Category Archives: C. Karma, Time, and Cosmology


The Hindu concept of moksa is that of complete liberation from suffering and death. Once moksa is attained, individuals are free from the cycle of karma, within which they must endure or reap the consequences of their actions, as well as samsara (the cycle of rebirth) or worldly existence (Shivkumar 77). Moksa is the last of the four Hindu goals of life and may be sought during the samnyasin (renouncer) stage of life (Prasad 5). [More about the four goals of life can be found in Rodrigues (2006)]. While it is scarcely mentioned in the other Vedas, the Upanisads declare the importance of liberation and the Advaita Vedanta school of philosophy formed by Sankara has emphasized it as the ultimate goal of life (Kumar 22). Advaita Vedanta teaches that avidya (ignorance) and maya (illusion) in this world keep people from the realization of the true self (atman) and Ultimate Reality (Brahman) (Shivkumar 30).

According to the Upanisads, Brahman is the creator of the universe, transcends the universe, and is the universe (Shivkumar 28). Atman is the very essence of the true self within each person and is also Ultimate Reality. Atman and Brahman are one entity and this realization, that one’s true self is also Brahman, is what brings about moksa. This is illustrated in the Upanisads by the story of Svetaketu and his father Uddalaka (Arapura 73). Although Svetaketu has completed his formal education, his father must still teach him about the subtle essence of reality, which is the truth about Brahman and Atman, tat tvam asi (that thou art). In this way, Uddalaka shows his son that Atman and Brahman are one. This understanding is only possible once the two forms of ignorance, nama (name) and rupa (form), have been defeated (Shivkumar 149). Just as the name and form of a river disappears when it is united with the sea, one who achieves right outlook or wisdom (vidya) becomes united with Brahman. Although there is debate over the characteristics of enlightenment after one achieves moksa, the Upanisads declare that this state of pure consciousness is filled with intense joy (Chakrabarti 7).

Vedanta philosophy asserts that an adhikari (eligible person) for the pursuit of moksa must undergo personal training through spiritual practices (Kumar 112). This training creates within adhikaris four main qualities that help them to attain liberation. The first, called nityanityavastuviveka, is the power to discriminate between permanent and impermanent. This is especially important since one must identify the transcendent essence of the universe. Ihamutrarthabhogaviraga, the second quality, is detachment from worldly and other-worldly objects. This can be cultivated during the samnyasin stage of life by renouncing one’s possessions and migrating frequently from place to place (Rodrigues 2006:93). The third quality, samadamadisadhanasampat, is the development of self-control through six properties: restraining the internal organ, controlling the external sense organs, abstaining from all but the pursuit of truth, practicing tolerance, focusing the mind, and having faith in spiritual teachings (Kumar 112). Finally, the adhikari must possess mumuksutva, which is a strong desire to be released from samsara. Even though the end of suffering may not be enough to fuel this desire, as it also entails giving up worldly pleasure, Advaita Vedanta enhances motivation by characterizing enlightenment as perpetual bliss (Chakrabarti 5).

Three main paths (yogas) to attaining moksa are emphasized in the Bhagavad Gita, which is part of the famous epic the Mahabharata (Shivkumar 30). The first of these is jnana (transcendental knowledge), which is gained through contemplation and meditation on the true nature of the self (Raghavachar 266). One may also develop knowledge by learning from a guru (spiritual teacher) or an individual who has already achieved enlightenment (Shivkumar 141). Study of the Vedas with close attention to Vedanta can also lead to the accumulation of knowledge required to bring about the realization of moksa. In addition, Patanjali’s Raja Yoga, and other forms of yoga can also be used to pursue knowledge of Atman/Brahman because it leads to the silence of the mind so that one can see the truth (Ravindra 177). Although the Bhagavad Gita maintains that anyone, regardless of class (varna), can achieve moksa, it may be easier for individuals in certain varnas to pursue a specific path to liberation. Since intense study of spiritual matters is an asset in following jnana, the Brahmin priestly class who spend a great deal of time learning and reading Vedic texts may be exposed to an environment that is more facilitative to the attainment of moksa through jnana than individuals in other varnas.

