The real nature of karma

With so much madness in our world it’s really hard to avoid being drawn into the negativity and dualistic thinking (good/bad, us/them…) that perpetuates it. We say we want peace but we attack others for their opinions, whether it be what food to eat (as in “go vegan to protect animals from violence, or else you’re a murderous, ignorant scumbag”) or which religion to follow (“mine is the best” – including the religion of no religion!).

While we (usually) censor ourselves outwardly for social acceptability, our thoughts can harbour judgements and hatreds that stretch back generations, as well as resentments and jealousies that spring from recent experience.

In the true nature of karma, our thoughts are as important as our actions, because thoughts turn into deeds in the endless cycle of human creation – for good or bad. Ultimately, there is no such thing as a secret or private thought, as our minds (inseparable from the body) are fields of energy which can be felt by others, including plants and animals! Just spend a moment with a silent, angry person to test this notion, or notice how children and animals respond differently to different people.

All of our deeds stem from the initial thoughts in our conscious or subconscious awareness, which act as an impulse to outwardly express the thought in some way or another – whether through speech or physical actions.

It takes an intricate series of ostensibly unrelated thoughts and actions over time for any single event to occur, and any event can only arise when all of the necessary conditions are met. Any thought or act – whether loving or hateful – involves a considerable number of prior factors and inputs, including people, ideas and environments.

When something as awful as a terrorist attack happens, often the immediate response is to point the finger of blame in one direction only – that of the perpetrator on the ground. If only life were that simple! There’s an old Irish saying that when you point the finger of blame, you have three fingers pointing right back at you. This is one way of illustrating the complex, interwoven nature of karma.

The literal meaning of the Sanskrit word karma is actions taken with the hands (or any organ of action, called kar), which have been created from your conscious or subconscious mind, or ma, means “that which creates”, which is also at the root of the word manas, meaning the mind (as well as amma, which means mother – literally the one who creates (ma) the individual self, called ahamkara). In simple terms, it is something that is done – a deed or action.

The law of karma describes every event as both a CAUSE and an EFFECT; everything that happens can be traced to one or many past actions, or, to put it another way, our deeds determine our destiny.

Today’s pop-cultural way of understanding karma is as a sort of retribution or punishment for wrongdoing. This comes from the mistaken blending of Judeo-Christian notion of a wrathful God who punishes sins with the otherwise judgement-neutral law of karma – every action has a consequence.

In the same vein, from the smug and self-satisfied perspective of the ego, it’s easy to think that others who we perceive to have harmed us “unjustly” will have to pay a heavy price for this infraction at some point to redress the balance. It’s a lot harder to see (or admit!) that we can also be on the receiving end of the karma we – individually or socially – have created in the past!

In South Asian philosophy, there are three main aspects to karma:

Kriyamana karma is what we are creating now – in each moment – in every thought and deed, the results of which will only be seen at some point in the future – whether or not we are alive to witness it.

Sanchita karma is the sum of accumulated or past karma which has not yet been resolved – both individually and collectively.

Prarabdha karma is that portion of sanchita karma that is to be experienced in this life. We can’t know when this karma will ripen, and so certain events seem to be entirely unrelated to our current experience of life.

Ultimately, we either contribute to a positive world or add more negativity – consciously or unconsciously. It’s not an entirely innocent act to be an employee of a company that sells destructive materials, even if we are not personally doing anything destructive. Creating or using violent films, videos, toys or games also contributes to social and personal karma, all in the name of entertainment.

Clearly what is good for one is not necessarily good for all, and this is where profound self-awareness is needed.

The third chapter of the Bhagavad Gita (the “Song of the Lord”, important teachings which are part of the three thousand-year-old epic Mahabharata, meaning the Great Land of Light) tells us clearly how to avoid negative consequences of karma.

Anger and selfishness perpetuate the cycle of karma, and are both the cause of as well as the result of delusion and despair. Acting out of a spirit of selfless service (seva) and with no attachment to how things work out will minimise the negative effects of karma.

We are never alone, and cannot be isolated from the rest of life. When we fully appreciate this we will act from a place of generosity and compassion, which is the teaching of every great spiritual tradition, without exception.

Wishing you much love and light as always,