Karma: Part 1
It's definition in the Classical sources and the problem of ignorance
Karma is a word that has sneaked itself into many of the modern western dictionaries. It has become a word of common usage and many people use the expression 'bad karma, good karma' when something negative or positive may happen to them. As everything in life in general we are of course pretty ignorant to the greater reality of things, but the word Karma is of a peculiar interest because one of its associated meanings has to do with how we engage with activities and what impact they have on our whole being.
But let it me known at the very outset that the writer of this article by no means have gained a full realization of the many subtle operations of Karma and is still suffering their pangs, blows and occasional elevation, but in those rare moments of clarity he feels inspired to share some of his own ruminations on the subject.
Because the subject of Karma is extremely vast, difficult to comprehend and by no means clear in its many definitions we will make an attempt to write three articles on the same topic with the three sub headings of
1. Karma - It's definition in the Classical sources and the problem of ignorance.
2. Karma - It's various manifestations, fluctuations and how it operates.
3. Karma - The active path to remove ignorance and create greater freedom from bondage.
The word Karma and it's many connotations has had a tremendous impact on most of the philosophies originating within the Indian peninsula it was first defined and articulated in the Vedas as prescribed action to be followed to gain certain results or simply prevent the influence of 'sin' (papa, that which covers clear seeing). Although all of the heterodox Indian philosophies (Buddhism, Jainism, Charvakas) all rejected the authenticity of the Veda, they still expanded further upon the notion of Karma and how it operates. In Jainism it is believed that Karma is manifest matter, cosmic dirt (pudgala) that pervades the entire universe in the form of subtle matter and layers itself on the top of man according to his activities. In Buddhism it is simply categorized as one of the five Niyama Dharmas (the causes of effect) and is considered the key component in the law of cause and effect. The Charvakas abolish the theory of Karma all together and encourages man to live, drink be merry and not worry about tomorrow. Here in this article we will focus primarily on the sources of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita (BG) and it is not within our scope to make too many comparisons with other schools of thought.
The early Vedas are hymns in praise of manifest Nature and the underlying operating forces within it. There are indeed many sacrifices and rituals like, praying for rain, controlling the natural elements, rites of passage, rites for the dead, rites for the diseased etc. but what they all have in common is the anticipation to control the unfolding of event for a peculiar benefit. Deliberate actions to be performed for a particular result.
The later portion of the Veda known as the Upanishads is a philosophical inquiry into the quintessential nature of reality. What is the essence of all that is, the external universe and the internal universe of man, how did it first manifest forth and what is the underlying factor common to both. The later portion of the Veda is therefore less concerned with how to perform actions in order to gain certain results, but rather tried to bring about a realization of the Highest Truth and embody a mystical union with That. But before we inquire into that let us now turn our attention to Karma, activity and how we may relate to it in our daily lives. We are all bound by activities, the work we do, the play we engage in, consciously or unconsciously some action is needed to even look after the bare preservation of our bodies. We may therefore ask:
What is work, what impels us to work and what impact does the work/activity that we do have on our being?
As long we live there is an instinctive need within every living being to look after their livelihood. This may be done in various ways, but the basic necessities of food, shelter and clothing is something every human being is in need of to have a functional life. To succeed in these endeavors we need to engage in activities. The work that people do is therefore normally driven by a cause. Creatures of this earth all have in common the longing for happiness/pleasure and the avoidance of suffering/distress. Ingrained in us all is therefore the pursuit of sukha (happiness) and the avoidance of dukha (misery). These two are the common driving force in most of our activities. Now what effect the various activities have on our being is indeed an interesting phenomenon. Why do certain people have an inclination to do certain things while other people will shun away from doing it? Are all the various talents among human beings given them by chance or is there some unseen causes bringing it forth in each individual? We may stretch this further and ask: are human beings born free or are they bound by unseen forces playing themselves out within each respective individual? The inevitable question that arises is hence; 'what are these forces, how do they operate within us, what impact do they have on our being, and how can we create more freedom or greater clarity from the impact they have on us general?
