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Karma in Hinduism
Karma first came into being as a concept in Hinduism, largely based on the Vedas and Upanishads. One of the first and most dramatic illustrations of Karma can be found in the great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. The original Hindu concept of karma was later enhanced by several other movements within the religion, most notably Vedanta, Yoga, and Tantra.
Definition of Karma
Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami explains in the lexicon section of his book, Dancing with Siva, that karma literally means "deed or act" and more broadly names the universal principle of cause and effect, action and reaction which governs all life." As he explains it, karma is not fate, for man acts with free will creating his own destiny. The Vedas tell us, if we sow goodness, we will reap goodness; if we sow evil, we will reap evil. Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami further notes that karma refers to the totality of our actions and their concomitant reactions in this and previous lives, all of which determines our future. The conquest of karma lies in intelligent action and dispassionate reaction. Not all karmas rebound immediately. Some accumulate and return unexpectedly in this or other births.
As he explains it, unkindness yields spoiled fruits, called papa and good deeds bring forth sweet fruits, called punya. He further notes that as one acts, so does he become. One becomes virtuous by virtuous action, bad by bad action."
Three Kinds of Karma
Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, further explains that there are three types of karma, 1) sanchita karma , the sum total of past karmas yet to be resolved; 2) prarabdha karma , that portion of sanchita karma that is to be experienced in this life; and 3) kriyamana karma , the karma that humans are currently creating and will bear fruit in the future.
Karma in Hinduism, differs from Buddhism and Jainism as it involves the role of God.
While the action of karma has often been compared with the Western notions of sin and judgment by God or gods, karma instead has been commonly perceived by Westerners to operate as an inherent principle of the Universe without the intervention of any supernatural Being. That notion is incorrect and holds true for only Buddhism and Jainism.
Karma in Hinduism, differs from Buddhism and Jainism as it involves the role of God. Notably, unlike Buddhists, and Jains who believe that karma, as natural law, on its own, joins the soul when it reincarnates and comes to fruition, Hindus, believe in the role of God for linking karma to the person.
Shri K. Thirugna Sambantha, in the section of karma in his outline of Saivism in his web site, , explains the concept of karma in Hinduism by distinguishing its concept from that of the Buddhist and Jain religions which do not require an external Being like God as being necessary for it. In their beliefs, he notes that karma, as a natural law, and like a calf, among a large number of cows, goes and finds its mother for obtaining the milk, also finds the related person and comes to fruition. However, he further argues that Hindus, on the other hand, would find flaw with this theory and would criticize it by noting that karma, unlike the calf, is an unintelligent entity. Hence, karma cannot go and find out the related person by itself. Shri Sambantha then concludes by noting that an intelligent Supreme Being with perfect wisdom and power, (e.g., Shiva, in Shaivism, for example.) is necessary to make karma to join the related person. In such sense, God is the Divine Accountant.
Swami Sivananda, in his commentary synthesizing Vedanta views on the Brahma Sutras, also reiterates the same views. In his commentary on Chapter 3, Phaladhikaranam, Topic 8, Sutras 38-41, of Brahma Sutras, Sivananda notes that karma is insentient and short-lived, and ceases to exist as soon as it is done. Hence, he points out that karma cannot therefore bestow the fruits of actions at a future date according to one's merit. Furthermore, Sivananda notes that one cannot argue that karma generates apurva, or punya, which gives fruit. Since apurva is non-sentient, it cannot act unless moved by an intelligent Being, i.e., God. Hence, it cannot independently bestow rewards and punishments.
There's an elegant passage from Swami Sivananda's translation of the Svetasvatara Upanishad (4:6) illustrating that relationship: Two birds of beautiful plummage who are inseparable friends, dwell upon one and the same tree. Of these two the one eats the sweet fruit while the other looks on without eating. In his commentary, the two birds represent the individual soul and Brahman or God. The soul is a reflection essentially of Brahman. The tree represents the body and the soul identifies himself with the body and reaps the fruits of his actions and takes rebirths while the Lord alone stands a eternal witness, ever contented, and does not eat for He is the director of both the eater and the thing eaten.
Impartiality of God and Karma discussion from Swami Sivananda's Commentary on Brahma Sutras.
Swami Sivananda, also notes that God is free from charges of partiality and cruelty which are brought against Him owing to the inequality of position, fate of various persons, and universal suffering in the world. According to the Brahma sutras, it is individual souls that are responsible for their fate and God is the dispenser with reference to the merit and demerit of souls and the witness.
In his commentary on Chapter 2, Adhikarana XII, Sutras 34-36 from his translation and commentary of Brahma Sutras, Sivananda further notes that the position of God with respect to karma can be analogized to rain. He notes that although rain can be said to be a common cause of rice, barley and other plants, the differences in various species is due to the diverse potentalities lying hidden in the respective seeds. Thus, Sivananda further explains that the differences between classes of beings are due to different merits belonging to individual souls. He concludes that God metes rewards and punishments only in consideration of the specific actions of beings.
Some non-Hindu theologians have interpreted the concept of the relationship between God and karma to indicate that God is neutral and detached towards all so He has no power in controlling karma. However, it is an untenable proposition to hold that there is a powerless God. It is admitted that God is at once free of cruelty and is hence not partial to anyone. But those who seek Him will find His grace. God is indeed all-merciful and His grace can overcome or mitigate the karma of man in many cases. It is still important to remember that man has free will and has to seek Him. The nature of God is explained in the Brahma Sutras. Examples from the Puranas are described below.
Shiva's Grace can overcome Karma
The story of Markandeya, available at illustrates that God's grace can overcome karma and death for His beloved devotee.
Vishnu's Grace can overcome Karma.
The story of Ajamila , who in the Bhagavata Purana, in reference and reference,  had done a lot of bad deeds during his life such as stealing, abandoning his wife and children, and marrying a prostitute, at the moment of death, involuntarily chanted the name of Narayana, and moksha or union with God and was saved from the messengers of Yama. Ajamila, at the moment of his death, actually was thinking the name of his youngest son. But the name of God has powerful effects and he was forgiven for his great sins, and attained salvation, despite his bad karma.
References and Related Links
- Dancing with Siva by Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, available at http://www.himalayanacademy.com/resources/books/dws/Contents.html.
- Shri K. Thirugna Sambantha's explanation of God's role and Karma. See Outline of Saivism, section on Karma.
- Sivanananda's complete commentary and translation of Brahma Sutras.
- Sivananda's commentary on Brahma Sutras with respect to role of God (Brahman) and karma.
- role of God and karma, continued.
- Hinduism and Buddhism.
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