Quoting from S.N. Sastri’s Terms and Concepts in Vedanta:
“The word ‘karma’ is used in two different senses in vedAnta:
(1) the results of actions performed, in the form of merit and demerit (puNya and pApa), which produce their effects later on, usually in another birth, and
(2) the action itself, whether secular or religious.”
After reading Swami Narayana Muni Prasad’s superb booklet “Karma and Reincarnation” I would like to point to a third sense in which the word karma can and needs to be understood, especially for advanced students of Advaita.
At some point every seeker comes across the concept of karma in this sense. If he follows Western Advaita he may dismiss the concept as something altogether irrelevant or, if he is not yet an advaitin, he may subscribe to the Western version of karma as an assignment for this lifetime (see http://advaita-academy.org/blogs/Sitara.ashx?Y=2011&M=June) which, if successfully absolved, will produce the kind of life that everyone is wishing for: safe, pleasant and ethical.
Followers of traditional Advaita Vedanta will learn what S.N. Sastriji describes like this:
“Karma, in the sense of results of actions performed, is divided into three categories:
(1) saMchita karma—the accumulated results of actions performed in past births,
(2) prArabdha karma– those results of past actions which have given rise to the present body and
(3) AgAmi karma—the results of actions performed in the present birth.
On the dawn of Self-knowledge the first category is completely destroyed along with the third category acquired up to the time of attainment of knowledge. After the dawn of Self-knowledge any action performed does not produce any result in the form of merit or demerit. The second category is not destroyed on the attainment of Self-knowledge, but has to be exhausted only by being actually experienced. On the exhaustion of this category of karma the body of the enlightened person falls and the jIvanmukta becomes a videhamukta.”
This concept of karma can help a person to mature and eventually become a karma yogi. How? In the beginning of the spiritual search we cannot even assume an attitude of karma yoga (see below). Instead the religious person is mostly occupied with finding practical solutions for his life – not anymore on his own accord but now with the help of supernatural powers. His main questions revolve around “how to …?” Even though he may talk of heaven, calling it moksha, he does not have a Vedantic concept of moksha yet. The beginner basically seeks to fulfil the first three puruShArtha-s, artha, kAma and dharma, i.e. he would like to feel safe and happy in this world and go through his life with a clear conscience. Religion is his means to fulfil these needs.
From the standpoint of Vedanta this attitude is childish. The person is the helpless victim of his own whims and foibles and keeps turning to the gods to get him out of the mess he finds himself in. The above concept of karma helps him to take responsibility for what he does and for what befalls him. Thus it lifts him out of dependency on the gods to the understanding that it is up to himself to improve his life. Gaining an understanding of the law of karma he will automatically mature. He will get a broader understanding of his own life in a broader context.
In this way he becomes ready for karma yoga.
To be able to be called karma yoga, actions must meet the following three requirements:
1. No matter what action is performed, the karma yogi takes the following decisive stance: I do what I can do and know that the result of my action does not lie in my hands. This means that ‘although I stand behind my actions I am not identified with them’.
For this Vedanta inevitably includes god. God is nothing but the totality of all natural law and order and their seamless interlocking. It is called Ishvara. Karma yoga means: I act in the best of my knowledge and leave the result to Ishvara.
This attitude has been adopted already if the person understood karma as puNya and pApa. Acting in the best of one’s knowledge in practical terms also includes the next requirement:
2. Ethical action – ethics following a relatively simple basic pattern: I act decisively, as I would like to be treated, and I do not act in a way that I myself would not like to be treated. This basic pattern is called dharma, and dharma is considered to be universal. As nobody likes to be hurt, one should for example take care not to hurt anybody. As nobody likes to be cheated, one should not cheat anyone etc. Of course, in particular cases, one must consider the cultural, social and individual context, but with this rule of thumb one can go quite far.
So points 1 and 2, to a degree, are already at the seekers disposal.
Now another requirement can be added:
3. The ultimate goal of everything one does is moksha, not artha, not kAma and not even dharma.
In the course of gaining an understanding of what moksha really means and slowly turning into a true karma yogi the seeker will start to understand that action, no matter whether secular or religious, is not going to take him to his goal, moksha. He will more and more understand that the goal is not away from him the seeker. Nothing needs to be done, except for the removal of the wrong notion of reality. Let me repeat what I quoted a few days ago:
S.N Sastri: “If a thorn has actually pierced the skin of a person, the pain caused can be removed only by the action of removing the thorn. But if one’s suffering is due to having mistaken a rope for a snake, that suffering can be removed only by the knowledge that there is only a rope and not a snake and not by any action. So also, bondage, which is only due to wrongly considering oneself as the body, mind and organs, can be eradicated only by the realization that one is the Self which is beyond all suffering.”
With this understanding the karma yogi is finally ready for j~nAna yoga, i.e. for the study of Upanishads and serious enquiry into the non-dual nature of jiva, jagat and Ishvara. In the course of this study and enquiry he will come to understand the ultimate, utterly impersonal, meaning of karma. But, mind you: at the preliminary stages he would not be able to benefit from this perspective.
Swami Narayana Muni Prasad sums it up beautifully:
“Karma belongs to the Reality. We have to see the very same karma as appearing in the form of all our activities and functions. As far as man is concerned these functions could take place volitionally or spontaneously as natural functions. In either case, the ability of an individual to function or to act in a particular way is neither decided nor dictated by him. Nor is it created by him. It is the total nature that functions in the form of the particular individual with personal characteristics and free will. Everything done by him thus has to be understood as part of the total karma of the total nature of Reality. The individual who has this understanding would not then have any sense of agency (kartritva) in what he does. He will be fully aware that he is doing all these as part of the total flow of karma.”
So to the unprepared one the story of acquisition of puNya-pApa is taught in order to turn him into a karma yogi. As a karma yogi and while studying Vedanta the seeker will still benefit from the idea of karma as puNya-pApa. But in the course of deepening his understanding this theory may be replaced by the deeper truth of karma as Reality.