The second main path to moksa is that of karma (action) (Shivkumar 145). The Bhagavad Gita teaches that action should be disciplined. In detaching themselves from this world, adhikaris should renounce all attachment from the fruits of their actions. For example, they should not perform deeds simply because these deeds will bring them success. However, this does not mean that a person seeking moksa should renounce all action and practice inaction. Rather, God (or Visnu) in the form of Krsna declares that the world would be destroyed if he did not perform actions. He concludes that people should dedicate all their actions to God. The philosopher Ramanuja further interprets this instruction as stating that followers should put themselves under the control of God and become God’s tools (Raghavachar 266). As a result of this dedicated action, the cyclic law of karma falls away and gives rise to one’s inner spirit or Atman/Brahman. Despite this focus on action, there is some controversy over whether or not practicing dharma (righteousness/duty) is a valid way to attain moksa (Ingalls 3). This is very similar to the debate over the importance of good works versus faith in Protestant Christianity as a means for entering heaven. Regardless of Sankara’s insistence that dharma is a worldly goal bound by samsara, many Hindus follow the Bhagavad Gita’s view of righteous action as an essential part of the journey to attaining moksa.

Bhakti (loving devotion) is the third core path to moksa. This path, of which anyone is capable, requires full faith in God, an intense love for him and absolute surrender to him (Shivkumar 147). Ramanuja proclaims that bhakti must evolve from the disciplines of karma and jnana and that love emerges from the decision of the seeker to meditate on the nature of Brahman (Raghavachar 267). Devotion is the result of experience or knowledge of God, love of God cultivated by experience, and disciplined service to God. Despite these philosophical stipulations, this path is often seen as a simpler way of achieving moksa than both karma and jnana. Bhakti is believed to extend divine grace to seekers of Brahman/Atman because it can be followed by anyone regardless of caste, knowledge, opportunity for action or past deeds. Therefore, it is often spoken of as a universal and democratic way to enlightenment.

There are also other ways of attaining moksa than those accentuated in the Bhagavad Gita. Prapatti (self-surrender) is the humble offering of one’s burden and responsibility as part of humanity over to God in order to attain enlightenment (Raghavachar 270). It is performed in a single act that is final, absolute and cannot be repeated. Seekers hand over their whole selves, along with the responsibility of attaining moksa, to God. In the Ramanujite tradition, the actual process of prapatti entails three meditative mantras (sacred utterances), two self-offering sentences, and the recitation of the last verse of Krsna’s instruction to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita.

In contrast, Hindu Grammarians believe that words are both reflections of Brahman/Atman as well as the means through which he can be known (Coward 209). In both the Vakyapadiya and his commentary on Patanjali’s Mahabhasya, Bhartrhari emphasizes that the study of grammar, through the correct use of words and the knowledge of their essence, can lead to moksa. The use of speech purified by grammar gives the speaker spiritual merit, which results in wellbeing and moral power. Conversely, speech that is tainted by the incorrect use of words confuses the mind and creates ignorance (avidya). Therefore, the Yoga of the Word as the practice of studying and abiding by grammar rules is another way to realize the true essence of Atman and Brahman.

The concept of moksa also exists in Jainism but the ideas that surround it are somewhat different. Jains believe that individuals are held in the bondage of samsara through karmic matter that clings to the self as a result of one’s evil desires and predispositions (Shivkumar 84). Moksa is achieved through cutting off the self from any connection with karmic matter. The way to liberation is composed of the three jewels: right belief, right knowledge and right conduct. Once an individual has achieved moksa and becomes liberated, that person transcends samsara and remains forever at the apex of the universe (Jaini 223). Here, the liberated individual resides in a state of pure consciousness and supreme peace (Shivkumar 116).

Conversely, Buddhism holds the concept of nirvana, which is akin to moksa in that it is the end of all worldly suffering (Shivkumar 161). However, nirvana does not involve connecting oneself to a god-like concept such as Brahman. It postulates that the self is impermanent and there is no Atman or greater self (Rodrigues 2004:174). Rather, nirvana is an understanding of Ultimate Reality as dynamic process that is continually changing and this realization leads to the extinction of desire, hatred and illusion. Nirvana is achieved through adherence to the Noble Eightfold Path, which requires the individual to strive for right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration (Shivkumar 174).

Moksa is a goal that encompasses many common human desires: to find one’s true self, to end ignorance and worldly suffering, and to connect oneself with a more meaningful and powerful whole. Such enlightenment does not come automatically to an individual; rather, it must be sought after. As a result, there are many different paths to moksa and many more interpretations of how to follow these paths (Kumar 49). However, all Hindu interpretations consistently convey that a person must reach an understanding of Atman and Brahman as the true essence of reality in order to attain moksa.


