When people say, ‘It is my karma,' they are usually referring to a causal connection between action and consequence. They are looking at karma in terms of reward or punishment, the consequences of actions past and present. But karma means act, action, performance so why the shift in emphasis to consequences? I believe it is because consequences help us understand the nature of the choices for action that we make. As our choices are based on imperfect knowledge, there are always unforeseen circumstances and there can be no guarantee that we have made the right choices. Our actions, therefore, represent leaps of faith and we get things right or wrong; even our belief in the ‘rightness'/‘wrongness' of our actions and judgments cannot be taken for granted. Nevertheless we believe and that is what Hindus call ‘maya' (illusion), mistaking relative for absolute truth.
Though defined as act, action, performance, karma incorporates choice based on uncertainty, and points to the ambiguity of our actions and of our existence. It indicates the human paradox, human finiteness in an infinite universe. The mystery of our existence makes it impossible for worldly truth to be anything but relative. So we cannot avoid karma. And karma is the tool by which to examine the complexity of our being in the world.
In our worldly existence, we have created superstructures over uncertainty and mystery to give meaning and stability to our existence. Naming, classifying and categorising give fixity and order to the conduct of our lives and provide us with the alphabet to make sense of our world and the universe. We rely on names, classes and categories for the truth of our beliefs. Though such definition does not represent absolute knowledge, we nevertheless use the term ‘categorical' synonymously with ‘absolute'. But as worldly truth is relative not absolute, our ability to classify leads not only to the ability to interpret, but also to misinterpret and therein lies karma - choice and action based on incomplete knowledge, on ignorance.
In Hinduism, absolute knowledge is nirguna brahman. Relative knowledge is saguna brahman, that is, the human construction of knowledge.
Karma according to Gandhi
Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre: Freedom at Midnight, (London, Pan Books, 1977)
Truth, to Gandhi, was the ultimate reality. Gandhi's truth, however, had two facets, the absolute and the relative. Man, as long as he was in the flesh, had only fleeting intimations of Absolute Truth. He had to deal with relative truth in his daily existence, and Gandhi liked to employ a parable to illustrate the difference between his two truths. Put your left hand in a bowl of ice-cold water, the right in a bowl of lukewarm water, he would say. The lukewarm water feels hot. Then put the right hand in a bowl of hot water and into the same bowl of lukewarm water. Now the lukewarm water feels cold; yet its temperature is constant. The absolute truth is the water's constant temperature, he would observe, but the relative truth, perceived by the human hand, varied. As that parable indicated, Gandhi's relative truth was by no means rigid. It could vary as his perceptions of a problem changed.