The Power game between Past and Present Karma

Unfortunately, the whole terminology and application of Karma has been quite misappropriated.

In 2012, Prof Benjamin A. Converse from University of Virginia and Prof Jane L. Risen from University of Chicago wrote an interesting paper titled “Investing in Karma When Wanting Promotes Helping” in the Psychological Science journal. The paper summarized a unique research, wherein it was observed that the participants did more kind acts proactively or “invested in good Karma,” when the outcomes of their awaited life events was not under their control. In this particular research, the focus group was job seekers and their investment in good Karma resulted in greater optimism towards a ‘favorable’ result. This research wasn’t intended to prove or disprove if doing good things resulted in good outcomes. However, what the research demonstrated was that the more uncertain the outcomes, the more generous were the deeds. The subconscious expectation of “Return on Investment” for every good deed rather seems obvious due to the inherent ‘selfish gene’ present in each one of us. In the complex world most of our events are equivalents of “Butterfly effects’ of Chaos Theory, wherein they follow a non-linear path sensitive to multiple conditions. The non-linearity is in terms of many factors, which are beyond the sphere of influence of a human being yet impacting the final outcome of the events. It is in this regard that the Karmic theory comes to the refuge.

The causality principle of Karma has been heavily dissected in our scriptures and commentaries. Unfortunately, the whole terminology and application of Karma has been quite misappropriated. A sense of fatalism has tended to be associated with the Karmic doctrine. Broadly, three important aspects of Karma come into action, namely Sanchita, Prarabdha, and Agama, respectively. The “Sanchita Karma” is like a storehouse of all our past actions (the word Karma originates from Sanskrit root “Kri,” reflecting all actions devoid of it being characterized as good or bad). The second one is “Prarabdha Karma,” which denotes the results of those actions from the past, which have fructified and one experiences them in his or her current life. The last one “Agama” refers to the future actions. This whole Karmic definition is based on the foundation of rebirth, making the consequences of one’s actions spread over one’s several lifetimes. This spread of consequences makes an interesting clash between past and present Karmas. How Drida (strong) are one’s past actions (Prarabdha)? Can one’s present actions overpower the consequences of the past? Normally the past actions are commonly referred “Purva Janma Karma” deeds of past lives, and it is here, where a negative sense of “fate” and “fatalism” tends to get associated.

So, it becomes interesting to note the treatment meted out to the question of “fate” vs. self (current) effort” in some of our ancient literatures. Bhartrihari’s “NitiSatakam” is a fantastic collection of worldly wisdom and it has a following interesting verse:

ब्रह्मा येन कुलालवन्नियमितो ब्रह्माण्ड भाण्डोदरे

विष्णुर्येन दशावतार गहने क्षिप्तो महासंकटे ।

रुद्रो येन कपालपाणिपुटके भिक्षाटनं सेवते

सूर्यॊ भ्राम्यति नित्यमेव गगने तस्मै नमः कर्मणे ॥

To summarize the translation – through the above verse Bhartrihari marvels and salutes the causality principle of Karma. Even for Trinity, Bhartrihari attributes Karma as the driving force behind Brahma playing the role of a creator, Vishnu’s hardships in his ten incarnations and even Shiva begging for alms as an ascetic. Maybe Bhartrihari is trying to remind that no matter how powerful one is, none so ever can escape the consequences of past action.

Further, we find another verse from NitiSatakam:

वने रणे शत्रुजलाग्निमध्ये

महार्णवे पर्वतमस्तके वा ।

सुप्तं प्रमत्तं विषमस्थितं वा

रक्षन्ति पुण्यानि पुरा कृतानि ॥

In short, through the above verse, Bhartrihari tells us that only the consequences of good past deeds would act as a shield (life guard) in adversarial and challenging circumstances like being lost in a forest, trapped in an enemy’s ring in a battlefield, deep in an ocean or the top of the mountain, etc. for a human being.

The complexity of Karma arises because of two primary reasons. First, as human beings, even though the consequences of past actions would come into play, we are unaware of the actual actions committed by us. Secondly, we also do not know the proportionality of consequences vis-à-vis the actions committed. In a simplistic argument, for example, would donating “X” for a worthy cause result in one getting back 2X, 3X…or X/2 or Y or Z ? And what if one feels that he or she is being unfairly meted out Karmic justice? Can this be challenged?

