Prarabdha Karma After Self Realization: Seeming Refutations: Part 2/3


  1. Introduction
  2. Purpose of Writing this Article
  3. Shankara on Action After Self Realization
  4. Self Realized Being: Inaction in Action and Action in Inaction
  5. Texts Not Authored by Shankara that Seemingly Refute Prarabdha Karma: Jnani vs Jivanmukta
    1. Aparokshanubhti
    2. Vivekachudamani
  6. Shankara on Jivanmukta
  7. Conclusion


In part 1 of this series Prarabdha Karma After Self Realization: It’s Philosophy: Part 1/3 I talked about the entire philosophy of Prarabdha Karma as present in the writings of Upanishads and Shankaracharya. As mentioned there 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. According to Shankara 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 realized 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. This was shown through his commentary in Chandogya Upanishad

In Part 1, I had said that in my next article I would be touching on sources other than Shankara which describe Prarabdha Karma. I divide the Advaita literature, post Shankara, for the sake of this discussion, into two kinds of sources: sources which seemingly refute the theory of Prarabdha Karma, and sources which support the theory of Prarabdha Karma. In this article I am going to take up two popular Advaita literature sources which seem to deny Prarabdha Karma. After quoting their philosophy I show the basis of their preliminary acceptance and ultimate denial is on the basis of different standpoints being applied: Jnani vs Jivanmukta Finally, I show how Shankara too probably supports their claims

Purpose of Writing this Article

It was mentioned in my previous article of this series that the purpose for me to delve into this topic is that it is very rarely discussed in current Advaita literature. An absence of this discussion implies that people are left with many notions of a Jnani who is in a state of constant bliss, rapt in some trance of samadhi, or is an epitome of saintly virtues. The notion of Prarabdha Karma militates against such purely fantastic notions. It shows that fructifying Prarabdha Karma makes a Jnani experience suffering as well as commit him/her to acts which may not be considered virtuous. This factor is not so pronounced in the case of monks whose lives are by default shorn of much complexity, but it comes to play a significant role in the case of householders who are in the midst of wordly transactions. Traditionally Advaita has been the province of monks. This is how Shankara too had deemed the state of affairs to be. Thus, the role of Prarabdha Karma did not find much experiential treatment in the writings of Shankara. For this we have to look at other places. Fortunately the legacy of Advaita literature has preserved some writings in this regard, which I shall delve into. In this article, as stated in the introduction I shall delve into those sources that seemingly refute the theory of Prarabdha Karma. In doing so, I would like to analyse their claims and show in what way they are refuting Prarabdha Karma. Finally, I show a key differentiation introduced, i.e between a Jnani and a Jivanmukta, made by one text Vivekachudmani, that substantiates the claim to denial of Prarabdha Karma for a Jivanmukta, though not for a Jnani.

Before going into such an analysis, I am presenting Shankara’s views on action after Self Realization and how he maintained the theory of Prarabdha Karma.

Shankara on Action After Self Realization

For Shankara, as I have mentioned on several occasions, Advaita is to do with the lifestyle of a monk. In his book Upadeshasahasri, right in the opening verses itself, he mentions his predilection clearly:

Verse 1: “We shall now’ explain a method of teaching the means” to liberation for the benefit of those aspirants after liberation who are desirous (of this teaching) and are possessed of faith (in it).

Verse 2. That means to liberation, viz. Knowledge, should be explained again and again until it is firmly grasped, to a pure Brahmana disciple who is indifferent to everything that is transitory and achievable through certain means, who has given up the desire for a son, for wealth and for this world and the next,” who has adopted the life of a wandering monk and is endowed with control over the mind and senses, with compassion etc., as well as with the qualities of a disciple well known in the scriptures, and who has approached the teacher in the prescribed manner, and been examined in respect of his caste, profession, conduct, learning and parentage.

