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Is the Doctrine of Karma a Truth or Belief?

Reading Time: 7 minutes

The doctrine of karma is not a truth taught by Vedanta; instead, it’s a belief. The difference between beliefs and truths is that the former is neither true nor false. If beliefs were true, they would be truths instead of beliefs. This understanding of beliefs makes the doctrine of karma neither true nor false. A belief can be helpful, unhelpful, or even harmful. Both the doctrine of karma and reincarnation are helpful beliefs.

How Does Our Essence Differ From Ishvara’s?

जन्म कर्म च मे दिव्यमेवं यो वेत्ति तत्त्वत: |

त्यक्त्वा देहं पुनर्जन्म नैति मामेति सोऽर्जुन || 4.9||

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 4, Verse 9

Those who understand the divine nature of My birth and activities, O Arjun, upon leaving the body, do not have to take birth again, but come to My eternal abode.

Bhagvad Gita Chapter 4, Verse 9 (English Translation)

Your fundamental and essential nature is pure consciousness. We inquire into our own truth in the same way we inquire into the truth of Shri Krishna as an avatara. The essence of which you exist is atma, and the essence of which Ishvara exists is Brahma. And the Mahavakya reveals the identity of those two.

By discovering the reality because of which Ishvara exists, one becomes enlightened. When you understand Ishvara’s existence, you know the truth of everything’s existence, including the universe, stars, and planets. One who discovers this fundamental reality becomes liberated and gains moksha.

What is the First Step to the Path of Spiritual Growth?

वीतरागभयक्रोधा मन्मया मामुपाश्रिता: |

बहवो ज्ञानतपसा पूता मद्भावमागता: || 4.10||

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 4, Verse 10

Free from desire, fear and anger, absorbed in Me, resorting to Me, by the fire of knowledge purified, they all reach My state.

Bhagvad Gita Chapter 4, Verse 10 (English Translation)

The first step in a life of spiritual growth is to break free from the compulsion of raga/dvesha. Raga and dvesha are primary impediments to enlightenment. As long as these compulsions drag you about, you will be caught up in worldly activities and you won’t be able to make progress in a life of spiritual growth. The teachings of karma yoga are specifically intended to free you from that compulsiveness of raga/dvesha and to help you break free from these main impediments to enlightenment. Those who seek the absolute, fundamental reality because of which Ishvara exists then become non-separate from Ishvara.

What is the Difference Between Form and Reality?

To understand how we become non-separate from Ishvara, we must first understand the fundamental relationship between form and reality as in the Vedanta. For example, imagine a pot is the form and reality is the clay. A pot is merely a form, whereas the clay with which that pot is made is the underlying substance, the fundamental reality. We can analyze anything in terms of form and underlying reality. We can also apply this analysis to understand Ishvara and Jiva (an individual conscious being).

Every one of us has an individual form (a body). Similarly, Shri Krishna is a form of Ishvara. Since Ishvara is a universal being, the entire universe is Ishvara’s underlying reality. While we have limited bodies, Ishvara has a limitless physical body. A Vedantic perspective presents the whole universe, including the cosmos, planets, and stars, as Ishvara’s physical body. And the intelligence that pervades the universe is Ishvara’s mind. 

Just as a pot is a form that exists as clay, there must be an underlying reality for which Ishvara’s cosmic form exists. The name of that reality is Brahma. We describe Brahma as pure existence, pure knowledge without limit. Brahma is the reality because of which the entire cosmos exists.

On the other hand, as Jivas, we have individual forms as bodies. Within this individual body is Sukshma sarira consisting of life force, our powers of action, and senses. All of these traits collectively constitute our original form. Our individual forms exist in a fundamental reality defined as atma. We define atma as consciousness and presence. With the teachings of Vedanta, we come to understand the extraordinary nature of that consciousness. That consciousness is boundless and pervading the cosmos. 
Where Brahma is tat, atma is tvam. This is the ultimate teaching of Advaita Vedanta. Brahma, the reality of which because Ishvara’s form exists, is the same as our essential nature of atma. The reality because of which Ishvara exists, the reality because which the cosmos exist, and the reality because which we exist, all cannot be different realities. The fundamental reality has to be one. So by understanding the reality of Brahma, you are led to understand the reality from which Ishvara exists and from which we exist are one and the same. Whether you call it Brahma or atma, the one fundamental reality remains as one.

