This paper was presented at
Psychology: The Indian Contribution
National Conference on
Indian Psychology, Yoga and Consciousness
organised by the Indian Council of Philosophical Research
at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education
Pondicherry, India, 10-13 December 2004

(click to enlarge)

 Psychological Healing and Faith in the Doctrine of Karma[1]

 Jyoti Anand

 Allahabad, India




 The doctrine of Karma enjoys wide acceptance by all cross-sections of the Hindu population. The doctrine is frequently invoked while seeking explanations for various life crises. The present study is an effort to delineate its role in the healing process. A narrative study was conducted on middle to late age women who had undergone major life crises. Their narratives threw light on how they used this doctrine to make sense of their suffering and readapt to the changed reality. The belief in the doctrine facilitated acceptance and emergence from their tragic life events. It was concluded that more systematic work is required to understand the mental representation of the doctrine and its various tenets, which affect the healing process.

The doctrine of Karma is a pervasive belief system which shapes the world view of an average Indian. This is a doctrine of causation which explains why people differ in their life experiences and what is the cosmic order which patterns our lives and relationships.  Radhakrishnan (1952) observed, “there is no doctrine that is so valuable in life and conduct as the Karma theory”. Weber (1958) considered it “the most consistent theodicy ever produced by history” (p. 121). The doctrine explains the universe in rational terms, as Karma argues that there is nothing uncertain or capricious in the moral world. The doctrine has held its sway over the Indian masses for centuries, and continues to offer potent explanations for everyday happenings as well as major life events. Apparently the doctrine of Karma has managed to provide the much-needed healing touch to the ailing Hindu and Buddhist masses, in the face of various physical and social adversities. This could be one of the reasons why popularity of the doctrine as an implicit ethno-theory has sustained for the last three millennia.

The scriptures have deliberated upon the doctrine and its main tenets. Writings by the sages and scholars have provided rich source material for a comprehensive and in-depth understanding of the doctrine.  However, for a common man it is hardly possible to capture the richness of the doctrine, including its metaphysical underpinnings. Every person understands this doctrine in one’s own way, and draws on those aspects of the doctrine which helps in making sense of one’s suffering, and contributes to the healing process. This paper tries to articulate the doctrine of Karma as a viable life principle and demonstrates how this doctrine mediates the process of healing through real life cases. In so doing, individual construction(s) of the Karmic doctrine and its implications for dealing with one’s life crises are taken into account.

The explicit purpose of the present study was to elicit and analyse narratives of women who have gone through some major tragic events in their lives and have struggled to recover from their crises. This researcher wanted to identify the beliefs, attitudes and explanations that facilitated their recovery process. It was in this pursuit that the researcher stumbled upon the potent role played by the belief in the doctrine of Karma in their emergence from their crises. In this article, those narratives were taken which clearly illustrated the positive role of this doctrine. The findings show that faith in this doctrine facilitates acceptance of the tragic situation.

Before coming to these findings, it will be apt to briefly mention the main tenets of the doctrine of Karma as given in the scriptures and philosophical texts. It is argued in this article, that from the healing perspective, it is more relevant how the doctrine is construed by lay persons than what the doctrine is in its essence. The endeavour was to fathom how the women who had suffered, employed this doctrine as an explanatory tool to successfully deal with their life crises.     

The Doctrine of Karma

The doctrine of Karma refers to the lawfulness of the universe, and is conceived as a cosmic principle whereby each person must inevitably face the consequences of one’s thoughts and actions, whether good or bad, whether of this life or those of the previous ones. The doctrine stresses individual responsibility for all of one’s actions and outcomes, including one’s well-being and misfortunes (Paranjpe, 1998). It enthrones man as the maker of one’s own fate. The notion of justice is inherent in the exposition of the doctrine. The doctrine of Karma says: ‘as a man sows, so shall he reap’, but was also made to say, ‘as a man reaps, so he must have sown’ (Gokhale, 1961, p.100).

The doctrine of Karma is the guiding principle for more than 750 million Indians in conducting themselves in the social and moral world. It is the most virile part of the Hindu belief system that a man's past Karma determines the field, the environment, in which one is born. It is, however, left to oneself to build up one’s new Karma within the limits of one’s environment. It is, thus, not a blind faith in fatalism, as that is inimical to all morality. Morality implies responsibility, and responsibility implies free will. In other words, Karma determines the field of life, but within that field man is free to develop one-self, to build up one’s new Karma (Radhakrisnan, 1952). The doctrine emphasizes the transmigration of soul and innumerable cycles of life and death through which an individual has to pass before one’s quest for perfection gets completed. Like any other scientific theory, the doctrine of Karma explains diversity, complexity of observed phenomena as the product of an underlying unity, simplicity and regularity (Horton, 1979). Like any other social theory, the doctrine makes intelligible certain types of experiences and serves to orient people toward a certain course of action.    

