What is Karma?

Review from Sudakshina Trust
April / June 2010


What is Karma? by Paul Brunton
Published by New Age Books, A-45
Naraina Phase-1, New Delhi 110028
Pages: 144 Price Rs 150

The author of this unique and captivating work on the philosophy and working of karma, Paul Brunton is widely recognized in India as a foreigner who came to the East in search of wisdom, finally found his Guru in Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi, and instantly assimilated the essence of his silent teaching.  The depth of his perception of ancient wisdom and the monumental effort he invested in research, and interpretation of the same in modern idiom, in the context of prevalent modes of thought is evident in his treatment of a difficult subject such as Karma.  During his cogitations after his initial meeting with the Maharshi in 1930, the stray thoughts on Karma, which he put down over a long period from the 1940s until 1981, the year of his passing away, have been collected by the editor in the form of a book.  Naturally this had led to some repetition and lack of cogency.

The book is divided into five chapters.  Explanation of "what karma is" is covered in Chapter 1.  According to the author, a person’s karma is his or her own ‘doing’, which includes mental actions.  Karma is a self-actualizing force, and nobody, human or superhuman, has to operate it.  Somehow, somewhere, and sometime, our actions are ultimately reflected back to us.  The fruit will inexorably return to the doer.  In the debate on freewill versus fate, the author sides with the correct interpretation of Indian philosophy, that both freewill and Karma are true entities, complementary to each other.  He explains the role of each in shaping the present as well as future of the individual.  Today’s exercise of freewill is the cause of tomorrow’s fate.  He removes the fear of the effects of past bad karma and explains that Karma is educative rather than retributive.  In the traditional Indian philosophy, he does not dwell on the relation between individual karma and the karma of a nation or universe.  Paul Brunton puts emphasis on this relation and says that it is the ‘Overself’ that operates the eternal law, that tends to adjust the individual karmic operation to the universal operation, and that ensures unbroken equilibrium in a just world order.

In the second chapter, "How Karma works," the distinguished author stresses the aspect of Karma as a tool for inner evolution of the individual towards a higher spiritual state, while unfailingly delivering the results of past actions.  He says that people are to wisely make the choice between the beneficial and the pleasant (sreyas and preyas).  The author agrees with reincarnations and the concept of the threefold division of karma, prarabha, sanchita, and agami (though these terms are not used).  In the next chapter on "Karma and Grace," the interaction between these two forces has been brought out very convincingly.  He stressed the importance of humility, surrender, prayer, and constant effort at purification of mind for attracting divine grace.  The author lays out broad guidelines for ‘Working with Karma’ in the following chapter.  He says that the way to fight a bad tendency in oneself or a bad movement in a nation is to check it during the early stages before it has gathered momentum.  One has to foresee the consequences not only of action, but also of an attitude or an outlook.  He explains the Vedantic concepts of not blaming others for our own suffering, being of service to others and to ourselves, and watching our thoughts by keeping out negatives and cultivating positive ideas; these concepts are all a means of working out our karma with spiritual advancement in our sights.  One should know when to attack difficulties with a bold front and when to circumvent them by patience.  In the final chapter, "Karma and the Great Liberation," he discusses what is essential to our tiding over the accumulated effects of karma: constant effort to thin down egoism, surrender at the feet of the Guru, detachment, and yearning for liberation.  These practices will all help us attain this liberation, so that we will never return to the cycle of births.  He explains and recommends the attitude of Karmayogi. 

A very useful book, presented with unconventional approach in the Indian context, particularly for the modern young reader.