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Karma, Sin and Grace: Some Intricacies, Interrelationships, and Paradoxes

by Edward J Parkinson

The Sanskrit word karma, strictly speaking, means action, but in common parlance it has come to mean karmaphala, the fruits of action, those results, whether of reward or punishment, which follow our actions ineluctably "as the cart follows the ox" (Dhammapada). Upon first consideration karma would not seem necessarily connected to sin, since "good karma" rewards praiseworthy actions. The Buddha, after all, in the above-quoted Dhammapada, asserts that a man cannot escape experiencing the rewards of his good deeds even if he climbs the highest mountain or hides under the depths of the ocean--the reward of good is as ineludible as the punishment of evil.

Those advanced on the spiritual path, however, consider such rewards to be binding, an interference with perfect freedom, and hence undesirable. For example, if my karma is to enjoy good health, I must incarnate on the physical plane in order for health and sickness to be options; and, in such an incarnate state, I am bound to experience many miseries (ill health is only one of many types of suffering). Likewise, wealth and good looks bring many consequences in addition to the obvious "good" ones. Thus, Philip Kapleau, in The Wheel of Life and Death, advises us to "plunge into" and experience wholeheartedly any karmaphala, whether pleasant or unpleasant, in order to get it over with and move toward a karmaless existence. Swami Satprakashananda concurs, observing that meritorious actions "cannot take...[man] beyond the sphere of interdependence that is this world." He continues, "Because of good actions the chain around a person's neck may change from iron to gold, but that is the only difference. Both are equally strong to bind" (123). This undesirability of even "good" karmaphala would seem to suggest some causal connection to sin.

Good karmaphala would not, however, appear to be associated with sin in the narrow sense in which sin is defined in Bishop Johannes van Alphen's Cathechism: 99 Questions and Answers on The Liberal Catholic Church. Here sin is defined as "the purposeful disobedience to the known will of God"(41). Sin in a broader sense, however, can be defined as any self-interested thought or action because such self-interest in itself retards our spiritual evolution, even though the action or thought itself may be meritorious. Anything which interferes with spiritual evolution is contrary to the will of God and, because it causes some distortion in the energies of the universe (where everything is impelled toward God), must be corrected at the expense of its author--thus, it generates karma which binds its author. No action or thought seeking the advantage of the separated self is perfectly ordered, so no such thought or action can be completely innocent. Such patterns of distortion can be contrasted with the path of karma-yoga, in which selfless, disinterested action destroys karmic ties and leads to liberation. So we see here one problem with Bishop van Alphen's definition of sin.

There are other problems. Bishop van Alphen's definition seems Thomistic rather than Hindu in its stipulation of "the known will of God." Traditional Roman Catholic morality maintains that one does not incur guilt unless one knows that a given action is wrong and one does not sin seriously if one erroneously thinks the action is only slightly wrong. Most Hindus, on the contrary, hold that a man can sin seriously even if he thinks he is acting righteously--e.g., a religious fanatic burning "heretics" at the stake or a deluded cult leader mistakenly insisting on his own divinity. Here the Hindu concept of sin seems to me to be very closely tied to karma. Hindus have always associated sin and suffering, and in practice they seem to measure the sinfulness of an action by the "bad karma" or suffering it effects. Thus Hindus often opine that a sincerely deluded religious fanatic who deliberately burned people might advance spiritually--be granted patience and other graces, for example, as the result of his sincerity in spiritual matters--but would nonetheless suffer terribly physically because of the sinfulness of his actions. This is consistent with the Hindu and Buddhist diagnosis of sin as the result of ignorance. A sincerely deluded man cannot advance spiritually until his ignorance is corrected, and sometimes mistaken ideas are embraced so tenaciously that extreme suffering is necessary to effect the soul's release. Such ignorance, if not corrected, militates against the spiritual development of others also. Indeed, since individual distinctness exists only under the illusion of maya and since everything in the universe is interrelated, anything that hinders one soul hinders all.

Swami Bhaskarananda illustrates with an incisive Indian story the vitiating effect of ignorance on good intentions: "A soldier had a pet monkey. He trained the monkey to do many intelligent tricks. One hot summer afternoon, the soldier was having a nap lying on the grass in the shade of a large tree. He had put his sword by his side on the grass. The monkey was sitting near the soldier and keeping a close watch over its master. The monkey noticed that a fly kept sitting again and again on the soldier's face and disturbing his sleep. The monkey did not like it. When the fly sat on the soldier's face again the monkey unsheathed its master's sword and with one swift and powerful stroke tried to kill the fly. The fly flew away and the soldier died! The monkey had the right attitude, it wanted to help its master. But its method was all wrong"( 135).

