Prarabdha Karma After Self Realization: It’s Philosophy – Part 1/3

Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Purpose of Writing this Article
  3. The Upanishads on Prarabdha Karma
    1. Concept of Prarabdha Karma in Chandogya Upanishad
    2. Mention of Prarabdha Karma in Nadabindu Upanishad
  4. The Elusive Status of Prarabdha Karma in Nadabindu Upanishad
  5. Shankara on Prarabdha Karma
    1. Shankara’s Elucidation of Prarabdha Karma
    2. Shankara: There Are No Grades in Enlightened Beings From the Point of View of Self Knowledge
    3. Shankara: Degrees of Deepening of Knowledge for Self Experience
  6. Conclusion
  7. Notes

Introduction

In this series of articles I am going to take a deep look at a very elusive topic of Prarabdha Karma. After Self Realization in Advaita, a Jnani is supposed to have got knowledge of himself as formless Awareness over which the body/mind/intellect is superimposed. So does a Jnani suffer like others or does he not? Does a Jnani have a body/mind/intellect or does he not? Why does the body of a Jnani not drop after attaining Self Knowledge. Why does it continue? This series of articles unearths the answers to these questions philosophically and experientially. To my knowledge, one rarely comes across a deep exploration of these topics in a manner that lays to rest all doubts and confusions. Through this series I show that questions on philosophy and experience of Prarabdha Karma are not answered simply. The answer is complex and it depends upon the standpoint from which the question is being asked which leaves room for a lot of confusions about its nature.

There are two standpoints to explain this. From the Absolute standpoint of Awareness, there was never any birth of any body. From the phenomenal viewpoint, Advaita explains the appearance of a body according to the theory of Prarabdha Karma.

The present body/mind/intellect has come to existence based on acts done in previous lives. Prarabdha Karma is that portion of Karma which has started bearing fruit in the present life. It gives birth to the present body, the circumstances in which it is born, the situations which the body has to face to exhaust this karma and ultimately the time when the body is going to die. While Self Knowledge puts an end to two other kinds of karma called sanchita karma and agami karma, it does not put an end to prarabdha karma. The momentum of prarabdha karma is supposed to continue even after a person has gained knowledge of the ultimate reality. It is likened to an arrow which has been shot and thus cannot be stopped midway. The arrow shall find its mark. When all the prarabdha karma is exhausted, the body dies.

“But only those past (virtues and vices) get destroyed which have not begun to bear fruit, for death is set as the limit of waiting for liberation”

– Brahmasutra – Verse IV.i.15

Commenting on this verse in his Bhashya, Shankaracharya writes,

“After the acquisition of knowledge, those virtues and vices that have not begun to yield their fruits and that were accumulated in earlier lives or even in this life before the dawn of knowledge are alone destroyed, but not so are those destroyed whose results have already been partially enjoyed and by which has begun this present life in which the knowledge of Brahman arises.”

Brahmasutra Bhashya – IV.i.15

In this three part series of articles I am going to examine

  1. The Philosophy of Prarabdha Karma Outlined in Upanishads With Shankara’s Commentaries
  2. The Seeming Refutation of Prarabdha Karma Theory by Some Post Shankara Works: The Concept of Jivanmukta
  3. The Subjective Experience of Prarabdha Karma by a Jnani by Other Post Shankara Works.

Purpose of Writing this Article

The aspect of Prarabdha Karma, in my opinion, has received scant attention in current Advaita literature. I guess people tend to hide this because it is not something grand or glamorous. It also busts many myths of Jnanis living in a state of constant bliss or emanating peerless virtues. And I suspect, as I have seen in my own case and Jnanis known to me, the exhaustion of Prarabdha Karma is often visited by a lot of suffering; suffering so intense that one is even tempted to take one’s life. I feel that traditional Advaita literature has not delved enough into the existential and experiential aspects of Prarabdha Karma.

Yet, there are some instances of discussion of Prarabdha Karma in traditional Advaita literature which reveal the “unglamorous aspects” of Prarabdha Karma. In this article I shall be delving into the philosophy of Prarabdha Karma as held by the Upanishads and Shankara.

