The Cycle of Guna and Karma

The term guna indicates what we desire, and the term karma indicates what we deserve; both exist as possibilities, but their combination in time produces the cycle of birth and death. This is the essence of the Vedic science discussed in an earlier post where guna, karma, and kāla were described as three laws of nature. This post takes that description forward and elaborates on the unique role played by karma and its significance in the creation of experiences. The post also discusses the law of karma at length and describes how the consequences of our actions are produced through an interaction between guna and karma, which produce one another, and their interaction creates a cycle.

Role vs. Person

In the everyday world, we can distinguish between a role and a person. The roles are the “posts” such as kings and queens, presidents and secretaries, deans and students, employers and employees, parents and children, husbands and wives, etc. Each role has some rights and duties. The persons are the participants in the roles, who respond to the expectations of a role. The qualities of a person are described differently than that of a role; persons are called virtuous or immoral, kind or ruthless, happy or angry, talented or foolish, introvert or extrovert. While a role sets up bounds on a person’s acceptable behavior, most people are either exceeding the bounds or falling behind them.

In Vedic philosophy, when a person exceeds or falls behind the bounds of a role, he or she produces karma due to an interaction between the person and the role. Vedic philosophy emphasizes that while each person is unique, their uniqueness has to be subordinated to the demands of their role. For example, when you take the role of a father or mother, you are expected to fulfill its requirements whether or not you find the role meaningful or pleasing. The role, as noted above, involves authority and responsibility. You may not desire the authority, and you might not love the responsibility, but you have to fulfill them, because not fulfilling the demands of a role, or exceeding it, produces karma.

In a sense, the person is the “particle” and the role is the “field” surrounding the particle. These “particles” are pushed into different parts of the “field” and this is called the changing role of a person. As the person moves into the new role, he creates more karma which then propels him into yet another role. In this way, there is a cycle of interaction between the person and the role, which keeps moving the person from one role to another. The understanding of karma constitutes a scientific description of how a person transmigrates through roles in life, enjoying or suffering through the vagaries of material existence, and how a cycle of repeated birth and death is created.

Time, Place, and Circumstance

In Vedic texts, we don’t find words such as role and person. We rather find words such as guna, karma, and kāla, where guna is the individuality and personality of a person, karma is the moral consequences of their actions, and time controls both guna and karma. This description is not easily understood because while we can see the activity of people, it is not clear how my karma acts through their behavior (it seems apparent that my enjoyment and suffering often depend on others’ activities so if I have to suffer or enjoy, my karma should act through the behaviors of other people). In fact, the notion that my destiny is enacted by the actions of others creates new problems of free will.

We can understand guna, karma, and kāla, through another triad called deśa-kāla-pātra, which is often translated as “time, place, and circumstance”. Since kāla is used in both cases, there is no need to separately explain the term; it means time. In previous posts, I have described how matter in Sāńkhya constructs a tree-like space from the three modes. The gunas, therefore, create space and each combination of the three modes is a unique ideological “place” in the universe. Consequently, we can equate the term guna with the term deśa or space and place; one of them says that the world is three qualities, while the other says the world is space; these two are identical notions when we understand how the locations in space are produced through the combination of three qualities.

The term pātra needs more explanation. It literally means a vessel, utensil, or pot. It is a container that holds some content. The question is: What is the content this pātra is holding? In the present context, the container is holding a body made of guna, and while we can perceive the guna we cannot perceive the container. The container is the “role” the body “occupies” just like water fills up a pot. The term pātra is also used in drama to describe a ‘character’ such as a King or Queen. This occupation is like a drama scene being populated by actors; the scene comprised of roles is the pot or the container.

Deśa-kāla-pātra means that karma creates the roles, the scenes of interactions, or circumstances (i.e. the “vessels”). These vessels are then filled up by material bodies who are placed into the roles. To understand karma, we have to see how the universe is produced as roles and the body is pushed into that role. The roles define rights and duties, and when the body occupies the role, there is a natural definition of moral behavior. Morality exists as the “vessel” in which we are situated. We are expected to obey the bounds of this “vessel”—i.e. don’t exceed the rights and don’t fall short of the duties.

