KARMA, THE DOCTRINE OF, closely connected with the theory of rebirth and transmigration, is basic to the religious traditions of Indian origin such as Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism. The term karam, as it is spelt in Punjabi and as it occurs in Sikh Scripture, the Gurū Granth Sāhib, has three connotations. As an inflection of Sanskrit karman from root kri (to do, perform, accomplish, make, cause or effect) it means an act, action, deed. It also stands for fate, destiny, predestination inasmuch as these result from one's actions or deeds. Also, karam as a word of Arabic origin is synonymous with nadar or Divine grace or clemency. It is with the first two connotations that the doctrine of karma is mainly concerned, although karam as God's grace is also relevant to the ultimate eradication of karma bringing mokṣa or liberation from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
According to the law of karma, every action, physical or mental, has its own consequence which must be faced either in this life or in the lives to come. In the Indian religious traditions, the doctrine of karma, for this reason, is linked with the doctrines and processes of reincarnation and transmigration. Some western philosophers of yore also believed in transmigration, but for them it was associated with the concept of immortality of the soul. In Indian religious thought, on the other hand, transmigration is an essential concomitant of karma. It is to reap the consequence of his previous karma that an individual self (jīva) takes his next birth, but, in the very process of acting out this consequence, the jīva creates further chains of actions thus setting in motion an endless cycle of birth-action-death-rebirth. This has been described as the "karmic wheel" of alternating birth and death with fresh karma keeping the wheel in endless motion until the chain is broken through the annihilation of karma, and the jīva attains mokṣa (liberation or release from transmigration). Different traditions within the Indian religious system recommend different means to break the karmic cycle ranging from austerities, renunciation and non-action to ritualism, philosophic knowledge, devotion and fruitful action.
The Gurūs accepted the doctrine of karma not as an immutable law but as a system of Nature subject to hukam (Divine Order) and nadar (Divine grace) --- two concepts which might be described as Gurū Nānak's characteristic contribution to Indian religious thought. Hukam, a Persian term meaning command or decree, control or direction, sanction or permission, occurs in Gurū Nānak's hymns in several different but related connotations such as Divine law, Divine will or Divine pleasure (bhāṇā, razā); Divine fiat (amar, farmān); Divine power or Divine creation (qudarat). Nadar, though justifiably translated as grace, is somewhat different from its usage in Christian theology where the stress is upon its universal nature and absolute sufficiency for salvation. In Sikhism, nadar is related to Divine pleasure (razā) and somewhat close to "election" of neo-Calvinist theology except that it leaves no scope for individual's free will.
The doctrine of karma, according to Sikh belief, is a part of the Divine law (hukam). "The whole universe," says Gurū Arjan, Nānak V, "is bound by action, good or bad" (GG, 51). Gurū Nānak declares in the Japu that "all forms, beings, greatness and lowliness, pain and pleasure, bounties and wanderings are subject to the indescribable hukam and there is nothing outside the realm of hukam," (GG, 1) and then adds that "karma determines the kapṛā, i.e. body or birth we receive and that it is through nadar (God's grace) that one secures the threshold of mokṣa" (GG, 2). Sikhism, moreover, distinguishes between karma and kirat. The latter term applies to the cumulative effect of actions performed during successive births and is somewhat akin to sañchit karma and prārabdh karma of Hindu theoreticians. But the operation of karma in Sikhism is not irresistible; its adverse effects can be obliterated by a proper understanding of hukam and proper conduct in accordance with that understanding as well as by God's grace.
While the actions of other species are mostly regulated by instinctive response to environmental stimuli, man, endowed with a superior brain, is capable of having a proper understanding of hukam and choosing a course of actions (karma) favourable to progressive spiritual growth deserving His nadar. Human birth, therefore, is a precious gift and a rare chance for the individual soul (jīvātmā). Gurū Nānak says : "Listen, listen to my advice, O my mind! Only good deeds shall endure, and there may not be a second chance." Certain points in the Sikh view of karma are noticeable. Sikhism does not stipulate heaven or hell wherein good and bad actions of men are rewarded or punished. Moreover, according to Sikhism, human birth is the result of God's will as well as of past actions. Further, past actions do not determine the caste or status of the jīva taking birth. All human beings are born equal.
What are "good" deeds (sukrit) that help man's quest for mokṣa, his ultimate aim? The Gurūs deprecated self-mortification and non-action and pronounced ritualism as useless. They recommended a householder's life of activity and responsibility lived with humility, devotion and service guided by proper knowledge of hukam and submission to God's will (razā). Here Sikhism synthesizes the three paths to union with the Supreme soul, viz. jñāna mārga, bhakti mārga and karma mārga. A Sikh is called upon to seek giān (jñāna), knowledge spiritual as well as secular, mundane and moral, practise bhakti, loving devotion, while leading a normal life of a gurmukh or one whose face is turned towards the Gurū. His actions (karma) guided by discernment that comes from giān and with the dedication and complete self-surrender of a bhakta, should be performed earnestly and honestly, doing full justice to his worldly duties. Yet he should not let himself be so much attached and entangled in the bonds of present life as to ignore the hereafter and to forget his ultimate goal which is reunion of his individual soul with its original source, the Supreme Spirit. Such disinterested actions help annihilate man's haumai (I-ness, ego) and, when blessed by God's nadar or mihar, he can overcome the effect of past karma and become jīvan-mukta, i.e. one liberated while still living.
K. R. Srīnivāsa lyenger