h Phoenix Qi: Karma – it may not be what you think

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Karma – it may not be what you think

Karma isn't mentioned in the oldest Hindu book, the Rig Veda, which was written before 1000 BCE; some say as early as 1400 BCE, others a more conservative 1200 BCE. (Please note that all dates are approximate.) Since it is not mentioned there, the idea of karma and its effect on recurring lifetimes is probably a later development.

Karma is first mentioned in the Upanishads, though I suppose it's impossible to tell which Upanishad came first. As a group, they were written between 800 and 500 BCE.

The Bhagavad-Gita follows the Upanishads and was written between 500 and 200 BCE.

As far as I have found in the books, the idea that everything you do earns karma, good or bad, or that karma is the reason you have multiple lifetimes, or that karma follows you from one lifetime to another, is not a universal idea.

Too many people today use the concept of karma as a warning: if you eat meat, if you kill a bug, if you shoplift, if you do something bad, they will tell you, "it's your karma," warning you of dire the consequences of your actions.

Karma was never meant to predict your fate, rather it was an explanation for the action/reaction cycle that determines a future. It wasn't a look at the future, it was an explanation of the past.

Karma is, basically, a way to look at cause and effect of your actions. A bad action accumulates bad karma; a good action accumulates good karma. Apparently, according to modern thought, you must accumulate more good karma than bad, and that will somehow release you from the birth-death-rebirth cycle.

That is not the way the books describe it!

Instead, it is a "doing," but release comes only when your actions are completely selfless.

All actions done with purpose, either good or bad, accumulate karma, they "bind the soul" to the cycle of death-rebirth. As it says in the Isa Upanishad, "Only actions done in God bind not the soul of man." (1) In other words, actions performed in selfless service do not accumulate karma.

Performing acts for good are still acts done with a self-centered purpose…..to do good! They accumulate karma just as harmful acts do.

The Isa Upanishad goes on to say, "He who knows both knowledge and action, with action overcomes death, and with knowledge reaches immortality." (1) (Knowledge and action are two types of Yoga (Union with the Divine), Jnana (Knowledge) and Karma (Action). The other types are Hatha (physical), Bhakti (Love), and Rajah (Mystical Experience).)

According to Soumen De in his essay on "The Historical Context of the Bhagavad-Gita and Its Relation to Indian Religious Doctrines," Karma is "The law of universal causality, which connects man with the cosmos and condemns him to transmigrate -- to move from one body to another after death -- indefinitely. In the Gita, Krishna makes an allusion to the eternal soul that moves from body to body as it ascends or descends the ladder of a given hierarchy, conditioned on the nature of one's own karma -- work of life or life deeds." (2)

Also in the Gita is the information needed to overcome this cycle of transmigration.

Aarjuna, the compassionate warrior in the Gita who doesn’t want to go to war, is told: 2.03 "Do not become a coward, O Arjuna, because it does not befit you. Shake off this weakness of your heart and get up (for the battle), O Arjuna." (3) (Chapter 2 line 3.)

Arjuna doesn’t know what to do. He doesn't want to accumulate bad karma, and usually killing would do that, but here is Krishna telling him to go to battle. In modern terms, "this does not compute!"

He is assured that a body is supposed to be born, live, and die. He is doing nothing more than fulfilling a natural cycle by going to war and killing his enemy.

He is assured that if he is performing this action in the name of Deity, no bad karma will be accumulated: "2.40 In Karma-yoga no effort is ever lost, and there is no harm. Even a little practice of this discipline protects one from great fear (of birth and death).

"Translator's note: Karma-yoga is also referred to as Nishkaama Karma-yoga, Seva, selfless service, Buddhi yoga, yoga of work, science of proper action, and yoga of equanimity. A Karma-yogi works for the Lord as a matter of duty without a selfish desire for the fruits of work, or any attachment to results. The word Karma also means duty, action, deeds, work, or the results of past deeds." (3) (Chapter 2 line 40.)

Arjuna is further assured:

"2.49 Work done with selfish motives is inferior by far to the selfless service or Karma-yoga. Therefore be a Karma-yogi, O Arjuna. Those who seek (to enjoy) the fruits of their work are verily unhappy (because one has no control over the results).

"2.50 A Karma-yogi gets freedom from both vice and virtue in this life itself. Therefore, strive for Karma-yoga. Working to the best of one's abilities without getting attached to the fruits of work is called (Nishkaama) Karma-yoga.

"2.51 Wise Karma-yogis, possessed with mental poise by renouncing the attachment to the fruits of work, are indeed freed from the bondage of rebirth and attain the blissful divine state." (3)

The interrelationship and the exemption from rebirth due to the combination of knowledge (janan) and work (karma) is explained in chapter 3, lines 2 through 9:

"3.02 [Arjuna] You seem to confuse my mind by apparently conflicting words. Tell me, decisively, one thing by which I may attain the Supreme.

"3.03 The Supreme Lord said: In this world, O Arjuna, a twofold path of Sadhana (or the spiritual practice) has been stated by Me in the past. The path of Self-knowledge (or Jnana-yoga) for the contemplative, and the path of unselfish work (or Karma-yoga) for the active.

Translator's note: Jnana-yoga is also called Saamkhya-yoga, Samnyasa-yoga, and yoga of knowledge. A Jnana-yogi does not consider oneself the doer of any action, but only an instrument in the hands of divine for His use. The word Jnana means metaphysical or transcendental knowledge.

"3.04 One does not attain freedom from the bondage of Karma by merely abstaining from work. No one attains perfection by merely giving up work.

"3.05 Because no one can remain actionless even for a moment. Everyone is driven to action, helplessly indeed, by the Gunas of nature.

"3.06 The deluded ones, who restrain their organs of action but mentally dwell upon the sense enjoyment, are called hypocrites.

"3.07 The one who controls the senses by the (trained and purified) mind and intellect, and engages the organs of action to Nishkaama Karma-yoga, is superior, O Arjuna.

"3.08 Perform your obligatory duty, because action is indeed better than inaction. Even the maintenance of your body would not be possible by inaction.

"3.09 Human beings are bound by Karma (or works) other than those done as Yajna. Therefore, O Arjuna, do your duty efficiently as a service or Seva to Me, free from attachment to the fruits of work.

Translator's note: Yajna means sacrifice, selfless service, unselfish work, Seva, meritorious deeds, giving away something to others, and a religious rite in which oblation is offered to gods through the mouth of fire." (3)

And, finally, this:

"3.19 Therefore, always perform your duty efficiently and without attachment to the results, because by doing work without attachment one attains the Supreme."

There it is, in a nutshell: "doing work without attachment one attains the Supreme"

Karma is not accumulated without attachment to the outcome.

The way to accumulate karma is to remain attached to the outcome; good or bad, attachment accumulates karmic debt.

To be free of karma, to escape the death-rebirth cycle, is to act selflessly, only in the name of Service, only in the name of God, Creator, Spirit, or any other name you wish to apply.

(1) Mascaro, Juan translator, The Upanishads, Penguin Classics, New York, 1965

(2) De, Soumen: The Historical Context of The Bhagavad Gita and Its Relation to Indian Religious Doctrines; Exploring Ancient World Cultures http://eawc.evansville.edu/essays/de.htm

(3) Prasad, Ramanand translator, The Bhagavad Gita, Realization.org


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