Understanding Karma is a bit like navigating these trees, it isn’t always linear. When viewed as a philosophy, the concept of Karma is complex; but when viewed as a day-to-day reality, it is common sense. From my observations, Karma is in fact one of the most misunderstood concepts in modern time. You see, the word ‘Karma’ is used far too often as a reason or excuse for an unfavorable occurrence, to ourselves or to others. If we achieve a great feat, how often do we attribute that to Karma? Isn’t it ironic, that if something unfavorable happens, it’s Karma; but if something favorable happens, we almost never remember ‘Karma’!
Commonly, Karma is known as the law of cause and effect. This is only partially true. To comprehensively understand Karma, one must go to the source of the word, which was explained in the Bhagawad Gita. The Bhagawad Gita provides that ‘Karma’ in its simplest form is an ‘action’ but that each of the three elements below constitute such an ‘action’, referred to as Karma:
- Karma – meaning to actively think or do something. This covers the field in a way, such that absolutely anything we think or do is Karma. It is important to note that thoughts too constitute Karma in addition to words and physical actions. This is only natural because for something to be said or done, it must first be thought. Irrespective of whether a thought is carried out in the form of words or physical actions, the Karma would have occurred. When we say or do something, that is merely compounding Karma in addition to the original Karma, which is the initial thought.
- Akarma – in Sanskrit, meaning ‘no action’. So, to not do something, that is, inaction is also a conscious action (karma). Our responsibility as individuals on this planet hinges, in essence on our ability to respond to a situation. Hence, we have an innate ability to respond to absolutely everything we come across, and sometimes we chose not to respond (or react). That choice of inaction therefore is also Karma.
- Vikarma – in Sanskrit, this word is made of two parts ‘vi’ and ‘karma’. “Vi” is short for ‘vishesh’ meaning special or exemplary. Vikarma therefore means to do something special. Karma done for the greater good, in a self-less way without any expectation for anything in return would be considered Vikarma. An action done selflessly, with no expectation is seen to be the highest level of Karma. Such a type of Karma does not bind one to the fruits or consequences of the actions.
Lord Krishna, in Chapter 2, Verse 47 of the Bhagawad Gita tells Arjuna what the ideal type of Karma is:
कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन।
मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोऽस्त्वकर्मणि॥
Karmanye Vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana,
Ma Karmaphalaheturbhurma Te Sangostvakarmani
As an individual, your right is only to do that which you can do; that is your Karma (to work, or act to fulfil any need of the moment). While you have rights to your actions, you do not have rights to the fruits of your actions. Let not the fruits of your actions be your motive to do that action, nor let your attachment be to inaction.
The essence of this verse is that any Karma, that carries with it a ready expectation of results will be binding on us and not serve us properly. Expectations are the cause of all of life’s disappointments. Any Karma where we do the needful, without an expectation of results or benefit is the optimal Karma. The result of such action is taken care of by the higher cosmic consciousness and we shall get what is duly and rightly deserved by us. Having regard to this verse, I consider the modern-day definition of Karma as the “law of cause and effect” to be fundamentally flawed because it carries with it an expectation that a cause will have an effect. The action may very well have an effect, but to expect as such is against the core Karmic principles articulated in the Bhagawad Geeta and a detraction from our fundamental duty to act selflessly, as needed in the moment.
As we live through life, we accumulate Karma and live through the consequences of our accumulated Karma. An accumulation of Karma creates certain impressions in our conscious and subconscious mind. These impressions, known as ‘Samskaaras” in Sanskrit determine our present and future inclinations, interests and prospective actions. Because our mind is constantly active, we are performing Karmas every moment. The effects of our Karmas take three forms of manifestation, known as Sanchita, Prarabdha and Agami Karmas. Without a preliminary awareness of all our thought processes and actions being a form of Karma, going into how Sanchita, Prarabdha and Agami Karmas play out can seem quite theoretical. For that reason, I will not go into that detail as part of this article but for completeness, it is important to note that the way this plays out ensures that we create our own destiny.
I refuse to categorize Karma or its consequences as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for there is no such thing. The categorization of something as good or bad is mere transient, moment-in-time subjective perception. In reality there are only actions, and potential consequences of those actions. Each action carries with it the potential for an equal and opposite reaction. However, in most cases, we may never know what exact action has led to what occurrence, and nor should we desire to; for that is best left in the hands of divine providence.
It is therefore no surprise that the yogic tradition places immense focus on mind management, and bringing the mind into a realm where we can consciously monitor and manage our thought processes, recognising that our thoughts are Karma, and the birthplace of every other Karma. The process of yoga itself, that is, the eight limbs of Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayam, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi are oriented to reducing the material thought activity of the mind, which in turn helps reduce thoughts we don’t need and consciously summon the thoughts we want. Over time, this enables our mind to be in a content, meditative state full-time. With total awareness, we perform Karmas with a mantra of ‘no expectations, no disappointments’ and thereby create our own destiny. Give this mantra a try; it is sure to bring transformation!