Hinduism - Understanding the workings of Karma
by Prabhath P
concept of karma is much maligned and misunderstood. As an ancient theory
that is more about living a balanced life than fatalism or retribution,
it deserves another look. A compilation of essays on the subject by
prominent thinkers from the world over says that karma is a dynamic
and creative process that produces order out of chaos incessantly and
is essentially a harmonizer to continually restore cosmic balance
The term 'karma' regularly pops up in movies, comic strips, TV soaps, and, of course, in the conversations of ordinary people. But as a concept it remains misunderstood, if not misused, despite a wealth of material on the subject. In mass consciousness, karma conjures up a variety of images ranging from a rigid law of merciless retribution to deterministic fatalism that leaves no room for human free will. Intellectuals denounce karma as a doctrine created to justify social inequalities like the Hindu caste system, and as an excuse to shrink from creative engagement with life. Does karma as a theory deserve such denouncement?
That we live in an interconnected, interdependent universe in which all things everywhere exist in a complex and dynamic web of interrelationships, is fast gaining acceptance in philosophical and scientific circles. This is in tune with the underlying essence of the karma doctrine. Further, this emerging holistic paradigm paves the way for the accommodation of karma in the modern world-view. Eastern and western scholars, psychologists, astrologers, economists and open-minded scientists are already studying karma and its implications in the light of new insights.
The Theosophical Society has compiled the book Karma: Rhythmic Return to Harmony (Motilal Banarsidass), which presents a wide spectrum of opinions, including those of Emerson, Aldous Huxley, the great astrologer Dane Rudhyar, psychologists, Jungian analysts and other scholars. These views though diverse, contain explicitly or implicitly the concept of karma as the harmonizer that restores balance.
ENGAGING THE WEST
Karma as a concept was first introduced in the West by the likes of Emerson. Later, it was expounded in great detail towards the end of the 19th century by H.P. Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society and author of the esoteric classic The Secret Doctrine. The Theosophical Society has been in the forefront of clearing the cobwebs of confusion that had covered the true nature of karma.
Karma is both simple and complex, with many subtleties that are frequently overlooked. Its fundamental aspect is its balancing role in nature. It is believed that imbalance exists between the individual and the world until all karmic consequences are met. Karma can then be seen as the harmonizer that restores balance. The karmic law is thus more organic than deterministic.
In the book Karma… Shirley Nicholson points out that karma is multidimensional, rather than linear or rigid. Karma as a direct relationship between cause and effect is too simplistic. Everything affects everything else here. In The Secret Doctrine Blavatsky does not see karma as a mechanical 'eye for an eye' law. She sees karma continuously restoring the harmonious state of the cosmos whenever it is disturbed. She calls it "the source, origin and fount of all the laws which exist throughout Nature".
Human beings are responsible for their actions, resulting in personal karma. Karma and reincarnation are inseparable. Karma is the force that impels reincarnation. The hypothesis is that in any one life we sow the seeds of the personality of the next incarnation. Strands of our individual karma are interwoven with those of our nation and other groups with which we have strong ties. So our actions do affect all of humanity.
Karma is not fatalism. Our lives are neither absolutely determined nor absolutely free. We live according to a "determined track within whose unformed potentiality lies the opportunity for change and growth", according to Blavatsky. We cannot alter the past. But we can influence the future anytime by pouring in new energies in new directions.
The injustice and inequality prevailing in the world do not make the karmic law a mockery. According to Emerson, all seems governed by the "deep remedial force that underlies all facts". He asserts that even a calamity has in it the seed of some positive transformational benefit, which will be revealed over time. Aldous Huxley reminds us that the karmic equivalence of action and reward is not always obvious and material. "The bad man in prosperity may, unknown to himself, be darkened and corroded with inward rust, while the good man under afflictions may be in the rewarding process of spiritual growth," says Huxley.
KARMA IN WORLD RELIGIONS Though karma as a concept originated in India, similar ideas can be found in religions and cultures around the world. The Buddhist view of karma, which places foremost importance on compassion and mindfulness, perhaps is the strongest reply to the rationalist argument that karma destroys free will.
