Karma, Free Will and Grace | Understanding Basics of Sikhism

Karma in Sikhism

Karma rendered literally would mean ‘deeds’. But Hindu metaphysicians identify the world with ‘fate’ and ‘predetermination’. The state of one’s present being, according to them, is wholly the result of one’s deeds done in the past, or the previous births; what one does and achieves, as a consequence thereof, is already determined for him. And, until a man has expiated for all his past, his ‘coming-and-going’ never ceases. Indeed, the human birth which involves us with Samsara (coming-and-going) and the world of becoming, which is Maya (the great Illusion that lands us in pain and sin, is itself not the fruit of our holy past but a sort of purgatory to expiate for the evil committed by us in our previous lives. The soul, being immortal, does not die nor is it re-born; only our psychic self goes through the transference of ‘impressions’ (Sanskaras) gathered in a particular life to a new body corresponding to its inherent character, good or bad, till the final Moksha or Release in God and permanent identification with Him is attained.

Religions like Christianity and Islam, which belief in only one life, also consider the human manifestation a consequence of our primal Sin. It is given to us to atone for it here and to choose God through His only Son or the final Prophet or to be involved further with the Devil and be cast into a perpetual hell ever thereafter. No further chance is given to man for the improvement of his conduct.

The Buddhists who neither believe in God nor soul nor the primal Sin, yet believe in the transmigration of meta-psychosis into the world—the House of Pain-as a result of the evil deeds done in previous births, except for the Bodhisatva (or the Enlightened One) who takes re-birth in order to emancipate others, himself remaining emancipated and free even while alive. But, it is given to every individual to choose the Eightfold Path of Right Living in order to wipe off the slate of the Psyche of one’s past, and enter into the never-ending Bliss of Nirvana, or non-being, also called the great Void.

Sikhism differs from these higher religions in many aspects. Yes, by and large, there is no free will for an individual. One is circumstanced by one’s heredity, environment, training, motive, etc. in every conceivable action that he does. If a man is coerced into doing, or not doing a thing, he cannot be held responsible for its consequences, just as a diseased state of mind is not responsible for the crime it commits without being willing to. The present-day democratic laws admit of this failing in a man’s make-up, namely, that if driven by circumstances that mentally unhinge a man even temporarily, he should not be held wholly guilty. Again Sikhism believes :

a. That it is a certain measure of God’s grace that he has blessed us with the human birth.
b. That if the term ‘past is pressed to its logical conclusion, then, there was a time when man was not only God was. Then, when did he choose, first, to do the evil for which he is being punished birth after birth?
c. Maya is not a tangible entity, as the world is. It is not Anarvachni (neither is nor is-not) as Sankara put it. It is only a delusion of the mind that through gnosis and inner awakening can be seen in its true light. The world is the abode of God, and so also is the human body. Of course, it is God who takes us to the Right Path and also strays us away from it, and, in essence, everything being in the image of God, there is nothing that is inherently bad or evil. There is no principle of evil, as such, though there are things that are evil. But God is wholly good and our awakened conscience is proof of it), it is our destiny to choose good and to dispel evil. But, we have the choice within our limitations also to dispel God and to choose evil, which then, leads to a lower (human) birth and incessant hell, which is coming and going, pain, and sorrow. But, he who identifies himself with the All-good, his comings and goings are ended and even if he takes rebirth, there is no sorrow for him. Even in pain, he is cool and composed, like the lotus with its roots planted in mud. Why a man chooses evil at a given time, leading to his re-birth in the house of pain, is one of the fundamental questions. That, however, is a part of the mystery which is God and should be better left unanswered.

Free Will in Sikh Religion

However, here before us we see men in pain and sin, and though being constantly warned by God within them, they choose Him not and go their own peculiar ways led by the Writ of habit (Kirat), which is a part of their subconscious mind. There is, thus, an element of choice within them, all the time, to exercise their free will, however, limited that freedom is, as is obvious to anyone with a little sense of his own Psyche.

