The Socia-Political Origin of the Karma

Doctrine in Upanishads






Karma as a doctrine is progressively developed in the Upanishads by the ruling caste, Kshatriyas, as a political weapon. Unambiguous evidence is collected from the Upanishads and the evolution of the doctrine is discussed. The study is confined only to the Upanishads.


Rarely do we come across a systematic record of the evolution of the basic doctrines in any scriptures. One has to go about reconstructing the stories for this purpose. However we come across one such rare instance in the Upanishads. It deals with the development of the doctrine of Karma, which is one of the cornerstones of Hinduism The original texts clearly record the progressive development of the doctrine of Karma unambiguously and also state by whom and (most important) for what purpose it has been developed. It is proposed in this paper to collect all the available material from the original texts of the Upanishads and present a connected picture of the development of the doctrine. The sources are mainly: (1) Brihadaaranyaka (Brih.), (2) Chaandogya (Chaand.), (3) Katha and (4) Kaushitaki (Kaush.) (Translation of R. E. Hume). Scholars agree that the first two are the earliest Upanishads (600–800 B. C.) and the other two of a later period.




In the Vedic period, ‘Karma’ is a mere word, a collective noun, standing for all rituals. The Vedic religiosity essentially consists of rituals, or sacrifices. These rituals are with a desired result (Phala) in view. It may be for a son, an empire, or even the misfortune of an enemy. All these are result-oriented and the fruits are expected during the lifetime of the performer. There is only one sacrifice which gives the performer a place in the land of gods after death and the matter closes with that. The idea of metempsychosis is unknown to Rigveda. With a vague reference to this notion in Atharvaveda, the idea of transmigration of souls (The Greeks also had something like this) makes a definite debut in Satapata Braahmana, a post-Vedic but pre-Upanishadic literature. The genius of the Upanishads consists in combining the word Karma and the idea of metempsychosis and evolving into a powerful doctrine of Karma which has caught the imagination of the Hindus during the last 2500 years and continues to do so. The Upanishadic account will now be taken up.


Karma and Reputation (Stage I)


I.                    We find three references to Karma in the Brih.


a)         The first is in 3.2.12 and 13. Yaajnavalkya was debating with the Brahmin scholars of the philosopher-king Janaka’s court. He was replying to a question by Arthabhaaga that after everything disappears into the elements after the death of a man, only his name (or reputation) remains over on the earth. While he debated everything in public, for an elucidation of this point, Yaajnavalkya is said to have discussed with Arthabhaaga in privacy. These are his actual words: “Arthabhaaga, take my hand. We two only will know of this. This is not for us two (to speak of) in public.” Why this secrecy? (We shall take this up later.) The author of this story writes that the two discussed and praised Karma and comments, “one becomes good by good action and bad by bad action.” Therefore, the reputation (post-mortem) is governed by Karma. This is three steps beyond the Vedic concept (1) From rituals it is extended to all actions and behaviour of man in his lifetime, and (2) its influence is extended from the lifetime of man to beyond his death, by the way he is remembered by his survivors, on earth, and (3) the third point is the introduction of ethical distinction; good and bad actions leading to good and bad reputation.


Karma and Soul (Stage II)


The next reference is 4. 4. 5. in Brih. Here Karma (all actions) are connected with the transmigration of the soul for the first time. At this stage they faced a logical difficulty of connecting the actions of a corporeal body with the not-co-corporeal and eternal soul. So they argued: the bodily action is the result of the mental resolve to act. The resolve to act arises out of desire to achieve a result (just as a desire for something has been the incentive for the Vedic rituals). So we have,


Desire                          Resolve                        Karma

(of the soul)                  (mental)                        (bodily)


This is quite rational. We know now that the bodily organs follow the commands of the brain conveyed by the nervous system. It has already been established in the Upanishads that the soul is Brahma, made of knowledge, of mind – of desire and non-desire of anger, etc. (4. 4. 5) So the connection between Karma and soul is logical in the ultimate analysis.


