The Hindus “Puranas”and the Doctrine of”Karma”

Dr. V.K.Maheshwari, M.A(Socio, Phil) B.Sc. M. Ed, Ph.D

Former Principal, K.L.D.A.V.(P.G) College, Roorkee, India

Mrs Sudha Rani Maheshwari, M.Sc (Zoology), B.Ed.

Former Principal, A.K.P.I.College, Roorkee, India

Karma brings us ever back to rebirth, binds us to the wheel of births and deaths. Good Karma drags us back as relentlessly as bad, and the chain which is wrought out of our virtues holds as firmly and as closely as that forged from our vices.

Annie Besant

The metaphysics of the Brahman schools being beyond the comprehension of the general people, Vyasa and others, over a period of a thousand years (500 B.C. 500 A.D.), composed eighteen Puranas “old stories” in 400,000 couplets, expounding to the laity the exact truth about the creation of the world, its periodical evolution and dissolution, the genealogy of the gods, and the history of the heroic age. These books made no pretence to literary form, logical order, or numerical moderation; they insisted that the lovers Urvashi and Pururavas spent 61,000 years in pleasure and delight.  But through the intelligibility of their language, the attractiveness of their parables, and the orthodoxy of their doctrine they became the second Bible of Hinduism, the grand repository of its superstitions, its myths, even of its philosophy. Here, for example, in the Vishnupurana, is the oldest and ever-recurrent theme of Hindu thought that individual separateness is an illusion, and that all life is one.

In these Puranas, and kindred writings of medieval India, we find a very modern theory of the universe. There is no creation in the sense of Genesis; the world is perpetually evolving and dissolving, growing and decaying, through cycle after cycle, like every plant in it, and every organism. Brahma or, as the Creator is more often called in this literature, Pra japan-is the spiritual force that upholds this endless process. Each cycle or Kalpa in the history of the universe is divided into a thousand mahayugas, or great ages, of 4,320,000 years each; and each mahayuga contains four yugas or ages, in which the human race undergoes a gradual deterioration. In the present mahayuga three ages have now passed, totaling 3,888,888 years; we live in the fourth age, the Kali-yuga, or Age of Misery; 5035 years of this bitter era have elapsed, but 426,965 remain. Then the world will suffer one of its periodical deaths, and Brahma will begin another “day of Brahma,” i.e., a Kalpa of 4,320,000,000 years. In each Kalpa cycle the universe develops by natural means and processes, and by natural means and processes decays; the destruction of the whole world is as certain as the death of a mouse, and, to the philosopher, not more important. There is no final purpose towards which the whole creation moves; there is no “progress”; there is only end- less repetition.”

Through all these ages and great ages billions of souls have passed from species to species, from body to body, from life to life, in weary transmigration. An individual is not really an individual, he is a link in the chain of life, a page in the chronicle of a soul; a species is not really a separate species, for the souls in these flowers or fleas may yesterday have been, or tomorrow may be, the spirits of men; all life is one. A man is only partly a man, he is also an animal; shreds and echoes of past lower existences linger in him, and make him more akin to the brute than to the sage. Man is only a part of nature, not actually its centre or master;  a life is only a part of a soul’s career, not the entirety; every form is transitory, but every reality is continuous and one. The many reincarnations of a soul are like years or days in a single life, and may bring the soul now to growth, now to decay. How can the individual life, so brief in the tropic torrent of generations, contain all the history of a soul, or give it due punishment and reward for its evil and its good? And if the soul is immortal, how could one short life determine its fate forever?

Life can be understood, says the Hindu, only on the assumption that each existence is bearing the penalty or enjoying the fruits of vice or virtue in some antecedent life. No deed small or great, good or bad, can be without effect; everything will out. This is the Law of Karma the Law of the Deed the law of causality in the spiritual world; and it is the highest and most terrible law of all. Karma is the executed “deed”, “work”, “action”, or “act”, and it is also the “object”, the “intent. karma is complex and difficult to define.Different schools of Indologists derive different definitions for the karma concept from ancient Indian texts; their definition is some combination of

(1) causality that may be ethical or non-ethical;

(2) ethicization, that is good or bad actions have consequences; and

(3) rebirth. The law of karma operates independent of any deity or any process of divine judgment.

