KARMA, FATE AND FREE WILL

Karma, Fate and Free Will are often debated in order to understand whether we have any control over how events transpire in our life or is it all destiny? This question has consumed our thoughts for a long time and has also been a constant source of debate amongst many.  While this issue has been debated ad nauseam, yet it continues to exercise our minds as we seek greater clarity on the subject.

So, I have decided to exercise ‘free will’ and express my thoughts on this subject in this blog!   Or perhaps it’s destiny and as ‘fate’ would have it, the time for it ripe now!  So, that sets the context for a very complex subject. While there are no definitive answers, I have attempted to analyse most of the aspects of this conundrum in the right earnest.

What is destiny?

Destiny is often attributed as the main cause when we get something that seemed nigh impossible and when it happens it seems like a miracle. Destiny is also assigned the blame when we go through difficult times.  There is an innate desire and a natural human tendency to apportion the cause of an event to some factor (causality).  When there isn’t clear contributing factor or we refuse to see the cause, it’s often declared as a result arising because of our fate or destiny.

The human intellect yearns to assign a cause for every event and when there isn’t one that’s obvious, it’s conveniently attributed to Karma Palan (Karma Phal) or ‘Purva Janma Karma’ or ‘Prarabdha Karma’ – all essentially assigning the reasons to be the results of our previous unknown actions.  Hinduism acknowledges the concept of reincarnation, and what determines the state of an individual in the next existence is defined by one’s karma which refers to the causality of actions undertaken by the body and the mind.

The theory of karma includes both the action and the intent behind that action. Not only is the action important, the intent behind the action has significant consequences.  We will see the impact of intent later. It is important to understand that one is not only affected by their past karma, but they also continue to create new karma whenever they are engaged in action with intent – good or bad or even when there is inaction.  In our normal parlance we refer to Karma loosely as:

  • As you sow, so shall you reap!
  • What goes around comes around!

karma

And Thirukural (Verse 319) conveys the causality of actions in this verse: 
பிறர்க்கின்னா முற்பகல் செய்யின் தமக்கின்னா பிற்பகல் தாமேவரும்
Pirarkkinnaa murpagal seiyin thamakkinna pirpagal thamae varum
Meaning: If a person hurts another in the morning, the same evil will come to haunt him in the afternoon, of its own accord.

 Is Karma then retribution?

Karma is not in itself a “reward and punishment” system, but its a law producing consequence.  Karma should not to be viewed as a retribution but it’s simply an extended expression of consequence of one’s actions. Karma means “deed” or “act” and more broadly encompasses the universal principle of ‘cause and effect’, action and reaction that governs all life.

 Having established the context, let’s understand:

  1. What is Karma?
  2. What are the different kinds of Karma?
  3. How does it manifest and do we have any control over how this manifests in our life?  and
  4. Finally, how can we get rid of our Karma and attain liberation?

 1.  What is Karma?

Karma means an action, work or deed; it also refers to the principle of causality where the intent and actions of an individual influence the future events in the life of that individual.  Good intent and good deeds contribute to good karma and future happiness, while bad intent and bad deeds contribute to bad karma and future suffering. Karma is linked to the soul and extends beyond this life and propounds the idea of rebirth and the principle of soul being eternal.

The theory of “karma and rebirth” raises numerous questions—such as how, when, and why did the cycle start in the first place, what is the relative Karmic merit of one karma versus another and why and what evidence is there that rebirth actually happens, among others.

The common theme of karma theories is the concept of reincarnation or rebirth (saṃsāra). Rebirth is a fundamental concept of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. Karma is a basic concept, rebirth is a derivative concept; Karma is a fact asserts Yamunacharya, while reincarnation is a hypothesis; rebirth is a necessary corollary of karma. Rebirth, or saṃsāra, is the concept that all life forms go through a cycle of reincarnation, that is a series of births, death and rebirths.

A common theme to theories of karma is its principle of causality.One of the earliest associations of karma to causality occurs in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (7th Century BC) 4.5.5-6, and it states:

Now as a man is like this or like that,
according as he acts and according as he behaves, so will he be;
a man of good acts will become good, a man of bad acts, bad;
he becomes pure by pure deeds, bad by bad deeds;
And here they say that a person consists of desires,
and as is his desire, so is his will;
and as is his will, so is his deed;
and whatever deed he does, that he will reap.

