What is the Rational or Scientific Basis of Karma?

Karma in Action

by Jayaram V

Question: Does the law of karma exist? Can it even be rationally explained? Many people believe in karma. But I have not come across any rational or scientific basis for it. Can you rationally explain any justification for karma?


It is true that we do not have a solid proof of the karma doctrine. We may have some indication or vague hints of such a possibility in the working of Nature, but we do not have a clear proof. People often quote the Newton’s second law (which states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction) and the commonsense observation that actions and decisions have consequences. Frankly, they are not sufficient. Therefore, for all practical purposes, karma is a hypothesis which needs scientific validation if it has to be accepted as a universal law rather than a matter of faith.

Rationally speaking, it is still a belief at many levels, which is confined to the religions of Indian origin. However, it does not mean that because it has no rational basis we should not believe in karma at all. Belief is a matter of faith and personal choice. Belief is still important. It has its own place in our lives. We rely upon our beliefs to make sense of the world and fill in the gaps in our knowledge. When reason fails to provide reasonable answers or establish a proper connection between cause and effect, we turn to inference, scriptural validation, expert opinion, assumption or pure faith. We cannot help connecting the dots when we find a pattern.

Our knowledge of the world and existence is incomplete and imperfect. Everything cannot be resolved with reason or evidence. We live not only by reason but also by faith to deal with the uncertainties and ambiguities of life. Without faith it is difficult to motivate yourself to reach any goals. As Martin Luther King said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you can't see the whole staircase.” Until you complete any task or reach any goal, it is faith which sustains you.

It is true that we create ripples in the ocean of existence with our thoughts and actions, but we cannot accurately predict how far they spread or how long they last. In real life, the same actions can produce different results, and the same result can emanate from different actions. Therefore, to draw any conclusions about their causes and effects would be oversimplification. Further, karma is not the sum of consequences that arise from an action. It is rather the subtle cause arising from the action which produces those consequences. Karma doctrine stipulates that beings will be rewarded for their good deeds and punished for their evil deeds. They incur karma when their actions arise from their desires and willful intentions. The consequence of karma is people remain stuck in the cycle of births and deaths or suffering.

However, we do not see that the karma principle operates with the same consistency or predictability in our daily lives. In reality, mostly the opposite happens. We see evil people attaining name and fame and positions of power despite their evil actions, while good people suffering from numerous problems and disabilities despite their good actions and noble intentions. Therefore, you cannot prove the functioning of karma in our daily lives or in the working of the world, nor can you avoid having a genuine skepticism about it and its justification.

Karma as the play of energy

Since you wanted a rational or scientific explanation of karma, let us explore it from a scientific perspective, assuming that our lives are shaped by chance or by our actions, and neither God, nor a deity nor a scribe (such as Yama or Chitragupta) is involved in any way in matters of life and death. Secondly, we are not going into the rebirth aspect, because we can only prove what is in existence. For example, it is rationally difficult to prove the existence of future because you cannot prove that which does not exist yet and which is not of this world. Therefore, it is even more difficult to prove the existence of heaven and hell or the possibility of rebirth and the role of karma in it. Hence, our inquiry into the working of karma is limited to this life only.

The physical world consists of both animate and inanimate objects. According to quantum physics, in their ultimate form all the objects and phenomena in the universe are made up of nothing but pure energy. Matter is a form of energy only. All movements are also caused by only energy. Things are either restful or dynamic because energy is found in the universe in these twin states. Things remain restful until an external force is applied. Thus, everything is a play of energy. When you perform an action, when you give or receive objects, when you deal with others, help them or receive their help, what happens in the background or beneath those actions is the transfer and transformation of energy.

From this perspective, karma is the mechanism of balancing the energies we give and receive. When there is an disequilibrium between the two, it will produce either positive or negative consequences for those who benefit from it and those who play a role in it. We cannot accurately express it as a mathematical formula or equation, since many processes and variables are involved. However, in a very broad sense we may say that it is the Nature’s way of accounting and balancing its energies. You spend some energy, and depending upon how you did it or what you did, you may lose or gain some energy. This process goes on at every turn and moment in your life, as you engage in actions. When you obtain something, you gain energy. When you give something away, you transfer your energy. When a person dies, his energy is returned to the elements.

