactions are sure to come. At that time, one can’t take the stance that “I did not know that I have to pay the bill for staying at the hotel.”

Similarly, it is not for material nature to teach us our duties. When we take human birth, it is for us to learn the laws of karma. After jumping from the top of a 10-story building and breaking his bones, a child cannot say, “I didn’t know that if I jump from a 10-storied building, I will fall down and break my bones”. The law of gravity will not excuse him. Just as the law of gravity is impartial and inexorable, so is the law of karma. Of course, God provides a system of religious and spiritual morality in almost every human society to educate people, but the onus is on the individual to take the education and orient one’s life accordingly.

Another important point to note is that ignorance is not an excuse for sin; rather, ignorance is the consequence of sin. For example, when a person commits a crime, he is put in a jail. In a standard jail, often there are reformers who give good counsel to the prisoners so that they will become good citizens. But if in the jail also, the prisoner acts criminally and starts beating the other co-prisoners, counselors and guards, then he will be taken from the normal prison cell and put in a dark dungeon where he will be given food from the window and nobody will come to give him counsel. Why is that? Because he rejected the opportunity for counseling earlier, now he is put in a place where he gets no counseling.

Similarly, if today somebody is born in a social situation or in a cultural environment where that person never gets to know about the law of karma, then that’s because he has, by his past action shown God and the material energy, the superintendent, “I am not interested in knowing about your laws; I don’t care. I will do whatever I want.” That’s why he is put in a place where he has no opportunity for getting to know about God.

Of course, it is also a fact that because of ignorance that people do wrong, but it is also a sad truth that the wrong reinforces their ignorance, impelling them to further wrongdoings, thus creating a vicious cycle.  The most practical and powerful way by which we can break free from this cycle is through the process of devotional service, which the Lord teaches throughout history through his representatives or by descending himself. To understand how devotional service frees us from the karmic cycle, let’s look at the three types of action talked about in the Bhagavad-gita (4.17): karma, vikarma and akarma.

Three Types of Actions

The word karma has several connotations. The general understanding is that karma means the actions one does. Sometimes it is also used to refer to the reactions of past actions as in the phrase “one is suffering one’s karma”.  And in other places, karma refers to the whole system of the law of karma.

But karma, in a stricter, scriptural sense, primarily means the actions done in accordance with one’s prescribed duties as mentioned in the revealed scriptures. In contrast to karma, there is vikarma – viruddha rupena karma. Vikarma refers to actions done contrary to the scriptures by the misuse of one’s free will. Vikarma takes one down to the lower forms of life. The four main vikarmic activities, as mentioned in the Srimad Bhagavatam (1.17.38),  are intoxication, meat eating , gambling and illicit sex. These four main irreligious activities lead to severe karmic reactions, which come both in future and present lives. Illicit sex leads to variety of diseases. Meat eating leads to heart problems, cancer and other diseases. Gambling causes people to lose their senses and eventually lose everything. Intoxication, which people think is very enjoyable, is actually a ritual of self torture. What starts with “cheers!” often leads to tears; under the spell of intoxicants, people act in ways that cause them to lose their self-respect, their bank balance, their families and sometimes even their lives.

Different from karma and vikarma, there is akarma. Akarma doesn’t mean inactivity, but activity that brings no reaction, activity that frees one from the cycle of birth and death.

Complete Freedom From Karma
By Devotional Service

Beyond good karma, there is akarma, devotional service, which brings the ultimate freedom from karmic entanglement. Let’s see how. Devotional service provides us with four great gifts:

1. Discrimination of right and wrong

When we practice devotional service, the Lord as the Supersoul in our heart grants us the knowledge to make the right choices. All of us can, at some time or the other, hear the voice of conscience (vivek buddhi in Sanskrit). When we start doing something wrong, then the voice from inside warns, “Don’t do this.” If you want to do something right, this voice says, “Yes, do this now.” So, when we chant the holy name of Krishna, when we practice devotional service, this inner voice becomes stronger and it guides us to make the right choices in life. Thus devotional service can grant us the knowledge to gradually become disentangled from all karma.

2. Determination to follow right and avoid wrong

Devotional service saves us from

a)      doing further bad karma, and

b)      the craving to do bad karma.

Chanting of the holy names gives us the inner satisfaction that enables us to say no to all the sinful pleasure of this world. Thus, we not only know the right choices, but we also get the willpower to make those right choices.

3. Minimization of sinful reactions

Certain reactions are going to come to us from past. But devotional service helps us in minimizing those reactions. For devotees, the Lord gives just a token reaction instead of the complete one. That token is given so that the devotee does not forget the miserable nature of this world.

Once, a devotee cut his finger when he was cutting vegetables. He went to Srila Prabhupada and asked why his finger got cut, even though he was cutting the vegetables for Krishna. Prabhupada told him that his neck was supposed to be cut, but since he has become a devotee, the Lord only gave him token reaction in the form of the cut finger.

4. Inner strength to face suffering

Whatever be the residual karma that comes upon us, devotional service grants us the strength to tolerate that suffering. So externally a devotee may seem to be in pain, but internally because of his remembrance of  the holy name, he doesn’t feel the suffering. And the more advanced a devotee is, the more he can experience the reality of this protection from Krishna.

In conclusion, irrespective of whatever our past karma may be, the spiritually scientific process of devotional service is the best path to the highest happiness in this life and the next.

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  • shiva shekar
    May 6, 2012 at 5:12 pm

    This is very true, i felt it myself.
    Since the day i percieved that each and everything is done by me was by the instruction of the God, i stopped feeling the pain.
    I feel happy from the inside.
    I took it for granted.. either pleasure or pain.

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