It’s possible that today I’ll cover more than one chapter for a change. Or it might not happen because the following two chapters reveal surprising ideas that I’ve never seen before even considering all we’ve heard about karma in Kṛṣṇa Consciousness, and yet they make total sense from the position of Sāṅkhya.
We, despite our long exposure to the philosophy, treat the law of karma as that of cause and effect. The author, however, also brings in consequences, which are a different category.
First, our illusion rises from interaction between our ideas and the world. It’s not quite the same as mind-body dualism of western thought because in Sāṅkhya our bodies are also ideas. That perception of dualism leads to many confusing things in modern worldviews but is automatically resolved in Sāṅkhya. Illusion is also far more than a philosophical consideration – it’s a moral one, too. Philosophical speculations are largely harmless in themselves but illusion as a product of choice of some axioms over others must lead to real life consequences. It’s here that consequences are separated from effects.
Effect of acting on selected set of axioms (meaning morals) is illusion. A consequence is a creation of a new event that might correct the illusion by making us to reconsider our choice of morals. Cause-effect relationships terminates after the interaction. Consequence creates a new event in the future, meaning another cause-effect interaction. The author uses an example of mixing sugar and water. After you’ve done mixing it’s over, the effect of having sweet water is there and the interaction is terminated. However, the consequence of this interaction is yet to manifest – will you drink it or will you give it to someone else? By simply observing the cause and effect we are unable to predict the next event, for that we need consequences. Science deals only with causes and effects and therefore can’t predict next events. Of course, science is known for it’s ability to predict but I suppose the author means here the most fundamental level of it – quantum behavior, which is just as famously unpredictable.
To incorporate consequences into science we must also include the observer, the conscious choice, and moral responsibility for these choices. I’ve never seen favorable reactions to the suggestion of introducing morality into science. Perhaps, we need a better word that doesn’t evoke images of an angry God casting everyone to hell.
In Sāṅkhya these consequences are called karma. That’s the word we know, but we never thought of it as being anything other than effects. It makes sense and describes the same thing so the word itself is not important. It would be nice to know Sāṅkhya’s term for effects, though. Not offered here.
The author then presents karma in a somewhat different way. All choices create consequences if they are based on incomplete knowledge of reality. This means that if there are four moral principles but we choose to act only on one, unaware of three others, then that would be incomplete knowledge and it would create karma. To know all moral principles is the same as to know Kṛṣṇa, and so only one who acts in complete knowledge of the Lord is free from karmic reactions. This conclusion is not different from what we already know but it’s expressed from a different perspective. Acting on the orders of the Lord means that our actions are based on Lord’s complete knowledge and so they don’t create karma either – also fits. Go Sāṅkhya.
There’s a tiny little thing called a nuance here, though. In modern view crime done in full knowledge of it is considered as more severe while in Sāṅkhya it’s the opposite – the more you know the less guilty you are! How so? When we look at the world and we discuss justice we go by the same modern understanding of it – ignorance is generally an excuse. “Forgive them, Lord, for they don’t know what they are doing” – the quote the author brings in as well. Lack of knowledge and intent can reduce murder to manslaughter, for example. How could it be different from the Vedic perspective?
Very simple, actually. Karma is meant to correct our misunderstandings about nature and one who already knows the law needs a shorter lesson.
A devotee already possesses the ultimate knowledge of the Absolute Truth and so his misdeeds must be overlooked – according to api cet su-durācāro verse from Gītā (BG 9.30). It’s often the tough one to accept in real life but it’s there and it has been there all along. Sāṅkhya now explains why it is true whether Kṣṇa said it or not. In the commentary Śrīla Prabhupāda gives another quote from Nṛsiṁha Purāṇa, and in the book the author quotes Śrīmad Bhāgavatam (SB 5.26.3):
If one acts in the mode of ignorance because of madness, his resulting misery is the least severe. One who acts impiously but knows the distinction between pious and impious activities is placed in a hell of intermediate severity. And for one who acts impiously and ignorantly because of atheism, the resultant hellish life is the worst.
I must say that this is only a part of translation and it doesn’t follow word-for-word strictly. There appear only two cases of acting in ignorance in Sanskrit but in the translation there are three, and it appears that one who acts in ignorance is punished less than one who acts in lust, meaning despite knowledge. However, this is how Prabhupāda chose to translate this verse and I’m not going to argue against his translation. There’s not purport there to help either. Perhaps it’s a good reason to contact firstname.lastname@example.org and ask them for clarification. If the request is reasonable they’ll contact Sanskrit editors and some explanation will be offered. For the Fifth Canto they must have both tapes and transcriptions, and editorial notes, too. The author quotes a selected part of this verse and he surely must have noticed if there was some inconsistency with Sanskrit but he doesn’t say anything.
Even if we go with Prabhupāda’s translation the gradation of punishment is not clear. We have those acting due to madness, those knowing the difference between right and wrong, and atheists. Madness is punished less but knowledge of piety is punished more severely – shouldn’t it be the opposite? It would make sense if madness was a temporary condition like in api cet su-durācāro. And then we have atheism, which means no knowledge of God, which is less knowledge than that of pious people, and it’s punished by worst hell possible. Modern atheism, however, is different because these people often know common piety better than believers and so have more knowledge, they might even know more about God than believers. Believers, however know God, not “about” God. In short, application of this verse to modern society is tricky.
Anyway, we have Gītā support for this idea so in itself it’s not in question. The chapter then proceeds arguing for this point – committing sins in knowledge is better than committing them in ignorance, and we’ll discuss this tomorrow.