What is Karma?

“You harm yourself as dust thrown against the wind comes back to the thrower”Buddha

While it has its roots in ancient Eastern cultures and religious teachings, karma as a concept exists all over the world. If you’re a believer in “what goes around comes around”, you already have some grasp on its tenets and philosophies — though karma exists as far more than just a universal law of justice.

The word ‘karma’ translates to “action”, and karmic theory is based on the spiritual principle of action and effect. The idea is that our intentions and actions have a cosmic influence on our futures, and we are held spiritually accountable for everything we do. Good intentions and actions build positive karma, while negative intentions and actions lead to negative karma and consequences. It is not as simple as just performing a good deed to generate a positive outcome, though — we are in a constant process of accruing and balancing karmic debts throughout our lifetime.

So how does karma actually work, and how can we make use of it to live fruitful and fulfilling lives? Here’s a quick rundown of the origins of karmic theory and how you can use it to put some much-needed positive vibes out into the world!

Origins of Karma

“Truly, one becomes good through good deeds and evil through evil deeds”Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 3.2.13

The general idea of karma can be traced back to the dawn of ancient civilisation, first appearing in the oldest existing Hindu text known as the Rigveda, which can be dated back to approximately 1500 BCE — though the term referred simply to sacrificial action and carried neither spiritual nor ethical significance in its first usage. The earliest evidence of the term’s expansion into theological and ethical discussion can be observed in the ancient Sanskrit texts the Upanishads, introduced by the sage Yajnavalkya and prompting a shift in the culture’s spiritual sensibilities from external religious practices to more of a focus on the pursuit on internal spirituality and inner peace. According to the sage, our thoughts as well as our deeds carry consequences.

While karma is thought to have an effect on everything we experience in our lifetime, the Upanishads put forward the notion that our karmic debts ripple out of one lifetime and into the next. That is, the ancient belief in karma is closely associated with the idea of rebirth and reincarnation.

From the Svetasvatara Upanishad:

“The vast universe is a wheel. Upon it are all creatures that are subject to birth, death and rebirth. Round and round it turns, and never stops. It is the wheel of Brahman [the divine]. As long as the individual self thinks it is separate from Brahman, it revolved upon the wheel in bondage to the laws of birth, death and rebirth. But when through the grace of Brahman it realises its identity with him, it revolved upon the wheel no longer. It achieves immortality.”

Karma and Reincarnation

“Life is a full circle, widening until it joins the circle motions of the infinite”Anais Nin

According to the Upanishads, all beings continue to be reborn until they develop the ability to view themselves as part of the infinite. Several Eastern cultures and faiths share this cyclical view of life — the soul moves through different bodies and lifetimes until the individual is able to purify themselves of worldly pride, greed, anger and envy. This posits the idea that the life you are currently living is not your first — and by no means your last. From the perspective of Hinduism, you have been around for millions of lifetimes, and there may still be millions to come.

The Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Indian text, suggests that when we die, the soul leaves the body and is granted a new one. Karma’s role in reincarnation is that it is all the actions and intentions of our current and previous lives that determine the conditions of our new lives and dispositions of the new body. Our souls carry their karmic impressions forward through lifetimes, and both positive and negative karma creates tendencies within us that spill over into our next life. If you get into the habit of lying and performing evil deeds without any effort or desire to change, it is thought that the subsequently generated negative karma will make it more likely that you are reborn into poorer conditions — and that you will pick up where you left off, continuing down a path of negative intention and action.

In the present moment, the state of our mind and body is the cumulative result of an entire spectrum of millions of lives. According to the teachings of Hinduism, we possess no recollection of any of these past lives as a protection from reliving traumas or developing an infatuation with a past life over our current one. It is instead our responsibility to resolve previous karmic debt and sow the seeds of new, good karma for it to blossom both in our current and future lives.

The 3 Types of Karma

“Men are not punished for their sins, but by them”Elbert Hubbard

Karma is in a state of constant interaction with our thoughts, feelings, and intentions. Everything we do is in some way affected by karmic intervention that can be loosely divided into karma of our past, present, and future.

  1. Sanchita — Sanchita karma is our accumulated unresolved past actions and karma from previous lives waiting to come to fruition in the current life. Sanchita is responsible for the body and circumstances you currently find yourself in.
  2. Prarabdha — This is our current action and intention. While Sanchita karma has left an impression on our life, the intentions and actions of our current life can be used to balance or enhance Sanchita karma, and create a karmic impression on our future lives.
  3. Agami — As you act to resolve past karma, you inevitably create new karma that may go unresolved in the present lifetime and be carried over into the next. The future outcome of your present behaviour is known as Agami karma.