The Upanishads on Prarabdha Karma

Concept of Prarabdha Karma in Chandogya Upanishad

Since in Advaitic inquiry, srutis or the scritures are the primary means of knowledge of Self it is incumbent for any discussion in this regard to seek proof in the words of the sruti. There is no direct mention of the word Prarabdha Karma in the major Upanishads on which Shankara has commented but the concept is present in Chandogya Upanishad 6.14.2. For we have the text:

And as someone may remove that person’s blindfold and say, ‘Gandhāra is this way; go this way,’ and the intelligent man goes from one village to another, asking his way and relying on the information people give, until he reaches Gandhāra; similarly, a person who gets a teacher attains knowledge. His delay is only as long as he is not free of his body. After that he becomes merged in the Self.

The commentary on this verse by Shankara is

For him, —for the man who has been liberated from the bondage of Ignorance, —the delay—the postponement in merging into his real Self, Being—is only so long ;—how Jong is the delay ?—so long as I am liberated—i.e. the delay is only so long as that Karmic Residue is not exhausted, by experience, by virtue of which his Body has been brought about, —and so long as, as the consequence of this, that Body does not fall off ; there is no interval of time between the falling off of the body and the merging;

…………………………………………………………..

Thus then, though for the man who knows Brahman, there is no further use for life, yet there surely would be experiencing of the results of those Karmic Residua that have become operative—just as in the case of the arrow that has been shot ;—and it is only right that for him there is delay only so long etc.

Mention of Prarabdha Karma in Nadabindu Upanishad

The word Prarabdha Karma, however, finds a direct mention in a minor Upanishad called Nadabindu Upanishad. It is one of the twenty Yoga Upanishads. I am quoting the verses 21 to 30 from this Upanishad which deal exclusively with Prarabdha Karma

21. O intelligent man, spend your life always in the knowing of the supreme bliss, enjoying the whole of your Prarabdha (that portion of past Karma now being enjoyed) without making any complaint (of it).

22-23(a). Even after Atma-Jnana (knowledge of Atman or Self) has awakened (in one), Prarabdha does not leave (him); but he does not feel Prarabdha after the dawning of Tattva-Jnana (knowledge of Tattva or truth) because the body and other things are Asat (unreal), like the things seen in a dream to one on awaking from it.

23(b)-24. That (portion of the) Karma which is done in former births and called Prarabdha does not at all affect the person (Tattva-Jnani), as there is no rebirth to him. As the body that exists in the dreaming state is untrue, so is this body.

25(a). Where then is rebirth to a thing that is illusory ? How can a thing have any existence, when there is no birth (to it) ?

25(b)-26(a). As the clay is the material cause of the pot so one learns from Vedanta that Ajnana is the material cause of the universe and when Ajnana ceases to exist, where then is the cosmos ?

26(b)-27. As a person through illusion mistakes a rope for a serpent, so the fool not knowing Satya (the eternal truth) sees the world (to be true). When he knows it to be a piece of rope, the illusory idea of a serpent vanishes.

28-29(a). So when he knows the eternal substratum of everything and all the universe becomes (therefore) void (to him), where then is Prarabdha to him, the body being a part of the world ? Therefore the word Prarabdha is accepted to enlighten the ignorant (only).

29(b)-30. Then as Prarabdha has, in course of time, worn out, he who is the sound resulting from the union of Pranava with Brahman who is the absolute effulgence itself, and who is the bestower of all good, shines himself like the sun at the dispersion of the clouds.

The Elusive Status of Prarabdha Karma in Nadabindu Upanishad

The quotes from Nadabindu Upanishad are quite representative of the elusive status of Prarabdha Karma wherever one finds a mention of it in certain kind of Advaita literature. The verse 21 introduces the elusiveness of Prarabdha Karma with a very confusing statement. Let’s look at this verse again

21. O intelligent man, spend your life always in the knowing of the supreme bliss, enjoying the whole of your Prarabdha (that portion of past Karma now being enjoyed) without making any complaint (of it).

On one hand it talks about bliss and the Prarabdha Karma to be “enjoyed”. And yet it talks about enjoyment “without making any complaints”. Now, why should anyone even try to register a complaint while enjoying supposed bliss.

