Doctrine of Karma according to Hinduism

Welcome to this presentation on the doctrine of karma. I hope you’ll find it helpful. 

Many people find the doctrine of karma complicated and confusing. Sri Krishna himself admits its complexity in the fourth chapter of the Bhagavad-gita, saying in verse 17, “Gahana karmano gati .” 

The ways of karma are very deep and mysterious. To make matters worse, no specific text or scripture can be found that provides a methodical explanation of the doctrine of karma. Instead, we have to depend on teachings scattered throughout the scriptures and piece all this together to form a comprehensive understanding. Fortunately, we can also make use of the oral tradition, which has transmitted a vast body of traditional wisdom from generation to generation through an unbroken lineage of teachers.

In this series of presentations, we will use both of these resources to explain the doctrine of karma. In particular, we’ll use teachings found in the Mahabharata, including the Bhagavad-gita, and teachings received from my guru, Puja Swami Dayananda Saraswati.

Doctrine of Karma 

The doctrine of karma is based on the law of cause and effect. For every action (karma), there must be a corresponding effect (phala). Phala literally means the fruit or result of an action. What appears to be a simple principle becomes surprisingly complicated when all the factors in a situation are considered.

Let’s begin with a simple example: hitting a billiard ball. Using a cue stick to strike a ball is a karma, and for that karma, there is a corresponding phala: the ball moves. But sometimes, you can strike the ball and it’ll move in a completely unexpected direction. How can this happen? In every situation, there are hidden variables — unseen factors that can influence the outcome of an action. 

For example, if you strike the ball slightly off-center, it won’t go straight. Or if there’s a fan blowing across the top of the table, the breeze could affect the ball’s direction. Or if the table itself isn’t level, the ball will be affected. These are examples of hidden variables, and since hidden variables are found in nearly every situation, the actions we do often yield unexpected results. This unpredictability is a fact of life, but the doctrine of karma attempts to explain that apparent unpredictability.

Here’s one of my guru’s favorite examples: for every karma you do, there are actually four possible outcomes

  1. You might get the result you expect; 
  2. you might get less than you expect; 
  3. you might get more than you expect; or 
  4. you might get something completely different than you expect. 

To illustrate this, suppose you cross the street to catch the bus waiting on the other side. 

  1. You might get the result you expect — that is, you cross the street and catch the bus. Or 
  2. you might get less than you expect — as you’re crossing the street, the bus drives away. 
  3. Or you might get more than you expect — as you’re crossing the street, a friend driving by sees you and offers you a ride. 
  4. Finally, you might get something completely different than the result you expect — after you get halfway across the street, you might wake up three days later in a hospital bed after being hit by a car.

For the same karma, there can be four different phalas. Why? Hidden variables are the unseen factors that can affect the outcome of an action.

To explain unpredictable results like this, we often use the word “luck.” 

  1. When you get a ride from a friend, you say, “I was lucky.” 
  2. When you miss the bus, you say, “I was unlucky.” 
  3. And if you wake up in a hospital bed, you say, “I was extremely unlucky.”

 But what does the word “luck” really mean? Is luck some kind of power or force that affects us somehow? That’s not how the word is usually understood. We seem to use the expressions “good luck” and “bad luck” when we actually don’t know the reason that something turns out better or worse than expected. The word luck is a euphemism, a substitute word that covers up the fact that we truly have no good explanation for these unpredictable results.

From a scientific perspective, we could say that the outcome of certain actions has a degree of randomness associated with it. For example, the mating of two cats of different colors will produce a litter of various colored kittens. The selection of genes from mother and father appears to happen randomly. But the word “random” is a little bit like the word “luck” — it doesn’t provide a precise explanation about a particular result. Also, what seems to be random might actually be due to the unseen effects of karma, as we’ll discuss shortly.

Drishta Phala and Adrishta Phala 

The rishis of ancient India refused to accept the unpredictability of results without a proper explanation. So they developed what we know as the doctrine of karma. They based their teachings partly on scriptural revelation, partly on their own empirical observations about life, and partly on reasoning. The doctrine of karma they developed has the ability to clearly and comprehensively describe how and why our actions often have unexpected, unpredictable results. Their explanation begins with the assertion that for any action (karma), there are actually two kinds of results (phalas).

