Exploring Karma: Tales of a Universal Principle
in the reaches of Mount Kailasha is the abode of
Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction. One evening
Vishnu, the god responsible for preserving the
cosmic order, came to see Shiva. He left behind
at the entrance Garuda, the half-man, half-eagle
composite, who served as his vehicle.
Garuda sat alone, marveling
at the natural splendor of the place. Suddenly
his eyes fell on a beautiful
creature, a little bird seated on the arch crowning
the entrance to Shiva's place. Garuda wondered
aloud: "How marvelous is this creation! One
who has created these lofty mountains has also
made this tiny bird - and both seem equally wonderful."
Yama the God of Death
Just then Yama, the god of death who rides a buffalo,
came passing by with the intention of meeting Shiva.
As he crossed the arch, his eyes went over to the
bird and he raised his brows in a quizzical expression.
Then he took his eyes off the bird and disappeared
in the ancient thought of India, even a slight
glance of Yama is said
to be the harbinger of death.
Garuda, who had observed Yama's action, told himself, "Yama
looking intently at the bird can mean only one
thing - the bird's time is up. Perhaps on his way
back he will carry away the bird's soul with him." Garuda's
heart was filled with pity for the helpless creature.
That it was oblivious of its own impending doom
further agonized Garuda and he resolved to save
the bird from the clutches of death. He swooped
it up in his mighty talons, rushed to a forest
thousands of miles away and left the bird on a
rock beside a brook. Then he returned to Kailasha
and regained his position at the entrance gate.
Soon after, Yama emerged
from inside, and nodded to Garuda in recognition.
Garuda greeted the god
of death and said: "May I put a question to
you? While going in, you saw a bird and for a moment
you became pensive, why?"
Yama answered him thus: "Well,
when my eyes fell on the little bird, I saw that
it was to die
in a few minutes, swallowed by a python, far away
from here in a forest near a brook. I wondered
how this tiny creature would traverse the thousand
of miles separating it from its destiny in such
a short time. Then I forgot. Surely it must have
Saying this, Yama smiled and went away. Did he
know about Garuda' s specific role in the matter?
Nobody can know for sure. Garuda sat perplexed,
mulling over the surprising turn events had taken.
Karma, and its Consequences:
The word karma is derived
from the Sanskrit root 'kri,' meaning 'to do,'
implying that all action
is karma. Technically, the term incorporates both
an action and its consequence. Thus Garuda's karma
consisted of the act of carrying away the bird
and also its consequent snatching by the cruel
hands of destiny. Hence, a deed, pure in its content,
led to an apparently unfavorable outcome. Through
this subtle tale, we are made to confront a dilemma
which constantly recurs in our own lives, namely,
the relative impurity and purity of an action.
Is an action to be deemed positive or negative
solely on the basis of the result it generates?
Or, is there some other criterion? Indeed there
is. What determines the nature of the karma is
the will or intention behind an act. As is mentioned
in the Buddhist text Anguttara Nikaya, published
by the Pali Text Society, "It is will (chetana),
that I call karma; having willed, one acts through
body, speech or mind."
Indeed, an action is right or wrong as the motive
is right or wrong:
"One who acts with the best of intentions,
does not get the sin of the outward consequence
of his action." (Yoga Sikha). For example,
a doctor is not responsible for murder, if the
operation per chance ends in the death of his patient.
In the above tale, Garuda's duty was not to protect
the bird, but rather to try and protect it.
"Even if a man does not succeed, he gets
all the merit of doing his duty, if he strives
the utmost to his capacity." (Mahabharata:
Udyoga Parva 93.6)
"Some undertakings succeed and others fail.
That is due to the divine order of things. If a
man does his part of the work, no sin touches him." (Mahabharata:
Santi Parva 24.30)
It is the psychological impulse behind an action
that is 'karma,' that which sets going a chain
of causes culminating in karmic fruits. Actions
then must be intentional if they are to generate
karmic fruits. This Buddhist belief is slightly
at variance from that of the Jains, and for the
Buddhists, accidentally treading on an insect does
not have such an effect as the latter believe.
Thinking of doing some bad action is a bad karma,
however, especially when one gives energy to such
a thought, rather than just letting it pass. Deliberately
putting down such a thought down is a good karma.