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (3.2.13) – Truly, one becomes good through good action, and evil through evil action.  This effect may be material, moral or emotional — that is, one’s karma affects one’s happiness and unhappiness.

The consequence or effects of one’s karma can be described in two forms:  phalas and samskaras. A phala (literally, fruit or result) is the visible or invisible effect that is typically immediate or within the current life. In contrast, samskaras are always those invisible effect that are produced inside the actor because of the karma, thus transforming the agent and affecting his or her ability to be happy or unhappy in this life as well as in future lives. The theory of karma is often presented in the context of samskaras.

Karma seeds habits (vasanas), and habits create the nature of man. Karma also seeds self perception, and perception influences how one experiences life events. Both habits and self perception affect the course of one’s life. Breaking a bad habit is not easy, as it requires conscious Karmic (Dharmic actions) efforts for release from a cycle of negative behaviours.

The effect of karma need not be immediate; it can take effect in one’s current life or in some cases it extends to future lives.  And this is why many can’t comprehend why adverse things happen to them in spite of being good in this life! Or conversely, we see many lament about bad people living the high life! Let’s try and understand why this may be the case.

What are the different kinds of Karma?

In the Vedantic literature, there is a beautiful analogy to illustrate the different kinds of Karma.  Imagine an archer with his quiver of arrows:

  • The archer releases the arrow and now has no control over it.  He cannot recall it and it will take effect based on how well the execution was.  The arrow he has shot represents the ‘Prarabdha Karma’ and he has to deal with the consequences of that arrow that has already been released;
  • Now he gets ready to shoot the next arrow and the arrow that he is about to shoot from his bow represents the ‘Agami Karma’. He has perfect control over this arrow as he can adjust the tension, target, angle of release etc.
  • The bundle of arrows in the quiver on his back is the ‘Sanchita Karma’. It is the  cumulative sum total of all karmas for prior lives, i.e. Running account or Opening Balance for this life; A portion of this Sanchita Karma is allocated as Prarabdha Karma in each life.

 2.1       Sanchita Karma

This is the cumulative sum total of all karmas that one has accumulated over many prior lives. Think of it as your accumulated savings or debt as the case may be.  A portion of this is allocated for each life to play out and that is what is known as ‘Prarabdha Karma’.

2.2       Prarabdha Karma

Prarabdha Karma is that part of Sanchita Karma that has been assigned for the current lifetime.  This part of Karma has to be exhausted by being been born in a body that has to endure, suffer or enjoy the results of the previous actions that fructify in this life and hence are called Prarabdha Karma.

The Prarabdha Karma determines the form of body one takes in this life and the type of environment that is most suitable for it to be exhausted. Whether the environment is pleasant or unpleasant is determined by the type of karmas working out. When the prarabdha karma is exhausted the body dies and the next set of karmas will play out!

There are three kinds of Prarabdha karma: Ichha (personally desired), Anichha (without desire) and Parechha (due to others’ desire).  For a self realized person, a Jivan mukta (a liberated person), there is no Ichha-Prarabdha but the two others,  Anichha and Parechha, remain, which even a jivan mukta has to experience.

2.3       Agami or Kriyamana Karma

The actions an individual performs in their current life, wilfully with a sense of doership during their existence in human form that leave positive (punya) and negative (papa) impressions in the causal body and fructify in the future are called agami or kriyamana karmas. Not only is one affected by past karma, one creates new karma whenever one acts with intent – good or bad.  So this ‘Karma’ is an eternal loop and one that keeps us going through the cycle of birth and death.  This aspect is well explained by Adi Sankara in his Bhaja Govindam composition.

“Punarapi jananam punarapi maranam Punarapi jananija Tarae shayanam
Iha samsaarae bahudhusthaarae Krupayaaparae paahi murarae”
Meaning: “Again Birth, Again death and again lying in the mother’s womb, this Samsara process has no end. Save me, Murarae (Oh! Destroyer of Mura or ignorance) through Thy Infinite Kindness”.

But we can’t also escape Karma through ‘inaction’ as even that can produce effect! There are many examples of effects of inaction and a classic example would be that of Bhishma failing to act when Draupadi was being disrobed.

Let’s look at what does Krishna says on Karma in the Bhagavad Gita 2.47

Karmany evadhikaras te ma phalesu kadacana
ma karma-phala-hetur-bhur ma te sango’stv  akarmani ||

This is one of the most quoted verse from the Bhagavad Gita and also perhaps the most misunderstood verse!

