Over the years, I have noticed that most people who are new to the concept of karma,
have real difficulty grasping it. At the same time, I have always wondered why something so straightforward, and virtually
self-evident, needs an explanation. I hope this discussion will be helpful to those who are new to this
To understand karma, one must realize that it is not a religious
notion. Many followers of different religions have told me that after death, I will go to hell unless I belonged to their
religion, the only true religion in the world. In religions, everything is so black and white. If you belong to a right religion,
you go to heaven; else you go to hell and are eternally tortured in most inhumane ways imagineable, by their all-merciful
Compared to such religious notions, karma is definitely not straightforward,
contrary to my earlier assertion. But it is precisely because so many people are thoroughly steeped in religious way of thinking
that karma becomes hard to understand. I think once people disabuse themselves of the
erroneous idea that we live a formulaic existence in which A leads to B, X leads to Y and so on, karma
will not be so hard to understand.
We should be thankful that life is complex. That is what makes it interesting.
I will start with the quote from bRhadAraNyaka upaniSad: "according
as one acts, according as one conducts himself, so does he become. The doer of good becomes good. The doer of evil becomes
evil. One becomes virtuous by virtuous action, bad by bad action." Indeed our actions and our conduct, make us what we are.
What is the basis of such an assertion? The Upanishad did not quote any "authority figure" whose word
we have to accept without questioning. What then is karma all about? How did this notion
come about? Does it really make sense? Here is a brief overview.
People who contemplated mysteries of life and creation, eons ago, were struck by the
order underlying a seemingly chaotic existence. They expressed their confidence in this order by the term Rta,
which simply stands for "course of things". Science recognizes order in the universe also. In fact, science can be defined
as a study of the order in the universe. But Rta is a more overarching concept than the
concept of order in science, which is merely order in the physical or material creation.
For the Vedic thinkers, order extended beyond the physical world into our daily existence. Just as
day and night are due to order in the physical universe, so are the events in our lives governed by order in
our inner universe.
The order of both the external world and the inner world are both maintained by one principal,
dharma or the law, that which upholds the order. Things behave the way do because of something
that inheres in them; something that, for the physical world, can be described as characteristic property of things. Same
is true for us. dharma then is simply the "manner of being". Just like the concept of
Rta led to the concept of dharma, the latter led to
the concept of karma.
Here is some of what logically follows from the concepts of Rta, dharma
There is inherent nature to everything in creation. Thus we cannot impose our will on the universe.
The only way to "have our way" in the world is through understanding of how the world operates and make sure that "our way"
meshes with the natural order. We simply cannot and should not "dream up" our way but rather "find our way" in the scheme
of things. Both dharma and karma imply that a right
path already exists. All we need to do is to figure it out and tread it. This, of course, leads to the meandering paths we
take through all our series of lives - rebirths or reincarnations.
All actions produce consequences. Our actions, i.e.