Dr Arvind Sharma
Courtesy of Hinduism Today
How astronauts experiencing no gravity are like realized souls experiencing no karma
Karma is a key Hindu concept not always easily explained. Comparing it with the gravity, however, helps to illustrate how it works. Obviously, the law of gravitation existed before Newton discovered it. Similarly, the law of karma was actively at work long before some ancient sage first consciously came to understand it. Both these laws apply equally to everybody, regardless of race, religion, nationality, sex and sexual orientation. And they did so before either was understood.
The fact that our actions on Earth are governed by the law of gravity does not mean that we are frozen in place and cannot move about. It simply means we have free will within limitations. We can run, for instance, but we cannot fly. Similarly, the fact that our experiences in life are governed by the law of karma does not mean that we are helpless and live at the mercy of fate. Again, it means we have free will within limitations. We can purposefully improve our lives, but not without facing and accounting for past misdeeds.
All of the physical experiences that I have on the Earth pleasant or unpleasant, good or bad are under the influence of gravity. In a broader sense, all of the experiences that I have in life pleasant or unpleasant, good or bad are under the influence of karma.
When an astronaut travels in space outside the range of Earth's gravitational pull, he exists in a state of zero gravity and has experiences that no one on the Earth's surface has ever had. When he returns from his space travels, he can only try to explain it. Yet nothing he can say can duplicate that experience he has had for others.
Hinduism claims that it is possible to travel beyond karma to a state of no karma just like the astronaut can travel beyond gravity to no gravity. If this is true and it has been done, those who did it experienced something none of the rest of us have. These jivanmuktis (enlightened beings) can try to describe their experience to others, but nothing they say can produce that liberated state in the lives of those who listen.
The astronauts who have experienced the gravity-free zone know that it is possible. They don't have to be told. The jivanmuktis who have experienced the karma-free zone know that it is possible. They also do not have to be told. Both the astronaut and the jivanmukti know what they know from their personal experience. No one can take that experience away from them. However, this experience that cannot be taken away can also not be given away, which leaves us with a question: How can those who have not had the experience be expected to understand or believe those who have? They must take their word for it. This is faith. Faith must suffice until experience takes hold.
How might we experience the karma-free state? Just as we achieve a state of zero gravity by performing a certain series of appropriate actions while under the influence of gravity, so can we achieve a state of zero karma by following a specific pattern of activity while under the influence of karma.
The space shuttle itself is designed to deal with gravity. When we walk toward it and climb into it, we do so under the influence of gravity. As we launch, we are contending with gravity. We are not concerned whether the gravity is good or bad. We are focused only on the effects of gravity with an aim of transcending gravity into its absence. In so choosing to perform these actions, we have necessarily given up options to act in other ways for other purposes. By giving up all actions not relevant to the process of going beyond gravity, it becomes possible for us to eventually achieve our goal of experiencing zero gravity.
Similarly, in order to reach a karma-free state, we must give up not
only bad karma, but good karma as well. We must perform only that karma
which is appropriate for the attainment of zero karma. Just as the concept
of good gravity and bad gravity is supplanted by considerations of gravity
and no gravity, so also can the axis of good and bad karma be exchanged
for one of karma and no karma, when one seeks moksha, or liberation from
birth and death.
Arvind Sharma is Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University, Montreal, Canada
LSESU KRISHNA CONSCIOUSNESS SOCIETY
"After the Kurukshetra War, King Dhritarashtra asks Krishna why he was born blind and why his hundred sons all got killed. Krishna replied that fifty lifetimes ago he had been a hunter. He had shot an arrow in a forest which hit a nest, killing 100 young birds."
SEMINAR #2 "Karma & Reincarnation: Fact or Fiction?"
Speaker: H.G. Bhuta Bhavana dasa
Karma has become a mainstream term in modern society, so most people have some idea of what it means. One common concept is the law of action and reaction. There are some misguided assumptions of what karma means. Glenn Hoddle, the England football coach, infamously made some rather misguided and somewhat inaccurate statements about disabled people supposedly suffering from sinful reactions from previous lives. Later on in this summary sheet it will be explained through the principles of karma how disability is not necessarily a sinful reaction.
There is an example from Mahabharata which illustrates the law of karma in action. After the Kurukshetra War, King Dhritarashtra asks Krishna why he was born blind and why his hundred sons all got killed. Krishna replied that fifty lifetimes ago he had been a hunter. He had shot an arrow in a forest which hit a nest, killing 100 young birds. The mother of the birds survived but was blinded by the arrow. In other words, Dhritarashtra was suffering the reactions to that act in the present lifetime. Krishna also explained that fifty lifetimes had passed before Dhritarashtra had one hundred children. This shows how the law of karma is supposed to be exact and accurate in it's delivery of justice.
