Most Indians, including Jains, have the misunderstanding that phalas (consequences) of karmas are governed by the karma doctrine. The belief in this statement is demonstrated in the following illustration, presented in talks I have given on karma. Two men stole diamonds, but only one of the two men was caught by the police. The man who was not caught by the police escaped with diamonds. He is enjoying the life of a free rich man. The other man, who was caught, was incarcerated. He is living the life of a poor prisoner. Both men performed the same action of theft, but the consequences of the action of theft were different for them. I asked the audience why there were different phalas for the same karmas. Every time I have asked this question, the audience gave the same answer, “The person who was not caught must have done puṇya (auspicious) karma in the past.” Most readers would agree with this answer, but I contend the answer is wrong.
There are two reasons to believe this answer is wrong. One reason is that the members of the audience do not realize that the word karma has two meanings. We perform karma, but we also attach karma. Though it is true that phalas of the latter type of karma are governed by the karma doctrine, not all phalas of the former type of karma, called action, are governed by the karma doctrine. I will elaborate later. Secondly, we must ask ourselves, “What type of consequences of actions is governed by the karma doctrine?” Had the audience known the answer to this question, they would not have given the wrong answer. The correct answer to this question, which can be found by the analysis below, leads to a new vision of the karma doctrine.
Universality of the Karma Doctrine
For the law of karma to be meaningful, it should be valid everywhere and at all times. The law of karma would become meaningless if it was applicable only at some places and not other places. For example, if it was assumed that the law of karma was applicable only in India and not in other countries, then a person could make the law of karma meaningless by performing desirable actions in India and undesirable actions in other countries. Similarly, the law of karma would become meaningless if it was not applicable at all times. For example, if it was assumed that the law of karma was applicable only on weekends and not on weekdays, then a person could make the law of karma meaningless by doing desirable actions on weekends and undesirable actions on weekdays. The law of karma, like the law of gravity, is a universal law that is always valid everywhere. Not only that, the law of karma should be valid for all living beings irrespective of their states (bhāva). In other words, the law of karma is a universal law that is valid everywhere (kṣetra), at all times (kāla), and for all living beings made of two substances (dravya) and their states.
Similar logic can be used to show that the laws that govern the relationship between actions and their consequences should be universal. The law-of-karma-governed consequences of an action, whether performed in India or in the US or somewhere else in the universe, should be identical. Likewise, the law-of-karma-governed consequences of an action that was performed in the past or is being performed now or will be performed in the future must be identical. Therefore, the consequences of an action that are governed by the law of karma should depend only on the action, not on factors other than the action such as dravya, kṣetra, kāla and bhava, dkkb in short. This means that the consequences of an action that change with dkkb of the action are not governed by the karma doctrine.
Consequences of Actions
There are two types of consequences of actions: universal and non-universal. The universal consequences of actions depend only on the actions, not on dkkb. The non-universal consequences of actions depend not only on the actions, but also on other factors such as dkkb. The universal consequences of actions are delivered in the form of karma that attaches to the karmic body. These are termed invisible consequences, as we cannot observe them with our physical senses. The universal, invisible consequences of actions are governed by the universal karma doctrine. The non-universal consequences of actions are termed visible consequences, as we can observe most of them with our senses. The non-universal, visible consequences of actions are not governed by the karma doctrine. These are governed by either man-made laws or dkkb. Thus, we can formulate a universal rule for determining the law-of-karma-governed consequences of actions.
Those consequences that do not change with dkkb are the law-of-karma-governed consequences of an action.
The invisible consequences of actions that are in the form of attached karma are the law-of-karma-governed consequences of actions. Attached karma depends only on actions, not on dkkb. Every action has invisible consequences in the form of attached karma.
Visible consequences can be illustrated through the following examples. A man was caught committing a theft and was sentenced to two years of imprisonment. The activity of committing theft is his action, and the imprisonment is a consequence of his action of theft. Another man receives remuneration for performing a job. The activity of performing the job is his action, and the remuneration he received for the activity of doing the job is one of the consequences of his action. Both of these consequences, the imprisonment and the remuneration, vary from one country to another; they were different in the past from the present and will be different in the future; and they may be different for different living beings and their states. In other words, such consequences of actions, including becoming rich, change with dkkb and are, therefore, visible consequences of actions that are not governed by the karma doctrine. Such consequences are governed by man-made laws or dkkb, which are not universal. At the same time, every action has invisible consequences. The action of theft and the activity of performing the job also have invisible consequences in the form of attached karma, which are governed by the karma doctrine.
Now we have the answer to the question raised in the beginning: why did the two thieves have different consequences even though both committed the same action of theft? The thief who was not caught by the police became rich, while the other thief, who was caught by the police, was incarcerated. The consequences of the same action of theft were different because such consequences are not governed by the universal karma doctrine. The capture of one thief and the non-capture of the other thief by the police are controlled by circumstances, and the incarceration that is the consequence of the action of theft is governed by man-made laws. Neither man-made laws nor circumstances are based on the universal principle.
We pay attention to visible consequences of actions that affect our present life, but we do not pay any attention to invisible consequences of actions that affect our future lives.