This effectively shuts out the possibility of liberation for householders. But both the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita do not concur with Shankara that liberation is a province only for the monks. Regarding Gita, I have mentioned this in the sections Gita’s Re-Interpretation of Renunciation: Inaction in Action and Differing Opinions of Shankara and Gita on Action and Renunciation. In Upanishads there are mention of several self-realized householders like Yajnvalkya, Ushati Chakrayana and King Janaka in Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, Satyakama Jabala of Chandogya Upanishad etc. Several post Shankara Advaita literature like Panchadasi and Ashtavakra Gita also do not make Advaita realization solely the province of monks.

Continuing with Shankara: even if a householder gets self-knowledge, according to him, he ultimately renounces all actions. Shankara, however, provisionally grants a life of active outward action in rare circumstances. We see his views in the following quote from Bhagavad Gita:

“However, one who is a perceiver of ‘inaction’ etc. is free from actions owing to the very fact of his seeing ‘inaction’ etc. He is a monk, who acts merely for the purpose of maintaining the body. Being so, he does not engage in actions although he might have done so before the dawn of discrimination. He again who, having been engaged in actions under the influence of past tendencies, later on becomes endowed with the fullest Self-knowledge, he surely renounces (all) actions along with their accessories as he does not find any purpose in activity. For some reason, if it becomes impossible to renounce actions, and he, for the sake of preventing people from going astray, even remains engaged as before in actions—without attachment to those actions and their results because of the absence of any selfish purpose—, still he surely does nothing at all! His actions verily become ‘inaction’ because of having been burnt away by the fire of wisdom.” (Shankara’s Commentray on Verse Bh. Gita verse 4.19)

Considering the quote above we cannot thus find fault in Shankara’s philosophy of Prarabdha Karma (see section Shankara on Praradha Karma for his philosophy) despite his monastic predilection; because his last lines in the above quote accepts, perhaps with a noticeable reluctance, that actions do not compromise the knowledge of a self realized being in any way: all his actions are burnt in the fire of self- knowledge and only unselfish actions remain as we see in Bhagavad Gita “Verse 3.25: Bharata! Just as the unwise, who are attached to the results, perform action, so too would the wise perform action, but without attachment, desirous of doing that which is for the protection of the people.”

The fact is that a realized being does nothing at all. This inaction in action and action in inaction, which is a fact for the Jnani/Jivanmukta/Self Realized Being, is a source of great perplexity to common people who see such a man performing all actions yet claims to do nothing at all. But Shankara had no doubts about it at all. How could he? He himself was a Jivanmukta along with being an active teacher, and writer of Advaita, travelling the length and breadth of the country.

Self Realized Being: Inaction in Action and Action in Inaction

Before we plunge headlong into a discussion of prarabdha karma for a self realized being/Jnani as discussed in texts other than Shankara, we must understand his special status, mentioned above. Even though he seems to be acting he knows himself to be the Self/Witness/Awareness, who is not the thinker/doer/experience, but the mere Witness of all their acts. All actions are performed by the three gunas which make up Maya – sattva, rajas and tamas, while as Self, the Jnani is trigunatitha: beyond the three gunas. An analogy here can be made with the various physiological functions of the body, like the beating of the heart and the digesting of food, which proceed on their own accord: without any effort or active intervention or action from our side. We just witness them. For a Jnani, the same goes for the mental functions of thinking, decision-making and experiencing. All are happening on their own while he is their mere, untouched Witness.

Therefore, the difference between an ignorant man and the man of Self-knowledge lies not in the actions they perform, but in the consciousness with which they perform their actions. In the case of a man of Self Knowledge this difference in consciousness is not easily perceived by ordinary people and may pass quite unrecognized by them. Therefore, although the two persons outwardly appear to be the same, they are actually poles apart.

The Bhagavad Gita has quite a few verses to bring out this puzzling difference between the Jnani and the common man.