What Does it Mean to Reach the State of Ishvara?

To reach the state of Ishvara means to realize the reality because of which Ishvara exists is not different from the reality because of which you exist. The recognition that the truth of you is identical to the truth of Ishvara is what it means to reach his state. Those who understand the reality of our existence and Ishvara’s as one become enlightened. They become purified by the practice of the pursuit of knowledge.

The Vedantic perspective points to the fundamental impurity or the fundamental problem that leads to suffering. The fundamental problem that makes you suffer is failure to recognize your true nature. The fundamental root cause is ignorance, an ignorance of reality. The ignorance of reality is a fundamental impurity. How will you remove that impurity of ignorance? Ignorance is removed by knowledge. And ignorance of reality is removed by knowledge of reality. 

How Do We Become Purified to Reach Ishvara?

ये यथा मां प्रपद्यन्ते तांस्तथैव भजाम्यहम् |

मम वर्त्मानुवर्तन्ते मनुष्या: पार्थ सर्वश: || 4.11||

काङ् क्षन्त: कर्मणां सिद्धिं यजन्त इह देवता: |

क्षिप्रं हि मानुषे लोके सिद्धिर्भवति कर्मजा || 4.12||

Bhagavad Gita Chapter 4, Verse 11 and 12

In whatever way people surrender unto Me, I reciprocate accordingly. Everyone follows My path, knowingly or unknowingly, O son of Pritha.

In this world, those desiring success in material activities worship the celestial gods, since material rewards manifest quickly.

Bhagvad Gita Chapter 4, Verse 11 and 12 (English Translation)

Those who become purified through knowledge reach Ishvara. However, most people are not pursuing purification through knowledge. Instead, most people in the world seek raga/dvesha. They chase success by mean of action in order to get what they want. These efforts can include more than going to work. For example, much of the focus was on rituals in ancient times, particularly Vedic rituals. They would worship the different Gods and deities for the sake of worldly success. 

To this day, prayer and worship can and are frequently used for materialistic reasons or spiritual materialism. This means that prayer and worship are other means of accomplishing your goals to gain success and invoke God’s grace to get what you want and avoid what you don’t want. 

For example, Indra was a powerful deity personified as thunder, lightning, and rain. Such a God represented the power of nature. In modern times, we understand the powers of nature very well in a scientific manner. Today, those who desire success through worldly efforts do not worship the deities; but instead, they employ science principles. This is a parallel concept: whereas in ancient times, they were worshipping the deities, in modern times, we manipulate the laws of nature through scientific understanding. In both cases, it is for the same goal: worldly success.  

Shri Krishna does not criticize these methods. There is nothing wrong with seeking happiness in life and avoiding tragedies. However, the efforts and outcomes are limited. Through rituals or worldly efforts (both are karma), we can quickly employ scientific knowledge to gain worldly success. There is nothing wrong with this. The problem is that if this is all you seek, you are missing something.

How Do We Receive Ishvara’s Blessings?

Those who employ karma yoga to seek Ishvara instead of worldly success receive blessings. If you practice karma yoga, you are blessed accordingly. Karma yoga frees you from raga and dvesha. If you are practicing karma yoga on a path to spiritual growth, Ishvara blesses you by freeing you gradually from raga and dvesha.

If that devotion is the focal point of your spiritual practice, you are blessed with inner peace and a sense of closeness with Ishvara. Suppose you practice meditation. If you practice meditation on your path to spiritual growth, Ishvara will bless you accordingly. Similarly, suppose you are pursuing Ishvara by pursuing knowledge. In that case, Ishvara blesses you accordingly. To be blessed accordingly means to be blessed with the recognition that Brahma is reality because of which Ishvara exists and atma is the reality of which you exist.
Ishvara blesses all those who pursue him by any means, whether it be through karma yoga, bhakti, dhyana, or jnana.

What the Gita Teaches Us

Our bodies are our physical form, while our true essence is atma. Shri Krishna is a physical form of Ishvara, while Ishvara’s true essence is Brahma. Since Ishvara is an all-pervading, universal being, we are all interconnected. This means that both atma (our essence) and Brahma (Ishvara’s essence) are the same. We attain enlightenment through the recognition that we are non-separate from Brahma. To move forward on our path of spiritual growth to reach liberation, we can practice karma yoga, bhakti, dhyana, or jnana. The method we choose is not important as long as we are sincere in our efforts of seeking Ishvara.