Karma means action. The doctrine of Karma deals with the results of these actions. The technical word for the results of action is karma phala—fruit of our actions. Whenever we act, there can be any one of the four possible phalas (results):
- The result is as expected.
- The result is worse than expected.
- The result is better than expected.
- The result is totally different.
To explain this, my Guruji always gave the following example. You have to cross the road to catch your office bus. You cross the road and catch the bus—the result is as expected. You cross the road but miss the bus—the result is worse than expected. You cross the road but meet a friend who gives you a ride—the result is better than expected. While crossing the road you are hit by the bus and you go to the hospital instead—the result is totally different.
These four options apply to all the actions we take. For every action we take, one of the four results will happen. Which one? Unfortunately, we have no clue which one of the four results will fructify. It is impossible to guess till the results of the action are known. It would seem there is a hidden variable which manages the results. There is something unknown which drives the karma phalas. What is that hidden variable which gives the fruit of our actions? Chapter 2, Verse 47 of the Bhagavad Gita explains this concept brilliantly. This is one of its most quoted verses.
karmaṇy-evādhikāras te mā phaleṣhu kadāchana
mā karma-phala-hetur bhūr mā te saṅgo ’stvakarmaṇi
You have authority or control over the action you do, but you have no authority or control over the results of the action.
This is a profound and universal truth. It is applicable to everyone and to every action we undertake. We can only act; we have no choice or control over the result. This sounds like an obvious statement to make. But how often do we undertake an action without any expectation of what the result will be?
The question is who decides or controls these results. The Bhagavad Gita teaches us that it is Ishvara or Bhagavan (God) who decides the results. Does that mean Ishvara is judgmental and uses His own likes and dislikes to pass judgment? The answer is No. Ishvara has a Will but it is unlike the human will; it has no ragas (likes) and dveshas (dislikes). Ishvara’s Will is the Laws of Nature. Ishvara controls this universe through the Laws of Nature. Once these laws are set in motion, Ishvara does not do anything. The doctrine of Karma is part of these Laws. You are the karma karta (doer or agent of action), while Ishvara is the Karma Phala Daata (the giver of the results of action).
With this background, let us discuss the different aspects of the doctrine of Karma in the following four sections.
- Understanding Karmas
- Understanding Karma Phalas
- Understanding Pending Karma Phalas
- Exhausting the Sanchita Karmas
It is obvious that “I am” or ego is the doer of all the karma/actions. It is important to understand how “I am” or ego performs karma and what we really mean by karma. It must be understood that all karmas happen in the Mind itself. This seems contradictory. It does appear that we perform action in the world out there. As we have discussed in other essays, everything happens first in the subtle world. This subtle world is then manifested as the gross world.
To perform any karma we need a subject who does the action, and we also need an object on whom or which the action is performed. We have the “I am” or ego, the subject, and all the vrittis or mental waveforms representing different objects in Manas.
It is part of nature that when ego encounters the object vritti, the ego MUST make a response. All living beings are pre-programmed and compelled to make this response. It is part of their genetic makeup. This applies even to a single cell body. Put a drop of vinegar close to a cell, and the cell will be repulsed and it will move away. Put a drop of liquid sugar, the single cell body will be attracted to the sweetness and move toward it. Basically, the ego of the cell is reacting to the object vritti. The ego of the cell either likes the situation or dislikes the situation.
This duality of like–dislike, attraction–repulsion, positive–negative, good–bad is the underlying force that compels the “I am” or ego to do karmas. This logic applies to every living being, irrespective of what type of creature it is. Even human beings must react in the same manner to every situation. We cannot remain still.
Whenever the ego comes in touch with an object vritti, it cannot remain still, it must act. The response is either raga (like) or dvesha (dislike). This response by the ego is karma. The interaction between ego and object is NOT karma; the response of “like” or “dislike” is karma. Let us discuss some examples so that this point becomes clear.
- People think that when we talk it is karma. This is incorrect. Talking is natural and is a standard feature which comes with the body. The human body is meant to talk. However, it is only when you talk negatively or positively about anyone that you have done a bad or good karma.
- Walking is a natural action. There is no karma when you walk. However, while walking you see an insect and with purpose you squash it with your foot. The intentional squashing of the insect is karma. However, if without your knowing an insect comes under your foot, this is not karma because the ego is not involved.
- If you have ears, you are going to listen to things. For example, if you listen indifferently to all the chattering around you in the airport lounge, that is not karma; it is natural. However, if you get irritated by all the noise around you, that is karma.
- Watching the physical world outside is natural. If you are standing in front of a few people, you cannot say you do not want to see them. Seeing is natural, you have no power to stop this. However, if you make a judgment—what a horrible shirt someone is wearing, or how nice this person is looking—these judgment calls are karmas.
