Karma Reconsidered

Lata Mani

Photo credit: Surya Ramanathan

Photo credit: Surya Ramanathan

The Sanskrit word karma has migrated into the English language and commonly used to denote good or bad luck deemed to be the effect of fate or consequence. While this use is not entirely erroneous, karma remains an oversimplified and much misunderstood concept.

Extracts from an essay in SacredSecular: Contemplative Cultural Critique, Routledge, 2009.

Karma literally means action. Actions have causes and in turn beget consequences. Thus the law of karma is often described as the law of cause and effect. The premise that all actions have causes that in turn generate effects potentially provides the ground for a complex ethics of action. Yet, given the misinterpretations that are commonplace, karma has mostly come to be associated with passivity, smugness and resignation. What could have been a guide to dharmic action has become instead a justification of the status quo.

Every idea exists in a field of related concepts and can only be understood in context of them. Central to a consideration of karma are desire, reincarnation and dependent co-arising. Desire is the root cause of human action; it is that which prompts or propels action. Action here, it must be clarified, is not simply physical but also mental. Thought is a form of action. Accordingly, inaction also implies action. The proposition that all action is initiated by desire need not be taken on faith but can be demonstrated by simply observing the micro movements of mind and body.

Reincarnation is not so easily demonstrable. Although a few may have some recollection of past lives, most would have to accept the idea as an a priori. The relevance of reincarnation to karma rests in the fact that, within a Hindu and Buddhist frame, karma is accumulated and the effects of one’s actions can be dispersed across lifetimes. Likewise, desires not fulfilled in one life give shape to one’s subsequent incarnations. Indeed some argue that the very form of each incarnation is shaped by that which the soul regards as unfinished business or learning yet to take place.

If causation is already beginning to emerge as complex, it is made more so by the fact that humans are not monads but rather live in dynamic interdependence with one another and with nature...

It is here that the concept of dependent co-arising gathers specific force and significance, for it builds in the fact of multiplicity without seeking to locate either cause or effect in any single source. Every cause is both the dependent effect of another cause and generates effects of its own. The only independent principle or causeless cause, at least within a deistic Hindu perspective, is that of the divine herself/himself/itself.

Properly understood then, karma cannot be seen, as it most often tends to be, as the burden of individuals alone. Individual karma is intertwined with collective karma — be it familial, caste, gender, regional, national, planetary, to name but a few. Individuals are affected by karma not of their own making…The crime and punishment view of karma (in which past bad deeds produce present sufferings) and the just desserts interpretation (whereby present good fortune is attributed to prior good behavior are erroneous...

If one affects, and is affected by, phenomena not just of one’s own making, if the multiplicity of causes and effects are often too complex to trace in any simple or definitive manner, we are faced with the following question: in what or where does responsibility lie? One way to address this conundrum is suggested by splitting up the term ‘responsibility’ into its constitutive parts, ‘response’ and ‘ability’. Responsibility then translates into refining one’s ability to respond. This, in turn, requires one to deepen one’s awareness of the environment in which one lives — social, cultural, economic, political, ecological. This consciousness then provides the basis upon which one can take one’s place as a fully present member of the earthly community.

The relationship between responsibility and ‘response ability’ is a dialectical one. As one cultivates one’s ‘ability to respond’, one uncovers fresh ‘responsibilities’ that in turn require one to work toward the requisite abilities needed to respond appropriately. We resolve, as it were, to remain on active duty.