How does the karma theory of Hinduism work?

Take some time and follow through this enriching discussion on Karma, how it works, how it doesn't work, the role of free will, past actions, the future impact of action, or inaction ... 

Insightful exchanges throughout this post. Among the very best in the forum. Proud to share this. Bookmark it. You may need to come back to this  discussion at some point in your life :)

This discussion started off from a question on the origins of the term 'Chandala'. Dr. Koenraad Elst provides a deep historical and scriptural perspective. In the latter half of the discussion, Rajiv Malhotra explains Karma theory quite beautifully. This is followed by a refreshing sequence of Q&A.
November 2013
Need help with the meaning of a word: Chandala

Kiran asks:
"..  Recently somebody gave me a copy of Ravi Zacharias's DVD, Jesus among other gods, where in he quotes from Chandogya Upanishad 5.10.7 (8).  The english transaltion of the verse is below.

"When one acts piously, he attains a good birth. He is born as a brahmana or a kshatriya or a vaisya. When one acts sinfully, he attains a sinful birth. He is born as a dog, a pig, or an outcaste"

When I looked up the sanskrit verse, it says "Chandala" (womb of a chandala women). According to Wikipedia, Chandala means "Chandala is a Sanskrit word for someone who deals with disposal of corpses, and is a Hindu lower caste, formerly considered untouchables. Currently it is a term used specifically in Indo-Aryan speaking regions of India. Sandala has become a swear word in the colloquial usage of the Tamil language. Chandal is a general derogatory slur used to refer to a filthy, mean or low person[1] in North India."

... Ravi says this verse promotes caste system, which is incorrect and seems like the verse was completely taken out of its context. (Upanishad talks about progression of atman in its journey to Mukti)
.... what is the real meaning of the word “Chandala”, is it possible this word had a different meaning during the post vedic period and over the period of time meaning of the word got changed based on its use."

Karthik forwards an interpretation from a priest:
"...This verse does not endorse any system of discrimination it merely states that whatever vasanas or habits one cultivates in life one reaps the fruits thereof in the next birth. The family that one is born into and the social circumstances of one’s birth are all due to Karma..."

Koenraad Elst comments: (glad to have Dr. Elst back after a long break!)
"... To say hazily that words just happen to undergo changes in meaning. Something more specific is needed, esp. on such a possibly very harmful quotation.

It is a fact that the very oldest mention of the reincarnation doctrine (of which the Rg-Veda is totally innocent) already implies the caste application of the karma interpretation of reincarnation. It is in this form the Uddalaka et al. first learn the doctrine from their king. It says that if you have shown a pleasant character, you will be born as a Brahmin, Kshatriya or Vaishya. These caste titles necessitate a caste translation of the second part: if you have led a stinking life, you will be born from a stinking womb: dog, pig or Chandala.

Chandala was originally an ethnonym of one of the Dravidian-speaking tribes of Central India, where you still have the Kandhs, Gonds etc.; probably the Kandaloi mentioned by Ptolemy in his geography....

At any rate, the emotive meaning of "Chandala" must have been something like "savage", "cannibal". So, in the moralistic version of the karma doctrine (future reward or punishment for your present conduct), caste is included in the calculus of auspiciousness: just as poverty, a handicap, slavery etc. are miserable conditions which may serve as karmic punishment, so also the birth in a lowly community, regardless of whether it is classified as "untouchable" or "tribal".

If you want to present Hinduism to the world as egalitarian, you will indeed have to straighten out quotes like this one from the Chandogya Upanishad. But to a Christian, you should not answer by apologizing for or refuting his understanding of the Upanishad quote. You should simply point at the Biblical repeated sanction for slavery or at Yahweh's repeated commandments to kill the unbelievers (e.g. the pious worshippers of Baal incarnated as the Golden Calf, made from their generously donated Jewels) or the strangers threatening to pollute the people's purity (e.g. the cheating and massacre of the Shechemites by the sons of Jacob). You may set your own house in order, but meanwhile you have to keep Christian meddlers out by refocusing their attention on their own injustices."

