THE COSMIC LAW OF KARMA

The Supreme Creative Force of The Universe – A Cosmological perspective

“Bhutabhavodbhavakaro visargaha karmasamjnitah” (Bhagavadgita, ch.8;3)
Tr. (karma is the name given to the creative force that brings beings in the universe into existence).

By
K.M.Rao Ph.D.,

If we look at the Indian Philosophy historically we will find that the conceptualization of karma owed to several inner related practical philosophical problems. One such problem relates to the working-out of a definition or conception of moksa, moksa being defined in terms of liberation from bondage (bandha). Karma is necessarily to be one of the central concepts because bondage (bandha0 is sought to be explained in terms of it. Karma provides a means for the awareness of one’s being in bondage(bandha), and it is thought that it inspirer’s one to make the quest for moksa(liberation); It is also believed that it makes one aware of the motives based on desire (karma) which lead one to action (karma) that has moral consequences. Thus a tremendous importance is attached to every moral act and decision which will have an influence on the entire nature of being. It is in this broad context that the concept of karma receives a uniform treatment and application of meaning in Indian philosophical thinking. But in specific contexts such as ontological, metaphysical and epistemological, the application of meaning varies, especially in the six systems. This paper aims at underscoring the connotational identities and differences in the aforesaid context with reference, more especially, to the six systems. In general, the concept of karma basically implies:

1. That the ideal of Moksa (liberation) involves the activity of the self at the fruition of the individual karma-seed (karmabija) into its adequate karma-fruit (karmaphala).
2. That when all its productive urge is exhausted then it is free from all individual fruition.
3. The atman is not the same as pure activity, but is distinct from it. Yet action has no abode except the atman and, when completed, becomes a part of unconscious, creative will, producing the conditions and kind of life for the atman’s embodiment. The creative and controlling function is performed by action (karma), but the agent and abode of action is the atman itself.

Centuries of language and thought development elapsed before the word “karma” and the idea which was finally associated with this word came to be integrated. The streams, then, are to be traced down from their sources until they meet and flow together; one represented by the word ‘karma’ with its development and flow of meaning, the other consisting of the idea of the activity of he self as it variously manifests itself in the early literature. Or, to state it differently, we have to first trace the preparation of the word for the idea, and then of the idea for the word. This will involve, on the one hand, a study of the deviation and use of the word “karma”, some account of the course of vedic and upanishadic thought as it gradually moved towards a unitary conception of things.

One of the fundamental assumptions of Indian philosophic thinking is that man in his inmost being transcends existence, and also that he knows that he exists and thus knows the meaning of existence. Consequently, most of the Hindu thinkers believed that that which transcends human existence could be represented to the human consciousness. In order to achieve this they first conceived the transcendental aspect as an objective law constituting the cosmic moral order and then attempted to represent it as the counterpart of man’s essential selfhood. According to them the transcendent aspect of reality defies all modes of determination. The self has also been conceived by them as incapable of all activity per se. but under human conditions it is assumed to be capable of acting in accordance with that objective law of goodness, which possesses a representative character of reality. Thus the self, in order to be realised, should be determined by this law. The Hindu thinkers were convinced of the necessity of evolving such a representational procedure because, in the absence of man’s conscious grip over his unrealized transcendental nature, the danger of his yielding to the capricious empirical self was out of proportion to his power of self-determination. Hence a great deal of emphasis was laid on the need for cultivating a discipline of self-determination and of a constant living communion with a determinate objective ideal. According to them an ethical discipline if this kind could be most effective both in the conquest of the lower self and in the realization of the higher self, the reality of the later having been accepted by all Hindu thinkers. These considerations led them to formulate an objective moral law constituting the eternal moral order of the universe by the use of concepts such as RTA, DHARMA, KARMA, APURVA AND ADRSTA. It should be pointed out that science of schism were afoot relating to the question of the representing agency ever since the beginning of the development of these concepts. In fact the long history of the development of Hindu thought bears testimony to its rational and logical approach in the way it accounted for reality in terms of an eternal moral order whose laws in their metaphysical aspect are absolutely immutable and impersonal and are therefore absolutely unconditional in their ethical aspect. The direct outcome of such an approach is the ethics, understood as the subjective principal of acting as determined by the objective law of goodness, and religion, regards as the realization of this goodness, either as the law of self –hood or as an one’s law identical with God’s, have acquired a unique significance in the constitution of reality as humanly represented.

