Understanding Satkāryavāda: Correlation vs. Causation

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The Doctrine of Satkāryavāda

If you put your hand in the fire, it will be burnt. Science will say: Fire is energy; when you bring your hand in contact with fire, then energy is transferred to your hand, and that causes the burn. Likewise, if you jump off a cliff, you will die. Science will say: The body on top of the cliff has gravitational potential energy; when you jump off the cliff, that potential energy is converted into kinetic energy, and since the body cannot tolerate so much kinetic energy, therefore, you will die. Sounds perfectly reasonable?

Maybe not. The Śrīmad Bhagavatam describes the story of Prahalāda, who sat in a fire along with his sister Holika, upon the instruction of their father Hiraṇyakaśīpu. Holika had the mystic power of not being burnt by fire, and she thought that she would be saved while Prahalāda would be burnt. But the reverse happened. The sister got burnt while Prahalāda was unaffected by the fire. When Prahalāda was thrown from mountain tops upon the instruction of his father Hiraṇyakaśīpu, he was never hurt.

Miracle and magic? Maybe not. What we think of as causation in science—e.g., that putting your hand in fire will burn the hand—is a correlation, not a causation. Namely, there is the event of a fire, and then there is the event of burning, and most of the time these two occur together. Since they mostly occur together, therefore, we can say that they are correlated. However, they do not occur always, so there is no causal necessity between fire and burning. Since it happens most of the time, therefore, we think there is a law of nature. When that law isn’t upheld then we think it must be magic and a miracle.

To understand the distinction between correlation and causation, we have to envision an inverted tree in which causes propagate from the root to the trunks to the branches to the twigs to the leaves. This is called Satkāryavāda. In this doctrine, the effect emerges out of a cause, just like a trunk grows out of a root, a branch grows out of a trunk, a twig grows out of a branch, and a leaf grows out of the twig.

Effect Hidden Inside the Cause

Some of you might have heard of Matryoshka dolls. There is a doll inside a doll, inside a doll. You open one doll, and you see another doll inside it. Then you open that second doll, and you see the third doll inside that. Nature is just like these Matryoshka dolls, and nature’s manifestations are like opening one doll after another, such that each opening of the doll reveals a new doll. Therefore, wood is one doll, and fire is another doll inside that wood doll. And the manifestation of fire from wood involves opening the outer doll to reveal the inner doll. The fire revealed from the wood is not energy transferred from outside the wood. That fire was always hidden inside the bigger doll; it just wasn’t visible to us.

In the same way, Satkāryavāda says that fire was latent in the wood, and it has been manifest from the wood subsequently. The wood is just like a twig and the fire is like a leaf growing on that twig. The leaf comes out of the twig, and the fire comes out of the wood, although it was previously latent.

The Example of Fire Manifestation

In the Vedic system, the fire in the wood was called araṇi. While performing a yajñá, the fire wasn’t lighted by using another fire; rather, the fire was manifest out of wood, by chanting mantras. Of course, nobody knows how to do that today, so we use a matchbox. But that fire which is lighted using a secondary source of fire carries the properties of the secondary source, so it is not considered suitable for yajñá.

The light particles “emitted” by a matchbox are not just packets of energy; they carry information about their source. Due to carrying source information, there is a difference between sitting in sunlight and under tube light. The light particle carries source information and embeds it in the destination, such that the destination gets the property of the source. So, if you sit in the sunlight, then you get the property of effulgence like the sun. But if you sit in a tube light, then you get the property of a tube light. If a matchbox is used to light the araṇi then it carries the properties of the matchbox. That kind of fire is not considered suitable for a yajñá. Similarly, all kinds of wood are not considered suitable for yajñá. A specific kind of wood, triggered by certain kinds of mantras produces a specific kind of fire, which is considered suitable for yajñá.

Back to the main point about fire being latent in wood, from where it can be manifest. There are many ways in which we can manifest the fire: (a) by chanting mantras, (b) rubbing pieces of wood together, (c) by using a secondary source of fire, etc. The fire produced by rubbing wood or a secondary source of fire falls into the category that modern science can explain: Basically, energy is seemingly transferred from one place to another. But the fire produced by a mantra cannot be explained in this way, because the energy was latent and it has been manifested without transferring energy. Science also cannot explain why something would not light up when subjected to fire, hence the puzzlement of Prahalāda story.