This resulted in a very interesting discussion by Rajiv Malhotra on the nature of karma theory, which we carry 'as' is to avoid any misinterpretation

 "There is a persistent confusion on the difference between the following two ideas:

A) Bad karma leads to future birth in adverse conditions, whereas good karma leads to future birth in good circumstances. (Karma theory)

B) A person should be treated by society depending on the type of parents. (Caste system as known today)

A is true as per Hindu dharma, but B is untrue. These ideas must be separated and differentiated. Otherwise people falsely conclude that A implies B.

Some points to consider are:


1) One's karma leads to corresponding phala (consequence). This is the principle of causation. Karma X causes the effect Y. We might write it as: X ==> Y.

2) For Y to happen within the natural laws, the right conditions (Z) are necessary in which Y will happen. Z is simply the means by which Y will happen. If I am to die in a plane crash, I will "happen" to book a seat in that particular flight. It is not that the pilot or anyone else involved in the flight "caused" my death. It was coming to me. The circumstances (Z) leading to my death (such as pilot error, engine failure, hijacking, etc) were mere mechanisms to bring it about, but the effect of being killed was coming to me because of my own past karma.

3) In the above example, can we say that: Z ==> Y? Did the pilot error or engine failure or hijacking cause my death? Karma theory says NO. These were merely the mechanisms by which natural law could operate and bring my death. The real cause of Y was X, not Z.

4) Once you understand the above, then it becomes easy to appreciate that one's parents do not cause one to have certain experiences or propensities. These are the result of past karmas and the parents are merely the mechanisms. Each of us chose his or her parents, society, time and place of birth by virtue of the portfolio of karmas that needed to be expressed or played out.


5) Even though a person has a specific circumstance at birth it does NOT follow that his entire life's outcomes will be pre-determined by that. There IS meritocracy at work. The outcomes in one's life will be a combination of both past karmas and one's use of free will in the present. Thus a man born in adversity can advance by his own actions and free choices. Conversely one can fritter away one's good conditions by being foolish, unethical etc. So one's life's outcomes are a combination of both past karma and free will that is exercised in the present.

6) Therefore, one cannot use past karma as excuse, and fail to take responsibility, or just give up. Conversely, one cannot take the good life for granted because of birth circumstances.

Hence, karma theory is NOT fatalism.


7) The above has focused solely on one's own self: what I choose to do and how it impacts me. But what about one's attitudes towards someone else? Should my attitude towards a person be biased by that person's conditions? If yes, that would mean I am biased because he is born poor and hence I feel it was coming to him. Or if I am biased favorably towards a rich man because I feel his good karma made him rich. These biases would be WRONG on my part and they would be acts of bad karma by me. My attitude towards another person should be unbiased either way, and should be based entirely on what is MY RIGHTEOUS ACTION, I.E. MY SVA-DHARMA. The fact that he is in adverse conditions ought to generate sympathy/karuna, and not harsh judgment.

8) In other words, caste bias by me is wrong!!!

9) Karma theory is my guiding principle in my OWN actions. That is how I judge MYSELF, not others. My attitude towards others should be 'tat tvam asi'. "

Upon member request, Rajiv elaborates on tat tvam asi.
"There are many levels of this "second-person" practice. It culminates in what is called nididhyasana. To learn this get a good guru to initiate you in Shankara's Upadesa Sahasri or some other similar text.

At preliminary levels you can practice by seeing the other person as Brahman-playing-role-abc.

So you need bifocal vision: one vision seeing Brahman and the other seeing the person abc.

Also experience oneself at both levels: one anchored as atman, the other as "Rajiv" or whatever the role happens to be.

So one sees the Self-playing-1 interacting with the Self-playing-2. Note the Self is same in both cases but the roles are not.

The realm of action is where there is multiplicity of roles. Hence its a fallacy to escape into sameness citing all is one like many people do. But this dual vision keeps both one and many views in perspective.

Second-person practice is 24/7 or as often as you can remind yourself. It is easier when things are pleasant and the other party is likeable. But when there is tension, it is easy to slip into one of two ways: Either into sameness (forgetting the role), or into dualism of 1 fighting 2 (forgetting the Self).

Second-person practices are what we can practice living actively, transacting with others. It is meditation off the mat so to speak." 

