The Hindu Doctrine of Karma
By Dr. Sunder Hattangadi

Original Source:

Perhaps no word captures the mystery of human existence as suggestively as the word Karma. It is a word that evokes such a host of associated ideas – ethical-moral, psychological, metaphysical, and mystical - that one can easily lose one’s bearings in trying to understand it.

Krishna himself declares in Gita (4:17) – gahanA karmaNo gatiH – “hard to understand is the true nature of action” [`viShamA durj~neyA…yAthAtmyaM tattvam’]. It may be compared to exploring the Himalayan ranges to reach the peak of Kailasa, Shiva’s abode.

Simply defined, karma means action. The stem word, karman, is derived etymologically from the root verb (dhAtu) kRRi, to do, which also generates a multitude of other cognate words that are inextricably related to Karma – e.g. kartA (doer), kartavya/kArya (duty), kAraNa (cause), karaNa (instrument), and so on.

The definitions of Karma are modified by the prefixes, or adjectives, or compound words that are added to it, for example: Karmas may be described as sAtvika, rAjasika or tAmasika; nitya, naimittika; sa~nchita, kriyamANa (Agami), and prArabdha; kAmya, niShkAma; nyAyya, viparIta; shAstra-vidhanokta or avidhipUrvaka; akarma, vikarma, naiShkarmya; svabhAvaja/sahaja.

The Bhagavad-Gita, which Shankara has called `samasta-vedArtha-sAra-sa~Ngraha’ or the `epitome of the essentials of the whole Vedic teaching’ (or Spiritual Knowledge), is the incomparable vade mecum in explaining all the implications of the word Karma. It is a triune synthesis of dharma-shAstra, karma yoga-shAstra, and mokSha-shAstra. Any reader has a wide choice of verses to select in understanding this unique word. The present article is only one such selection, by no means exhaustive, and is only meant to serve as a pointer to other treasures.

Karma and Moksha: Action and Liberation

The word `karma’ yields over 300 words when associated with other prefixes and words to form compound words. The frequency of the word is relatively small in the Vedas & Upanishads, though the major portions of the Vedas (saMhita-s, brAhmaNa-s) are known as Karma-Kanda, i.e. dealing with rituals of worship. They, and the `dharma-shAstra’-s (scriptures on conduct), deal with the do’s and don’ts for the effective functioning of individuals, families, and society. The word has been repeated over a hundred times in the Gita.

The whole pursuit of Reality, the abode of Immortality (13:13) and Imperishable Bliss (5:21), is the effort to transcend the bondage or limitations caused by action. Every ego-centric action leaves an impression (vAsanA) on the mind (or chitta – the memory store-house) serving as a seed to germinate into further action, and results in consequences (karma-phala), that have to be experienced (enjoyed or suffered) in the present or subsequent life. These tendencies (vAsanA-s) can be countered by proper discipline of unselfish actions which leave impressions (saMskara-s). This wiping out of vAsanA-s (vAsanA-kShaya) itself is known as liberation (mukti).

The goal of action is to attain `actionlessness’, (naiShkarmya - Gita 3:4, 18:49). Immortality, freedom from delusion and sorrow and sin, peace, bliss, freedom from desire and anger, are the fruits of this pursuit, as attested in the following verses.

Gita 18:5, yaj~na-dAna-tapaH-karma pAvanAni manIShiNAm – purifiers of the wise.
5:11: “yogins perform action, without attachment for the purification of self.”
4:24 – “Brahman verily shall be reached by one who always sees Brahman in action.”
4:33 – “All action is comprehended in wisdom”.
4:37 – ” Wisdom-fire reduces all actions to ashes.”

Shankra Bhashya on Gita 3:16 states: ` ….till one attains the qualifications for Devotion to the knowledge of the Self, one who knows not the Self and is therefore qualified (for action only) should resort to Devotion to action as a means of attaining Devotion to knowledge.

In Gita 4:25-32, Krishna defines the manifold yajna-s which are born of action (Bhashya: “in deed, speech and thought”, the not-Self, for the Self is actionless. If you realize that these are not my actions, I am actionless, I am unconcerned, you will be released by this right knowledge, from evil, from the bond of samsara”).

In Gita, 5:8-9, are described other actions (”seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, going, sleeping, breathing, speaking, letting go, seizing, opening and closing the eyes”,) which are expressed by a truth-knower as “I do nothing at all, the senses move among the sense-objects.”

Actions, or the flux of events or changes in phenomena, happen in Prakriti (Gita 7:4) or in Kshetra (13:5-6) when applied to an individual. 3:27 – “Actions are wrought in all cases by the energies of Nature (Prakriti). One whose mind is deluded by egoism thinks `I am the doer’. “

How does Vedanta view Karma?

Gita 18:13 – (also 2:46, 4:33) Bhashya – “all action ceases when the knowledge of the Self arises, so that Vedanta, which imparts Self-knowledge, is the `end of action’; (sA~Nkhye kRRitAnte)”.

Other References From Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita on Karma

The classical definition of karma is given in Gita 8:3: bhUtabhAvodbhavakaro visargaH karmasaj~nitaH – “The offering which causes the origin of physical beings is called action (Karma)”.

Shankara Bhashya on this is: “The sacrificial act which consists in offering cooked rice, cakes and the like to the Gods (Devatas) and which causes the origin of all creatures, is known by the term Karma; for it forms the seed as it were of all beings; it is in virtue of this act that all beings, animate and inanimate, come into existence, after passing through rain and other regions of life.

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 1:6:1, states: “This Universe is formed of three entities: name, form, and action.

Taittiriya Upanishad, 1:11:2-4, gives the guidelines – “……should you have any doubt with regard to duties or customs, you should behave in those matters just as the Brahmana-s (learned ones) do, who may happen to be there and who are able and noble thinkers, who are adept in those duties and customs, who are not directed by others, who are not cruel, and who are desirous of merit…..”

[Jaimini’s Karma Mimamsa codifies in aphorisms (3,454 in 16 chapters) the Karma Kanda (`dharma-jij~nAsA’) of the Veda-s, just as Badarayana’s Brahma Sutra-s (555 in 4 chapters) formulate the Upanishadic `brahma-jij~nAsA’ (Jnana Kanda).

Gita 3:14-15 – “From food creatures come forth; the production of food is from rain; rain comes forth from sacrifice; sacrifice is born of action; know thou that action comes from Brahman; and Brahman comes from the Imperishable. Therefore the all-pervading Brahman ever rests in sacrifice.”

Shankara Bhashya : “…Yajna or sacrifice spoken of refers to what is called `apUrva’; and this is the result of the activities of the sacrificer and his priests (ritviks) engaged in a sacrifice. These activities are enjoined in the Veda (Brahman), and the Veda comes from the Imperishable, the Paramatman, the Highest Self. Because the Veda has arisen from the Highest Self, the Akshara, the Imperishable, as the breath comes out of a man, therefore, the Veda, though all comprehending as revealing all things, ever rests in sacrifice, i.e., it treats mainly of sacrifices and the mode of their performance.

As the reader can see, the word Karma has a rich history and heritage. A discussion of it is intimately tied to other topics such as reincarnation (rebirth) and moksha (liberation). Please review the following references for more information.