It is assumed that the ultimate reality although lies beyond all forms of characterization, becomes yet determinable when viewed as a personal agency ever acting in absolute determination to the moral law or simply as an impersonal moral law. It becomes God when conceived as the ground and principle of the universe, and the moral law – RTA, DHARMA, KARMA, APURVA AND ADRSTA, when viewed as the consummation of moral efforts.

In the Rig-Veda we do not find any textual mention of the samsara and karma. But in the satapatha Brahmana there is an allusion to it: “And they who know this, or they who do this ceremony (karma) come to life again when have died, and coming to life they come to immortal life. But they, who do not know this, or do not do this holy work come to life again when they die and they become food of him (death) time after time”. ( Te ya evam etad viduh ya vaitat karma kuruvate mrtva punah sambhavanthi te sambhavanta evamrtatvam abhi sambhavanthi. Atha ya evam na vidur ye vaitat karma nakuruvate mrtva punah sambhavanthi ta etasyaivannam punah punar bhavanthi).”
The Taittiriya Brahmana also refers to the same when it says: “He who builds up or knows the Naciketa’s fire, he escapes renewed death’. In another place: ‘The man is born into the world which he himself has made’. And again…… and when he becomes initiated, he makes for it (his self) that world before hand and he is born into the world made (by him).

‘Yad diksito bhavathi tam krtam lokam abhijayate, tasmadahuh krtam lokam puruse abhijayata iti’.
These passages clearly show that the concept of karma and samsara make a definite appearance in the Brahmanical and upanisadic literature. The satapatha brahmana poses already the problem: “the ahuh kim tad agnau kriyate yena yajamanah punarmrtyam apajayathi”
Tr. (What is done here in (the building of) the altar, whereby the sacrificer conquers recurring death? Well, he who builds an altar becomes the deity Agni, and Agni (the fire), indeed, is the immortal element); – the gods are splendor; he enters splendor; the gods are glory; he becomes glorious whoso ever knows this’.

Earlier in the Rig Veda mention is often made of ‘punarmrtyu’ (the second death) which is sometimes identified with pitryana(the way of the fathers). Although this may not firmly suggest the idea of samsara, the Brahmanic and upanisadic literature sufficiently alludes to it with clear implication and emphasizes that it sets a high value on the moral aspect of action: it was only this that in course of time evolved into the ideas of an equalizing justice – karma.
The idea of samsara can be traced to those parts of the upanishads called Pancagni vidya (five- fire doctrine). It is an important text which deals with the idea of samsara (cycle of birth and deaths). The still extant Brahmanical conception of the two- fold way for human souls after death viz: the devayana (the way of gods) and the pitryana (the way of the father), holds good even in the earliest upanishads. This five-fire doctrine is contained in the chandogya Upanishad, in the form of instruction to Svetaketu by Uddalaka concerning the clue to all knowledge. This may be considered as the foundation upon which the upanisadic doctrine of samsara and karma is built. The Upanishad also suggests this idea of samsara at the end of IX khanda: “having been born he lives as long as it is his length of life. When deceased they carry him hence to the appointed place, to the fire, whence he came and whence he arose.

The same idea is implicitly suggested in Katha Upanishad: “like corm the mortal decays and like corm is born again”.

In later upanishads it has been held that the means by which the soul is released from the bondage of death does not merely depend on works (karma) but on knowledge (janana), for one “is born again according to his deeds (yatha-karma) and according to his knowledge (yatha vidyam)” in this or that conditioning. The chandogya Upanishad also anticipates clearly the emancipation through knowledge “those who go hence, without here having found atman and these real desires, for them in all worlds there is no freedom. But those who go hence, having found here the atman and those real desires, for them there is freedom in all worlds.” These passages explicitly refer to future and rebirth and as expressed in the Vedas we see that last connection with the traditional future retribution and once by reward and punishment and again by rebirth upon earth, there is thus little difference in the Vedic and upanisadic belief in the destiny of the soul.