Sree seems clarifications on Rajiv's discussions:
"I would like to clarify the balance between past karma and free will that is implied in dharmic philosophy, and how that free will component contributes to future karma.

I believe Part 2 is important i.e the outcome of a janma cannot depend solely on the initial state of karma. Because if so, then the state of karma at the beginning of Janma1 already determines the state of karma at the beginning of Janma2, which determines J3 etc., for all time.

However, Part 1 intrigues me. X ==> Y; Z is the mechanism for Y and is not responsible for causing Y. If so, then what about the karma of Z ? Does the pilot gain or lose karma because his errors caused the death of a person? What if it was a mugger Z who killed person Y who was scheduled to die because of X - will Z accumulate bad karma? By this logic, no. But then, how does anyone ever accumulate bad karma? Or good? "

Rajiv comment: This final point above is very important to discuss. If pilot is an intermediary, does HE accrue karma on his account?

The pilot has a separate account for his karma. He is accountable for his actions. But his karmic transaction is with the cosmos and not with me. So there can be many scenarios, such as:

1) Pilot was not in error or his error was without bad intentions. He does not incur karma on his account.

2) Pilot was committing something wrong and knew it, or was careless due to being drunk or some kind of violation of the rules that he could have avoided but did not. So pilot commits karma with the cosmos.

The important point is that either way his action is a karmic transaction with the cosmos and not with me... "

Jal goes deeper into the discussion:
"....In his example of X, Y and Z, my take is that the phala of X is not Y but it is Z. That is to say that the karmic consequence of one's action manifests itself as a circumstance but not as a fact/state of one's being. So if someone did something horrible (action X) then they must face as its phala an air crash (circumstance Z) which MAY OR MAY NOT result in their death (fact/state of their being Y) which will ultimately depend on my free will.

As a less subtle example, if someone shoots a bullet at me, that's a phala (circumstance) from my past action that I cannot prevent but whether I decide to [try to] get out of its way or resignedly accept my fate and stand still is my free will. Extending further, all circumstances in my life are phalas of my past actions and my reactions to these circumstances are my new actions which will decide my future circumstances...."

Rajiv comment: He makes a good point, but its more complex. Phala is not always a specific/concrete outcome though it can be that in some cases.
Usually the probability distribution of possible outcomes has changed as the result of phala. There is still uncertainty of concrete outcome as there is free will. But the probability distribution has become adversely impacted.

The point I wanted to make is something else: The pilot is not the culprit in whatever adversity I face, be it death or anything else. The pilot is a conduit for the phala to reach me, much like the postman who delivers a notice that could be good or bad news, or a bank teller who hands cash to a client but the teller is not a party to the transaction between the bank and client.
The transaction is between me and the cosmos, various intermediaries are like the postman or bank teller."

Maria has the next set of questions:
1- If there are not bad intentions, no karma is incurred? Or karma is incurred but less strong? I thought that even without bad intention, some karma is always incurred, in different degrees, from the simple fact of breathing to that of causing a death to somebody unintentionally or intentionally. We keep creating some karma or the other while we think we are the doers so, in fact, till the moment of enlightenment in which we are completely surrendered to Brahman. Only when we realise we are not the doer, then we don´t create or accumulate any karma. It is not like this? the case of this pilot, the crux is not if he was mere intermediary or not for a karma of somebody else being realised, but the fact that, almost for sure, he would not be enlightened. So that action of him, even unintentionally, even as only an intermediary, does create karma for him. Maybe mild, but it does.

2- In the typical example of a plane crash in which all the passengers die, it must be true that the karma of all of them was to die in that very moment....logic says that our moment of death is inevitable. But it seems is not death that finds them, but that they book that very flight to look for their death, of course, unconsciously. This case always seems to me strange...

3- What about natural disasters? It is the karma of all the population of that place to die together? It has to be... ???

4- In the case of adoptions, which parents were to be their parents? Both biological and then adoptive?"

Rajiv provides a detailed response. Again, we carry it without omitting anything, but highlight some key points.