In the same vein regretting a past bad action,
and resolving not to do it again lessens its karmic
result as it reduces the psychological impetus
behind the act.
One of the most significant instructional references
to karma comes from the Bhagavad Gita, which says:
"You have the right only to work, but not
to the fruits thereof." (2.47)
Significant here is the fact that we are entitled
only to act, and have 'no right' over the ensuing
results. This profound assertion is not mere discourse,
but rather loaded with sound practical advice,
which can act as a sensible strategy for whatever
we set out to achieve. This is because the outcome
of any enterprise is not solely dependent on our
individual efforts but is bound to numerous other
factors over which we may or may not have influence.
Thus why worry over something on which we do not
have control? Also, detaching ourselves from the
burden of anxiety over the impending result frees
us from mental stress, and enables us to devote
ourselves with calm concentration to the matter
Mill has very forcibly
pointed out that the best way of getting happiness
is to forget it: "The
conscious ability to do without happiness gives
the best prospect of realizing such happiness as
The Question of Good versus Evil:
In medieval China there once lived an old farmer,
who had a weak, ailing horse for ploughing his
field. One day, the sickly horse ran away to the
The farmer's neighbors
offered their sympathy to him: "Such rotten luck!" they
"Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?" mused
A week later, the old
horse returned, bringing with it a herd of wild
horses from the hills. This
time, the neighbors swarmed around the farmer and
congratulated him on his good luck. His reply however
was the same: "Good luck? Bad luck? Who can
Sometime later, while
trying to tame one of the wild horses, the farmer's
only son fell off its
back and broke his leg. Everyone thought this was
bad luck. "Bad luck? Good luck? I don't know," said
A few weeks later, the king's army marched into
the village and conscripted every able-bodied young
man living there. The farmer' s son, who was laid
up with a broken leg was let off, for he was thought
to be of no use to them.
Now what was this? Good luck or bad luck? Who
Things that seem adverse on the surface may actually
be good in disguise. And something that seems to
be attractive and 'lucky' may actually be harmful
to our best interests. The learned ones often leave
it to a higher power beyond the material world
to decide what is best for them.
Good and evil are not
constant - they change according to time and
circumstance. For example, an arrow
is good if it penetrates its object; an armor is
good if it is impenetrable by an arrow. In the
heat of summer, coolness is good; while in winter,
heat is beneficial According to Zen, saying that
what is evil includes the good is not to assert
that there is no difference between evil and good,
just that the traditional dualisms need to be replaced
with an understanding of the unity of being According
to Zen master Suzuki: "All forms of evil must
be said somehow to be embodying what is true and
good and beautiful, and to a contribution to the
perfection of Reality. To state it more concretely,
bad is good, ugly is beautiful, false is true,
imperfect is perfect, and also conversely. This
is, indeed, the kind of reasoning in which indulge
who conceive the God-nature to be immanent in all
Kahlil Gibran puts it thus:
The selfsame well from which your laughter rises
was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being,
the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup
that was burned in the potter's oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit the
very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart
and you shall find it is only that which has given
you sorrow that is giving you joy.
Some of you say, "joy is greater than sorrow," and
others say, "Nay sorrow is the greater."
But I say unto you, they are inseparable. Together
they come, and when one sits alone with you at
your board, remember that the other is asleep upon
You cannot separate the just from the unjust and
the good from the wicked;
For they stand together before the face of the
sun even as the black thread and the white are
And when the black thread breaks, the weaver shall
look into the whole cloth, and he shall examine
the loom also.
Verily all things move within your being in constant
half embrace, the desired and the dreaded, the
repugnant and the cherished, the pursued and that
which you would escape.
These things move within you as lights and shadows
in pairs that cling.
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the
daily miracles of your life, your pain would not
seem less wondrous than your joy.
You would know the secret of death. But how shall
you find it unless you seek it in the heart of
If you would indeed behold the spirit of death,
open your heart wide unto the body of life. For
life and death are one, even as the river and the
sea are one.
