The Sanskit term karma made its way into Western culture in the late 1800s. Its original usage is found in the most ancient yogic scriptures, the Vedas. These predate the written word by centuries.
The principle behind karma is universal. It applies to several spiritual philosophies, everyday life, and even science.
The Meaning of Karma: East and West
Interestingly, even my oldest English dictionaries include definitions of karma:
karma: the force generated by a person’s actions held in Hinduism and Buddhism to perpetuate transmigration and in its ethical consequences to determine his destiny in his next existence. (Webster’s)
karma: 1. (In Buddhism and Hinduism) all the acts, words, and thoughts of one life, supposed to determine a person’s fate in his next stage of existence. 2. fate; destiny; kismet. (World Book Dictionary)
The Student’s Sanskrit-English Dictionary includes dozens of variations and definitions, beginning with: action, work, or deed. It adds: “Fate, the certain consequence of acts done in a former life.”
The simplest meaning of karma is action. We can’t separate actions from their results, so the term karma represents both action and the results of action.
Our dictionary definitions correlate with both Eastern and Western scriptures. We’ve all heard the wisdom “as you sow, so also shall you reap” found in Saint Paul’s letter to the Galatians (VI:7) of the New Testament.
Karma is one of the easiest principles of Eastern philosophy to understand. It’s as simple as gravity: “What goes up must come down” and “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Thank you, Sir Isaac Newton!
The Mystery of Karma
The effects of karma are always in play, whether or not we’re aware of them. Your karma has brought you to this very moment. Look around you. Your home, job, family, and friends are all the results of your past actions—your karma.
Sometimes it’s easy to see how you got yourself into a certain situation—but not always. The laws of karma are often not evident. The Bhagavad Gita (aff link), one of the East’s most authoritative scriptures, tells us that karma is extremely mysterious and difficult to comprehend. (4:17)
Our Western minds prefer logic and step-by-step progressions. But many of our current situations and experiences can’t be explained. Life seems unfair, and bad things happen to good people. We enjoy complaining about it: “Life is tough, and then you die.” On the other hand, you might be the type of person who sees the world through rose-colored glasses. Yogis would say that’s because at some time in your past, you made an effort to think positively.
What’s My Karma?
It’s important for us, as travelers on the spiritual path, to understand that karma is always present in our situations—we have made our lives what they are today. And we are now making the life that we’ll experience in the future.
To illustrate, here’s a short story related through Baba Muktananda’s writings:
Once upon a time there was an unfortunate man, a real loser. He was habitually lazy, neglecting his work and family. He believed that he was special and that everyone should serve him. Understandably, this attitude didn’t win him good fortune or friends.
Wherever this sorry soul went, he experienced greed, anger, and hatred. His whole being emitted a negative aura. People avoided him like the bad apple that he was. He scoffed at the criticism of bystanders and returned kindness with anger. Clouds hung over his head and followed him wherever he walked. He was utterly destitute. There was no joy in his life.
One day, determined to change his luck, he started out on a journey. He’d heard stories about a sacred place that blessed its visitors with happiness and wealth. As he began to take the road to this heavenly place, he noticed another man ahead. Loneliness was another of his sad qualities, so he ran to join the other journeyer. Finally catching up with him, the first man said, “Hello fellow traveller, wait up! I want to walk with someone.”
The second man replied, “You foolish soul—I cannot walk with you. I am the messenger of your fate, and I must precede you wherever you go. I prepare for the reception that you have created for yourself. Your own thoughts and actions make the way for you.”
Baba goes on to explain that wherever we go, our actions precede us. Confucius, the famous Chinese philosopher said it another way: “And remember, wherever you go, there you are.”
It’s easy to see what your karma is today. Look around and notice what stands out in your life. Is your work satisfying and productive? Is your home life harmonious? Does your financial situation cause you stress? What’s your attitude about the weather, politics, or your neighbors? Your answers will give you clues about your karma.
Karma and Reincarnation
Many Eastern philosophies believe in reincarnation—that our souls are born repeatedly into different bodies. On the path to enlightenment, we evolve or devolve spiritually with each birth.
Belief in reincarnation isn’t a requirement on any spiritual path. But it does help to explain circumstances that are difficult to grasp. For example, if we see a wealthy person win a lottery, we scratch our heads in disbelief. How can this be?
If you consider that karma is carried with us through a number of incarnations, then some of life’s puzzles make sense. The rich guy won the lottery because perhaps in a previous life he was very generous with his money. We might justify it in our minds and say, “Oh, he must have really good money karma” and leave it at that, acknowledging the mysterious quality of karma.