The ego must be involved while doing a karma. We know we are doing karma on a continuous basis. It is only logical that anyone who does karma also owns that karma. We know that the ego is the doer of karmas, therefore “I am” is the owner of all the karmas. These karmas go into the “bank balance” of that person. As we shall see in the next section, the doer of the action which is ego should also face the consequence of the karma committed.
Understanding Karma Phalas
Any karma you perform, good or bad, must have a result. In Vedanta, this result is called karma phala (fruit). In science, an equivalent scenario would be Newton’s Third Law of Motion, which says: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you do any karma, it must have a reaction; this is the basic law of nature. If you rub your hand against the bark of a tree, the tree will rub back with equal intensity. If you do good actions or deeds, the reaction or results will be positive (punya karmas) and if you do bad karmas, the results will be negative (paapa karmas).
Good actions = Good results = Punya karmas
Bad actions = Bad results = Paapa karmas
The question can be asked, how do you define good and bad actions? This can be arbitrary. A surgeon with a knife can heal people by operating on them. A criminal with the knife can kill people. The same knife, but a good action by the surgeon and a bad action by the criminal. So, how do you decide between a good and bad action? Vedanta uses the following phrase, which is the gold standard to distinguish between good and bad actions.
Ahimsa Paramo Dharma—Non-violence is the highest moral virtue.
Non-violence does not mean only physical action. Even bad thoughts—thinking bad things about people and other objects—is part of ahimsa. Both physical and mental actions are part of this moral virtue. If you think about it, it is impossible to live without causing harm. You may give up eating meat, but even as a vegetarian you are causing harm to plants. The ideal goal is complete non-violence. Since this is impossible, the goal should be to minimize harm by all your actions. If any action has multiple choices, the best choice is the one which causes the least harm. Minimizing harm should be the driving force of all actions.
The doctrine of Karma as taught by Vedanta states that every karma must yield two types of results:
- Seen Result (Drishta Phala): Every karma has a Seen Result. If you do any karma, it will have an immediate result which can be seen or felt immediately.
- Unseen Result (Adrishta Phala): The same karma will also have a result which will be felt in the future. The result of the karma could be felt in a few seconds, 20 minutes later, next year, 20 years later, in this lifetime, or in a future lifetime. When this karma ripens, it will yield its fruit. When this will happen no one knows, but it will happen. You must reap what you sow. This concept is only logical and correct.
How do we understand this? When the ego interacts with the object vrittis in the mind, it modifies the object vrittis. This modification of the object vrittis is the Seen Result. It must be understood that the object vrittis are part of the cosmic waveform. This cosmic waveform is the total of all the possible object vrittis in the world.
When the ego modifies the object vrittis, the modification has a ripple effect within the cosmic waveform. This ripple circulates within the cosmic waveform, making changes. Some actions may make minor ripples, while other actions could cause major ripples. Squash an insect intentionally, it will cause a minor ripple in the cosmic waveform. But if a president or king starts an unprovoked war, this can cause a major ripple in the cosmic waveform. People dying, livelihoods destroyed. The ripples can last multiple years or decades. The unseen results of this action will take a much longer time to fructify.
The ripple could have a positive effect (punya) or negative effect (paapa) on the cosmic waveform. The cosmic waveform stores all these modifications. In the end, this ripple will come back to interact with the ego. When, no one knows. This is the Unseen Result.
- Let us say you give $100 to charity. The immediate Seen Result is that you are poorer by $100, but the Unseen Result is that you accumulated a punya karma and this will result in some type of favorable situation in the future.
- You get angry and insult your close friend. The Seen Result is that your friend starts to cry, and the Unseen Result is that you have accumulated a paapa karma and this will result in some type of negative situation in the future.
- You drop your reading glasses from 10 feet. The Seen Result is that the glasses start falling downward as per the Laws of Nature. The Unseen Result will be evident when the glasses hit the ground; they may or may not break. You are not sure until they hit the ground; the Unseen Result is delayed by a few seconds.
These pending unseen results are like your bank balance. Your bank balance will have all the pending results of good karmas and bad karmas which were done earlier. The bank balance includes pending karma phalas from this life and all your previous lives. Everyone has a balance of pending karmas which still must yield their fruit.
Good actions will result in punya karma phalas and bad actions will result in paapa karma phalas. This doctrine of Karma is the instrument which Ishvara uses to provide the results or fruit of your actions. The results you are getting now are based on the pending phalas of your past actions. They are not arbitrary. This is a Vedantic explanation of why bad things happen to good people and good things to bad people. It because they are receiving the fruit of their past actions.
Understanding Pending Karma Phalas
Why are we reborn? The simple reason is that we have pending karmas. These karmas need their phala or results. These karmas cannot be left unfinished. The loop must be completed. All good or bad actions must face their consequences. If you did not receive the result in this life, the pending karma is carried over to a future life. The result to your action is a must. All action must achieve its unseen or adrishta phala. We are reborn again and again to face the good and bad results of actions done in the past.