Verses 22 to 29(a) are actually a clear and accurate description of the status of Prarabdha Karma but it seems to be going through different grades…specifically from complete acceptance of Prarabdha Karma to talking about it’s dream like status and then finally complete denial of it.

The Jnani knows at all times and under all conditions that whatever exists is nothing but his own Self on which the awareness of body, mind, and universe has been superimposed. The man of Self-knowledge lives, moves, and has his being in the fullness of this self-consciousness. He ever remains unidentified with the actions performed by his body, mind, and senses. All his actions are therefore merely apparent and do not in any way detract from the supreme state. He may be in the body but never for a moment, whatever he may do, is he of the body.

Having explained all this in verses 22 to 27 by summarizing the dream like status of the world, the Nadabindu seals this explanation in Verse 28 by saying that Prarabdha applies only to the body/mind/intellect apparatus which is part of the dream like world and there is no Prarabdha for the knower of Self because he is the Self – the eternal substratum. It very clearly says that the notion of Prarabdha Karma applies only to the ignorant who see the body/mind/intellect of the Jnani doing actions and not to the Jnani who is nothing but Self.

Were the Nadabindu Upanishad to end here it would all be just fine. We would have to just deal with a single aberration I mentioned in verse 21. However, we encounter a problem again in Verses 29(b)-30. Let’s look at these verses again:

29(b)-30. Then as Prarabdha has, in course of time, worn out, he who is the sound resulting from the union of Pranava with Brahman who is the absolute effulgence itself, and who is the bestower of all good, shines himself like the sun at the dispersion of the clouds.

Firstly, Shankara in his commentary to Chandogya Upanishad, quoted above, clearly states that with the exhaustion of Prarabdha Karma, the body ends and there is final liberation. This explanation also makes sense. However, the Nadabindu Upanishad continues with the state of affairs even after the Prarabdha Karma has worn out.

Secondly, why has the Upanishad started this business of “sound” resulting from the union of Pranava with Brahman and bestows it with the title absolute effulgence. As I understand it, the words Absolute effulgence apply only to Brahman and cannot be denoted to any form like sound which can be heard. To understand what this sound is about we have to go a few verses further: i.e. verses 46(b) to 54

46(b)-47(a). The sound proceeding from Pranava which is Brahman is of the nature of effulgence; the mind becomes absorbed in it; that is the supreme seat of Vishnu.

47(b)-48(a). The sound exists till there is the Akasic conception (Akasa-Sankalpa). Beyond this, is the (Asabda) soundless Para-Brahman which is Paramatman.

48(b). The mind exists so long as there is sound, but with its (sound’s cessation) there is the state called Unmani of Manas (viz., the state of being above the mind).

49(a). This sound is absorbed in the Akshara (indestructible) and the soundless state is the supreme seat.

49(b)-50(a). The mind which along with Prana (Vayu) has (its) Karmic affinities destroyed by the constant concentration upon Nada is absorbed in the unstained One. There is no doubt of it.

50(b)-51(a). Many myriads of Nadas and many more of Bindus – (all) become absorbed in the Brahma-Pranava sound.

51(b)-52(a). Being freed from all states and all thoughts whatever, the Yogin remains like one dead. He is a Mukta. There is no doubt about this.

52(b). After that, he does not at any time hear the sounds of conch or Dundubhi (large kettle drum).

53. The body in the state of Unmani is certainly like a log and does not feel heat or cold, joy or sorrow.

54. The Yogin’s Chitta having given up fame or disgrace is in Samadhi above the three states.

55. Being freed from the waking and the sleeping states, he attains to his true state.

To me, the preceding verses seem confusing from the Advaita viewpoint. When the Upanishad has already arrived at the position that the body/mind/intellect of the Jnani is nothing but a dream that continues till the Prararabdha Karma exhausts itself and the Jnani is Self which is the eternal substrate, how come these verses are again speaking of tampering with the body/ mind?