Changing Your Karma
Thinking about what karma means could be depressing. But only if we see it as irrevocable fate, powerless to control. Fortunately, that’s not the case. While it’s true that karma must play itself out, there’s much we can do about it. First, and most importantly, we must realize that we created our own lives and situations. We must take responsibility. My Guru often reminds us, “Bear your karma cheerfully.”
We shouldn’t worry or whine, wondering, “Why did this happen to me?” Karma will always be mysterious. The present and future are based upon the past—and we can’t change the past. Remember that while you’re working through your karmic circumstances, you’re also creating new karma. You can affect your future by your current thoughts and actions. Think good thoughts, keep good company, and treat yourself and others with respect. By doing so, not only will you feel happier and more peaceful, you’ll also affect your future state and circumstances.
Meditation and keeping company with saints dissolves the effects of past karma. According to yoga masters, meditation is the best way to mitigate your karma. Meditation softens the blow of bad karma, creates good karma, and helps us to graciously accept our lot. In short, meditation makes us happy—now and in the future.
Every day, take a few minutes to objectively look at your life’s circumstances and your attitude toward them. Never stop working to improve yourself in some way. Remember that everything begins with a thought. Thoughts create actions, and actions create our future karma.
Do you have a karmic experience that you can share with other readers? How do you work toward changing your karma?
- Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield: G. & C. Merriam Company, 1980.
- The World Book Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1981.
- Sanskrit English Dictionary. India: Motilal Banarsidass, 1970.
Chityānanda has been a disciple of Svāmī Gurupremānanda Sarasvatī since 1975. She teaches meditation and yoga as a spiritual path in Santa Cruz, California.
Dear Svāmi Chityānanda Sarasvati,
Let me preface by saying I love the way you write — your writing is succinct, simple and profound. You know how to capture your reader. I especially like the quote “Look around you. Your home, job, family, and friends are all the results of your past actions—your karma.”
Lately, as I get older I ponder and review my life and choices. I also sometimes wonder is this my karma and is this how it is going to always be. So, I decided I have a choice to either worry or feel bad about a situation or to move forward with gratitude and faith. Then I keep in mind and remember what Svami Gurupremānanda says “to bear your karma cheerfully”. With that in mind I think there is a good reason for whatever blessing may occur — it is all God — it is all consciousness.
Thank you for your kind words, Nakisa. I’m happy to know that you’re enjoying the site’s content. I do write the posts myself, but I have them reviewed by knowledgeable people who often make suggestions that contribute to the quality of the writing. They deserve some of the credit, but I think they prefer to remain anonymous.
It sounds like wisdom is dawning in your mind and awareness. This is one of the most beneficial effects of a long-term meditation practice. I don’t think science has studied and documented these long-term effects yet, and I wonder if it’s even possible to do so. Nevertheless, those of us who have meditated for many years, continue to do so because we experience and value those benefits. Good for you! SCS
Re: Do you have a karmic experience that you can share with other readers? How do you work toward changing your karma?
I have two aunts who are both getting older. As time has passed, both aunts have had health issues. Throughout life, Aunt Elva was always positive and generous; Aunt Ruth was always stern and negative. I hear reports that Ruth is alone and unhappy. Every time I visit Elva, there are guests and laughter. Time has only accented their characters and the results are obvious.
I think the best thing I can do to improve my Karma is keep good company. Just as bad company is stronger than willpower, good company is stronger than past deeds.
That’s a great example, Modesto, thank you! We often forget that our current thoughts and actions are creating our future. But when we have a real-life example, like the story of your aunts, we can see the power of the principle. No one wants to be alone and unhappy when we need others the most–but your example shows that we can actually do something about that. … I also like your suggestion of keeping good company to improve karma. We become like the company we keep; it follows that if we keep better company, our karma will become better. Namaste.
In thinking about ones karma, the past is little known or remembered. Would you say the best we can do is build better karma for ourselves today. You have given us some very good tools to do just that.
Thank you for your comment, Edward. It’s mostly true that we can’t know how our past actions have influenced our current karma. That’s why I pointed out the verse from the Bhagavad Gita about the mysteriousness of karma. And there’s no point in dwelling upon the past while we live, breathe, and act in the present. I think it’s very encouraging to know that we can do something about the effects of our past karma. We can mitigate karmic effects through spiritual practices. I’m glad you noticed the “tools.” Namaste.