  1. The first kind of result is drishta phala — the result that is seen to be immediately produced by a karma. And that drishta phala is produced according to the natural laws known to science. For example, when I drop this ball, my karma will produce a drishta phala — an immediate, seen result — that is, the ball will fall according to the law of gravity. 
  2. The second kind of result is adrishta phala. Adrishta means unseen, and adrishta phala is a result that’s not seen or experienced immediately after a karma is performed. It’s a result that fructifies later — later in this life or in a future life — according to the laws of karma. So, adrishta phala is a result that is pending, so to speak. It is waiting to fructify.

To illustrate this, suppose I drop this ball, but instead of falling, it remains suspended in the air, waiting to fall. This trick shows the nature of adrishta phala. The act of dropping was performed, but the phala — the result — is pending, waiting to fructify. In reality, merely dropping a ball doesn’t create any adrishta phala; it only creates normal drishta phala. According to the doctrine of karma, adrishta phala is only created by the performance of certain actions — our so-called good deeds and bad deeds, which are properly known as punya karmas and papa karmas.

Punya karmas are pious, dharmic actions like prayer, rituals, acts of kindness, service to others, and so on. Papa karmas, on the other hand, are actions which are adharmic or harmful. The performance of punya karmas produces punya, which is a drishta phala that will eventually fructify to make the outcome of an action better than expected. Likewise, the performance of a papa karma produces papa, which is a drishta phala that will eventually fructify to make the outcome of an action worse than expected. This is a basic principle of the doctrine of karma: our So-called good and bad deeds, punya and papa karmas, will produce desirable and undesirable results for us when they fructify at some time in the future.

To understand this better, let’s consider an example. Suppose you’re driving a blue car in heavy traffic, and you see a driver who wants to merge into your lane. You’d probably slow down briefly to let them in. This is an example of a punya karma, a good deed. And for this punya karma, you’ll receive both drishta phala and adrishta phala. What kind of drishta phala will you receive? Since you had to slow down briefly, you’ll arrive at home a few seconds later. And what kind of adrishta phala will you receive? There’s no way of knowing exactly, but since you performed an act of kindness, you might be the recipient of someone else’s act of kindness sometime in the future.

Now consider an impatient driver who deliberately speeds up to prevent the other car from merging. This discourteous act is a papa karma. The drishta phala of this discourteous act is that he reaches home a few seconds earlier. And the adrishta phala of his rude act might be that he becomes a recipient of someone else’s rude behavior sometime in the future.

There’s no rule about when and where our drishta phalas of past actions yield their results. They might fructify shortly after an act is committed, or at a much later date. Or those adrishta phalas might not fructify at all during this lifetime, and if they don’t, they’ll eventually yield their results in a future life. It’s inevitable that some of the adrishta phalas acquired in our past lives will fructify in the present life. This, according to the doctrine of karma, accounts for the hidden variables we discussed before: a punya karma performed in a past life or earlier in this life can fructify at any time, making things go better than we expect. A papa karma performed earlier can also fructify at any time, making things go worse than we expect.

It is this fructification of adrishta phalas that is the cause for the unexpected, unpredictable events of life. This adrishta phala is what we casually refer to as “my karma.” Like when you say, “My karma is so bad.” What we’re actually referring to is not karma, strictly speaking, but rather the adrishta phala produced by past karmas.

Now, let’s consider one more important point. The entire doctrine of karma, as described so far, is based on the existence of adrishta phala. Since this phala is adrishta, unseen, it can’t be scientifically studied. Science deals only with the observable universe, not with anything that can’t be observed or measured, like adrishta phala. Therefore, it’s impossible to scientifically prove the doctrine of karma. On the other hand, it’s equally impossible to disprove the doctrine of karma using scientific methods. Why? Because adrishta phala is beyond the scope of science.

So if the doctrine of karma can neither be proved nor disproved, then it falls into the category of belief. Anything that can’t be proved or disproved but we accept as being true is a matter of faith. Belief differs from knowledge in this way. Now, it’s important to note that the central teachings of Vedanta are meant to impart spiritual knowledge, not any kind of belief. In Vedanta, the nature of reality is to be known directly and personally. That reality is not a matter of faith. Yet, the teachings of Vedanta are part of a vast Hindu religious and cultural tradition, and that tradition happens to embrace the doctrine of karma. For this reason, the teachings of Vedanta have become intertwined, so to speak, with the doctrine of karma.

