In the previous chapters we raised questions concerning the relation of the law of karma to the law of universal causation. In this chapter it will be our intent first to clarify the relation between these two laws. Then we will inquire concerning the epistemological status of the law of karma. Is the law of karma a convenient fiction which, though it enables the believer to resolve certain philosophical and practical problems, is not descriptive of empirical states of affairs? Or is it an empirical generalization from certain experiences known by a person whose self-advancement makes possible extraordinary perceptual states? Or is it to be considered a necessary, presuppositional postulate with empirical content? The answer to this question should help us to understand better how the law of karma is to function in discussions which invoke it and provide direction for the remainder of our study.
- Moral Quality
- Spiritual Experience
- Empirical Content
- Empirical Generalization
- Phenomenal World
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Actions have ‘a double effect—one physical and visible and another moral and invisible. … The physical effect follows the law of instantaneous succession, but the moral effect (which is often compared to a seed) may remain in abeyance and fructify at a much later time when maturing conditions are present. Again, while the physical effect is mainly, if not wholly, produced on others, the moral effect comes to rest upon the head of the doer himself. …’ H.D. Bhattacharyya, ‘The Doctrine of Karma’, The Philosophical Quarterly (Amalner) 3 (1927), p. 239.
Ahguttara-Nikāya, VI,VI,63. See James P. McDermott, ‘Karma and Rebirth in Early Buddhism’, in Wendy D. O’Flaherty (ed.), Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), p. 181.
For example,’ superficial appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, Buddhist ethics is essentially an ethics of intention. Actions themselves are neither good nor bad: for the Buddhist even more than for Shakespeare, “thinking makes them so.” Kuśala and akuśala, literally skill and unskill, the more precise Buddhist expressions for what is morally good and morally bad, are terms applicable only to karma-producing volitions and their associated mental phenomena. By the figure of speech according to which qualities belonging to the cause are attributed to the effect, an action is termed immoral when it springs from a mental state… dominated by the three unskilful or “unwholesome” roots of greed, hatred, and delusion, and moral when it proceeds from mental states characterized by the opposites of these.’ Bhikshu Sangharakshita, A Survey of Buddhism (Bangalore: Indian Institute of World Culture, 1959), pp. 142–3.
For a discussion of this perspective with respect to the question whether old age and death are the result of karma, see James McDermott, ‘The Kathāvatthu Kamma Debates’, Journal of the American Oriental Society 95 (1975), pp. 426–7.
Jainism has an extensive (what might be termed mythological) explanation of what happens in the fourteen stages of spiritual development leading to liberation. In the seventh stage the soul gains self-control and freedom from spiritual inertia to continue its progress. In the eleventh stage the passions (deluding karma) are suppressed, while in the twelfth they are eliminated, though the karma resulting from activity remains. In the thirteenth stage the threefold activity of the body, the sense-organ of speech, and mind remains, though this activity does not create any further bondage (its bondage does not last longer than an instant and hence is technically non-affecting). In preparation for entering the fourteenth stage, the soul ends this activity. Thus both sources of karmic attraction—passions and activity—are eliminated. However, the karma which determines the body formation, social status, and production of feelings is longer than that which determines length of life. Hence, the soul in eight instants expands to the size of the universe, and then contracts again. This equalizes the length of all the other karma with that which determines the length of life in any incarnation (āyuh karma). That is, it assures premature fruition and complete exhaustion of all karma which is of longer length than the āyuh karma and would require a longer existence. The fourteenth stage is an extremely brief period (‘the period of time required to pronounce five short syllables at the ordinary speed’) of non-activity, immediately followed by liberation. For a detailed description of this process, see Nathmal Tatia, Studies in jaina Philosophy (Benares: Jain Cultural Research Society, 1951), pp. 276–80.
‘“Fiction,” in this context, does not mean a concept or theory that is necessarily false; rather a concept or theory may be called a fiction when it is undemonstrable, when it is impossible to determine its truth or falsehood, or when … it cannot be established by any of the pramāṇas.’ Eliot Deutsch, Advaita Vedānta: A Philosophical Reconstruction (Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii, 1973), p. 76.
Mysore Hiriyanna, Outlines of Indian Philosophy (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1932), p. 359.
Karl H. Potter, ‘The Naturalistic Principle of Karma’, Philosophy East and West 14 (April 1964), pp. 39–40.
This is illustrated by the discourse concerning the apparently inexplicable death of Moggāllana the Great, who met with such an untimely death, considering the kind of person he was. The Buddha’s knowledge of prior existences provides the explanation to the puzzled disciples in terms of Moggāllana’s past deeds and accumulated karma. Buddaghosa’s commentary on the Dhammapada, stanza 137, in Henry Clarke Warren (ed.), Buddhism in Translations (New York: Atheneum, 1962), pp. 222–6.
For an analysis and defence of de re necessity, see Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974)
© 1990 Bruce R. Reichenbach
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Reichenbach, B.R. (1990). The Laws of Karma and Causation. In: The Law of Karma. Library of Philosophy and Religion. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-11899-1_3
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