It is said in the Bhagavad Gita, “Mysterious are the ways of Karma.” How do our actions or thoughts influence our future? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do some people work so hard and never succeed? The concept of karma helps zero in on many of these questions. Many theories and philosophies talk about karma, but in its essence, karma is the seed of action. It is an impression that draws in similar situations and events.
Harming others brings trouble to yourself. That is why you should not harm others. Not for their sake, but for your own sake. —Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Commentary on the Bhagavad Gita
Did you incur coffee karma?
Here is an example that might help you understand karma better. Let’s say you only started a morning ritual of drinking coffee a few years ago. There was no beverage karma in your subconscious mind. Then, one day you decided to start drinking coffee. The karma seed of drinking coffee is now sown.
Initially, if you did not get coffee on some days, you could manage well without it; karma had not manifested yet. But after several years, if you do not get coffee first thing in the morning, your head may start hurting, or you may feel irritable and restless. That is your coffee karma that has manifested.
Human life is said to be tied to karma, and only in human life is it possible to rise above karmic bondage. Going into oneself and understanding the true nature of karma and one’s consciousness is the beginning of eliminating karma.
Sometimes, the basic function of understanding karma brings relief and saves the mind. When you know an adverse event or outcome is not your own doing but simply a result of your past karmas, it keeps your mind from worrying, agitation, and complaining.
Yogically, there are three types of karma. The word karma refers to the results of past actions, present actions, and actions we will perform in the future.
Karma as an Impression
Here karma is latent, in the form of an impression in the mind. For example, you look at a banana and you want to eat it because you know you have eaten it before and you liked it or it satiated your hunger. Here, karma is in the form of an impression of a banana. If you liked it once, you crave it again; that is also karma in the form of the result of an action.
Karma as Action
An action is born out of a conscious decision, whereas when you react, it is on an impulse. According to the laws of karma, impulsive actions create a chain of karma. Reaction, as well as lack of action, creates karma. It is only conscious action that does not create karma.
For example, a soldier shooting in war as part of his duty does not incur karma, or a doctor is doing his best to treat a patient, but despite those efforts, the patient dies—the doctor does not incur karma. However, if a doctor does not give medicine when a patient needs it or is negligent in their care, they are said to incur karma.
Karma as a Result of the Action
Karma is also an outcome of action or decisions. Like our first example, when you didn’t drink coffee, there was no karma—or bondage—but performing the action (drinking coffee) repeatedly created karma, a bondage from which you may now struggle to escape.
Karma is Time Bound
Another aspect of karma—karma and karma phala (fruits of actions) are time-bound. This means the result or effect of a cause lasts for a limited time. For this reason, great sages suggest that good or auspicious actions must be done immediately—before time eats away the fruit of action.
Karma includes actions that we perform not only with our body but also through our mind and speech. So you may not act on the thought of killing someone, but if the thought has come up, it is a result of karma.
Karma Based on Time
Karma is of three types—Prarabdha, Sanchita, and Agami—based on whether the action has already started bearing results, is yet to, or is going to,
Prarabdha translates to ‘begun.’ This action is already manifesting and yielding its effect; nothing can be done to prevent this type of karma from unfolding.
Sanchita Karma is the piled up or collected karma, a tendency or impression in the mind that has not manifested into action or fruit yet. Spiritual practices can eliminate Sanchita karma before it manifests. Satsang, chanting, or meditating burns the seed of all the negative karma of this kind.
Agami karma is the karma of the future. This is the karma that is yet to be born and manifest. For example, if you commit a crime or fraud, you may not be arrested tomorrow. But you begin to live with the possibility or fear of getting caught someday.
“The more you understand it, the more amazed you become,” says spiritual master Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, “It (karma) brings people together and separates them. It causes some to be weak and some to be strong. It makes some rich and some poor. The entire struggle in the world, whatever it may be, is the bondage of karma. It cuts across all logic and reasoning … Karma is enormous.”
Strangeness of Karma
Sometimes we drift apart from people closest to us while people we thought were not our friends come to our aid in unimaginable ways. People we never wronged end up hurting us, and people we are mean or indifferent to stick around. So, karma is beyond a simple cause-and-effect equation.
It is said to be strange and unfathomable. But the acceptance of its mysterious quality and unpredictable timing in playing—or not playing—out can help us live life more fully. We tend to get too attached to people we love or feel an aversion to people we do not like, and both of these situations perpetuate the cycle of karma.
Role of Spirituality in Karma
Lord Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, “Do not lose the equanimity of your mind. You do not know when and where what will happen—when a friend will become an enemy and when an enemy will become a friend. One does not know anything in this world. So keep your attention on the truth, perform all your duties sincerely, and meditate sincerely.”
Spiritual masters discourage equating karma with fatalism. There is plenty of scope for eliminating karma before it gets ingrained in our consciousness and perpetuates the cycle of karma. While Prarabdha karma is something that you need to live out, Agami and Sanchita karma can be burnt off once you get onto a spiritual path. Spiritual practices, knowledge, and devotion are powerful tools to rise above the cycles of karmic bondage.
Karma, Birth, and Death
Why are some people born into violent environments while others are born into comfort? The law of karma can partly explain this. Karma is that which propels reincarnation, according to oriental philosophies. Also, the law of karma states that the stronger the impression, the better possibility of it influencing the next life. So basically, you’ll reincarnate near someone you hate or love too strongly.
The body dies, but according to some faiths, the mind full of impressions is carried forward into the next lifetime. The last impression in the mind before the death of the physical body is instrumental in shaping the next lifetime.
“Whatever you do throughout your life, in the last moment, your mind should be free and happy,” Gurudev says.
Karma keeps us tied to the world of duality, and only in human life can we truly break free. It is only by going within that we can rise above the cycles of attachment and detachment, craving and aversion, birth and death, good and bad, karma and karma phala (fruit of action). So how do we do it?
Through knowledge and devotion, transcend all karmas and be free!”
Gurudev answers beautifully, “Our perception of suffering, of good and bad, is always relative. God is absolute reality; a witness of all. See God as a movie director instead of seeing Him as a judge. He has no ill feelings for the villain and no special favor for the hero. Each one is playing a role according to their karma. Live with the karma and do not be attached to it. Awareness, alertness, knowledge, and meditation will help erase these past impressions. It has the strength to dissolve and destroy any karma and bring freedom to you.”
Spiritual knowledge relieves one from karma and brings freedom. “For attaining knowledge the desire for knowledge should be awakened. Now if you ask me, is the desire for knowledge based on one’s karma? Yes! But knowledge eliminates karma. Through knowledge and devotion, transcend all karmas and be free!”