Verse no 48(b) states, for instance, that the mind exists as long as there is sound and with the cessation of sound, there is a state of Unamani or being above the mind. Now, hasn’t the Upanishad already declared that the Jnani, being Self, is not the mind? Perhaps the Upanishad is perhaps saying that as the Prarabdha Karma keeps getting exhausted, all (psychological) thoughts of the Jnani ends, and as it mentions in Verse 53, the body in the state of Unmani is like a log which does not feel any heat or cold or joy or sorrow. This, to me, would be an acceptable explanation, in accord with the previous verses on Prarabdha Karma. However, the Upanishad mentions something about “concentration upon Nada” in verses 49(b)-50(a), which results in Unmani. And then in 51(b) – 52(a), the Upanishad talks about the Yogi being a mukta who as reached the state of Unamani. But hasn’t the Upanishad already declared the Jnani or knower of Self to be free from the whole phenomenal world. Let’s see those verses again.

28-29(a). So when he knows the eternal substratum of everything and all the universe becomes (therefore) void (to him), where then is Prarabdha to him, the body being a part of the world ? Therefore the word Prarabdha is accepted to enlighten the ignorant (only).

In effect, what these verses are saying is that the universe has become void to the Jnani. Thus, whether the mind exists or not, how can the status of existence of this unreal thing, a thing which the Upanishad itself claims to have become void to a Jnani, matter? Secondly, where does the question of concentration arise at all for a Jnani. For a Jnani, the mind is an apparently real object to him as Awareness/Self/Witness. He is a mere Witness to the thinker/doer/experiencer. Any concentration implies doership which means that the Jnani is not the Witness but a thinker/doer/experiencer, which completely annuls the whole concept of Self Knowledge as Self Realization.

For now, I can state that the confusion is arising because of the difference between Self Knowledge and Self Experience which is not clearly stated but implied in these verses. A Jnani has Self Knowledge but as long as the mind exists, his Self Experience has not completely blossomed. While a Jnani knows the duality of world to be an illusion, in the state of Unamani, which comes about when all Prarabdha has exhausted and the mind has ended, a Jnani experiences total ending of all duality. He sees everything as Brahman. We shall learn more about this when I discuss the difference between a Jnani and a Jivanmukta in part 2 of this article series.

As for the difference between concentrating [(49(b)-50(a)…the constant concentration upon Nada], and a Jnani being a mere Witness to the acts of BMI, it has to do with a different methodology adopted by the Upanishad from the Advaita method, which is a combination of Yoga and Advaita as is mentioned by Gaudapada in his Mandukya Karika Verses 3.40 – 3.46. Starting with the verse:

Verse 3.40 Yogis who do not folow the path of Knowledge as decalred in the Karika depend upon the the control of their mind for fearlessness and destruction of misery, and also the knowledge of the Self and eternal peace

~ Mandukya Karika by Gaudapada

As compared to the Asparsa Yoga, the Witness approach of a Jnani mentioned by Gaudapada in the preceding verse:

Verse 3.39: This Yoga called the Touch-of-the-untouch (Asparsa Yoga), is hard to be attained by all seekers. Yogins are afraid of this path for they feel frightened in That – where alone can one experience the true state of fearlessness

~ Mandukya Karika by Gaudapada

The combination of Yoga and Advaita approach found in Nadabindu Upanishad is not surprising considering the fact that Nadabindu Upanishad is classified as one of the Yoga Upanishads which deal with the theory and practice of Yogic techniques, with varied emphasis on methodology and meditation

Shankara on Prarabdha Karma

For Shankara, the matter was very straightforward and simple. As already discussed in his quotes I have mentioned in the earlier part of this article, for Shankara, after Self Realization, the body/mind/intellect of a Jnani continues to function till the Prarabdha Karma does not get exhausted, after which they drop and one gets final liberation from them or videhamukti. I am quoting all the relevant passages from Shankara here.

Brahmasutra Bhashya IV.i.15

But (of his) former works only those which have not begun to yield results (are destroyed by Knowledge); (for) death is the limit (set by the scriptures for Liberation to take place).

Shankara’s Commentary: In the last two topics it has been said that all the past works of a knower of Brahman are destroyed. Now past works are of two kinds: Sanchita (accumulated) i.e. those which have not yet begun to bear fruit, and Prarabdha (commenced) i.e. those which have begun to yield results, and have produced the body through which a person has attained Knowledge. The opponent holds that both these are destroyed, because the Mundaka text cited says that all his works are destroyed. Moreover, the idea of nonagency of the knower is the same with respect to Sanchita or Prarabdha work; therefore it is reasonable that both are destroyed when Knowledge dawns.

