Karma, JnAna and moksha- Part 1

Veda exhorts that moksha, i.e., liberation from the cycles of birth and death is the ultimate goal of a human being. A person escapes rebirth when his karmic (samskAr) account is nil at the time of death. Advaita Vedanta claims that with the rise of Self-knowledge (Brahman-knowledge, Self is Brahman) samskArs become nil when the body is dropped thereby putting a stop to re-birth. Roles of action and knowledge are at the core of any discussion on liberation. The main source of what follows now onwards is the class notes of lectures by SwAmi ParmArthAnanda on Naishkrama Siddhi (in short, NS) of SureswaryAchArya (in short, the Acharya) available on the website of Arsha Avinash Foundation. There are occasional references from the translation of NS by A J Alston [second edition 1971].
2 Three schools
In Updesa Sahasri (Chapter 1 of Part II) ShankarAchArya emphasizes that JnAn, independent of karma, leads to moksha. In the first chapter of NS, the AchArya undertakes a project to establish that knowledge alone is responsible for liberation. The Acharya with all humility acknowledges that the subject matters of NS have already been dealt with by his guru, ShankarAchArya and he cannot make any improvement. Verse 6 of chapter 1 of NS explains. “This Book is written, “neither to gain fame nor to earn wealth nor deferential treatment but in order to test (metal of) my own knowledge at the touch-stone of God-realized sages.” [ Reference translation by A J Alston]. As a reader goes along, he will see that the Acharya deals with the topic from various angles. No wonder, he devotes more than 90 verses of a total of 100 verses in chapter 1 of NS.

Knowledge means Self-knowledge unless otherwise indicated by the context. As a part of the project, the AchArya discusses possible views of the opponents (pUrva paksha) and refutes them one by one. The pUrva paksha is a karmavAdi that holds that karma leads to liberation. Holders of the view are divided into two groups. One group [K1] credited to Kumarila Bhatta says that Veda talks about Self but maintains that Vedic injunctions are for performing rituals. A J Alston in the translation explains it. When a person knows that his Self (AtmA) is different from the body and the AtmA is immortal, not subject to pain and pleasure, he will engage in karmas for the results obtainable after death. Such a person loses attachment for the body and performs the prescribed rituals in such a way and there is no rebirth and there is liberation. According to K1, such liberation will be eternal because its nature is essentially negative unlike positive Sat-Chit- Ananda of Advaita. It is the attainment of “non-existence” of any embodied experience. Whatever is produced positively is transient but produced “mere non-existence” is eternal. The other group [K2] credited to PrabhAraka holds that there is nothing like Self- knowledge in the Veda. The Veda commands karmas. K2 discards knowledge as Vedic teaching at all. At the most, they are statements of fact. Karmas are the infallible means of liberation. In support are quoted: Verse 2 of IshAvasya Upanishad,
कुर्वन्नेवेह कर्माणि जिजीविषेच्छतं समाः ।
एवं त्वयि नान्यथेतोऽस्ति न कर्म लिप्यते नरे ॥
Meaning: one may live for hundred years engaged in all Vedic karmas and such karmas do not bind you.
Verse 5, Chapter 18, Bhagwad Gita,
यज्ञदानतपःकर्म न त्याज्यं कार्यमेव तत्।
यज्ञो दानं तपश्चैव पावनानि मनीषिणाम् II
Meaning: do not give up sacrifices, charity, and austerity as they are the purifiers of the wise
There is a third group[K3] called samuchchayvAdi which holds that a combination of karma and jnAna leads to liberation. It has three sub-groups.
K3.1: a combination in which karma is dominant,
K3.2: a combination in which jnAna is dominant, and
K3.3: a combination in which karma and jnAna are equally important.
3.1 Management theory of K1
K1 suggests that by deftly managing 5 types of karmas, namely, nitya-naimitta, kAmya, Nishiddha, and PrAyaschitta they can be brought to nil at the time of death. Nitya-naimitta karmas are mandatory Vedic duties, non-performance thereof results in prathyavAya pApa. KAmya karmas are desire-based karmas that produce punya for the kartA in the present life or future lives. Nishiddha karmas are prohibited actions that earn pApa for the performer. K1 claims that by ingeniously managing the kArmic way of life, the karmic account can be closed (brought to nil) at the time of death. What is the method? PrArabdha karma is exhausted by experiencing them during the lifetime so that it is nil at death. AgAmi (future) samsKars are avoided by three exercises: (1) avoidance of all kAmya karmas that produce punya (2) avoidance of all nishiddha karmas that cause pApa (3) diligent performance of nitya-naimitta karmas so that prathyavAya pApa is avoided. Thus, the three exercises ensure zero karmic balance at the time of death thereby ruling out rebirth and there is liberation.