To assert that man is wholly free is to assert the impossible and the absurd. Only a man without a mind is free to do what he chooses. And even when a man chooses, it is never his final choice as he knows to his cost soon thereafter. All men are circumstanced by the laws of the universe, the state of the society, the family, their pedigree, the degree of their sensibility, their primary needs without which life is just impossible, and so on. But, when all this is allowed for, there still remains in each individual a higher consciousness (which the Gurus call God-consciousness) which enables one to choose good, to discriminate between good and evil, and what leads to a permanent state of equipoise or to a constant state of anxiety, perplexity (mind’s ceaseless coming-and-going) and heaviness of the heart and the soul. Thus, while a man, being endowed with intellect, ego, and will, has the capacity to choose, he is so circumstanced that what he chooses, ultimately, is neither the result of intellect nor will, but more often of a blind force habitual, the sub-conscious, the instinctive part of one’s mind that one is amazed, even shocked, at the way one is driven against one’s own better judgments and interests. Then, one is left with no choice but to rationalize and justify one’s ill-assorted doings.

This being so, most of our activity is not “our own”, nor do we desire to own it, or reap its fruits because we ourselves, seemingly are the doers of a deed, and must bear its consequences, essentially, as we have seen above, it is not we who are the doers, but something other than ourselves, which the sages call for lower-self-which most of the time is doing the deeds for us, by proxy as it were.

The modern behaviorists identify this within us and make us believe that man exists only at the animal or the instinctive level. Researchers in modern psychology also affirm that man’s “real” self is in his subconscious mind where he stores all his past, that his conscious mind either rejects or suppresses but nevertheless craves. Whatever we gather from our surroundings and parentage in the very early years of our lives since our conception in the mother’s womb-hopes, fears, sex, ego, and other sub-normal passions like anger, envy, greed, and undue attachments-direct and guide all our activity throughout life and the acquired intellect and wits are there only to rationalize our “natural” (or animal) urges and behavior.

If according to these modern psychologists who examine and identify man only as another material existence, man is not led either by reason or willpower, but is driven by some blind force within him, they only prove the thesis of the mystic that man is not what he seems or thinks at the so-called rational level. All crimes or sins, all wars, and all irrational behavior is certainly not the result of man’s own free will. He is an agent of something perverse and unholy within him. Call it the Devil or the animal, the instinctive or the habitual, the sub-conscious, or “karma’, the result is the same. Man, if he abandons himself to himself (which he often does), is invariably driven to do things which, on mature judgment, he may denounce but cannot overpower. Who says, then, that man is free? If not, how can he be called “good” or “bad”, or held wholly responsible for his ‘sins’, though it is he himself who has to suffer their consequences?

This much is often conceded nowadays by the modern man, but he believes that man can overcome, through more and better knowledge, and more intense exercise of his willpower to overcome the brute within him, and thus eliminate misery and pain from the world and from his own mind. But is it the lack of knowledge or the low-level development of the present-day man’s mind that is driving him to wars, and indulgence of passions and whims which may lead assuredly to his total ruin and damnation? It isn’t so, obviously. Because, once man identifies himself with the matter, how and for what purpose should he overcome himself? if he seeks a better material life for himself, why and for what material reason should he not overcome others, rather than himself? So he craves to indulge his passions, even to his own ruin. And, why should he hold his hand, if, as he believes, everything must dissolve into nothingness in the ultimate analysis why should he make a Special effort to save himself for eternity, much fewer others?

The Gurus, however, aver, that man, in his essence, is holy and spiritual, eternal and Godlike, and that, therefore, it is his destiny not to identify himself with the unholy, the temporary (which is the same as the temporal), and the animal. This not only liberates him so as to become eternal, it makes him be and feel so in the present lifetime, brings him joy and bliss and equipoise, and cancels out his pain not of a hell hereafter, but in the here and now. This he can do through a belief in his own holiness and the holiness of his universe, but he cannot will his own liberation. He can only long for it, as intensely as he would in illicit love like that of the Gopis for Krishna, but both principles are ingrained in beings written on Our forehead since eternity”, as the Gurus put it so inimitably. The rest is for God within us to perform It is common knowledge that one suffers for one’s deeds. However, good entails even more suffering for the mind than the doing of evil. “Kabir: they who know not, sleep the soundest sleep, but I who know, suffer! This is not, however, a plea for ignorance. It only emphasizes that they who seek good deliberately court pain Christ, Buddha, Sri Ramchandra,

Grace or Kirpa in Sikhi

Prophet Mohammad, Guru Nanak. Arjun and Gobind Singh-but this pain being self-sought and for a higher purpose does not bring sorrow in its train; only bliss. Others are the victims of pain and hence writhe and suffer; for, their suffering has no saving grace. The martyr and the criminal are both put to death, but can one, in his senses, identify one with the other? They both suffer, but on a different plane of existence. And, it is the plane that matters, not the fact of suffering. The poison that philosopher Socrates tasted was no different from the phial which killed the power-hungry Adolf Hitler in a fuming dungeon. But their effect, both on themselves and the world at large, was certainly not the same.

