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NITAAI-Veda.nyf > All Scriptures By Acharyas > Suhotra Dasa Tapovanachari > Six Systems of Philosophy > Karma Mimamsa Doing Duty

6. Karma-mimamsa: Elevation Through the Performance of Duty


The word karma refers to any action that results in a reaction, whether it be good or bad. The word Mimamsa means to analyze and understand thoroughly. The philosophical systems of karma-mimamsa and vedanta are closely related to each other and are in some ways complimentary. Karma-mimamsa may be understood as a stepping stone to vedanta. It examines the teachings of the Veda in the light of karma-kanda rituals, whereas vedanta examines the same teachings in the light of transcendental knowledge. The karma-mimamsa system is called purva-mimamsa, which means the earlier study of the Veda, and vedanta is called uttara-mimamsa, which means the later study of the Veda. Karma-mimamsa is to be taken up by householders, and vedanta is reserved for wise men who have graduated from household life and taken up the renounced order (sannyasa).

The main goal of the karma-mimamsa philosophy is to provide a practical methodology for the utilization of the Vedic religion (dharma) for the satisfaction of the urges for wealth (artha) and sensual pleasure (kama). In so doing, karma-mimamsa provides a materialistic explanation of the Vedic rituals for persons whose material desires have blinded them to spiritual understanding. In the Veda, numerous gods and goddesses are invoked. The karma-mimamsa system interprets these deities and their worship in terms of a highly "human-centered" rather than "God-centered" rationale. The karma-mimamsa system also discusses the science of sound and the science of mantra, but the major concern of this system is to combine the self-discipline established by the yoga system (discussed previously) with the ritualistic portion of the Vedas. The aim of all this is to situate the selfish and skeptical human being in a mode of dutiful subordination to the Vedic injunctions in order to prepare him for further advancement as taught in the vedanta system. Therefore karma-mimamsa presents the Vedic religion as a science of mechanistic principles, and not as a faith of adoration of divinities aimed at receiving benedictions from on high. The Vedic dharma is justified to materialists as being "useful to humanity" in that it can satisfy human worldly desires in this life and in the next when properly executed. And proper execution of Vedic dharma requires karma-yoga, or selfless adherence to duty.

The first systematic work on this school of Vedic thought is the Mimamsa-sutra of Jaimini, which is divided into twelve chapters. Sabara Swami wrote a major commentary on the Mimamsa-sutra, and many other commentaries and independent works on this philosophy exist. Kumarila Bhatta and Prabhakara, the revivalists of this system in post-Buddhist India, founded two branches of karma-mimamsa (the major teachings of these branches are the same).

The Concept of Duty

Many people are very concerned about their rights but little aware of their duties. Unless one knows what one's duties are, he cannot understand what his rights are. Demanding rights without accepting duty leads to many problems, as is evinced by today's chaotic global society. Duty may be defined as a tradition of responsibility incumbent upon human beings everywhere that ultimately has divine origin. It is because of the law of duty that the family, society, the nation, and the entire universe continue to exist. The execution of duty handed down by higher authority is the path of honor in all human cultures; conversely, the path of dishonor is the neglect of duty for the satisfaction of animal urges. History teaches that when the family, society, and nation fail to fulfill traditional duties and instead follow the whims of lust as their only value system, they are soon destroyed.

The term dharma is variously translated as "virtue," "duty," "morality," "righteousness," or "religion," but no single English word conveys the whole meaning of dharma. According to the karma-mimamsa system, dharma is the intrinsic nature of rta, the breath of cosmic life. One who wants to breathe and live properly is not supposed to disturb the breath of cosmic life. Disturbing other living beings disturbs the rhythm of the cosmic breath, and that is called adharma. The performing of dharma establishes peace and harmony in the breath of cosmic life. All those activities that coordinate one's individual life with universal life constitute one's duty or dharma. These activities are prescribed in the Vedic scriptures.