It is important to note that, the stage is now set for bringing together the two ideas: (1) Karma (all actions) and (2) the transmigration of souls. Like a caterpillar gathering itself for the next step, the soul is also ready for the next stage of development, discarding its earlier body, and dispelling its ignorance (Brih. 4.4.3). Next they compare the soul with a golden jewel being shaped into a more beautiful ornament. In both comparisons the note is one of optimism with improved forms of rebirth. No downward movement in the scale is indicated. This is the Brahminical understanding of Karma and rebirth. It is at the stage that the Kshatriyas took over and shaped out a powerful doctrine with these basic ingredients.


Karma and Metempsychosis (Stage III)


The next stage is described in Brih. 6. 2. 1 to 15. Svetaketu Aruneya, a fresh graduate in Vedic studies is asked in a Royal assembly by a Kshatriya king the following questions:


  1. How do dead people separate out into different directions?
  2. How do they come back to this world?
  3. How is the other world not filled up with the many that are dying and going up there (population explosion), etc., and the path leading to the worlds of fathers and Gods.


The young man does not know the answers in spite of 12 years of Vedic study under his father. He goes home and blames his father, Gautama, for not teaching him properly. Gautama pleads ignorance* and goes to the king seeking this knowledge. The King Pravaahana Jaivali is a Kshatriya and Gautama is a Brahmin. The king is reluctant to teach Gautama, and remarks, “As truly as this knowledge has never heretofore dwelt with any Brahmin whatsoever so truly may not you and your grandfathers injure us.” (6. 2. 8) Then he proceeds to instruct Gautama, as a special favour. (Italics mine)


In his account, a very detailed picture of the path followed by the soul of the dead man until its return to the earth is given, which is not significant. But his classification of men and their goals is significant. Men are divided into three groups: 1) Brahma-seekers: Their Karma is the true worship of Brahma in a forest. After death, their souls straightaway pass to the Brahma world from which there is no return. They escape the cycles of repeated birth and death. 2) The ritualists and virtuous men have for their Karma, sacrifices charity, austerity, etc., and they conquer the worlds. They, after death, go to the land of fathers on a tenure basis and via the moon and the vegetable kingdom (food) return to the earth to enter the cycle of birth and death again. Here the details of Karma as given are mostly characteristic of the Kshatriya class, 3) The third group consists of those who are ignorant of the above two (leading a mundane life). This general mass of people, return to earth abruptly after death, as insects, “flying and crawling and biting.” There is no overcrowding in the yonder world because of this return to the earth. The importance of this account is that it clearly states that the concept of the cycles of birth and death connected to Karma is entirely of a Kshatriya or ruling class origin. It also states clearly that the doctrine is kept as a secret from Brahmins so that they “may not injure us (Kshatriyas).”


The Doctrine (Stage IV)


The final stage of the doctrine is given in Chaand. (5-10-1 to 8) The same story with the same characters is repeated here with greater clarity.


In the doctrine an important clarification is introduced. We have seen that in Brih. (stage III above) in the reasons for rebirth no ethical distinctions are considered. But Chaand, introduces these ethical considerations and neatly connects them with gradations in rebirth. Good Karma leads to a rebirth in higher forms of life or human beings with better privileges. Bad Karma leads to rebirth in inferior forms. “Accordingly, those who are of pleasant conduct here–the prospect is, indeed, that they will enter a pleasant womb, either the womb of a Brahmin or the womb of a Kshatriya or the womb of a Viasya. But those who are of a stinking conduct here the prospect is, indeed, that they will enter a stinking womb either the womb of a dog, or the womb of a swine, or the womb of an outcaste.” (Chaand. 5. 10. 7) Examine the sentences carefully. The mailed fist in a velvet glove is obvious. A Kshatriya, being a ruler, is concerned with law and order. He has no use for any doctrine that does not contain a punishment clause for criminals. The punishment for bad behaviour is clearly brought out in frightening terms. The caste distinctions and privileges are neatly introduced as the necessary consequences and rewards of good behaviour. The existing social order is given a very convincing metaphysic explanation.


The reluctance of the king to teach the doctrine to Gautama is also more explicitly brought out. “This knowledge has never yet come to Brahmins before you and, therefore, in all the worlds has the rule belonged to Kshatriyas only.Chaand. (5. 3. 2) This is a very candid record of the direct connection between political power and the doctrine.