Horizontal and Vertical Causation

The scientific model of causality can be contrasted to the Vedic model in the inverted tree model. The scientific model says that one fire causes another fire, which is like saying that one leaf produced another leaf. In science, fire in the match lights up the wood, through a horizontal transfer of energy from leaf to leaf. But in the Vedic model, there is no horizontal path from one leaf to another leaf; all leaves are connected to each other through branches, trunks, and the root. Therefore, causation is always vertical: From the root to the trunk to the branch to the leaf. You can again think of two Matryoshka doll sets. You open the outer doll in one set, and the outer doll in another set is opened simultaneously.

This simultaneity in the opening of two doll sets gives the impression that opening one doll is the cause of the opening of another doll. But that is not true; there are two separate doll sets that are being opened individually, but there is a correlation between the opening of the two doll sets. That is, generally, if you open one doll, the other doll opens as well. That correlation is not causation, as each doll is controlled separately. Science converts this correlation into causation, but Vedic philosophy does not. It says: Each doll is separately controlled, and the effect comes out from within the cause.

Correlation is Not Causation

In summary, just because two events occur simultaneously or one after another doesn’t mean that one is the cause of another. It doesn’t matter how many times you can repeat that experiment and confirm the recurrence. All these recurrences of events are simply correlations between two occurrences. They do not establish causality. In modern terminology, correlation of events is not event causation.

In Satkāryavāda, the real causation is from the root to the trunk to the branch to the leaf. However, because many such leaves may be produced as effects simultaneously, therefore, there is also a correlation between leaf-to-leaf. Everything that modern science does is based on this correlation. It says: If you light a match, then you can burn the wood. Since causation has to be necessary and sufficient, therefore, one must also say that every time a match is lighted, the wood must also burn (this is called necessity) and nothing other than the match is required to light the wood (this is called sufficiency). But in Satkāryavāda, this leaf-to-leaf correlation is not causation; it is just the appearance of causality if we don’t know that the true causation is coming out from a deeper reality of root, trunk, branch.

When we light a match to burn wood, the light doesn’t move from match to wood. This idea of causation is an illusion. Rather, the causality moves upward from the leaf to the branch. This upward movement of the cause involves deeper realities like the senses, mind, intellect, ego, etc. As it moves upward, there are universal administrators for unique types of leaves. For instance, to manifest fire from the wood, there is an administrator called Agni. He approves our desire to light the wood using the match. Then, by the will of Agni, the cause moves downward, and fire is manifest from wood.

Two things are happening simultaneously—(a) a fire is lighted in the match, and (b) a fire is lit in the wood. But their simultaneous occurrence is merely a correlation. The real cause is Agni who approves the transfer of causality from the match to the wood. Thereby, causation moves up from leaf to branch and then moves downward from the branch to another leaf. This upward and downward movement of the cause is real causation, while the match lighting the wood is just correlation. We can imagine this process as one of request and approval; our desire to do something is a request that moves upward and gets approved by an administrator. Then it moves downward and is executed.

Understanding Prahalāda’s Story Scientifically

Therefore, when Prahalāda sits on the fire, Holika’s intention to burn Prahalāda moved upward, but Agni rejected that request. Instead, Agni sent down another instruction to Holika’s body, that manifested fire from Holika’s body. Effectively, Holika got self-immolated, as fire manifested from her body, just like fire manifests from wood. Lord Shiva’s wife (Sati) also self-immolated Herself when Her husband was insulted by Her father Daksha. This self-immolation by manifesting fire within the body to burn the body is considered a legitimate form of suicide in the Vedic system. Of course, fools, later on, started burning widow brides and this tradition also erroneously came to be known as “Sati” after Lord Shiva’s wife. But there is a big difference between burning a bride—which is murder—and self-immolation, which is suicide.

To the naïve vision, it seems that the burning wood caused the burning of Holika. But the simultaneous presence of fire in the wood and in Holika’s body are mere correlations between two separate events. The true cause of burning is the deeper cause that manifests a superficial phenomenon. This can be based on a mystic power, the chanting of mantras, or even the direction of the demigods.