According to Indian philosophies, particularly those investigating into the spiritual nature of man, the word Karma has two meanings. It stems from the root Krn-karane and the basic translation means to act. According to laws of grammar the noun Karma means 'kriyate yat tat karma iti' 'the action which is done'. Hence every activity one engages in is called Karma. The other meaning has to do with what caused the activity to take place and what impact this had on the doer of the activity 'kaaryate anena yasmin iti karma'. Karma is therefore all the work that we do, but equally the unseen effect of all previous activity (karmas) being done that binds the doer into certain patterns. The first reference to this later definition is found in the Upanishads which is the quintessential of the Vedas inquiring into the reality of whatever exists. In short the Principal Upanishads all proclaim that the world as we perceive it is veiled by a greater reality that is the very cause of it. The veil constitutes manifest nature, all the elements and all the operating forces within it. The higher reality, being its source is naturally apart of it, but yet different to all its operating activities. The main purpose of the Upanishads is therefore to point to a greater hidden reality in the midst of all the activities taking place and reawaken man to his true identity and release him from the bonds of karma, the covering binding influences of activity. In the early Vedas this is done by blindly following the Nitya-karmas (eternal-duties) prescribed (more on this to follow in the 2nd article on Karma), but in the Upanishads the focus is to bring about a direct awakening through proper means of Knowledge, conveyed from the realized sages and seers of the Upanishadic tradition that supposedly had a direct experience of a Greater Reality normally perceived through our senses:
Who knows all, who observes all, to whom belongs all greatness on earth?
Hi is this self in the divine form of Brahman, having a secure footing in the sky.
Consisting of thought, controller of body and breaths; he has a secure footing in food, after having settled in the heart.
By perceiving him the wise see what becomes visible as the immortal
in the form of bliss.
When one sees him, both the high and the low;
The knot of ones heart is cut, all doubts are dispelled;
And his work comes to an end.
In that high golden container is Brahman, stainless and partless,
the brilliant light of lights!
This is what they know those who know the self.
There the sun does shine, nor the moon and the stars;
There lightening does not shine, of the common fire need we speak!
Him alone, as he shines do all things reflect;
This whole world radiates with his light.
Brahman alone extends to the east; Brahman to the west;
It alone, to the south, to the north, it alone extends above and below;
It is Brahman alone that extends over this whole universe,
Up to its widest extent.
(Mundaka Upanishad 2.2.7-11)
Here we can see how a realization of Brahman (that which pervades) may bring about a realization of That which one truly is and from a realization of that all Karmas, activity may come to an end. Now the inevitable question is how did this sticky glue called karma begin in the first place? Who set it forth, why does it continue to bind man in such rigid patterns? If an exit is provided through right knowledge from this world of transmigration what caused the very entry into this world of apparent suffering for the plurality of individual souls supposed to exist within it? The simple answer is that Nature acts and as long as the human soul is bound by nature, certain laws must operate. For every action there is a reaction and inevitable patterns must play themselves out until the final realization comes that one can never be fully separated from That which pervades everything everywhere and set this whole universe into existence.
One should recognize the illusionary power as primal matter, and the illusionist as the great Lord. This whole living world is thus pervaded by things that are part of him.
(Shvetashvatara Upanishad 4.10)
If this essence is immanent within everything that exists, the path to greater receptivity of that may naturally reveal itself through a refinement of the very operating patterns of Nature. This hidden source is beyond joys and suffering experienced through the senses. It is constant and the very receiver of all that is: 'desha kala samaya-anavacchina' 'tri-guna-atita' unbound by time, place and comparison and beyond the three gunas.
However as long as our consciousness is clouded by ignorance to this greater reality it will identify with the coverings of nature and be caught up in seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, the root of all karmic accumulations. The purpose of man is therefore to come to realize the distinction between the Real Knowledge and False perception.
Saunaka, a wealthy householder, once went to Angiras (a realized soul) in prescribed manner and asked: 'What is it, my lord, by knowing which a man comes to know this whole world?' This is what Angiras told him.