We read in the Bhagavad Gita again and again that
we must all work incessantly. There it is also
mentioned that all work by nature is composed of
good and evil. We cannot do any work that will
not do some good somewhere and indeed there cannot
be any action that will be free of any harmful
residue. Every work is thus necessarily a mixture
of good and evil; yet we are commanded to work
Swami Vivekananda puts it succinctly:
"There is a thorn
in my finger and I use another to take the first
one out. When I have
taken out the first, I throw both of them aside;
I have no necessity for keeping the second thorn
because both are thorns after all. So any negative
tendencies plaguing our minds have to be counteracted
by the good ones. But what after that? Even the
good tendencies have now to be restrained. The
idea is to renounce attachment to any ideal - good
or bad - and work, but let not the mind be unduly
anxious about the results. Let the ripples come
and go, let huge actions proceed from us, but let
them not make a too-deep an impression on our souls.
Work as if we are a stranger in this land, a sojourner,
this is the amount of detachment that is required.
Doing the duty, which is ours at any particular
time is the best thing we can do in this world,
and such a karma is our dharma. Never will unhappiness
or misery come through work done without attachment.
Work incessantly, but give up all attachment to
work. Do not identify yourself with anything. In
the ocean we cannot raise a wave without causing
a hollow somewhere else."
If we want the reward we must also have the punishment.
The only way to get out of the punishment is to
give up the reward. The only way of getting out
of misery is by giving up the idea of happiness,
because they are but two sides of the same coin.
On one side there is life and on the other death.
The only way to get beyond death is to give up
the love of life. Life and death are the same things
looked at from different points. This ebb and flow,
this rising and falling, is the world's very nature.
It would be as logical to hold otherwise as to
say that we may have life without death. Such an
assertion is unjustifiable, because the very idea
of life implies death and that of pleasure pain.
The lamp is constantly burning out, and that is
its life. If we want to have life we have to die
every moment for it.
Emerson's Law of Compensation - Or Why Welcome
Hardships in Your Life?
After a grueling five days, you are looking forward
to a peaceful weekend. On Saturday night you set
out with your loving wife seated next to you and
your adorable kids lodged comfortably in the back
seat. The family is all set to dine out in their
favorite restaurant. You have been starving yourself
the whole day preparing for the impending feast.
Suddenly, the car starts swinging to one side and
you realize that you have a flat. Swearing, you
get down and open the boot. Shockingly it dawns
upon you that the spare wheel too is punctured.
Ruing your fate, you realize that the much-awaited
dinner is now not possible. Then suddenly you compose
yourself and thank god for the small inconvenience
he has subjected you to. Your family stares at
you, wide-eyed in astonishment.
There is a harmonious
law of adjustment and compensation to which all
natural processes are subject. It
plays a balancing role in our lives. This is an
order in which, according to Emerson, "Every
excess causes a defect, every defect an excess,
and all seem governed by the deep remedial force
that underlies all facts." Indeed, it all
works out with absolute exactness. Every sweet
hath its sour, every evil its good. Every faculty,
which is a receiver of pleasure has an equal penalty
put on it. As a Danish proverb has it, "After
pleasant scratching comes unpleasant smarting." Every
advantage has its tax. For everything you gain,
you lose something, and for everything you have
missed you gain something else.
Emerson's doctrine that every thing has its price
- and that it is impossible to get anything without
paying a price for it - is not less sublime in
the columns of a ledger than in the budgets of
states, in the laws of light and darkness, in all
the action and reaction of nature. Indeed, punishment
is a fruit that ripens unsuspected within the flower
of pleasure, which conceals it. If we escape one
part we are tormented in another more vital part.
