Karma: A Principle of Radical Freedom
• Since the popularization of the term “karma” in the Western world from the 1960s to the present day, this important metaphysical and ethical concept has, unfortunately, been understood in only the most simplistic and cursory of manners by the majority of Europeans and Americans – including by scholars, by most self-professed spiritual teachers, as well as by many common spiritual practitioners. Many followers of New Age and pop spirituality have an even more speculative understanding of karma, believing that the concept of karma is somehow tied to the idea of fate or predetermination. As we will see, the concept of karma in no way represents either a “fatalistic” or a “pre-deterministic” view of the cosmos. Rather, it is a logical and ethically rooted science of activity, a metaphysics of action. Karma is, in actuality, a principle of radical personal freedom. Given the many misconceptions that abound in the modern mind concerning the nature of karma, we will analyze the metaphysical grounding of the principle of karma in accordance with the teachings of Sanatana Dharma, or The Eternal Natural Way.
The word ‘karma,’ itself, is derived from the Sanskrit verb: kr, which means to “do,” “make,” or “perform” (Monier-Williams, 1988). So “karma”, in its more generic sense, simply means “action”. Karma denotes two different concepts: a) Action Per Se: every activity that occurs or that we perform, as well as b) Resultant Reaction: the natural consequence of each of our individual actions that are performed with ethical content involved (the common notion of karma). As we’ll see, for the ethical law of karma itself (b) to become operative, conscious volition must be directly involved.
We find that the world around us is a world of constant and varied activities. Can we imagine the world without any motion taking place? The wind moves; the Sun rotates in its orbit; around us there is constant growth and movement. Nothing in our world is static. Of all these different kinds of motion, however, we can clearly distinguish between two different kinds of movement. The first is motion without a person’s will being involved. These are actions that just take place of their own accord. For example, right now as you’re reading this sentence, your heart is beating, your lungs are expanding and contracting, and your pulse is active. Are you consciously making these activities happen? Of course not. They take place by themselves, of their own accord. So, the first type of actions consists of those actions that take place without the involvement of consciousness. But it’s the second kind of activity that we’re most interested in: action in which our conscious will is involved.
It’s in this second kind of action that we consciously choose to do something. For example, when we choose to snap our finger, or whistle a tune, we are now choosing to perform a certain action. We are now acting with awareness. More, when we perform even a conscious action in which we are specifically choosing to either harm someone physically or emotionally, or benefit a living being, we are now performing actions that have ethical-content. These are precisely the type of actions that bear within them the seed of future karmic consequences.
Every action with ethical-content that we perform – specifically of either ethically good or bad content – necessitates an equal and opposite reaction. There is no ethically willed activity that we are capable of performing, either verbally, mentally, writing, by silence, misinformation, or physically, that is devoid of meaning. Every ethically willed act has meaning. Seen from the converse perspective of effect, as opposed to cause, this principle is known among Western philosophers as the Law of Sufficient Reason: that is, the principle that there is no event, no effect, in existence that is without a cause of one form or another.
Many actions are free of ethical content, as, for example, when we choose to scratch our nose, or tap our foot. But when the meaning that we infuse into our actions is designed either to harm or to help someone, then we are engaging in an action that has ethical content, or specifically ethical meaning. And every time that a human being consciously performs any action that involves either the harm or benefit of either oneself or others, she then sets into motion the retributive law of karma. This is the meaning of the term “karma” as used in sense (b), the sense of karma as a metaphysically-defined retributive principle. This law requires that our ethical-content-actions must be returned to us in kind. Thinking of Good-Karma or Bad-Karma is less significant than to being attentive to ethical actions. For humans, the world is a large place, but for the laws of Universe such as the retributive principle, our world is just a speck! Actions performed to harm someone or simple act of misguide someone is ethical karmic action because it was done consciously, and will always lead to bad karma.
The law of karma teaches us that the world is a purposive moral order, where the individual obtains what she desires as a direct manifestation of her own will. Any lesser cosmic retributive mechanism would be unjust. And any seeming injustice in the metaphysical constitution of God’s creation would reflect negatively upon the Divine, thus requiring precisely the many unsatisfactory forms of speculation (known as theodicies) used to explain the existence of suffering that are found throughout the history of Euro-American philosophy of religion.
As long as we have not fulfilled our karmic debt by experiencing the reactions to our activities, we are required to remain here, in the realm of material non-self, undergoing the repeated experience of birth, and rebirth. We remain within the realm of the laws of karma until we do experience these reactions. It is as a direct result of our karmic activity that we find ourselves entangled in the non-spiritual realm. We, as eternal soul (atman), then find ourselves undergoing repeated transmigration through a string of material bodies until we learn to finally transcend the entire karma-producing process altogether, freeing ourselves from the illusion of separation from God.