  1. Karma account is individual. But often the phala is given collectively when multiple persons deserve similar phala even though their karmas were independent. So if the set of persons ( S) happen to be in the same plane crash, it does not necessarily imply (though it could in some cases) that all the members of S committed a collective karma and hence got a collective phala.
  2. Karma theory cannot be reduced to an algorithm. It is not deterministic or reductionist. It is probabilistic and has some uncertainty of outcomes. Free will operates within a system of causation that has built in uncertainty as well. This is why Indian thinkers had little issue with quantum mechanics whereas western thought went into a tailspin and the leading quantum physicists Heisenberg and Schrodinger both referred to Vedanta as the only system that could make sense of it. (This started the massive digestion of Vedanta into new formulations by Westerners so as to domesticate it within their own frameworks.)
  3. My karmic analysis should be specific to my own actions and consequences, and I should not in the same analysis also bring in some third party's karma or consequences. If I try to understand his karma as part of analyzing my karma, it will confuse me. His karma deserve a separate analysis in which I dont figure. So each individual does karmic transactions with the cosmos and not with one other. Analogy: I sold shares of IBM to the stock exchange and someone else bought them from the exchange, but we did not transact with each other.
  4. For example: Rajiv causes harm to person X. Implications: (a) In Rajiv's account: Rajiv has new entry/perturbation in his karmic account with the cosmos. (b) In X's account: He got phala from cosmos (NOT from Rajiv). Plus, depending on his reaction to rajiv, he could be creating new karma in his account with the cosmos. Important point is that both persons karmically transact only with the cosmos and never with each other. The rest of the details are inconsequential as far as this point is concerned. Focus ONLY on this one point: Who is the karmic transaction with?
  5. Notice there are two levels of transactions going on. At the visible/empirical or worldly level, the two persons are doing things to each other. Someone who does not believe in karma theory will accept this level of transactions, and he will think that it is the entire transaction. (So if he got away with a corrupt deed, he will think he has escaped.) This is the level of transactions we see openly. Where we disagree with such a person is that we also believe in a second level that takes places invisibly to us. This is the shadow level of transaction. The shadow transaction is the karmic transaction with the cosmos. It is causation that is in addition to the first level that is visible. Each time you do visible-action it automatically adds a perturbation into your individual karmic account with the cosmos in the shadow system. Karma system is a shadow system of causation between each individual and the cosmos.
  6. Once you get this point, then the idea of caste by birth becomes clear.  First, my parents did not cause my circumstances as my phala came from the cosmos, and parents were mere facilitators. Second, the phala is probabilistic and not deterministic, meaning that I have free will to change my life. Third, how I react/respond to my circumstances creates new karma which is entirely up to me.
The implications are:
  • Dont blame others for your present circumstances.
  • You are not stuck in your circumstances long term.
  • You must act in a dharmic manner in each present moment, in order to create positive karma going forward.
We have not discussed here how to transcend karma by performing nishkama, wherein actions continue selflessly without accruing karma. Thats another level of discussion.

Furthermore, we have also not discussed a very important: Performing karma with dual-lens as Krishna asks Arjun to do. (A) The men on the other side are ultimately the same atman. (B) But in this role/manifestation they are men who must be killed, and Arjun-as-role-player must perform his svadharma and do this.
Its best to leave these two points for future threads. The main treatment above must be understood and not get sidetracked with these two more advanced levels of understanding."

Aditya has the next followup:
"does inaction on one's part create a karmic entry/perturbation? So, for example, if I walk past a beggar on the street and clearly have enough money in my pocket to give him but choose not to do so, then will this be a negative entry/perturbation with respect to the cosmos that I must deal with later on?"

Rajiv comment: "Great question. Physical action or inaction is not relevant. What was the intention in taking action or in not taking action?

This is where a living guru is important as only such a person can read your intentions and put them in context of the circumstances. My guru gave different advice to different persons on this very question, and it depended on multiple factors. If it is nishkama (non-doer mode) there is no karma accrued because "you" did not do it  it is prerna (divine inspiration). But if "you" have intentions or vested interest then it is karma if you elected to escape action out of self-interest  ego-driven desire to help. My most favorite question used to be: How do I know when the desire to help is prerna and when it is ego-driven? At times guru said Who are you wanting to get involved in what is none of your business; your ego seeks self-importance. At other times guru said This person needing help is Bhagvan and the situation came to you with prerna to act in a detached manner that is helpful.

