23 January 2009

Is Karma responsible for Everything?

cart wheel photoRecently a friend asked my opinion about a verse from Vāseṭṭha Sutta in the Sutta Nipāta. It was being cited as a proof text for the idea that karma (ours and other peoples) is the sole source of all our experience. The question of what karma is responsible for is one that seems to come up again and again. Partly because there are so many versions of what karma really is or means. The Sutta Nipāta is generally considered to have been composed quite early - the last two chapters are often said to be the oldest layer of the Pāli Canon. Saddhatissa's translation of the verse was quoted so let's start there, and then I'll work through the verse one phrase at a time:
The world exists because of causal actions,
all things are produced by causal actions
and all beings are governed and bound by causal actions.
they are fixed like the rolling wheel of a cart,
fixed by the pin of its axle shaft. (p.75)
The Pali is
1a | Kammunā vattati loko,
1b | kammunā vattati pajā;
2a | Kammanibandhanā sattā,
2b | rathassāṇīva yāyato. (Sn 654)
Now the Sutta Nipāta is notoriously difficult to translate due to the archaic language. A more literal translation would be:
"The world exists through actions, offspring exist through actions;
Beings are bound to actions, driven like a horse-chariot axle pin."
or perhaps -
"The world is moved by actions, people are moved by actions;
Beings are fettered by actions, driven like a horse-chariot axle pin."
"The world" (loka) is a metaphor for one's inner world of experience - it should be read this way in almost every case. It's an old Vedic metaphor which we share when we say things like - "he lives in a world of his own". I note that the text is a discussion with two Brahmins so it shouldn't be a big surprise to find Vedic overtones in the language. A 'loka' was originally an open space, like a clearing in the forest, in which one could see clearly. So phrase 1a (ie 1st line, 1st phrase) means that the world of experience is driven by kamma - crucially we keep experiencing vedanā because vedanā is the result of previous kamma. The Pāli texts are clear that vedanā is the result (vipaka) of kamma - i.e. only the broad outlines of one's experience, the pleasure and pain, are the result of kamma, not the specific details of what causes the experience. As we know unenlightened experience is dukkha, and can argue in this case that world (loka) and suffering (dukkha) are equivalents. In effect 1a is a less sophisticated way of saying greed, hatred and delusion keep saṃsara going.

The verb vattati (repeated in phrase 1b) can mean "to move, or go; to be, exist; to fare, to do" - i.e. it has the same broad reference of other Pāli verbs for "to be" like bhavati. Note the dynamic aspect that our English "to be" often lacks. Given the image at the end we might also have translated it: "is powered by": as in "experience is powered by kamma". This would also make sense. The Pali English Dictionary (PED) says that in this context it means "keeps up, goes on". Which is more or less the same thing. The idea is that kamma is what "drives" the process. In 2b the verb is yāyati which does mean "to drive". Recall also that the Buddha redefined kamma: cetanāhaṃ, bhikkhave, kammaṃ vadāmi - I say, monks, that intention (cetanā) is kamma (AN vi.63). In this light I'm not convinced that "causal action" is any more helpful as a translation than simply "action" - it might have been better to leave kamma untranslated.

The purpose of phrase 1b is to link rebirth to kamma. This may seem a strange point to make, but in a Vedic context it was important because early Brahminical versions of rebirth did not link it to kamma (see the first chapter of the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad for instance where is it known as 'redeath' and not linked to kamma, or to ātman!). Calling people "pajā", although a common usage, may well be a reference to Pajāpati (Sanskrit Prajāpati) the Vedic god of creation and father of all beings, i.e. it once again suggests a Vedic flavour in this passage.

In phrase 2a beings (sattā) are bound (bandhanā) by their kamma. That is, having acted you must live with the consequences. This is a distinction from other kamma theories which state that you can burn-up old kamma by experiencing suffering now. That idea is associated in the Pali Canon with the Jains who did severe austerities and self-torture, sometimes as a prelude to starving themselves to death in pursuit of liberation. For the Buddha there are ways (basically general spiritual practices) to lessen the impact of kamma-vipaka, but not to avoid it altogether. (I write about this in my article for the Journal of Buddhist Ethics). Bandhu was the Vedic word for the very important relationships between mirco- and macro-cosm, between earth and heaven. Understanding and manipulating bandhu was the central function of the Brahmin priests. So again this is drawing on Vedic idiom.