Satkāryavāda Used in Weaponry

The process of manifesting fire in something to burn it was formerly employed in weapons. For example, there is an Agni mantra that can be chanted to request Agni to burn something, and by Agni’s direction, the requested thing can be automatically lit up in flames. Such weapons were in use in the Mahabharata war, and the use of these weapons illustrates this process quite well. A warrior chants a mantra and shoots an arrow. When the arrow hits the target, the target is lit up in flames. In the superficial vision, we might wonder: How can the arrow light up a target? And the answer is: It is not the arrow that lights up the target; that arrow is simply selecting a destination to be lit up, and Agni—the demigod—manifests the fire hidden in the thing and causes it to self-immolate.

The shooting of the arrow and the lighting of the target are just mutually correlated; the cause of burning the target is the demigod Agni. Such weapons were generally gifted to the warriors by demigods themselves, by informing them of the mantras. For instance, in the Mahabharata, there is a detailed description of how Arjuna received these weapons from the demigods. That gift involves a mantra to be kept secret and privileged. We can imagine how much destruction would be caused today if ordinary people got such weapons.

Just as Agni can approve requests to light up things, similarly, he can also deny requests. The fire of the wood on which Prahalāda was sitting did not burn him, because the request to burn him can be denied by Agni. Since these requests can be denied, therefore, all laws of science that are based on observed correlations are false; they are not actually necessary, but they appear to work mostly because the request is approved based on our karma. If karma is absent, then, we will not get access to burn something, or even if we get access, our attempts to burn it will fail in some way. We would call that “bad luck”. But it is not luck. There is a science of request, approval, and denial, by which an arrow can cause fire, a fire may manifest automatically without an external cause, and the presence of fire may not burn the thing.

When science creates laws of necessity and sufficiency based on correlations, then all these phenomena become aberrations. We either think of them as magic or utterly false (mostly the latter). Most people today for instance think that weapons of fire were imaginary because they are always thinking of horizontal rather than vertical causation. Likewise, they think that nature is working according to mathematical laws rather than the intervention of demigods because these mathematical laws seem to work most times.

How God Intervenes in the World

When a devotee surrenders to Krishna, then Krishna becomes the approver or denier of everything. It doesn’t matter if the devotee is put into the fire, or thrown from mountains. The Lord will deny all requests and that is His protection. To the naïve vision, it would seem that the mountains have become soft as cushions and the fire has become pleasing like a mild breeze. And so, someone can say: This must be magic and miracle. But it is not magic or miracle; it is completely scientific because the cause doesn’t move horizontally; it moves vertically.

So, anybody who wants to hurt the devotee, a request has to go up, has to be approved, and then it can move down to manifest an effect. For the devotee, the Lord denies all such requests. Or, even if He allows them, there is an ulterior reason. For example, sometimes the Lord wants to glorify His devotees in this world; He does so by putting them through difficulties whereby they can show their immense graciousness. When ordinary people see that graciousness, then they accept the devotee as a perfect personality. If the Lord had protected the devotee, then he would never have been glorified in this way. So, the ulterior motives can be to glorify the devotees. It doesn’t matter how we think of these things from our vantage point. The devotee of the Lord always understands the true intentions of the Lord and acts accordingly.

If we serve a pure devotee, then the Lord is pleased to approve the request to serve His devotee, and by serving the pure devotee, we are automatically pleasing the Lord. The Lord’s pleasure is that He is thrilled and delighted to receive the requests to serve His devotees, and He volunteers to enable their execution. There is hence no difference between serving the Lord’s devotee and pleasing the Lord. The Lord is automatically being pleased when the devotee is being served; this too is a scientific principle.

Thus, God’s intervention in the world doesn’t require an exemption from science. That is because all the laws that modern science claims to discover are merely correlations, not causation. True causation is that we have free will, and God has free will. We propose and God disposes; He approves or disapproves our request. In the material world, our requests are approved by demigods based on our karma. If we have the requisite karma, then the demigods generally approve our requests; if we don’t, then those requests are denied. In short, our requests are going up to the demigods and approved or denied by them. This is the hierarchical process of material causation. But if we become devotees of Krishna, then the requests always go to Krishna, and He may approve them. In simple words, material life means requests go up to demigods for approval, and spiritual life means requests go to Krishna for approval. No cause is moving horizontally; all causes are vertical.

