Karma, the Law of Causality

Dharma, karma and punarjanma: the triad laws of righteousness, causality and reincarnation form the central tenets of Sanatana Dharma. Of the three, karma has received much focus among Hindus over the millennia for it has been used (and abused) to justify the human condition. Based on the Hindu understanding of karma, all of ones experiences past, present or future are shaped by our own karmic matter.

The poor are practically ascetics and would renounce if only karma,
approaching with experiences yet to be, would pass them by. -------- Tirukural 378

Misunderstanding of the theory of karma, as revealed by Hindus of yore, has lead many Hindus to assume fatalistic positions, and many-a-times the theory of karma has also been utilized to justify the ill treatment of the underprivileged and disadvantaged sections of society. The argument that lack of certain privileges (especially spiritual) for some is karmically justified is a recurring theme in orthodox Hindu society. Navya Shastra's discussions outlined below attempt to put into perspective this misunderstanding of karma, which has been used by some members of Hindu society to rationalize their hierarchical and casteist views.

The truth about karma (action) must be known and the truth of akarma (inaction) must be known;
even the truth about vikarma (prohibited action) must be known.
For mysterious are the ways of karma.
Bhagavad Gita 4:17

The points of view summarized below stem from the discussion as to why present-day Hindu dharmacharyas (spiritual leaders) have not actively condemned atrocities being committed by some Hindus in the name of ritualistic purity and casteist prejudice. Furthermore, this discussion explores the theory of karma from both the practical and spiritual standpoints.


Unfortunately, very few Hindu leaders have spoken out against the evil of caste prejudice and the subsequent violence caused. Over the years, I have spoken with several highly intelligent and very respected Hindu leaders about Harijans and about the issue of caste. While some lamented to me the present situation and the inherent inequality, a few have privately said that I need to remember that Harijans were born into their caste because of past karma and that, essentially, they need to work off the karma of such a birth. The obvious implication is that their position at the bottom is warranted. Such attitudes continue to hurt us all, and until our "gurus" speak out from their hearts and denounce the atrocities and the prejudice [] the percentage of Hindus will continue to decline, and we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

Prof. Ramdas Lamb (16 Oct 2003)

I agree, Ramdas. Such issues cannot be dismissed by being labeled as political and social. These go to the very heart of the concerns of religion and what it means to be religious. If religious leaders cannot define that meaning for us from reasons of fear, this is deeply troubling. Taittiriya Upanishad (Chapter 110) speaks eloquently on the responsibilities and
character of the religious teacher.

Prof. Anantanand Rambachan (16 Oct 2003)

Ramdas-ji wrote about the Dharmacharyas who said Harijans are where they are due to past karma. If they imply by that that others are not to help them in anyway, I am sure the same karma will come back to haunt them with vengeance. The same applies to people who are passing instant judgements on the Dharmacharyas too. Of course these mean nothing if you believe karma is just a theory.

Dr. V. P. "Mani" Subramanian (16 Oct 2003)

The implication I got from the religious leaders I mentioned was that Harijans deserve the situation they face, somewhat like individuals in jail for crimes they committed. I cannot equate someone in prison for a crime committed and someone born in a Harijan family. Obviously, we can not know why individuals are born into the situations they face, but we can work to create social and religious equality for all out brothers and sisters. Is that not what [Navya Shastra] is all about? As for judging Dharmacharyas who will not speak out against injustice, I have seen far too much injustice perpetrated against Harijans over the last three decades of working with them to have much patience with or respect for religious leaders, who are unwilling to stand up on this issue....and I am willing to accept the karma of that impatience.

Prof. Ramdas Lamb (16 Oct 2003)


It is important to realize, however, that such crimes arise from the unwritten doctrinal conviction that Dalit Hindus are unclean and impure, and therefore unworthy of coming to the vicinity of the spiritually cleaner upper-castes, let alone enter sanctified places of worship. It is this doctrine that has permitted the continuation of this spiritual apartheid in the Hindu world, which is more shameful and dehumanizing than the exclusionary racism that is often practiced against people of a different race or religion.

Prof. V. V. Raman (17 Oct 2003)

Yes, this is according to karmic theory. People go to jail for the karma in the present life but are placed in different stations at birth due to past, unspent karma. If you don't believe this, you are questioning the fundamental tenet of Hinduism.

Of course, we want to help in anyway we can. Not to help will incur sin for yourself as per the same karmic theory.