Phrase 2b finishes with a image that sums up the verse. The phrase is parsed as ratha assa āṇī va yāyato. It is driven (yāyato) only or like (iva or eva elided to va following a long vowel) a horse-chariot (rathassa) wheel pin (āṇī *). Saddhatissa sees this image as reinforcing the idea that we are bound (bandhanā) to the results of our actions and tries to bring this out in his translation. The past-participle yāyato means "driven" - it's an intensive for of yāti "to go, go on, proceed, to go away". PED gives as an example "yāyena yāyati to drive in a carriage". The image seems to relate 'the bond' to the driving in of a wheel pin - presumably these were wedge shaped and were hammered into place to hold the wheel on chariot. So there is a further sense that kamma is what keeps the wheels on the carriage, that it keeps the whole business of suffering going. The use of yāyato reinforces this as it suggests motive power - kamma being what keeps the wheel of saṃsāra turning. The horse chariot was powerfully associated with the Brahmins in the Vedic period, although I'm not sure if that would hold in the Buddha's time and place. The horse chariot was a war chariot, a symbol of royal power and of conquest; whereas the ox-cart was a more agricultural vehicle. So perhaps here also the Buddha is using Vedic imagery to suit his audience?

I think Saddhatissa has erred by introducing the word "all" into the translation - it makes the text sound too absolute. There is nothing here that could be translated as "all things". Clearly also there is nothing here to suggest that "all events" are, or that "everything" is, the result of kamma.

The idea that everything that happens is a result of kamma is a common enough wrong view to have a name: Pubbekata-hetu-ditthi (literally "the with-past-actions-as-cause view"). For a canonical discussion of this you could try the Devadaha Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 101). Bhikkhu Thanissaro's version on Access to Insight comes with a useful introduction. A problem for contemporary Buddhists is that this version of karma - i.e. that everything that happens is the result of previous actions - is taught by Tibetan Buddhist teachers. I don't see any way of reconciling these views - they are mutually exclusive. But then my own take on kamma/karma and belief in general is pragmatic: if what you belief about karma makes you a better person (less greedy, angry, ignorant; more generous, loving, wise etc.) and helps you to see that experiences are impermanent, unsatisfying, and insubstantial; then I don't think it's so important what you believe. I've talked about this aspect of belief in a couple of earlier essays: Karma and Rebirth; Beliefs can be Heaven or Hell. For another interesting view on Karma look at Nagapriya's article for Tricycle Magazine: Donating the Future.

One final note on the possible presence of Vedic metaphors and terms. Firstly I may be overstating this connection. But even if I am not, then secondly we need only assume that the Buddha was using language which he knew would be familiar to his audience. Importantly we don't need to assume that the Buddha bought into the Vedic world view. It does suggest that the Buddha might have been familiar with some of the ideas of Brahmins, and there is plenty of other evidence to back this up. He may well have acquired this familiarity in religious debates which were a feature of life in the Buddha's time, rather through having studied the Vedas. Indeed the latter is unlikely if only because the Buddha was not a Brahmin, and therefore excluded from learning Sanskrit and studying the texts.

* The word āṇi has an interesting history. It is attested in the oldest parts of the Ṛgveda (e.g. RV 5.43.8) but appears not to be an Indo-Aryan word, i.e. not from a language related to Vedic or Sanskrit or any of their variants and offshoots. Previously it was thought to be a loan word from the linguistically unrelated Dravidian family, now most commonly associated with South India and represented in the present by Telegu, Malayalam, and Tamil. However Michael Witzel (1998 p.18), has shown that this is unlikely, and in fact scholars of Dravidian languages saw it as a loan-word from Indo-Aryan! Witzel suggests that it is one of about 200-250 loan words from an archaic form of a Munda language. This suggests that Munda was the language originally spoken in the Kurukṣetra which came to be the heartland of the Vedic speaking peoples. Munda is a member of the Austro-Asiatic family of languages which includes Thai, Malay, Cambodian and Vietnamese. The Munda speaking people are often called "tribals" and live on the margins of Indian society, some maintaining a nomadic lifestyle. If any group could be considered aboriginal in India it is them. Their religions are animistic, and I want at some point to see if they share any of the animistic beliefs found in early Buddhism.

  • Saddhatissa, H. 1985. The Sutta-Nipāta. Richmond, Surrey: Curson Press, 1994.
  • Devadaha Sutta. MN 101. Access to Insight. Includes a useful introduction to the text by Bhikkhu Thanissaro.
  • Nagapriya. 2009. 'Donating the Future.' Tricycle Magazine Website.
  • Witzel, Michael. 1998. 'The Languages of Harappa : Early linguistic data and the Indus civilization.' in J. Kenoyer (ed.) Proceedings of the conference on the Indus civilization, Madison 1998. provisional. pdf
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