Historically, it was toward the end of the Vedic period (1500 B.C.) that the doctrine of Karma came to be formulated in all its essentials. The Rig Veda developed the concept of řt which implies the existence of eternal cosmic law which holds that the universe (Nature) is orderly, rational and is not subject to the blind whims and fancies of the gods, and that the gods themselves are bound by this Supreme Law. The working of Karma is presumed to be wholly dispassionate, just, neither cruel, nor merciful. Though one cannot escape from the workings of this principle, there is hope, for one has the potential to design one’s future by closely watching and being aware of one’s actions in the present.

In Hindu thought, God has been believed to be a mere overseer of the proper functioning of the Law of Karma (Karmadhyaksha), and is powerless to interfere with its invincible operation. The Svetasvatara Upanisad (6.11) describes God as a mere witness (säkshi), not an agent. In the Bhagavad Gita (6.5), when Arjun refuses to fight against the rival army which comprises his near and dear ones, Lord Krishna exhorts Arjuna to fight for justice and follow his nīyata karma (ordained duty, appropriate to one’s role and station in life). This Karma should be performed in the spirit of yoga, without any expectation of the desired outcome. The Gita makes it clear that there is no place in the whole universe, where one can find escape from one’s Karma. It is Karma that is the cause of rebirth and, in a certain sense, it is also Karma that manifests in successive lives (Paranjpe, 1998).

 However, in the later formulations of the doctrine the concept of prasäda or divine grace was accepted (Gokhale, 1961). God and gurus were presumed to be capable of ameliorating the dire consequences of one’s Karma, particularly in the Bhakti tradition (Paranjpe, 1998). Such modifications in the original doctrine of Karma leave enough scope for circumventing the inevitable consequences of one’s misdeeds.

All actions are supposed to leave their traces which each person carries within oneself (called samskäras) from the previous births. These samskäras are like seeds that "fructify" under appropriate circumstances in the form of seeking or avoiding something or the other that sowed the seeds. Thus, one has to go through suffering in the present life which one has deserved due to past deeds, but one can alter one’s future through appropriate actions. The new experience and actions leave their traces, which ripen or fructify in turn, and the cycle continues. The central question is how Karma works itself out in the lives of people. The doctrine of Karma reaffirms the people’s belief that despite the seeming chaos of everyday life, the world is indeed orderly and meaningful. Death and suffering bring sorrow, but if they can be reasonably explained, life is not meaningless. AsGeertz (1979) has pointed out, the greatest of human fears is the loss of a sense of meaning. By fitting all human experiences, even the most tragic, into an orderly framework, the doctrine of Karma offers a blueprint of the universe that renders our experiences meaningful.

Construal of the Doctrine of Karma

Stated in its fullest detail, the doctrine of Karma is nothing less than a complete doctrine of psychological functioning, including human thinking, motivation and action. However, the doctrine is substantially nebulous and is open to very diverse interpretations. Often the popular understanding of the doctrine is liable to be at variance with the main tenets of the main doctrine as enunciated in Indian thought. People selectively pick up those interpretations of the doctrine which appear functional to them. People are more prone to resort to this doctrine when facing a major life crisis, or when no other explanation seems plausible (Keyes, 1983).

Though there is a vast array of scholarly commentaries on the doctrine of Karma, there is a real dearth of empirical studies examining the way the doctrine is understood by the suffering individual and its linkages with the process of healing. Some of the studies conducted in the hospital setting on patients getting treatment for different physical ailments have shown a moderate to low relationship between beliefs in the doctrine of Karma and psychological recovery of the patients (see Dalal, 2000). Measures of causal attribution and psychological recovery were administered on the patients getting treatment in government hospitals. A series of studies conducted by Dalal and his colleagues (Agrawal & Dalal, 1993; Dalal & Pande, 1988; Dalal & Singh, 1992) have shown that patients were actively involved in construing meaning and appraising the causes of their health problems. The specific causes to which these hospital patients attributed their problems were God’s will and Karmaphala. Studies (Anand, 2005; Dalal, 2000; Joshi 1995) showed that belief in Karma positively correlates with the psychological recovery of the patients. These studies were, however, done in the health/illness context drawing from the causal attribution perspective and did not throw light on how people employ the doctrine of Karma to explain a wide range of personal crises in their endeavour to come out of it.

Taking a field sample, Priya (2004) studied earthquake survivors in the Kachchh district of Gujarat, India, and found that people often attributed their tragedy to the forces beyond their control. The survivors believed that their post-quake suffering was dependent on the nature and intensity of wrong deeds of their past and present lives. Priya further observed that the participants’ belief in Karma resulted in hope and positive construal of their lot, that facilitated the healing process.  They also believed that the pain (or loss) would get reduced if right Karma (action) was followed. As one earthquake survivor put it, “Grief is there and it will subside only with time, but our Karma is in our hands which is the only truth or the way out.”