This takes us to an interesting passage from Mahabharata, Adi-Parva section and within that an Upa-Parva (sub-section) Sambhava Parva to be precise. For translation purposes I rely upon the one by Kisari Mohan Ganguli. The story relates to the birth of Vidura. Sage Mandavya was a great ascetic and had once taken a vow of silence while performing his meditations, which he normally did at the entrance of his hermitage. During that time a set of robbers being chased by royal guards hide their spoils in his hermitage. The guards chasing the robbers arrive at the Sage Mandavya’s doorstep and ask him for the robber’s whereabouts. The Sage doesn’t answer due his vow and meanwhile the guards find the bounty in his premises. Suspecting the sage to be a con-man the guards take him to the king, who quickly orders execution by impaling him with a stake. The sage, due to his powers, even though impaled, is able to survive. Promptly, the king realizes his mistake and tries rescuing him, though a part of stake remains in his body (he gets named as “Ani-Mandavya” meaning “Mandavya with the stake within”).

The sage again, through his meditative powers, visits God of Dharma and seeks the reason for this suffering. Dharma points out to an incident, where as a child, Mandavya had pierced an insect with a blade of grass. Mandavya protests the disproportionality of the justice meted out to him and also calls out the young age in which the actions were carried out. Sage Mandavya curses God of Dharma to be born on earth and Vidura was said to be his human form. This raises a critical question on the role played by God of Dharma. Is he the judge of Karmic Law or a mere executioner?

To answer this question, we need to fast forward to another section of Mahabharata called the Anushasana Parva. This is a fascinating section of the Mahabharata (post war), where great wisdom was rendered to Yudhishthira by Bhishma. This section starts with Yudhishthira being deeply disturbed and is wondering about the consequences that await them due to their actions in the war. Bhishma narrates a story to quell the grief and doubts of Yudhishthira. The story revolves around a series of dialogues between Gautami, a lady of great virtue, a serpent, a bird hunter by the name Arjunika, Mrityu (god of death), and Kala (can be interpreted as a deity who personifies time, note Kala is also associated with Yama or the lord of death and also Shiva himself is addressed ad Mahakal). Anyways, coming to the crux of the story, Gautami’s son is killed by the snake bite and incidentally the bird hunter Arjunika witnesses it. Arjunika catches the snake and brings it to Gautami. Arjunika is eager to punish the serpent by killing it and requests Gautami’s consent. Gautami does not concur with the views of Arjunika. According to her, the serpent is not the cause of her son’s death and rather considers it as a sin to kill the creature. Arjunika doesn’t budge, and he argues vehemently for killing the serpent. The serpent then speaks and pleads innocence and attributes its actions to the lord of death (Mrityu). The Lord of Death or Mrityu hearing that he is being dragged into this blame game, quickly descends and pleads innocence. He in-turn puts the blame on Kala, the deity who personifies time. Kala descends into the situation and pleads innocence and also absolves Mrityu and the serpent. He holds the previous Karmas of the boy solely responsible for his death. Finally, Gautami closes the discussion by agreeing with the viewpoint of Kala and also attributes her previous Karma (to lose her son) as part of the causation factors. All this happens through a series of wonderful viewpoints well-articulated by each of the central characters. Reflecting on this, should one believe that the present actions are of little consequence to influence the current events? A similar question was posed by Rama to his Guru Vasistha as described in the magnum opus, Yoga Vasistha. This book is undoubtedly one of the greatest books ever written in the world.

Here I refer to The Concise Yoga Vasistha by Swami Venkatesananda. Rama has entered youth and is in a tremendous state of confusion. He is counseled by Sage Vasistha and the following are his words of wisdom to Rama.

“In this world whatever is gained is gained only by self-effort; where failure is encountered, it is seen that there has been slackness in effort. This is obvious, but what is called fate is fictitious, and it is not seen…. It is only by such (self) effort that Indra became king of heaven, Brahma became the creator, and the other deities earned their place. Self-effort is of two categories: that of past births and that of this birth. The latter effectively counteracts the former. Fate is none other than self-effort of past incarnation. There is a constant conflict between these two in this incarnation; and that which is more powerful triumphs….There is no power greater than self-effort, grinding one’s teeth and one should overcome evil by good and fate by present effort. One who says “Fate is directing me to do this” is brainless and the goddess of fortune abandons him…Fate or divine dispensation is merely a convention, which has come to be regarded as truth by being repeatedly declared true. Rama, this sage Visvamitra became a Brahma Risi by self-effort; all of us have attained self-knowledge by self-effort alone. Hence renounce fatalism and apply yourself to self-effort.” (from Pages 26-29 The Concise Yoga Vasistha by Swami Venkatesananda)

In the end, its best to summarize from the verses of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad which was one of the earliest text to deal with Karmic theory.