The Gurus aver that apart from the conscious and the subconscious, there is in man-and man only-a super-consciousness ( the Atman ), which if awakened and identified with, landsman on the plane of eternal bliss. But, this can happen only if the man himself believes with all the passion he is capable of that he is not mere consciousness, not non-consciousness, but something higher and beyond it: This consciousness is acquired pot to possess more material goods or services, or occult powers (though these may result as a consequence of one’s awakening but are never employed by the Awakened except to rescue man from himself) but to be free and he ‘ourselves’, and thus being ourselves to liberate ourselves. The example of such a one liberates the others also from pain and sin.
We have seen elsewhere how the Absolute becomes related, perception leads to conception, intuition (or ‘tuition’ from within) to objective knowledge: how energy is converted into matter and vice-versa, how the negative or no-thing-ness results in the positive and the tangible; how darkness is potential light, how the sub-conscious overcomes and defeats the conscious. Therefore, one may reasonably conclude that if one hitches one’s mind’s wagon to the superconscious state within it, though the process or the objective may seem “unreal” like God, what results from it is not so intangible and is very certain, and can be experienced by one’s within as wholly blissful and liberating.

One makes no special effort to fall in love when he is face-to-face with beauty; it just happens. Is love bondage or freedom? It is both, and yet neither, but something higher, which may not be a category of ‘normal’ existence. So, also, when we seek to awaken God within us, we have only to crave for it–to repeatedly pray for it, to purge ourselves of what is unlike it (the instinctive urges and animal passions), not by forcing our wills (as the hath yoga enjoins, for it cannot be done: forced suppression Dever leads to healthful integration of the mind), but by invoking the Grace of someone within and also outside and beyond ourselves, by total surrender to this No-thing-ness or the NoMind, the Nirankar, or the formless Absolute. What results from this discipline is past description. It is pure and unalloyed joy.

What is Grace? It is perpetual inspiration, which as William Law said, is as much necessary for man’s life of holiness and happiness as is respiration to animal life. It is not to be searched for distantly; it is already there, within us, and without. The grace we feel being whole and in health and the utter, though occasional, feeling of, “how heavenly it is to be alive” is within the experience of everyone. The grace we receive from parents, friends, society, the books of wisdom, the favorable winds which fill our sails to carry us whither we seek, to the Saints’ Grace in making us realize that we are not what we seem, is also there for anyone to feel its thrill, its joy. But these graces also leave us beneath the state of beatitude and holiness, of perfect bliss and wholeness. It is only God’s Grace that can fill this vacuum.

Like air, God’s grace fills the whole universe. In fact, according to the Gurus, the: very existence of a universe that is holy and not vicious, self-centered, and arrayed against man. with red teeth and claws as is the experience of the pessimist and the materialist, proves it.

God’s grace is for everyone. But though everyone who has eyes can see, he cannot create either the eyes or the sight. These are God-given. Similarly, though one may shut oneself upon God’s air, one cannot will its stoppage. One can turn one’s back upon God’s Grace-like refusing to drink when thirsty -but one cannot will the water to flow where there isn’t any. Thus, one is free to will oneself into God’s Grace-or to turn against it-but one cannot, by sheer willing, ‘create’ a state of Grace. One can only submit to it, willingly, like a bride before her groom (whose imagery is extensively employed by the Gurus), whose love is there for any innocent lover to receive. Why the innocent and the poor in spirit receive it, and not the clever-witted and the egotists, is because such is the nature of love: it runneth after the throbbing heart, and not the: calculating mind. That is what Farid means when he says “The gifts are in the hands of God, and one can force not His Will. Those who wait for him, awake. He passes by, others he awakens out of their slumber

and blesses”. These “others’ are the innocent lovers, brides, asleep in the lap of God, their Spouse, assured by their inner beings of His ever-abiding Grace. Says Nanak:
In the domain of knowledge.
Knowing abounds. Myriad kinds of joys there, sights, sounds. But, when the domain of
Surrender doth one reach: It is through beauty’s speech that one can talk,
Such wondrous is the crea tion here, Not one can fell;
‘Tis wonder sheer, Here is inner-consciousness
molded, And reason fashioned, Understanding enlarged. O, here is the Vision of the godly trained ( Japu ).