The above discussion provides the basis to conjecture that the doctrine of Karma restores one’s faith in a stable, predictable and just world, which one’s suffering jeopardizes. Consequently, belief in Karma should facilitate the healing process for those who have undergone major suffering in life. Taking a narrative approach, the present study has attempted to examine how belief in Karma facilitated psychological healing of women undergoing major life crises.



In this narrative study, a select group of four women was taken, who had gone through some major life crises a few years back (e.g., illness, bereavement, and marital discord), and had resumed their routine lives. Care was taken to select only those participants who were willing to share their inner experiences of living through a crisis.

Their age range was between 47 to 68 years. All of them had 14+ years of formal schooling. They were from average to high middle-class backgrounds, and were married. All four of them had been employed in some profession during their crises. Two of them have now left their jobs. They were Hindu women and all of them were married, of which, two women had lost their husbands.

A brief description about the participants is given in Appendix A.

Narrative Sessions

The participants were selected on the basis of some preliminary information about their life events obtained from varied sources. These women were contacted and only those who were willing to share their personal experiences of going through difficult times were interviewed. These interviews were conducted in the privacy of their respective homes. With all of them, it was the first time that this researcher had such a long and intense sharing. The participants were very cooperative, willing, and gave their best in sharing their innermost feelings and experiences. One could sense that it was an outpouring of their heart, which needed to flow out. Barring one lady, the other three women became emotional to varying degrees. The interview sessions were quite intense, ranging between three to four hours. There was no fixed protocol and the interviews were free-floating in which the participants chose what to share and how to narrate their experiences. The researcher only intervened to facilitate the narrative flow.

The interviews were recorded after taking prior consent of the participants. At places where the narrator asked to switch off the recorder, her wish was duly complied with. The language of the narratives was a mix of both Hindi and English, and was transcribed verbatim. The excerpts from the narratives given in the paper are factually accurate, except that names, locales, backgrounds and individual traits have been altered to preserve coherence while maintaining anonymity of the identity of the narrators and protecting their privacy. The effort was to stay as close to the original narrative as possible, and to use the closest possible English translation of the Hindi language. Wherever it was felt that the translation would alter the meaning or sense of the expression as the narrator had used it, the Hindi word/expression was retained as it was.

Results and Discussion

Cultural explanations

Several studies have shown that people are more miserable when they do not have a convincing explanation than when they have (Bulman & Wortman, 1977, Dalal, 2000, Frankl, 1985). When people feel they have an understanding of events, they feel a greater sense of control in their lives (Taylor, 1983).

The need to seek an explanation as to why one had to suffer such pain and misery was present in all the four participants, though in varying degrees. Where three participants (e.g., Daya, Smriti, to a large extent, and Rima, to a relatively lesser degree) felt that their suffering was unjust, and had a sense of being victimized at the hands of fate, the query ‘why me?’ reared its head more potently than where this feeling of being wronged or victimized was not so strong, as in the case of Nitya. In other words, those who had no justification for their present state suffered more than those who had a justification. Concurrently, greater their suffering, more intense was their need to seek answers for their predicament. In their desperate attempts to seek explanations for their plight, almost all the four participants sought answers in various explanations (though, once again in varying degrees), before settling down for the doctrine of Karma as the most plausible and acceptable explanation of their condition.

Daya had a persistent need to find answers as to why she had to suffer so much in her marriage. This question kept haunting her all the time. “I push these questions (why me?) at the back of my mind. Or perhaps these are my samskärs, if I may say so, or some relations from my past life which I have to live out.”

“It so happens that we haven’t seen what is to come and what has gone in the past – so what are those (deeds) which have got accumulated?” (She’s saying this in relation to the doctrine of Karma and past deeds.)  She further adds, saying: “I used to think that if I haven’t done any wrong, then why am I being punished so much – so greatly.”

“When I look back I haven’t harmed anyone personally or during my job. Even then if there is this problem, then only the Creator knows, who has created this problem.”

For almost forty years or more, Daya had been desperately seeking some kind of a convincing explanation as to why she had to suffer at the hands of her husband when she took care to fulfill her dharma to the best of her ability. She dabbled with various explanations for her plight. For example, she sought to believe that their stars were mismatched and unfavourable. Then the pundit who had declared that their match was incompatible and that there was a remedy for the same, passed away before he could be traced out and met with. Another understanding which Daya arrived at and seemed convinced was that her husband was not a normal man, and was incapable of any kind of emotion. It was only a few years back that she happened to read a book by a leading psychotherapist[2] which happened to endorse and lend credence to her faith in the doctrine of Karma and how one has to endure the fruit of one’s actions, both of this and previous births. This belief, though, came much later than all other probable explanations, but apparently seems to have gone down as the most lasting and convincing one, which has given her the much sought after peace and respite, together with putting to rest most of her bitterness and anguish over having been unduly wronged.