Hence, let us all welcome the small trials, tribulations
and discomforts which life offers us during our
everyday existence. Totaled they will amount to
much, and hence save us from the single, more damaging
stroke which nature would otherwise subject us
Manipulating Karma - Or How to Put God in Our Debt
"There is a silent third party in all our
bargains. If you serve an ungrateful master, serve
him the more. Put god in your debt. Every stroke
shall be repaid. The longer the payment is withholden,
the better for you; for compound interest on compound
interest is the rate and usage of this exchequer." (Emerson)
Perhaps this is what Jesus
Christ had in mind when he said: "If any man take away thy coat,
let him have thy cloak also," (Matthew 5:40),
Woe to you that are rich, for you have received
your consolation. Woe to you that are full now,
for you will hunger. Woe to you that laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when everyone
speaks well of you, for so did their fathers to
the false prophets. (Luke 6:24-26)
For whosoever exalts himself shall be humbled;
and he that humbles himself shall be exalted. (Luke
Karma Yoga, or Work as Worship
"Your daily life is your temple and your
religion." (Kahlil Gibran)
"Our daily activity is the anvil on which
all the elements must pass and repass in order
to be purified and refined." (Sri Aurobindo)
"Work done in the true spirit is meditation." (The
The word yoga is derived from the Sanskrit root
'yuj,' meaning 'to yoke' or 'join'. Thus, yoga
is the science that yokes 'the finite' with 'the
Infinite', or 'the finite spirit' with 'the Supreme
Spirit'. Connecting ourselves with the universal
will through work is known as Karma Yoga. Ancient
scriptures call it the 'highest kind of yoga,'
Karma yoga is a means for seeking divinity in
action and life itself, and not in some far, beatific
and abstract beyond. It is therefore the discipline
for finding and uniting with the divine through
our day-to-day actions, thoughts and works. Or
it can be referred to as the way, which confers
to our ordinary human actions a divine status.
Truly, every act is sacred since we are not the
doer but a higher reality is acting through us.
We intuitively understand that everything comes
from the divine and we have to offer it back to
its source. When we realize this, then even the
smallest aspect of our lives to which we usually
do not pay any attention or care ceases to be trivial
and insignificant; it becomes full of meaning and
opens up a vast horizon beyond. According to Aurobindo:
"What would you say if a temple, built according
to the design of some great artist, were to boast: "Admire
my merits; am I not beautiful, well-built, solid
and durable? Truly I am worthy of all praise!" -
just as if it were the author of its own perfections.
We would find that very silly and ridiculous, and
yet that is what we are doing constantly. Because
we do not perceive the labor of the Sublime Worker,
we ascribe the merit of the work to ourselves."
Karmayoga is the consecration of one's life to
the divine. It is to work with the feeling that
the divine force is working behind our actions
and leading us at every moment. Indeed, if we have
succeeded, it was probably because the divine forces
were there to help us, otherwise we would not have
been able to achieve even what we have. We must
not forget our limitations. Man proposes, and some
one else disposes.
When we look upon work as worship, we offer up
all the fruits of our work unto the divine. Our
karma is offered as a sacred offering to the highest
reality. Truly, this is the reason why the goddess
Kali wears a girdle made up of severed hands; these
signify the total sacrifice of the fruits of their
karma by her devotees, offered at her feet in worship.
Understanding Karma - Towards an Ethical Way of
"Trickery succeeds sometimes, but it always
commits suicide." (Kahlil Gibran)
The Dhammapada is one of the most sacred and best-loved
of Buddhist texts. It points out the method of
self-realization, by the way of moral conduct:
Like garlands woven from a heap of flowers, Fashion
from your life as many good deeds.
The text further enlightens on the nature of the
For while the fool's mischief Tastes sweet, sweet
as honey, But in the end it turns bitter. And how
bitterly he suffers!
Fresh milk takes time to sour. So a fool's mischief
Takes time to catch up with him. Like the embers
of a fire It smolders within him.
A fool is happy Until his mischief turns against
him. And a good man may suffer Until his goodness
But as dirt thrown against the wind, Mischief
is blown back in the face Of the fool who wrongs
the pure and harmless.
Nowhere! Not in the sky, Nor in the midst of the
sea, Nor deep in the mountains, Can you hide from
your own mischief.
Never speak harsh words For they will rebound
upon you. Angry words hurt And the hurt rebounds.
But the fool in his mischief forgets And he lights
the fire Where in one day he must burn.
He who harms the harmless Or hurts the innocent,
Ten times shall he fall Into torment or infirmity,
Injury or disease or madness, Persecution or fearful
accusation, Loss of family, loss of fortune.
Wilfully you have fed Your own mischief. Soon
it will crush you As the diamond crushes stone.
As iron is corroded by rust Your own mischief
will consume you.
If you kill, lie or steal, Commit adultery or
drink, You dig up your own roots.
You are the source of all purity and impurity.
What you give to him Will be given back to you,
For whatever you do, you do to yourself.
Finally there is what is known as the Golden Rule
where Confucius argues that the central principle
of ethics is not to do what you would not want
to have done to yourself:
'Tzu-kung asked, "Is there one word which
may serve as a rule of practice for all one's life?" The
Master said, "Is not reciprocity such a word?