स वा अयमात्मा ब्रह्म विज्ञानमयो मनोमयः प्राणमयश्चक्शुर्मयः श्रोत्रमयः पृथिवीमय आपोमयो वायुमय आकाशमयस्तेजोमयोऽतेजोमयः काममयोऽकाममयः क्रोधमयोऽक्रोधमयो धर्ममयोऽधर्ममयः सर्वमयस्तद्यदेतदिदंमयोऽदोमय इति; यथाकारी यथाचारी तथा भवति—साधुकारी साधुर्भवति, पापकारी पापो भवति; पुण्यः पुण्येन कर्मणा भवति, पापः पापेन । अथो खल्वाहुः काममय एवायं पुरुष इति; स यथाकामो भवति तत्क्रतुर्भवति, यत्क्रतुर्भवति तत्कर्म कुरुते, यत्कर्म कुरुते तदभिसंपद्यते ॥ (Verse 4.4.5:)

That self is indeed Brahman, as well as identified with the intellect, the Manas and the vital force, with the eyes and ears, with earth, water, air and the ether, with fire, and what is other than fire, with desire and the absence of desire, with anger and the absence of anger, with righteousness and unrighteousness, with everything—identified, as is well known, with this (what is perceived) and with that (what is inferred). As it does and acts, so it becomes; by doing good it becomes good, and by doing evil it becomes evil—it becomes virtuous through good acts and vicious through evil acts. Others, however, say, ‘The self is identified with desire alone. What it desires, it resolves; what it resolves, it works out; and what it works out, it attains.’ (Translation from wisdom library).

Disclaimer: The facts and opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

Image courtesy: Full Power Yoga.

Nagendra Sethumadhavrao is a Product Engineering Exec based in Los Angeles. He has a PhD in Innovation Management and works on Chaos Theory and Metaphysics. He can be reached at @dr_nagendra
  • Vasudev Nair

    A study of the origin and purpose of Karma Theory:
    The most significant and relevant question about Human Life on this planet Earth is that “Is it a product of a “Process with Purpose” that is Evolution or is it a product of an instant creation on the spot at one stroke?
    As a human being who is being born and brought up “in and through an existing system prior to our birth” we are constrained but to deduce certain logical conclusions by assumptions and presumptions based upon our history of experiences of individual and collective human life on this planet earth doubtlessly confirms that it is an “Evolutionary Process” that have developed the species called human beings, rather, the creation itself is an evolutionary process.

    It is fundamental to note here that “creation was in existence” even before the development of the human life form with a capacity to express an individual experience in and through the articulation of sound what we call language with the most advanced physical form to manage the needs and to protect itself from the dangers of life, including the ultimate end called Death.
    What was the need of the Karma theory?
    It was the inability of a human mind to establish a connectivity of individual life with the past and the necessity of correlation between the disparities of the individual life forms prompted to attribute the cause of the pain or pleasure in this life on earth which initiated the theory of Karma as good and bad.
    It was the need of a hypothesis to have a continuation with the past for the future that necessitated the theory of Karma as a process which accrues good or bad results in an individual and one has to take birth again and again till the individual annihilate the accrued results by self knowledge for salvation from the cycle of birth and death, was derived at a primitive stage of human refinement.

    How the theory of Karma was developed?

    In the absence of conclusive knowledge and in the presence of ignorance about the energy, intelligence and material which are indispensable for any creation, that is a physical manifestation, a logical assumption based upon the experiences as an animated living being with a sentient mechanism to experience and express the feelings, consequently lead us to an “indestructible unified source energy, one without a second, a non-changing substratum” as the ultimate basis for this phenomenon called life was concluded.

    It is this conclusion, at a primitive stage of evolvement, that the Unified Source Energy is non-changing, one without a second and is indestructible compelled us to believe that the creation is a projection of the Unified Source Energy and is a dependent existence supported by the Unified Source Energy generated an inferiority complex by comparison and the fear of the unknown. Thus, it was agreed upon that the imperishable nature of the Unified Source Energy is the supreme power and energy and the Perishable nature of the creation is inferior to the supreme energy different and distinct from it as the Unified Source energy cannot either change or perish.