Arapura, John (1995) “Spirit and Spiritual Knowledge in the Upanisads.” In Hindu Spirituality: Vedas Through Vedanta [Vol. 1]. Krishna Sivaraman (ed.). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 64-85.

Chakrabarti, A. (1983) “Is Liberation (Moksa) Pleasant?” Philosophy East and West, 33, no. 2 (Apr): 167-182.

Coward, Harold (1995) “The Reflective Word: Spirituality in the Grammarian Tradition of India.” In Hindu Spirituality: Vedas Through Vedanta [Vol. 1]. Krishna Sivaraman (ed.). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 209-228.

Ingalls, Daniel (1957) “Dharma and Moksa.” Philosophy East and West, 7, no. 1/2 (Apr-Jul): 41-48.

Jaini, Padmanabh (1980) “Karma and the Problem of Rebirth in Jainism.” In Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions. Wendy O’Flaherty (ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 217-238.

Kumar, Shashiprabha (2005) Self, Society and Value: Reflections on Indian Philosophical Thought. Khajuri Khas: Vidyanidhi Prakashan.

Prasad, Rajendra (1971) “The Concept of Moksa.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 31, no. 3 (Mar): 381-393.

Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli (1980) The Hindu View of Life. London: Mandala Books.

Raghavachar, S. (1995) “The Spiritual Vision of Ramanuja.” In Hindu Spirituality: Vedas Through Vedanta [Vol. 1]. Krishna Sivaraman (ed.). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 261-274.

Ravindra, Ravi (1995) “Yoga: The Royal Path to Freedom.” In Hindu Spirituality: Vedas Through Vedanta [Vol. 1]. Krishna Sivaraman (ed.). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 177-191.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York: Routledge.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2004) “Buddhism.” In World Religions: A Guide to the Essentials. Tom Robinson, Hillary Rodrigues, Jim Linville, and John Harding (eds.). Lethbridge: University of Lethbridge. pp. 157-185.

Shivkumar, Muni (2000) The Doctrine of Liberation in Indian Religion. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.

Related Topics for Further Investigation



Bhagavad Gita

Advaita Vedanta






Hindu Grammar


Patanjali’s Raja Yoga


The four asramas

The four purusarthas

The Upanisads




Tat tvam asi


The four varnas






Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Stefanie Duguay (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Karma and Reincarnation

History of Understanding Karma

The Antyesti (Final rite) of a person is a practice in which the body of the sacrificed, for example the deceased, is used as a material offering. It is a process in which the dead person is moved away from the living world into another life form. Karma, the doctrine which is now famously used to understand aspects of physical and spiritual life all over the world was introduced after the well-known Brahman sage Yajnavalka recited the formal Vedic doctrine for a dead person on their funeral pyre. In many scholarly texts, it is described that Karman was first recognized when Yajnavalka was asked by an associate, Artabhaga, “What becomes of a person who is dead?” Yajnavalka and Artabhaga had a long conversation in which Yajnavalka concluded with the doctrine of Karman (action) (Tull 2). He states clearly that a person’s actions are judged as good Karman when good deeds are performed and bad Karman when bad actions are performed. This, he said, is what determines a person’s afterlife. The first mention of the Karman principle according to scholars is generally agreed to be in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad which is an early Upanisad (Tull 28). The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad is acknowledged as belonging to the 600-500 BCE time period. In order to understand the principle of Karman, scholars initially had to separate the Brahamanas from Upanisads. They agreed that the Upanisads focused on the nature of reality in one’s life whereas Brahmanas focused more on proper ritual and sacrifices included in Hindu tradition such as the Antyesti ritual (Tull 3).

Earlier on there were many debates on the topic of Karman and on what Karman was primarily based.Yajnavalka had stated that good and proper performance of rites along with bad or incorrect performance of rites will determine what type of afterlife lies before a dead person. He was not referring to the funeral rite as people originally thought. He was actually referring to the acts performed by the individual in his lifetime before death took place. This is because a dead person cannot perform their own death rites once they are physically dead. Scholars concluded that Yajnavalka was referring to a lifetime of sacrificial performances and duties that are prescribed in Hindu texts and scriptures that are supposed to be followed by good Hindus (Tull 2).

