On the occasion of Mahavir Jayanti, we look at the role karma and purushartha play in our lives.
Karma In Our Daily Lives
Karma is not just a religious or spiritual term but is a part of the common lingo across India and the world. Many a time it’s used to explain away or even give excuses for happenings as if it is the omnipotent and unchangeable force that controls our lives.
“You had an accident?! Oh, bad karma!”
“You are poor — bear with it as it’s karma from your past lives!”
“...there were floods in the city? Well, it’s all written this way… all due to karma.”
A saner view would be that someone didn’t follow traffic rules and caused an accident or that the floods were caused because the city planners did not do their job.
Unfortunately, karma has become synonymous with destiny and this interpretation has brought about a rigidity into our society, creating a fatalistic attitude. This attitude allows us to justify what are essentially social evils, governance or even economic issues under the uber 'karma umbrella'. Here I am using karma as a noun (as in the karma theory), though karma is also commonly used to describe action — as a verb. This interchangeable usage also adds to the confusion.
Atma (soul), karma and punarjanam (rebirth) are at the core of all Indic philosophies. Karma is the cause of rebirth and along with atma, pretty much defines our philosophical and religious thinking. Did our ancestors then basically want us to turn into a fatalistic society from the very beginning?
Notwithstanding the currently accepted wisdom, the body of work dealing with karma in the earlier discourses and in our scriptures is far more nuanced. Particularly in Jainism, it’s the purushartha (your efforts) that is the primary driver of results, and not your karma. The latter itself is defined in great detail, and includes a clear framework of rules that determine how it gets formed, gives results, and the cycle gets repeated. The way our ancestors approached the whole subject of karma can be called ‘scientific thinking’.
Karma, Efforts And Results
A fundamental question that all of us think about is the relationship between our efforts/actions and the results that follow. Is there a relationship or is it all by chance? Or is it all due to destiny — in which case, can we call karma, destiny?
In Jainism, the results of one’s actions are said to be dependent on multiple factors. Think of it as a “multi-variable” function, where:
Result of any action/effort ≡ kshetra (place), kaal (time), swabhaav (nature of the physical thing), niyati (universal law), karma (past deeds) and purushartha (individual efforts).
No outcome is the result of one individual factor like karma. The place (say, the geography you live in) plays a part — if you are in the tech industry and in the Bay area, your chances of success are higher. The temporal aspect or time makes a difference as well — for example, in today’s world, economic cycles impact your career. During the years 2003 to 2008 in India, the boom cycle helped many people.
The next factor is niyati, and it’s not about destiny but about universal laws that no one can change. Amongst all of these, karma and purushartha are the most important. Karma is the sum of all your past actions — both physical and mental. Purushartha is not just about your physical but also your mental activities.
Karma in and of itself is postulated to be a mass-less, subatomic particle with its own specific properties, physical characteristics and sub-categories. Karma particles constantly attach to and detach from the atma, based on the intensity and type of thoughts and actions that a person undertakes. Here’s the clincher — the action itself is not the result of karma but is due to purushartha, which comes from our free will.
Let me take a simple example: someone is hit by a bike while crossing the road and ends up with a fracture. The accident did not happen because of the pedestrian’s karma but due to the carelessness of one of them. The fracture is not karma in action but the pain that was felt is due to karma. The agony of being confined to bed, etc, can be attributed to karma.
When karma particles detach from the atma they give results based on their original nature. So the next time anyone in India thinks of accidents as being “pre-written” due to their karma, they should think again. Our purushartha — let’s say we all start following traffic rules diligently — can save many such mishaps.
The Elements That Make Karma
Amongst all other types of particles (called pudgala in Jainism), which have eight properties, karma particles are said to have only four and fall in the category of ‘sukshama’ or the subatomic range. They are not detectable and not measurable. They are all around us and fill the entire universe.
A field of such particles is called ‘vargana’. They are not yet karma but once attracted by the atma they become karma. The process of formation of karma and its attachment to the atma is analogous to bonding and creates four specific parameters that determine their precise properties:
- First is the aggregation of karma particles into what is called pradesha bandh.
