Philosophy & Religion: Karma

Karma: Consider the expressions – “every action has an equal and opposite reaction”, “you get what you pay for”, “do on to others what you want them to do on to you”, “you reap what you sow”, “what comes around goes around”, “world is like a mirror”. All these different expressions are about the same universal principle called “Karma”. The law of “Karma” states that the law of cause and effect, or action and reaction holds true in any paradigm. The Newton’s laws of physics are simply a physical subset of the universal “Karma”. In human level, a person’s actions determines the consequences that person has to face in the future. Conversely, the situation a person is facing now is the consequences of the person’s actions in the past.

Proof: Proof of the Karma may be sought in different level. Intuitively it seems only right and just that whatever you do will, in one way or another, come back to you. Hypothetically, if a researcher goes around and asks elders �wise ones who has seen life� of any societies �separated by culture, geography and history� and ask their opinion. They may concur that broadly speaking good people are usually happier and better off than bad people, if you look at their entire life. Within the strict physical level the rigorous laboratory testing has produced the Newton�s laws. Consider the materialistic view that the world is strictly a manifestation of the material and the energy, and that human thoughts including sense of justice are simply a much complex aggregate of molecules and certain configuration of electrical impulses in the neural network in the brain. Here, a case can be made that if the law of �action and reaction� is valid in most elemental form of material and energy, then the aggregate must also abide by the same principle. Thus human notion of universal and natural justice may also have a materialistic base. In the empirical level, there is a legend of a Buddhist monk �Ta Mo� who supposed to have gazed an empty wall for 15 years to confirm the theory. However, the empirical proof, by its very nature, neither can be handed down as a belief nor as a physical fact. It requires understanding by individuals themselves.

Rules of Karma:

  1. Quality – �good for good� and �bad for bad�.
  2. Quantity\proportionality – �more for more� and �less for less�.
  3. Non-transferability – like a school certificate or a head ache, consequences of one�s action cannot be transferred to another.
  4. Simultaneity – the action and the reaction occurs simultaneously together.


Components of Karma: Karma is a function of two issues – ego and action. The ego commits action motivated by self-interest, which creates the potential store of Karma. The ego is about how much �good will� or �bad will� a person puts in his\her action. The action is the actual work done � mental or physical. A parallel may be seen in the mechanics. The energy gained by a moving body is a function of its �mass� and �velocity�. If you would, the ego is like the mass, the action is like the velocity, and the Karma is like the energy.

Scope: Scope of Karma also may be understood in different level. Every body understands Karma intuitively or as a �saying�, though it may not be expressed rigorously. Rigor of physics has given Newton�s law about 3 centuries ago. It required genius of Newton to grasp the laws among multitude of physical phenomenon. In another supra level, it required the genius of Buddha to grasp the law about 25 centuries ago. Buddha put forward the law of Karma as an empirical truth, which until then was considered a reveled truth. Buddha proposed that the Karma is inherent within human or within nature in general. For example, if you love then you will be loved, and if you hate then you will be hated. Thus it operates in the level of mind and emotion also with the same rigor.

We may make following observations regarding Newton�s law and Buddha�s law. These laws are universal and inherent in nature. Newton and Buddha did not invent them. They merely stated them formally. There might be people who understood the laws before them. If not for them some body else might have figured out the laws later. However, they get credit that from their time onward these laws became a standard tool for further studies. The laws are about understanding, not about believing. You do not follow the law because Newton or Buddha said so, but they merely helped you to understand it. There is no heaven or hell associated with believing or not believing it. If you want to learn, then you have to learn on your own. Some body else cannot learn or understand for you. You may appreciate and thank them for helping you. In your investigation if you find the laws not valid, then you are more than welcome to state so with your evidence and logic. You may be breaking new ground and finding new laws. As a matter of fact, we now know that Newton�s laws are an approximation of more universal Einstein�s laws. However, it does not make Newton any lesser. He remains a great scientist. We may observe that as a scientist Einstein stands on the shoulder of Newton. Same is true with Sidhartha Gautam, the �Buddha�. He remains a great enlightened person. Buddha�s laws, being empirical, cover Newton�s laws as well. Newton�s laws are more rigorous than Buddha�s laws, because it can be tested in laboratory. Thus, to the extent Newton�s laws contradicts Buddha�s laws, the Buddha�s laws stands corrected. However, Buddha�s laws have larger scope and cover more human phenomenon than Newton�s laws. Thus, if you ask Newton about reason of human suffering, then he will merely point you to Buddha.