But, to be worthy of God’s Grace, one has to decorate oneself with the embellishments that He loves-cleanliness of the mind, heart-felt humility, single-minded devotion, natural compassion, inner wisdom, and, above all, patience–and rid oneself of ego, lust, anger, greed and undue attachment. The reason why one should undergo such an exacting discipline is that if one wants to fulfill oneself, there is no other choice. A woman’s love has to be chaste, devoted entirely to her spouse, humble, wise (not merely clever), sweet of temper and speech, her love ever tinged with a sensitive fear if she wants her beloved ever to belong to her. This may be bourgeois ethics, but in the realm of the spirit, this is the only kind of discipline that works. This is not only the experience of the Gurus and ancient sages, but also of the lovers of all ages, and of every kind, mundane or spiritual. Why most people who seem to traverse the Path of the Spirit through ritualistic meditations and control of breath, approved austerities and customary charities, regular pilgrimages and ablutions, yet are denied God’s Grace (for their inner beings are not in Poise) is because God is attracted not by appearances, but what is inside the man. “The uncultured cloth sucketh in not the Lord’s color even if one wisheth for it.”

A soul in love might also commit errors and excesses, but these are readily forgiven. Their earthly works are sanctified, what they eat and drink becomes holy. Why it is so. is no mystery to those who have loved. “Kabir: Knoweth not one how God casteth His dice. For, either He alone knoweth or the one who knoweth Him and abideth ever in His Presence.” + Such a one who is graced by God knows through feeling and intuition that it is so. For, then, he accepts whatever comes from God. There is neither good for him, nor bad, but only God. The sense of otherness is dispelled and the whole cosmos seems a unity and a single experience. The ‘I’, me, and mine are dissolved into He, Him, and His. Says Guru Arjun:

  • “I have shed my selfhood and begun to love the Will of God. Now whatever He doeth seemeth sweet to me and lo, I see my wondrous God with my own eyes” (Ramkali).
  • “He whom the Lord loveth He taketh not his past deeds into account” (Sukhmani, Gauri).
  • “Beauteous becometh the bride and fulfilled is her love whose love my God accepteth” (Bhai Gurdas).

True, that what we do becomes our destiny. The choice, within the limitations suggested above, is ours. “It is our actions that keep us far from God or draw Him nearer unto us” (Japu, M. 1). “O man, why blames thou others, blame thy deeds, for what thou hast sown, only that thou hast reaped” (Asa, M. 1, Patti). “That what thou doest night and day is writ upon thy forehead: and He from whom thou hidest thy deeds seeth all within thee” (Asa, M. 5). “The God driveth us as is His Will, but his Pen Writeth as are our deeds” (Var Sarang, M. 4, Shloka, M. 1). However, “though one may attain unto a better frame of life through one’s own actions, emancipation is only through the benediction of God” (Japu, M. 1). For, in the ultimate analysis, nothing happens which is not in accordance with God’s Will. He who has sown the seeds of ignorance, inertia, and evil within us, but He has also willed that we should dispel these by awakening the God-nature within us.” God’s Will is inscribed in the core of our very being” (Japu, M. 1). It is not arbitrary or discriminatory, but the same for us all. Through the instruction of the Guru, we overcome our lower selves and become God-conscious and like unto Him as if in a prayerful offering, is ever-ready to help us in our ascent:

Of what avail art Thou, O Guru of men,
If, even though Thee one can destroy not one’s past?
What good it is to seek the refuge of a lion if the jackal is still there to devour us! (Bilawal, Bhagat Sadhna Ji).