Real and Imaginary Space

The universe as a whole is some possible locations (meanings). All the locations are not manifest at once; they are produced one by one due to time. However, which of these locations will interact with the other locations constitutes the observable scene. This interaction is produced by karma which connects events at different locations in space. For example, the chair on which I’m sitting and the table on which I’m writing, are not next to each other in conceptual space. They are conceptually far apart—because they are instances of different ideas (chair and table)—although they are interacting with each other due to my karma and that interaction creates the impression of physical proximity.

There is hence a real distance in space created by guna, which is permanent because it is the gap between two concepts, which always exist as a possibility. The distance between the “table” and “chair” never changes in the conceptual space, and in that sense, the material space is eternal. The temporary part is that some objects occasionally interact with the other objects in order to create a scene. These objects are not necessarily close, nor are they necessarily far apart. However, when they interact they appear to be close, and when they don’t interact they appear to be far. The appearance of proximity and distance is an illusion produced due to their mutual interaction.

The interactions produce a phenomenal space that we experience as the three-dimensional world. The situations in this space are not real in themselves. Rather, they are produced from two things: (1) real objects which exist in their own place forever, and (2) temporary karma which causes their interaction to produce an effect. Karma is the cause of relationships or circumstances or roles and characters in which we are placed. There is distance and proximity in these relations too, however, each relation is also a possibility, because we are not permanently acting like a father, mother, child, friend, etc. The interaction between the bodies, under the restrictions of the role, creates the phenomenal proximity which is different both from the conceptual proximity/distance, and the role-based proximity/distance. Karma creates the scenes of the drama by connecting different participants, but the strength of this interaction decides the phenomenal proximity.

The Creation of Experience

One of the big mysteries of modern science is that atomic theory describes the world as a possibility but only one of those possibilities becomes a reality at any given moment. The situation is like tossing a dice in which all the faces are possible, but only one of the faces will turn up at any given point in time. The difference is that these faces in atomic theory are different objects. So, we interact with one object after another, but we cannot predict which object is going to be next. What we see is a product of that interaction.

Scientists have been asking how the succession of the interactions could be created because we are not able to find a “force” that can choose the next experience. The mystery is deepened because we think that in the physical space the atom and the measuring instrument are very close to each other. Then what causes the atom to “suddenly” emit and be detected by the measuring instrument? This problem is still unsolved at present.

The problem can only be solved when we understand that the electron and the measuring instrument are not close; they are two types of objects, and they are semantically far apart. However, they can interact due to karma. What atomic theory calls the “collapse” of a wavefunction is the interaction of two distant objects to produce a measurement event. The cause of this measurement event is not a physical property and not a force. It is a type of reality called karma. It exists in an unmanifest form and thus it cannot be measured until it creates an effect. It decides which detector (observer) gets to measure (see) which quantum (object). Karma is manifesting in time, but unless we understand how this karma is created, where it exists, and how it manifests, we cannot understand the atomic theory.

The Mechanism of Karma

If two objects—A and B—have to interact, then there are two kinds of uncertainties (at the two objects, respectively) to be resolved. The first uncertainty is that A can interact with any C, D, or E, not just B. Similarly, B can interact with any P, Q, or R, not just A. Thus any transaction needs to overcome the uncertainty on two sides: a sender and a receiver, because the sender can send to any receiver, and a receiver can receive from any sender.

For any transaction to occur, there have to be two sides with complementary karma: one is giving and the other is taking. The mechanism of karma involves the pairing of two instances of karma from two individuals, due to which when two people get into a close relationship (e.g. a marriage) we can say that their “destinies are tied”. A strong relationship—e.g. marriage—requires that most of the karma a person receives or transmits should be exchanged with their partner. If their karma doesn’t match, then they would forcibly be involved with other individuals, thereby loosening the marital bond.

Vedic philosophy describes that the pairing of two individuals is arranged by a third party—the demigods—who are higher nodes in the tree. Information cannot therefore directly travel from one leaf of the tree to another leaf. It has to climb up the inverted tree, find a branch where the leaves are joined, and then descend to the destination. Thus, the source and destination of karma are not the only two entities involved. There is always a third party involved in all interactions which mediates and creates it.