In one explanation of Hindus’ views on Karman, it is represented through the cultivation of rice. Rice symbolizes the rebirths of people because rice is actually planted twice throughout its life span. First the seed is planted; then the seedling is planted again to be harvested over a year, repeatedly, as opposed to being harvested just once during one season. This symbolizes the passing of a person, who also goes through many lives if she or he has not freed themselves from the Karman chain or the cycles of rebirth (Tull 5). Scholars have used Yajnavalka’s statement to understand Karman and the conditions a person endures after physical life has passed. Conditions are determined and result from the actions that the individual had taken part in before death occurred. This is what is now labelled as the principle of Karman (Tull 28).

Purpose of Karma

The purpose of the Karma doctrine is to help people better judge actions they performed during their lifetime, and this, in return, made people want to perform better actions. A person can take on from a variety of different Rupas (Form) in their next life (Tull 31). [For further readings regarding different Rupas, see Wadia]. Sometimes people will endure pain, sorrow and death in a new life which is the result of something that happened in their previous life. This Prarabdhakarman (Result) follows a person into their new life, and as is said in Western terms, it haunts that person till they receive recognition for their actions (Neufeldt 62). In Hinduism it is also believed that in order to release the Jiva (Soul) from another sorrowful rebirth, the family can take the ill or dying person to the Ganga River, a known Hindu holy river and there perform a ritual bathing with the aid of a Brahman priest. Through this rite the participants can transfer some of their own good Karman to their dying relative (Neufeldt 62-63).

Karman entails that a person’s present state is not a consequence of present actions but is due to actions that have taken place during his or her previous state or of lives Also, Karman theorizes that one’s actions during the present life will determine the consequences one suffers or will face in the next life (Neufeldt 2). N.A. Nikam, a scholar, states: “The Law of Karma is based on the reality of human freedom, and it pre-supposes the notion of responsibility, and the Law does not state an unalterable necessity but a modal possibility or a conditional relativity” (Neufeldt 4). This statement implies that persons are capable of changing their fate which is pre-determined at birth or perhaps before birth in a possible positive way so that way they are free to do as they wish along with being able to shape their future according to what they want. [For further readings on scholarly discussions regarding Karma views, see Neufeldt].

Other scholars also have another view in which they agree that what is actually happening in the concept of Karma is all rooted from Avidya (Ignorance). “Your experiencing the fruits is not due to your Karma, but Avidya” (Neufeldt 8). Fruits, in this context are referring to consequences one may endure in their lifetime. This is also what the Upanisads state in their teachings of Karma; one’s ignorance can also decrease chances of attaining Moksa (Liberation). [For further readings regarding Avidya and Karma, see Anand 278-281].This explanation does make common sense because it has a part of our everyday lives. For example, if an aspect is ignored in our daily lives, there are more chances that we will not respond to that aspect and therefore, in the end, we must suffer the consequences of our chosen actions; in this case to ignore the aspect. An example to illustrate this is if one’s grandmother is really ill and the person doesn’t make an effort to stand by her and enjoy with their her the last few moments of her life; there will be consequences to suffer once the grandmother has passed away that cannot be taken back because when the grandmother was alive, the person didn’t make time (the aspect ignored) to be with her. Like this example, there are many examples in one’s life where aspects are simply ignored and dwelled upon later when nothing can be done to change it.

Ending the Cycles of Rebirth

In Hinduism, there are three yogas or theories that help many people lead good lives and therefore reinforcing good karmic acts. The three following concepts are mentioned in one of Hinduism’s widely read scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita or the “Song of the Lord.” The Karma-Marga is followed by many people and fairly common amongst Hindus. The Bhagavad Gita represents Karma-Marga as a path into liberation and self-realization. The Mimamsa School, which is very Orthodox in its views, suggests that Karman acts as a connecting bridge between the soul and any bondage it may acquire (Anand 278). In Karma-Marga, according to Mimamsa, sins can include Pratisidda (prohibited acts) along with Kamya Karmas (selfish acts). There is also the non-performing acts category in which one would not be performing the proper Nitya (obligatory) and Naimittika Karmas (occasional acts) of appropriate Hindu Dharma. A person who is trying to attain Moksa (liberation) from the endless cycles of rebirth should end all acts that would be categorized as Pratisidda and Kamya Karmas (Anand 278-279). This person must perform the proper acts which are Nitya and Naimittika Karmic acts as is recommended in Hindu scriptures. The purpose of this theory is that when the person’s physical body falls, the person would have already achieved Moksa therefore there are no Karmas left to be judged, in order to give him another birth cycle. Since Mimamsa is only one view of this concept and regarded as very proper and Orthodox in it’s interpretations, not all Hindus believe this view, as there are many others (Anand 278-279).