3.2 Refutation of karma management of K1
A human being cannot avoid future karmas because he is not perfect. His ahankAr and mamkAr will propel him to engage, intentionally or unintentionally in prohibited or desire-based actions that will earn him punya or pApa or both. Moreover, the method suggested by K1 has no support of the scriptures. Assuming for argument’s sake that future karmas are avoided, yet the past karmas will haunt. K1 suggests that all past karmas can be exhausted by experiencing them during a lifetime. It does not make a distinction between sanchita and prArabdha karmas. It is a major shortcoming. No doubt, prArabdha gets exhausted during the lifetime. K1 suggests that the sanchita karmas can also be neutralized by proper management of nitya-nimitta, kAmya, and prayAschita karmas. The suggestion is not workable. There are infinite sanchita karmas accumulated during innumerable past lives and it is impossible to exhaust them in one lifetime by experiencing them. The suggestion of K1 that past punyas can be neutralized by earning fresh punyas is rejected because they are of the same nature. The suggestion to neutralize past punyas by fresh pApas is not worth considering at all.
4.1 JnAna has a supporting role
K1 holds that JnAna has only a supporting role to Karma in the pursuit of liberation. The Veda prescribes varieties of karmas. The karma kAnda is voluminous compared to JnAna kAnda. Karma has more pramAnas. Application of knowledge is only for the performance of activities, mental, physical, etc. Mere knowledge, without action, is useless. JnAna is not the main means for liberation. This means that knowledge has only a supporting role.
4.2 Rebuttal
That the karma kAnda is voluminous is understandable. There are countless worldly desires sought by human beings. Karma kAnda prescribes karmas for fulfilling these desires. Therefore, it is naturally voluminous. However, it does not mean that the Veda talks about karma only. The Veda anta bhAg, the jnAna kAnda is about knowledge. This portion is small compared to karma kAnda because it only caters to only one goal, namely, moksha. It would be wrong to conclude that karma has more pramAnam than jnAna. Any pramAna gives only a particular knowledge. Any Knowledge has only one pramAna as support because it has only one field of operation. Other pramAnas do not operate in that field and do not support the particular knowledge. For example, every sense organ functions only in its respective field. Knowledge obtained by one sense organ cannot validate or invalidate that obtained by another sense organ. An observer gets the different aspects of the observed object through different sense organs which are synthesized in and perceived by the mind. The conclusion is that many pramAnas do not or need not support any particular knowledge since all of them do not function in one field. PUrva paksha may counter it with an example. A person infers fire from smoke. Then he goes and sees the fire. He gets the knowledge of fire by seeing. The former fire knowledge is by inference and the latter by perception. It would seem that two pramAnamas give the same knowledge. It is not so. The two pramAnas relate to different features of the fire. When the person sees the fire, the perception does not give him knowledge of the existence of the fire, which knowledge he already had by inference. The knowledge that he gets on seeing is about the size and extent of the fire. The two pramAnas – inference and perception- do not deal with the same knowledge. The view that knowledge is subordinate to karma is misplaced is clear from the verse 1.2.12 of Mundaka Upanishad,
परीक्ष्य लोकान्कर्मचितान्ब्राह्मणो निर्वेदमायान्नास्त्यकृतः कृतेन ।
तद्विज्ञानार्थं स गुरुमेवाभिगच्छेत्समित्पाणिः श्रोत्रियं ब्रह्मनिष्ठम् ॥
Meaning: after experiencing the world through Karma, a Brahmin should come to dispassion thinking that karma does not produce anything eternal. This verse does not recommend karma, instead persuades a Brahmin (desirous of liberation) to eschew karma. It means that moksha is not possible through Karma. Therefore, despite karma kAnda being quantitively large, jnAna is the ultimate subject and the teaching in Veda for liberation.
( to be continued)