The three parties are called ādidaivika, ādiatmika and ādibhautika. The third party is ādidaivika; the first and second parties are ādiatmika and ādibhautika. The sender and receiver are not “equal” in a transaction; one of the two is higher—i.e. in a controlling position relative to the other, although the third party is even higher. Thus, ādidaivika is highest, and therefore sattva-guna. Between the remaining two, the ādiatmika is higher, and therefore rajo-guna. Finally, the ādibhautika is the lowest, and therefore tamo-guna. All material transactions involve these three players. A role has three parts—ādidaivika, ādiatmika, and ādibhautika. There are two instances of karma transacted between ādiatmika and ādibhautika, and their mutual interaction is arranged by the ādidaivika.

The Event and the Object Spaces

We have seen earlier that the resolution of the problems of morality and free will require the separation of actors and actions which result in two kinds of descriptions—one of the events and the other of the objects which cause the actions. The event is an exchange, different from the objects or actors exchanging it. For example, if you lend money to your friend, the event is money lending, but that exchange doesn’t mean that you or your friend are money. The space of events is thus quite different from the space of objects.

The universe of events has three features (the “what”, “where”, and “when”); space, time, and matter here refer to events, not to the actors involved in the events. Similarly, there is another space, time, and matter that constitutes individual actors with three features (“who”, “why” and “how”); space, time, and matter here refer to the actors, not to events. Now we have two kinds of spaces—one of the events and the other of actors. Both these spaces are “fixed” in the sense that the locations of events and actors are well-defined. What is not fixed is which scene will include which actors. This is decided by karma.

Karma is the agency that connects the actors to each other and to the events. In the space of events, the universe can be described as occurrences—e.g. money is lent, money is returned, someone is born, someone dies, a president is elected, a house was bought, etc. In the space of actors, the universe can be described as material bodies. All the bodies and all the events are predefined, but which body goes through which event is not. Thus the body hops through events, which we call material experience: e.g. I received the money, I lent the money, I was born, I died, I was elected as president, I bought a house, etc.

Karma reconciles these two different kinds of descriptions of nature; it allows us to say that underlying each event is a material object causing it. By selecting the components of interaction, karma defines (1) which objects will participate in an event, and (2) which event will be explained by which material objects. Since the events are always connected to some objects, behind every experience there is some reality. If the events and objects were not connected, we could have an experience without a corresponding reality.

In this interaction, the material objects are the material cause and karma is the efficient cause that joins objects into causal interactions. Modern science is the illusion of thinking that the material cause is the efficient cause. For example, if someone steals our money, we don’t blame our karma; we blame the person who stole it. The person who steals it is indeed the material cause of the theft. However, they could have potentially stolen from another person and I would still be unaffected. The reason the thief steals from me is due to my karma and this karma is thus the efficient cause of theft.

Anatomy of a Role

Of course, theft is morally incorrect, and we judge that morality not simply by the action of taking money, but by the role of the person who is taking that money. Thus, karma can decide whether someone will take my money. But whether the person is involved in a legitimate duty or an illegal act is decided by the roles of the actors. The material and efficient causes are therefore adequate only to explain the occurrence of the event at present, but a role is additionally required to judge the morality of the event.

A role is comprised of three different aspects. First, each role has associated rights and duties. Second, these rights and duties are defined both for giving and for receiving. Third, the giving and the receiving are divided by the three modes of nature which in turn divide the six qualities beginning with knowledge. They can be described more fully as below:

  • A role has rights and duties. We are expected to exercise the right and fulfill the duties to the extent expected and demanded by the role, whether we like it or not.
  • The rights and duties involve both giving and taking. Thus, we have the right to both give and receive; similarly, responsibility also includes both giving and receiving.
  • Each act of giving or receiving exchanges properties in three modes; for example, food can be bitter, sweet, or salty, color can be cyan, magenta, and yellow, etc.