Krishna says in Bhagavad Gita Chapter 2.47 – “You have the right to perform your duties but do not have right to the fruits of your action. Do not get attached to the fruits of your action or seek to choose inaction”.

This verse brings out the one of the core principles of living that’s in the Bhagavad Gita.  It captures the core essence and implores us to engage in ‘Desireless Action and become non-attached to fruits of action’.  This verse also clarifies that one cannot escape by choosing inaction. Let’s examine the two elements in some detail.

Is it possible to act without desires or motivation?

It’s undeniable that every action of ours is triggered by some desire.  When we study for an exam, we are motivated by our desire to achieve high grades.  When we eat we have the desire to sate our palette. We exercise to lose weight. We work hard to get promoted and earn bonuses.  So, what exactly does Krishna mean when he says you have the right to perform only your duty and act without any desire?

Krishna is instructing us to act in line with our Dharma with total commitment and leave the rest to HIM.  There are many external factors over which we have absolutely no control and to think that we are in total control of our actions is a misguided notion. A simple task of walking down a flight of stairs can have myriads of outcomes ranging from an eventless result to a sprained ankle or a bruised knee or a broken vertebra all dependent several other factors. Maybe you got distracted for a bit or there was water spilled on the stairs by your kid or there was sharp object on one of the steps so on and so forth.

Let’s see this from the context of a student. The student should be aspiring to gain knowledge but is rather focussed on shortcuts to achieve high grades. This can result to perverse outcomes and I would like to bring out the contrasting learning approach that was showcased in the Hindi movie ‘3 Idiots’.  While one of the students (Raju) was focussed on praying for high grades and panicking during exams as he was too focussed on results, the protagonist (Rancho – Aamir Khan) was a cool cucumber engaged in gaining knowledge, understanding the concepts and more interested in the practical application of knowledge with an aim to benefit the community with such knowledge.  That aspect in the movie clearly brought out one of the core elements of the Bhagavad Gita verse 2.47, i.e. Act with passion and commitment without getting too attached to results.

“Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value”. Albert Einstein

We can also practice desireless action by creating a larger purpose for our actions through linking benefits to the community rather than mere selfish interest.  These kinds of actions do not cause bondage.

The ‘Saattvic’ living can be extended to all other aspects of our life. More importantly, getting away from the sense of ‘doership’ in our action is an essential first step.

Is it possible to remain without attachment?

Is it possible to express love without some form of an attachment?  Human nature is such that we get attached to things, people, lifestyle, money etc. It’s also well understood that any form of attachment creates anxiety, distress, mistrust and agony. Yet, we are totally attached to our children or partner or money or assets or some habits.

Krishna advocates detached attachment.  Something like the water droplet on a Lotus leaf!  The water droplet is on the Lotus leaf yet it doesn’t stick to it.

lotus-leaves-and-rainSwansCygnus_olor

Another example is that of Swan or Hamsa. The Hamsa or Swan represents wisdom and beauty.  The Hamsa is seen as a symbol of purity, detachment, divine knowledge, cosmic breath (prana) and the highest spiritual accomplishment. It transcends the limitations of creation – for it can walk on the earth, fly in the sky (air) and swim in the water.

Even though the swan or Hamsa lives on water, its feathers do not get damp, similarly a Hamsan (an ascetic) lives in this material world full of Maya (illusion, transience), yet remains detached and is not impacted by its transient and illusory nature.

The Hamsa is supposed to possess the ability to separate the water from the cream (in milk). The hamsa’s ability to separate milk and water symbolizes the need to differentiate between good/positive aspects and bad/negative aspects as well as the eternal and evanescent.

The Hamsa represents perfect union, balance and life. A constant repetition of the word “hamso” changes it to “Soaham”, which means: “That I am” or “I am He”. Hence, the hamsa is often identified with the Param-aatma – the Supreme Spirit (also known as: the Absolute, the Almighty, the Supreme Being [Parameshvar], the Ultimate Reality. i.e Brahman. Ham-sa when inverted reads as sa-ham, which in Sanskrit means: ‘the oneness of the human and the divine’.

How can we practice detached attachment?  “If you love something, set it free. If it belonged to you it will return, if it doesn’t it was never yours to begin with!

