How Guna and Karma Create the Body
Vedic texts describe how the body of a soul is created due to guna and karma. This seems unintuitive if we think that the body is created by eating food. But how do we eat food? Food consumption is, in Vedic philosophy, influenced by two factors, called guna (plural) and karma. This post discusses how guna are the nature by which we enjoy consuming certain types of things, and karma is the nurture due to which we have access to certain types of things. Just because we enjoy certain things (guna) doesn’t mean that we will get them, because the environment we are situated in (karma) might not enable access to them. Similarly, just because the environment enables certain things doesn’t mean we will take them, because we might not enjoy them. Our eating is controlled by nature and nurture where the environment provides certain things, and we enjoy certain things. Their combination causes the food consumption, which builds the body.
Table of Contents
The Nature vs. Nurture Debate
The nature vs. nurture debate goes back to the dawn of empiricism when John Locke proposed the idea that the mind is a “blank slate” or tabula rasa on which the external world impinges ideas and all knowledge is acquired as a result of that interaction. Effectively, Locke reduced the entire process of human development to nurture. The problem with this view is that many of us are born with innate inclinations towards music, art, science, nature, or sports.
As we encounter situations in our environment where these traits can be expressed, other people can see our innate tendencies. But if we reduce all human development to ideas acquired from the environment, then we can never explain why two people raised in the same environment have different inclinations from each other. In order to explain the differences between people, we need to postulate an innate nature which represents a person’s desires.
The reverse problem of trying to attribute everything to an innate nature also turns out to be false because a person’s desires cannot be fulfilled unless supported by the environment, and everyone seeks happiness by fulfilling their innate desires. So, a person adapts their desires according to what is offered and enabled by the environment, which will allow them to be happy.
As a result, many of our desires are acquired in the process of dealing with our environment, which constitutes the “ghetto” behavior where the environment deprives one of the desired opportunities, and the person then decides to start desiring what their surrounding offers them. The nature vs. nurture debate is flawed. We have to think of their combination where the human behavior is an outcome of nature and nurture, and each one modifies the other.
The Guna vs. Karma Complementarity
In Vedic philosophy, guna represent a person’s personality or what they enjoy, such as the preference for a type of food, clothing, leisure, work, creativity, and so forth. There are three guna called sattva, rajas, and tamas which represent different kinds of pleasures; for example, sattva represents the pleasure of knowledge, renunciation, and self-realization, rajas represents the pleasure of being famous, powerful, and rich, while tamas represents the pleasure of hurting, killing, and destroying. The three guna cover the soul’s innate need for pleasure.
To fulfill these needs, we must be situated in the correct type of situational opportunity, which then also define the expected behaviors. As the expected behaviors are fulfilled, exceeded, or unfulfilled, good or bad karma is created, which then produces new opportunities. Good karma means greater opportunities to fulfill one’s desires. Bad karma means reduced opportunities, which then limit the fulfillment of one’s desires.
For example, if I relish the scientific study of nature, and I have good karma, then I will find the situations where I can obtain good books or meet people who can impart me such knowledge. Conversely, if my karma is bad, then even though I enjoy the process of learning the truth about nature, I would simply never find the right books and the people to learn. If my guna were different—e.g. I enjoyed wealth and power, then good karma will give me the opportunities and abilities for fulfilling those desires, and bad karma will frustrate my desires.
The Role of Guna and Karma in Perception
Guna represents what we desire and karma denotes what we deserve. The desiring and deserving act differently on the senses of knowledge and action. For the senses of knowledge, the desire is sense pleasure, while deserving is (1) whether we obtain the relevant sense objects and (2) whether we can perceive them after obtaining them (e.g. the person is not blind). For the senses of action, desire is the manner in which we want to act, while deserving is (1) the ability in the senses to act (e.g. the person is not lame or dumb), and (2) the opportunities to act.
Due to the abilities enabled by karma, the soul is put into a different type of body. And due to the opportunities enabled by karma, this body comes into contact with other kinds of bodies. In this way, the soul’s body and the soul’s opportunities are decided due to karma.
However, this still doesn’t preclude the role of free will. For the senses of knowledge, while karma determines whether we obtain the sense objects, and whether we can perceive them, karma doesn’t determine whether we enjoy or suffer this perception. Our happiness or distress based on the sense perception is entirely caused by the guna. Thus, an animal might eat terrible things, and yet consider it a great pleasure; the karma causes the ability to eat those terrible things and the opportunity to find such things, while the guna leads to the pleasure or suffering from that consumption. Similarly, due to karma we obtain the abilities and opportunities to act in certain ways but due to guna we might not use such abilities and opportunities.
