[Published in Sraddha, February 2010]
The Truth Behind the Popular Conception
This is the general or core process of the law of karma, which is not entirely mathematical or ethical but based on the nature of the energy released in action. However there is a minor or secondary truth behind the popular conceptions of karma which equates ethics with material benefits.
The impact of our actions on the external environment may rebound upon us with material results. For example trust and goodwill generated by the ethical and charitable actions of an individual or an organization, may lead in the long-run to favourable material or financial results. And conversely loss of goodwill and trust generated by persistent unethical practices may have adverse material consequences for the organization. Modern business is beginning to realize this fact very concretely in its dealing with the customer. In our present intensely competitive business environment in which the customer has a multitude of choice, unethical practices, lead to almost immediate loss of the customer and honest and straight dealings help retain the customer. Similarly, aggressive and violently selfish actions trampling over other may induce intense antagonistic reaction in others which may one day fall upon the aggressor with disastrous material consequences. As Sri Aurobindo points out:
“It can be often observed that when a self-assertive vital egoism goes on trampling on its way without restraint or scruple all that opposes its will or desire, it raises a mass of reactions against itself; reactions of hatred, antagonism, unease in men which may have their result now or here after and still more formidable adverse reactions in universal Nature, her willingness to be used were exhausted; the very forces that the ego of the strong vital man seized and bent to its purpose rebel and turn against him, those that he had trampled on rise up and receive power for his downfall; the insolent vital force of Man strikes against the throne of Necessity and is dashed to pieces or the lame foot of Punishment reaches at last the successful offender”.
We can see this sometimes happening to aggressive civilizations, like for example the Assyrian kingdom. As the American historian Robert Burns and his co-authors describe graphically the nature of this violent military civilization:
“The Assyrians were predominantly a nation of warriors because of the special condition of their environment—The exigencies of the war determined the whole character of the Assyrian system—-The more they conquered the more they felt they have to conquer—-Every success excited ambition and riveted the chains of militarism more firmly than ever—. But swords and spears and engines of war were not their only instruments of combat. As much as anything else the Assyrians depended upon frightfulness as a means of overcoming their enemies. Upon soldiers captured in battle, and sometimes upon noncombatants as well, they inflicted unspeakable cruelties. It is clear why the Assyrians were the most hated of all the nations of antiquity.”
Commenting further, American Historians add that when a civilization takes such a violent stance “Disaster is inevitable” and describes the tragic fate of this once powerful Assyrian kingdom:
“Seldom has the decline of an empire been so complete as was that of Assyria. In spite of its magnificent armaments and its wholesale destruction of its foes, Assyria’s period of imperial splendor lasted little more than century. Nation after nation conspired against the Assyrians and finally accomplished their downfall. Their enemies took frightful vengeance. The whole land was so thoroughly sacked and the people so completely enslaved or exterminated that it has been difficult to trace any subsequent Assyrian influence upon history. The power and security which military strength was supposed to provide proved a mockery in the end.”
So a direct link or connection between ethics and material consequences can sometimes happen under certain circumstances. But such forms of simple and poetic justice do not always happen because they are not the main or the predominant process of the Law. They belong to a minor or secondary line of cause and effects. As Sri Aurobindo points out:
“But the promotion of this minor line of cause and effect to the status of an invariable and absolute law or the whole cosmic rule of action of a supreme Being is not valid; they belong to a middle region between the inmost or supreme Truth of things and the impartiality of material Nature.”
Quality of Karma
We are trying to understand the law of karma from a deeper, broader evolutionary perspective. We have discussed so far the nature and process of the law of karma. The next question we have to address is what are the factors which determine the quality of karma.
For a right understanding of this qualitative dimensions karma, we need a broader classification than the narrowly moralistic division of actions into good an bad or ethical and unethical. We may use the more qualitatively indicative words positive and negative. The actions of truth, sincerity, charity, compassion, beneficence, service, love, kindness, generosity and helpfulness are undoubtedly part of positive action. But the word positive includes also the actions of knowledge, creativity, discovery and innovation which bring something new; actions of efficiency, productivity and organization which minimize waste or help in better utilization of available resources and add to the variety and richness of life; actions of courage, strength and force which can defeat, conquer or destroy antievolutionary forces, like for example Nazism or which leads to an effective and successful handling of a challenge, crisis or danger; actions of initiative, enterprise and adaptation which leads to effective management of the changing environment or to the right utilization of opportunities; actions of implementation and execution which can give a material and vital form to a mental, moral or spiritual idea, vision and values; and finally action of self-knowledge, self-mastery or self-realization and such other activities which leads to the psychological and spiritual development of the individual or the collectivity. All these and many others which leads to the inner and outer progress of humanity are also positive karma and brings positive karmic consequences.