Bhagavad Gita summary brings this out quite succinctly:

What did you lose that you cry about?
What did you bring with you, which you think you have lost?
What did you produce, which you think got destroyed?
You did not bring anything – whatever you have, you received from here.
Whatever you have given, you have given only here.
Whatever you took, you took from God.
Whatever you gave, you gave to him.
You came empty handed, you will leave empty handed.
What is yours today, belonged to someone else yesterday, and will belong to someone else tomorrow.
You are mistakenly enjoying the thought that this is yours. It is this false happiness that is the cause of your sorrows.

These are questions one needs to ask from time to time keep things in perspective and begin the journey of self inquiry and self awareness.

3.   Do we have any control over how this manifests in our life?

The basic premise is that every action has a consequence, which will come to fruition in either this or a future life; thus morally good acts will have positive consequences, whereas bad acts will produce negative results.  An individual’s present situation is thereby explained by reference to actions in his present or in previous lifetimes.

But, if no one can know what their karma was in previous lives, and if the karma from past lives can determine one’s future, then the individual is unclear what if anything he or she can do now to shape the future, to be more happy or to reduce suffering.

We have no control over how ‘Prarabdha Karma’ can manifest.  However, it’s important to understand that our past actions, out of our own choices and free will, shaped what cards that have been dealt to us in this life. Yesterday’s free will is today’s Destiny! So, in effect, we had a say on what cards would be dealt as a consequence of our past actions, though this we cannot realise in our current life. Hence the concept of destiny emerges. But we have the ‘free will’ in deciding how we respond to our circumstances.  The story of Savitri and Satyavan is a pertinent one where Savitri fights Yama to bring back her husband to life thus defying destiny with resolute action exercising her free will!

Karma manifestation, some examples:

  • Past Action, Present Karma – Did something in the past, now, out of nowhere, when you have tried to live a good decent life, bad things continues to affect you. Sow for Paddy crop and harvest rice.  Work hard, get reward.  Get addicted to drug, wasted life. These result in immediate karma. E.g. Bhishma insulting Amba and Shikhandi takes revenge;
  • Present Deed, Future Karma – Study hard and perform well today, achieve good grades later.
  • Present Deed, Next Life Karma – Did a good deed, but will not get the reward until next life. I can’t think of any example for this but sometimes we feel that we are let down despite our good intent and actions, may be these are accruing to unfold in the future lives! I have a few examples of ill effects of current life Karma in the Next life.
    • Rama killing Vali from hiding resulted in him to undergo a similar fate as Krishna was killed by an unseen arrow from a hunter;
    • Parashuram killing his mother at his father’s asking resulting in the next birth Rama obeying his mother Kaikeyi leading to his father Dasharath’s death; 

How is Karma determined?

There are four types of karma determination.  It is determined by one own thoughts, and not by any God or Supreme power.

  • Mild Deed and Light Intention – Do minor bad things to people but out of kidding or prank (light intention)
  • Mild Deed but Serious Intention – E.g. Injured someone but the intention was to kill that person;
  • Serious Deed but mild Intention – E.g. Killed a person but did not mean to do so.  (i.e. Played with gun and shot someone accidentally); Mild bullying but leading to suicide by that person;
  • Serious Deed and Serious Intention – E.g. Killed someone with intent; Spread Rumour with an intent to cause serious damage.

Individual Karma:  One on One:   You do good deed, good result return.  You do bad deed, bad result returns.

Group Karma:  One to Many:  A king with bad karma (a dictator) could really bring bad “luck” to his kingdom and subjects (drought, plagues, war, sufferings, etc.)

Association: Parents to Children:  Since children inherit properties from parents, some of their parents’ bad karma will be passed down as well. Mother’s diet during her pregnancy could affect the foetus greatly.

Many to One:  Like the king who told his subjects to do some deeds.  As the leader, he will earn the karma as proportion to the leader’s benefit (exactly the amount he taxes his subjects.)  If they do good deed, he will earn good karma (same tax rate). If they do bad deed, he will be responsible for the tax-collective proportion of bad karma as well.

Many to Many:  People in one village, one country, or one planet share the same karma with each other. Quite similar to electing a government by majority and the consequences of electing a government affects everyone.

Local and Global Karma –  These types of karma occur due to geo-political events.  

Conditions:  Most of the Karma cannot take place until the right conditions appear.