Karma and Fatalism
Vedic philosophy appears to be fatalistic unless we understand this complementarity. The action of karma is inevitable, but it doesn’t completely fix our experience. In the case of the senses of knowledge, it fixes what sense objects will be received and if they can be perceived, but it doesn’t fix the happiness or sadness. Similarly, in case of senses of action, karma fixes the abilities and opportunities, but the abilities are just tools—e.g. knives and guns—which can be used in many ways. We are given tools and opportunities, but our action is not decided by those.
Thus, our life is free in spite of karma in two ways—(a) we can control our happiness regardless of our situation, and (b) we can change the application of our abilities to what is possible in the opportunity. The ability to control our happiness and do what is morally right is our free will.
Since this free will is conditioned by guna, or the past habits of choices, the key purpose of life is not to become free of karma but of guna. In essence, the goal is not to have good karma so that we can be happy. The goal it to change the guna such that we will be happy even in adverse conditions. Likewise, the goal is not to become powerful and capable before we do something worthwhile. Rather, the goal is to do something worthwhile with whatever abilities we have. The goal is not to obtain the best opportunities where we can experience the most pleasurable objects and do the most desirable things; the goal is to do the best the opportunity affords.
This is likely to make many people uncomfortable because they believe that if we had free will then we will obtain the best enjoyment, live under the best opportunities, and be free to do whatever we like. The fact is that they aren’t able to do achieve such goals, or the achievements are far from satisfactory, which leads them to the denial of free will. Such a denial amounts to a “sour grapes” mentality because free will is never about the abovementioned things.
The Importance of Karma to Religion
When religion is described as the pursuit of desirable circumstances (in which we can be happy) or powerful abilities (by which we can do what we desire), it is obscenely misrepresented. Since both desirable circumstances and powerful abilities are produced due to karma, the creation of good karma is not regarded as true religion. Historically, all practices related to Karma-Mimānsa which produce good karma have been rejected since the time of Shankarāchārya. Ever since, the focus is entirely on the purification of guna—i.e. on how to be happy even in adverse conditions, and how to act morally even with limited abilities and under given opportunities.
As the focus of religion shifted from karma to guna, the proper scientific understanding of karma and how it produces bodily abilities and circumstances also dramatically declined. Then onwards, the knowledge of how the body is created, and how it enters different situations, was replaced by “material science”. The important lesson of history is that as religion defocuses on the understanding of karma (in order to prioritize freedom from guna), a materialistic science takes over the description of the living body and why it enters particular situations.
The rise of materialism can be attributed directly to the decline in the understanding of karma. While the ultimate goal of religion is not the creation of good karma (but the purification of guna), without understanding karma, the gaps in understanding our body and the situations around us are being filled by materialism, which defeats both good karma and pure guna. In that respect, even to revive the goal of guna purification, there is a need to institute the scientific knowledge of karma, because focusing on guna purification while neglecting the advancement of karma works only when the person has already advanced into very good karma.
The rejection of Karma-Mimānsa in favor of Advaita, and the rejection of Advaita in favor of a personalism are viable only when we understand that good karma is necessary but not sufficient for religion. The rejection of Karma-Mimānsa is not the rejection of karma itself; it is rather the rejection of the idea that our life must be devoted to nothing other than acquisition of good karma, rather than freedom from karma or the cycle of birth and death. When we neglect the understanding of karma, we don’t obtain freedom from karma; we rather fall into the ditch of bad karma because we are not careful in avoiding the creation of consequences.
The Currency Exchange Analogy
The action of karma is quite like currency exchange where you can earn money in one country as Dollars and spend it in another country as Yuan, Kroner, or Rupee. Every currency has an exchange rate with other currencies, owing to which we can convert the karma earned in one situation into the karma spent in another situation. For example, pious people perform charity and sacrifices on Earth and they can enjoy the resulting karma in heavenly planets. It is not necessary for them to enjoy on Earth, due to the currency exchange between locations.
However, once you move to the new country, you have to abide by the unique laws of that country. The laws of the country where you made the money don’t apply in the new country, and what was considered good while earning the money may not be considered good while spending it. This means that the laws of Earthly behavior don’t apply in the heavenly planets and vice versa. The diligent person, therefore, uses the heavenly planets to make further sacrifices and create even better karma so that they can rise to even higher heavenly planets. The foolish person, however, uses that new opportunity to enjoy and spend their earnings and when the money is finished, they are deported back to the original place for further earning.