Dr. V. P. "Mani" Subramanian (18 Oct 2003)

It is my understanding that the karmic theory is to be interpreted to explain our own misfortunes. It is never to be interpreted to explain someone else's. It is a way to console, not to condemn. Besides, by not adequately cognizant of that, we accrue negative karma ourselves. Today's Bali (the one Vamana cheated to the netherworld) is tomorrow's Indra.

People in religious authority are the ones who need to condemn, in no unequivocal terms, the ill treatment meted out by the Harijans.

I believe in the karmic theory to the extent that my misfortunes and ill-fates are of my own doing. I have no business to use that as an excuse to explain away others' problems. But, it could be one way to console them in times of need.

Dharmacharyas, if they are unequivocal in their condemnation of the type of atrocities done, if they are unequivocal in explaining the karmic theory to explain man's miseries and not to condemn them, the press will hear that.

Dr. P. K. Nair (18 Oct 2003)

[Karma] Theory that works only for oneself and not to others occurs only in dream state. In wakeful states theories are supposed to work uniformly for everybody.

Dr. V. P. "Mani" Subramanian (18 Oct 2003)

Karma as the curse of being born a low-caste Hindu!

1. Mr. Mani brings out what he regards as an inner contradiction between the Hindu doctrine of karma and what social reformers are clamoring for. According to the karma doctrine, argues Mr. Mani and some others, Dalits are in that dehumanized condition because of their heinous actions in previous janmas. So we may pity them but we cannot blame the upper castes for treating them this way.

This is because by demanding the abolition of caste and the discriminatory system, we are trying to erase the consequences of the sins these people committed in their previous births which is what caused them to be born in those castes. This is neither possible nor proper.

2. With due respects to Mr. Mani whose heart, I know, is in the right place, I find this to be an interesting (but not very new) argument for the perpetuation of an anachronistic social, moral, and spiritual outrage.

3. I would answer this apparently reasonable argument by saying two things:

(a) The goal of the law of karma in the Hindu tradition was to account for the uneven distribution of good and ill fortunes among members of the human family, and not to justify social injustices. At least, (I like to think that) that was not the intent of the original rishis who spoke about it. In my view, it is a dangerous and very hurtful interpretation of our tradition if we use the karma doctrine to explain away or rationalize the system of marginalizing large sections of our own brothers and sisters. This system must strike all people of conscience as not only unacceptable, but evil at its core. Personally I would rather throw away the law of karma to the winds than defend the practice of prohibiting Dalits from entering our temples on its basis.

(b) But I don't have to do that. Even within the framework of the law of karma, one could argue that unlike Harijans of previous generations, the present ones had not committed such grievous sins that they are going to be marginalized for the rest of their lives. Because of some of the good actions they did in previous births, the world is now fast changing, and before we know it, either the Dalits will hold sway in the Hindu world, or they would all have become Buddhists, Christians or whatever so that they are no longer shot for entering the place of worship of their own religion.

(c) Whatever be anyone's karma, we all have to do what we regard as our dharma: which is, first and foremost, to treat all human beings, and our fellow Hindus most of all, as worthy of our respect and love.

Prof. V. V. Raman (18 Oct 2003)

The major problem in accepting a commonly held concept that the level of one's caste is the consequence of one's karma, i.e. the better the karma the higher the caste, is that one's caste says NOTHING whatsoever about the level of one's spiritual knowledge or attainment. After all, in the Ramayana, Ravana was a Brahmin and Shabari was a low caste (or tribal, depending on interpretation) woman. [] Yet, is this not the illusion, in reverse, that many Hindus have long lived in?

Prof. Ramdas Lamb (18 Oct 2003)

This is the eternal ontological question repeated again and again everywhere. So we should not tire to hear the answer again and again. Here is my version:

Sri Krishna says He created varna or caste according to the quality of work (karma or action) which is of three types (sattva, raja, tama). Therefore it is naturally present in human society all over the material world and universe. (Bhagavad Gita 14:13)

Because varna is based on quality of work, if one wants to change varna one has to only change one's quality of work through proper education, discipline and training.

In the material world everyone is conditioned by the three modes of material nature. Therefore everyone has a varna. (Bhagavad Gita 14:5)

However, the goal of life is to transcend these material modes and varnas altogether.

"With sword in hand, the intelligent cut through the binding knots of reactionary work (karma) by remembering the Personality of Godhead. Therefore, who will not pay attention to His message?" (Srimad Bhagavatam 1.2.15)

Sri Harinam (19 Oct 2003)

Unfortunately, far too many [Hindus] ignore such an approach and continue to think karma and caste of birth run hierarchically parallel. While I strongly believe in the law of karma, I do not believe that caste reveals anything absolute about one's karma.