B.G Verse 5.13: The indweller of the physical body, the one who is self controlled, having renounced all actions mentally by knowledge, remains happily in the nine-gated city(body) neither performing action, nor causing others to act.

B.G Verse 5.14: Atma creates neither doership nor action for any person nor the connection with the results of action. But one’s own nature leads to action. 

B.G Verse 5.15: The atma takes neither papa nor punya of anyone. Knowledge is covered by ignorance and due to that ignorance, people are deluded.

B.G Verse 14.19: “When the seer does not see an agent other than the gunas and when he knows himself as beyond the gunas, he gains(understands) my nature.” 

B.G Verse 18.61: The Lord remains at the seat of the intellect of all beings, Arjuna! causing all beings to move by magic of his maya, like those figures which are mounted on a machine are made to revolve.

This elusive status of the Jnani which cannot at all be grasped by common people, gives rise to confusions even for very knowledgeable people and experts in Advaita. The Gita attests to this confusion when it says:

“Verse 4.16: Even the seers are confused with reference to what is action and what is actionlesness. I shall tell you about action, knowing which you will be released from what is inauspicious.”

And then few verses later Krishna gives his own verdict to this dilemma which according to me is the gist of the entire Gita. He says,

B.G Verse 4.18: The one who sees actionlesness in action and action in actionlesness is wise among human beings. That person is a yogi, who has done everything that is to be done. 

Texts Not Authored by Shankara that ‘Seemingly’ Refute Prarabdha Karma

In part 1 of this article series, I stated Shankar’s philosophy of Prarabdha Karma in Shankara’s Flawless Elucidation of Prarabdha Karma. Now I am going to discuss two Post-Shankara Advaita books which do not seem to be authored by Shankara (See Determination of Shankara’s Original Works.) which seem to refute the notion of Prarabdha Karma. I am going to exaine their basis for doing so and also see if Shankara agrees to them


This popular Advaita text has something very queer going on as far as its discussion on Prarabdha Karma is concerned. In verse 89, it first completely accepts and agrees with the notion of Prarabdha Karma, for it says,

“Verse 89: O enlightened one, pass your time always contemplating on Atman while you are experiencing all the results of Prarabdha; for it ill becomes you to feel distressed.”

After having clearly stated this, it does an absolute U-Turn and in verse 90, it says

Verse 90: The theory one hears of from the scripture, that Prarabdha does not lose its hold upon one even after the origination of the knowledge of Atman, is now being refuted.”

It is quite puzzling why one verse is seen clearly exhorting an aspirant to pass one’s time experiencing the results of Prarabdha and the next one refuting it point-blank.

It does offer a string of reasoning in the later verses which is as follows:

Verse 91: After the origination of the knowledge of Reality Prarabdha verily ceases to exist, inasmuch as the body’ and the like become nonexistent; just as a dream does not exist on waking.

Verse 92: That Karma which is done in a previous life is known as Prarabdha (with respect to this life which it has brought forth). But such a Prarabdha does not exist’ (for a man of knowledge), as he has no other birth.

Verse 93: Just as the body in a dream is superimposed (and therefore illusory), so is also this body. How could there be any birth of the superimposed (body), and in the absence of birth? (of the body) where is the room for that (i.e. Prarabdha) at all?

Verse 97: The body also being within the phenomenal world (and therefore unreal), how could Prarabdha exist? It is, therefore, for the understanding of the ignorant’ alone that the Sruti speaks of Prarabdha.

The crux of all arguments is that for the Jnani, the body being known as illusory, a mere superimposition, there is no real birth of a body and hence there is no question of any Prarabdha because Prarabdha Karma is the Karma responsible for giving birth to the present body. If the body is a mere superimposition, it was never really born (just like a snake misperceived on a rope was not really born) and since it was not born, the whole explanation of Prarabdha seems superfluous.

