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
    1. Aparokshanubhti
    2. Vivekachudamani
  6. 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’s Vivartavada 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 and Brhadaranyaka Upanishad.

In Part 1, I also mentioned how Prarabdha karma is first posited and then negated in Nadabindu Upanishad. I said there that 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: Vivekachudamani and Aparokshanubhuti. But there are also commentaries of Shankara like Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (3.5.1 & 4.3.20) and Bhagavad Gita Bhashya (6.27) where Shankara also negates Prarabdha Karma and which I shall be quoting here.

In the conclusion, I give the reason for these contradictions, which are actually nothing but truths spoken from different levels in the teachings of Advaita. While Prarabdha Karma is spoken from the penultimate stage called Vivartavada, Prarabdha karma is totally negated in the ultimate stage of Advaita called Ajativada. The reader may go through my website page Stages of Self Inquiry to see a detailed explanation of the stages I have mentioned here. They are Stage 3 and Stage 4 respectively.

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/Jivanmukta 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, including commentaries from Shankara himself. In doing so, I would like to analyse their claims and show in what way they are refuting Prarabdha Karma.

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 Prarabdha 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/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/Jivanmukta 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.


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.


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.

465. There is only Brahman, the One without a second, the Essence of Existence, Knowledge and Eternal Bliss, and devoid of activity; there is no duality whatsoever in It.

Thus verses 452 & 454, quoted above, accept Prarabdha Karma for a Jnani. Verses 460-465 of Vivekachudamani are denying Prarabdha Karma.

Commentaries by Shankara Which Seem to Refute Prarabdha Karma

While Shankara has most clearly spoken of Prarabdha Karma in the verses from different commentaries I have quoted in Part 1. There are some commentaries of his, which I am quoting below, which go beyond the concept of Prarabdha Karma. He does not state this explicitly but a trained Advaitin and can see that when he says that a Jnani has to eliminate all ideas of “non-Self” and attain the realization “Everything is Brahman”, he cannot do so while keeping the concept of Prarabdha Karma intact.

“What a knower of Brahman should do is to eliminate all ideas of the non-Self; doing this he accomplishes his task and becomes a Yogin. After having known all about scholarship and strength, which respectively mean Self-knowledge and the elimination of ideas of the non-Self, he knows all about meditativeness too—which is the culminating result of the latter—and its opposite, and becomes a knower of Brahman, or accomplishes his task: he attains the conviction that all is Brahman. Because he has reached the goal, therefore he is a Brāhmaṇa, a knower of Brahman; for then his status as a knower of Brahman is literally true.”

~ Brhadaranyaka Upanishad Bhashya, verse 3.5.1

“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 notion 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 and light of the sun. Therefore liberation from ignorance is possible.”

~ Brhadaranyaka Upanishad Bhashya, verse 4.3.20

Verse 6.27 – Supreme Bliss comes to this yogī alone whose mind has become perfectly tranquil, whose (quality of) rajas has been eliminated, who has become identified with Brahman, and is taintless.

Shankara’s Commentary – Uttamam, supreme, unsurpassable; sukham, Bliss; upaiti, comes; hi enam yoginam, to this yogī alone; praśānta-manasam, whose mind has become perfectly tranquil; śānta-rajasam, whose (quality of) rajas has been eliminated, that is whose rajas, namely defects such as delusion etc. have been destroyed; brahma-bhūtam, who has become identified with Brahman, who is free even while living, who has got the certitude that Brahman is all; and akalmaṣam, who is taintless, free from vice etc.

~ Bhagavad Gita Bhashya


These contradictions in these texts is based on the standpoint from which Prarabdha Karma is being discussed. From the standpoint of the Advaitic theory of Ajativada propounded by Gaudapada, the body and this world has never been born and whatever is here is nothing but Self/Brahman at all times, so there is no role of the theory of Karma or cause and effect. Ajativada is the standpoint achieved by a seeker who has completely ended with all ignorance/Prarabdha Karma before the final end of his body and thus comes to see this very world as Brahman freed from all Maya. Such a person is not just a Jnani but a Jivanmukta. From the standpoint of Vivartavada, which Shankara follows in most of his commentaries, this world is an unreal appearance of Self/Brahman, and it exists till the Prarabdha Karma exists though the Prarabdha Karma never touches the Self of Jnani. When the Prarabdha ends, the body drops and the perception of the world ends. This standpoint is adopted in a certain stage of inquiry in Advaita and to explain the appearance of the body to ignorant people. The stages of Vivartavada and Ajativada, correspond to Stage 3/Penultimate stage and stage 4/Ultimate Stage of my Stages of Self Inquiry page in this website. I shall also be taking this matter up in greater detail in a future article.

Meanwhile, 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.

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