Doctrine of Karma by Swami Abhedananda



A careful study of nature reveals to us that the phenomena of the world are linked together in the universal chain of cause and effect. No event can occur without having a definite cause behind it. Whatever we see, hear or perceive with our senses is but the effect of some cause whether known or unknown.

To trace the causes of events and to become familiar with the conditions under which an effect is produced have always been the aim of the various branches of science and philosophy.

All science and all philosophies of the world unanimously declare that the law of cause and effect is the most universal of all laws. It is the one law which governs all phenomena however gross or fine they may be.

All the forces of nature whether physical or mental obey this law and can never transcend it. From the vibrations of electrons to the revolution of the earth round the sun, from the falling of an apple on the ground to the raising of an arm by the will-power, every event is the effect of some invisible force working in harmony with the law of causation.

Similarly, every action of our body or mind is the result of some force or power which is its cause; but at the same time that which is the effect of some cause becomes in turn the cause of some grosser result, and that again produces some other still grosser effect, and that again a finer one, and so on and on the chain of cause and effect continues to spread without stop­ping anywhere, without coming to an abso­lute end.

For instance, a murderer shoots the Austrian Archduke and drives a bullet into his body and the Archduke dies of blood-poisoning. Here, shooting is an action which is the effect of the mental and physi­cal activities of the murderer. But the same action is again the cause of driving the bullet in the Archduke’s body; this is the cause of the wound, which brings fever and other organic disorder, which results in his death. The death of the Archduke causes his wife to become a widow, which produces changes in her life and in her whole family. The effect of this single act of murder did not stop here. It brought on the European war and caused destruction of life and property of millions and affected the whole world. It is needless to describe the horrors of the First World War. The German Emperor lost his throne and empire. The Czar was assassinated. People are still reaping the effects of this war which will last for gene­rations to come.

Furthermore, it reacted upon the murderer, brought to him incalculable misery and untimely death. It left an impression upon his mind which he carried with him and perhaps his suffer­ing will continue even after his death in another life.

Thus, we can see how one event can be both a cause and an effect at the same time, and how it can affect the whole world pro­ducing various kinds of effects on the plane of the living as also on that of the dead.

From this endless chain of cause and effect we can neither separate one single link nor call it useless or unnecessary. In the same manner, it can be shown that every action however minute or trivial it may appear to us, being conditioned by the universal law of causation, produces different effects visible and invisible and affects the whole world of phenomena either directly or indirectly.

No action can escape this law, that every cause must be followed by an effect, that every action is bound to react upon the actor with similar force and effect.

This universal law of causation is called in Sanskrit the law of Karma . The word Karma is now almost naturalized into English. It comes from the root Kri to act and means action, or deed. Any action, physical or mental is called Karma ; and as every action is bound to produce its re­action or result it is also Karma .

Moreover, secondarily as an action is both a cause and an effect at the same time, the word Karma includes both the cause and the effect. In this universal sense, motion, attraction, gravitation, repulsion, moving, walking, talk­ing, seeing, hearing, thinking, willing and desiring nay, all the actions of body, mind and senses are all Karma . They produce results being governed by the irresistible law of causation.

Under the sway of this all-pervading law of Karma , there is no room left for a chance or accident. What we call happening by chance or accidental is in reality the product of some definite causes which we may not know or cannot trace on account of our limited knowledge.

The causes might be on the moral or spiritual planes, but we seek only on the physical plane. In ancient times when the range of the known causes was extremely limited, the uncultured people used to explain the accidental event or events produced by unknown causes, by attributing them to some supernatural powers or agencies. Even today there are many who believe in accidents.

Gradually, when all the supernatural powers were unified into one personal God the effects of unknown causes were called Providential. But in reality all accidents have natural causes whether we know them or not.

That which appears to be supernatural or Pro­vidential to an unscientific mind, is natural to a scientist or a philosopher whose concep­tion of nature is larger and more universal. Therefore, all chance-events or so-called accidental occurrences are just as much governed by the law of causation or Karma as any ordinary result of some known cause.

The results of the various causes of nature can be classified as good , evil and mixed . That which fulfils our interest and is beneficial to us under certain conditions is called good ; and that which injures us in any way, is called evil . The mixed results are those which are partly beneficial or help­ful and partly injurious.

These three kinds of results determine the nature of actions or causes. If the result is good or, in other words, if we see any action producing an effect which is either beneficial to oneself or to one’s neighbours physically, morally or spiritually without injuring any living creature mentally or physically or in any other manner, it is called good ;

while that action is evil which destroys the interest of oneself or of one’s neighbours and brings suffering, sorrow, misery, to the individual worker or to other members of the society.

The mixed results are those which serve the interest of some, bringing happiness to one or many, but at the same time they produce evil in some other quarters. In short, action which produce good at the expense of the interest or rights of others, are called the causes of mixed results.

In this world of relativity within the limitations of time and space, it is impossible to find any action which is absolutely good or which produces a result that creates no discord or disharmony in any shape or manner in any part of the world.

—Works are followed by their defects and demerits just as the fire is enveloped with smokes.

Bhagavad Gītā, Chap. XVIII, 48.

It is impossible to find any work producing absolute evil effect, without causing some kind of good somewhere. Ordinarily, in judging a result when we see the preponderance of good over evil, we call it good and where evil predominate we say, that action is evil , wrong or sinful.

Wherever there is perfect harmony, peace, tranquillity or happiness there is the result of good acts, and wherever discord, disease, suffering, pain, misery, injury, unhappiness prevail, there is to be found the violation of the laws of health, of life as well as of the moral laws, consequently, there is evil .