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.