- Second is the characteristic or nature of the karmic bond called prakriti bandh. Karma particles, when they attach to the atma, obscure the properties of the pure atma and based on what they mask/cover, there are eight main types of karma. They range from awareness obscuring (darshanavarniya karma) to deluding (mohaniya karma) to age determining (ayush karma). Similarly, Nama karma determines the life form you take. Gotra karma determines the status you are born in but not who you become.
- The third is the duration of the bond, stithi bandh. The karma bound to the atma stays passive for a fixed time and starts giving results in the active period based on its type (prakriti).
- Finally, and most importantly, is the intensity of the karma bond, anubhaga bandh. The degree of good and bad experience of karma depends on the strength of this bond. This, in turn, depends on the intensity of emotions felt at the time of action. The strength of this bond is the real power of karma. The other three parameters become of marginal value if the strength of this bond is weak and the effect experienced by the soul will be mild.
Karma Process — The Full Cycle And Our Role
Our atma attracts karma particles. The starting point is the thought before performing an action. Once the thought impacts the karma vargana, a particular type of karma gets configured — for example, anger will form Mohaniya karma — and attach to the atma. It carries the subtype, strength, duration — all aspects. At the end of its life cycle, the karma executes its consequences (at the mental level, and that can also affect the physical outcome), detaches from the atma and transforms itself back into karmic matter.
Given that we have attracted karma for many lives, at any given point the atma is constantly attracting, attaching and detaching karma. It’s only the keval gyaanis (the omniscient ones) who have moved away from this continuous attach-detach karma cycle. A corollary of this is that anyone who is able to remove all karma will become a keval gyaani.
The maturing of karma and their manifestation is called ‘udaya’ and requires a set of enabling events to happen. It’s these events that we can control through our purushartha. Karma can also be brought to fruition prematurely through proactive efforts that challenge your comfort zone and spiritual practices like penance, fasting, meditation etc. This process is called ‘udeerna’.
There are many situations analysed in our ancient literature that beautifully bring all of these things together. A person kills someone in self-defence or a soldier kills someone in a war — it is his or her duty. The karma does attach but it will have limited strength.
Another person hates someone intensely and conspires to kill that person but let’s say that person survives, even then the karma attracted by the hater will be much stronger. If you are acting with courage and defending righteously, it will have a different impact. The context in which the context happened is a key and a unique feature and brings our own reaction and attitude to the forefront. We can go about doing our work — the more we do it with equanimity, the lesser the karma attached.
Linkages Between Emotions/Feelings, Action And Karma
The whole mechanism is intricate but has the certainty of action and results. It’s a universal record keeper of the soul’s actions. Your past karma will determine your today at the emotional and attitudinal level. If you control your emotions and stay equanimous, the results will be more of the good part and less of the bad part. And the new karma getting bonded will be milder. Going back to my fractured leg example, if I stay calm and patient — the karma results will be weak. This is common sense as well — agitating about what has happened is not going to make me get fit any faster.
The message from this karma theory is that we, as humans, own our actions, and our efforts are at the top of the pole. My purushartha is the most important aspect of my life and can even cause a transmutation of my karma within its subtype. A ‘bad results’ karma can be changed into good or vice-versa.
Change In Our Thinking As A Society
There is no space for fatalism if our own efforts can change many aspects of our past karma. So, while karma definitely plays a big role in our lives, it’s not the master controller. Think of the profound impact this understanding can create in our society — it basically hits at our attitude of justifying our deficiencies and letting things be. Like justifying injustice or poverty and giving it the fatalistic excuse that we are paying the price for our earlier lives. In reality, the karma philosophy is far more nuanced than this.
Our ancient wisdom tells us that purushartha can potentially change everything. We should make ours a culture of innovating and changing things for the better — why should things be accepted the way they are? Take poverty — one is not condemned to poverty forever because of past karma. Your efforts should help you overcome it; along with efforts by government and citizens to have the right social, educational and economic framework to enable those with capability.
People should realise that their hard work, combined with an economically growing India, will get them ahead.
Nation and society building will require many and different approaches. Chipping away at the “it’s all in our stars” fatalism is one such required paradigm shift.
Full disclosure: Karma theory is detailed in Jain agamas and books by later acharyas and scholars. My article is primarily based on “Karmavaad” a detailed book on karma written by Acharya Mahapragya. Overall there are many more details and complexities that I am not covering and candidly, may not even be aware of.