Thus, you can see that karma is essentially the process of exchanging and balancing energies. By that, you accumulate energy or lose energy and suffer from the consequences. You increase your energy and your reach through possessions, relationships, influence, power, status, family, etc. You lose it by physical loss. If you keep losing energy, you will end up becoming weak, unpopular, depressed, unhealthy, etc.

It is not that losing energy is always bad, or gaining it is always good. It depends upon what energies you gain or lose. Sometimes, it is better to lose some forms of energies than gain them. For example, if you accumulate a bad name, you have to get rid of it. If you have negative energies in excess such as evil nature, evil possessions, evil habits or evil relationships, you must get rid of them and accumulate positive energies.

The same happens in case of your relationships also. If you draw too much energy from others and do not compensate them enough in return, or if you steal their energies, you will be met with a lot of negative force from them. They may retaliate and try to weaken you or your influence. On the other hand, if you help them or be honest with them, you may receive their positive energy as love and affection, or approval and appreciation.

Thus, you can see that karma is a mechanism of Nature by which she balances the circulation or the flow of energies in her systems. There will be stasis, peace and stability when there is an equitable and harmonious flow of energy, and problems and chaos when that balance is disturbed. Everything in the universe, including you, is a form of energy. Whatever they do or whatever happens to them is because of the movement of energy only.

Wealth, knowledge, love, happiness, hatred, anger, suffering, sexuality, passion, emotion, feeling, all these are different forms of the same energy. Their ultimate source is also the same. In this play, energy is indestructible. It may transform into something but never lost. When you perform actions, energy may either flow out of you or flow into you, shaping in the process your life and destiny.

If you accumulate good energies and use them for good causes, you will have a better life, and if not, you will suffer from the consequences. The purpose of karma is to teach you discretion or the intelligent way of living and perfuming actions to preserve and strengthen yourself. Nature has an inbuilt process by which it pushes you in that direction. Creation, preservation and destruction are the essential aspects of energy transformation only. We engage in them every day to sustain our lives.

Karma as the record of your memory

Let us now examine karma as a mental or a psychological process, ignoring the possibility of soul or the Self for the purpose of the discussion and limiting our focus to the mind or the consciousness or the objective reality (the so called not-self), so that we can adhere to the rational or scientific inquiry of karma, rather than going into the metaphysical or transcendental notions of it.

From the mental perspective, we may say that karma is nothing but an accumulation of memories or memorial energies. Everything that you do or that happens to you both in your physical and subtle consciousness becomes recorded in your mind as a memory. Over time, the memories which settle in your consciousness define you and influence your thinking, behavior and actions.

You are indeed the sum of your memories and of the thoughts that arise from them, or because of them. Your memories determine your desires, attachments, likes and dislikes, relationships, beliefs, opinions, thoughts and actions. They may be real or made up, since they may arise from real events in life or imaginary events or even from mistaken notions and beliefs. According to recent studies, you may even invent some memories of your own to rewrite your past or justify your actions or build some attitudes and beliefs about things and people.

Just as karma is a record of your past and current actions, your memory is record of all your actions. Just as karma is of different types such as sanchita (accumulated) karma, prarabdha (currently fructified) karma, Agami (current) karma, Kriyamana (current life) karma, memory is also of different types such as long-term memory, short term memory, lost or forgotten memory, memory that may become active in specific circumstances and so on. Further, just as karma accumulates continuously as long as you lead an active life, your memory also keeps accumulating through the activity of your mind and senses.

