Karma has become a household word. Among the five subjects described in Bhagavad-gita, it is unique. The other four, namely, time, the soul, matter and the Absolute are all eternal — karma alone is temporary. This article introduces karma looks at some of the major ways it affects our lives.

Action and Reaction

Karma is a Sanskrit word which means action. It’s also used to refer to the results of action. When people say “That’s your karma.” They’re usually referring to that reactionary sense of the word. Just as every action has a reaction, everything we’re doing now can also be seen as the natural consequence of prior activity.

The reactions of what we do are subtler than we can see with the naked eye. The ancient spiritual text Srimad-Bhagavatam (4.29.26-27) points out many insights surrounding our work which we might otherwise be unaware of:

“Living entities by nature have minute independence to choose their own good or bad fortune, but when they forget their supreme master, God, they give themselves up unto the modes of material nature.

Being influenced by the modes of material nature, they identify themselves with the body and, for the interest of the body, become attached to various activities… The living entity thus gets different types of bodies under the modes of material nature.”

Karma and Matter

Some of what we do is intentional, but a lot is involuntary, or at best semi-voluntary. Even in the case of work we fully intend to do, the result is not made possible by our efforts alone. The three modes of material nature bring our will into action, and also generate the corresponding results.

The following table describes how karma is affected in each of the modes of material nature:

In Goodness Performed autocratically without caring how it may harm others
In Passion Performed for the Absolute without a selfish pleasure motive
In Ignorance Performed autocratically without caring how it may harm others

Everyone is seeking happiness, and karma is a strategy meant to make us happy. Here is another table showing the happiness one can expect from each of the actions listed above:

In Goodness Like poison at first, but nectar at the end. Leads to self-realization.
In Passion Like nectar at first, but poison in the end. Depends on titillation of the senses.
In Ignorance Blind to self-realization. Delusional at all stages. Sustained by obliviousness.

These charts were developed by reference to Bhagavad-gita, Chapter 18. Further aspects of matter and karma are described in detail there as well. A big idea in that chapter is that our karma is not independently able to affect matter. It does so in concert with four other factors.

When we identify with our material bodies instead of with the spiritual self within, our actions generate karma. The modes of material nature technically do the work, but that is only for the sake of fulfilling our desires. This is why we, and not nature are held responsible for what we do.

Karma and the Problem of Evil

One benefit of understanding karma is it answers the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Our present actions eventually determine the body we will get in our next life, so karma and reincarnation are correlated factors. We earned the situation we’re in by our past karma.

Certain karmic results, like the body we have right now, are already fructified. Others, like our future bodies, lie dormant. We also have a spiritual body which is eternal, and beyond all karma. Apart from producing a body, our karma also determines the circumstances, family and era in time we end up in.

Virtuous work is rewarded with a healthier and more prosperous future life. Crimes against others lead the soul into less fortunate living conditions. If our actions violate the rights of others seriously, we can be born into species which present less of a threat to ourselves and others, such as a bird, a lizard, or a microbe.

Reincarnating in the body of a plant or an animal is like going on a time-out for the soul. After birth in such species, we’re given another try as a human-being. Because humans have free will, we’re liable to accrue karma. Plants and animals have less autonomy, so they earn no karma.

A Body of Work

Artists, musicians, filmmakers and other creative people become known by their bodies of work. Whether in the form of a discography, filmography or other collection, it shows all their work. Our physical body is also a body of work, and we have developed it over lifetimes of effort.

Just as artwork is judged based on its individual merits, similarly our actions are assessed as morally virtuous or problematic. The reactions we either suffer or enjoy in life correspond to the quality of the choices we’ve made in the past. Intentions, mitigating circumstances, and the overall are all taken into account when reactions are assigned.

The Good, the Bad, and the Transcendental

Bhagavad-gita 4.17 describes three kinds of karma:

karmano hy api boddhavyam boddhavyam cha vikarmanah
akarmanas cha boddhavyam gahana karmano gatih

“The intricacies of action are very hard to understand. Therefore one should know properly what action is, what forbidden action is, and what inaction is.”

Here the word karma means virtuous action, and problematic action is called vikarma. Inaction is akarma, but to understand inaction is not as simple as it might at first seem. As mentioned earlier, involuntary actions are unavoidable, so simply sitting or laying down is not total inaction.

The next verse elaborates that the ability to discern these elements from one another is a sign of intelligence:

“One who sees inaction in action, and action in inaction, is an intelligent person, and is in the transcendental position, although engaged in all sorts of activities.”

The enigmatic language of this verse hints at a deeper meaning to the word inaction. This so-called inaction is really spiritually-directed action, and it results in transcendence over karma. The following verse explains its connection to transcendence:

“One is understood to be in full knowledge whose every endeavor is devoid of selfish pleasure motives. He is said by sages to be a worker for whom the reactions of work have been burned up by the fire of perfect knowledge.”

What does the above-mentioned lifestyle look like? The masterpiece of bhakti-yoga, the text named Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu, describes akarma, or transcendental action in the following way:

iha yasya harer dasye karmana manasa gira
nikhilasv apy avasthasu jivan-muktah sa uchyate

“Regardless of one’s circumstances, one who fully engages their activities, mind and words in the devotional service of the Lord is understood to be a liberated person.”

Karma Beyond Matter

Karma performed under the influence of the modes of material nature impacts us on three primary levels:

  • Adhidaivika: External circumstances
  • Adhibhautika: Relationships with other living entities
  • Adhyatmika: Bodily and mental conditions

When we talk about transcending the reactions of our activities, or karma, it is in all three of these dimensions that the soul experiences relief. The selfish pleasure motive can just as easily ruin a beautiful day as it can wreck a precious relationship. It can wreak havoc on our physical and mental health.

In contrast, by acting with knowledge that we’re transcendental to matter, we see beyond the limitations which matter imposes on us. The spiritual karma of acting in divine service positively transforms our lives and those we influence by circulating truth, good fortune, and spiritual beauty with every action.

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