The Karma is also understood as a matter of faith. It may be merely a social and intellectual acceptance of an obvious and useful rule of thumb from time immemorial, and enhanced the acceptance as a faith. In other hand, in Indic culture the law of �Karma� is understood as divinely sustained and reveled. Lord Krishna, of �Hare Krishna� fame, based his lesson of the �Karma Yoga� on this law more than 60 centuries ago. It is believed that Lord Shiva, a symbol of succession of teachers going back to the beginning of time, revealed the law and based his lesson of �Sankhya Yoga� or �Sanyas� on it.

Mechanics of Karma: Let us take a few case scenarios to illustrate it. Person �A� helps out another person �B� stuck in a hole. Force wise, the active pull of �A� and reactive pull by �B� will be equal, opposite and simultaneous. The goodness shown by �A� will be appreciated to the same extent. Similarly if a Person �C� punches another person �D� on the face. Then D�s face also hits back C�s fist with the same momentum. In another plane, the hate discharged by �C� also will be met with the same amount of disgust. If you stretch a rubber band, then the energy spent is stored as potential energy in the band in tension. If the band is released then the potential energy will convert to the kinetic energy and the band will fly. Same rule applies to the human emotion. A good deed will take the person to the higher spiritual level, and vice versa. Better the deed, higher the level. Committing a crime will turn the nature hostile, and a virtuous deed makes it pleasing. For example, a monk and a thief walking down same street will have different perspectives. The monk may see potential human kindness, while the thief may see potential police men. The result of the deed stored as potential Karma may released in due condition. The monk may be greeted, the thief may be arrested. If you feel like stealing a chicken, go ahead by all means. It is a crime, not a sin. You merely need to know that your spiritual status and the environment will go down to some where between an apple thief and a horse thief. And eventually you will have to pay for the chicken, one way or the other. Recently �Taliban� following Koranic teachings blew the Buddha�s statue in Afghanistan sky high. The statue did not do any thing. The statue did not have to do any thing. However, spontaneously the whole world looked at them with disgust. Guess what? Within 7 months American bombs started to fall from the sky. There is no visible relation between the Buddha�s statue and the USA. Then again who knows?

The Karmic law holds in any level. Consider a car in motion. The law of conservation of momentum holds true for either the whole car or only a wheel. In the last century, Nazi Germany as a nation invaded Russia and Russia returned the favor. It may be considered as working of Karmic law in the level of nations. A case also may be made that the glory of invasion and humiliation of defeat of an individual German is directly proportional to the extent the person identifies as a German. It makes no difference to a Nigerian, or a German monk practicing non-attachment.

On the other hand, misunderstanding of Karmic law leads to unanswered questions. For example – �I studied very hard but did not get a good job�. Every moment a person studies that person learns. It is deterministic. However, there are many laws of nature between a hard study and a good job that the relationship is no longer deterministic but stochastic. Another example – �A person left big inheritance to the children. The person�s good Karma is enjoyed by the children�. Apparently Karma seems to have transferred. However the Karma is not transferable. Both the person and children are subject to their own Karma. The apparent transfer of Karma is only apparent, not real. Like the wave on the pond surface gives the illusion of moving pockets of water, when in fact it is not. Some time people say if you practice gluttony then you will reborn as a pig. It is only a �saying� to dissuade from gluttony. Perhaps the idea might have come from observing the behavior and the slow transformation. Then again who knows?

