Understanding the Concept of Karma and Rebirth in Hinduism

The concepts of Karma and rebirth are two major pillars of Hindu philosophy. Buddhism and Jainism, the two other religions which have their origins in Hinduism too accept the concepts of Karma and rebirth.

What is Karma?

Karma means work or action. When you perform a work or action, it is bound to produce an effect, a reaction or a result. If you are the doer of karma with a desire, you are to own up the result or the fruit it produces. Whatever actions we did in our previous births, earlier in the present birth, are currently doing, are going to do later in this birth and also in future births are all Karmas. Karmas can be good, neutral or bad. Good karma will get you good effects and bad karma will get you bad consequences. This is the simplistic explanation of the law of Karma, but it is not really as simple as that!

“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction” — says the science. “Thou shall reap what thy sow” says the English proverb. These two statements are at the best only incomplete approximations to the law of Karma. Nevertheless, action and reaction constitute the first dimension of Karma.

Karma — inter-woven with time and God’s will

Karma and fruits of Karma are interwoven with a second dimension — Time and a third dimension — Divine will. This is the crux of the law of Karma of Hinduism. This fact is not well grasped by many.

What baffles and troubles many people in life is a commonly perceived reality that nice and honest people of good conduct and character seem to suffer more in life,whereas those not endowed with such qualities mostly seem to lead a happy-go-lucky life!

One can also observe in life that when you have really done a good job and expect a positive outcome, you may get something contrary to it. Also, when you have done some blasphemy and you expect a terrific consequence on account of it, you may perhaps go scot-free. Why is that so?

Karma is unpredictable

People who tend to analyze such occurrences many a time feel extremely bad about the divine law of justice, which seems to be distorted. They tend to feel, considering the happenings in this birth alone, that the proverb “thou shall reap what thy sow” does not seem to work justly.

Perhaps such a stark contradiction is one reason that made saints to analyze Karma and come out with the finding of its continuing effect birth after birth. That is how the second dimension of ‘Time’ comes in to recognition. Any out-of-the-way suffering or enjoyment that you get in this birth, which does not seem to have any seed sown in this birth, must have its origin in some previous births. This is the “Time” dimension of Karma.

At a macroscopic perspective, the entire creation, the living beings, their birth, sustenance and decay are within the overall divine play called Maya. As a divine play, it has all the elements of fun, suspense, unexpected twists and turns of a game, some basic rules and also some breaking and bending of the rules by the Umpire — the God himself!

Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886) says “One can not know the truth about God through science. Science gives us information only about the things perceived through senses, as for instance, this material mixed with that material gives such and such a result, that material mixed with this material gives such and such result. A man cannot comprehend spiritual things with (this sort of) his ordinary intelligence”.

Avatara Purushas (God descended in human form) and mahatmas (great souls), who transcend all dualities of creation and establish themselves in Brahman (the all pervading God), are the ones who understand the play of Maya; they explain to us about the utter difficulty in bringing the ways of working of Karma to any predictable and comprehensible level.

Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa declares “To tell you the truth, this world is God’s Maya. And there are many confusing things in the realm of Maya. One can not comprehend them”. He further says, “One can by no means say that “this” will come after “that” or “this” will produce “that” “.

Thus any presumption that the law of Karma is infallible and rigid is not true. Any rigid suggestion that there shall be a good reward for the good Karma and a bad reward for the bad Karma and that the intensity of reward or punishment shall be directly proportional to the intensity of the Karma, is not entirely true. In other words, Karma is NOT self-propelling — this is what great Hindu saints declare.

Bhagwan Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950), a Jnyani par excellence, in his Upadesa Undhiyar, says “Karma is just jata — non-sentient. The fruits of Karma are decided only by the will of the Creator (God). Can you ever think Karma as God? (You can’t)” This indeed the crucial the third dimension of Karma, namely, “God’s will”.

With all these three dimensions in place, we can comprehend that

  1. For every Karma done, there will be a result/ a fruit/ an effect (Karma phala) which can not be wished away by doer. (When we say “I am suffering from my Karma”, we refer to Karma phala only).
  2. The time at which the result/ the fruit/ the effect will manifest need not be immediate. It has its own humanly incomprehensible time frame cutting across several births.
  3. When the effect will manifest and to what degree or intensity, to what extent of benefit or damage — it lies purely at the will of God.

With this basic understanding, we shall now proceed to understand the classifications of Karma.

Three Types Of Karma

From a theoretical and to a large extent practical and comprehensible standpoint, Hindu scriptures classify Karma in to 3 catagories.