The second view is called Jnana-Marga. Jnanameaning “knowledge,” shows that this view is dominated by an outlook where having transcendental knowledge is a crucial aspect. Karma-Marga and Jnana-Marga are different from each other because in Karma-Marga, action and performing correct duties is important, whereas in Jnana-Marga, having intuitive knowledge is an important feature. Having knowledge would entail that one is to know Brahman or the Divine Being as believed by Hindus. According to the Mimamsa view, everything else is ignorance and foolish, consisting of people who think they are wise and have learned everything but yet still go from life to life, round and round without true meaning and suffer from misery. The basic statement is that true nature of the self is not different from Brahman but it is Brahman itself. Mimamsa states that a person who thinks otherwise is a fool and therefore goes from death to death and birth to birth. This ignorance can only be removed by knowledge and not only good Karma can remove a person from the re-birth cycle. A person wishing to attain this state obtains this by practicing the Patanjala Yoga in which his intellectual side is the greatest self. The Patanjala Yoga can be summarized in the following hierarchy order. One’s speech derives from the mind (before speaking, one thinks about it in their mind); his mind is due to his intellect (what the mind contains is due to certain knowledge or experience one has) and therefore raising intellect (what one knows) to the greatest level in order to achieve this goal (Anand, 279-280).

The Astangika-Yogais used to help control outwards thoughts of the mind. This yoga removes all illusions from the mind allowing the individual to focus on what actually exists, which is known as absolute reality. As soon as this knowledge is understood there is no more bondage to the soul. Spiritual knowledge is emphasized in Jnana-Yoga to help a person realize the true nature of Brahman that is equated to knowing himself better (Anand, 278). This theory states that everyone has this knowledge, but it is hidden within people. An example to illustrate this knowledge is that this knowledge was also hidden in Newton’s mind, till he came to understand that absolute knowledge better (Anand 279-281).

The final way in which one may escape reoccurring cycles of birth is through the Bhakti-Marga. This is a path in which devotion or pure faith in a deity is placed. According to the Mimamsa view, the devotee (person who is worshipping the deity) believes that they have a part in his or her Lord’s world. An example to better demonstrate Bhakti-Marga is to imagine the devotee as an instrument placed in the hands of his Lord. Through worshipping, along with encompassing chaste faith, the devotee becomes an aspirant for deserving liberation. These devotees believe that there is no such thing as difference in caste, beauty, wealth, creed or occupation. Everyone is alike to them and therefore all these proper actions of devotion according to Orthodox Mimamsa views, will help end the cycles of rebirth for the devotee (Anand 281).

Through these various views or theories in accordance to the Mimamsa School, one can perform proper daily tasks and duties to escape from sin and wrong doings or in other words staying away from Pratisidda and Kamya Karmas, one can escape from the cycles of rebirth (Anand 281-289).

Karma has transformed from being an ancient belief explaining to Hindus, along with many others in the world, where people go after they die into a more sophisticated belief about what people can do to gain liberation and end the cycles of rebirth. Karma and reincarnation interactively play a role in helping people determine spiritual beliefs on what may happen to them in their next birth or aid in explaining metaphysical matters which cannot be explained by the world of science.


Anand, Kewal Krishna (1982) Indian Philosophy. Jawahanagar: Bharatiya Vidya Prakashan.

Kenoyer, Jonathan M. (2003) “A Peaceful Realm: The Rise and Fall of the Indus Civilization.” Asian Perspectives 42, no.2:376-380.

Neufeldt, Ronald W. (1986) Karma and Rebirth. New York: State University of New York Press.

Tull, Herman W. (1989) The Vedic Origins of Karma. New York: State University of New York Press.

Wadia, A. R. (1965) “Philosophical Implications of the Doctrine of Karma.” Philosophy East and West 15, no.2: 145-152.





Brhadaranyaka Upanisad



Indus Valley Civilization




Priesthood in Hinduism





Mimamsa School



Patanjala Yoga




Written by Aman Dhasi (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.