A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 1

by Surendranath Dasgupta | 1922 | 212,082 words | ISBN-13: 9788120804081

This page describes the philosophy of kamma: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the eighth part in the series called the “buddhist philosophy”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

In the Katha (II. 6) Yama says that

“a fool who is blinded with the infatuation of riches does not believe in a future life; he thinks that only this life exists and not any other, and thus he comes again and again within my grasp.”

In the Dīgha Nikāya also we read how Pāyāsi was trying to give his reasons in support of his belief that

“Neither is there any other world, nor are there beings, reborn otherwise than from parents, nor is there fruit or result of deeds well done or ill done[1].”

Some of his arguments were that neither the vicious nor the virtuous return to tell us that they suffered or enjoyed happiness in the other world, that if the virtuous had a better life in store, and if they believed in it, they would certainly commit suicide in order to get it at the earliest opportunity, that in spite of taking the best precautions we do not find at the time of the death of any person that his soul goes out, or that his body weighs less on account of the departure of his soul, and so on. Kassapa refutes his arguments with apt illustrations. But in spite of a few agnostics of Pāyāsi’s type, we have every reason to believe that the doctrine of rebirth in other worlds and in this was often spoken of in the Upaniṣads and taken as an accepted fact by the Buddha.

In the Milinda Paṅha, we find Nāgasena saying

“it is through a difference in their karma that men are not all alike, but some long lived, some short lived, some healthy and some sickly, some handsome and some ugly, some powerful and some weak, some rich and some poor, some of high degree and some of low degree, some wise and some foolish[2].”

We have seen in the third chapter that the same sort of views was enunciated by the Upaniṣad sages.

But karma could produce its effect in this life or any other life only when there were covetousness, antipathy and infatuation. But

“when a man’s deeds are performed without covetousness, arise without covetousness and are occasioned without covetousness, then inasmuch as covetousness is gone these deeds are abandoned, uprooted, pulled out of the ground like a palmyra tree and become non-existent and not liable to spring up again in the future[3].”

Karma by itself without craving (taṇhā) is incapable of bearing good or bad fruits. Thus we read in the Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna sutta,

“even this craving, potent for rebirth, that is accompanied by lust and self-indulgence, seeking satisfaction now here, now there, to wit, the craving for the life of sense, the craving for becoming (renewed life) and the craving for not becoming (for no new rebirth)[4].”

“Craving for things visible, craving for things audible, craving for things that may be smelt, tasted, touched, for things in memory recalled. These are the things in this world that are dear, that are pleasant. There does craving take its rise, there does it dwell[5].”

Pre-occupation and deliberation of sensual gratification giving rise to craving is the reason why sorrow comes. And this is the first ārya satya (noble truth).

The cessation of sorrow can only happen with

“the utter cessation of and disenchantment about that very craving, giving it up, renouncing it and emancipation from it[6].”

When the desire or craving (taṇhā) has once ceased the sage becomes an arhat, and the deeds that he may do after that will bear no fruit. An arhat cannot have any good or bad fruits of whatever he does. For it is through desire that karma finds its scope of giving fruit. With the cessation of desire all ignorance, antipathy and grasping cease and consequently there is nothing which can determine rebirth. An arhat may suffer the effects of the deeds done by him in some previous birth just as Moggallāna did, but in spite of the remnants of his past karma an arhat was an emancipated man on account of the cessation of his desire[7].

Kammas are said to be of three kinds, of body, speech and mind (kāyika , vācika and mānasika). The root of this kamma is however volition (cetanā) and the states associated with it[8]. If a man wishing to kill animals goes out into the forest in search of them, but cannot get any of them there even after a long search, his misconduct is not a bodily one, for he could not actually commit the deed with his body. So if he gives an order for committing a similar misdeed, and if it is not actually carried out with the body, it would be a misdeed by speech (vācika) and not by the body. But the merest bad thought or ill will alone whether carried into effect or not would be a kamma of the mind (mānasika)[9]. But the mental kamma must be present as the root of all bodily and vocal kammas, for if this is absent, as in the case of an arhat, there cannot be any kammas at all for him.

Kammas are divided from the point of view of effects into four classes, viz.

  1. those which are bad and produce impurity,
  2. those which are good and productive of purity,
  3. those which are partly good and partly bad and thus productive of both purity and impurity,
  4. those which are neither good nor bad and productive neither of purity nor of impurity, but which contribute to the destruction of kammas[10].

Final extinction of sorrow (nibbāna) takes place as the natural result of the destruction of desires. Scholars of Buddhism have tried to discover the meaning of this ultimate happening, and various interpretations have been offered. Professor De la Vallee Poussin has pointed out that in the Pāli texts Nibbāna has sometimes been represented as a happy state, as pure annihilation, as an inconceivable existence or as a changeless state[11].

Mr Schrader, in discussing Nibbāna in Pali Text Society Journal , 1905, says that the Buddha held that those who sought to become identified after death with the soul of the world as infinite space (ākāsa) or consciousness (viññāna) attained to a state in which they had a corresponding feeling of infiniteness without having really lost their individuality. This latter interpretation of Nibbāna seems to me to be very new and quite against the spirit of the Buddhistic texts. It seems to me to be a hopeless task to explain Nibbāna in terms of worldly experience, and there is no way in which we can better indicate it than by saying that it is a cessation of all sorrow; the stage at which all worldly experiences have ceased can hardly be described either as positive or negative. Whether we exist in some form eternally or do not exist is not a proper Buddhistic question, for it is a heresy to think of a Tathāgata as existing eternally (śāśvata) or not-existing (aśāśvata) or whether he is existing as well as not existing or whether he is neither existing nor non-existing. Any one who seeks to discuss whether Nibbāna is either a positive and eternal state or a mere state of non-existence or annihilation, takes a view which has been discarded in Buddhism as heretical. It is true that we in modern times are not satisfied with it, for we want to know what it all means. But it is not possible to give any answer since Buddhism regarded all these questions as illegitimate.

Later Buddhistic writers like Nāgārjuna and Candrakīrtti took advantage of this attitude of early Buddhism and interpreted it as meaning the non-essential character of all existence. Nothing existed, and therefore any question regarding the existence or non-existence of anything would be meaningless. There is no difference between the wordly stage (saṃsāra) and Nibbāna, for as all appearances are non-essential, they never existed during the saṃsāra so that they could not be annihilated in Nibbāna.

Footnotes and references:


Dialogues of the Buddha, II. p. 349 ; D. N. II. pp. 317 ff.


Warren’s Buddhism in Translations, p. 215.


Ibid. pp. 216-217.


Dialogues of the Buddha, II. p. 340.


Ibid. p. 341.


Ibid. p. 341.


See Kathāvatthu and Warren’s Buddhism in Translations , pp. 221 ff.


Atthasālinī, p. 88.


See Atthasālinī, p. 90.


See Atthasālinī, p. 89.


Prof. De la Vallee Poussin’s article in the E. R. E. on Nirvāna. See also Cullavagga, IX. i. 4; Mrs Rhys Davids’s Psalms of the early Buddhists, I. and 11., Introduction, p. xxxvii; Dīgha , 11. 15; Udāna, VIII.; Sainyutta, ill. 109.