Yajnavalkya’s section of the Brahadaranyaka Upanishad also deals with the genesis of Samsara (cycle of birth and death). When asked by Artha bhaga, what becomes of a dead man, when his organs and functions go to the constituents of the universe, he answered “take my hand, we two only shall know this (question). This is not (to be known by unfit person) in public. (na navatat sa jana iti). Having gone out they discussed it. What they said was karma. What they praised was karma. verily, by good action one becomes good and bad by bad action.” Karma is to be understood here in the sense of an impersonal cosmic law and not as a substratum of the personality, i.e. as a transcendental power which upon the dissolution of the psychic organism brings onto being a new psychic complex. Thus we are brought into the central moral conception of the Upanishads and of the vedantic doctrine; an essential relation is established between the idea of karma having its seed in desire, and the existing difference in character in different persons, the later being attributed to the former. In another passage yajnavalkya emphasizes the dharmic law which regulates the destiny of the soul of man. When a man’s prana (breath) goes out, his knowledge and his work (karma) and his former experience (purvaprajna) accompany him. After explaining the essence of the soul (atman) which is gradually released from the bonds of ignorance yajnavalkya continues: “According as one acts, according as one conducts himself, such does he become (yathakari yathacari tatha bhavati). The doer of the good becomes good. The doer of evil becomes evil. One becomes virtuous by virtuous action, bad by bad action. It may be pointed out here that two important ideas underline this concept of karma, namely desire (karma) and deed (karma). This has been explicitly stated in Brhadaranyaka Upanishad: “As is his desire such is his resolve (krathuh): as is his resolve, such the action he performs, what action he performs, that he gets as result. A passage almost identical in essence to this is to be found in Satapatha Brahmana: “Brahman should be worshipped as satya (Truth). Verily, the man consists of purpose (kratumayo) and according to the completeness of his understanding when he departs this world, thus he becomes after having passed away”. The Chandogya Upanishad also expresses the same: “Verily, a person consists of purpose (kratumayo). According to the resolve, which a person has in this world, such he becomes on departing hence”. The essential nature of man is bound with his own action: “where once mind is attached, the inner self (lingam) goes thereto with action, being attached to it alone. Obtaining the end of his action, whatever he does in this world, he comes again from that world to this world of action (tasmallokat punar iti asmai lokayakarmana iti). This has influenced the later course of thought, particularly its moral outlook which is built upon the conception of desire (karma) being an efficient cause in producing effects. It seems that the whole scheme of karma is based on desire which has been held as original cause of any action, whatever be the desire (karma). That desire is the primal root force of the world. Creation may be traced back to Rig Veda in the well known Purusa sukta hymn: “First in his mind formed desire, the primal germ productive, which the wise profundly searching say is the first subtle bond connecting being with non-being”. In the Samkhya system desire constitutes the eternal driving force of the existence and such eternally rules the world. Thus karma provides a link between one’s personal desire and the effects. It says that quality of a man’s desire is the leading thought which determines future existence. It may be held that the concepts of karma and samsara are bound together and that they should not be conceived separately because the underlying idea is moral retribution and very often one implies the other.

The full development of the process, where karma stands only for action, deed or conduct in general is carried out in Brahadarasnyaka Upanishad at III.2.13:-

“yajnavalkya, iti hovaca, yatrasya purusasya mrtasyagnimvag apyeti,vatampranah, caksur adityam, manascandram, dish srotram, prithvim sariram, akasam atma, osadhir lomani, vana saptin kesah, apsu lohitam ca retas ca nidhiyata, kvayam tada puruse bhavatiti, shara, somya hastam, arthabhaga; avam evaitasya vedisyaha, na nav etat sajana iti tau hotkramya, mmantrayam cakrata: tau ha yad uctuh, karma haiva tad ucatuh atha yat prassamsatuh karma haiva tat prasasamsatuh: punyo vai punyena karmana bhavathi, papah papeneti tato ha jaratkarava artabhaga upararama.