You would think that the goal is to exhaust all the pending karmas. Is this possible? Impossible. We do exhaust karmas on a continuous basis, but then we are also creating new karmas awaiting results. In this way, the bank balance of pending karmas hardly changes. In fact, Vedanta teaches us that each one of us has an infinite number of karmas—an infinite number of punya and paapa karmas. This is because we have had an infinite number of rebirths. Infinite rebirths is not an easy concept to understand. We will not discuss this subject now, as it is not the focus of this essay.
To exhaust the infinite karmas, you must live for infinite years. This is impossible. We all live only for a finite number of years. Therefore, we exhaust a finite number of karmas in one lifetime. The doctrine of Karma explains this concept by dividing the karmas into the following three groups:
1. Sanchita Karmas—Sanchita means “accumulated.” This is the total of all the pending karmas collected over all the past lives. It is the storage for all the pending karmas. This storage is a mix of paapa and punya karmas. All these karmas are still awaiting their results.
2. Prarabdha Karmas—Prarabdha means “that which has already begun.” These karmas fructify in this lifetime. From the sanchita karmas a certain number of paapa and punya karmas are chosen. These karmas will be exhausted in the current lifetime. You will face the results of these karmas in this life. The selected karmas are placed in your Seed Body. As the Seed Body germinates and blossoms, these karmas will slowly but surely fructify. Our daily life is responding to these karmas. The happy times we enjoy are due to the past punya karmas, and the unhappiness and difficulties we face are because of the past paapa karmas.
The ratio between the paapa and punya will vary from life to life. The greater the punya karmas, the easier and happier will be life. If the paapa karmas are dominant, life will be one big struggle. We can see that the prarabdha karmas are the driving force for the duration of one’s life. Once the prarabdha karmas are exhausted, the person will die. After we die, there is still an infinite number of pending sanchita karmas. We are reborn with a new body to exhaust a new batch of karmas. When we exhaust this lot, we take up another body. This cycle is unending; the pending karmas will never be exhausted. We will continue this cycle of rebirths. The picture does look bleak and depressing.
3. Agami Karmas—While we are exhausting karmas continuously, we are also creating new karmas. The ego is acting every day, some good actions and some bad actions. The unseen results of these actions must happen. When, we do not know. Some of the unseen results will be felt in this lifetime itself. Other karmas will be added to your bank balance. They will be added to the pending sanchita karmas.
Exhausting the Sanchita Karmas
It is impossible to exhaust sanchita karmas. Even an infinite lifetime will not do the job. Does that mean we are doomed, with no possible solution to break this unending cycle? Fortunately, there is a solution. The teachings of Vedanta.
The ego is the doer of all the actions; it is the karma karta. Therefore, the results must be faced by the ego. The ego is the owner of the sanchita karmas. The ego cannot escape this fact. It must face the consequences of all its past karmas. What is the solution? How do we break this cycle? To explain this, my Guruji liked to give the example of Bill Gates, who has hundreds of billions of dollars. He writes a check for $10 every day, hoping to exhaust his account. With his vast bank balance, it is impossible to empty his bank balance with a check for $10 every day. The only solution is to disown the bank account and the bank balance. This way, the bank account does not belong to Bill Gates.
How does the ego disown the sanchita karmas? If you are a student of Vedanta, you will learn that there is the Real Self (capital S) and ego. The Self is your innermost core and it is SatChitAnanda or Self-Awareness. It is non-dual, in which the Self is Subject and the Self is Object.
Ego = Ignorance in the presence of Self
When we forget our true nature of being full and complete, the ego pops up. In the presence of ignorance, the Self appears to become the ego. This ego masquerades as the Real Self. This ego lives with the world of forms and objects. This is the ego which accumulates the sanchita karmas. If you follow the teachings of Vedanta, you can remove the ignorance of your Real Self. By gaining knowledge, you become your Real Self. You become Self-Realized. When you discover your true Self, the ego will disappear—like the snake which disappears when you discover that it is a rope.
The ego owns the sanchita karmas. If the ego is no longer there, the connection with the ego is broken. There is no ego who must face the results of these pending karmas. The Real Self is full and complete. It does not act. It is like a witness to all the actions. It is impossible for the sanchita karmas to be passed on to the Real Self. Once the ego disappears, the bank account for the sanchita karmas is closed. There is no owner for the sanchita karmas.
What about the prarabdha karmas? Does the Self-Realized person face the prarabdha karmas, which are already fructifying in this lifetime? Yes, the body–mind complex will face the results, but the Self-Realized person has nothing to do with the body–mind complex. Yes, to an outsider it does seem as though the Self-Realized person is acting, but from the point of view of the Self-Realized person, he is not performing any action. He is just a witness to all the action.