Karma: The Lecture

Here is a link to a lecture on karma that I give in my Introduction to Asian Religions course at The University of Calgary.

This is also a topic that I’m writing some papers on, with the hope of eventually writing a book. I start by presenting what I refer to as Karl Potter’s interpretation of karma, according to which karma can be analyzed in terms of samskaras – habits or dispositions to repeat actions in the future. I contend that this kind of analysis is widespread. I offer two objections to this account. At the end of the lecture, I revise the account to handle the objections. I take this revised account to roughly resemble the account that Roy Perrett outlines in his Hindu Ethics. Needless to say, more objections await. Any feedback is welcome.




About Chris Framarin

Chris Framarin is a Professor in the Department of Philosophy and the Department of Classics and Religion at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. He is the author of Hinduism and Environmental Ethics: Law, Literature, and Philosophy (Routledge 2014) and Desire and Motivation in Indian Philosophy (Routledge 2009).

9 Replies to “Karma: The Lecture”

  1. Chris,
    This was informative and enjoyable: thank you for sharing it with us. The question would appear to also encompass consideration of the proper motivation for action while at the same time having a concern with real world consequences: Is it right? Is it good? Is it prescribed by dharma?, etc. In other words, as I tell my students, “what does it mean to speak of being virtuous for the sake of virtue?” or “how do we make sense of the idea that ‘virtue is its own reward?’” I think there’s a tendency to see the need to avoid desire as one that involves lack of concern with or indifference to consequences, which I think is mistaken: one should, so to speak, care about the kind of action that may bring about correct or desirable consequences, say, less violence, more justice, and so forth, only should, ideally, not be attached to the “feelings” or mental states (pleasure or pain that bring about desire or its converse) that arise from same as they redound to the agent who performs them. One way to look at this which is not a religious perspective as such is to come to a lucid appreciation of how “our” actions are invariably mixed in the real world with the actions of others (some of which have created structures, institutions, and so forth that constrain and affect our actions, however well motivated) and thus are truly outside our control once they’re performed; social scientists are fond of highlighting, for example, the unintentional consequences of intentional action (nonetheless, we perform the actions desiring or hoping they’ll bring about the right consequences). A keen awareness of the extent that we rarely if ever fully determine the (ultimate) consequences of our actions should help us to be more impartial or non-attached to their “fruits” (we still need or want to produce and consume fruits…).

    Two other brief points: I think it’s not so much desire simpliciter that is the problem, but inordinate or improper desire, that is, desire that creates dispositions (especially insofar as we’re not cognizant of their character). Desire to “do good,” pursue justice, behave morally or ethically, or the desire for liberation, and so forth are necessary motivational desires, yet they need to be paired with the correct beliefs about the relation between action, desire, dispositions, and non-attachment. And thus it means pursuing justice, behaving properly and the like needs to be done for the “right” reasons and in the “right” way in the manner of the karma yogi (e.g., one doesn’t directly pursue liberation, rather, one performs one’s dharma, one does the right thing, with non-attachment to the mental states that accompany the performance and the consequences that follow therefrom in the larger world).

    Incidentally, I think there may be a subtle distinction on occasion between dispositions and habits, at least insofar as the latter and not necessarily the former refers to actions.
    I look forward to reading whatever you’ve written or will write on this topic.

  2. Thanks for your comment Patrick. I’ll just say one thing about the claim that there has to be some distinction between “proper and improper” desires.

    I take many seminal Hindu texts to discourage desire for at least three reasons. First, desire produces suffering more or less directly, since I suffer when I desire something and don’t have it, I suffer when I lose what I desire, I suffer from fear of losing what I have (which I desired to have before I got it), and so on. So desire disposes us toward our own suffering.

    Second, desire tends to disrupt an agent’s capacity for moral deliberation (as at Gita 2.62-63).

    Third, desire plays some mechanistic (albeit mysterious) role in the production of merit and demerit (which are finally counter-productive to the attainment of liberation).

    I don’t see how “proper” or “good” desires avoid these three problems. Your suggestion of the desire to pursue justice, for example, might cause suffering more or less directly for all the reasons I list under #1. It might also dispose me toward poor moral deliberation – I can be fanatical about justice just as I can be fanatical about other things. I can weigh concerns about justice too heavily in my moral deliberations, and end up doing the wrong thing. And presumably the desire to pursue justice produces merit and demerit the way other desires do. If merit and demerit are just dispositions/habits – as Potter, Perrett, and many, many others claim – then surely the actions I perform motivated by a desire for justice produce dispositions/habits to repeat these actions in much the same way that my “bad” desires do – desires to indulge in sensory pleasures, say, or desires to accumulate wealth.

    The desire for moksa might be more promising, but I’m skeptical. And then, the whole reason to think there must be such a distinction in the first place is that it strikes us as a platitude that all action is motivated by desire. But this has not always been the case (think of Kant, and many of the philosophers to whom Hume replied) – so this assumption cannot serve as an interpretive constraint on Hindu texts.

    There are also the extensive claims in the Gita and elsewhere that all (sarva) desires are to be eliminated. I outline these in Desire and Motivation in Indian Philosophy (Routledge 2009), pp. 18-19.

  3. Thanks Chris: I suspected more or less that was your take on things so the burden of proof will be on me to argue otherwise…which I hope to do, at least insofar as an ardent amateur is capable of mastering the relevant literature.