The most intelligent person, however, is one who doesn’t earn good or bad karma. He or she just spends whatever good or bad they have previously earned and avoids creation of further karma. This means that if they are in good situations, they just do their duties without influenced by lust or greed. Similarly, if they are in a bad situation, they tolerate it without anger or fear.
The Body Combines Guna and Karma
The material mind and body of the soul is a byproduct of its guna and karma. The soul is placed in the womb of a particular type of mother—i.e. the environment at birth—due to karma, which affords choices of consumption. The soul chooses from the possible alternatives (ability and opportunity) based on guna. The role of guna lies in determining (1) whether we engage or withdraw the senses from participating in the bodily activities and (2) whether we enjoy or suffer through such participation. The combination of ability, opportunity, participation, and pleasure, creates the experience of the soul. In this experience, the ability and opportunity are caused by karma while the choice of participation and the pleasure or pain is due to guna. The ability can also be created by guna when by repeated effort we can enhance our abilities because we like doing something and despite limited opportunity we can enhance the ability by our effort.
Consider the extreme example of someone who is being tortured for misdeeds. It might appear to the outsider that the person has no choice except to suffer from pain arising from this torture—which has been caused by previous karma; karma has created the ability to perceive, and produced the circumstance in which the person is caught. But the choice still exists because the person can withdraw their mind and senses (not the body) from that experience, and the resulting pleasure and pain from that experience would be different than if the senses were engaged.
I use this example to illustrate the fact that worldly situations don’t preclude choice, nor do they entail suffering. However, to attain that freedom from worldly situations one must understand how the soul can withdraw the senses—just like a tortoise who draws its limbs inwards—and focuses them on something other than outward experiences. When the guna are impure, the soul is incapable of withdrawing from the activities of the mind, senses, and the body. But when the senses are purified, the soul pays no attention to the unwanted acts of the mind or senses.
The purification of guna is not meant to improve the bodily circumstances or increase bodily abilities. It is rather meant to withdraw from the material activities of the mind and the senses. Of course, that state is difficult to achieve, and I don’t mean to trivialize its attainment. I only mean to highlight the fact that free will is never lost even when the situation seems predetermined. However, to realize that one is free even in predetermined situations one must be spiritually advanced.
As the soul is gradually purified of the guna, it has greater ability to disengage itself from the body and its circumstances. Therefore, such disengagement is a measure of spiritual progress. The situation is often compared to the difference between a ripe and a tender coconut. When the coconut is tender, its shell and core are attached. The shell is the karma and the core is the guna. Their attachment makes the soul enjoy or suffer every experience. But as the coconut dries up, the core separates from the shell, and that entails cessation of material experience. The separation means that the soul can be happy within itself even when the exterior is painful.
The Novelty in the Description of Matter
This notion of the body changes our understanding of matter. Matter is not a thing; it rather exists as a possibility: in the human body it is the ability to exploit the opportunities in the environment. Therefore, the description of matter as ‘possibility’ is a vista to understanding the body as ability and the surrounding as opportunity. However, in modern science, these possibilities are studied as probabilities because we are unable to imagine how something exists as a possibility. The description then becomes incomplete due to loss of predictability.
Sāńkhya describes all matter as ideas rather than things or quantities. An idea is the possibility of being converted into a fixed thing, and yet it is not a fixed thing. The idea is also objective and yet it is not an object. This is the basis on which we can solve the problems of probability—e.g. in atomic theory—when the body is described as a possibility or idea. In short, the body we see is an idea, although it is definite. But that definite idea is produced from an abstract idea, which is relatively more indefinite as compared to what we can perceive by the senses. The ‘abstract’ reality is objective but it is not an object. These are called “subtle” and “gross” matter.
My pleasure personality, my material body, and the opportunity in which I’m situated, cannot be observed by themselves—they are all “unmanifest”. The manifest world is created when these unmanifest properties start mixing. For example, my need for pleasure combines with the bodily ability to seek pleasurable “food” in the environment; or, the environment offers something which mixes with the bodily ability (e.g. hunger) and we consume it to create satisfaction. The world is real in a subtle unmanifest form, but it becomes perceivable when the different aspects of this world combine. Individually, they are all unmanifest or unperceivable.
The universe is created when the different unmanifest parts start mixing or combining. Prior to this mixing, the world exists materially, but there is no experience. The creation of the universe is therefore not the creation of matter itself; it is rather the creation of experience.