The above account given in its four stages of development clearly points out the socio-political origins of the doctrine of Karma. Here we have to explain two stages of secrecy mentioned.


  1. Why did Kshatriyas keep it as a secret from Brahmins?
  2. Why did Yaajnavalkya discuss in secret with Arthabhaaga (see para 3 ) and finally
  3. Why did the Kshatriyas reveal the doctrine to Gautama?


The following conjectures are plausible:


1. The Kshatriyas are aware of the ideas of Karma and metempsychosis up to stage II given earlier. They might have seen here an opportunity of developing an idea which will capture the imagination of the public and which will perpetuate the Kshatriya rule over the people. The development of the doctrine takes some time. Meanwhile they did not like the Brahmins to know the stages of development. The Brahmin with his spiritual control over the minds of the people and his preeminent position as a teacher, can do a lot of damage, starting controversies and confusing the issues if he does not like the doctrine. And so the Kshatriyas patiently waited till a final shape is given and they are confident of the acceptability. Once they are convinced they released it through Gautama.


2. This explains also why Yaajnavalkya discussed in private with Arthabhaaga. The debate was in the presence of King Janaka. The occasion was a competition for the position of the best scholar. Yaajnavalkya was not only a brilliant scholar and discourser but also very tactful in debates as can be seen from the whole of the third Adhyaya in Brih. Quite possibly he was aware through rurnours that something is happening and it is not advisable to discuss the matter in the presence of the Kshatriya king. He might even have warned Arthabhaaga that (1) the matter is a state secret and should not be openly discussed or (2) he might have advised him not to reveal the ignorance of both of them to King Janaka regarding the latest trends because Arthabhaaga i~ equally ignorant.


3. The third question, “why did they reveal the secret” to Gautama, is very easy. A doctrine intended to brainwash the people is useless if it is not widely known. It is only during its development that it is kept secret. Once it is ready it has to be propagated. Who is to propagate it? Of course, only a professional teacher and priest, the Brahmin! The king’s reluctance to teach Gautama is only a show to make things mysterious. The leak is a calculated move. Let us remember that actually the king took the initiative in putting leading questions to a fresh graduate and thus indirectly invited his father and with some mystification taught him the doctrine.


Once a professional teacher and priest knew this, the propagation of the doctrine is just a matter of time.


Further development


After this, there is one more development. The Katha. (5. 7) states that the reincarnation of the soul is governed by “Karma and knowledge.” Here knowledge is added to Karma. Who added this and why? The Kaush, gives a clue to the source of this addition.


In the Kaush. (1.1. and 2) the story is slightly altered. Here the same son and father are involved; the teacher’s name however is Citra Gaangyaayani, whose caste is not stated. The likelihood is that he is a Brahmin. This can be inferred from the way Gautama approached him for instruction; strictly according to the accepted protocol. Further Citra did not hesitate like the king in the earlier versions. He was only pleased with the humility of Gautama and taught him. It is therefore quite likely Citra is a Brahmin. In his teaching, he includes Knowledge and Karma as the deciding factors of rebirth.


It is therefore reasonable to conclude that by this time the Brahmins not only accepted and propagated the doctrine but made some addition to the Kshatriya doctrine. What is the advantage of this addition?


Knowledge, if it is taken here in the same sense as it occurs everywhere in the Upanishads, cannot influence rebirth. Knowledge, as Brahmavidya, is actually a means of release from Samsara. In this context, therefore, knowledge means only Aparavidya, i. e., other than Brahmavidya. Taken in that sense, this can work out to the advantage of the Brahmin. A Vedic scholar, for example even if he committed bad Karma, might get away with a lighter penalty. Actually, the Brahmin did enjoy many privileges in the society.


This completes the account of the development of the doctrine as given in the principal Upanishads. That the doctrine has been further developed in, for instance, Buddhist hands, etc., is not quite relevant for our purpose. The main purpose of the article is to bring out the Upanishadic account of the socia-political origins of the doctrine. This is clearly demonstrated with original quotations from the Upanishads.


* This, incidentally, shows that the doctrine to follow is not found in the Vedas.