In a nutshell: your present intentions and actions (Prarabdha) create karmic impressions (Agami) that become unresolved karmas, implicitly affecting your next life (as Sanchita karma).

Karma’s 4 Laws

Karma has been observed to operate in four discernible ways — these karmic aspects have come to be known as the four laws of karma, and can be defined as such:

  1. Karma is certain and unfailing — Without fail or falter, positive actions of the mind, body and spirit will generate positive results — whether they are in this life or the next. Similarly, negative actions will always lead to negative outcomes. It is impossible to generate peace and harmony through negative acts and intentions.
  2. Karma increases and expands — Our actions plant karmic seeds that can manifest in results greater than the cause itself. According to professor of Buddhist studies Yangsi Rinpoche, the increasing nature of karma means that “even a very small negative action can bring forth a tremendous negative effect”. Much in the same way, small acts of virtue can create powerful positive effects. It is for this reason we must work to purify ourselves of even the smallest negative actions.
  3. No results come without cause — Karma is specific, and outcomes cannot be born from inactivity. An experience is always the result of a cause, and when we find ourselves in puzzling or unexpected circumstances, some of this may be attributed to the actions of our past rebirths. One does not meet with something without first creating the karmic conditions for it to happen.
  4. Karma cannot be lost or wasted — Our karma is fixed and definite, and the karmic result of our past or present intentions and actions is inescapable. Karmic seeds may lie dormant within us for a long time, but they will never be lost — karma may operate as an unseen factor across multiple lifetimes, and only manifest when the right conditions arise.

Karma and Free Will in the West

“Action and reaction are opposite and equal”Isaac Newton

While the ideology of karma was conceived in ancient Eastern texts and traditions, its fundamental concepts are universal and observable in all major religious teachings, according to the Dalai Lama. In fact, karmic teachings are observable in the bible: “whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Galatians 6:7). If karma were to be boiled down to one golden rule, it would be to treat others the way you wish to be treated — a concept subscribed to by many westerners.

Many religious teachings such as that of Christianity place the reward and punishment for our actions in the hands of some divine lawgiver, with an emphasis on a grand plan for our lives that cannot be interfered with — “’for I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 29:11). It is a typically western view to see the negative circumstances that unfurl around us as ‘bad karma’ — we are just destined to continue paying the penance for our previous misdeeds no matter what we do in the now. Westerners like to take the choice out of their own hands when it comes to their view of karma, when this couldn’t be further from reality.

“From birth to death every man is weaving thread by thread around himself… when the last strand is woven, and man is seemingly enwrapped in a network of his own doing, he finds himself completely under the empire of his self-made destiny”H.P Blavatsky

While the actions of our past lives do indeed have a karmic effect on current and future outcomes, their impact is residual, and the karma of this present moment is always in our hands. We may have a destiny, but it is our own autonomous actions that seal our fate; our destiny is self-made with no intervention from an external agent.

Acharya Yogeesh puts forward the notion that there is no such thing as an almighty God — while there may be some Holy Father watching over us, it is us who have the responsibility to correct ourselves — it is not up to God to show you the way. In the words of Sadhguru, “if you handle this moment in a certain way, you will be free from everything that was yesterday”.

So how do I Remove Negative Karma?

“Very usually, altruism is only the sublimest [sic] form of selfishness”Sri Aurobindo

When it comes to balancing your karmic debt, it is not enough to perform a good deed with the sole aim to reap some sort of reward. As previously mentioned, our intentions are just as — if not more — important as our actions when it comes to generating good karma. It is only through a genuine attitude of repentance for past transgressions and a commitment to living a pure, self-aware and enlightened life that negative karma can be removed from your life and replaced with positive karmic seeds. This can be achieved through taking responsibility for and learning from your mistakes, severing ties to the toxic people in your life, and adopting an attitude of forgiveness towards others, freeing yourself from the entrapments of your ego.

“If you hold onto anger with the intention of harming someone else, it’s like holding onto a hot coal with the intention to throw it. It’s you who will get burnt” — Buddha

Whether or not you believe in a god, past or future lives, or even karma itself, the idea that we shape our own fates through our actions and intentions is compelling. No matter your worldview, taking responsibility for your own conduct and treating others with the kindness and compassion that you expect to be treated with yourself is a wise step.

To put it as simply as possible, in the wise words of Zen master Brad Warner — “don’t be a jerk”!

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