Friday, May 14, 2010

What is karman?

Karman (or karma, as the nominative sounds) is a chief theme in the development of Indian culture; it has played a key role since ancient times and until today. Karman means first of all ”action”, and hence the action par excellence, that is, ”ritual action”. In this connection, two questions arise:

the nature of ”action”

the connection of action and result

One may note, in passing, that even on the Western notion of ”action” strong disagreements are crowded, and that from common-sense to physics through the philosophy of action there is no consensus about what an action is.

A further problem in the identification of what karman is, lies in where its core should lie: is an action primarily externally identified through its effects, or internally, through the attitude leading to it?

In the first case, a karman would be the production of an effect (be it a concrete product or a generic consequence in the outer world).

In the second case, a karman would amount to the initiation of a certain action, an individual’s effort and tension towards it.

From left to right, one can imagine a gradual shift from the stress laid on the result to that on the incoation of the action as follows:

(On the first line, what happens on the level of the subject, on the last line, what happens on the level of the obejct)

Vaiśeṣika (1st BC) Kumārila (8th c.) Someśvara (12th c.)

agent of the production effort

movement produced result


Anonymous said...

Do you mean this shift towards the subjective understanding of karma happened in the first millenium AD? Certain trends can be found already in the Upanishads.

elisa freschi said...

No, I was not depicting a historical process. Vaiśeṣikas seem to start from altogether different presuppositions. Mīmāṃsakas think primarily at the sacrifice as model karman, whereas Vaiśeṣikas want to explain movements in the outer, physical, world.

I am used to think at the Upaniṣadic karman as the Vedic sacrifice shifted within oneself.
By the way, it is no wonder that a systematic treatment of karman (meaning here "action") as effort is found within the school more closely related to the Vedic heritage, Mīmāṃsā.

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