Your memory is always with you just as your karma, shaping your life, your thoughts, actions, desires, moods, associations, relationships, and so on. It follows you even in your dreams, shaping them according to your predominant thoughts, worries, desires and anxieties. Depending upon the memory you accumulate, just as the karma you accumulate, you are either happy or unhappy, righteous or unrighteous, divine or demonic, spiritually inclined or materially ambitious.

No one may be keeping an account of what you do or think. No deity or divinity may be watching over you or recording the events of your life. Still, you are your own witness, and your memory is a permanent record of what you have witnessed in you and around you. Everything that you do, perceive, speak or think is being recorded by your mind as your memory. Whether you are asleep or awake, active or inactive, alone or in the company of others, it is always there quietly recording all that has been going on. Your mind is your Chitragupta, the heavenly scribe of your life, and your memory is the record of your life he keeps. For all practical purposes, it is the record of your deeds (karma), stored as memory.

You do not have to be punished or rewarded by God or an external force for your actions and intentions. It is done by your memory. Your memories are largely responsible for your behavior, thinking and actions. They determine whether you are happy or unhappy, successful or unsuccessful, positive or negative. Just as you resolve karma through actions, you may resolve painful memories through counter actions. Predominant memories shape your personality and behavior and determine your future and destiny. They also subject your mind to the modifications (vrittis) and disturbances. If you accumulate evil memories, you become an evil person, and vice versa. When memory is suppressed or resolved as in case of karma, you attain peace and tranquility.

In other words, your karma is stored nowhere but in you. It exists as your memory and if you want freedom you must resolve it, practicing detachment, renouncing your past, assuming a new identity (as the sanyasis do), suppressing your worldly memories and mental afflictions, overcoming desires, likes and dislikes, and living in the present, so that your memories neither accumulate nor gain strength. By resolving them and making peace with them, you can gradually divert your mind to the present moment and stop the onward flow of karma (memory).

It is also important what memories you create in others through your interactions with them. It is that part of their karma which will effect you either directly or indirectly. Through your actions you may leave in them positive or negative memories which in turn will influence their relationship with you, and how they may treat you or regard you in their esteem. If their memories of you are strong, they may keep interacting with you, but if they are weak they may not appear frequently in your life or interact with you. When those memories grow weak, those relationships fall off.

Karma as a spiritual process

It is believed that predominant or the strongest memories which become etched in the consciousness become latent impressions (samskaras). They form a part of your casual body (karana chitta) and act as the seed for your rebirth. In other words, a part of your memory or the record of your past actions (karma) becomes the cause of your next life. Now, we do not know whether any or all consciousness survives the body upon death, and if it does what happens to it. If it does, this is the most plausible explanation for karma and rebirth. The memory that survives you becomes integrated into your consciousness in the next birth and influences the course of your life.

Therefore, even our scriptures vaguely hint at a possible connection between karma and memory, and memory serving as the basis of karma. This becomes evident from the scriptural references, which suggest that predominant thoughts and desires (in other words crystallized memory) become the basis of rebirth. If you want to be clean and pure and if you want to pursue liberation, you must focus upon spending your energies for right causes and cleansing your memories to get rid of evil and negative thoughts. It is what we are expected to do in renunciation and in the practice of yoga.

Conclusion

From the foregoing discussion, you can see that although we may not scientifically or rationally explain the mechanism of karma, we can discern traces of it in the mechanism of Nature, and in the functioning of our minds and bodies. If our bodies are an accumulation of energies, our minds are the accumulation of memories. Just energy is the ultimate cause of all that happens in the body, memory is the ultimate source of all that happens in the mind. By accumulating positive energies in your body and positive memories in your mind, you can potentially increase your chances of enjoying your life and experience peace, happiness and fulfillment.

Ultimately, you are the architect of your life and personality. Therefore, focus upon what you eat, what you do, how you spend your energy, what memories you accumulate, what relationships you build, and how you attain your goals and resolve your problems. If your mind and body are filled with pure energies and pure memories (sattva), you will have the predominance of purity and achieve peace and inner freedom. Otherwise, you will remain stuck in negativity, suffering and unhappy memories.

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