Bishop van Alphen perhaps has not thought the matter through. His definition of sin as opposition to "the known will of God" (italics mine) seems inconsistent with his statement four sentences later that "sin is in essence a personal matter, arising out of ignorance...." Hindus also tend to grant more importance to the external action than do Thomists. I remember being told in high school by my Jesuit teachers that a man who firmly decided to commit a serious sin and was forcibly restrained from doing so was just as guilty and would be punished just as severely as if he had successfully carried out the action. Most Hindu thinkers, on the contrary, hold that the externally effected action is productive of much more devastating karma than the firmly resolved but unperformed bad action. This would appear to lead inexorably to the conclusion that the former is more sinful, since the Lords of Karma are charged with the just punishment of sin; it would also appear that the externally performed act is more inhibitory of spiritual evolution, since the purpose of retributive karma is to augment spiritual evolution by discouraging those forces which hinder it.

And we might also suspect that the consciousness of a sinner who carries out some nefarious deed is more distorted than that of one who was unable to discharge his malice in the external world. Ludwig Wittgenstein maintained that mental states are partly private and partly public. In the case of emotion, for example, our natural externally observed actions--crying or shouting, for example--comprise with our subjective feelings an indecipherable unity. It may be that a man who decides to commit a murder has distorted his consciousness by the decision itself but that carrying out the act distorts it even more.

The Thomists and the Hindus agree, however, that only voluntary actions are susceptible to moral judgment. Both exclude involuntary actions such as digestion of food and most instances of eye-blinking and respiration. Some Hindus, for this reason, appear to agree with the Thomists that animals are incapable of sin. Thus, in Hinduism and Christianity, Swami Satprakashananda asserts categorically, "...it is karma that distinguishes human beings from all other creatures in the world. There is no karma on the subhuman level, because there all actions are either instinctive, involuntay, or reflexive. There is no self-determination. Only the conscious, deliberate activities of human beings are signified by the word karma"(112). Acarya Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, on the other hand, founder of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, known in the United States as the Hare Krishna movement, has, in numerous pamphlets, opined that animals very frequently generate karma and in consequence experience karmaphala. He seems to assume, unlike Bishop Leadbeater, that animals are fully ensouled. Philip Kapleau, also, in The Wheel of Life and Death, argues that animals frequently act from motives such as jealousy or cruelty and in so doing generate karma. Bishop Leadbeater, in The Inner Life, asserts categorically, "...an animal often does make a good deal of karma"(369). He holds that, in animals who have not achieved individuation, this karma adheres to the group soul of which the particular animal is an emanation and its effects will be experienced by other animals proceeding later from the same group soul. Bishop Leadbeater, however, like Philip Kapleau and Swami Prabhupada, is differing from Swami Satprakashananda only in a particular application of the general principle that deliberate actions alone produce karma--no Hindu or Buddhist thinkers that I know of dispute that basic principle. Bishop Leadbeater explains, "Many animals have a sense of right and wrong, or at least a knowledge that some things ought to be done and that others ought not to be done; and they are capable of feeling ashamed when they have done what they think to be wrong. They have in many cases a power of choice; they can exercise (or not exercise) patience and forbearance; and where there is a power of choice there must be responsibility, and consequently karma"(371).

The word grace, in traditional Catholic theology, is used in two ways: (1) sanctifying grace is Divine Life dwelling within the soul in a special way: it dwells only in souls whose wills are united to the Divine Will in at least a minimally acceptable degree--to use Roman Catholic nomenclature, a person "in mortal sin" is not in "a state of sanctifying grace"; actual grace, on the other hand, is a special unearned help given by God to enable us to eschew sin, love God more, and do good works. Actual grace, in my opinion, is a Second Ray emanation, which contacts us at the nirvanic level or higher--it is thus in itself beyond the ordinary course of cause and effect which obtains in this world, although it may accompany certain karmic effects and it is dispensed through sacramental rites. It is not, strictly speaking, earned, although it is often given or withheld because of the disposition of the proposed recipient. Actual grace, in my opinion, is what is relevant in this question, so, when I use the term grace, I will be referring to actual grace.