While exercising the authority of a role, a person is ādiatmika—i.e. higher—than the persons over whom he or she exercises authority—i.e. ādibhautika. While fulfilling the responsibilities, a person is ādibhautika—i.e. subordinate—to the persons who consume the responsibility, who now become the ādiatmika. A person in authority is a relative master over those affected by his decisions. The same person, while fulfilling a duty, becomes a subordinate to those who consume the responsibility. No person is an absolute master or servant, as each person has some authority and some responsibility.

How Three Modes Create Karma

Our personality and individuality are built from the three modes of nature—sattva, rajas, and tamas. The mode of rajas creates zeal and confidence and under this mode, a person exceeds their authority and responsibility. The mode of tamas creates laziness and inertia and under this mode, a person falls short of their authority and responsibility. The mode of sattva balances zeal and laziness and under this mode, a person does just what the role expects—neither exceeding nor falling short of its demands.

When we exceed or fall short, karma is produced which has three varieties called sukarma, vikarma, and akarma. The term sukarma indicates “good” karma; the term vikarma indicates “bad” karma; the term akarma indicates “no” karma. If we think of the role as a boundary on expected behavior, then the law of karma stipulates a person to neither be inside nor outside that boundary. Rather, the ideal behavior is to be just on the boundary.

The mode of sattva-guna is the ideal mode because in this mode we neither exceed nor fall short. When actions are performed under sattva-guna the activity is called karma-yoga, which dissolves your personality into the role: your unique tastes (what produce your unique meanings and pleasures in life) don’t matter; what matters is the demands of the role. Under rajo-guna and tamo-guna, a person’s personality and individuality become more important, which then results in either sukarma or vikarma.

We can think of the three modes as parent and children. The mode of sattva-guna is the parent. The mode of rajo-guna is the elder sibling, while the mode of tamo-guna is the younger sibling. The parent precedes the two siblings, but the elder sibling precedes the younger sibling. The two siblings are always fighting and the parent is trying to resolve the fight between them. They are three members of a family and at different times they get to make the decision that the family will collectively follow. Which mode is prominent or subservient when, is the function of time, which operates in cycles.

The Law of Karma

Based on the above distinctions, we can describe the “law” of karma through the following table. No such table is described in Vedic texts. However, such an understanding of morality can be easily gleaned from texts such as manusmṛti, which describe good and bad actions. Whether or we like it or not, these rules of morality are embedded in our society from time immemorial. The philosophical underpinning of these laws is now not well-known, but it is still not impossible to agree upon the laws themselves.

Rights Duties
Giving Taking Giving Taking
Reward Punish Reward Punish Reward Punish Reward Punish
Excess Good Bad Bad Good Good Bad Bad Good
Short Bad Good Good Bad Bad Good Good Bad

Below I elaborate on the above rules using insights from everyday intuitions about moral behavior. The elaborations are numbered according to the numbering in the below table.