(1) Sanchita Karma (2) Prarabhdha Karma and (3) Agamya Karma.

Sanchita Karma & Prarabhdha Karma

Assuming that we have taken so many births in the past, we should have accumulated quite a huge baggage of Karmas . That huge baggage of karma (i.e. fruits of Karmas) is called the Sanchita Karma. Even in this current birth, whatever effects of karmas you have done since birth till now is also part of your Sanchita Karma.

Out of this huge baggage, by God’s will, some amounts of Karmas are taken out and given to you for enjoyment or suffering in this birth. That portion is called the Prarabhdha. Prarabhdha is indeed the cause of this birth. In a way, we can also say that Karmas remaining in the baggage after taking the Prarabhdha are sanchita Karmas.

In other words, Sanchita Karmas are the potential Prarabhdhas for the future (in this and also future births). They are the prarabhdhas in the waiting list! Sanchita Karmas are like the arrows remaining in the arsenal of the hunter. He may use them at any appropriate time in the future.

Whatever suffering or enjoyment you are experiencing in this birth are due to your Prarabhdha. It is like the arrows that an archer has already shot from his bow; they will have to hit the targets and they can not be withdrawn. Prarabhdhas have nothing to do with whatever Karmas you are currently doing. Prarabhdhas are effects, while your current activities are your current Karmas, not linked to the current enjoyment or suffering you undergo.

This is precisely where people get confused! This is where the questions like “Why is he suffering while he is doing good things only?” are raised.

As already said, for which Karma done on which birth has the Prarabhdha now started taking effect, no one would know, except God. Some saints say that Karma done earlier in this present birth too can become Prarabhdha later in this very birth, since every thing is subject to God’s will. Sri Ramakrishna says that any undisciplined activities done in the youth may start producing their ill effects at older age in the same birth.

Agamya Karma

Doing of Karma based on our wishes, needs, desires and in-born tendencies (called vasanas) is a continuous process. Karmas that you are doing right now and Karmas you are going to do in the future are Agamya Karmas; (Once those Karmas are done, they get added to the bundle of Sanchita Karmas. Agamya Karmas are like the new arrows that the hunter makes which he transfers to his arsenal once the weapons are made.

Thus Hinduism beautifully and almost scientifically classifies the Karmas without ambiguity.

Prarabhdha Karma And God’s Intervention

The general rule is that once the prarabhdha karma starts working, you can not escape from it totally; the recommended way to tackle it is to accept and bear it. Hinduism lays great emphasis on “Saranagathi” — total surrender to God as the best way to tackle the evil effects of prarabhdha. By developing firm faith that it is God who is the dispenser of the effects of Karma, accept everything as His will. If the suffering becomes intolerable, pray to him for succor. Saints declare that the more you try to fight out the evil effects of prarabhdha using your egotism, the more you get deeply entangle into it.

Holy Mother Sarada Devi (1853-1920) declares that God is all merciful and he would not bear a true devotee suffering excessively. If your prarabhdha is such that you have to suffer from a snake bite, she says that by God’s will it may just turn out to be a prick of a nail.

What if the prarabhdha is to cause you an unexpected windfall of enjoyment in life? In reality, it may have more potent traps for you to accumulate new Agamya karmas. Any unusual windfall of luck and gratification has every chance to boost your ego and make you forget God; instead of grasping that what you are enjoying right now may not have anything to do with your present actions or merits, you may be tempted to loosen up your morals and go in for more indulgence. That may sooner or later trigger the arrival of bad prarabhdhas.

Mata Amritanandamayi says that a person starts getting trouble in life particularly in a period when his egotism peaks.

One who remains surrendered to God understands that any out-of-the-way windfall of merry or prosperity was endowed to him by the will of God and he would be ever watchful so as not to get carried away by the lure of transitory pleasures.

Does Repentance Help?

Another question normally comes up in mind is whether honest repentance about an evil act done in the past decreases the bad consequence of the Karma? Can a good act of charity cancel out the evil effect of some other bad karma?

It is generally perceived that that good karmas and bad karmas have their own independent line of existence; It might be like the “credit” and “debit” having their independent entries in a double-entry book keeping system!

However, an honest repentance does seem to have a sobering effect on its specific consequence of punishment for the evil act. But, “canceling out” of a bad karma by an independent good karma doesn’t seem to be a practical proposition, though it may have a definite bearing in “lessening” the burden of the bad karmas. Doing “prayaschitta” (making some amends by doing good act) is generally recommended by saints to lessen the bad impact of prarabhdha.

Can Karma lead to lower births (like animals)?