Modern scientific atheism is built upon the idea that causes propagate horizontally—from leaf to leaf. So, scientists think that there is no higher authority, no demigod, and ultimately there is no God; the laws of science are doing everything. They don’t realize that these laws are merely correlations, not causation. Scientists tabulate correlations (i.e., event X is followed by event Y) and then find a formula that fits that table of correlations. That formula is now called the law of nature. Since these formulas work most of the time, therefore, science claims there is no God. However, true causation appears when these laws stop working, or exceptions to these laws are found. That’s when we can revisit the nature of causation and understand that true causality is vertical, not horizontal.

God’s Involvement in a Devotee’s Life

Everything is moving by the will of Krishna. Some of these movements are because lower-level administrators such as Agni have been authorized to approve or deny requests; that authorization delegates Krishna’s will to the demigods. However, this delegation of authority and power also means that Krishna is not directly involved in the delivery of material results, because He is delegating.

Krishna gets directly involved in delivering the results when one becomes a devotee of Krishna. For example, Krishna says in the Bhagavad-Gita 9.22, yoga-kṣhemaṁ vahāmyaham. The term yoga-kṣhemaṁ means the “well-being of yoga”, the term vahāmi means carrying, and the term aham means “I” in the first person. So, yoga-kṣhemaṁ vahāmyaham means “I personally carry the burden of the well-being of yoga”. However, this happens only when the first part of the verse is also true, namely, “There are those who always think of Me and engage in exclusive devotion to Me. To them, whose minds are always absorbed in Me” followed by “I personally carry the burden of the well-being of yoga”.

Śrila Prabhupāda translates yoga-kṣhemaṁ vahāmyaham as “I provide what they (the devotees) lack and preserve what they have”. This is his heartfelt realization that Krishna provides everything whenever it is needed. In all of these translations, the main point is that Krishna is personally involved in providing what we lack and preserving what we have, or carrying the burden of the wellness of our yoga practice—provided we are always thinking of Krishna and devoted to Him.

True Science Leads to Devotion

So, devotion to Krishna is also a scientific process, and Krishna becomes personally involved in protecting the devotee if the devotee is always thinking of Krishna. For those who are not thinking of Krishna, the process of approval and denial is delegated to demigods. In the Vedic system, even these non-devotees knew that there is a process of higher approval for everything. But in the modern atheistic system of science, there are no higher authorities, no approval, just impersonal mathematical laws that are concocted by studying correlations, and falsely claimed to be causation.

This atheistic mentality is very painful for the devotees to listen to, so they get angry at the atheists. But that is not because the devotees fear or hate the atheists; it is because they are in love with Krishna. Out of love for Krishna, they cannot listen to the Lord being belittled or disparaged; so, they become angry. The impersonalists have no such love or concern; so, they remain very peaceful and nonchalant. That peace and nonchalance can be compared to the inactivity of a fool who doesn’t know the truth.

The devotees can see how Krishna is personally carrying them through this world, always protecting them, guiding them, inspiring them, and yet, never forcing anyone’s free will to love or reject Him. Where can we find such a Lord who is all-powerful, and yet, so loving toward His devotees? Therefore, one of the names of the Lord is Bhakta-Vatsala Hari. The word “vatsa” means a child, and “vatsal” means the love of the parent for the child. The Lord protects the devotees like a lioness protects her cub. Sometimes it appears that the lioness is carrying the cub in her vice-like teeth, but that is only mundane vision; the cub feels no pain. In the same way, it sometimes appears that the devotees are put into difficulties, but that is just mundane vision; the devotees feel no pain.

Therefore, the conclusion of Bhagavad-Gita is that one must simply surrender to Krishna. Since most people will not do that, therefore, there is a philosophy of Satkāryavāda to explain the vertical model of causation. Since most people cannot understand what Satkāryavāda is, therefore, we endeavor to explain it through modern jargon such as causation and correlation, necessity and sufficiency, and imperfect illustrations like Matryoshka dolls, elucidating a general principle that applies as much to lighting the araṇi as to weapons of fire.

As we try to explain more and more, we seem to keep going farther and farther from the conclusion of surrender to Krishna. But the hope is that if we can wash the materialistic dirt of the false idea of causation, then we can understand hierarchical causation. By that, we can see how Krishna controls everything by His will. Thereafter, we can surrender to Krishna and shed tears of love and gratitude, and this complicated jargon will become inconsequential.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "Understanding Satkāryavāda: Correlation vs. Causation," in Shabda Journal, October 1, 2021, https://journal.shabda.co/2021/10/01/satkaryavada-correlation-vs-causation/.