One might argue that in what way is it fair for everyone to suffer due to the actions of a few? The aspect of collateral damage seems totally unfair or feeble to the logical mind.  But it’s important to appreciate that our circumstances are determined by our past deeds, whether we are aware of them or not.  So, to have boarded the MH 370 airline on the fateful day is perhaps the collective Karma manifesting in all the people on board losing their lives.  Similarly turning up for Office 30 minutes late on 9/11 saved many their lives. While this does seem like a weak argument, the laws of cause and effect is irrefutable.  

The good thing is it has limited Influence –  All karmas have limited influence in the grand scale of infinite time and infinite space.  As soon as the karma potential runs out, we start a new leaf (i.e. nobody stays in Hell forever, and nobody stays in Heaven forever).

Bhagavan in Bhagavad Gita in Chapter 9.21 emphasises this aspect:
te taḿ bhuktvā svarga-lokaḿ viśālaḿ kṣīṇe puṇye martya-lokaḿ viśanti
evaḿ trayī-dharmam anuprapannā gatāgataḿ kāma-kāmā labhante
Meaning: Having enjoyed the joys of heaven, they, with their merits exhausted, return to the mortal world. In this manner, those with selfish desires, who take refuge in the three-fold system, arrive and depart repeatedly.

Karma- Fate or Free will?

Does that mean everything that I am doing now is being controlled by my karma?  The fate vs. free will debate can be outlined in three parts:

  • A person, who kills, rapes or commits any other unjust act, can claim all his bad actions were a product of his karma, and he is devoid of free will! He is an agent of karma, and that he merely delivering necessary punishments his “wicked” victims deserved for their own karma in past lives.  Are crimes and unjust actions due to free will, or are they because of fate?
  • Does a person who suffers from unnatural death of a loved one, or rape or any other unjust act, assume a moral agent, gratuitous harm and seek justice? Or, should one blame oneself for bad karma over past lives and suffer as his/her destiny?
  • Does karma undermine free will because if all suffering is deserved and consequence of past lives, why try to do anything when the balance sheet of karma from past lives will determine one’s action and sufferings?

The counter to the above hypotheses would be:

  • Not all acts can be attributed to past Karma. While the circumstances presented represent the consequences in some cases, the actions are entirely driven by a person’s conscious choice after due deliberations.  The theory of karma includes both the action and the intent behind that action. If intent and act can be proven beyond reasonable doubt, the process of justice should proceed against this new karma. The person who kills, rapes or commits any other unjust act, must be considered as the moral agent for this new karma, and tried.
  • Life forms not only receive and reap the consequence of their past karma, together they are the means to initiate, evaluate, judge, give and deliver consequence of karma to others. There is a significant element of ‘free will’ being exercised by us in our daily lives.  When we evaluate our alternatives with our discriminating mind and make our choices, we are exercising ‘free will’;
  • Karma is a theory that explains some events in our life, not all.

Not everything that we are doing is being controlled by our own karma.  An example should make it very clear.  Let’s say that we have to buy a boat, and we can only afford to buy a boat within our means and resources.  The boats are our bodies, the means and resources are our karmas.  Now, we launch our boats and navigate them around and go to places that we wish to go.  We are still in control of our boats, but our decisions along the way will be influenced by our own action that is based on a set of circumstances as a result of our karmas (i.e. water pathway, wind speed, water currents). It is within us to develop our capability to handling the boat and become gutsy to face our circumstances.

If we are too careful and be contented, then not much is happening until the boat structure starts to disintegrate.  If we mishandle and abuse our boats, they would disintegrate much faster.  Or if our boats are not seaworthy, and we take them out to the sea, and if our karma is bad, we might encounter a storm, and our boat would be destroyed.

Whether we are in control of our circumstances or not, we must always use our intellect as our precepts to guide us through the good and bad times.  Then no matter how bad or good our karmas are, it will run out of its course, and as we continue to accumulate good karma better times will be round the corner.

Imagine you are riding upstream and the current against you is 20knots per hour.  If you ride at 10 knots an hour, you will be continued to be pushed back.  You might be bewildered by the fact that you are doing good deeds and yet falling behind.  In order for you to make progress now in such a scenario, you need to increase the speed to beyond 20knots an hour to make progress i.e. redouble your efforts to do good deeds and eventually you will be overcoming the adverse currents.

The rebirths and consequent life may be in different realm, condition or form. The karma theories suggest that the realm, condition and form depends on the quality and quantity of karma.  This cycle continues indefinitely, except for those who consciously break this cycle by attaining ‘Moksha’. Those who break the cycle reach the realm of gods, those who don’t continue in the cycle.  Let’s examine next as to how this is possible, if at all!!!