Hindu scriptures say that human birth is rare to get and it should be rightly utilized to elevate oneself to become a better human being and evolve spiritually. We all have freedom of choice in doing Karmas and the actions we chose should never be leading to our mental and spiritual deterioration.

By indulging in evil activities in this birth, we may accumulate negative karmas that have the potential to lead us to a lower birth like an animal. Definitely it delays and affects our spiritual progress.  Mata Amritanandamayi says that excessive attachment to our wealth, children etc may also add to bad karmas leading to our birth as a dog in order to fullfil our desire to be with our kith and kin and safeguard our possessions, by living with our family members of the previous birth.

Karma And Duty

One thing to be clearly understood in karma is that you are bound by the effects of karma only if you have attachment / personal motive / desire behind doing karma. For example, a policeman shooting at rioters on the orders of his officer carries it out as his duty and hence he shall not acquire the karma of killing or wounding some of the rioters.

You Can’t Claim To Be The Executor Of Karma

Suppose you kill a person who has done a grave harm to you in the past; You can not claim “It is his prarabhdha karma that he had to be killed by me; I won’t accrue any sin because I acted as God’s instrument in executing it. Killing him is also my prarabhdha; I can’t help it”. It could be true that getting killed is his parabhdha, but your killing him is clearly an act of your Agamya Karma; you have had a motive, a vengeance in killing him and you have to face the consequences of it. Ordinary mortals can not usurp the role of God and claim justification by lopsidedly interpreting the law of Karma.

Know The Difference Between Kartha And Bhogtha

When you enjoy or suffer as a consequence of your past karmas, you are a “bhogtha” — the experiencer. When you do a karma, you are a “kartha” — the doer. You do not have the freedom of choice as Bhogtha — you have got to experience your effects of karmas of the past (to what ever degree God proffers to you). But you do, to a fair degree, have the freedom of choice as Kartha — doer. If you have a wick lamp, you can use its light to read Bhagavad Gita and get enlightened or you can use it to burn the Gita. This is the freedom of action available to you.

Regarding free will, Sri Ramakrishna says that as long as one has the idea of good and bad, the acting of free will (to choose between the two) too will be there; for one who has surrendered himself fully to God, there is no question of existence of free will; for him, everything is God’s will.

Swarga (Heaven), Naraga (Hell) and Earth – How do they fit in in Karma?

According to puranas, a jiva, when he does extraordinary good deeds on earth and acquire punya during his life time, enjoys life in heaven till he exhausts the punya. Heaven is the place where everything is joyful, no trace of any pain or unpleasantness. The jiva has no physical body; he has only a sukshma (subtle) body and all the enjoyments are only sensual enjoyments, enjoyed at mental body.  Once punyas are exhausted, the jiva has to necessarily come to birth to take up a human life to clear all the other karmas.

In the same way, the jiva has to undergo extreme suffering in hell for all the atrocious crimes and evils that he commits in human birth.  The Garuda Purana elaborates the various punishments that awaits the jivan for different heinous crimes he commits in earth. Here again, all the sufferings are at the sukshma body, experienced at mind. Here again, once the evil karmas are exhausted through punishment in hell, the jivan has to return to earth to taka a new body.

Ultimately, the earth is the only “Karma bhoomi” where the jivan has scope for totally playing out his good and bad and evolve spiritually by being a kartha as well as bhogta. In heaven or  hell, he is just a bhogta. He is not a kartha.

There are also view points saying that the very earth itself is both Swarga and Naraga because all sorts of enjoyments and sufferings exist here itself.

Karma Yoga – The way to escape the Karma cycle

As long as one has desires, ambitions and motives and engages in action to satiate them, the cycle of karma will never get severed. Man will have to keep taking births over births to enjoy the good effects of good karma and evil effects of bad karma. Hinduism says that human birth is not meant to be wasted for ever in this seemingly never ending cycle. It is simply the divine play of Maya that keeps deluding men into sensual, intellectual and egoistic pleasure-seeking, thereby subjecting them into countless cycles of birth and death. Getting caught in this never ending cycle of birth and death is known as Samsara.

But at some point of time, those who wake up to the hopelessness of this mad running around turn to true spirituality to seek a solution. Hinduism says that it is your attachment to fruits of actions that binds you to karma. If you can perform work with detachment towards the fruits, if you surrender all the fruits of actions to God, then you are not bound by the consequences of the Karma. This is the secret of attaining liberation and this is known as Karma Yoga — a great doctrine elaborated by Sri Krishna in the Holy Scripture Bhagavat Gita.

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Related reading — Some more Q&A on Karma theory….

 

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