Sin and Virtue—Karma

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Written by Sir John Woodroffe, Book: Introduction to Tantra Sastra 


ACCORDING to Christian conceptions,1 sin is a violation of the personal will of, and apostasy from, God. The flesh is the source of lusts which oppose God’s commands, and in this lies its positive significance for the origin of a bias of life against God. According to St. Thomas, in the
original state, no longer held as the normal, the lower powers were subordinate to reason, and reason subject to God. “Original sin” is formally a “defect of original righteousness,” and materially “concupiscence.” As St. Paul says (Rom. vii. 8, 14), the pneumatic law, which declares war on the lusts, meets with opposition from the “law in the members.” These and similar notions involve a religious and moral conscious judgment which is assumed to exist in humanity alone. Hindu notions of pāpa (wrong) and puṇ ya (that which is pure, holy, and right) have a wider content. The latter is accordance and working with the will of Īśvara (of whom the jīva is itself the embodiment), as manifested at the particular time in the general direction taken by the cosmic process, as the former is the contrary. The two terms are relative to the state of evolution and the surrounding
circumstances of the jīva to which they are applied. Thus, the impulse towards individuality which is necessary and just on the path of inclination or “going forth” (pravṛ ttimārga), is wrongful as a hindrance to the attainment of unity, which is the goal of the path of return (nivṛ ttimārga) where inclinations should cease. In short,

1 See authorities cited in Schaaff Herzog Dict.

what makes for progress on the one path is a hindrance on the other. The matter, when rightly understood, is not (except, perhaps, sometimes popularly) viewed from the juristic standpoint of an external Law-giver, His commands, and those subject to it, but from that in which the exemplification of the moral law is regarded as the true and proper expression of the jīva’s own
evolution. Morality, it has been said, is the true nature of a being. For the same reason wrong is its destruction. What the jīva actually does is the result of his karma. Further, the term jīva, though commonly applicable to the human embodiment of the ātmā, is not limited to it. Both pāpa and puṇ ya may therefore be manifested in beings of a lower rank than that of humanity in so far as
what they (whether consciously or unconsciously) do is a hindrance to their true development. Thus, in the Yoga- Vaśiṣ ṭ ha it is said that even a creeping plant acquired merit by association with the holy muni on whose dwelling it grew. Objectively considered, sin is concisely
defined as duhkhajanakam pāpam. It is that which has been, is, and will be the cause of pain, mental or physical, in past, present and future births. The pain as the consequence of the action done need not be immediate. Though, however, the suffering may be experienced as a
result later than the action of which it is the cause, the consequence of the action is not really something separate, but a part of the action itself—namely, the part of it which belongs to the future. The six chief sins are kāma, krodha, lobha, moha, mada, mātsarya—lust, anger,
covetousness, ignorance or delusion, pride and envy.1

1 This in part corresponds with the Christian classification of the “seven deadly sins”: pride, coveteousness, lust, anger, envy, gluttony, and sloth which if deliberately persisted in, drive from the soul all state of grace.

All wrong is at base self-seeking, in ignorance or disregard of the unity of the Self in all creatures. Virtue (puṇ ya), therefore, as the contrary of sin, is that which is the cause of happiness (sukhajanakaṃ puṇ yam). That happiness is produced either in this or future births, or leads to the enjoyment of heaven (Svarga). Virtue is that which leads towards the unity whose substance is
Bliss (ānanda). This good karma produces pleasant fruit, which, like all the results of karma, is transitory. As Śruti says: “It is not by acts or the piṇ ḍ as offered by one’s children or by wealth, but by renunciation that men have attained liberation.”1 It is only by escape through knowledge, that the jīva becoming one with the unchanging Absolute attains lasting rest. It is obvious that for those who obtain such release neither vice nor virtue, which are categories of phenomenal being, exist.


Karma is action, its cause, and effect. There is no uncaused action, nor action without effect. The past, the present, and the future are linked together as one whole. The icchā, j˝āna, and kriyā śaktis manifest in the jīvātmā living on the worldly plane as desire, knowledge, and action. As the Bṛ hadāraṇ yaka Upaniṣ ad says: “Man is verily formed of desire. As is his desire, so is his thought. As is his thought, so is his action. As is his action, so his attainment.”2 These fashion the individual’s karma. “He who desires goes by work to the object on which his mind is set.”3 “As he thinks, so he

1 Na karmaṇ ā, na prajayā, dhanena
Tyāgena eke amrtatvam ānaśuh. (Taittiriyopaniṣ ad).
2 Chapter IV, iv. 5.
3 Chapter IV, iv. 6.


becometh,”1 Then, as to action, “whatsoever a man sows that shall he reap.” The matter is not one of punishment and reward, but of consequence, and the consequence of action is but a part of it. If anything is caused, its result is caused, the result being part of the original action, which continues, and is transformed into the result. The jīvātmā experiences happiness for his good acts and
misery for his evil ones.2

Karma is of three kinds—viz., saṃ cita-karma—that is, the whole vast accumulated mass of the unexhausted karma of the past, whether good or bad; which has still to be worked out. This past karma is the cause of the character of the succeeding births, and, as such, is called samskāra, or vāsanā. The second form of karma is prārabdha, or that part of the first which is ripe, and
which is worked out and bears fruit in the present birth. The third is the new karma, which man is continually making by his present and future actions, and is called vartamāna and āgāmi.3 The embodied soul (jīvātmā), whilst in the samsara or phenomenal world, is by its nature ever making present karma and experiencing the past. Even the Devas themselves are subject to time
and karma.4 By his karma a jiva may become an Indra.5

Karma is thus the invisible (adṛ ṣ ṭ a), the product of ordained or prohibited actions capable of giving bodies.

1 Chāndogya Upaniṣ ad, III, xiv. 1.
2 Mahābhārata, Śāinti-Parva, cci. 23, ccxi, 12.
3 Devī-Bhāgavata. VI. x, 9, 12, 13, 14.
4 So it is said: Nasmastat karmabhyo vidhirapi na yebhyah prabhavati, and Ye samastajagatśṛ ṣ ṭ isthitisamhārakeṇ gāh.
Tepi kāleṣ u līyante kālo hi balavattarah.
5 Devī-Bhāgavata. IX. xxviii, 18-20.


It is either good or bad, and altogether these are called the impurity of action (karma-mala). Even good action, when done with a view to its fruits, can never secure liberation. Those who think of the reward will receive benefit in the shape of that reward. Liberation is the work of Śiva-Śakti, and is gained only by brahmaj˝āna, the destruction of the will to separate life, and realization
of unity with the Supreme. All accompanying action must be without thought of self. With the cessation of desire the tie which binds man to the saṃ sara is broken. According to the Tantra, the sādhana and ācāra (q.v.) appropriate to an individual depends upon his karma. A man’s tendencies, character and temperament is moulded by his saṃ cita karma. As regards prarabdha- karma, it is unavoidable. Nothing can be done but to work it out. Some systems prescribe the same method for men of diverse tendencies. But the Tantra recognizes the force of karma, and moulds its methods to the temperament produced by it. The needs of each
vary, as also the methods which will be the best suited to each to lead them to the common goal. Thus, forms of worship which are permissible to the vīra are forbidden to the paśu. The guru must determine that for which the sādhaka is qualified (adhikārī).














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