Karma: A definition and a deconstruction

“An object which is sought to be reached by an agent through a kriya is what is meant by karma.”

– V. T. Tirunarayana Iyengar.

Examining the individual components of the scholarly interpretation, we can see that karma involves:

an object or goal,

an agent or actor who is seeking to reach the goal,

a process that is undertaken to try and reach the goal, and

kriya or performance of acts intended to facilitate the process of reaching the goal.

Attainment of the object or goal is the purpose that motivates the kriya or act.  Every act, therefore, is expected to be done with an aim to further the process of attaining the goal.  An unstated, underlying clause appears to be: Moments lost in acts that detract from this purposeful journey impact the extent of success in the quest.

However, it is important to note that the goal is sought to be reached. The emphasis, therefore, is on the performance of the act and not on the outcome per se.  Implicit in this interpretation is the awareness that while one has the capacity to engage in action, the outcome may be impacted by external factors.  These factors could include personal limitations, limitations of the environment in which the action takes place, and other factors that are not feasible to fathom out for a variety of reasons. However, read in conjunction with the explanation of kriya, it is clear that there is a certain emphasis, expectation even, on the manner of acting.

The object is sought to be reached by an agent.

Digressing a bit here, and interpreting the definition in a way that was probably not intended, I want to ask: Is it possible that the rule called varna-ashrama dharma could have been originally intended to make it possible for actors to frame meaningful goals, which, in turn might fall under the broad classification of purushartha-s, namely dharma, artha, kama and moksha? In any case, the varna-ashrama  rule could be applied to contemporary times by understanding it to mean that at any point of time an individual should balance the demands of their vocation in accordance with their stage of life.  For, when setting the goals and doing the kriya or actions intended to achieve the goals, is it not simply common sense to want to think in terms of our natural proclivities/ acquired vocation (varna) and our stage of life (ashrama)?

Getting back to the definition, it seems that karma, in philosophy, is a concept which is concerned with the ends, and the means employed to attain these ends.  Whereas, in common parlance, karma is a theory that tries to explain results proactively and retrospectively.  For, karma in common parlance is used to convey ‘payback’ which may be understood to mean:

a) benefits and costs arising from individual acts of body and mind impact our state of being; and

b) the accumulation of benefits and costs of past acts impact the outcomes of ongoing and future acts.

How can this commonsensical understanding of karma be reconciled with the scholarly interpretation?  Reconciliation, I believe, would motivate individuals to positive action to attain their goals rather than allow them to wallow in passive acceptance of status quo.  At the same time, the emphasis would be on sincerity of purpose rather than success of an endeavour, making the agent and their actions central rather than results that are impossible to predict or control.

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