There is always a hierarchy in one's duties. Everywhere and at every moment a human being is faced with some kind of duty, and one has to be very discriminating to understand the appropriate duty that is to be performed at a particular time and place. One's scripturally authorized role in life provides the key to knowing one's primary duty. For example, under the codes of Vedic dharma it is the highest duty of a mother to take care of her child. The highest duty of a teacher is to teach, that of a student is to study, and that of a doctor is to take care of his patients. Karma-mimamsa proclaims that the Vedic rituals are the highest duties a brahmana has to perform. The science of Vedic rituals is handed down by ancient sages, who hid its methodology in arcane language that is understandable only to the initiate. The efficacy of this science is determined by the subtleties of the time, place and circumstance of the performance of the rituals, and especially by the brahminical qualifications of the performer of the rituals. Therefore entrance into the practice science depends completely upon the sanction of higher authorities.

Ritual Duty and Philosophy

Most people lack a positive attitude of inspiration toward their daily duties, performing them only to earn money or status. Ritualism illumined by philosophy gives one awareness of the deep significance of the even the small duties of life. Everyone has a morning routine composed of various steps. For example, a working man awakens early, goes to the toilet, brushes his teeth, washes his face, shaves, takes a shower, dresses, and finally eats breakfast. He does none of this with any sense of consecration -- his actions have no higher end or aim than simply to reach the office at exactly nine o'clock. As a result he does not experience any particular fulfillment from the activities he performs from bathroom through breakfast. His whole life rotates through a mechanical framework because of his mundane view of existence. But viewing the daily, unexceptional routines of life as rituals linked to the cycles of the cosmos helps expand the consciousness beyond the shallowness of workaday life. In short, a ritual is a meditation. When a brahmana makes breakfast as an offering or oblation to the fire of digestion within, remembering that the same cosmic principle of fiery energy burns within the bellies of all creatures and within the sun and electricity and the sacrificial fire, then the whole process is transformed, although the activities are the same as always.

In the karma-mimamsa concept, rituals are performed not to worship or please any deity but rather simply because the Veda commands one to perform them. Thus, rituals are practiced for the sake of duty. Food is cooked and through the use of mantras, the Cosmic Deity (mahapurusa) in whom the demigods and all beings dwell is invited to partake of the food and grant blessings in return. But the offering is not made as an act of devotion. Rather, the karma-mimamsaka believes the mahapurusa is obliged by the ritual to accept the offering and give benedictions. Mastery of the ritual is mastery over the powers of the universe. By proper execution of ritual, the performer expects to enjoy prosperity on earth and be promoted to heaven (higher planets within this universe where the standard of sensual happiness is much superior to earth). The karma-mimamsa system teaches that one can cut one's own poisonous plant of past bad karma with the powerful ax of present good karma in the form of the performance of Vedic rituals.

The Karma-mimamsa Analysis of the Veda

Just as in English there are various types of sentences -- interrogatory, declarative, imperative, exclamatory -- so too the Veda is composed of various types of sentences. These include vidhi (imperative), nisedha (negative), and stuti, which are the devotional sentences of praise. Just as any language can be analyzed and understood by the nature and structure of its sentences, karma-mimamsa studies the Veda according to the nature of its sentences. Having analyzed them, it declares that imperative statements are more valid than devotional sentences. The teachings of imperative sentences can therefore be accepted and practiced, but the teachings of devotional sentences must be further analyzed to determine their implied core meanings. The system for interpreting Vedic texts is laid down in such works as the Mimamsa-anukramanika of Mandana Misra.

The Science of Mantra

The generic term for all Vedic verses and sentences is mantra. The Veda is the embodiment of knowledge expressed in the form of sound and symbolically represented in script. Karma-mimamsa accepts sound (sabda) as eternal. It places greater emphasis on mantras than it does on gods and goddesses because it only believes in the validity of the science of sound on which the science of mantra is based. This belief accounts for karma-mimamsa's trust in the efficacy of systematic rituals. Karma-mimamsa states that the Vedic rites are grounded in empirical science rather than religious faith; it does not view the performance of rituals as a means for imploring favors from deities.