The Sutra refutes this view and says that only the Sanchita works are destroyed by Knowledge, but not the Prarabdha, which are destroyed only by being worked out. So long as the momentum of these works lasts, the knower of Brahman has to be in the body. When they are exhausted, the body falls off, and he attains perfection. His Knowledge cannot check these works, even as an archer has no control over the arrows already discharged, which come to rest only when their momentum is exhausted. The Sruti declares this in texts like, “And for him the delay is only so long as he is not liberated (from this body); and then he is one (with Brahman)” (Chh. 6. 14. 2). If it were not so, then there would be no teachers of Knowledge. Therefore the Prarabdha works are not destroyed by Knowledge.

Brahmasutra Bhashya IV.i.19

But the enlightened man merges in Brahman after having exhausted by enjoyment the other two works (viz. good and evil works that have begun to bear fruit), (he) becomes one (with Brahman).

Shankara’s Commentary: The opponent argues that even as a knower of Brahman sees diversity while living, so also even after death he will continue to see diversity; in other words, he denies that the knower of Brahman attains oneness with Brahman at death. This Sutra refutes it and says that the Prarabdha works are destroyed through fruition, and though till then the knower of Brahman has to be in the relative world as a Jivan-mukta, yet when these are exhausted by being worked out, he attains oneness with Brahman at death. He no longer sees any diversity, owing to the absence of any cause like the Prarabdha, and since all works including the Prarabdha are destroyed at death, he attains oneness with Brahman.

Brhadaranyaka Upanishad Bhashya – 1.4.7

Objection: How is that meditation already known as a possible alternative, since, as you said, on the principle of the residuum the train of remembrance of the knowledge of the Self is an inevitable fact?

Reply: It is true, but nevertheless, since the resultant of past actions that led to the formation of the present body must produce definite results, speech, mind and the body are bound to work even after the highest realisation, for actions that have begun to bear fruit are stronger than knowledge; as for instance an arrow that has been let fly continues its course for some time. Hence the operation of knowledge, being weaker than they, (is liable to be interrupted by them and) becomes only a possible alternative. Therefore there is need to regulate the train- of remembrance of the knowledge of the Self by having recourse to means such as renunciation and dispassion; but it is not something that is to be originally enjoined, being, as we said, already known as a possible alternative. Hence we conclude that passages such as, ‘(The aspirant after Brahman) knowing about this alone, should attain intuitive knowledge,’ are only meant to lay down the rule that the train of remembrance— already known (as a possible alternative)—of the knowledge of the Self must be kept up, for they can have no other import.

Three points that one needs to pay attention to in the above paras are

  1. The exhaustion of Prarabdha Karma is about both the good and evil works.
  2. Prarabdha Karma is stronger than knowledge and will work itself out no matter what. The only thing left is for the BMI (Body/Mind/Intellect) to experience the results
  3. If there were no Prararabdha Karma remaining to be exhausted there would be no teacher to teach Self Knowledge
  4. The Jnani as Self is not affected by any form of Karma. The Prarabdha Karma only affects the BMI of the Jnani

Shankara: There Are No Grades in Enlightened Beings from Self Knowledge Viewpoint

From the viewpoint of Self Knowledge, there are no grades in enlightened beings because the Self which is known is without any grades. Quoting Shankara on this:

Brahmasutra Bhashya 3.4.52

Adhikarana summary: There Is No Difference In Liberation, I.e. In The Cognition Of Brahman—it Is Of One Kind In All Cases

“With respect to Liberation, the fruit (of Knowledge) there is no rule like this, because the Sruti asserts that state (to be immutable).”

Shankara’s Commentary: In the last Sutra it was seen that Knowledge may result in this life or the next according to the absence or presence of obstructions and the intensity of the means adopted. Similarly a doubt may arise that there may be some such rule with respect to Liberation also, which is the fruit of Knowledge. In other words, the question is whether Liberation can be delayed after Knowledge, and whether there are degrees of Knowledge according to the qualifications of the aspirant. This Sutra says that no such rule exists with respect to Liberation. Because the Sruti texts assert that the nature of final release is uniform, without any variations of degree in it. The state of final release is nothing but Brahman. “The knower of Brahman becomes Brahman,” and there can be no variety in it, as Brahman is without qualities. Difference is possible only where there are qualities, as in the case of the Saguna Brahman, about which according to difference in Vidyas there may be difference in the cognitions. But with respect to the cognition of Brahman, it can be only one and not many. Neither can there be any delay in the attainment of Liberation after Knowledge has dawned for knowledge of Brahman itself is Liberation.