What the Aparaokshanubhuti seems to miss out is the fact that even the illusory appearance of a body is caused by an equally illusory Prarabdha. This appearance continues till Prarabdha lasts. An illusion does not mean that it does not exist. Illusion means that it exists for some time. A Jnani/Jivanmukta is appearing to himself and people around due to Prarabdha Karma until his death, otherwise this appearance too would have disappeared on Self Knowledge: as Shankara rightly argues here:

As for the knowledge of the Self as the non-performer of any act, that destroys the results of works by first sublating false ignorance. This false ignorance, even when sublated, continues for a while owing to past tendencies like the continuance of the vision of two moons.”(For a man who has suffered forth eye-disease, the false idea may persist for some time even after the defect is removed.) Furthermore, no difference of opinion is possible here as to whether the body is retained (after knowledge) for some time or not by the knowers of Brahman. For when somebody feels in his heart that he has realized Brahman and yet holds the body, how can this be denied by somebody else? This very fact is elaborated in the Upanishads and the Smrtis in the course of determining the characteristics of “the man of steady wisdom” (sthitaprajna—Gita, Il. 54), Hence the conclusion is that only those virtues and vices are washed away by knowledge which have not begun to bear fruit.”

Brahmasutra Bhashya, Verse IV.i.16

Is the Aparokshanubhuti alluding to something which it has not been able to capture in the net of its reasoning? We may find an answer to this in our readings of another post Shankara text called Vivekachudamani.


This is another famous Advaita work, which though attributed to him is not authored by Shankara. It starts with accepting Prarabdha Karma as in these verses:

Verse 452: The Karma done before the dawn of Knowledge (realization), due to which this very birth is conjured up, does not get destroyed as a result of that Knowledge without yielding its fruits (i.e. Prarabdha has to work out). The target that is aimed at when an arrow is released, has to be reached by it.

Verse 454: One’s present Karma is very powerful, even in the case of a realized man; only by exhausting its fruits can it be destroyed. By the fire of perfect knowledge of the Self, is destroyed all Karma in respect of the past and the Karma in respect of the future The oneness of Brahman & the Self – whoever thus realize their identity with That, henceforth they ever remain firmly fixed in That. For them, that whole triad of Karmas has, indeed, no effect at all wherever they be, for they are truly the transcendental Brahman!

After these verses, we have the following verses which negate Prarabdha Karma.

Verse 460: The Atman is birthless, eternal and undecaying – such is the absolute declaration of the Sruti. For one who lives identified with that Self alone, How can Prarabdha be attributed to such a sage?

Verse 461: Only as long as one lives identified with one’s body, can one accept prarabdha work. But no one accepts that a man of Realization ever identifies himself with the body. Hence, in his case, prarabdha world should be rejected.

Verse 462: To attribute Prarabdha even to the body is itself decidedly an illusionary imagination! How can there be existence for a superimposition? How can there be a birth for that which is unreal? For something never born, how can there be death? How can there be Prarabdha for something unreal?

Verse 463: By knowledge, the effects of ignorance, root and all, are destroyed. DOUBT: “If that is so, how does this body continue to remain alive?” ANSWER: To appease those who entertain such gross doubts, an answer is given from a relative standpoint: the Shruti hypothesises the theory of Prarabdha.

Verse 464: Not for proving the reality of body, etc., have the men of realization proposed such theories. It is because the Upanishads are, without exception, striving to point out the one Supreme Reality.

These verses may seem puzzling to a reader. Hoe does one reconcile a set of verses accepting Prarabdha Karma followed by a set of verses denying that very concept. Well, the answer lies in a distinction which Vivekachudamani draws between a Jnani and Jivanmukta. To understand these differences let us take a look at the following verses:

Even after receiving the knowledge of the Truth, there remains a powerful impression (known as Aham Bhavana) that is beginningless; It concerns “I am the doer and also the enjoyer”, an impression which is very firmly set, and is the cause for our worldly existence. By constant identification with the inner Self, by abiding in It for prolonged periods, that impression can be consciously removed. The state of Liberation is redefined for this phase by the sages: it is the state when this “Aham-Vasana” itself is finally annihilated.