�Karma� is basically a quasi-scientific theory used to explain and understand human phenomenon. We should approach it through knowledge or understanding. It is like learning about �electricity�. That way you can have light bulb and also avoid electrical shock. It is not about unavoidable faith or developing do-nothing and blame others attitude. To do so is both misunderstanding and misuse of it.

Dharma: There is no escaping Karma – good or bad. However, it can be transcended by practicing Yoga�s. The effect of a bad Karma may be mitigated by repenting. The concept of repenting\apologizing is as inherent to us as the concept of good\bad action. It is our nature. If you happen to step on some body�s toe, you do apologize. If the other person happened to be a Sumo you do apologize rather quickly, because the Karmic reaction seems too real and immediate. On the other hand, if you happened to be a Sumo then the reaction may not have same urgency. If you do not apologize or do not feel need of it, then it is your nature or Dharma. You are a Sumo with bad Dharma accumulating bad Karma. Repenting is another act. It does not eradicate the first act. Same rule applies to the good Karma, though the reactions may be welcome. You can mitigate the effect of a good Karma by practicing humility. If you do not feel the need of appreciation of your good deed, then that is your nature or Dharma. One of the definitions of �religion� is the practice of improving your dharma. �Dharma� may be loosely translated as �virtue�, �inner strength�, �integrity� or �character�. Good dharma makes you powerful. Gandhi with good dharma was able to chase off the British with bad dharma from India. In Indian\Tibetan iconography the people with good dharma is normally depicted walking in the cloud.

Extension of Karma: Assuming that theory of Karma is valid, further observations may be made. A person studies hard and passes test, another does not and fails. It is quiet obvious that Karmic law applies. However, many cases are not so obvious. For example � �a person works hard whole life but dies poor�, �a person does lots of evil, but never seems to be punished�, �some are born rich, and some are born poor�. Karmic theory proposes that the law operates, however it may not be obvious within the given lower perspective or shorter duration. Because we are not aware of all the laws involved and the time span involved. The condition when the potential Karma becomes a visible event may occur in different time span. For example, smoking might kill a person after 40 years; perhaps breathing fresh air kills a person after 200 years. The first case may be obvious and occurs within a life span, the second case simply is not so obvious.

One of the reasons behind our lower perspective is that we are conditioned to think in terms of a life time. We assume a life span defines a person�s beginning and end, and that Karma should be valid within it. However, we merely do not know events before the birth and we have no knowledge about future even a moment later from �now�.

On the assumption of validity of Karma second assumption may be made, i.e. Karma acts beyond a person�s life span. This leads to the theory that a person does not exist only in one life, but the person has no beginning or end. A life is merely a short and obvious portion of that infinite span.

Since the extended Karmic theory is built on two assumptions, it is less valid than Karma applied within a life span and much less valid than Newton�s law. However, it explains issues which otherwise is not explainable. Thus, we need to weigh the explanation it offers against the assumptions it requires. The comparison of the extended Karmic theory with other similar theories will be an interesting undertaking.

Theory of rebirth: One of the interpretation of the extended Karmic theory leads to the doctrine of rebirth that there is an infinite succession of lives, and that the life we know of is merely one of them. Thus the doctrine of rebirth is one of the theories built on the theory of Karma and has comparatively lesser validity.

Theory of incarnation: Though liable to be confused, it is neither another name for the theory of rebirth nor related to the theory of Karma. It comes from the theistic (�duel� or �Dwaita�) philosophy that God occasionally incarnates in the world. Thus the theory has two assumptions, that God exist and that God incarnates. The �non-dual� (Adwaita) philosophy considers the whole universe as one and divine. Each individual simply need to realize its true nature to be free. Thus it does not see the need of incarnation. In other hand, �Dwaita� philosophy considers God and nature separate entities and that God created and loves the universe. The incarnation is the ultimate expression of divine love. God incarnates to ameliorate problems, to teach useful lessons, or merely to be with the creation. An incarnation is limited in form and only for the particular task. Thus a human incarnation goes through same pain and pleasure as we do. The pleasure for a human is proportional to the proximity with God. The �dual\non-dual� (Dwaitadwaita) philosophy builds on both philosophies and proposes that the world is like a drama directed and produced by God. Some time the director\producer also jumps into the action. The only difference between a human and God is that God is aware of its divinity. On the other hand, it is possible for a human to realize his\her divinity also. That is one of the definitions of salvation. Buddhists do not use the assumption of �God�. However, Mahayan (great vehicle) Buddhists use the concept of Bodhisattva. Bodhisattvas are great human beings who are able to neutralize all the Karmic bonds and would have achieved �Nirvan�, but attached to this world only by �compassion�. Thus the Karmic bond is not totally cut. They delay their �Nirvana� to help the fellow humans motivated purely by compassion.

