What is Karma?

Human suffering is one of religion’s most compelling mysteries: Why do the innocent suffer? Why does God permit evil? Is God helpless to act or does he choose not to? And if He chooses not to act, does that mean he is cruel? Or merely indifferent?

Vedanta takes the problem out of God’s court and places it firmly in our own. We can blame neither God nor a devil. Nothing happens to us by the whim of some outside agency: we ourselves are responsible for what life brings us; all of us are reaping the results of our own previous actions in this life or in previous lives. To understand this better we first need to understand the law of karma.

The word “karma” comes from the Sanskrit verb kri, to do. Although karma means action, it also means the result of action. “KARMA” means “action.” Every action or thought determines a reaction. In the physical world, the weight of a body creates an opposite force in the ground. At the emotional level, our attitude toward someone (or something) is, consciously or not, reflected back, the other person having the tendency to behave exactly according to our feeling towards him/her. At the mental level this is the well known dynamic interaction between the commanding conscious mind and the executing subconscious mind.

In YOGA Tradition, KARMA has a much deeper meaning. In this vision, KARMA is the accumulation of our past actions. These past actions (triggering actions) are causes which determine other actions (triggered reactions) in exact accordance with the charge of the corresponding past actions.

Each of our physical, emotional or mental movements is the fruit of causes coming from the whole Universe and has its repercussions in the whole Universe.

For instance, if you do a bad or good action toward someone, this triggers a reaction which will be equally bad or good, and which will be directed toward yourself. In this way, you experience the happiness or suffering that you have produced to other living beings. The paramount value of this subtle mechanism is that we learn and accumulate a certain ineffable wisdom that pushes us toward becoming good and perfect. Of course, this is a very simple and mechanical explanation; what really happens has a complexity and profoundness that overcomes even the most imaginative mind.

KARMA is the storage of our actions, recorded with exactitude in a special memory. These recordings are like time bombs that will explode in the future. The sight of an object, the thinking of a thought, the performance of an act, even though very transitory, leave a complex trace in the Cosmic Memory (AKASHA), which lasts beyond time, and leaves also an imprint in the subconscious mind. This subconscious imprint is called SAMSKARA (dynamic impulse). The character of a man, his moral or mental status, his “talents”, his “likes” and “dislikes”, all are determined by his SAMSKARAS, which are the product of his KARMA (past actions). The SAMSKARAS transmigrate from incarnation to incarnation, being never lost. They act like seeds that will develop according to a specific pattern, which characterize each of them and which is closely related to the charge of the action that produced them.

KARMA has three levels. The first level is the level of the past actions that are waiting to produce a reaction. This is called SANCHITA KARMA, the latent KARMA.

The second level is the level of the past actions whose reactions are fully manifesting, being responsible for our present life and creating its circumstances. This is called PRARABDHA KARMA, active or mature KARMA.

The third level is the level of the actions which will be triggered in the future by our present actions. This is called future KARMA.

Considering the temporal sequence of actions, each action has a feedback effect (going backward in time and therefore affecting all the latent KARMIC seeds that lay in wait) and a direct effect (going forward in time).

The result of an action is greatly influenced by associated ideas. When, for instance, a person practices certain austerities and desires that their fruit should go to the other person for whom he performs them, it is the other that gets the fruit, and not the performer.

If you understand the Law of KARMA, you will realize that there is no destiny besides the human will. Everybody gets exactly what he/she deserves. This is a Cosmic and Inflexible Law. There is a perfect justice, even when our limited human understanding “sees” an “injustice”. The human beings build their own destiny through their actions, thoughts and intentions. If these have a positive charge, the destiny will be positive. If the actions, thoughts or intentions have a predominantly negative charge, the destiny will be negative. Notice that you do not necessarily have to do bad things to others for having a bad destiny: people usually do bad things to themselves, and this is enough for creating a negative KARMA. An important thing here is the intention. Remember, God or other Superior Cosmic Entities never punish a creature for being “bad” and never reward it for being “good”.

We live in a mysterious world, in which we, with our conscious and subconscious mind and belief system, are permanently creating the “reality” in which we live, manifesting that enigmatic power called MAYA SHAKTI, through which we see the world not the way it is, but the way we want it, consciously or not, to be. This is the same power that the Supreme Being uses to create and manifest the worlds, and to hide Itself from them. You have to see and understand deeply this fundamental truth before attempting to understand the law of KARMA.