To connect her misery with some events of her past life, Daya attempted to understand and decipher her dreams which she saw while convalescing from a major surgery, a couple of years back. It seemed to have contributed towards her accepting her current situation more stoically.

“In those days I used to have very significant dreams which were indicative that this dream is definitely of a past life, and is giving me my answers….Lying down in bed I used to think that perhaps these are showing me glimpses of my past lives, that I have made mistakes, I have harmed someone, I have hurt someone – I am being punished for that.”

“Perhaps I am in the ruling family, and I have given testimony for someone, which is circumstantial evidence – it appears true but actually it is not true. Someone is killing someone else and a third person is standing there, and you say that that (third) person was standing there. So that is (otherwise) true, but he wasn’t killing. So he’s not the culprit. But because I had to testify, I said it, and that fellow gets caught.

When this person was sitting down for meals, they arrest him and take him away to punish him. I said that he was there but my intention is not that he gets punished or killed or any such thing. Whatever I saw, I said (in my ignorance) – I don’t remember the details, but I remember the essence. So he’s taken away and sentenced to death. Then I realize (my fault) that why did I give such a testimony, although whatever I said was not wrong, but it was not to be interpreted in this manner. Both of them (the husband and wife) are cursing me, because of me he has been sentenced to death, and I am wondering how can I undo this. I did not say anything wrong, neither lies, nor truth – I have got stuck in between for no reason. After I woke up  (from my sleep), I realized that the question that I keep asking all the time that if I haven’t done anything (wrong) then why all this suffering, is answered. So perhaps this life has been given to me to take revenge for what I did – because I am also stuck for no fault of mine – for no fault I have been punished for so many years. I derived this meaning on my own. I used to question God, ‘why am I suffering everything – mentally and physically?’ I was upset, so I interpreted my dream myself, that perhaps I had harmed that person, so maybe that person had come to take revenge from me.” 

Such overriding is her desire to reach a conclusive understanding of her plight in this life, that she says: “I wish I could meet someone who could do regression therapy on me and help me see what in my past lives has led to all this in this life.”

Caught unawares in the quagmire of tragic deaths, Smriti was desperately seeking some meaning as to why she had to suffer so much. She examined herself, her deeds, but found her conscience clear enough to provide her any answer to the nagging query, ‘why me?’ According to Smriti, somehow she could not help wondering, questioning, and getting angry with God for her son’s suicidal death. “I could not apply my mind to anything – I used to brood that why has God done this to me? What wrong had I done to anyone, or that child was so innocent, what had he done? What was his fault that God gave such a big punishment to us? Then my grandmother (who is still alive) visited us – she explained to me a great deal, that whatever happens, He’s the one to make or mar anything. It is possible that something must have remained incomplete in a past life that all this happened in this life – that he (Smriti’s son) had to give up his life (for that). I also used to think, telling myself again and again, that it may be possible that there was some give and take (remaining) – probably there must have been something!”

When no answers were forthcoming to satisfy the burning need to find an explanation for her misery, the only explanation that made sense to Smriti was the doctrine of Karma, which propagates the idea of several lives which a person has to live in order to dispense off the effects of one’s deeds. 

She further added: “ After my son’s death, I must’ve read the Gita at least 20-25 times, and it provided me a lot of solace…. that the human body is destructible (nashwar) and the soul is indestructible – this particular line gave me lot of strength. As you change your clothes, likewise you change this body as well. If one has come in this world, one has to go as well – now it depends on what God has written in each one’s fate, so that one would go from this life accordingly, and we cannot do anything in this!”

Perhaps something must have happened in some past life, for it cannot be this life, because I haven’t harmed anyone in this life. This is how I used to console myself.” She continued: “Yes I believe (in past lives) because I saw that I did good for everyone….when I haven’t done anything (wrong) in this life, so perhaps some transactions must have been left incomplete. Moreover, the kind of connections that get established with some people, who goes to whom, who takes from whom, all these things must be depending on this that perhaps some give and take is remaining.”

Rima, who had never felt the need to believe in the Divine before her tragedy, was almost compelled to acknowledge the existence of previous lives. She said: “I’ve also started believing that you get what you deserve…. To tell you honestly, I mean at the risk of sounding a little arrogant – to the best of my knowledge, till date I haven’t – I can say it with real confidence – I am 53 years old – if inadvertently I would have hurt anyone, I don’t know, or made anyone unhappy…In my consciousness I haven’t harmed anyone – I can say it with the utmost of honesty…. Then why did I deserve this? I deserved it maybe (because) I must have done something in my past life.”

