Karma: Liberating or Confining?
Updated: Feb 3, 2022
While several books explain and elucidate the concept of karma, many questions remain unanswered.
1. Do we have to take birth to fulfill our karma?
2. Are our intentions of any importance in the making of karma?
3. Is there greater suffering for those with bad karma?
4. Are karma and free-will incompatible?
5. How does one understand one’s karma?
6. How does one know the karma of the forefathers?
7. How does one see the karma of the future?
8. Can we change our karma?
A Universal Concept
The concept of karma, a genuinely universal concept, has been of interest to people of all religious backgrounds and philosophical interests. Never has there been a time when the idea lost its importance as a subject of spiritual, philosophical, religious, and academic studies. Its essence across the centuries is captured in some seminal works on the subject. For instance, in his book, Reichenbach associates the concept of karma with five metaphysical presuppositions. Here are two;
" All actions for which we can be held morally accountable and which are done out of desire for their fruits have consequences".
" Human persons are reborn into this world".
In the paper Contemporary Karma, Kisala quotes the following paragraph while discussing the basic tenets of Risshõ Kõseikai in Japan.
" Part of the traces of our deeds that are left on our minds remains on the surface of our minds; this includes memory, knowledge, habit, intelligence, and character. Another portion of the traces remains in the subconscious, in the hidden depths of our minds.
Moreover, all the influences of the outer world by which we have been unconsciously affected, which include the experiences that we have had before our birth (indeed, since the beginning of mankind), are sunk in the subconscious mind. Karma includes all this.
Though it was simply defined as deeds, in reality karma implies the accumulation of all our experiences and deeds since the birth of mankind, and since even before that time"
Over the years, more and more people have begun to believe in the reincarnation of the soul. This belief has made the concept of karma of great interest even in non-religious and non-philosophical contexts. For instance, past life regressions by practitioners.
One of the most notable shifts over the centuries has been regarding the meanings attached to the concept of karma, and its application across different fields. As can be found in the literature (classical and modern), there have been different approaches to understanding karma. Few have interpreted it rigidly. And a few others have adopted a flexible/dynamic outlook.
A rigid approach means that one prescribes a fixed standard or core meaning of karma and leaves no room for negotiation. An rigid or uncompromising approach to karma can also mean that humans are defined as being bound to an idea of suffering based on their previous life choices/deeds. And, it would involve limiting the goodness of present life to that much of the accumulated good deeds of the past.
On the other hand, a flexible approach leaves space for innovation and dynamism in the way the concept of karma is understood and applied by persons.
Karma, as interpreted flexibly, would bind individuals to a life path with choices (occasionally also referred to as free will). This approach leaves room for persons to engage and negotiate with the accumulated karma of the past. The flexible approach can widen the scope of the concept of karma and give prime importance to human behavior, including one’s present choices, one’s feelings of penance or remorse, and one’s voluntary induced suffering and renunciation.
There appears to be no conclusive proof of which of the two approaches is supreme. In fact, “there is the diversity of karmic beliefs, in both classical and contemporary expressions” (Robert Kisala: 1994). Further, based on the diversity of views, one can say that "the concept is not a hardened fossil but a living thesis”. (Reichenbach: 1990).
In a study conducted by Kisala, the author found that people from two modern religious movements in Japan rejected the somewhat traditional image of karma and spoke of it more in light of ideas of justice and freedom. Quoting one of the respondents to Kisala’s interview;
" From the viewpoint of religion, there are times when people will say things like, “Its your karma,” but I don’t think it’s so. Just to say, “It’s your karma,” or “It’s your fate,” that’s too cruel to those people. In the case of a rich person would we say, “Ah, that’s your fate.” Or, “Your fate is that good”? It seems like the less fortunate people are always being told, “That’s your fate. You did this or that, and that’s why you suffer now.” I don’t think so. Tenrikyõ’s God—and I think Christianity’s— raises up especially those who have no power, and tries to bring them to a more level position".
Karma and Astrology
Astrology is an excellent source for understanding the concept of karma. Previously, in Dharma and Karma in Astrology, I had given an overview of how karma (and dharma) is central to understanding the fundamental principles of astrology. The following quote from the post sums it up;
"Karma is "action". In the most basic sense, it is the "action" or "activity" one undertakes to live, survive, grow, and evolve.
Dharma and karma influence the picture or design of one's life, as can be seen in the horoscope.
In one way, one may call dharma and karma the building blocks of life. The most basic of questions about the purpose of life, spirituality, suffering, failure, aimlessness, etc., are questions related to one's dharma and karma.
Astrology is a good guide to understanding one's dharma. It is also an excellent guide to properly direct one's karma/choices.
In terms of remedies, one can make attempts to harmonize the working of dharma and karma in the horoscope"
The following passage from Prasna Marga (Chapter XIII: Translation B.V. Raman) carries great weight on the subject;
"Diseases are the resultant of sins done in our past births.
The remedial measures are medicines, gifts, japas, homas and divine worship. People ascribe all sorts of causes for diseases. Evil influences of Bhutas, the effects of planetary movements and the fury of three doshas Vata, Pitta ad Kapha are perhaps these three causes. It must be noted that all these originate from one cause, viz., one’s own sins…"
Many questions on karma have been addressed in classical and modern astrology texts. Take the example of Chapters on Past Life Curses in the Brihat Parasara Hora Shastra (BPHS) and Prasna Marga. Further, one may consider the following sub-topics as also revealing astrology’s connection with karma;
- Rahu and Ketu as indicators of the past and future.
- Astrology remedies for ancestral baggage/ past life dosha.
Modern astrological literature has also expanded the scope of the concept. Modern astrology texts are also re-visiting the depth of traditional astrological texts.
Marc Boney in his book Graha Santi: Modifying Karma with Upaya traces the richness of the concept in Indian Vedic texts. (Marc Boney: 2017). He writes,
" the concept of karma, as articulated in the spiritual tradition of India, is quite intricate and complex.
It is both purposeful and significant that the word used in Jyotiṣa for the planets is grahas, a Sanskrit word whose root meaning is to seize or grasp.
If the planets can be said to “grasp” us, it should be clearly understood that they do so with our own attachments and aversions born of the residue of impressions from experiences over many lifetimes. These residual impressions, known as karma samskāras in the Vedic tradition of knowledge, are what the planetary patterns at birth indicate. Through the examination of an individual’s birth chart, a jyotiṣi assesses the quality and intensity of these karma samskāras, and what experiences they are likely to give rise to in this lifetime.
The prescriptive side of Jyotiṣa is about methods for pacifying these cosmic agents, which is another way of saying methods by which karma can be modified. This is what is meant by the phrase graha sānti, or "making peace with the planets."
It is fascinating to see the intersections that astrological texts make with the literature of other genres. Like the different fields of study, astrology can offer ways or techniques to "overcome karma" or "make peace with it." However, which doors astrology would open for any individual would also depend on how they view karma- liberating or confining?
Stay tuned for more on Karma and Astrology in 2022.
Marc Boney, Graha Santi: Modifying Karma with Upaya (2017).
Robert Kisala, Contemporary Karma: Interpretations of Karma in Tenrikyo and Rissho Koseikai, Japenese Journal of Relgious Studies (1994).
Bruce R. Reichenbach, The Law of Karma: A Philosophical Study (1990).
Prasna Marga, English Translation by BV Raman, Part I (5th Reprint, 2014).
Deepa Kansra, Dharma and Karma in Astrology, Astrology and the Occult with DK (2021) https://www.8thhouse.org/post/dharma-and-karma-in-astrology