Rights Duties
Giving Taking Giving Taking
Reward Punish Reward Punish Reward Punish Reward Punish
Excess 1 3 5 7 9 11 13 15
Short 2 4 6 8 10 12 14 16
  1. We all have a capacity to give good things to society and we are expected to give; when our charity exceeds our natural capability to provide, we create good karma.
  2. When we have the capacity to give to others but we become misers and decline to help others even when we can or help below our capacity, we incur bad karma.
  3. We are within our rights to reprimand others under our authority but this reprimand should be used sparingly—as and when required—and mostly lower than the maximum permitted. Judicious use of reprimand is good karma.
  4. Exceeding the limits of our authority to punish others—whether that extends to those beyond our jurisdiction or beyond the extent of the crime is bad karma.
  5. When we employ people, we have the right to demand their services; however, an employer should aspire to demand less than what he compensates the employees for. Giving more and taking less is good karma.
  6. When an employer exploits the employees and makes them work more than what they are compensated for, or defined by their job role, the employer incurs bad karma.
  7. Everyone has some natural capacity or tolerable limit to suffering losses and harm for the benefit of others. When a person exceeds this capacity—i.e. performs a great sacrifice for others—he creates good karma.
  8. When a person has the capacity to incur a personal sacrifice but doesn’t make the sacrifice when required, or performs a lower sacrifice than capacity—he creates bad karma.
  9. An employee is expected to perform their duties diligently; however, some employees go beyond the call of their expected duty and create greater value for their employer; they produce good karma.
  10. An employee who neglects his or her responsibilities and does not perform their duties as expected in a job fails to create the value demanded and produces bad karma.
  11. In certain jobs like that of a judge or police, one is expected to punish others as a matter of duty; when the person metes out a greater punishment than expected or required for the given crime, he creates bad karma.
  12. When a judge or police correct the people in society by being kind and compassionate to them and awarding them less than the maximum possible punishment for a given crime, they create good karma.
  13. Some employees—e.g. tax collectors—are expected to receive or collect valuables (e.g. money) from others; when they exceed the maximum limit that they are permitted for a given case, they incur bad karma.
  14. When a tax collector is lenient in their demands for people who are in distress or difficulty and demonstrates mercy and compassion even while doing his job as diligently as he can, he or she creates good karma due to forgiveness.
  15. A captain of a ship, or a soldier on a battlefield, or any leader in society, is expected to sacrifice as a matter of their expected duty. When a person sacrifices far greater than the expected limit, he creates good karma.
  16. When a captain or soldier or leader is expected to make a sacrifice but runs away from the responsibility out of cowardice, or lets others make sacrifices on his behalf while saving himself, he incurs bad karma.

Karma is a Tight Rope Walk

The above table describes sixteen rules of how good or bad karma is created. However, if we just read through the above simple rules, three kinds of exceptions should be evident.

  • All the rules don’t apply to everyone; as we can see, some rules are prominent for leaders and warriors, while other rules are pertinent for ordinary workers, while yet other rules are relevant only for employers and businessmen. This entails that the rules of karma are different for the different types of people—i.e. the classes in the Varna system of social organization.
  • The application of rules is based on a person’s capacity. A poor man giving a small charity produces good karma whereas a rich man giving a small charity produces bad karma. A small sacrifice by an ordinary person creates good karma, but when people expected to sacrifice fall short of their duty, then the partial performance of duty results in bad karma.
  • The rules have to be applied based on the situation involved. For example, a judge being lenient on a hardened criminal is a dereliction of duty, because the criminal performs more crimes against the innocent, and the judge can be held responsible for the shortfall. Similarly, a tax collector waiving taxes when the person has the capacity to pay is a party to a crime.

The application of these laws depends on a person’s capacity to perform their duties and rights, which is often a result of their currently manifesting karma. The application of rules also depends on the judgment of the situation because both excessive and deficient application of the rules is bad karma. While the rules help us understand the guidelines, applying the rules can often be a tightrope walk, because the material situation is hierarchical, and therefore the rules too have to be applied in a hierarchical manner. Thus, based on the person, time, place, and situation, some rules become more important than others. A table of rules is not adequate to determine justice.

Owing to this fact attempts to create good karma can backfire and result in bad karma. For example, a zealous ruler can be extremely harsh in the application of laws, and thereby punish the innocent. Similarly, a compassionate lawyer can be very lenient in the application of laws, hoping for the best results, but that leniency can be interpreted as a weakness of the law. Thus, both alternatives of being overzealous or overly compassionate result in bad karma. Hence, Vedic texts advise a person to aspire to be free of the material roles, not to seek powerful roles.

The above table can be simplified to denote the modes of nature and their effects. The below table illustrates how good and bad karma is created which then affects the future roles.

Rajas Tamas
Rajas Tamas Rajas Tamas
Rajas Tamas Rajas Tamas Rajas Tamas Rajas Tamas
Rajas Good Bad Bad Good Good Bad Bad Good
Tamas Bad Good Good Bad Bad Good Good Bad

The essence of good karma is (1) giving greater value and lesser detriment, and (2) taking the lesser value and greater detriment. The law of karma is that as the good karma increases, the rights, authority, and power available to a person increases and hence the person rises in the material hierarchy; similarly, as the bad karma increases, the duties, responsibilities, and liabilities also increase and the person falls in the material hierarchy. As the good karma is finished (i.e. new good karma is not created), the person falls in the hierarchy, and as the bad karma is finished (i.e. new bad karma is not created) the person rises in the material hierarchy. The living entity is thus going up and down the material tree due to karma, sometimes enjoying at a higher position, and other times suffering at a lower position.