Three explanations: Consider two cases � �a person wins lottery�, and �a person gets into accident�. The events may be explained in three ways – 1. They are merely coincidences, 2. God gives and God takes, 3. Person is simply getting results of the past deeds or Karma. The first explanation does not assume any thing and thus its validity is much stronger. However it does not offer any explanation either. �Coincidence� is no explanation; it is merely statement of a fact. The second explanation has two assumptions that God exist and that God is some what capricious. God is acting in people�s life and nothing is �coincidence�. Though we do not know why God gives or takes. It remains an unexplained dangling question. The third explanation requires one or two assumptions according to whether the Karmic reaction is within the life span or not. It also does not consider �coincidences�, rather it assumes each event has its own appropriate cause. Since the theory of Karma can be partially tested in laboratory as the Newton�s theory, it is stronger than the theory of existence of God. It does not mean God does not exist or Karma works. It is merely totaling and comparing the assumptions and the dangling questions.

These three remain as parallel explanations. A rationalist will not assume any thing without a solid proof and will stick with the first explanation. The empiricists like Buddhists will consider the third explanation as the best, simply because it offers the most explanation with the least assumptions. The theist will take God for granted and forward the law of Karma as one more proof of existence of God. They merely assume that God created, sustains and reveals the law of Karma.

In personal level, we use all the three explanations as per the circumstances. If we win a lottery, we thank God for that. If we loose money then we say it is our Karma. If we witness an accident we say it is a coincidence. It is a positive way which leads to better Dharma and happiness. As opposite to – claiming Karma while winning lottery, blaming God for loosing money, and accusing accident victims for their bad deeds. It is a negative way which leads to lower Dharma.

World view: What if Karma is valid and a person does not believe it? The person merely looses one of the explanations towards better understanding of the events around. For example, what happens if a person refuses to eat Pizza? Nothing really, no body gets hurt or rewarded. What if Karma is not valid and a person does believe it? The person merely carries one more useless superstition.

However, the pertinent question is how belief in theory of Karma molds one�s thinking and life style. The Karma provides a stronger theoretical ground for self reliance. Your good deeds are not wasted; neither can you escape your bad deeds. You do as best as you can to improve your Dharma. If some body wrongs you then seek justice but not revenge and be content, since the nature is inherently just and no body can escape its justice. If you face tough situation now, do not blame any body else. Your actions are not compelled by reward of heaven or fear of hell, rather by your own choosing. Thus, Karma provides knowledge base for the imperatives of your actions.

Salvation: A person performs good\bad deeds and faces good\bad consequences, and so on. Thus the person is trapped to this endless cycle of karma. Good deeds do lead to happier state; however the person is still subject to the Karma. One of the definitions of the �Salvation� is �the freedom from the Karma�.

Yoga: The �Yoga� or the �way\discipline� is the technique to free or transcend oneself from Karma and achieve Salvation (Nirvan/Mokshya). There are many ways or yoga�s. A few of them are mentioned.

Rationalists or materialists like Charvak would argue that you get what you see. They would insist on proof positive before believing. Thus they would not base their world views on concepts of either �Karma� or �God�. They may agree to the visible part of the Karma, but would not consider it as universal. As epicurist, they might argue for maximization of happiness and minimization of suffering both in terms of individuals or groups, in this visible world.