It is given at innumerable places in the Sikh Scripture that in the domain of God, no one pains another and all are at peace with themselves. “Sweet is the speech of my Master. I have seen with care. bitter is never His Word.” “When His Grace is upon us, it seems, upon the core of the mind drippeth, all-too-spontaneously, the cool Nectar of God.” When God meeteth man, He doeth so in a warm embrace.”*“God seemeth to Him who hath eyes to see even-new and ever-fresh, the ever given.” “They who are abed with God enjoy the cool shade of a mango grove in the summer of life.” It is like the whole dawn breaking into the womb of darkness, with the birds singing to themselves and the morning breeze soothing its own limbs.
Then, all the elements seem to be working in the fear of God’s Universal Law. It appears. the earth and the sky, the sun and the stars, the fire, the seas, the winds, and the whole vegetation, along with man, have entered into communion with Him all at once. “It is as if after the sizzling heat of June, the earth is cooled with the showers of Grace.” “Even when lightning flashes in the dark, it is welcome, for it maketh me see the face of my beloved.” “The peacock of the mind danceth and the sharp eyes of my love pierce my heart like a dagger.” “What use are my embellishments: my exquisite hairdo, their parting line saturated with vermillion, and my ivory bangles, and my ankle. bells and my jewel-studded bed, if the Lord passeth not His night with me. My soul cries, and weep with me all the woods and the birds, but weepeth, not the sense of “I” in me which has separated me from my love. Come, O sleep, that I see my God as a golden dream” (Vadhans, M. 1) In exquisite poetry of heartfelt symbols, Gurus Nanak and Arjun in their poems (see Barah-Maha of both) give the inner experiences of those in separation and those in Grace. It seems to them as if the habits of seasons and the moods of flowers and the feelings of birds are all transformed so as to correspond to man’s separation from or the Unitive experience of God.

O man, why worriest thyself thou with the life of effort,
When the God above is ever engaged in thy care.
The snow-white swallows travel thousands of miles,
Leaving their offspring behind: knowest thou, Who feedeth them, taketh them to their feed? (Asa, M.4)

The effort one must and does: such is God’s Law, but if one dedicates the result thereof to God, one reaps only their profit, not their pain. Says Nanak :

O God, let me be like a deer in the forest pecking on flowers and fruit but living only for Thee.
Let me be a Koel, in a mango grove, Trilling out my Song of Separation and crying out for Thy Vision clothed in splendor.
Let me be a fish merged in the vastness of Thy Sea, Whose expanse I know not, but who embraces me on either end of my life.
Let me be a snake, living under the earth,
Awake to Thy fear, and waiting for a charmer to rid me of my poisonous fangs (Gauri Bairagan, M. 1).

Or, “let me be a parrot caged in the cage of love, pecking at Truth, drinking only Thy Nectar and flying out only but once.”

Or, let me be the black bee in the death-embrace of the lotus, bathed in the cool beams of the moon.”

Or, let me be a neem tree planted in the neighborhood of sandalwood So that I receive its fragrance and lose my own pungent smell.”

It is said, a King came to visit the fifth Nanak and when he heard the musicians hymning the Guru’s composition saying “O friend, the Writ thy God has written out for thee can be obliterated not”, he became anxious in his mind. On being questioned, the Guru explained to the visitor that the Writ that God writes is based upon one’s own deeds. This gravely disappointed the King who asked: “If such be the case what is the need of the Guru’s Grace or even of doing or being good if what has to happen must come to pass”. The Guru replied:-“Of this, we would talk tomorrow”. In the night, the King dreamt that he had become a sweeper, clothed in tatters, dealing with filth all the time and living the life of a miserable wretch. He woke up, disturbed, in the morning and told the Guru so. The Guru replied: ‘O devotee, you slept as a King and in the dream became a poor wretch. Your dream state was as valid at the time of your dreaming, as is your kingly state which you really possess. Such is the nature of the Guru’s Grace that no matter what your past or present, you pass through, and are affected by it, only as one passes through a dream, till one’s itself awakens to realize the essential kingly nature of one’s soul”!

When Guru Nanak met Farid-Ud-Din, Ganj-i-Shakar and the letter uttered :

One should seek either God or the world :
He who seeks both is like one who seeks to cross the stream in two boats.

The Guru replied: One can cross the stream in two boats :
One’s load in one and one’s soul in the other.
Then, one feels not the fury of the waters, nor has fear of being drowned
If the boat be of devotion and of clean and disciplined living,
And one unfurls one’s sails to the winds of God, lo, His Grace of itself ferries us across!

Source: Originally written by Sikh Scholar Dr. Gopal Singh for the Spokesman Weekly during the 80s.

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