Joseph Goldstein says that the Buddha used the term 'karma' specifically referring to volition. It is motivation that determines the karmic fruit. Each mental state that we experience further conditions and strengthens it. So we have the enormous responsibility to become conscious of the intentions behind our actions. If not, we will mindlessly act on unskillful volitions creating future suffering.
Mindfulness plays a critical role in the unfolding of karma in Buddhism. Two important aspects of mindfulness are clear comprehension and suitability of purpose. Clear comprehension means paying attention to the present moment. This allows us to consider the suitability of purpose, which means knowing whether the actions are skillful or unskillful.
Compassion and insight arise from understanding karma. When we see that harmful actions rebound in suffering not only to the victim but also to the perpetrator, we can respond to both with compassion. The Buddha said that even one moment of concentrated loving-kindness towards all beings is powerful and that one moment of deeply seeing the impermanent nature of phenomena is even more powerful because it deconditions attachment and paves the way for non-attachment.
The karmic energy generated by constant observation and awareness of the transient nature of things is a tremendous force that leads to happiness and freedom. As Ananda Coomaraswamy concludes in his essay in Karma…, Buddhism dismisses the transmigration of 'souls' and teaches the transmigration of 'character', personality without a person. In the Buddhist view, skandhas or bundles of attributes transmigrate from life to life.
Karma is essentially cosmic balance and harmony. The fundamental forces that act on human life are karma—the pull of the past—and swadharma, the developmental attraction of the future. Sri Aurobindo arrived at the conclusion that parallel to biological evolution, an evolution of consciousness takes place over successive lifetimes leading to the emergence of a new species—the supramental being. His philosophy of Integral Yoga emphasizes that "we can learn to cooperate with the law of karma in its role of forwarding cosmic evolution", says Haridas Chaudhuri.
Christians have always had doubts regarding karma. But Geddes MacGregor points out that karmic law does not necessarily exclude grace and redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: "Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but complete them." Grace puts a person in a privileged position, but it no more erases the Law than my good fortune in having a good teacher absolves me from the need to learn. So Christianity can take the karmic principle under its wings.
The law of karma can be found in Kabbalah too. The Hebrew term tikun derives from the root-word meaning 'to rectify, redeem or make whole'. According to the Kabbalah, every human soul has a unique role to play in the divine plan, similar to the Hindu concept of dharma. Several incarnations, called gilgulim, are necessary for the soul to accomplish this mission. Kabbalists believe the Divine guides us towards our tikun in life through meaningful coincidences similar to the concept of synchronicity. The presence of joy in any endeavor is the key that we are following our tikun.
KARMA IN MODERN THOUGHT
The emergence of transpersonal and spiritual ideas in contemporary western psychology has helped throw new light on the doctrine of karma. Harold Coward says that the main basis of Jung's understanding of karma came from his study of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. Jung formulated his archetypes in terms of the karma theory. Says Jung: "We may accept the idea of karma only if we understand it as 'psychic heredity' in the very widest sense of the word." In his later thought Jung saw karma as the motivation for knowledge that leads from past life into this life and onto future lives.
The strongest influence of the karma theory via the transpersonal school on modern psychology has been the use of eastern methods of meditation as ways to turn off karmic conditioning and resultant mental filtering and to open up new awareness. Karma and rebirth are now challenging some basic assumptions of modern psychology.
Jungian analyst Roger Woolger translates samskaras as a past life or karmic complex, which offers the missing keystone in the overarching bridge between eastern and western psychologies. Samskaras are like 'psychic scar tissue' or 'furrows in the psyche'. They are, in the words of Indologist Heinrich Zimmer, "tendencies to act according to patterns established by reactions in the past". Once we become aware of these samskaras we can be free from their unconscious compulsion and direct our own destiny.
Both karma and modern psychology have an important connection to the astrological chart. According to Stephen Arroyo, astrologer and psychologist: "The birth-chart can be seen as a diagram of one's past karmas and the psychological tendencies they suggest for this lifetime. Astrology, by providing this blueprint, shows us the areas we need to work on to neutralize past karma." Said Paramahamsa Yogananda: "Seeds of past karma cannot germinate if they are roasted in the divine fires of wisdom."