    After certain period of time in the process of evolution for refinement of human intelligence, the question came up that “What is the material and intelligence for creation” to “create, sustain and destroy” the creation? As there was no other choice but only the imperishable one without a second we attributed all the necessary things for a creation to the Unified Source Energy.

    Men are conscious that there are certain occurrences which they cannot control, and are powerless to avert. Births and deaths, for instance, are inevitable, and many of the incidents of life appear equally inevitable.

    Even this theory of a supreme energy with the necessary attributes for creation could not resolve the duality in the physical form and the individual miseries of life.

    We need a definition of Karma, an Action for any discussion to be initiated.
    Karma, an Action is normally defined as: “A desire prompted process mentally, orally or physically, done to achieve a purpose in the process of life.”
    This definition points out that an Action, Karma, is a product of Desire, a concept in a spiritual realm of existence that is an emotional condition of an individual entity. Thus it establishes a fact that the purpose of an Action, Karma, is to fulfill a Desire which is an emotional condition in an individual entity.
    The question here is that what is that desire which needs to be fulfilled by an action and where does it come from?

    The unanswered questions about Karma the Action are:
    What was the first desire to prompt Karma the Action?
    Who was the first individual to perform an Action the Karma?
    Who is the Karta, the doer of the Action?
    What is the purpose of Karma, the Action?
    How am I connected in this process?

    The concept of a reverse address for an action as a result, is a conclusion developed at a primitive stage of evolution was unavoidable at that stage of evolution.
    A cause and effect is a reciprocal process equal and opposite is the basis of the theory of Karma, the Action. an individual desire is the cause, the “Potential” or the “Field”, to initiate a process of transaction to transformation that is the process with an invariable result leads to a conclusion that the individual is the author of the result and hence the individual has to experience the good or bad consequence of the result is derived as the theory of Karma.
    As the cause is pregnant with the effect and never can be divorced from the result establishes a fact that once the effect is delivered in and through a mathematically precise process initiates an evolution in both of them simultaneously is the purpose of the process.
    Actually a sexual relation between a male and female must evolve both of them. The progeny is not the purpose of sexual transaction. It is the evolution of the emotional condition of the pair of opposites in both sides of the spectrum is the purpose of the process of sexual transaction.
    A progeny is the need of the creation and the essence of the creator. A male female conjugation escalating the feeling of separation to the sense of oneness is the pinnacle of experience of the absolute state of existence.
    It is pertinent to note here that, all the concepts and conclusions are not developed by human species, but developed by the “process with purpose”, that is the process of evolution in and through the transactions and transformations called life and particularly in and through a human life form.

    Nobody can deny the fact that all animated life forms from a single cell random form Amoeba to the most advanced physical form of a human life form, there are certain inbuilt sense or feelings such as a sense of association and the sense of separation which are diagonally opposite in their nature by default of their realm of existence that is spiritual and physical.
    While the sense of association generates a union with the other, the sense of separation generates the sense of fear.

    Unless there is a power and capacity to choose from options no moral or ethical value cannot be attributed to an action which has a subsequent and invariable result.

    Karma in Vedanta:

    In Vedanta,

    Basically when there is a CHOICE between two options, that is TO PAY or NOT TO PAY an accrual of debt is possible, that is, what you receive, you must return it back to the provider.
    Then what is it that has been provided to an individual human being that it has to return back? Why he is holding it back without returning?
    A sanchita karma as a basis for a debt to be returned back on a personal basis is untenable. Because, if at all I am responsible for my debt, I am not responsible for others debts is sure and clear.
    The whole theory of karma and reincarnation to annihilate the results of this sanchita karma is a denial of an invariable and mathematically precise law of process with purpose, that is cause and effect.

    A Physicist, depending on conclusive proof for an effect presenting a theory without conclusive proof for its sustainability as a theory itself is misleading.
    If karma is the CAUSE, then what is the EFFECT? Then how is it possible for an effect to annihilate the cause? All effects are an enhancement of the cause and not the elimination of the cause. Even materially it is true.

    In this circumstance is it not a fallacy that one can eliminate the cause by effect and come out of the cycle of birth and death?