Karma is the subtle version of Isaac Newton's third law that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Whereas Newton's law is limited to physical forces, the concept of karma extends to our actions, thoughts and feelings. The best way to define karma is that it is a causal relationship, a chain of connection, between our physical or verbal activities and thoughts. The corresponding reaction from the environment is described as our karma.
(i) The four stages of karma
1. Bija (seed) - the subtle conception. When we conceive of or think of an activity.
2. Kuta (bud) the desire or will to perform the activity. Our emotions energise the thought into a feeling or willing.
(c) Phala (fruit) when one actually engages in the activity.
(d) Phalamukha (result) Includes both external (physical) and internal (psychological) results.
An example is when one thinks of attending LSE (seed), then he develops the determination to attend (bud), then we actually apply for studying there (fruit), and finally we receive the result of being accepted as a student at LSE and attending lectures etc. One can stop the physical stages from manifesting by not acting on the stages at the mind platform, i.e. we would never have come to LSE if we had never actually applied to the university.
Any activity which has a material motive thus can be considered to be subject to the laws of karma. One result of good karma can be the possession of opulence. For example, Prince Charles is born in the royal family due to previous acts of piety in previous lives. Often, activities can also be carried over from previous lives into the present life e.g. the tendency for someone to perform charity may be carried over from previous lives (samsara). Other examples of opulence include intelligence, beauty, education and wealth.
The degree of opulence can also differ at different times in a person's life. For example, Bill Gates had the good karma to become wealthy, but this didn't manifest itself when he was a student, because he was not rich at all. However, later on in his life, he became one of the wealthiest men in the world, so much so that it has been reported that he has enough money to wipe out third world debt!
From the Vedic scripture, Shrimad-Bhagavatam, it is described by the sage Parvata Muni that our full manifestation of good karma is dependent on our endeavour. He used the analogy of a cow on a field of grass who is tied by a five metre rope to a pole. The length of the rope is indicative of the potential good karma we can experience in a lifetime. If the cow does not stretch the rope at all, she will stay near the pole, and thus not have much grass to eat. Similarly, if we do not put in any endeavour, we will barely get much of the good karma due to us. However, if the cow stretches the rope to it's limit, she can enjoy much more grass to eat. Similarly, if we put in full endeavour, we can experience the full limit of our good karma. Of course different people have different potential of karma according to deeds done in previous lives.
(ii) Four classes of results obtainable from striving for success
(a) No karmic credit
No matter how much endeavour put in, there simply isn't possibility of achieving desired success due to lack of good karma from previous lives.
(b) Karmic credit, but no effort
The good karma for success is there, but there is insufficient effort put in, so success not fully realised.
(c) Karmic credit, plus effort
Success is fully realised due to endeavour put in.
(d) Fixed karma
Even though no endeavour is put in, success is still experienced due to fixed nature of previous good karma. For instance, one's place of birth, parents, or where someone inherits millions from his grandma who dies after winning the lottery. Gender is also fixed, although modern medicine has put that into question! Someone may not study at all at Oxford University and still obtain a degree e.g. Bill Clinton obtained a honorary degree without studying there.
A common thought that comes to mind when one thinks of reincarnation is the idea of rebirth after death and the change of bodies. The origin of the word reincarnation comes from the Greek process of entering back into flesh or the body. According to the Vedic understanding, this is not what reincarnation is necessarily about. The Bhagavad-Gita explains that the soul is not the body. Two things determine our karma:
At the time of death (anta-kale), what we think of determines what body our soul will transmigrate to in the next life. There are 8,400,000 species of life, of which 400,000 are human species. One can reincarnate into any species, since every life form has a soul, since all display the four characteristics of living entities:
2. deterioration (e.g. old age)
3. leaving behind by-products (e.g. reproduction)
The ability to express consciousness is limited by one's body, for example a tree has a lower level of expression of consciousness than an animal. There are examples even within human society, for example, when the body is paralysed, there is less ability for the human to fully express his consciousness.
What determines what we think of at the time of death? The answer is the our previous acts throughout our lifetime. For example, according to Vedic understanding, if one engages too much in sex life, then nature will provide one with the body in the next life that is most suitable for practice of sex life. One may reincarnate as a pigeon, since a pigeon's body enables one to engage in sex many times.