Karma-mimamsa does not study sound only at its articulated level but explores the subtle levels of sound by delving into its origin and realizing its various vibrational patterns. Sound is called vak in Sanskrit, but this word cannot be translated merely as "sound", or "speech." Vak refers to both thought and expression, while speech is the communication of thoughts and feelings through spoken words. Vak shakti, the power of speech, is actually a law of communication that is responsible for conveying thoughts and concepts, both individually and collectively. When one talks with someone else, the law of communication (vak shakti) is already present before one speaks and after one has spoken. Vak shakti is the force flowing from a higher level of consciousness through the articulated level of speech, which is its gross expression. Karma-mimamsa categorizes vak shakti at four levels: para, (transcendent), pasyanti (concentrated thought pattern), madhyama (formulated through thought patterns ready for expression), and vaikhari (expression with the help of words).

According to karma-mimamsa there are two universally intertwined factors in manifestation: sabda, the sound; and artha, the object denoted by that sound. One signifies the name, and the other signifies the form. They are inseparably associated; there can be no sabda without artha, no artha without sabda. Together, they are the self-existent reality which is not subject to change, death, and decay. As they manifest, a double line of creation -- words and objects -- is formed.

External sound, sensed by hearing, is of two types: sound with meaning and sound without meaning. Sound with meaning consists of the phonemes and words that make up language, but sound without meaning is not formulated into words and is not recognized as an element of communication. According to karma-mimamsa, external sound is transient, but it is also a manifestation of the eternal sound in akasa (ether). The nyaya school does not accept the mimamsa theory of sound; it holds that words are transitory in every regard. Karma-mimamsa counters that the perception of sound that begins when vibrating air contacts the ear drums must be distinguished from the sound itself. For sound to exist, one object must contact another and that is an external event. But the karma-mimamsa theory of sound with meaning goes beyond this, including also the internal mental movement of ideas that seeks outward expression through audible sound in phonemes, letters, words, and sentences. Thus the perception of sound is transient, but sound itself is eternal. The moment at which sound can be perceived is not the same moment at which it is produced; sound is manifested prior to being audible.

The finest state of sound, called para vak, is perfect. The karma-mimamsa philosophy holds the eternal para vak to be the cause of all causes. [In Gaudiya Vaisnava philosophy, this para vak is the sound of Maha Vishnu's breathing, which precedes the appearance of the universe.] Any vibration that can be perceived by physical instruments such as the ears is only a gross manifestation; physical sound is inadequate for attainment of the ultimate state of consciousness signified by para vak. The next phase of sound is called pasyanti vak. There is only a slight difference between the state of para and that of pasyanti. Both are transcendental, but in pasyanti, the subtle form of the universe is "seen" within sound as the primeval artha, or object of desire. The word pasyanti means "one who sees." [Note: prior to his act of creation, Lord Brahma sees the subtle universal form after meditating upon the divine sound "tapa tapa."] In this state the power of desire still remains dormant, but it is nonetheless the direct cause of the universe, which will be manifested as both idea and speech. This language of silence is a universal language; it is the source of all language and speech. The third state of vak is called madhyama, meaning "that which is intermediate." This state of speech is neither transcendent, as in pasyanti, nor completely manifest, as is vaikhari (the grossest state of sound); it is between these two stages. Finally, the fourth state of speech is completely manifest and audible. At this stage, a sound that belongs to a specific language can be perceived through the sense of hearing. This state of sound is always accompanied by geographical, cultural and social diversities and distinctions that form different languages composed of articulated and distinguishable sounds.

The origin of speech is transcendent and eternal, and the flow of pasyanti, madhyama and vaikhari from the state of para is also the flow of the forceful stream of energy from vak shakti. Like a river hidden in the mountains that comes gurgling forth as it rushes to the valleys where streams merge with it and the flows on to the plains before dissolving its identity into the ocean, similarly similarly speech emerges from its hidden source in the state of silence (para), flows downward into more and more manifested stages, and then at last dissolves into infinity, its origin. This is the process of the unfoldment and enfoldment of vak shakti.