  4. Chris, thanks for that. Two short thoughts:
    1. From my perspective, I would not say that everyone follows Potter’s suggestion (perhaps his influence is bigger in NA?). I would rather point to the fact that Potter (or Siderits in the case of apoha) try to *naturalise* an Indian philosophical theory (through habits, genes, etc.). This could be the object of a separate discussion (in my opinion: They are developing interesting theories, but one ought to be aware that theirs are reinterpretations and not a depictment of the original theories).
    2. Again, from my European perspective: there is not a single karma-theory. In this sense, one might object to your objection based on the BhG. For, it is not necessarily the case that desire needs to play a role in *all* theories, although it surely plays a major role in the BhG (this is not said against the role of desire, about whose importance I agree, as you know).

    • Hi Elisa. Thank you for the feedback on the lecture.

      When I say that the Potter version of the theory is widespread, I have at least the following scholars in mind (some of whom precede Potter, and to whom Potter is indebted, and a number of whom are/were based in India):

      Bhattacharya. 1927. “The Doctrine of Karma” The Philosophical Quarterly 3.
      Hiriyanna. 1932. Outlines of Indian Philosophy (Novello and Co.)
      Aranya. 1986. Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali (SUNY)
      Chapple. 1986. Karma and Creativity (SUNY)
      Feuerstein. 1989. The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali (Inner Traditions International).
      Reichenbach. 1990. The Law of Karma: A Philosophical Study (Macmillan).
      Perrett. 1998. Hindu Ethics (University of Hawaii Press).
      Chakraborty. 1998. Karma: Freedom and Responsibility (Kaveri Books)
      Coward. 1998. “The Ecological Implications of Karma Theory” in Nelson (ed.) Purifying the Earthly Body of God (SUNY).
      Whicher. 1998. The Integrity of the Yoga Darsana (SUNY).
      Burley. 2006. Classical Samkhya and Yoga (Routledge)
      Phillips. 2009. Yoga, Karma, and Rebirth (Columbia).

      All of these scholars analyze karma in terms of samskaras, and analyze samskaras in terms of habits/dispositions.

      I agree with you that this is a matter of naturalizing the karmic process. I try to say in the lecture that this begins to appear like an uncontroversial psychological theory. This would be perfectly fine, and maybe even good, if it were consistent with the texts. I’m not confident it is consistent with the texts though.

      One thing that I’ve noticed is that Vyasa’s Yogasutrabhasya is thought to be the locus classicus on this matter. Vyasa says in his commentary to Yogasutra 1.5 that mental states and activities (vrtti) produce samskaras, and defines samskaras as dispositions to reproduce the mental states and activities that produce them. So a desire, for example, produces a samskara, which is a disposition to have a similar desire in the future. He never says, however, that actions produce samskaras. So to begin with, the onus is on those who claim that actions do produce samskaras to show where Vyasa says this.

      I have not found anyone who defends what I call the “Potter interpretation” note this exegetical problem and deal with it head on.

      I speculate that some scholars, when pressed, might point out the concept of karmasayas (“action deposits”) (e.g., at YS 2.12) and claim that they are a subset of samskaras that are produced by actions, rather than mental states and activities. Vyasa connects both samskaras and karmasayas with vasanas (which are states that have persisted “from beginningless time”). If vasanas are both really old samskaras and really old karmasayas, then presumably samskaras and karmasayas are fundamentally similar? If this is right, then karmasayas are produced by action, and are dispositions to repeat actions. This is roughly the Potter view.

      This only pushes the problem back, though, since the project of maintaining this interpretation is difficult further on. In his commentary to Yogasutra 1.5, Vyasa says that all karmasaya are “born from the klesas (afflictions),” and yet, samskaras admit a distinction between those “born of the klesas” and those that “lead to khyati (discrimination of purusa and prakrti, and hence, liberation).” If karmasayas are just samskaras, however, then they should also admit of the distinction between those born of the klesas and those that lead to khyati.

      And there are many other problems, both exegetical and philosophical.

      I should have something formal put together on this by the end of the summer.

  5. Good lecture! My only suggestion is pedagogical: if you know you’re going to need to make certain diagrams ahead of time when you’re planning a lecture (“Theory A: action→merit→fruit; Theory B: action+intention?→merit→fruit”, etc.), go ahead and make a PowerPoint slide with the diagram on it. When you do the lecture, have the slide projected onto a separate screen or on only one side of the blackboard, then use the rest of the blackboard to write down things students say as they say them. The one downside of this method is that students will sometimes bring up things out of the order you expect (“Great point! That’s a later slide!”) and then you have to jump around out of order, but if you’re good at working PowerPoint, you can bring up the slides out of order. Other than that, I found it to save a lot of time that I used to spend writing down whatever I just said that I knew I was going to say anyway.

  6. Pingback: Book Review of Hinduism and Environmental Ethics by Christopher G. Framarin (Reviewed by Elisa Freschi)The Indian Philosophy Blog | The Indian Philosophy Blog

  7. Dear Chris,
    Wishing you a prosperous and healthy 2017 !

    I enjoyed listening to your lecture. After listening to your youtube lecture and other given by a renowed vedanta exponent Swami A parthasarathy, I have attempted to write down what I understand of Law of Karma. Kindly go through it. Any critical suggestions would be greatly appreciated.



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