The Essence of Material Morality

Everyone in the material world is looking for a situation where they have far greater rights and far lesser duties. Rising in the material world means going up the tree of material hierarchy where we can find greater power, whereas going down the tree of material nature is when we have lesser power. It is worth noting that all situations in the world—higher and lower—can be enjoyed. For example, there is happiness in having the power and never having to use it, because everyone is obedient and lawful. There is also happiness in not having the power and therefore the responsibility because then the person doesn’t run the risk of committing a mistake and therefore falling down.

The pleasure in higher segments of the universe is that of greater freedom and greater responsibility. The pleasure in the lower parts of the universe is in lesser freedom and lesser accountability. In higher regions of the universe, for example, pleasure means the respectful and responsible exchange of ideas. In lower regions of the universe, pleasure means sadomasochistic domination and subservience.

Neither the top nor the bottom is ideally suited for spiritual advancement. This is because if you are at the top, then you have so much power that giving it up is not easy. The soul, in such a situation, is enamored by the influence, control, and authority and shudders at the thought of losing it; even the demigods are thus insecure despite having tremendous power over the others. Conversely, if you are at the bottom, then you have very little power and freedom to do anything of your choosing. The soul, in such a situation, is overly bound by the surrounding circumstances and situations and is unable to think or act independently. The living entities at the top and at the bottom are enjoying different kinds of pleasures, but neither of them has what it takes to exit the universe easily.

The living entities in the middle of the universe have neither great autonomy nor great bondage. Accordingly, the pleasure enjoyed from the exercise of rights and the execution of duties is not great. In fact, given the circumstances, it is not obvious whether the best way to enjoy material life is to increase your rights and responsibilities or to reduce your freedoms and accountabilities. Thus, some people pursue a high-class life (the top businessmen and politicians), while others desire a middle-class life (white and blue-collar workers), while yet others are happy with a lower-class life (hippies, vagabonds, and gypsies). Who can convincingly say who is the happiest of them all?

The Vedic texts prefer life in the middle for spiritual advancement because it is easier to give up both rajo-guna and tamo-guna and pursue sattva-guna. As a person stops the creation of new karma, he or she finishes the business in this life and is free of the material roles. He or she can then think of non-material roles, and develop a personality for them.

The Cycle of Guna and Karma

The role is objective and not subjective. Hence, the law of moral judgments is also objective and not subjective. This fact allows us to formulate a natural theory of morality, and explain how the consequences of moral judgment are responsible for what we call “motion” or the transmigration of the soul. As we play our role well, we can either rise to a higher role or renounce all roles. As we play our roles badly, we are bound in constraining roles where we have limited freedom.

Guna and karma, therefore, constitute a cycle of causality. Karma creates circumstances. A living entity tries to comprehend these situations makes strategies for action in order to enjoy in the given circumstances, thus changing his guna. The new gunas now produce new activities and depending on whether these activities exceed or fall short of expectations, new karma is created. This causal cycle runs in a cyclic time where the universe itself goes through the same kinds of events over and over. The living entity in the universe is, therefore, going in circles: (1) due to the guna-karma cycle, and (2) due to the time cycle.

As the person creates good karma, he rises up the material tree and enjoys greater autonomy, power, and responsibility. As the person creates bad karma, he falls down the material tree and enjoys greater bondage, subservience, and determinism. There is pleasure in all kinds of material situations, provided one has adapted their taste of enjoyment according to the circumstances available. As the good karma is over, the living entity again changes their situation for the worse (depending on the taste of enjoyment they have developed so far). Likewise, when the bad karma is over, the living entity changes its situation for the better (depending on its taste). This type of back and forth produces a cycle called “transmigration” and it emerges from the guna-karma cycle and the time cycle.