    The expression of a shade of emotion is important to an action.
    An Action has a particular result and the Result is inherent in the action. A Human Life Form has a choice – free will – over an action [What, When, Where and How to perform an action] but the result is the ORDER OF THINGS. An action can be performed in innumerable manner and the manner in which an action is performed initiates the proper or improper modification in the evolution.

    The choice of a shade of emotion to support the action is the purpose of human life form. Rest of the process of evolution is the order of things – that is nature.
    Karma and fate: Reply

    Dear Dr.Saheb,
    There are so many questions about Karma and Fate. Which was the first Karma started the Fate? Who was the first Person who performed the so called Karma? Was he alone or with his wife? How does the husband’s Karma affect the wife and vise verse?

    Coming out of all these questions and looking at the LIFE as a process with a purpose to go through between a PAIR OF OPPOSITE REFERENCE POINTS, such as BIRTH & DEATH makes it simple to understand and lead a life respecting the both ends and utilising them in a proper manner.

    To be frank, we have no idea from where we are coming or where we are going. In between there is a time period and a practical world to EXPRESS & EXPERIENCE is a fact. During this period we, as human beings, have certain freedom other than all other life form is irrefutable. A logical analysation will definitely bring in a conclusion that this freedom is for a PURPOSE and we have the capacity to understand the purpose and act accordingly.

    It is the most fundamental truth that we know what is going on in our own mind and there is no distant possibility of knowing what is going on in others’ mind. It is individually known and experienced individually alone. The expression of the same experience when expressed is interpreted according to a dictionary meaning of the expression, but interpreted individually according to the capacity and ability of the other.

    Under this circumstance it is clear that all the actions and results are for the individual alone and a concept of collective life is a fallacy. We have to come here alone live alone and go back alone.

    At the same time it is a contribution to the WHOLE WITHOUT PARTS individually, as the individuality is nothing but the WHOLE except between the transactional period called life.


    Nobody can choose ONE out of the PAIR OF OPPOSITES, that is ACTION & RESULT. When we choose one the other is intrinsically connected and inseparable, for individual as well as the contribution.

    What do you mean by the word debt? In simple sense it is a one-way transaction that generates a debt. What one receives must be given back.The one who receives must have a choice to give it back or not. Then only a debt can accrue.
    In the particular case of a human being having a debt of any kind before its manifestation as a human being is a fallacy. We do not know conclusively from where do we come from and where do we go. And as such we do know very little about the transactions of this life how and why it happens between the “Pair of Opposites” that is birth and death.
    There are some obvious facts that nobody can deny. A human life form is born and brought up by a system which is existing and functioning “PRIOR” to its birth is an undeniable fact. This condition compels us to deduce some logical conclusions based upon the history of human experiences. The inquiry into the origin and purpose of creation based upon the human history of experiences lead us to a UNIFIED SOURCE ENERGY as the origin of life on earth, rather we conclude that this source is the energy, material and intelligence for the creation of the Universe. This understanding is catagorised as Philosophical or Religious. Then came the Science and promoted the same idea as a process of evolution from the same Unified Source Energy.
    In both instances it is an observable fact that it is a “PROCESS of EVOLUTION”. The physical experience of a human being from birth to death confirms the process of evolution from an immature state of existence to a mature state and culminate with an end called death.
    There are two options for choice to us about the creation and the creator. One is the Process of Evolution and the other is a creation by the creator at his will one by one and ultimately the human life. In both cases it is obvious that it is a process of evolution.
    Within a process of evolution, every nano second is an enhanced past without any accrual of debt in any form as it is NEW every time. Thus, it is certain that the DEBT of karma is a misconception.
    With thanks and regards
    Vasudev Nair
    A human life form alone is endowed with an inbuilt infrastructure that is a SENSE PROCESSING MECHANISM with a unique capacity to be aware and conscious of its “Individual Preferential Status” in the scheme of things and an instinctive urge to KNOW and CHANGE is definitely for a purpose.

    With thanks and regards
    Vasudev Nair

    I can be contacted by [email protected]

  • Great way re-look at Karma, as a struggle between a Soul’s past and its present. I agree with Mahasadhvi Gautami.

    Robert Svoboda’s Aghora III : The Law of Karma has one ofthe most detailed expositions of the workings of Karma.

    • Rama

      Just a small correction. Soul is not synonymous with Atman.