Tr. (“yajnavalkya”, said he, “when the speech (voice) of this dead person enters into fire, the breath into air, the eye into sun, the mind into the moon, hearing into the quarters, the self into the ether, the hairs of the body into the herbs, the hairs onto the trees and the blood and the semen are deposited in water, what then becomes of this person?” Arthabhaga, my dear take my hand. We two alone shall know of this, this is not for us two (to speak of) in public. The two went away and deliberated. What they said was karma and what they praised was karma. Verily one becomes good by good action, bad by bad action. There fore, Arthabhaga of the line of Jaratkarava kept silent.)
This is the conversation between yajnavalkya and Jaratkarava Arthabhaga in the court of Janaka: Arthabhaga asks about the final principle which remains when a man dies and his different organic and functional parts go back to their cosmic counter parts. On this yajnavalkya takes the questioner Arthabhaga apart and confers with him in secret and what they covered about was work (karma) and what they commended that was (karma) work. In truth, it is added aman becomes good by good works (karma) and evil by evil. For the first time we get here a comprehensive view of karma as a cosmic law. In a subsequent passage at iv.4.5.(Brh.Up.)
“yatha kamo bhavathi, tat kratur bhavathi,
Yat kratur bhavathi tat karma kurute
Yat karma kurute tat abhisampadyate”.
Tr. (As is his desire, such is his purpose; as is his purpose, such is the action he performs; what action he performs, that he procures for himself).

In another place in Chan. Up:III.14.1.

“sarvam khalvidam brahma, tajjatan iti ‘santa’ upasita;
Atha khalu kratumayah purusah, yatha kratur asminloke puruso bhavathi tathe tah pretyebhavathi, sa kraton kuruvita”.
Tr. ( Verily, this whole world is Brahman, from which he comes forth, without which he will be dissolved and in which he breathes. Tranquil one should meditate on it. Now verily, a person has in this world, so does he become on departing hence. So let him frame for himself a purpose).

We have here a theory of karma as an offshoot of the theory of Brahman. But we come across with the fundamental difficulty in these passages. Is karma a substitute for the principle of personality or is it a cosmic law on which bodily existence depends? Yajnavalkya who speaks so fluently on the question of Atman as the highest principle, goes out with Arthabhaga to speak secretly of karma and allows the phrase atma akasam apyeti of the later o stand uncommented. Various conflicting views of Yajnavalkya can be noticed in thischapter of Brah.Upa. In the first section he speaks about the ritual through which the sacrificer passes above death; In the present section quoted he advocates the doctrine of karma; In the fourth he speaks to usasti cakrayana about the all pervading characteristic of Atman. The only possible conclusion hat can be made is that these represent the historical development of the ideas of atman and karma. It is also evident that the independent development of the doctrine of Atman reared the growth of the concept of karma. When this has reached its culminating point it has been held that the action f karma determines its bodily existence.

Thus in Brah.Up.IV.4.2.
“Eki-bhavati,na pasyati, ity ahuh; eki-bhavati na
Jighrati ity ahuh, eti-bhavati-na rasayati, ity-ahuh;
Eki-bhavathi-na vasati, ity ahuh; eki-bhavathi, na
Sparsati, ity ahuh; eki-bhavathi, na vijanati ity ahuh;
Tasya haitasya hrdayasyagram pradyotate tena
Pradyatenaisa atma niskramati eaksu so va murdhano
Va anyebjyova sarira desabhyah; tam utkramantam,
Prano’nut kramati; pranam anukramantam sarva prana
Anutkramanti; sa vijnano bhavathi, sa vijnanam evanava
kramati; tam vidya karmani samanvarabhate purva prajna.

Tr.( he is becoming one, he does not see, they say; he is becoming one he does not smell, they say; he is becoming on , he does not taste, they say: he is becoming one he does not speak, they say; he is becoming one he does not hear, they say; he is becoming one he does not think, they say; he is becoming one he does not touch, they say; he is becoming one he does not know, they say; The point of his heart lighted up and by that light the self departs either through the eye or through the head or through the apertures of the body. And then, when he thus departs, life departs after him. And when life thus departs all the vital breaths depart after it. He becomes one with intelligence. What has intelligence departs with him; his knowledge and his work (karma) take hold of him as also his past experience.
Thus at death the atman is accompanied by vidya and karma (Brh.Iv.4.2.). Further in the same passage we find, ‘according as one acts, according as one conducts so does one become’. As such two factors- desire and action determine the course of life. Desire breeds action and action determine the course of life. The concepts of Brahman and Karma originated in the tradition of sacrifice. Brahman represented the energy or the power of the sacrifice and thus became an abstract concept, The concept of Karma on the other hand, first denoted the concrete sacrifice itself and then developed into an abstract ethical concept and has become a cosmic law in the upanisads.

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