4.   How can we get rid of our Karma and attain liberation?

We don’t know how long we have existed? How many lives have we had?  What type of actions and deeds we did in our previous lives (good or bad), so we cannot accurately know what type of Karma is unfolding for us (i.e. our sins and their punishments). We are clueless on what is coming and in order to reduce the suffering in our life, we need to find ways of negating the effects of our bad Karma.

But the most important single factor is:  We have offended and caused harm to beings in the previous time.  Not all of them demanded payback, and some of them even ready to let go of the pass grudges, but we MUST express contrition.  Depending on the purity of our heart and sincerity of our prayers, God or Guru can deliver our repentance to them and make peace between us and the offended beings.  Sometimes God can give some of their own merits away for those beings as compensations so that they will be happy and let go of our past sins.  An example of this is Rama giving several chances to Ravana to give up peacefully and he would be spared of his transgression. In some cases God or Guru can help us to defer our karma until we are strong enough to endure it.

But Krishna has given a free pass to everyone!  In the Bhagavad Gita Chapter 18 Verse 66, Krishna says
Sarva-dharmān parityajya mām ekaḿ śaraṇaḿ vraja

ahaḿ tvāḿ sarva-pāpebhyo mokṣayiṣyāmi mā śucaḥ ||
Meaning: Krishna finally makes a sweeping statement to Arjuna, “Setting aside all meritorious deeds (Dharma, rituals and religion), just surrender Unto Me completely (with firm faith and loving contemplation). I shall liberate you from all sins. Do not fear.”

So, we have the path of Bhakti and surrender (Saranagati) or we have the path of Karma Yoga leading to gnana and ultimately to Moksha after our prarabdha karma is exhausted.

The person who seeks Moksha or liberation is called a ‘Mumukshu’.

SUMMARY

Karma is not itself “reward and punishment”, but the law producing consequence.  Karma means an action, work or deed; it also refers to the principle of causality where intent and actions of an individual influence the future of that individual.  Good intent and good deed contribute to good karma and future happiness, while bad intent and bad deed contribute to bad karma and future suffering.

In order to lead a life of happiness we need to act in accordance with our ‘Dharma’, the path of righteousness, and live one’s life according to a set code of conduct.  While we may be presented with circumstances arising from our Prarabdha Karma, our response to that has to be based on our discriminating mind and intellect and we act out of Free Will.

It is essential to live a life in accordance with a defined set of principles.  The 10 principles that are essential for the observance of dharma are:

Tolerance or patience, forgiveness, self control, honesty, sanctity, control of senses, reasonableness, knowledge or learning , truthfulness and calm.

Perform actions with total commitment but accept the fruits of such action as ‘Ishvara Prasada’ or blessings. An attitude of gratitude is essential.  Also, if there is no doership in action, then one is really free and nothing can bind that entity from the current actions. For a realised soul the Sanchita Karma is burned away.

Just as the dreamer becomes free of all actions he or she performed in the dream on waking up, the realized soul is freed of sanchita and agami karma when he or she wakes up to the knowledge “I am whole and complete actionless awareness.” Even the prarabhdha karmas that will fructify in his life will not affect him.

When the agami or kriyamana karmas are performed in a self-less or a desire-less way i.e. actions that are performed without any expectation of fruits or results, without any doership, such acts are that of a ‘Karma Yogi’ and this paves the path to gnana and eventually to Moksha or Liberation.

Isavasyam Upanishad says for those who don’t strive to realize the Ultimate Reality of Brahman:
Asuryaa naama te lokaah, andhena tamasaavritaah
Taanste pretya abhigacchanthi, ye cha aatma hano janaah
Meaning: Those who kill the Self (by not knowing or realizing it), after giving up this body again and again attain those worlds of Asuras or devils which are filled with darkness of ignorance (ignorance of the Self).

The only way to realise one’s own nature or Self is through renunciation and by surrendering the ego unto the Lord. Renunciation of fruits and not renunciation of action is the key. Realising once own nature or Self is the only way to overcome this Samsaara.

Kaivalya Upanishad says, Na Karmanaa Na Prajaya Dhanena, Tyagenaike amritatvam aanashuhu.
Meaning: Not by action nor by progeny nor by wealth but some attain the state of immortality with help of Renunciation alone.