Counter-acting latent KARMAS

Now, we come to the idea of “changing the destiny”. Generally speaking, the ordinary human being supports passively and unconsciously the consequences of his KARMAS (actions). In this state of consciousness, he/she unconsciously generates other KARMAS (actions), which trigger correspondent reactions, and so on. Apparently, this vicious circle has no end.

The YOGA Tradition puts forth clearly that the human being has the power and the right to change his destiny and find an exit from this vicious circle. This is called “escaping the wheel of reincarnations”. KARMA itself is called “The Wheel of Eternal Returning”.

We have seen that the state of KARMA, when it is asserting itself or is about to assert itself, is called mature KARMA. Once this state is reached, nothing and nobody can stop it from running its course, nothing can impede its fruition.

As opposed to this, there is the other state in which, the circumstances being extremely unfavorable for its growth, a KARMA remains dormant (latent KARMA). The fruition of such a KARMA only can be destroyed by a counter-action such as charity, spiritual practice, etc. The preventive measures against the fruition of latent KARMA are like inoculation to safeguard a person against the attack of a certain disease. And just as inoculation, though effective if it be done long before the attack, is yet useless when the attack has come, i.e., when the KARMA has attained maturity. The mature KARMA is like a boulder slipped from the top of a mountain, which knows no obstruction and must have its course till it reaches the flat land.

The destruction, or burning, of KARMA is one of the most essential antecedent conditions of enlightenment. But this is neither the only condition, nor is this in itself enlightenment.

The main purpose of the Law of KARMA is learning. If, through understanding and consciously changing your life, you learn a lesson, the KARMA that was supposed to teach you that particular lesson through suffering, is automatically burned.

Remember that KARMA is the main cause of our existence in this world. An individual is not only affected by his own KARMA, but also by that of the community or race to which he belongs (collective KARMA). A good or bad KARMA is equally undesirable for he who yearns to liberation, because it enchains the human being on the Wheel of Eternal Returning. In YOGA vision, KARMA is “good” when it permits the human being to realize the spiritual evolution, and it is “bad” when the opposite is the case. “Bad” KARMA means that a lot of lessons have to be learned; “good” KARMA means enough lessons were learned, so the human being can start the conscious work of inner growth. The advanced YOGIN yearns to eliminate any kind of KARMA. Only in this way will he be totally free of any links with the inferior levels of consciousness, being able to merge continuously into the Eternal Bliss of the Supreme Consciousness. From then on, all his Actions will be free of any KARMIC charge. These actions can trigger reactions, but only if the YOGIN desires so. An enlightened master has complete control over the fruition of his KARMAS (actions).

The ageless teachings of the KARMA YOGA system are the following:

(1) Not even for a moment can a human being be without action. Therefore inaction or refraining from action must NOT be the aim of a yogi. Detached and consecrated action is much superior than inaction.

(2) Certain actions are mandatory and therefore have to be done but in a state of perfect detachment and consecrating their fruit to the Supreme Consciousness (God).

(3) We must neither desire nor be afraid of the fruits (results) of our detached actions. We must consecrate these fruits to God. Consecration means offering the fruits of an action to God in a state of humbleness, it means acting for the love of God. This inner attitude of consecration implies a profound respect and attention for the action that is being performed, and a perfect detachment from its fruit. Consecration implies a higher responsibility, because now the quality of the action is a measure of the degree of love for God and of communion with the Cosmic Harmony. In the light of this teaching, no action is to be considered as being without importance, negligible or incompatible with the role we THINK (but donĀ“t know through direct experimentation) we have to play in this life.

(4) We must never be attached to action itself.

(5) We must never consider ourselves as being the authors of our actions. We must keep in mind that God is the one who acts through us. Therefore, BEFORE starting an action (this detail is essential !!), invoke with fervor the presence of God and offer Him in a state of humbleness both that action and its fruits.

(6) Any action realized in the spirit of KARMA YOGA (i. e., respecting the above five precepts) does not create any KARMIC chains.

KARMA YOGA makes a clear distinction between:
(a) The INTENT of an action (the state of mind at the time of an action);
(b) The action itself;
(c) The fruits of the action;
Out of these three elements, only the intent creates new KARMA (enchains us to the Wheel of Birth and Death). To avoid this, the intent has to be detached and consecrated to God.

Whatever you identify yourself with, controls you; you control whatever you dis-identify yourself with.

Here, “identification” has to be understood as ego-involvement; therefore, the lower the level of ego-involvement, the higher the level of satisfaction.