In short, I have come to believe, based both on experience and the teachings of my gurus, that we are born into the situation where our needs and/or our desires place us. As we grow spiritually, it is the influence of those needs that outweigh the role of desires. Thus, until we take our spiritual progress truly seriously, our rebirths may be more likely be to fulfill worldly desires, such as for physical beauty, material wealth, political power, or even high social or caste status. After all, for many, power truly does corrupt. Thus, I do not think of people in these positions as necessarily spiritually advanced individuals, although I know that some truly are, such as many of our gurujan as well as various members of [Navya Shastra]. On the other hand, as our souls progress on the path to enlightenment, then the role of our spiritual needs becomes more predominant with respect to our rebirths. Consequently, we will tend toward birth situations in which we can more readily learn and practice humility, compassion, simplicity, non-attachment, truth, and non-violence. Thus, generally speaking, I tend to see people in positions of power who use that power for self-perpetuation as not being very far along the path of spiritual advancement, while I look at those whose lives center on the practice of the virtues mentioned above as, generally speaking, farther along the path. Consequently, one's caste of birth, just like one's race, ethnicity, or gender, tells me nothing ultimately about the quality of one's soul. Moreover, as you wrote, "the goal of life is to transcend these material modes and varnas altogether." I could not agree more.

Prof. Ramdas Lamb (19 Oct 2003)

1. Persons born in any Varna and Jaathi can be affected by past karmas in this birth or future birth or their progeny can be affected. That is the Hindu belief, so every book explains that persons should avoid Nishkala Karma and follow Nishkaama Karmas. BUT - for every action there is always a solution. Let us tell this pandits who live on this Karma Theory, that the basic education, a Namakarana ceremony, Prayaschittham and a holy bath after the special Karma Ritual will wash-away 7 generations of Karma of his own soul and also for his ancestors. After all, this is what we do in Sraddha Ceremony. If it works there, it should work everywhere.

2. When we refer to various theories quoted, I request not to get mixed up with words of Varna and Jaathi or Caste. Many posts quoted about caste actually are, I am sure, referring to Varna. Caste is a non-Vedic term and tradition. No one is born in a Varna according to the Caste of birth. Varna is decided by karma which actually refer to ones education and current action. Janmana refers to in-born qualities and NOT birth in a family.

Dr. Bala N. Aiyer (19 Oct 2003)

[] let us assume the current birth has nothing to do with past life. That basically wipes out karmic theory. With it goes reincarnation.

In my opinion, karmic theory does not mean all people with good karma
are born as Brahmins and all with bad karma end as Sudras. I never said that and if you assume that, that is your problem. There are many born as Brahmins who end up with a miserable existence (Probably from previous bad karma) while many from other varnas did very well (Probably from previous good karma). Look, it was a Kshathriya who ended up conversing [with] the Lord and not Drona, a Brahmin.

I certainly hope that people will not use tenets of Hindu religion for personal agenda of anybody whether by people who want to suppress the Harijans or who want to help them.

Dr. V. P. "Mani" Subramanian (20 Oct 2003)

Many ancient seers did believe that one evolved and worked out one's karma through castes/classes. In other words, caste/varna could be interpreted as a marker of good karma/righteous conduct. The reward for good conduct would be birth in the next higher caste; the punishment for misconduct was birth in the caste below the current one.

For egregious transgressions, one might be born a candala, a paulkasa or a vaina. Many believe this today.

Sri Vikram Masson (20 Oct 2003)

Even if [one is to] believe that bad karma leads to lower birth, [performance of] prayachittham - Nitya karma or religious ritual and prayers to the Paramatma will wash of the sins and so, go ahead and perform a thousand prayachittham yagna and namkaranam for [Harijans] and you have a thousand Dwijas.

Dr. Bala N. Aiyer (20 Oct 2003)

If there is a relationship between karma and rebirth into a caste (Varna) it applies only to the real Varna and not to the fake varna (i.e. the one claimed by community of birth).

If a person's karma has to steer him to a spiritually nourishing family in the next birth, he will be born into a family environment that is truly "Brahminic" and not for e.g. into a Birth based Brahmin family that may primarily be addicted towards collection of material wealth only.

One must also remember that people of the 4 Varna types exist in all communities and creeds even those which do not formal append these Varna labels to there communities. So what is the "Varna assignment" for people being born in these communities?

Hence it is clear that the reference to karma and future Varna can only be interpreted with respect to the real Varna only and not to the Varna claimed by the community.

Sri Rahul Saxena (21 Oct 2003)

Compiled and edited by Gautham Rao.