Our subtle body's programming is what determines our thoughts at the time of death. The three factors are:
2. intelligence (buddhi)
3. false ego (ahankara)
Once again, the two factors of mentality (or meditation) and activity determine our thoughts at the time of death. Even in everyday life, the analogy of a car shows how reincarnation is quite fair. For example, it is unsuitable to use a small, compact car like a Lamborghini to transport furniture, because that car is more suitable for looking good and racing. Hence, nature would impel us to get a lorry, because it's suitable for moving heavy items. In the same way, if we use a lorry to race, nature would impel us to give up the lorry and buy a small, aerodynamic car like a Lamborghini because the car is more suitable for our intended purpose.
This begs the question of what the purpose of human life is. The answer is given in the Vedic scripture, the Vedanta Sutra, that the aim is brahma jijnasa or self-realisation. In other words, the human form of life is given so that we may connect with God through service. If we cultivate this purpose then we are at least guaranteed to again receive a human form.
Now one can address whether there is any scientific evidence for reincarnation. There is plenty of scientific evidence which at least suggests that reincarnation is a reality. Dr Ian Stevenson has undertaken many studies on past life experiences. His approach is two-fold:
1. Rejection of unreliable evidence
There are many so-called memories of past lives described via hypnotic regression, where the patient is told to relax his physical and subtle body in order to access deep-rooted memories of past lives. The problem with this approach is that many people have a condition called false memory syndrome where they play out some fantasy or ideal previous life as somebody famous. For instance, many women who have been regressed have described themselves as Cleopatra! Very rarely does one get normal lives of insignificant people being described. Consequently, Dr. Stevenson rejected this source of evidence.
2. Spontaneous memories described by children
Many children have at a very young age given accurate details of the name, lifestyle, circumstances of death and explicit details of their family members from a previous life. In fact many of these claims have been corroborated by those studying the cases. This body of evidence is much harder to refute and cannot be rejected due to the accuracy of the information, especially when forensic evidence exists in some cases (see http://www.childpastlives.org/titu.htm)
There is also one class of evidence from past life regression which cannot be rejected because of the accuracy of the regression. One case was described where the patient regressed claimed he was living in the ancient civilisation of West Mesopotamia. He was able to speak fluently in the language, accent and dialect of the ancient civilisation, and expert historical linguists were able to verify that language being spoken was from ancient Mesopotamia. In fact, the linguists had described how it is almost impossible to have studied and learnt the language in a modern day context, because even the expert linguists themselves only understand some aspects of the language. This all suggests that the knowledge of the language must have originated in a previous life.
Practical benefits of knowledge of reincarnation
It ensures no-one is denied their reward for good actions and negative reaction for bad actions. In other words, we have a logical reason for treating others the way we would like to be treated ourselves.
It makes people work hard in order to achieve success according to the potential of their karmic credit.
3. Bad Karma
This explains why some good people suffer bad things due to actions they are unaware of from their previous lives.
Some of our karma is predetermined as fixed karma, as has already been explained. In addition, although we can change our future by performing good acts, thus increasing our karmic credit, this doesn't change the fact that in this life we are somewhat limited to our available karmic credit. There is however activity which gives no karmic credit at all, called akarma. This activity is spiritual in quality because the activity is done for the pleasure of God. That which is spiritual is not limited by material laws. In fact, this activity not only prevents material reactions but also burns off bad karma which we are otherwise due to experience. It is the way of life described by Lord Jesus in the Bible as being `in the world but not of the world'. The movie, The Matrix, is a good analogy for this concept. When Neo knows that he is plugged in to the Matrix, he is acting in the Matrix from a higher dimension and so is not affected by many of the laws of the Matrix thus he performs superhuman feats etc. In a similar way, to the extent that we are engaged in spiritual activities, which can include working, studying and maintaining a family, we are accessing the material dimension from a higher spiritual vantage point and so are not affected by the same material laws of action and reaction.
The example is given of the difference between a prisoner and the visitor. The prisoner is bound by the laws of the prison, but the visitor is free to leave at any moment. The important consideration is our motive, so we might be engaged as a businessman, but still be engaged in the service of God. As one recalls to the beginning of the topic, our karma can be effected by actions and desires (mentality). For example, the Vedic literatures explain how a great devotee of the Lord, King Bharata, due to attachment for a deer, thought of the deer at the time of death and so reincarnated as a deer. Similarly, somebody who is disabled may not be disabled due to past sinful actions, but may for example have been meditating on a disabled relative at the time of death in a previous life.
Spiritual intelligence is the key to transcending karma. When an external
reaction comes to someone who may not be totally self-realised, because
of getting spiritual guidance, he will be able to use the reaction in service
of the Lord or reject it and thus transcend karma.
see our pages on Karma & Reincarnation