Karma Is Not Fate
Though karma does condition and circumscribe the nature of both our present and future experiences, this doctrine is not to be confused with “fatalism,” or with the idea that there is no free will. For, while it is true that we may need to experience some good or bad activity in our future as a result of our present actions, it is imperative that we remember that this future karma is the direct consequence of our previous free-will decisions. Karma is merely the present effect of which we ourselves were the willing past causes. It is we who freely chose to engage in the very actions that would then necessitate a karmic reaction, and thus color our consciousness either negatively or positively. We freely choose to do an activity which then limits our future freedom within the bounds that we ourselves chose to create for ourselves through our actions.
To give an example: I may choose to commit suicide by jumping off a cliff. That decision was one of my own making. It was a decision that I made freely. Once I have then translated this decision into action by leaping off the cliff, then my path is chosen and unalterable. I can’t suddenly say I’ve changed my mind half-way down and have my descent miraculously stop! Now that I’ve committed myself to this action, it must be seen to its completion. In the same way, once I make the free-will, conscious choice to act either benevolently or malevolently toward someone else, then I must face the karmic consequences. Thus, I have chosen of my own free will to create a specific future for myself.
The law of karma is one of the subtle, yet powerful, intrinsic laws of nature known in Sanskrit as Dharma. This principle of karma is “…the law of moral justice and as such it must exist because, otherwise, our intuitive distinction between the ethical and the unethical would be falsified; humankind would be left no incentive to be just and no disincentive to avoid injustice” (Patel, 1991). Karma is God’s means of ensuring a perfect distribution of just rewards on a universal and equitable scale. Consequently, it is a concept that is inherently and necessarily ethical by its very nature. The goal of Yoga, then, is to live one’s life in such a way that we not only no longer produce karma, but that we use the force of our own conscious activity as a means of transcending karma.
This is done, however, not through the renunciation of all actions (Bhagavad Gita, 3:3), but by actually engaging in actions in such a way that we remain unattached to the results. As Krishna explains, it is not the actions in themselves that produce karma, but it is the intent behind our actions that are responsible for creating karma. Speaking of the outlook of the yogi, He says:
tyaktva karma-phalasangam nitya-trpto nirasrayah
karmany abhipravrtto’pi naiva kincit karoti sah
“Abandoning all attachment to the results of his activities, ever satisfied and independent, he performs no fruitive action, although he is engaged in all kinds of undertakings.” (4:20)
In other words, it is not actions in and of themselves that produce either meritorious or negative reactions. Rather it is the state of the moral agent’s consciousness at the time that the action is performed which determines the nature of that action and the subsequent reaction that will result. Intentionality is the factor that determines the ethical content of any action.
If we can perform our duties in such a state of mind that our mistaken notions of self-interest are not the motivating factor, then we are freed from the results of karma. Consequently, the yogi tries to avoid two extremes in life. She avoids both the exploitation of God’s creation, as well as any attempt at an artificial renunciation of activities. It’s the idea that everything around us exists just for our own enjoyment that binds us to illusion. Such an idea is an outgrowth of an unhealthy state of egoism. On the other hand, though, sometimes in our frustration with the suffering and anxiety we feel in this world, there’s the temptation to then artificially renounce the things of this world, to try to live like a hermit, or a recluse. This is also an unhealthy attitude to have, since it arises from a sense of fear. An attitude of exploitation leads to hedonism. And the path of renunciation leads to fanaticism.
Instead of practicing either of these extreme paths of exploitation or renunciation, we should practice dedication of all our actions to the service of God. This is the path of bhakti, or devotional consciousness. As a direct result of this process of conscious dedication “…the consciousness of the individual is changed from material to spiritual, leaving all other factors the same. The activities are performed by the individual as before, but under a spiritual awareness” (Chaturvedi, 1991). By offering her activities to the Transcendent, the yogi thereby makes those actions, themselves, transcendental and therefore free of all binding karma.
Such an individual must practice a mental discipline of radical equanimity towards all actions that she both produces and undergoes. She must see, with equal vision (sama-darshana), the dualities of pleasure and pain, happiness and distress, and prosperity and misfortune that she experiences. To the yogi, such dualistic states are ever-changing. Additionally, such dualities come and go of their own accord, like the passing of winter into summer and summer into winter (Bhagavad Gita, 2:14). We ultimately have little say in their coming or going. As such is the case, why allow ourselves to be so easily affected by them – either by being pleased or by being disturbed?
It is by practicing such healthy sense of equipoised detachment, coupled with the cultivation of our inherent state of devotional consciousness (bhakti) toward Sri Krishna, that we have the ability to truly exercise our freedom for our highest good. That highest good in life is to dedicated ourselves to the eternal truth, love, wisdom and beauty that is the Divine.