~ Vivekachudamani, Verse 267

“As long as there is any relationship with this vile Ego, so long there cannot be even the slightest talk of Liberation, which is unparalleled.”

~ Vivekachudamani, Verse 299

“Freed from the shackles of Ego, man gains his true nature. Like the moon (that is freed from the eclipse), is untainted and full (infinite) even so is an egoless man ever blissful and glowing.”

~ Vivekachudamani, Verse 300

The above set of verses clearly show the difference, Vivekachudamani is showing between that of a Jnani and a Jivanmukta. While a Jnani is a person who has got Self-Knowledge a Jivanmukta is a person who has not only got Self-Knowledge but also has annihilated his ego by “constant identification with Self for a prolonged period” [verse 267], thereby changing from a partial eclipsed moon/Jnani to the beauty of a full moon/Jivanmkuta [verse 300]

The Jivanmukta – the rare soul – who gets out of the phenomenal plane and identifies himself with the Absolute plane. His frame of Reality shifts to the Paramarthic/Absolute level. He is no longer in this Vyavaharic/empirical plane of reality in which we live. As far as this world of experience is concerned he is ‘dead’. The person responsible for all those Karmas does not exist. His files have to be closed! Such a person is disembodied due to ending of ego.

An appropriate simile is given for it in terms of Jivanmukta’s ending of ego. The sky represents the Absolute level of reality. A bottle of wine represents the Relative plane of reality; the smell of the wine represents his Karma. The sky says, “Let the smell remain in the bottle. I am untainted by it. It does not affect me.” In short, the saint has no wine of ego in him has become the sky; he does not live in the Time/Space framework of the relative world. He is no longer a ‘human being’ with a body trying to live a spiritual life, but ‘divine being’ trying to live a worldly life!

Thus verses 452 & 454, quoted above, accept Prarabdha Karma for a Jnani. Verses 460-462 of Vivekachudamani are denying Prarabdha Karma from the standpoint of a Jivanmukta (not from a Jnani’s standpoint who has a long journey of ending his vasanas remaining for him). The verses 462-464 are the denial of Prarabdha Karma from the absolute standpoint of Self in which Prarabdha Karma never existed (paradoxically, this is a simpler standpoint to understand for a Jnani than to understand the ego-free state of a Jivanmukta) To help us in this regard, Vivekacudamani gives us a description of a Jivanmukta’s experience of the world

“Verse 426: On account of absorption in Brahman, on account of the constancy of that abidance, freed from the sense of reality of external objects; When objects are offered by others, the saint only seemingly enjoys them – i) like one who is sleepy; ii) like a baby; or, iii) as though the world were just a dream – this is how he perceives the world to be, recognizing that it is now here and now not; Such a man is rare indeed. Being the enjoyer of fruits of untold merits, he is truly blessed and most revered on earth.

Shankara on Jivanmukta

So now, the question arises, was Shankara wrong or limited in his notion of Prarabdha Karma. For we have seen him using the logic of Prarabdha Karma in a number of places in his commentaries as I showed in Part 1 of this article series. For this I am quoting a commentary by Shankara on Brhadaranyaka Upanishad. It clearly shows him speaking about the concept of Jivanmukta as it tallies exactly with the descriptions provided by Vivekachudamani

“It is virtually implied that desires concerning things other than the Self fall under the category of ignorance, and are but forms of death. Therefore, on the cessation of death, the man of realisation becomes immortal. And attains Brahman, the identity with Brahman, i.e. liberation, living in this very body (for a person whose desires have ended). Hence liberation does not require such things as going to some other place. Therefore the organs of a man of realisation do not depart; they are merged in their cause, the self, just where they are. As has been said (III. ii. 12), only their names remain.