All speech that passes through the human mind becomes contaminated with the limitations of time, space, and causation. The ultimate truth is therefore veiled in everyday speech, but this is not the case with mantras. Mantras are not mere words but are specific sound vibrations that have been experienced by sages in the deepest state of meditation. They are said to be the sound-bodies of certain aspects of the cosmic forces. A mantra is therefore referred to as a setu, a bridge, that the student can use to cross over the mire of delusion and reach the other shore of the Absolute Truth. Mantras are capable of lighting in every human heart the eternal lamp of knowledge that does not flicker with the severe winds of worldly charms and temptations.

The potential of a mantra lies in a dormant state until it is awakened. The secret of awakening and utilizing mantras lies in the rhythmic vibrations in which the mantra is meant to be pronounced and repeated. The proper use of mantras, with their prescribed rituals, is designed to lead one to experience the bliss and happiness contained within the mantra itself. The power of mantra and its awakening can be explained by the following analogy: In the rainy season in some tropical countries the humidity may be one hundred percent, but one cannot quench his thirst with atmospheric water alone because it is not concentrated in usable form. Likewise the great potential of mantras is hidden and diffuse. One must therefore learn how to awaken, concentrate, and utilize their potential.

The Karma-mimamsa Concept of Gods and Goddesses

Modern scientists have developed mathematical equations and scientific laws to describe the order and lawfulness of the universe and thereby increase man's power and control over its phenomena. Likewise, the Vedic sages developed immense powers of knowledge of the underlying order, lawfulness, structure, and dynamics of the phenomenal world. According to the karma-mimamsa system, the universal controllers who wield cosmic power and maintain the universal order are to be scientifically comprehended through the sound of mantras. The deities or gods are the personified forms of principles that correspond to the vibrating sound patterns of mantras. For an uneducated person, the equation E=MC2 is just a meaningless arrangement of lines on a piece of paper. But for those with a sufficient understanding of physics, this formula can help one to comprehend the nature and dynamics of the universe. The karma-mimamsakas have a similar conception of Vedic mantras as do physicists of their formulas.

Some critics of karma-mimamsa philosophy accuse the system of promoting polytheism. But there is an underlying unity. The mimamsakas believe in an all-pervading consciousness that manifests itself in different stages, each of which has a different form (deity) and sound vibration (mantra). Thus exists the apparent diversity of deities and mantras to represent the unitary consciousness. The process of manifestation begins with the emergence of the most subtle forms, from which the grosser or more delineated forms are then manifested. This process has been described and in various ways in different scriptures. In the Vedic tradition, prototypic entities are invoked as deities -- demigods and demigoddesses -- each characterized by a particular set of superhuman qualities. The Vedic demigods radiate from the source of energy that generates all forms and names. Karma-mimamsakas see them as thought-forms that represent the cosmic powers. Karma-mimamsa philosophy does not conceive of the demigods as being identical to particular physical forms. If they were physically embodied, it would not be possibly for a single deity to be present at many different rituals being performed in different places at the same time. Yet it would not be correct to conclude that karma-mimamsakas think the forms of the demigods are imaginary. In this philosophy the deities emerge as primal forms and sound-bodies (mantras) endowed with perfect bliss and happiness beyond all mundane experiences. Though it seems that deity and mantra are two distinct principles operating on two different levels, in reality they are one and the same. A deity is a gross physical form of a mantra, and a mantra is a subtle form of a deity. When the sequence of vibration of a mantra is materialized into a particular form or shape, that is called a deity. Likewise, a materialized form can be dematerialized and reduced to certain frequencies of vibration that will be heard as a mantra.