Rima had difficulty in convincing herself of divine retribution. She continued: “Why this pick and choose? I mean why is God not the same with everybody? There has to be some explanation, that my husband dies – body lacerated, the servant survives unscathed – what is it? On the face of it, my husband was a thousand times better human being than that fellow.”

Sharma (1970, as cited in Hiebert, 1971) suggests that the doctrine of Karma would rarely be the first explanation one would give for a misfortune, but it is generally the last which one would abandon. Likewise, all participants in this study attempted to arrive at several explanations for making sense of their suffering/tragedies, but subsequently, all of them took recourse to the doctrine of Karma as a plausible explanation for their plight, and which eventually came to stay on as the most acceptable and functional explanation for their conditions of life.

Reconciling with reality

Beset with this unabated self-exploration, ultimately each of these four participants sought refuge in the doctrine of Karma as perhaps the most convincing and acceptable explanation for their suffering in this life. This somehow made it palatable for each of them to come to terms with their trauma and pain. As mentioned earlier, Daya’s understanding of her situation changed after reading Weiss’s book. This book, apparently, provided Daya the insight into the episodes of her life and helped quieten down at least some grudges and queries that she had been living with all these years.

“Today I have the satisfaction…. After reading Weiss, I was at peace. The questions that used to arise are over now. Now I am confident that these are past transactions, otherwise the question doesn’t arise that what can be the reason that two individuals are very good people in themselves, but not when they are together….You will have to live on as long as your transactions (of your past lives) remain. I don’t need to convince anyone on this, i.e., that if you meet anyone for two minutes also, or someone ditches you or loves you, it is definitely your give and take (with that person).”

Citing the case of how Smriti’s son got incriminated in the murder case, due to no fault of his, somewhere lends credence to the philosophy of Karma, that perhaps it happened because of some past deeds, which had to be cleared in this manner. For Smriti, this explanation for her tragedies provided her the solace to live with her current reality. As she said, “When this happened, I believed it to be a deed (Karma) of some past life. This thinking keeps me alive.”

So I give myself consolation by thinking that whatever happened was destined by Him. There must be some reason behind why He has destined this. That reason He only knows. In whatever condition He’ll keep me, I have to stay in that condition only, and this is how I comfort myself…. I feel that I must have done some such deeds in my past life, the punishment of which I have received in this life.”

Rima acknowledged that after much reflection and analysis, she reached this conclusion: “Then I thought there must be something more – maybe past lives, maybe its his (her husband’s) destiny. So I started believing in destiny…. I felt that I must definitely have done something wrong in my past life, therefore this happened with me. So then when you accept this, then you accept your fate. This became very important for me to be able to accept my plight as being a retribution for something which maybe I haven’t done in my senses, in this life – my husband also hasn’t done it….but definitely there must be a life before this….so when I accepted that this is a retribution for my mistakes – this is a punishment for my sins, so when you accept that you were at fault, then you don’t see it in the form of injustice.”

She continued: “This divine thing – there is something which is beyond you. Because his (her husband’s) death was inexplicable, I was not willing to accept his death – he didn’t need to die, he didn’t deserve to die, he shouldn’t have died, but he died, nevertheless. Then how do you explain it? There must be someone’s will prevailing because of which he died….It was after his death that I started thinking about death….My belief in the Divine, and the existence of the Divine was purely a post-tragedy phenomena.”

Nitya contended that (her) belief in multiple lives and in the doctrine of Karma put to rest her misery associated with the feeling of victim-hood (of her being stricken by cancer). In her own words: “I believe in lives. I believe in ‘as you sow, so shall you reap’. I have very firm faith in this. It is not necessary that it has to be something of this lifetime. There is something of your previous lives also, for which you’ll have to pay. This is also part of the samskärs that I have received in my childhood, that you design the blueprint of your life with your own deeds and thoughts. And there is life after life after life after life, and it continues….”

As was evident from the narratives, it was not a passive or fatalistic acceptance of one’s predicament, but led to an active indulgence in coming out of the same. Our earlier work has corroborated that such active indulgence in one’s recovery was an essential initial stage for the healing process to set rolling (Anand, Srivastava, & Dalal, 2001).

Restoration of faith and hope

The acceptance of one’s lot sets into motion a chain reaction: when one finds a satisfactory explanation to make sense of one’s current situation, the initial anger, bitterness towards an unjust God, towards various others, a certain feeling of uncertainty in such a chaotic world, etc., all begin to lose ground. Instead, there dawns a realization that there is indeed a just God who does not mete out suffering arbitrarily; that they have no one outside themselves to blame for their suffering, and that there is a definite order which prevails, even though un-understandable to them! With this realization, the faith that had started to dwindle gets a foothold and one begins to nurture this hope that despite the worst of miseries that one may be undergoing, all is not lost – things are not all that bleak – that there would be light at the end of the tunnel! The narratives clearly support this contention.

