Karman: Hindu and Jain Concepts

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As diverse as the culture of India may be, one common assumption undergirds virtually all major systems of South Asian religious thought and practice: a person's behavior leads irrevocably to an appropriate reward or punishment commensurate with that behavior. This, briefly stated, is the law of karman.

The importance of the idea of karman is not limited to the religions of the subcontinent. It is likely that no other notion from the sacred traditions of India has had more influence on the worldviews assumed by non-Indian cultures than that of karman, for in it lie the foundations of a wealth of astute ethical, psychological, metaphysical, and sacerdotal doctrines. Translations of the word (Pali, kamma ; Tib., las ; Chin., yeh or yin-kuo ; Jpn., gō or inga ) have for centuries been a key part of the religious lexica of the various canonical languages of Asia. Furthermore, the word karma (the nominative form of the Sanskrit karman ) has in the last few generations also entered the vocabulary of European languages, appearing first in technical Indological works and more recently in popular or colloquial use as well.

The term is based on the Sanskrit verbal root kr, meaning "act, do, bring about," the idea being that one makes something by doing something; one creates by acting. It may be of interest to note that some linguists see the Indo-European root of the word karman (namely, *kwer, "act") in the English word ceremony, which can mean either a combination of sacred acts performed according to prescribed norms or a system of proper behavior that keeps the world running smoothly. The same meanings hold, in part, for karman. Originally referring to properly performed ritual activity, the notion was ethicized to include the larger meaning of any correct activity in general. Granting this view, the religious, social, and medical philosophers of India, particularly those intrigued by the doctrines of rebirth and of the origins of suffering (but also of the related problems of the source of personality and the justification of social status), expanded the meaning of the term. Under this new understanding, karman came to denote the impersonal and transethical system under which one's current situation in the world is regarded as the fruit of seeds planted by one's behavior and dispositions in the past, and the view that in all of one's present actions lie similar seeds that will have continuing and determinative effect on one's life as they bear fruit in the future.

The language here ("fruit," Skt., phala ; "seed," bīja ; etc.) is remarkably consistent throughout the long history of Indian religions. Some scholars have seen in it evidence of an agricultural ecology and value system that knows that a well-planted field yields good crops; that the land will give birth repeatedly if healthy seeds find in it a place to take hold and grow; that the apparent death of a plant in the fall is merely the process by which that plant assures its own renewal in the spring; and that life, therefore, is a periodic cycle of death and then rebirth determined by the healthy or unhealthy conditions of former births.

Possibly originating, therefore, in the agrarian experience of aboriginal India, the notion of an impersonal law of cause and effect subsequently pervaded the (often decidedly un-agricultural) ideology of Vedic ritualism, Yoga, the Vedanta, Ayurvedic medicine, and sectarian theism, and it stands as a central theme in the lessons recorded in the scriptures of Jainism and Buddhism. This is not to say that all of these traditions share the same teachings regarding the nature of action, the desirability of the result, and the effective mechanism that links the two. On the contrary, views vary widely in this regard. This means that there is no single South Asian notion of karman.

Early Ritual Notions

The poets who composed the sacred hymns of the Vedic Mantrasahitās in the twelfth century bce sang praises to the gods in reverential, supplicatory, and sometimes cajoling tones. Deities were powerful beings who held control over the lives of the people on earth but who nevertheless could be propitiated and pleased with sacrificial gifts and who enjoyed staged battles, chariot racing, gambling, and riddles. The Vedic Brāhmaas (900 bce and the following few centuries) present images of elaborate priestly actions performed in order to offer these gifts and entertainment to the gods, to the advantagewealth, prestige, immortality, and so onof the person who paid for the expert services of the priests and their assistants. This sacerdotal performance was known as karman, the "action" of the ritual undertaken to gain a particular end. The rites were often quite expensive and the rewards not always immediately realized, so the patrons were reassured that their support of the ceremony would benefit them sometime in the future.

Arguments in defense of this notion that the reward for one's present ritual action is reaped in the future laid part of the foundation for later doctrines of rebirth and transmigration. This development can be seen in the use of synonyms or near-synonyms for the word karman. For instance, the term iāpūrta ("the fulfillment of that which is desired") refers to a kind of package, as it were, that holds all of one's deeds and that precedes a person to the world to come, where it establishes a place for him (see gveda 10.14.8). The Brāhmaas also describe the rewards as events that will happen in the future and describe the sacrifice as apūrva-karman, "action the results of which have not yet been seen."