It is a concept whose meaning, importance and scope varies between Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and other traditions that originated in India, The difficulty in arriving at a definition for karma arises because of the diversity of views among the various schools of Hinduism that co-exist and thrive; some schools, for example, consider karma and rebirth linked and simultaneously essential, some consider karma essential but not rebirth, and a few schools of Hinduism discuss and conclude karma and rebirth flawed fiction. There is an ongoing debate regarding whether karma is a theory, a model, a paradigm, a metaphor, or a metaphysical stance.

A common theme to theories of karma is its principle of causality. One of the earliest association of karma to causality occurs in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad of Hinduism.

The theory of karma as causality holds that

(1) executed actions of an individual affects the individual and the life he  lives, and

(2) the intentions of an individual affects the individual and the life he  lives.

Disinterested actions, or unintentional actions do not have the same positive or negative karmic effect, as interested and intentional actions. Another causality characteristic, shared by Karmic theories, is that like deeds lead to like effects. Thus good karma produces good effect on the actor, while bad karma produces bad effect. This effect may be material, moral or emotional. The effect of karma need not be immediate; the effect of karma can be later in one’s current life, and in some schools it extends to future lives.

The second theme common to karma theories is ethicization. This begins with the premise that every action has a consequence, which will come to fruition in either this or a future life; thus morally good acts will have positive consequences, whereas bad acts will produce negative results.

Another  theme of karma theories is the concept of reincarnation or  rebirth. Rebirth is a fundamental concept of Hinduism.  Rebirth is the concept that all life forms go through a cycle of reincarnation, that is a series of births and rebirths. The rebirths and consequent life may be in different realm, condition or form. The karma theories suggest that the realm, condition and form depend on the quality and quantity of karma. In schools that believe in rebirth, every living being’s soul transmigrates (recycles) after death, carrying the seeds of Karmic impulses from life just completed, into another life and lifetime of karmas. This cycle continues indefinitely, except for those who consciously break this cycle by reaching moksa.

In short if a man does justice and kindness without sin his reward cannot come in one mortal span; it is stretched over other lives in which, if his virtue persists, he will be reborn into loftier place and larger good fortune; but if he lives evilly he will be reborn as an Out caste, or a weasel, or a dog. This law of Karma, like the Greek Moira or Fate, is above both gods and men; even the gods do not change its absolute operation; or, as the theologians put it, Karma and the will or action of the gods are one.  But Karma is not Fate; Fate implies the helplessness of man to determine his own lot; Karma makes him (taking all his lives as a whole) the creator of his own destiny. Nor do heaven and hell end the work of Karma, or the chain of births and deaths; the soul, after the death of the body, may go to hell for special punishment, or to heaven for quick and special reward; but no soul stays in hell, and few souls stay in heaven, forever; nearly every soul that enters them must.

When the Hindu is asked why we have no memory of our past incarnations, heanswers that likewise we have no memory of our infancy; and as we presume our infancyto explain our maturity, so he presumes past existences to explain our place and fate inour present life.

Biologically there was much truth in this doctrine. We are the reincarnations of our ancestors, and will be reincarnated in our children; and the defects of the fathers are to some extent (though perhaps not as much as good conservatives suppose) visited upon the children, even through many generations. Karma was an excellent myth for dissuading the human beast from murder, theft, procrastination, or  parsimony; furthermore, it extended the sense of moral unity and obligations to all life, and gave the moral code an extent of application far greater, and more logical, than in any other civilization. Good Hindus do not kill insects if they can possibly avoid it; “even those whose aspirations to virtue are modest treat animals as humble brethren rather than as lower creatures over whom they have dominion by divine command.”  Philosophically, Karma explained for India many facts otherwise obscure in meaning or bitterly unjust. All those eternal inequalities among men which so frustrate the eternal demands for equality and justice; all the diverse forms of evil that blacken the earth and redden the stream of history; all the suffering that enters into human life with birth and accompanies it unto death, seemed intelligible to the Hindu who accepted Karma; these evils and injustices, these variations between idiocy and genius, poverty and wealth, were the results of past existences, the inevitable working out of a law unjust for a life or a moment, but perfectly just in the end. Karma is one of those many inventions by which men have sought to bear