We have to give up all our results by chanting:
Sarvam Krishnarpanam Astu – I offer everything to Lord Krishna or

Kayena vacha manasendriyenva Buddhayatmnava prakreetiswabhavat
Karomi yadhyat sakalam parasmai Sriman Narayanayeti samarpayami ||

Meaning: Whatever I do with my mind, body, speech or with other senses of my body, Or with my intellect or with my innate natural tendencies, I offer everything to the Supreme Lord Narayanaa!

Dedicate all your actions to the Lord, accept the results as ‘Ishvara Prasada’ and be free from bondage!

 OM TAT SAT

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15 Comments

  1. I was rotten as a child and teenager . Clueless. Knew nothing about spirituality or karma. As an adult, I have made drastic changes and I try to live with good karma everyday. I try hard to put the good out there. I did suffer some things in my life that I feel were just bad karmic debts that I owed to the universe. Will I get any bad karma now?Or will I suffer more in the next life?

    • Hi

      I can understand your concern. It’s very hard for us to know our historical baggage, more so if it is coming from our previous births. But there is no point in worrying about it.

      In every life we are allocated a portion of our Karma from past lives (both good and bad) known as “Prarabdha Karma” which we will need to exhaust in this life time.

      What we do in this lifetime is called “Agami Karma” the fruits of which will accrue in this life time and future life times.

      The million dollar question then is – How can we get out of this Karmic cycle?

      I will outline the way Karma works per Vaishnavism philosophy.

      Act righteously, surrender to God and have a mindset of equanimity!

      The surrender to God of all our actions results in burning of all the accumulated Karma except the Prarabdha Karma that was allocated for this life time to play out post which one attains liberation!

      Hari Om Tat Sat!

  2. HI Sridhar read ur whole rt up about karma fate and destiny. Indeed a very nce one. Had few doubts which were cleared by u and now i am satisfied in understanding sanchita karma and prarabda karma.. Every human has to face his karma phal in each of his continuous birth and can reduce the effect of bad karmas effect by surrendering one self to lords feet.. Thanking u for making my doubts clear and making me.to get into more spirituality..Regards. Sandhya

  3. I enjoyed reading this article. You have explained a complex topic in very simple and easily understandable concepts. I especially liked how you have highlighted the “Past Actions results in our Present Karma” and how we can exercise our freewill in doing present actions that control our future karma! So technically we are very much in control of our destiny! Well said!! Thanks!! Does performing Sharanagathi rid us of our Prarabdha Karma or Sanchita Karma? Please elaborate on Sharanagathi in regards to Karma. Thank you!

  4. As always, very beautifully written and explained. I do have a question. If I am a very good person in this life, why is it I continue to have sufferings? I am told that you suffer because of your ancestors’ sins. Your take on this?

    • Thank you. We suffer due to our Prarabdha Karma! Those are the results of our actions from past life. There is an element of Karma through association and hence the acts of our forefathers have some bearing on us. But in this you are making an assumption that the soul is different and you are a different entity. According to Advaitam, we are all one and if you take Vishisht Advaitam, we are all part of the Supreme Being.

      Once we acquire knowledge, all this life will be shown as ‘Maya’ or a delusion. All this suffering is due to ignorance. Once we gain ‘gnana’, the truth will be revealed and there will be ‘Sat-chit-Ananda’.

  5. It was a pleasure reading your article as always! I would want want clarification on some points though –

    1. Regarding Intent
      I’ve heard many ppl say that Kal Yug is such a time when you get punya for taking God’s name even if you lie using His name! Also, suppose I want to cause harm to someone & that somehow benefits the other person, what would I get – paap or punya? How important is intent?
    2. Rebirth & Karma
      It was mentioned that rebirth was a corollary of karma? Why is that necessary? Can’t we clear our dues in one birth itself?
      I’ve heard ppl say that there is no rebirth in Kal Yug. Is it true? If yes, we need to be extra good in this life as the returns are guaranteed in this birth!

    3. Freewill
      I never really understood this fully. If the choices we make (free will) is also affected by our karma (as mentioned here), it isn’t really “freewill”.

    4. The “inaction” of Bhishma
      In fact, Bhishma did act! Though he was horrified by the plight of Draupadi, he said that she should honour the words of her husbands.

    The way you summarised the Geeta was very nice! Hoping to read more from you!