Similarly negative karma includes not only unethical actions like wanton and selfish violence, exploitation, dishonesty and deceit, cruelty, oppression or injustice; it also includes laziness, inertia, cowardice, unwillingness to change, stupidity, ignorance, lack of initiative, courage or quickness of mind or will in seizing opportunities. We may say in the popular language that Law of Karma “punishes” negative karma and “rewards” positive karma. But in our broader classification of the positive and negative actions, Law of Karma “punishes” not only unethical actions or “sin” but also laziness, cowardice and incompetence with material poverty, failure or even humiliation, even if the karma or the actor is a good, noble or saintly person. If goodness of the ethical man is true, sincere and disinterested he will reap the reward for his noble action in his inner being in terms of moral and spiritual development, and inner peace, happiness and fulfillment. However, if he is materially inefficient and incompetent, Nature will not reward him with material prosperity for his virtues. Similarly, we may say that Law of karma “rewards” not only virtue but also efficiency, productivity, courage, strength and competence with wealth, power and success in the outer life even if the karmi or the actor is unethical. If he is persistently unethical he will reap its negative consequences in his inner being intermes of lowering or darkening of his consciousness and the loss of inner happiness. He may not necessarily be punished with material poverty or failure for his unethical action, though, as we have already discussed, such things results may also happen. Whatever we have said here applies not only to individuals but also, to groups like nations or civilizations.
The karma of civilizations or groups are always mixed, forging positive karma in some line of activities and negative karma in other lines. Some of the positive and negative karmas may neutralize each other. And the resulting karmic balance and its consequences are too complex difficult and subtle to predict by our limited and ignorant mind. For example some of the modern western civilizations like the British Empire or America have forged positive karma for their contribution to the material, economic and technological progress of humanity, for establishing the ideal of individual liberty and democracy, and for standing against and defeating the evil of Hitler and Nazism. But they have also accumulated much negative karma in colonial exploitation, racism, destruction of native people and cultures and other dubious intervention, mechanizations and manipulations. The net karmic consequences of these mixed actions are complex and difficult to pinpoint precisely.
The British empire lost its superpower status and has become a minor power. America had accumulated a lot of positive karma in the initial stages of her evolution, by renouncing colonial ambitions, her role in the world-war, her hospitality to immigrants, for creating a society based on individual liberty and equal opportunities, and finally for her steadfast support to the independence struggle of other nations, especially India. All these positive karmas have catapulted America into a superpower. Sometimes a sincere and persistent support to a moral or spiritual cause brings great karmic rewards. So America’s support for the freedom of India which stands for the spiritual ideal might have brought her immense karmic benefits. But America has accumulated much negative Karma after she became the superpower, by her later and present actions like for example her questionable and blood-stained interventions in Vietnam and Iraq and the nefarious activities of her intelligence agencies in smaller countries.
Let us take another example: ancient India. Indian civilization, which was, and has to become, the spiritual guru of the world, has gained immense positive karma by creating, spreading and establishing some great moral and spiritual ideals and sciences (like yoga) which are essential for realizing the ultimate evolutionary fulfillment of humanity. But she has aloes burdened herself with much negative karma by allowing some of her great ideals to degenerate into the caste system and the way she treated her low caste shudhras. Just like steadfast support to some high moral and spiritual ideals brings great karmic benefits, display of ignorance and injustice in a civilization which was entrusted with the task of upholding the highest spiritual values calls down severe karmic retribution. This was possibly one of the karmic causes behind the Islamic invasion of India which was described by Will Durant as one of he bloodiest in history. We can see here more than poetic justice in the way marauding Islamic invaders treated the Indian Brahmins who created the caste system and perpetrated the injustice and oppression of the low-caste shudra. To the medieval Indian Brahmin, the Islamic invaders was equivalent to Shudra. But when the Islamic invaders rode over medieval India, the Brahmins are their first target and the worst victim. The Islamic invaders treated the Brahmins with a much greater contempt and brutality than the way Brahmins treated the Shudras.
In a general way we may say the quality of an action depends on how much or to what extent it is in harmony with the higher laws, aims and values of life. And the highest and the most fundamental law of life is the Law of Unity.