Evidence suggests that in the early Brahmanic period the gods were generally free to accept or reject the gifts and therefore were not bound to respond in kind. Over time, though, the Pūrva Mīmāsā philosophers came to view the ritual in magical terms: if the priest performed the prescribed actions correctly, he controlled the gods, who were forced by the devices of the ritual to respond in the way the priest desired. Conversely, the priest's improper performance of the ceremony led to the certain ruin of him or his patron. Karman for these thinkers therefore did not involve divine will; it was part of an impersonal metaphysical system of cause and effect in which action brought an automatic manipulated response. The Brahmanic notion of karman thus centers on the view that a person is born into a world he has made for himself (see Kauītakī Brāhmaa 26.3, for example). This meant that every action in the ritual was important and that every action brought a result of one kind or another, and did so irrevocably.

Renunciant Notions

The renunciant tradition provided two principal contexts for the elaboration of the notion of karman. The Upaniads speculate, among other topics, on human action and its consequences in this and in subsequent lives; the Yoga literature provides a more systematic and pragmatic approach to liberation from the consequences of action.

Karman in Upanisadic thought

The composers of the major Upaniads (eighth to fifth century bce) generally saw two paths open to the deceased at the time of death. The lower path, one on which the person eventually returns to earth in a subsequent birth, is described as the "way of the fathers" (pityāna ) and is traveled by those who perform the rituals in hopes of material gain. The higher path, the way of the gods (devayāna ), is one that does not lead to rebirth on earth and is taken by those who have renounced worldly ends and practice austerities in the forest. Bhadārayaka Upaniad 4.4.4 describes the process with the doctrine that, as a goldsmith forms a new and more beautiful form out of a rough nugget, the soul leaves the body at death and fashions for itself a new and fairer body. Human happiness is said to be a fraction of the bliss known by a celestial man-spirit (manuya-gandharva ), which in turn is meager compared to that of a karma-deva, a human who has become a god by his actions (see Taittirīya Upaniad 2.8 and Bhadārayaka Upaniad 4.3.33).

Seeking to understand the Brahmanic notion of the ritual in anthropological rather than sacerdotal terms, the Upaniadic sages taught that all physical and mental activity was an internal reflection of cosmic processes. Accordingly, they held that every action, not only those performed in the public ritual, leads to an end. One's behavior in the past has determined one's situation in the present, and the totality of one's actions in the present construct the conditions of one's future. Thus, the Bhadārayaka Upaniad' s assertion that "truly, one becomes good through good action, bad by bad" (3.2.13) represents the encompassing Upaniadic scope of karman. From this notion arises the idea that one's worldly situation and personality are determined by one's desire: that is, one's desire affects one's will; one's will leads one to act in certain ways; and, finally, one's actions bring proportionate and appropriate results.

For the most part the composers of the major Upaniads disdained actions performed for the resulting enjoyment of worldly pleasures, for such material pursuit necessarily leads from one birth to another in an endless cycle characterized by dissatisfaction and, thus, to unhappiness. "The tortuous passage from one birth to another [sāmparāya ] does not shine out to who is childish, careless and deluded by the glimmer of wealth," the Lord of the Dead tells Naciketas. "Thinking 'this is the world, there is no other,' he falls again and again under my power" (Kaha Upaniad 2.6).

The only way to break this turning wheel of life and death (sasāra ) was to free oneself of the structures and processes of karman. The composers of the Upaniads understood this liberation to take place through the practice of yoga or through the intervention of a personal supreme deity who lived beyond the karmic realm.

Karman in classical Yoga

The practioners and philosophers of classical Yoga agreed with the Upaniadic idea that one's circumstances are determined by one's actions. Like some of those sages they, too, understood karman to involve what might be called a substance that leads the soul from one body to another as it moves from birth to birth. Patañjali's Yoga Sūtra (the pertinent passages of which were composed in the second century bce) analyzes the ways in which such transfer takes place. Any act (karman ) performed as a result of desire creates what is known as karmāśaya, the "accumulation for receptacle of karman " that is either beneficial or harmful depending on the quality of the act itself. Karmāśaya can be understood as a kind of seed that will mature either in one's present life or, if not fully ripened, in another lifetime (adajanman ). That seed includes one's personal dispositions (saskārā ), including those themes or memories imprinted at the unconscious levels of one's mind (vāsanā ) and that serve as the source of the five habitual personal "afflictions" (kleśa ) of ignorance, ego, hatred, and the will to live (see Yoga Sūtra 2.3). The kleśa s tend to reinforce the ignorant notion that activity directed to some end is desirable, and in so doing are the main reason that people stay trapped in the wheel of life and death. If a person dies before all of his accumulated karmāśaya is gone, that karmic residue joins with his unfulfilled thoughts, desires, and feelings in search of a new body whose nature is receptive to his pertinent dispositions, which it then enters (āpūra, literally, "making full") and through which the unripened seeds can come to fruit. A person with a passion for food thus may be reborn as a hog. One eventually gets what one wants, even though it may take more than one lifetime to do so. That's the problem. For in order to get what one wants one needs a body, and in order to have a body one needs to be born. Birth leads to death, death leads to birth. Unless the cycle is broken it never stops.