There was a change in Daya’s orientation towards viewing life’s experiences and suffering. Today she is willing to go through whatever tribulations and suffering come her way with the feeling that she’d rather live off the effects of her bad deeds (of past lives) and depart from this life as light as she possibly can, so that her next life would be a better and peaceful one. “I know there is going to be another life – I believe in the Hindu philosophy. So whatever repayment (bhuktän) has to be made, let it happen in this life itself, so that the forthcoming life remains peaceful. Whatever is remaining, I want to endure (bhōg) it and finish and do away with it without making a noise. Because if I make a noise, it will become double for me. I have had this realization!”

For her desires which went unfulfilled in this life, Daya is hopeful, and says, “I believe that there have to be many lives. So in my next life my wishes will be fulfilled. But I’m not unhappy, I have no remorse.”

She continued: “The change is coming – it is not complete. This had started a little before the operation – to leave it all - (i.e., wanting) to take revenge, to get angry…. Those who are doing something wrong will suffer themselves – you leave them alone…. This habit of being within myself is (slowly) growing – changes are coming.”

Rima believes that if she does good deeds in this life, she’ll have a better life in her next birth.

Slowly Smriti was able to develop this confidence and faith that despite all the tragedies that had befallen her, life was still worth living, and that if she nurtured her faith and thought positively, it would yield favourable results. “It is very important to have this faith also that there’s a time for everything. Whatever will happen will happen with time, even if we want it will not happen before it’s destined. So if one thinks or has this faith then one would be able to heal oneself quickly.”         

The agency of God

Although the doctrine of Karma does not warrant the agency of God, nevertheless, for an average Hindu, it is very difficult to do away with the agency of God from the doctrine of Karma, or for that matter, from any aspect of human life and belief system. It was evident in this study that before the participants resorted to the doctrine of Karma as a probable explanation for their suffering, Rima and Smriti complained of the injustice meted out by God. But once the doctrine of Karma got incriminated as an explanation, their stance softened, giving way to belief in a benevolent God. Interestingly, participants employed the doctrine of Karma to make sense of one’s inexplicable suffering, but when it came to explaining positive happenings in their lives, more often than not the tendency was to attribute it to the agency of God. This finding is consistent with those obtained by Dalal (2000) on hospital patients.

All the four participants in this study attributed their healing to the agency of God or guru.

Smriti’s tragedies had shaken her terribly; she had almost become a compulsive pessimist, believing and anticipating the worst that could befall her. She bore considerable grudges against God for she could find no justification for all that she had to suffer. “Then slowly and gradually I turned my mind to God. Somewhere I felt that He is the one to do everything. Nothing is going to change by doing puja (worship), what He has to do He will do whether good or bad. I feel that one must pray to Him, so I earnestly take His name. The rest is up to Him.

When Smriti’s cancer-stricken mother responded to treatment and recovered, it helped in restoring her faith in God. “God did not always do wrong. If He subjected us to bad times, then it was He only who took care of us also. It’s right that I had the desire but He gave me the strength, so He’ll do good whatever He’ll do.”  Not only for her mother’s recovery, but keeping in consideration her younger son’s progress in his education and career, she is grateful to Him for all that He has given. The bottom line seems to be that she chose to emphasize the agency of God or Karma depending on whatever comforted her at a particular time.

Nitya’s faith ‘that God can do no wrong’ helped her tide over many difficult times. “Anything may happen to you – He can do no wrong…. So this faith bails you out.”

She expressed, “…to open my eyes – God has taken me from this tunnel, that you see….how much suffering there is! But to mitigate that suffering, how much love there is, how much care there is, and how much concern there is…. So I think if all these things had not happened to me, I would not have evolved like this. At the end of the day I’m happy that all this happened in this manner. It feels that I’ve qualified!”

She further added that her cancer was part of the (cosmic) design to enable and prepare her to meet with her Guru. “I felt that all these tales and stories (referring to her illness) that have happened, had to happen so that I could meet him….I felt that the Guru was preparing me to meet with him through this bodily experience…..”

There is perceptible peace and contentment in Nitya and in her attitude towards life, which she again attributes to her Guru.

Rima was forced to acknowledge the Divine intervention, which gave her strength and solace to withstand the immeasurable loss of her husband. She expressed: “Suddenly one fine morning he disappears.…(I’m) left totally anchorless, rudderless in this world…. I could never imagine my life without him…I realized that his death was inexplicable. The more I kept arguing with God, and the more I did not accept this reality, I was very unhappy. ….

 But another thing that I read at that point of time was really helpful. It said that God has a pattern in this world in which some threads are cut short, while others grow to great lengths, not because one is more deserving than the other, but the pattern demands it. So I think I had to surrender because of God’s pattern, and I felt, that the day I gave in to God’s wish; nothing happens against His wishes; He’s the final thing, and I am nobody to question His will. I think that gave me a lot of peace and solace – I started taking things very stoically, that this was His will, what can I do?”