Karma and grace are often simplistically contrasted, with karma being ascribed to Divine Justice and grace to Divine Love and Mercy, and karma being considered something earned in contrast to grace, which is considered a free gift. But such simplistic contrasts are misleading. Since God is infinitely simple, His attributes--Love and Justice, for example--do not vie with one another and cancel each other out. St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out that, if God's Justice is infinite, then God is His Justice because, if His Justice were to lack anything God has, it would not be infinite. Similarly, God is His Love and His Mercy. It follows logically that Divine Mercy, Divine Justice, and Divine Love are the same, any distinction being an illusory distortion of finite minds. God punishes sinners through retributive karma--even the most terrible karma--because He loves them: their good is to come to Him, and they cannot do so if their consciousnesses are distorted by sin. "As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent"(Revelation:3:19). Offers of grace and karmic retribution spring from the same source, Divine Love.

Indeed, a pleasant life--or even a life free of terrible suffering--is not really good for a soul if that soul through sin is separated from Divine Love; "...thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked"(Revelation:3:17).

Nevertheless a distinction can be made: grace is "free" in a sense in which karma, whether "good" or "bad," is not. The karmaphala a man experiences he has earned by his own actions, whereas grace is unearned. Nevertheless, paradoxically, while grace is unearned, we must work to benefit from it. "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me"(Revelation:3:20).To "open the door" in response to the knocking which is always there, we must be free of constricting attachments and aware of spiritual realities, and such freedom and awareness are the results of good karma. St. Paul says, "By grace ye are saved"(Ephesians 2:5). Good karma cannot save us--we can only be saved by resignation to God's will, but such resignation does not come automatically because our egos, our small selves, exercise a powerful influence that our spiritual Selves cannot effortlessly vanquish.

Accordingly, Swami Satprakashananda warns us, "If you want success and prosperity in this world you have to make efforts for it, and so in spiritual life there is ample scope for self-effort. It is a wrong idea to say that 'I do not have to do anything for God's grace. If I seek spiritual treasures it is God's concern, he will give them to me.' Do not delude yourself this way." He continues, "God expects this much from you: that by exercising your freedom, you come to sacrifice that freedom when you realize its limitations"( 129). Good karma, in other words, is the taxicab which takes us to the airport; grace is the airplane which takes us to God.

But the matter is even more complex and paradoxical: we would not generate good karma were it not for grace. The Divine Wisdom which speaks deep within our souls is a freely given gift. Bad karmaphala will do nothing but make us bitter if, while enduring it, we do not cooperate with freely given grace. Consider the response of those enduring the plagues of the seven angels in Revelation: "And they blasphemed the God of heaven, because of their pains and wounds, and did not penance for their works"(Revelation:16:11). Recall also the advice Job received from his wife:"...curse God, and die"(Job:2:9).

Karma and grace interact reciprocally. Good karma can help to make grace efficacious for us, and bad karma can drive us in desperation to call on God and cooperate with His grace. Conversely, however, grace can lead us to generate good karma, and grace can also modify the effects of bad karma. Let us consider the latter point in some detail.

Hindus distinguish three kinds of karma: sanchita karma, prarabdha karma, and kriyamana karma. Sanchita karma is "accumulated karmic forces...in a potential state like so many term deposits with different maturity dates"; prarabdha karma is "the karmic force which has started yielding effect....prarabdha karma causes a person's birth and determines how long he will live. It also causes pleasure or pain during the lifetime of a person. When the force of his prarabdha karma is exhausted, his body dies"; kriyamana karma is "any action done in this life or its effect"(Swami Bhaskarananda 81).

I remember Bishop Lawrence J. Smith once saying that the Law of Karma is "a flexible law but not a forgiving law." All debts are paid, but they can be paid in different ways and according to different time frames. Sometimes a debt which would otherwise be paid in suffering can be paid in service, and here grace could have a modifying effect.