Individual karma is played out within the larger context of group karma. As Diana Cunningham Chapotin points out, if the river becomes clogged by other people's pollution and one's karmic canoe can't advance, there is no use in lamenting that it is unmerited. This is how we share collective karma. The individual has to shoulder the responsibility with others to make the world a better place.
The choices we make have effects far beyond ourselves. William Metzger feels we have a responsibility, an inner obligation, our dharma. Karma is the inherited pattern that operates in a straight line of action and reaction while dharma is vertical and breaks away from past patterns. Dharma is our duty to the One Life. The consideration of the good of the collective whole naturally arises from recognizing one's intrinsic link with the One Life.
Recent advances in physics and systems theory have far-reaching implications for individual and social karma. In science, the mechanical worldview of Newtonian determinism is being challenged by a holistic orientation exemplified by the systems theory. To quote Anna Freifeld Lemkow: "This is a karmic rebalancing in the realm of human thought." In the systems view, the universe is self-organizing, dynamic and intelligent. This approach has spawned sciences of complexity like the Chaos Theory, which shows that there is a hidden order even in chaotic processes. It illustrates the truth of the karmic dictum that the world is intelligent, orderly and creative.
In the karmic context, current social problems stem from acting against the good of the whole. The chaos in the world has a hidden order. It points to the karmic truth that different dimensions of existence—spiritual, mental, moral, emotional and physical—are interconnected and interdependent. The challenge is to integrate them. As George Linton says, we should consider more closely the implications of aligning ourselves with various groups and their respective karma because we will have to assume accountability for the karma of the groups we belong to.
Though the karmic law affects us all, esoteric traditions also suggest that we can mitigate and even transcend its binding effects. Astrologer Dane Rudhyar has examined how karmic conditions can be transformed through spiritual awareness. The world shouldn't be interpreted in terms of deterministic horizontal relationships. There is also the vertical spiritual element that transcends karma.
The key to the spiritual life is the transmutation of karma into dharma. It is the ability to make of the past a prelude to a noble future. Evil is essentially the refusal to move toward the future. The ultimate meaning of karma must be identified with an interconnectedness and interpenetration of all there is. Anything is possible because all there is, is a network of multidimensional relationships.
Divine grace too is relevant. The Biblical story of Joseph, the beloved son who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers, is an excellent demonstration of this. Joseph went on to become the most powerful man of Egypt. In Virginia Hanson's words this is "a marvelous allegory of universal grace operating in nature which forever makes good come out of evil".
Purification, renunciation and detachment are the traditional steps in the practice of yoga that moves one towards transcendence. The goal of the Yogic, Jaina or Buddhist Shramanic traditions is to undo all karmic compulsions through the process of purification. All these traditions insist on the taking vows that form non-binding samskaras and eliminate negative karmic influences.
Renunciation of the fruits of action does not mean shunning the world. When the distinctions between doer, doing and done dissolve, then action of the highest order happens. Thus karma becomes non-binding and helps liberate others also. From this state of pure consciousness, acts of true creativity arise.
Kriya Yoga, propounded by Paramahansa Yogananda, transcends the karmic process through mindfulness and specifically designed techniques that work on chakras. In the resulting balanced awareness, one is neither motivated by karma nor does one generate new karma.
Karma is also not a fixed quantity. "It is a constantly rebalancing and moving pattern impinging on an individual at each moment of time," says psychiatrist Laurence. J. Bendit. Individuality plays an important part in it. One's personal reaction to karma is extremely important. As psychiatrist Victor Frankl found, one has the inalienable freedom to choose one's attitude of mind even in a Nazi concentration camp. One must also harmonize oneself with the cosmic whole. The archetypal or mythical 'gods' exist within our psyche also. We must harmonize these forces within so that they can act on external karmic circumstances. These are essential steps in the process of moving beyond karmic limitations.
In the overview of life implicit in much of modern thought, the acceptance of karma seems almost inevitable. In the emerging understanding of the universe as a living, dynamic self-organizing system, karma definitely can find its rightful place as the dynamic and creative process that produces order out of chaos incessantly. The ramifications of the karmic law might be endless and complex. But in its ultimate simplicity, the law is harmony, the perfect relationship that obtains between all things everywhere.
—illustrations by Ambili Muralidhar
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