Two types of knowledge a man should learn - those who know Brahman tell us - the higher and the lower. The lower of the two consists of the Rigveda, Yajurveda, the Samaveda, the Atharvaveda, Phonetics, Rituals Science, Grammar, Etymology, Metrics, Astronomy; whereas the higher is that by which one grasps the imperishable.
What cannot be seen, what cannot be grasped,
Without color, without sight of hearing, without hands or feet;
What is eternal and all-pervading,
Extremely minute and present everywhere;
That is the immutable, which the wise fully perceive.
As a spider spins out threads, then draws them into itself;
A plant sprouts out from the earth;
As head and body hair grows from a living man;
So from the imperishable all things here spring.
(Mundaka Upanishad 1.3-7)
All the sciences that exist may give elaborate explanations of the nature of appearances, but unless they can grasp the imperishable they are still ignorant to the greater reality of things. Every science is bound by its own rules and definitions, but once they move outside of these, the actual definition of the science may cease, but never the perceiver of it. The purpose of the Upanishads is therefore to come to know the perceiver of Consciousness, which is unbound by any shape, name and form it may reflect. This is therefore the Higher Knowledge by which one may come to perceive Him by means of whom one perceives this whole world. But if you ever thought you might catch a glimpse of Him or be given a fixed definition of how He may be realized, please think again:
About this self (atman), one can only say, 'neti, neti' (it is not this, it is not that). He is ungraspable, for he cannot be grasped. He is undecaying, for he is not subject to decay. He has nothing sticking to him, for he does not stick to anything. He is not bound; yet he neither trembles in fear nor suffers injury.
'Look - by what means can one perceive the perceiver? There, I have given you the instruction, Maitreyi. That's all there is to immoratlity.'
(Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 4.5.15)
Everything that exists in name and form may said to be ignorance in relation to That Higher Reality, which is the Pure Subject, uncluttered, unbound and the mere perceiver of all names and forms. Since the perceiver is different to that which is being perceived the connection between the two and whatever definition we give to the subject or object can on a superior level only be ignorance until the highest reality is being perceived. To inquire further we must therefore accept that according to these teachings; Ignorance only appears to exist until a great reality is being perceived that will remove the ignorance all together. Like darkness only appears to exist due to absence of light, but once the light truly shines darkness cease to exist.
From the passages above we have seen how there is one undivided being pervading this entire universe as well as the inner core of man. According to the Upanishads the goal of man is to come to realize this being situated within oneself. But until that realization comes, man is bound by the cause and effect of Nature that operates as an external veil clouding the perception of this higher reality from within, not graspable by the sense organs, but yet the very perceiver of them. An attempt to understand the operations of Karma is therefore best utilized by actively becoming more aware of what intentions one brings to the activities one engages with. The goal of Karma Yoga is not to gain any particular fruits, achieve certain pleasures or avoid pain, but rather to awaken to the realization that there is a source of being totally unobstructed by any activity of the senses and the respective identification with them. When that realization comes Nature acts out its own cause, but the soul of man does not gravitate any new karmic influences set in motion by desire, greed, delusion, jealousy etc. that can only lead to further ignorance of that inner essence. So when these factors impelled by the pursuit of pleasure or avoidance of pain cease, the covering obstacles of the inner soul of man is neutralized and hence a greater receptivity to that which is the abiding source of all may occur. An experience of that is said to be incomparable to any pleasure gained from the senses, but yet all activity one engages with is the very key to create a greater awareness of that underlying source that is always present in everything that is, but rarely are we able to perceive it.
In conclusion we ask for pardon for any further ignorance we have brought to this subject. However we hope that the references and discussions given will become fruitful in encouraging the seeker to go and inquire further for himself/herself into the subject. Unseen forces do indeed influence our lives in various ways, but it serves little purpose to try to understand the greater picture unless we can become more aware of the smaller details of our own lives, perhaps then as we learn to embrace things more fully as they are can we also come to realize the limitless potential stored up within us all.
To be continued…
R. Alexander Medin
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