But then we can ask, why should the doctrine of karma be taught or studied if we can’t prove it to be true? Is it worth the effort? The answer, of course, is yes. What makes it worth teaching and studying doesn’t depend on our ability to prove its correctness. What makes it valuable is its utility. The doctrine of karma can clearly and rationally explain unexpected events in our lives in a manner that helps us make sense of a world that sometimes seems bewildering and even threatening.

Let’s look at this more closely. From a scientific perspective, many events in life are said to be random. And to say that something is random means that it has no reason, no meaning, or purpose. Suppose a baby is born with a birth defect caused by a particular genetic mutation. If the doctor explains that this birth defect is a random event, his explanation doesn’t offer much comfort to the parents who are struggling and searching for some kind of reason for this tragic event.

On the other hand, the doctrine of karma can explain the birth defect as being the result of an adrishta phala from a past life. And an adrishta phala such as this can fructify at any time or place according to the laws of karma. Even though this explanation doesn’t address the difficulties the child and parents will face in life, it does help lessen the parents’ frustration, bitterness, and resentment. It helps them accept more gracefully what cannot be changed.

Why do bad things happen to good people?

The doctrine of karma is especially useful in addressing the question: Why do bad things happen to good people? I have an anecdote about this I’d like to share with you. Many years ago, I was invited to participate in an interfaith panel discussion. The panelists were all clergy members from different religions. One of the questions put to the panel was: Why do bad things happen to good people? Each of the other panelists struggled with this question and offered answers that didn’t seem very helpful.

The Roman Catholic nun said that life is a divine mystery; we can never know the mind of God. But if that’s really the case, then we simply don’t know why good people get terminal cancer. The rabbi said that life is incredibly complicated, and therefore, we don’t know what is a good thing and what is a bad thing. Sometimes good things turn out bad, and sometimes bad things turn out to be good. But it seems extremely unlikely that terminal cancer could ever turn out to be a good thing. The Christian minister said that when we suffer, we are drawn closer to God. God sends us trials to test our devotion and to draw us nearer to Him. Unfortunately, this explanation makes God seem like a jealous spouse who uses emotional manipulation. I suspect that most audience members found little comfort in these answers.

There was no Muslim Imam on the panel, but if there were, I suppose he would have said that bad things happen to good people because of kismat or naseeb — because of destiny or fate. But even this is not a very comforting answer for someone suffering from terminal cancer. All these Western religions seem to lack a helpful explanation for why bad things happen to good people. But the doctrine of karma clearly and simply says: it is because of the fructification of an adrishta phala from past lives. Even the most saintly person among us is born with at least a little papa from adharmic or harmful deeds committed in prior lives. Each and every one of us is born with both punya and papa from deeds we committed in past lives. Due to our papa, each of us will suffer in ways that we don’t deserve based on our deeds in this life. Similarly, due to our punya, each of us will enjoy wonderful things that we don’t deserve based on our deeds in this life.

A teenage student of mine once complained that all this seems unfair. Why should we suffer or be rewarded in this life for deeds we committed in a prior life? The answer to his question is that fairness is guaranteed by the laws of karma because they apply equally to us all. Every one of us will receive undeserved suffering and undeserved enjoyment in this life due to our actions in past lives. Just as we are all equally subject to the laws of nature like the laws of gravity, we are also equally subject to the laws of karma.

Understanding the doctrine of karma helps us make sense of the unexpected, unpredictable events of our lives. When our carefully planned actions don’t yield the results we expect, or when we are beset by some kind of tragedy, these teachings help us to be more patient, more composed, and more resilient.

Swami Tadatmananda

Swami Tadatmananda is a well-known spiritual teacher and Vedanta scholar. He is associated with the Arsha Bodha Center in Somerset, New Jersey, USA. Swami Tadatmananda has been teaching Vedanta, Sanskrit, Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, and other traditional Indian philosophies for many years. He is respected for his depth of knowledge, clarity of expression, and ability to make complex philosophical concepts accessible to modern audiences. Swami Tadatmananda founded the Arsha Bodha Center, a spiritual organization in Pennsylvania, USA. His life is dedicated to teaching Vedanta, a branch of Hindu philosophy.

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