What you do not want done to yourself, do not do
The Bible too guides us to right action:
"All things whatsoever you would that men
should do to you, do even so to them: for this
is the law and the prophets." (Matthew 7:12)
We are responsible for what we are; and whatever
we wish ourselves to be we have the power to make
ourselves. If what we are now has been the result
of our own past actions, it certainly follows that
whatever we wish to be in future can be produced
by our present actions; so we have to know how
to act. Why should we do good to the world? Apparently
to help the world, but really to help ourselves.
According to the law of karma, the action one
has done cannot be destroyed until it has borne
its fruit; no power in nature can stop it from
yielding its result. If I do an evil action, I
must suffer from it. Similarly, if I do a good
action, it is bound to bear good results. Can there
be a higher motivation for an ethical existence
on this planet?
Indeed, the law of karma is the best motivation
we can have for right thinking, right action and
right living. Karma however, is not god's code
of punishment. It is not passive or defeatist.
Rather, it puts men and women at the center of
responsibility for all that they do and all that
is done to them. Thus is it rightly said:
Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch
your words, for they become actions. Watch your
actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits,
for they become character. Watch your character,
for it becomes your destiny.
is simple. Each of us has been given a field
of life. We are free to sow
whatever we want in this field, which is our karma-kshetra.
In other words, we must eat the fruits of our own
harvest. This is identical with the biblical idea
that "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall
he also reap." (Galatians 6:7)
Many of us usually equate
karma with evil and sin. This is probably because
we become aware of
karma only when we are hard-pressed with difficulties,
taking for granted all good things in our lives.
The fact however remains that: "Men are not
punished for their sins, but by them." (Elbert
Understanding karma is
getting to know the knowledge of the secret of
work. We see that the whole universe
is working and is perpetually in a state of dynamic
flux. Why? Because it is the only way in which
we can justify our existence and residence on this
earth, and go on actively creating and fashioning
our lives. According to Vivekananda: "The
world is a grand moral gymnasium wherein we have
all to take exercise so as to become stronger and
Put in the immortal words of Kahlil Gibran:
"You work that you
may keep pace with the earth and the soul of
For to be idle is to become
a stranger unto the seasons, and to step out
of life's procession that
marches in majesty and proud submission towards
References and Further Reading
- Audi, Robert. The
Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy: Cambridge,
- Byrom, Thomas. The
Dhammapada: London, 1979.
- Chatterjee, Jatindra
Mohan. Panchadasigita: New Delhi, 1998.
- Chopra, Deepak. The
Seven Spiritual laws of Success: New Delhi,
- Elbaum, Susan. The
Kammas we Create: Bangalore.
- Gibran, Kahlil. Complete
Works of Kahlil Gibran: New Delhi, 2003.
- Gideons International.
The Holy Bible: Tennessee, 1978.
- Hanson, V; S. Nicholson
and R. Stewart. Karma Rhythmic Return to Harmony:
- Harvey, Peter. An Introduction
to Buddhism: New Delhi, 2004.
- Hiriyanna, M. The Essentials
of Indian Philosophy: Delhi, 2000.
- Leaman, Oliver. Eastern
Philosophy Key Readings: New Delhi, 2004.
- Leaman, Oliver. Key
Concepts in Eastern Philosophy: New Delhi,
- Mehra, Ameeta (compiler).
Karmayoga Perfection in Work (Selections from
the works of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother):
New Delhi, 2000.
- Parrinder, Geoffrey
(compiler). The Wisdom of Jesus: Oxford, 2000.
- Radhakrishnan, S. The
Bhagavadgita: New Delhi, 2004.
- Satwalekar, Shripad
Damodar: Commentary on the Bhagavad Gita (4
vols. in Hindi): Valsad (Gujarat), 1998.
- Shrimad Bhagavad Gita
with Word Index and Shankara's Commentary (Hindi):
Gita Press, Gorakhpur.
- Vaswani, J.P. What
You Would Like to Know About Karma: New Delhi,
- Vivekananda, Swami.
The Complete Works (Vol. 1): Kolkata, 2003.
- Zimmer, Heinrich. Philosophies
of India: Delhi, 2000.
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