Without values directed towards the attainment of worldly goals a person will cease to behave according to one's desire, and without that desire no karmic residue, no unmatured seeds, can accumulate. Classical Yoga, as represented by Patañjali, presents the yogin with a set of practices by which that person can be free of the karmic process. In these exercises the meditator reduces the power of the kleśa s by performing actions that are opposed to their fulfillment. Traditionally this meant the practice of ascetic renunciation of physical pleasures. Thorough renunciation makes it impossible for new kleśa s to arise, and through more and more subtle meditations the kleśa s that remain from the past are diluted so much that they no longer produce any karmāśaya s. At this point the person (purua ) within the yogin no longer needs a body because it no longer has any unripened karmāśaya, and at the death of the present body the person no longer migrates to another life. The purua is liberated from the entrapping demands of habitual afflictions and experiences kaivalya, "autonomy."

Ontological or Materialistic Notions

The terms bīja (seed), karmāśaya (karmic residue), vāsanā (pychological traces) and others suggest a general South Asian notion that some "thing" is created and left behind by one's actions. At times the Upaniads describe karman almost as a substance that not only influences one's subsequent births but can also be passed from one person to another, especially from father to son. The Kauītakī Brāhmaa Upaniad, for example, tells a dying father to transfer his karman to his son, saying "let me place my deeds in you" (2.15). The son is then able to perform atoning actions such that the father is free of the consequences of his own improper behavior (see Bhadārayaka Upaniad 1.5.17).

Ritual practices in which one either supplements or attenuates the karman acquired by one's ancestors take place in various Vedic śrauta and Hindu pūjā ceremonies that have been practiced from the time of the Brāhmaas and Dharmaśāstras. They appear, for example, in the postclassical sāpiīkaraa and bali rites in which balls of rice and other foods that are said to contain an ancestor's karman are ceremonially offered to the deceased.

Indian medical texts of the Ayurveda traditions agree that karman is a material entity of sorts that can be passed from one generation to the next. The Caraka Sahitā (first century ce), for example, maintains that karman resides in substance (dravya ) and is one of the causes of physical health and disease. Accordingly, karman is seen as an important factor in medical etiologies and in techniques of fertility in which a father and mother perform certain actions so that the embryo (garbha, sometimes called the "seed") can acquire the most desirable or auspicious karmic elements and thus be born a strong person with admirable character.

By far the most assertive thinkers concerning the material nature of karman, however, are the Jains, who since the sixth century bce have followed the teachings and traditions surrounding the founder of Jainism, Mahāvīra Vardhamāna. Central to Jain doctrine in general is the notion that the living entity (jīva, "life") within a person is by nature blissful and intelligent. Traditional teachings sometimes describe the jīva as a pure, colorless, and transparent energy and maintain that all of the infinite creatures in the universeincluding animals, plants, and rocks as well as human beingspossess such an ethereal crystalline life within them. But, also according to Jain thought, the spatial world occupied by the jīva s is permeated with a kind of subtle dust or stained liquid that has existed since time immemorial and that "sticks," as it were, to each jīva, soiling and infecting its original nature with a color (leśya ), the hue and intensity of which corresponds to the amount of desire, hatred, and love with which that being performs any given action. This glutinous blurry stuff is karman. Virtuous and selfless action attracts to the jīva the lighter and less cloudy colors, which hardly obscure the jīva 's nature at all, compared to the dark and muddy colors brought together by acts engendered in self-concern. The amount and color of the karman that adheres to any given jīva determines the conditions and circumstances of its subsequent rebirth. Competitive, violent, self-infatuated people carry the heavy weight of karman and will sink downwards through their many lifetimes as demons or as animals who live by eating others; gentle, caring, and compassionate beings gradually cleanse their jīva of its encumbering karman and rise through rebirth towards enlightenment.