There are certain rules by which a mantra converts into a deity and a deity converts into mantra. Both deities and mantras operate on a principle similar to the conversion of energy into matter and matter into energy in physics. Wherever a particular ritual is performed with the proper utilization of mantras, the deity related to those mantras is present because when the vibration is concentrated, the materialized form of the deity appears. According to the karma-mimamsa system, the vision of a deity does not therefore depend on the grace of that deity. Rather, the deity, or form, is manifested wherever the mantra related to it is pronounced in a prescribed manner, and it then has to yield the desired objects that are believed to be provided by it. The karma-mimamsa system does not rely on the grace of God for attaining worldly things or achieving liberation. Adepts of karma-mimamsa philosophy have full confidence that the cosmic powers can be utilized at will by proper execution of ritual. Karma-mimamsa identifies two purposes of ritual: to attain and expand one's own inner potential and unite it with the cosmic force, and to pay respect and show gratitude to the cosmic forces that are constantly supplying light and life to all sentient beings. This is considered to be one of the foremost duties of human beings and should be an inseparable part of everyone's life.

The Physical is Divine

Karma-mimamsa applies a theory of the all-pervading presence of divinity by providing specific practices designed to remind the student of this truth. For example, the use of common objects such as water, fruit, incense, grass, stones, and fire in rituals links the mundane with the divine. There is a prescribed way for gathering these items for the ritual and for handling and using them during the ceremony. For instance, before a blade of grass is uprooted, one is to recite a specific mantra to revere and glorify the divinity within the grass and to ask permission to uproot the grass and use it in the ceremony. When the grass is uprooted one recites another mantra, explaining the process in the following sense: "I am uprooting my negativities symbolized by the grass. Even within negativities, there is divinity. I am uprooting it for use in the ritual, in which the real nature of divinity is going to be unveiled." Thus a pantheistic conception of God is encouraged in karma-mimamsa for those who are unable to conceive of the divine in any other way. The idea of seeing everything as divine is to check the mind from being overcome by hatred, jealousy, anger, greed, and all other negative attitudes. This practice helps one to arrive at the impersonal realization expressed in such Vedic statements as "The whole universe is Brahman" and "Thou art That."

The Sources of Valid Knowledge

Mimamsa, like many other philosophical systems, places great importance on the study of nature and the sources of valid knowledge (pramanas). According to mimamsa there are six different sources of valid knowledge: perception, inference, comparison, testimony, postulation, and non perception. (Nonperception is recognized as a source only by the school of Kumarila Bhatta and not by that of Prabhakara). Karma-mimamsa emphasizes testimony as a source of knowledge because it believes exclusively in the authority of the Veda. The karma-mimamsa theories of perception and inference are very similar to those of the nyaya system, but the karma-mimamsa theory of comparison is quite different from that of nyaya, although both ultimately base their theories on the similarity of two things, of which one is already known.

Postulation (arthhapatti) is the necessary supposition of an unperceived fact to explain some apparently conflicting phenomena. For example, a person who does not eat during the day but constantly grows fat can be suspected of eating at night. One cannot solve the contradiction between fasting and growing fat unless he assumes that the person eats at night. Knowledge of the person eating at night cannot come under the category of perception or inference, nor can it be reduced to testimony or comparison. Nonperception (anupalabdhi) is the source of one's immediate cognition of nonexisting things. One can know the nonexistence of a thing by the absence of its cognition, that is, if it is not present in the senses and it cannot be understood by any other source of valid knowledge. For instance, one can feel the absence of a jar that does not exist because it is not perceived by the senses, but one cannot say that the nonexistence of a jar is inferred by its nonperception, because an inference is based on the universals relationship between middle and major terms. And in this case there is no universal relationship between nonperception (middle term) and the nonexistence of a jar (major term). Therefore direct knowledge of the nonexistence of a jar can be explained only if non perception is recognized as a separate and independent source of knowledge.

The Concept of Soul

Karma-mimamsa does not pursue metaphysics but instead emphasizes the practical approach of karma-yoga, the yoga of action. Rituals have three components: the performer, the object of the action, and the process of performing it. The main doctrine of karma-yoga is: "As you sow, so shall you reap." Accordingly, one is the master of his own destiny and is free to enjoy his karma as either master or slave. Karma-mimamsa considers the soul to be an eternal, infinite substance with the capacity for consciousness. Implicit in the karma-mimamsa philosophy is the belief that the soul is meant to enjoy matter. The soul's perfection is attained through perfectly following the karma-kanda process by which all enjoyable things within this universe may be realized.