Karma: (noun) Action. Effect. Consequence.
In its most basic form karma is the universal moral law of cause and effect – every action has a consequence. Reference to this is found in many different faiths: Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism all have variations on the theme of karma.
According to the law of karma, souls reincarnate in environments befitting their spiritual attainments. Good people (even those who have veered from the spiritual path) go, when they die, to the heaven of those who do good deeds. They dwell there for a number of years and then take birth again, this time into a home that is pure and prosperous. A few of them will be born into a family that is spiritually advanced, but such births are difficult to obtain. When this happens, the good environment draws out their latent spirituality and leads them rapidly toward liberation.[i]
In 1686 Isaac Newton presented three laws of motion, the third of these is somewhat similar to karma; every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Except in karma the reaction is not opposite but rather more of the same: The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad states that those who do good become good; those who do harm become bad[ii] and in the Bhagavad Gita[iii] Krishna gives a dire warning about the consequences of being stuck in the spider web of delusion leading to further delusion.
The Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali all consider the role of karma in conjunction with the transmigration of the soul.
Whilst we are manifest in (and attached to) the world, all our actions have an impact and a consequence.
The consequences of these actions are used by the universe to dictate the circumstances of our current life; including parents, nationality, gender, physicality and psychology. This is ‘prarabdha’ karma.
The jiva (individual soul) incarnates into being after being depending on past actions, participating in new actions, generating more karma to incarnate into other beings; resolving and generating karma as it goes. The karma which is generated in this life is called ‘agami’. This is the cycle of samsara.
Once we are aware of this cycle, we have two choices: Shall we focus on generating good karma, securing good future births, or should we learn how to stop generating karma and start untying the knots?
When all the desires that surge in the heart
Are renounced, the mortal becomes immortal.
When all the knots that strangle the heart are loosened, the mortal becomes immortal, here in this very life. Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 4.4.7[iv]
If we choose to remain attached to the world we can focus on the generation of ‘good’ karma. How do we know what actions make good karma? The dharma sutras (composed form 600BCE onwards) expound the guidelines of how to live well and create positive karma resulting in positive re-births. Another example of dharma can be found in Patanjali. The yamas (pada 2: sutra 30) are a form of dharma. In the subsequent sutra they are described as ‘maha vrtam’ the great vow, as they transcend place, class and time[v]. Therefore, good karma will follow when we live according to the yamas.
If only it were so simple though! In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna raises the important moral question if not his participating in the battle will create bad karma as it violates the universal moral law of non-violence? Krishna answers that one’s foremost duty is to the svadharma, your personal moral responsibility.
It might seem like Krishna is endorsing the ensuing acts of war. He is not. It is not possible to evaluate the law of karma in terms of right and wrong but rather considering whether the actions move us closer to clarity of mind or further away from clarity of mind. The painful hell that Krishna describes as being the consequence of bad karma is not presented as a punishment, it is simply a fact. The profoundly empowering thing about these teachings is that there is no dictate that we must be good and moral beings – it’s our own choice how we act, and we need to do so with the sure and certain knowledge that we reap what we sow.
Note that the karma is only the seeds and how we live will determine how and what seeds take root and sprout. The way we live and the actions we take at this present time impact on the fruition of the karmic seeds. We cannot say ´my karma made me do it´ – karma is not a get out clause or a way to absolve ourselves of personal responsibility.
Also it is difficult to know what actions from our previous existences have given rise to current predicaments. I cannot postulate that because I was a murderer in my last life I am poor in this life. Rather a yogin must accept that whatever is happening to them now is a consequence of past actions and it is manifesting so that they can resolve anything that is not moving them toward the cosmic conciseness.
There is only one way to ensure this is our last harvest: Through the offering of all of our actions back to the Universe – the Divine. Patanjali says that we do this through practice. We can train the mind to stop following old patterns created by past karmas and re-focus the mind onto clarity and non-attachment[vi].
We must learn to act completely free from attachment. Not attached to the action and not attached to the consequence of the action.
[i] Chapter 6, verses 41-43. Hawley, Jack. The Bhagavad Gita: A Walkthrough for Westerners. New World Library.
[ii] Easwaran, Eknath. The Upanishads (Classic of Indian Spirituality) . Nilgiri Press.
[iii] The Bhagavad Gita.Chapter 16 vs 16-21
[iv] Easwaran, Eknath. The Upanishads (Classic of Indian Spirituality) . Nilgiri Press.
[v] II.31 jāti-deśa-kāla-samayānavacchinnāḥ sārva-bhaumā mahā-vratam jāti, class, caste, occupation; deśa, place, country of origin; kāla, time; samaya, circumstance; anavacchinnāḥ, unconditioned, unlimited by; sārva, every; bhaumāḥ, place on earth; mahā-vratam, great vow
Bryant, Edwin F. The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali: A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary . Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
[vi] III. 10 tasya praśānta-vāhitā saṁskārāt tasya, its [the mind’s]; praśānta, peaceful; vāhitā, flow; saṁskārāt, from subconscious impressions The mind’s undisturbed flow occurs due to saṁskāras.
Bryant, Edwin F.. The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali: A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary (Kindle Locations 7638-7640). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.