Although “karma” is a Sanskrit word with origins in the Vedic texts of ancient India, it has now become a mainstream word in English and many other languages of the world. Most people understand karma as the basic law of cause and effect. As the saying goes, “What goes around, comes around.” However, there is much more to the concept of karma than one might expect.
In this article we take a deep dive into the concept of karma and its role in Vedic science. When we understand how karma works, we can make more informed decisions in life, and ultimately realize our highest potential as spiritual beings.
What does karma really mean?
The word karma comes from the Sanskrit verbal root “kri” — to do, or act. The literal meaning of karma is “activity.” In this sense, anything you do is technically considered “karma.”
However, when we talk about a person’s karma in their present lifetime, we are referring to the cumulative result of all the karmic reactions to their past activities. Just as some seeds yield fruits that are nourishing and delicious, while other seeds yield fruits that are poisonous and deadly, some karmic reactions yield pleasure, while others yield pain. What kind of reaction you have coming in life depends on the quality of your original action.
How does karma work?
The Vedic texts break down the process of karmic reaction into several different phases:
- Unmanifest karma (aprārabdha). This refers to the stockpile of karmic reactions which are lying dormant.
- Ready to sprout (kūṭa). This refers to the karmic reactions which are still unmanifest, but which will appear soon in this lifetime or in our next life.
- Sprouted (bīja). These karmic reactions are in a seedling state. They are not fully fructified, but their effects are already visible.
- Fully manifest (prārabdha). The karma we are experiencing in our present life is considered to be already manifest. This includes our type of body, our birth family, our environment, and so on.
- Newly stored. Every experience yields new karma, and these reactions are stored in the mind.
Although many aspects of our life are predetermined by our karma, we still have the choice to make the best use of our circumstances. For example, as soon as you get on an airplane, you are forced to remain onboard until the plane lands. Still, how you choose to use your time on the plane is up to you.
Similarly, the body we have been given in this lifetime, as well as many of our life circumstances, are predetermined by our past karma. But by making the best use of our time, we can cultivate a better future and a better next life.
The Good, the Bad, and the Free
According to the Vedas, the karmic cycle is without beginning. Because the soul is eternal, there was never a time when we were not active and incurring some kind of karmic reactions. However, this doesn’t mean we are stuck in the cycle of karma forever.
The Vedas explain there are three types of karma: karma (good karma), vikarma (bad karma), and akarma (karma-free action). The type of karma is determined by the quality of our intentions and the quality of the action within the three modes of material nature. Good karma is linked with sattva, or the qualities of goodness and upliftment. Bad karma is linked with tamas, or the qualities of ignorance and destruction. Karma-free action, however, transcends the modes of nature altogether and elevates the performer to the spiritual platform.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these categories:
In the Bhagavad-gita (18.23), Lord Krishna defines good karma as activity that is regulated, selfless, and performed without attachment to the results. Some types of activities that yield good karma include:
- Charity (dāna) — giving wealth or gifts to a worthy person, who will engage those gifts in service to a spiritual cause.
- Non-violence (ahiṁsa) — abstaining from all forms of activity which bring harm to other living beings. For instance, following a vegetarian diet is a wonderful example of ahiṁsa.
- Telling the truth (satya) — keeping one’s word in all circumstances, and refraining from speaking untruth.
- Not stealing (asteya) — respecting the property of others and never taking something that belongs to someone else.
- Celibacy (brahmacarya) — refraining from sexual intercourse, except for the purpose of conceiving children.
- Not coveting (aparigraha) — being satisfied with whatever wealth and assets one possesses, without hankering for the wealth of others.
- Keeping clean (sauca) — bathing daily, brushing one’s teeth, meditating to cleanse the mind, and practicing forgiveness to cleanse the heart — these are all vital forms of cleanliness.
- Being content (santośā) — cultivating a sense of gratitude for life, even in difficult times.
- Practicing austerities (tapas) — taking on some hardships for the sake of spiritual advancement, such as rising early, performing daily japa meditation, volunteering one’s time to help others, etc.
- Studying scripture (svādhyāya) — setting aside time on a regular basis to study the Vedic texts.
- Devoting one’s life and activities to God (īśvara-praṇidhana) — offering Krishna the results of one’s work, and practicing the activities of bhakti-yoga for His pleasure.
In the Bhagavad-gita (18.25), Lord Krishna defines bad good karma as activity that is thoughtless, contrary to moral and religious codes of conduct, performed with great attachment, and harmful to oneself and other living entities. Some types of activities that yield bad good karma include:
- Stealing (steya) — taking what belongs to someone else, either deliberately or unintentionally.
- Violence (hiṁsa) — causing harm to other living beings, especially eating meat, fish, and other sentient beings.
- Lying (asatya) — failing to keep one’s word, or speaking untruths.
- Having unrestricted sex (mithuna) — this refers to any sexual intercourse outside of marriage.
- Coveting (parigraha) — being dissatisfied with one’s wealth and assets, and hankering for the status and possessions of others.
- Not being clean (asauca) — going without bathing or cleansing one’s teeth, eating unclean foods, consuming toxic, violent, or graphic media, and harboring lust, anger, greed, and malice are all forms of uncleanliness.
- Being discontent (asantośā) — feeling resentful and angry about one’s life and circumstances.
- Laziness (ālasya) — neglecting one’s responsibilities and coasting through life without making real efforts to improve one’s position or help others.
- Quarreling (vigraha) — picking fights with others and entering into arguments, especially arguing with teachers, parents, and other elders.