At one time, I was afraid of karma. I feared the body’s claim on my attention. Heat and cold, hunger and thirst—those seemed so compelling and immediate: who or what could challenge them?
The gift of meditation and a living mantra from my great Guru are far more powerful than karma. They give us space from bodily imperatives and the mind’s compulsions. In that space there is room to witness and make wiser choices. Choices that embrace the real values and goals of my life, and lifetimes.
Thank you for this tour of Karma’s many facets.
Thank you for joining the conversation, Rob. I’ve never heard of anyone being afraid of their karma before. But I guess that’s the same as fear of the unknown future. Best to remain focused in–and appreciate–the present. As you noted, your spiritual practices are going to support you through anything your mind might imagine. Good for you! Namaste.
A saying I like is “if you take care of something in life, then that something takes care of you.” My parents and grandparents all had vegetable gardens; I followed suit all my life. By taking care of and for food, now at 75 I have more food than I can possibly eat. Karma.
An excellent lesson and example, Richard. Thank you!
A good reminder to treat others with kindness, and work always to make oneself more Self-realized. Plus working unselfishly. Even when doing service for God, am I doing it for a reward or out of love?
Thank you, Tim. It’s always good to be aware of our motives. Without pure intentions, we have expectations about results. Since things never quite meet up to expectations, we’re much happier without them. Thank you for bringing this up. Namaste.
I remember that I didn’t pass my first class in analytical geometry and calculus because I did not use good study habits to understand the concepts in the beginning. I was given a second chance to retake the class and I did the work that served as a great springboard, and from then on I received straight A’s. I have experienced how to create good karma and I have been blessed throughout my life to have the ability to change bad results into good results. Some of the things that I have not been able to change I have learned to accept and not fret about them. I am convinced that meditation is key. Of course, I feel that my Guru is the reason I have had such positive experiences.
Thank you for the example of your experience, John. Learning from our mistakes is a great way to make a karmic turnaround. Namaste.
Swami Muktananda, one of my favorite saints, said that you can certainly get rid of your past karma through spiritual practices, but why should you use such sublime practices to destroy your accumulated karma? That would be like using an atom bomb to kill a rat.
He also said that through pranayama, chanting, and meditation you can cultivate such tremendous strength and power that you remain composed in even the most difficult situations. You should not shirk the consequences of your past karma. However, you should be careful while performing any action. You should be aware that your actions will have consequences.
Thank you for adding some wisdom from Swami Muktananda. It’s important that we, as spiritual aspirants, have the right attitude and understanding about karma. If we work without understanding, and with attachment to the results of our actions, then we just create more bondage and delusion. Swami Muktananda’s warning is a blessing! Namaste.
“Wherever you go, there you are.”
I must have been a Confucian in a previous life. I used to think this a lot, and thought it was an original inspiration. In retrospect, it’s probably unlikely anybody could come up with an original thought considering the evolution of humanity over the centuries. Life just keeps regurgitating itself. Probably due to Karma?
Thank you for your comment, Mr. T. Undoubtedly, you have some Confucius from a past life. It’s possible that he heard the saying from a wise person of his time and just passed it on in writing, like Ben Franklin used to do. There’s no way to know its exact origin, but nevertheless it’s a good principle to remember. Namaste.
Another superb blog, Svāmī Chityānanda. As I look around and ponder my environment, I see the results of my karma and witness it changing. This can be confusing as my ego tells me I can do better. As one strives for better karma, is that not ego raising its ugly head?
Hello, James. An excellent question: Is it the ego that makes us want to better ourselves? Well, that depends on motivation. I’m glad to see that you’re familiar with the concept of witnessing so you can watch your mind and observe your motivations.
As yogis, we must be very careful about desires. They can get us into a lot of trouble. We really need to watch our desires vigilantly and make sure they’re directed towards the goal of Self-realization, liberation, enlightenment (pick a term that you like; they all mean the same thing). “Better karma” means karma that will ultimately support our spiritual quest.
Remember the fable about the wolf in sheep’s clothing? Most of our desires are just that. They look innocent. But, watch carefully. If one’s so-called “striving for better karma” is for the purpose of a bigger house, fancier car, fame and fortune, and the like, eventually that wolf’s head is going to pop out and bite us!
There’s no need to be confused when you’re clear about your goal. Namaste.
What a great explanation about karma. “Look around you. Your home, job, family, and friends are all the results of your past actions—your karma.”
Thank you for your yoga insights.
Thank you, Sam. It’s always helpful for me to know when something works particularly well. I appreciate the feedback. Namaste.