To explain evil, and to find for men some scheme in which they may accept it, if not with good cheer, then with peace of mind-this is the task that most religions have attempted to fulfil. Since the real problem of life is not suffering but undeserved suffering, the religion of India mitigates the human tragedy by giving meaning and value to grief and pain. The soul, in Hindu theology, has at least this consolation, which it must bear the consequences only of its own acts; unless it questions all existence it can accept evil as a passing punishment, and look forward to tangible rewards for virtue borne.

But in truth the Hindus do question all existence. Oppressed with an enervating environment, national subjection and economic exploitation, they have tended to look upon life as more a bitter punishment than an opportunity or a reward. The Vedas, written by a hardy race coming in from the north, were almost as optimistic as Whitman; Buddha, representing the same stock five hundred years later, already denied the value of life; the Puranas, five centuries later still, represented a view more profoundly pessimistic than anything known in the West except in stray moments of philosophic doubt.( Schopenhaucr, like Buddha, reduced all suffering to the will to live and beget, and advocated race suicide by voluntary sterility. Heine could hardly pen a stanza without speaking of death, and could write, in Hindu strain,

Sweet is sleep, but death is better;

Best of all is never to be born.

Kant, scorning the optimism of Leibnitz, asked: “Would any man of sound understandingwho has lived long enough, and has meditated on the worth of human existence, care togo again through life’s poor play, I do not say on the same conditions, but on any condi-tions whatever? “)

The East, until reached by the Industrial Revolution, could not understand the zest with which the Occident has taken life; it saw only superficiality and childishness in our merciless busyness, our discontented ambition, our nerve-racking labour-saving devices, our progress and speed; it could no more comprehend this profound immersion in the surface of things, this clever refusal to look ultimate in the face, than the West can fathom the quiet inertia, the “stagnation” and “hopelessness” of the traditional East. Heat cannot understand cold.

“What is the most wonderful thing m the world?” asks Yama of Yudishthira; and Yudishthira replies: “Man after man dies; seeing this, men still move about as if they were immortal.”  ”By death the world is afflicted,” say the Mahabharata, “by age it is held Li bar, and the nights are the Unfailing Ones that are ever coming and going. When I know that death cannot halt, what can I expect from walking in a cover of lore?” And in the Ramayana Sita asks, as her reward for fidelity through every temptation and trial, only death:

If in truth unto my husband I have proved a faithful wife, Mother Earth, relieve thy Sita from the burden of this life!

So the last word of Hindu religious thought is moksha, release first from desire, then from life. Nirvana may be one release or the other; but it is fullest in both. The sage Bhartri-hari expresses the first:

Everything on earth gives cause for fear, and the only freedom from fear is to be found in the renunciation of all desire. . . . Once upon a time the days seemed long to me when my heart was sorely wounded through asking favours from the rich; and yet again the days seemed all too short for me when I sought to carry out all my worldly desires and ends. But now as a philosopher I sit on a hard stone in a cave on the mountainside, and time and again I laugh when I think of my former life.

The highest and final aspiration of the Hindu is to escape reincarnation, to lose that fever of ego which revives with each individual body and birth. Salvation does not come by faith, nor yet by works; it comes by such uninterrupted self-denial, by such selfless intuition of the part-engulfing Whole, that at last the self is dead, and there is nothing to be reborn. The hell of individuality passes into the haven and heaven of unity, of complete and impersonal absorption into Brahman, the soul or Force of the World.




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