Our understanding of Karma needs to be overhauled

The doctrine of karma has been oversimplified over the years to “good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people”. When the keen observer does not see it transpiring, he gets driven away from the path of truth, and not because the theory is flawed. The answer lies in understanding that karma is intertwined with concept of rebirth.

Why do bad things happen to good people? You’re bothered by people suffering undeservedly, and rightly so. Any person with an ounce of moral sensitivity is outraged by injustices in the world. There are plenty of reasons to help them out — everyone is God’s children, humanity’s sake, etc. but at some point, you will wonder why inequalities exist in the first place.

Eons ago, wise men in India, who were not in the self-help business, stated spiritual laws that were at some point weaved into “sutras” or spiritual principles to help provide a sequential reference for others to recite and refer to. One such spiritual principle is that of cause and effect — Karma. Over time it has been simplified to the Physics‘ cause-effect or Newton’s third law of motion, but it runs deep.

Sutras say that the coming of existence (creation) and ceasing of existence (dissolution) has been going on since time immemorial. But a single lifetime isn’t enough for you to experience the results of all your actions. Come to think of it, if a single life was indeed enough, we would never see bad things happening to good people throughout their lives, and vice versa. In other words, rewards and punishments never seem to be commensurate with actions. Thus, the only way to balance it out is through the countless births of the individual-self.

As a man traverses life, he engages in numerous actions, both good and bad. Good Karma begets good and happier rebirths; bad Karma begets bad and tougher rebirths. Throughout life, his Karma is accumulated and simultaneously his past Karma unfolds.

Three types of Karma

To know why we are reborn even after undergoing some karmic outcome in life, we first need to understand the three types of karmas, viz. Sanchita (accumulated), Prarabdha (preordained), and Kriyamana (accumulating).

1. Sanchita Karma

This is the easiest to grasp out of the three. Sanchita karma is essentially your yet-to-be-experienced pending reactions. As you are taking innumerable births & rebirths, it is safe to assume that your Sanchita karma is quite a lot. Even if your karmic account of this life remains unchanged (which is technically impossible), to balance out past actions you’ll take birth again. In other words, the birth-rebirth cycle will continue till you have completely depleted your Sanchita Karma.

2. Prarabdha Karma

The part of Sanchita karma that will fructify in this lifetime is known as Prarabdha karma. These include one-off events such as accidents, or events that have an impression throughout your life e.g. having a child. For any event to take place, there is a corresponding set of preordained actions. For the actions to manifest, the appropriate desire and mindset have to be in place. All of these — events, preordained actions, and inherent nature before and after the event are included in Prarabdha karma.

3. Kriyamana Karma

One can draw the following corollary from Prarabdha karma — “Destinies are pre-determined, so I shouldn’t be held accountable for my actions”. To take it a step further, if it’s all in destiny then should it not affect my Karma. This is where Kriyamana Karma comes in.

In a given life you not only experience reactions to past lives’ actions but are also engaged in newer actions. These newer actions are known as Kriyamana karma. These karmas will either yield reaction in the same life or they get added to Sanchita Karma and will be experienced in your future lives.

Putting it all together

Let’s get a better understanding of Prarabdha karma and Kriyamana karma with the help of an example. To start with, let us assume that you have been an extraordinary human being in previous lives, and are thus destined to be happy by acquiring wealth and fame in this life. Furthermore, you’ve embarked on the entrepreneurship path, wherein you develop an innovative software application that becomes popular, and in the process, your destiny is fulfilled.

Now, there are a set of actions, traits, etc. geared towards fulfilling your destiny. These can include the inculcation of the habit of hard work, intelligence to easily learn coding, being persistent when it to comes to raising funds, etc. However, along the way, you also execute other actions that are not relevant to your destined objective. These include helping a struggling employee or being rude to an employee for no reason other than anger, ignoring parents, spouse, and kids as you pursue your goals.

So let’s split the actions into two categories

  • Those actions that do not contribute to your destined experience of wealth and fame are stored to be experienced later. (Kriyamana karma)
  • And those set of actions (like coding, planning, etc.) that do contribute to your destined objective (Prarabdha karma)

To summarize, actions in your life are a mix of predefined ones that result in predetermined events taking place aka Prarabdha karma as well as undefined ones i.e. Kriyamana karma that impact you in the future or subsequent births. In general, Prarabdha karma, once experienced, gets removed and Kriyamana karma is stored to be experienced later.

The Karma ‘Math’

For those with an analytical bend of mind, the following would be the representative equation among the karmas:

SanchitaL = SanchitaL-1PrarabdhaL + KriyamanaL

Where SanchitaL is accumulated Karma at the end of your present life, and SanchitaL-1 is accumulated karma at the end of your previous life.

PrarabdhaL is that portion of SanchitaL-1 Karma that is experienced in your present life.

KriyamanaL is is the new Karma accrued in your present birth, over which you have control.

I understood the various karmas, but now my question is why help someone if he is predestined (as per his Prarabdha Karma) to suffer? Why should I interfere in his Karma?

Indeed, one cannot escape from the effects of his actions without experiencing the results. Prarabdha karma has already set out in motion for one’s life and sooner or later it will catch up with the person. Therefore it can be safely said that no one can be helped beyond their destiny.

Also, when it comes to helping others, it can potentially give rise to a feeling of detachment: Because everyone’s suffering and enjoyment are fixed due to their Prarabdha karma, there is no point in doing good to others. Alternatively, it gives rise to an inflated feeling of self: Without my help, they will remain helpless.

Unfortunately, what we seem to miss is that the receiver of your help was predestined to receive that help by his own Prarabdha Karma! That is, even if you don’t donate/help/do charity, the recipient will get it from another source. The recipient is in no way dependent on your altruism, or even bound to acknowledge your act of kindness.

However, your act of kindness makes a difference to you. Irrespective of whether the receiver’s Prarabdha Karma allows your act to make a difference in his life, the fact that you have extended help to someone is creating good Kriyamana karma for yourself. Thus I may not buy in for helping others or interfere in his karma, but I should help myself through the act of helping others as I am creating positive Kriyamana karma for myself.

Others don’t need your help. Help yourself by helping others
But how do we know whether my act of charity is coming under Kriyamana Karma (create future good karma) and not Prarabdha Karma (negate past bad karma)?

This is a good question, and the answer to it is we don’t know. But the key point is that it should not matter.

Let’s say you have done one sinful act in your previous life because of which it is in your Prarabdha karma to lose $100. It can take place via donation to a charity or losing the amount through unpleasant incidents e.g. robbery. In all cases, you exhaust the part of your Prarabdha karma where you are losing $100. However, in the case of charity, the voluntary act has also created a new positive Kriyamana karma for you to enjoy at some point in the future. Thus, the argument for altruism remains unchanged i.e. you help others to help yourself.

All said and done karma ensures that everyone will receive what they are owed, and everyone to lose what they are supposed to.

(We had originally published this article in Medium website on Nov 6, 2019)

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One thought on “Our understanding of Karma needs to be overhauled

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