Buddhism uses empirical reasoning and relies upon concept of the Karma, but is independent of the concept of God. It deals with knowledge and understanding, and thus it is one of the �Gnan yoga� or the �way of knowledge�. Buddhists will rationally analyze their own actions and feelings and identify their causes. Thus Buddhists tries first to understand the causes and its effects, and then tries to remove the ego generated causes. The theory goes that once all the causes are removed then absolutely nothing will be left of the ego. It is called extinction of ego or nothingness or Nirvana. The removal of ego will then lead from ego related ephemeral reality to the absolute reality.

�Sankhya Yoga� deals directly with the �ego� component of the Karma. Since it involves knowledge of self, it is a part of �Gnan yoga�. It is to know the difference between the created reality (the world) and the underlying universal reality. It involves renunciation (Bairagya) of the �ego�, not of the world. It is not about running away from world, rather practice of non-attachment. A practitioner or �Bairagi� sees divine play in every aspect of the world. The ascetic or �Yogi� lives and works without being motivated by the ego related self-interest. The discipline of burning off the ego is called �Tapa�. At the outset a student or �Tapaswi� may live isolated (e.g. forest) to avoid the external stimuli to the ego and related egoistic responses. However, once adept, it makes no difference whether you live in a palace or a grave yard; whether you are a president or a door man. If the ego is totally eradicated then you will actually see the divine reality as it is. Thus it is about actually knowing, not about theorizing.

�Karma Yoga� deals directly with the �action� component of the Karma and is called the �way of duty�. A practitioner is more concentrated on the �action�, and less worried about �ego�. Their ego may be pushed around by the external-stimuli; however they will try to keep their action not motivated by self-interest but in accordance with the divinely ordained duty. For example, it is a crime to imprison a person, but not for a uniformed police on duty. If the motivation for an action begins from God, not from the person�s ego, and if a person is merely a conduit of its discharge; then the Karmic reaction will simply go to God, not to the person�s ego. Thus Karma yoga is about selfless action. In this yoga �Tapa� is not necessary, and thus easy to practice even for a worldly person.

�Bhakti Yoga� or �way of love/devotion� is the easiest one. A devotee would try to fill his or her heart with the devotion of God and the love of the world at large. The light of devotion and love would clean the person’s mind; lessen the effects of the external stimuli, and burns off the Karma. At the beginning a devotee may love only his\her nearest and dearest. However, as the practice grows the boundary of love would ultimately include the whole world.

�Raj Yoga� or the �way of meditation� is the discipline of directly experiencing the eternal consciousness by meditating on his\her own consciousness. It does not deal with theories or ideas but direct experience by going internally into the mind, the awareness, and the consciousness and deeper. It deals about realizing ultimately what we are. The ego, the world, the ideas and as well as the bond of Karma are created reality, not absolute reality. Thus the absolute reality is beyond individual ego, concept or Karmic bond.

Imperatives of law of Karma: The understanding of Karma is universal and intuitive to people of any culture. In the ancient Indic culture, the doctrine has been mentioned in the Rig Veda as early as 80 centuries (?) ago. The rules of human\social behavior like �be virtuous, be good, do good, speak truth, speak sweet, respect parent, respect teacher, do not steal, do not kill, practice �Ahimsha� or non-violence, etc.� were given in the Rig Veda by nameless and countless seers from time immemorial. These rules and social laws were put forth and propagated on the basis of knowledge including wisdom of Karma.

Ideally, knowledgeable people should lead society and teach others. The �philosophers\teachers� command certain respect and livelihood, but not fear. They can lead only by moral example. However, it is not practical to run society strictly in terms of morality and understanding, and hence it is also necessary to have land laws and police. In other hand, a society cannot run only by enforced laws either. You cannot put cops under every traffic light. Here we need to recognize the underlying knowledge base and moral imperatives on which the authority of a legal system stands. If the social behavior depends ultimately upon knowledge; then freedom of thoughts, free debate, right to dissent and multitude of cultural morays automatically follows.

About the author: Dr Tilak Shrestha holds a PhD in Geography, lives in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, and be reached at

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