- Rejecting religious principles (śāstra-vidhi-utsṛjana) — ignoring the teachings of the Vedas and pursuing a self-centered, purposeless existence.
In addition to the two types of karma mentioned above, there is a third type of activity, known in Sanskrit as “akarma.” This refers to activity that has zero material reaction and actually helps one break free from the cycle of birth and death all together.
In the grand scheme of things, even so-called good karma is unwanted, because although it yields positive results in this material world, it still forces us to undergo another material birth and suffer the many hardships that go along with material existence. The Vedas urge all human beings to leave aside all material pursuits and follow the path of yoga, so that they can achieve self-realization and liberation from material life. For example, in the Katha Upanishad, it is said:
uttiṣṭhata jāgrata prāpya varān nibodhata
kṣurāsya dhārā niśitā duratyaya
durgam pathaḥ tat kavayo vidanti
“Please wake up and try to understand the precious boon that you now have in this human form of life. The path of spiritual realization is very difficult — it is sharp like a razor’s edge. That is the opinion of learned transcendental scholars.”
Yoga practitioners offer the results of their work to Lord Krishna, and in this way they remain free from karmic reactions. Krishna describes such yogis in the Bhagavad-gita (2.50-51):
“A man engaged in devotional service rids himself of both good and bad reactions even in this life. Therefore strive for yoga, which is the art of all work. By thus engaging in devotional service to the Lord, great sages or devotees free themselves from the results of work in the material world. In this way they become free from the cycle of birth and death and attain the state beyond all miseries [by going back to Godhead].”
Karma as Divine Justice
People often wonder why good things happen to bad people, and why bad things happen to good people. However, we should know that everything happening in the world is perfectly orchestrated by karmic law. Whatever suffering a person undergoes in this lifetime is directly the result of some past suffering they caused someone else. Lord Krishna explains this principle in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (3.31.1):
The Personality of Godhead said: Under the supervision of the Supreme Lord and according to the result of his work, the living entity, the soul, is made to enter into the womb of a woman through the particle of male semen to assume a particular type of body.
Because God is in control of everything, we don’t need to worry about whether or not others will get the justice they deserve. Our main focus should be on improving our own character and pursuing transcendence in our own life.
Karma and Free-will
As the proverb goes, “Man is the architect of his own fortune.” Although our karma determines our fate, the choices we make determine our karma. By practicing yoga, we can break free of the karmic cycle and develop spiritual vision and enlightened consciousness. Here are some practical tips you can apply in your life:
1. Cultivate the mode of goodness. Although sattva is not inherently transcendental, it does create a good platform for advancing in spiritual life. There are many lifestyle adjustments one can make that will increase sattva while reducing rajas and tamas, the modes of passion and ignorance.
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2. Practice karma-yoga. Karma-yoga is the path of spiritual elevation where you make all your activities into a conscious offering to God. Whether you work, study at school, take care of kids at home, are retired, etc. — you can say a short prayer before everything you do and make it into an offering to Krishna. This will gradually purify your mind and consciousness of all material desires, and bring you to a state of complete spiritual peace. As Krishna instructs Arjuna in the Bhagavad-gita:
yataḥ pravṛttir bhūtānāṁ yena sarvam idaṁ tatam
sva-karmaṇā tam abhyarcya siddhiṁ vindati mānavaḥ
“By worship of the Lord, who is the source of all beings and who is all-pervading, a man can attain perfection through performing his own work.”
You can also practice affirmations to reaffirm your position as a servant of the Lord. For instance, we find the following in Srimad-Bhagavatam 11.2.36:
kāyena vācā manasendriyair vā
karomi yad yat sakalaṁ parasmai
“Whatever I have done with my body, said with my words, thought with my mind, perceived with my senses, or comprehended with my intelligence, I offer unto the Supreme Lord, Nārāyaṇa.”
3. Practice tolerance. In the material world, it is inevitable that things won’t always go our way. In fact, most of us will experience some severe forms of suffering in this lifetime, not to mention the fact that all of us will one day have to face physical death.
The best course of action is to remain tolerant and equipoised, keeping one’s mind focused on the true purpose of life — to develop God consciousness. By remembering Krishna and His teachings, we can transcend even the most painful of circumstances. Think of difficulties as an opportunity to burn off past karmic reactions. If you can remain tolerant and grateful, you will avoid incurring new karma.
4. Do bhakti-yoga. The path of bhakti is by far the most effective way to transcend karma and experience divinity even in the present lifetime. In simple terms, bhakti consists of hearing, chanting, and thinking about Krishna, for instance, chanting the maha-mantra, which is composed of Krishna’s divine names:
hare krishna hare krishna krishna krishna hare hare
hare rama hare rama rama rama hare hare
Krishna explains that this simple practice of bhakti yoga can easily enable one to overcome the material modes of nature:
māṁ ca yo ’vyabhicāreṇa
sa guṇān samatītyaitān
“One who engages in full devotional service (bhakti-yoga), unfailing in all circumstances, at once transcends the modes of material nature and thus comes to the level of Brahman.” (Bhagavad-gita 14.26)
By thus fully offering oneself to Krishna as His servant, we are immediately freed of all karmic reactions and elevated to a life of spiritual happiness. This is Krishna’s promise in the Bhagavad-gita (18.66):
mām ekaṁ śaraṇaṁ vraja
ahaṁ tvāṁ sarva-pāpebhyo
mokṣayiṣyāmi mā śucaḥ
“Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear.”
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