So I dont think I can answer generally it depends on all the facts in a given situation. Nor am I qualified to be a guru who can evaluate all your circumstances. My advice is: You need a guru for at least a decade during your formative period of practice.

Chir comments:
"Is there a book you would recommend that would give me more insights into karma and how it works or  how to understand/interpret it. Something that explains karma from not just Vedanta's interpretation but also from Samkhya and maybe Buddhism side (basically from various different schools)... I remember long time back you recommended a book on nondualism, Non-duality by David Roy. Do you think that would be a good start, since you also mention about karma with dual-lens?"

Rajiv comment: There are important areas of difference among various interpretations of karma in Indian philosophy. But I gave my own insights, not a canned/standard view from any particular text.

Buddhists do not go into detailed mechanics of karma and nor do Vedanta texts. Both these philosophies focus more on ultimate reality's relationship to provisional reality, and not so much on the details of how provisional reality functions. Samkhya gives a lot of detail on karma. But none of these philosophical explanations is very complete and much of what we know comes in the form of stories rather than a systematic end-to-end model per se. So you have to extrapolate a model/system by learning from anecdotes and examples.

...This eclectic method bothers many bookworms wanting a specific X or Y school's position. Other bookworms say "aha! I discovered that you must be in school X" just because I happened to use an example from there. Because they cannot think out of the box, they project this limitation upon others.
In the West there is an emerging field called "constructive theology" where Biblical scholars extrapolate, innovate and propose new solutions. They connect the dots in their own ways and this gets debated among them. Classical Christian texts do not address many issues people want to address today and this is done under constructive theology. In Hinduism we have smritis to do this job of innovation. In a sense my interpretations would fall under that. The laziness of our thinkers (who can do little beyond parroting) shows -- as in one example of a member writing persistently to me privately complaining that I must belong to some "sect X" because of what I write. They just cannot think out of the box."

Kundan adds:
"In addition to the beautiful explanation that Rajiv ji has given, you would want to check out "Problem of Rebirth" by Sri Aurobindo. Also there are two chapters in Sri Aurobindo's "Letters on Yoga: Volume 1 titled "Rebirth" and "Free Will, Karma" etc that you would want to check out."

Jal adds:
"I feel there is some confusion regarding the terms "probability distribution", etc., as used by Shri RM,. Terms "probabilistic", "non-deterministic", etc. - all allude to the concept of uncertainty. This uncertainty may stem from two possible sources and thus these terms may be understood to have two different shades of meaning:

Randomness: Dharma does not admit randomness, which is just another term for lawlessness, an antonym for Dharma. Hence this concept of randomness is Dharma-viruddh and hence must be shunned. I am almost sure randomness is NOT what Shri RM means when he uses the term "probabilistic".

Dynamic-ness: The other concept pertains to the ever-changing, fluid nature of Reality, which too leads to uncertainty. However, unlike randomness, this concept does not betray any lawlessness or anti-science character. It does agree with a law-based if-then determinism, in compliance with science... However the condition itself being fundamentally indeterminable (mainly because of consciousness and fundamental freedom of the self), the resultant fact too is indeterminable. Thus while admitting non-determinism, this concept is quite Dharma-sangat and should be adopted. (This is also a strong retort against fatalism that is unnecessarily imposed on the law of karma and hence important to understand.)"

Rajiv comment: Distinction between uncertainty in the cosmos and uncertainty in human ability and perception. Latter means inherent limit in the ordinary mind. All science, physics, knowledge is in the latter realm - i.e. wnat is know-able."

1 comment:

  1. One main point about karma theory is that it could fructify anytime in the future. So for example if one commits a crime in this birth the karmaphal does not necessarily happen in the very next birth in the very same way like a retaliation. This is why Bhagvata has so many case studies which can help us see so many variations. Also, the word Chandala does apply to someone who works with leather for example and tanning in the ancient days was a very messy process involving things like animal excreta which is why others wanted to avoid them. If someone was constantly working with shit would you want to get near them? Just think logically before judging. It is not about one's intellectual capacities.