Suppose, for example, a man was guilty of great cruelty and in the process generated a lot of sanchita karma destined to manifest as chronic, painful, debilitating illness in some future life. If through grace the man's attitude were changed, he might help the individuals or the group he had injured or help other people suffering from the illness he would be likely to experience. This service might modify the negative karma to a great extent or even cancel the debt. Prarabdha karma is less amenable to modification, but even here Hindus frequently distinguish between "constant" and "variable" pararabdha karma. If I am born without an optic nerve or with a missing leg for karmic reasons, that situation cannot be changed within my current lifetime, given current levels of medical knowledge. If, however, I were afflicted with other medical problems or born poor for karmic reasons, a change of attitude might effect a change for the better in my circumstances even in the present incarnation. And kriyamana karma is often very susceptible to modification. If I have sinned in this life and repent, I can often greatly ameliorate the karmic effects. This is why Edgar Cayce never encouraged his consultees to adopt a fatalistic, pessimistic view of their karma.

Total submission to the will of God, according to most Hindus, leads to destruction of remaining sanchita karma. "When a person becomes a saint by having the ultimate spiritual experience, all his sanchita or accumulated karma is, as it were, burnt to ashes. But he cannot get rid of his prarabdha karma until his death" (Swami Bhaskarananda 83). Swami Bhaskarananda later, however, qualifies the statement about prarabdha karma: "...[the saint] has to work out his prarabdha karma, from the grip of which no mortal can completely escape. Some say, however, that even though one cannot completely escape from one's prarabdha karma, the intensity of its forces can be considerabley reduced if one surrenders to God completely. Shri Sarada Devi (1853--1920), one of the greatest women saints of India, supports this view. She says, 'By surrendering to God a devotee can considerably reduce his prarabdha karma. For instance, had he been fated to have a sword injury owing to his karmic forces, he will have a pin-prick instead'"(85--86).

The Hindu teaching that karmaphala can be averted by timely cooperation with grace has much biblical support. At the preaching of Jonah the King of Nineveh repented and gave his people this wise counsel: "Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?" The punishment was averted: "And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not"(Jonah:3:9--10). The People of Israel were not so wise in the days preceding the destruction of the First Temple: "But they mocked the messengers of God, and despised his words, and misused his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against his people, till there was no remedy"(2 Chronicles:36:6). Similarly, Jesus recommends timely reconciliation with those we have injured: "When thou goest with thine adversary to the magistrate, as thou art in the way, give diligence that thou mayest be delivered from him; lest he hale thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and the officer cast thee into prison"(Luke:12:58).

We can easily see why repentance would ameliorate karma if we consider the purpose of karma: the correction of distortions in consciousness. Painful karmaphala strongly encourages us, in the words of the Canticle of our Eucharist, to "depart from iniquity." Ecclesiasticus counsels, "Do no evils, and no evils shall lay hold of thee. Depart from the unjust, and evils shall depart from thee. My son, sow not evils in the furrows of injustice, and thou shalt not reap them sevenfold"(7:1--3). Those distortions which can be corrected by grace need not be corrected by karmaphala. Even in the case of a saint whose submission to God destroys karmaphala, however, Bishop Smith's point about the "unforgiving" quality of the Law remains. The saint would strictly speaking be under no debt but would later in service, not retributive suffering, pay any debts to those injured--but not because the debt was owed, but rather because the saint's consciousness would be tuned to unconditional love, which would necessarily culminate in such service. It is extremely unlikely that a saint who had injured someone would not after conversion do the person much more good than would be necessary to compensate for the previous injury.

These matters are replete with subtleties and paradoxes. We have said that desire is karma-producing and binding. We would seem therefore to find ourselves in an impossible predicament because the desire to receive grace and cooperate with grace would also seem to be karma-producing and binding. Spiritual masters, however, assure us that this is not the case. This desire does not generate the distortions which require karmic correction because it is totally in harmony with the will of God. The Psalmist cried, "My soul hath fainted after thy salvation: and in thy word I have very much hoped"(Psalm:118:81); surely for this desire he was not entrapped by karma.


Bhaskarananda, Swami. The Essentials of Hinduism. Seattle: Viveka Press, 1994.

Kapleau, Philip. The Wheel of Life and Death: A Practical and Spiritual Guide. New York: Doubleday, 1989.

Leadbeater, Charles W. The Inner Life. Wheaton, Illinois. The Theosophical Publishing House, 1978.

Satprakashananda, Swami. Hinduism and Christianity. St. Louis: Vedanta Society of St. Louis, 1975.

Van Alphen, Johannes. Catechism: 99 Questions and Answers on The Liberal Catholic Church. London: The Saint Alban Press, 1991.