She felt she deserved what she had got. “Then you feel that this is justice for me. Because the Judge is good. I still feel I’m God’s chosen one, because He could have made my plight even worse.”

Daya, after her recent surgery which had been an almost near-death experience for her, said: “I felt that if I have been stopped from going away, then I have been sent back to do some good deeds in this world, and this life is on loan to me. This is not my own, otherwise there was no question that I could have come back.” There is more awareness and attentiveness about her actions, because deep down, perhaps there is a preparedness for embarking on her new journey to another life. “These days I keep thinking whether I’m doing the right thing. Is there any improvement? Have I gone further away from Him? What I do from morning till night, I do it happily. I offer it all to Him and do it.”    

Unresolved Fears and Dilemmas

The doctrine of Karma did not remove the cause of suffering, nor did it lessen the intensity of the problem. It brought about alterations in the ways the problems were viewed by the participants. This new understanding was found to have contributed to the process of healing. However, in weak moments, when one’s belief in the doctrine wavered and the person got weary of every day struggles, many fears and dilemmas kept resurfacing.    

Daya:  “The question arises that if I fulfilled my dharma (duty), then why did I get so much (pain)?”

Even today there are certain lurking issues which haunt her when alone. “Although one question still remains unanswered, which I have to solve before dying – that, is it a sin to tolerate injustice? I’m not clear about this issue, that what I tolerated considering my dharma, was it my timidity, my cowardice, what was it? This is still not clear in my mind. Whatever I’ve told you earlier, according to me it was injustice, but I tried to justify it in my mind that whatever anyone is doing, he will suffer. I should not do anything wrong. I should not retaliate, I should not take revenge also. And then I read that it is wrong to bear injustice. So then this question arose. Perhaps someone might answer me.” 

Rima is quite insecure and anxious about her future. The loneliness and illness in her ageing years bothers Rima immensely. She said: “When the body will become sluggish, and the mobility will also lessen, then I guess, the absence of the dear ones (which) keeps growing on you – it will increase – there will be loneliness.” She would rather depart from this world with dignity than become an invalid or dependent on anyone. She expresses: “I must leave the world with dignity. I’ve been in command in every situation. I won’t be able to survive in a helpless situation.

Nitya was honest enough to share her weak and fearful moments. She confessed to be still living with the fear of cancer. So much so, that whenever she had any kind of health problem, there was a tendency to connect it with cancer. She desperately wants to forget about her illness, but the fear of it is quite deep-rooted. Somewhere the fear of death still haunts her in some remote corner of her mind. “Somewhere or the other it does touch me even now that I should remain fit. And when there are all these findings, there are scientific advances, so why not take advantage of them? Because I want to live.


The doctrine of Karma seemed to enjoy an unenviable acceptance and approval by the four participants, although this was not necessarily the first explanation that they arrived at in coming to terms with their predicament. The doctrine is sufficiently nebulous and multifaceted, and is therefore open to varied interpretations. It was observed that the participants’ concern was not to delve into the intricacies of the doctrine, or seek any kind of spiritual upliftment, but to employ it to deal with their crises. The focus was mainly on those redeeming features of the doctrine which gave them a convincing answer to the nagging queries of ‘why me?’ As mentioned earlier, having an explanation for one’s misery helps people accept the same and sustain hopes for a better future (Dalal, 2000; Joshi, 1995).

The doctrine provided the participants a socially and culturally endorsed explanation to facilitate their moving on with life. The doctrine seems to be deeply ingrained in the minds of most Hindus, and they manifest a natural propensity to invoke the same in varied life situations. This theory is more like an anchor or a life-line for people who are groping for some semblance of composure in the face of crises. When nothing else gives respite, this doctrine seems to offer the needed respite. Employing this doctrine as an explanation for one’s plight, further affords a feeling of re-embeddedness in one’s social matrix. As this study showed, it was largely in the process of social transaction in the aftermath of the tragedy that people came to accept Karma as the most plausible and coherent explanation for their loss. Faith in Karma enabled the participants to take a transcendental view of their predicament, even if their situation remained unchanged. As supported by other studies (e.g., Keyes, 1983), the problem gets relocated in the larger world order, than being viewed from a narrow personal domain. Thus, the doctrine seems to have helped the participants to put behind their past and reorganize their lives to face the future.