Even unintentional violence, however, burdens the jīva with the stain of karman. Thus, Jain tradition demands absolute ahisā, a complete unwillingness to kill or injure any and all living beings. Jains, therefore, are absolute vegetarians, some of whom in their attempts to sustain themselves with food in which no living creature has met a violent death refuse even to pick the living fruit from a tree, waiting instead until it falls of its own (ripened) accord.

A jīva finds release from the bonds of rebirth only when it stops accumulating new karman and removes that karman already there. This is described as a long and arduous task, one that takes many lifetimes to complete. Although the necessary discipline can be practiced by lay members of the community, traditionally only renunciate Jains can undergo the physical austerities and rigorous mental concentration that are needed to remove the karman from their jīva s. One who through many ascetic lifetimes has completely removed the cloud of karman from his jīva is known as a siddha (one who has "succeeded") or a kevalin, an omniscient and enlightened being. The paradigmatic ascetic here is Mahāvīra Vardhamāna, who, according to Digambara tradition, wandered naked and homeless as he practiced nonviolence, truthfulness, honesty, renunciation of possessions, and sexual abstinence.

A Theistic Notion: Karman in the BhagavadgĪtĀ

Some thinkers in ancient India found practical problems in the renunciate attitude towards karman. For example, if all actions, including good actions, bring consequences, don't all actions, including good actions, lead inevitably to rebirth? Does this mean that one must renounce all actions, even good ones? Isn't renunciation itself an act, and therefore constitutive of karmic residue; isn't the desire for liberation still a desire? Doesn't the final end of renunciation of all action result in willful death, since one must actively eat and breathe in order to live; yet isn't suicide itself considered an evil and thus entrapping action?

The author or authors of the Bhagavadgītā (c. first century bce) seem to have been aware of these problems. Generally supportive of the value of disciplined meditation (see Bhagavadgītā 6.106.13), those philosophers nevertheless saw the impossibility of complete inaction, for "even the maintenance of your physical body requires activity" (3.8).

Noting that one cannot remain inactive, and aligning themselves with the social philosophy presented in the Dharmaśāstras and related Hindu orthodox literatures on law outlining specific responsibilities incumbent on people in various occupations and stages of life, the authors of the Bhagavadgītā present the idea that one should perform those actions that are obligatory (niyata ) to one's position in society (svadharma ), and the better one performs those actions the purer their result (Bhagavadgītā 18.23, 2.31). Personal preference should have nothing to do with one's duties. In fact, to perform someone else's responsibilities well is worse than performing one's own badly (3.35, 18.4548).

The Bhagavadgītā justifies its teaching with a theological argument: social responsibilities arise from divine law (Bhagavadgītā 3.15a). Therefore, priests should perform rituals, soldiers should fight battles, and merchants should conduct the affairs of business (18.4144) not because they want to but because it is ordained by God to do so. If done properly, such action cannot be considered evil and therefore does not lead to rebirth.

But if action itself does not lead to rebirth, then what does? The authors of the Bhagavadgītā supported the general South Asian notion that karmic action arises from desire; from this idea they developed the doctrine that it is the desire for certain results, and not the action itself, that gives rise to the mechanism of karmic processes. For these sages, freedom from the bonds of karman comes not when one ceases acting but when one acts without desire, when one renounces the attachment one has for the fruits of one's actions (Bhagavadgītā 4.1923).

According to the Bhagavadgītā and similar devotional texts, this renunciation of desire for specific ends can be obtained only through bhakti-yoga, the loving surrender to God's will. Ritual actions properly performed are meritorious, and ascetic meditation leads to release. But these two modes of action either require wealth or are difficult to perfect. Purportedly quoting Ka (that is, God) himself, the Bhagavadgītā offers a theological response to these difficulties: "Those who dedicate all of their actions [karman ] to Me, intent on Me, with unwavering discipline, meditating on Me; those who revere Mefor those I am the Savior from the sea of the cycle of deaths" (12.612.7b); those who see their actions as God's actions and the results as God's will "are also liberated from the traps of karman " (mucyanti te'pi karmabhi, 3.31d).

See Also

Bhagavadgītā; Bhakti; Dharma, article on Hindu Dharma; Jainism; Mahāvīra; Upaniads; Yoga.


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