However, as we discussed in our exploration of the verses on Prarabdha Karma of Nadabindu Upanishad, there seem to be grades in terms of Self Experience of Jnanis depending upon the degree of exhaustion of vasanas.

Degrees in Deepening of Self Knowledge

Having quoted Shankara on Self Knowledge being the same in all Jnanis. I must also make a mention of his commentary of Brhadarnaka Upanishad where he talks about the effects of deepening of Self Knowledge.

Similarly, when (in the waking state) his ignorance is extremely attenuated, and the knowledge that he comprises all arises, he thinks under the influence of these impressions in the dream state also, ‘This (universe) is myself, who am all’ That, this identity with all, is his highest state, the Ātman’s own natural, supreme state. When, prior to this realisation of identity with all, he views the latter as other than himself even by a hair’s breadth, thinking, ‘This is not myself,’ that is the state of ignorance. The states divorced from the self that are brought on by ignorance, down to stationary existence, are all inferior states. Compared with these—states with which the Jīva has relative dealings—the above state of identity with all, infinite and without interior or exterior, is his supreme state. Therefore, when ignorance is eliminated and knowledge reaches its perfection, the state of identity with all, which is another name for liberation, is attained. That is to say, just as the self-effulgence of the Ātman is directly perceived in the dream state, so is this result of knowledge.

That ignorance is not the natural characteristic of the self, since it automatically decreases as knowledge increases, and when the latter is at its highest, with the result that the self realises its identity with all, ignorance vanishes altogether, like the nôtioṅ of a snake in a rope when the truth about it is known. This has been stated in the passage, ‘But when to the knower of Brahman everything has become the self, then what should one see and through what?’ etc. (Ibid.). Therefore ignorance is not a natural characteristic of the self, for that which is natural to a thing can never be eliminated, as the heat ahd light of the sun. Therefore liberation from ignorance is possible.

The above quote clearly shows that Self Knowledge causes a decrease in ignorance and it’s culmination or perfection is when there is absolutely no perception of “other” in the waking state. Everything is seen as Brahman. [….When, prior to this realisation of identity with all, he views the latter as other than himself even by a hair’s breadth, thinking, ‘This is not myself,’ that is the state of ignorance…..] So while Self Knowledge does not change, Self Experience keeps on changing till one reaches the experience of “Everything is Brahman” This state is also what the Nadabindu Upanishad has talked about as the final state – the state of Unamani.

Conclusion

In part 1 of this article my intent was to introduce the philosophical concept of Prarabdha Karma for a Jnani as this topic is scarcely raised in the literature of Advaita. I wanted to show that because of Prarabdha Karma, which is more powerful than his/her Self Knowledge, a Jnani may be seen doing acts which are both virtuous or non-virtuous. In the ultimate sense, however, a Jnani is Brahman, who is a non-doer, and there are no grades in Jnanis in terms of Self Knowledge but there are grades in terms of their Self Experience. It was also my intention to introduce to the reader to the concept of Jivanmukta/Unamani in my discussion on the Nadbabindu Upanishad. My quotes show that even Shankara has talked about the same differentiation between Self Knowledge and Self Experience, thus hinting to the existence of a difference between a Jnani and a Jivanmukta in whom knowledge has reached perfection.

In part 2 of this series, I shall explore Prarabdha Karma as described in other texts of Advaita post Shankara which seem to refute the notion of Prarabdha Karma. I shall examine the basis of their seeming refutation, which is actually based on the difference between a Jnani and a Jivanmukta

Notes

  • [1] After listing all the siddhis and powers a Yogi can attain through samyama (dhyana, dharana and samadhi) in his Chapter III or Vibhuti Pada, Patanjali writes in verse III.38 – te samAdhau upasargAh vyutthAne siddhayah, These attainments are impediments to samadhi, although they are powers in active life.

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