    • Thank you for your comments and very good questions. I would appreciate if you also state your name so that if we have more discussions, i will get the context.
      With respect to your queries, I give below my response:
      1. It’s true that chanting and meditating on Lord’s name is a way to purify our thoughts and this will certainly guide us to act according to ‘Dharma’. Naama Smaranam or chanting God’s name certainly accrues punya but a key aspect is that it should not be a trade…for e.g. If you say I will write 108 Srirama Jeyam and in return please grant me promotion! That ain’t desireless action!
      Intent is important and if your intent was evil, you will accrue bad karma even if the outcome was positive for that person. The reason being that the positive result could have been due to many other factors.
      2. Kalyug has 432,000 years per Srimad Bhagavatam. So we have plenty of rebirth possibilities!!! At the end of Kalyug, the Universe will disappear (Pralayam) and a new order will emerge. The cycle of the Universe is about 4 to 8 billion years. The cycle of Brahma is 10*(22).
      The key thing to remember is that both paap and punya will result in rebirth. Only Renunciation of fruits of action, acting in accordance to Dharma and giving up ‘doership’ will get us liberation. See Bhagavad Gita Chapter 9 verse 21 where I have clarified this aspect in the blog.
      3. The choices we make is our free will. Today’s free will exercised manifests in the future Karma. If you eat rotten food, you will get upset stomach as an example. The circumstances that you face today are the results of your free will exercised in the past. And you still have free will on how you respond to the situation. In every situation, you exercise free will based on your evaluation of the various options available to you. For e.g. you had plans to go to the temple and are almost about to leave. A friend calls you at the last minute and says they have planned to have a party and see a movie. What you choose to do in that situation is act of free will.
      4. Bhishma’s inaction is inexcusable and even he laments about this lying on the deathbed of arrows. Also her obeying her husband to come to the Palace and him stopping the act of disrobing are entirely different.
      Trust this clarifies your queries.
      Om Tat Sat

      • Thanks for sharing your perspective!
        My take is slightly different on some points. On intent, I think in this Kal Yug, taking God’s name, even by mistake, earns us punya. If not, how would one justify the story of the hunter earning Lord Shiva’s grace by inadvertently placing Bilva leaves on a Shivling? Also, this points to how powerful His name is!
        I have actually given up in the freewill debate! We can keep arguing/discussing about it ad nauseam! In the case of the movie/temple eg, we can say that the person’s choice would, albeit partially, be influenced by his previous karma. Afterall, it needs the grace of God even to be able to pray to Him/ have His ‘darshan’!
        Re Bhishma – So the old bloke did nothing to convince Duryodhana that what he was doing was wrong?! (If I may add, there are two temples in India dedicated to Duryodhana! Lmao!! What sort of a person worships Duryodhana!!)

        “The key thing to remember is that both paap and punya will result in rebirth. Only Renunciation of fruits of action, acting in accordance to Dharma and giving up ‘doership’ will get us liberation.” Thanks for this point:) I guess this point is not realised by many people including yours truly! lol

      • If you have given up on free will, essentially you have accepted everything is fate. It is well within our means to shape our destiny by evaluating our circumstances and acting in line with our Dharma. Dharmo rakshati rakshitah! We have to take responsibility for our actions and not blame everything on destiny or fate.

  6. Exceptional narration, examples & illustration… A paradigm of Spirituality & healthy Soul feed… We thank you & fervently appreciate your efforts in imparting such an extraordinary article on Karma… One of karma’s example also reminds us the killing of Shravan Kumara by King Dasharatha & how he had to pay for his sins after being cursed by Shravan’s blind parents….
    Tulsidas’s version on Karma -The cycle of birth and death on earth is formed from 8.4 million forms of life, only one of which is human. Only as humans are we in position to do something about our destiny by doing the right thing at the right time. Through positive actions, pure thoughts, prayer, mantras and meditation, we can resolve the influence of karma in the present life and turn our destiny for the better. A spiritual master knowing the sequence in which our karma will bear fruit can help us. As humans we have the opportunity to speed up our spiritual progress with the practice of good karma. We produce negative karma because we lack knowledge and clarity…

    • Thank you Ragini. Instead of worrying about how Karma will manifest, we should just focus on God, renounce the fruits of our action, engage in our Karmic duties with passion and commitment and without ‘doership’. He will take care of the rest!

      The objective should be no paapa or punya (remember Ch 9.21)….just nishkama karma for moksha!

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