But how is it that when the organs have been merged, and the body also has dissolved in its cause, the liberated sage lives in the body identified with all, but does not revert to his former embodied existence, which is subject to transmigration? The answer is being given: Here is an illustration in point. Just as in the world the lifeless slough of a snake is cast off by it as no more being a part of itself, and lies in the ant – hill, or any other nest of a snake, so does this body, discarded as non-self by the liberated man, who corresponds to the snake, lie like dead.

Then the other, the liberated man identified with all—who corresponds to the snake—although he resides just there like the snake, becomes disembodied, and is no more connected with the body. Because formerly he was embodied and mortal on account of his identification with the body under the influence of his desires and past work; since that has gone, he is now disembodied, and therefore immortal.”

~ Brhadaranyaka Upanishad Bhashya, Verse 4.4.7

The above quote shows that probably Shankara too has denied Prarabdha Karma from the standpoint of a Jivanmukta – the immortal – and he was probably speaking earlier only from the standpoint of a Jnani.


While Vivekachudamani makes its philosophy of Prarabdha Karma clear through a variety of verses, Aparokshanubhuti may be alluding to the same logic as Vivekachudamani but probably it could not get it out as explicitly as Vivekachudamani. This article shows that the discussion on Prarabdha Karma can be held from three standpoints. From the standpoint of a Jnani, a Jivanmukta and the Ultimate. Vivekachudamani definitely, and Aparokshanubhuti are talking about Prarabdha Karma from different viewpoints in their different verses. So they are accepting Prarabdha Karma from a certain viewpoint and denying it from other viewpoints. Thus, we can summarize in the following manner

  1. From the standpoint of a Jnani, Prarabdha Karma exists till it is exhausted, and he loses his ego and becomes identified totally with Self and becomes a Jivanmkuta
  2. From the standpoint of a Jivanmukta, since he has lost body identification, there is no body, and he has no Prarabdha Karma as Prarabdha Karma applies only to the body.
  3. From the standpoint of Absolute Self, there was never any Prarabdha Karma.

I have also shown that though Shankara does not oultine this scheme very clearly in his commentaries, he too held the concept of Jivanmukta. Thus it is not unlikely that he would deny Prarabdha Karma for him because he considers such a man immortal.

Further we can summarize the following differences between a Jnani and a Jivanmukta.

A Jnani and Jivanmukta both are enlightened beings. Both have broken through the veil of delusion. There is liberation from the wheel of samsara. There are no further karmic bonds produced in transactions with the world. This liberation frees one from transmigration or rebirth into the world. But there are differences between Jnani and Jivanmukta. While a Jnani has to wait for final liberation at the time of death, a Jivanmukta is one who reaches liberation from the body while living.

#1 – A Jnani is a person who has got Self-Knowledge while Jivanmukta is a person who has got Self-Experience. Both Jnani and Jivanmukta have the same Self Knowledge but the Jivanmukta is one in whom Self Knowledge has reached perfection and converted into Self Experience. Which means he sees “Everything as Brahman”. He has lost the perception of the substantiality of a world and a multiple world of objects. He is like asleep in waking state.

#2 – A Jnani still has a mind and therefore body identification due to vasanas. A Jivanmukta has ended all vasanas, ended mind and has no body identification.

#3- A Jnani still has Prarabdha Karma operative and therefore has to face its consequences: good and bad. A Jivanmukta is one who has finished with Prarabdha Karma and therefore has lost all body identification. Thus even though the body seems to undergo changes, the Jivanmukta is free from all sufferings of body-related changes.

#4 – A Jnani becomes a Jivanmukta by going through the Witness Stage, One Mind Stage and No-Mind Stage as the vasanas keep exhausting. (This shall be covered in an upcoming article)

In the next article I am going to deliberate solely on the fructifying experiences of Prarabdha Karma for a Jnani based on verses from a famous Advaita book called Panchadasi.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s