As one could deduce from the narratives, the doctrine sustains one’s faith in a just world and the hope that right action would prevent recurrence of suffering in future. People may find solace in the doctrine when confronting a tragedy they feel they did not deserve. Belief in Karma and past lives affirm that there is an ultimate order within which these experiences are meaningful. It was evident in this narrative study that though Hindus believe in the doctrine of Karma, they do not rule out the agentic role of gods and gurus in the amelioration of ongoing suffering. The consequences of Karma are not held as absolute, and are considered alterable through divine intervention (Gokhale, 1961). Worshipping of gods, religious rituals, a dip in the holy river, pilgrimages, visiting shrines are all part of the Hindu worldview, that facilitate the amelioration of one’s agony. Studies in Indian villages (Carstairs and Kapur, 1976; Keyes, 1983) have shown that despite their belief in the doctrine of Karma, people took recourse to other measures such as witchcraft, sorcery and appeasing the local deities, to gain respite from their plight.

This study showed that the participants did not see any contradiction in their faith in Karma and faith in God. The narratives evidenced that the participants not only believed in God as a Karmadhyaksha (a God who merely oversees that justice is meted out, without being malevolent or benevolent), but also viewed Him as one who rewards and punishes as He wills. To give examples, Rima and Smriti have talked about accepting their suffering as a retribution for their sins (maybe of previous lives), and in the same breath go on to add that their suffering is perhaps a consequence of the Divine will. Nitya also believes that ‘as you sow so shall you reap’, and yet goes on to say that perhaps God wished her to learn certain lessons because of which she had to suffer from cancer. Rima goes a step further to say that God made her suffer because she was His chosen one. These contradictions are of little consequence as long as they have resulted in bringing about the desired relief.

Employing the doctrine of Karma as an explanation for life events is a dynamic process. As the situation changes, different aspects of the doctrine may be construed as explanations. Support groups and significant others also participate in the construal and reconstrual of karmic explanations. The efficacy of this doctrine in healing would depend on how deep rooted is one’s faith in the same.  Reiterating Karmic explanations was like engaging in auto-suggestions, giving oneself self-assurance and upholding a positive view in difficult times. It gave the believers some semblance of control over their future course of destiny. The above observations, of course, need further empirical verification.


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A Brief Description of the Participants

DAYA: Daya is a 68-years old lady and a mother of three married daughters. Daya has been married for 43 years, but has had an unhappy marriage. She holds a post-graduate degree in the science stream and retired as a senior government official. She was a simple girl of the hills when she married a government officer and looked forward to a happy and peaceful married life. Unfortunately, her husband’s suspicious nature prevented any kind of a close bond to develop between the husband and wife. Her husband had no sharing with his daughters too. Daya single-handedly brought up her daughters while doing a job to support her family. In the later period of her life, Daya went through serious health problems and underwent a number of surgeries. A few years back she underwent a major surgery that brought her face to face with a near death experience, and consequently changed her attitude towards life.


NITYA: Nitya, in her late fifties today, was married into a business family and had three sons. She was running a primary school of her own. Seven years back she was struck by breast cancer. Nitya confessed that she did not want to die – she loved life with all its ups and downs to let it slip away from her hands. She grasped every opportunity to keep reinforcing her faith in the Divine, and gleaning something positive out of each and every situation or event that came her way. During this period, her family went through major financial crisis as well. Her faith provided amazing equanimity to brave her struggle. Nitya lives from day to day. She believes in living life to the fullest and giving it her best shot. Nitya considers herself a guest in this world, and in that spirit,does not involve herself too much with inane worldly matters.


RIMA: Rima was a happily married woman, having married the man of her choice. They had been married for fifteen years when tragedy struck; her husband passed away in a road accident. Rima was barely forty at that time. It surely was a big call on Rima to carry on with life stoically and boldly as before, but she had the spirit and the motivation for her son’s sake, to make it, despite all odds and hurdles. She took it upon herself to fulfill her husband’s unfinished dreams. Rima was not a great believer in any kind of god, but her tragedy somehow humbled her. Her faith and submission to the Divine Will has helped her and held her in good stead in the thirteen long years that have gone by. Today Rima feels she is stronger, more mature and at peace with herself, but more lonely than she ever was before.


SMRITI: Smriti was a mother of two sons. About ten years back, when she was in her early forties, her adolescent (elder) son committed suicide. He had been falsely incriminated in a murder case of a fellow student and could not live with the ignominy. Smriti was miserable and suffered terrible guilt for not having been able to avert this tragedy. Smriti’s husband, who had been very dominating and short tempered, succumbed to a heart attack (six years later) and died leaving her very insecure and shaken. Gradually, she realized that she had to get her bearings, else, life was becoming very morbid. Her dwindling confidence in herself got a much-needed boost when she single handedly looked after her mother who had cancer, and her mother recovered. Smriti made sincere efforts to put her past behind and start life afresh with her younger son.

[1] This work was supported by the UGC Doctoral Fellowship. The author gratefully acknowledges the constructive suggestions given by Anand Paranjpe and Girishwar Misra on the earlier version of this paper.

[2] Weiss, 1988: Many Lives, Many Masters