Karmā is a concept that explains an action (kriya) and its consequences. Kriya denotes a specific conscious action or procedure with a specific result; it isn’t necessarily used to denote compulsive or unconscious action. Each karmā corresponds to a specific result known as its karmāphala (karmā:phala), meaning the fruit of Karmā. The doer of an action is called Karta. In this article let us explore its concept – how karmā is recorded, how it works, and what we can do about our karmā – through various references from Sanātana literature. The concept of Karmā spans various dimensions in existence. Meaning, these actions and their consequences get recorded on various levels, along with the degree of intensity. Let us say a tree is removed from a forest. Though it might seem to our intellect that it is just one tree, there exist various consequences that leave a residual impression. For example, the insect and bird populations get disturbed, or the slow degradation of the roots inside the soil creates a pocket of space. These residual effects might last for a long time, even though unnoticed by our senses. With this understanding, a set of actions (as karmā) is suggested to a human in his/her respective Ḍharma, of an ashram(am). These recommended actions are a result of profound analysis and observation of creation by various selfless and enlightened beings. The doer (karta) has a choice in selecting an action and the way it is performed, but not in the karmā as a whole. Karmā is an ingrained equation built into creation, and a doer’s choice is in choosing an action and its process of execution, and not in its consequence. This cosmic equation has countless variables that affect the outcome, knowing which through sheer information or intellectual discrimination (of an ego-centric or identity constrained being) is impossible. It can, though, be realized through the state commonly referred to as enlightenment. However, many consequences are deterministic to some level, meaning the outcome is the same each time; hence, it gives a notion of control and guarantee. At one level, most actions can be deemed deterministic, but to a doer it might seem like chaos – depending on the level of awareness. The reason why karmā and its consequence seem deterministic is because of past experiences that create a sense of precision (same outcome). These experiences are carried over from one person to another in the form of genetics, knowledge, privileges or wisdom. Hence, human beings choose actions mostly because of survival, which is an inbuilt knowledge, or past experiences. Instinct is also an innate knowledge.
One’s actions leave a residual impression on oneself and the surroundings. These impressions forge the persona, attitude, compulsion, nature, identity of a person. Using these impressions, a person reaches various agreements within oneself as assertions and conclusions on various aspects of this reality. Using these conclusions, a human further performs actions and makes further judgments. In this way, Karmā causes a ripple effect on the current and future actions of a being.
Karmā is marvelously explained by Swami Prabhavananada and Christopher Isherwood in their translation of Śrī Adishankaracharya’s renowned composition of Advita Siddhanta titled Vivekachudamani (Crest-Jewel of Discrimination) as:
“Automatic justice system”
(Swami Prabhavananda. Isherwood, Christopher. 1947)
Not just humans, the animal kingdom (Pashu Jati), energies, terrain, and environment, all have their own Ḍharma (unique properties). An action performed against the Ḍharma defined to a person’s respective ashram will result in a:karmā or dushkarmā (dush:karmā) or vihitakarmā (vihita:karmā). These titles – Dushkarmā or Akarmā or Vihitakarmā – are only in the sense that certain actions and their consequences are not in the well-being of the environment. A consequence of an action is just a natural outcome hence the words ‘Vihitakarmā’ or ‘Dushkarmā’ do not denote good or bad karmā as they are translation error or linguistic misinterpretation, why? because there is no notion of good vs bad, because good and bad are situational. Why? We will see that soon. Karmā is an action and its consequence, and nothing more. The notion of a consequence being Satkarmā or Dushkarmā was developed by various sages and Maharśis towards the well-being of the environment, based on their ability of foresight and a vision for the cumulative well-being of all. One should never interpret Karmā as some kind of punishment, though it has been called an “automatic justice system”. Such statements are interpretations but, at the same time, have a factual facet. Each action has its own consequence; to deem it as punishment is to imply that some entity has predetermined our action as good vs bad, which is not the case. The consequence is an automatic happening within creation for a set of actions. Such consequences which are deemed to create the notion of suffering or sorrow within a being can arise through six different causes:
- Kama : desire, directed to one’s own like or dislike.
- Krodha : anger, which is a reaction to generation of certain frustration and friction within the chemistry of a being.
- Moha : cognitive error of identification with the mind-body complex, resulting in egoism and possessiveness.
- Mada : hubris and self-proclaimed righteousness and pride, resulting in hypocrisy and downgrading others.
- Lobha : greed and selfishness.
- Matsarya : envy or hate, arising from ego, pride, jealousy, and resentment.
(Rami Sivan. 2019)
Though Karmā is an inherent concept originating from Sanātana Ḍharma (Hinduism), these fundamentals were also assimilated into Buddhism. However, this discussion does not pertain to the philosophical aspect of Buddhism or others, but rather to the core conceptual sense of Karmā as explained by Śāstra. All schools of thought (darshana) of Sanātana Dharma, as well as Buddhism and Jainism, integrate the concepts of Karmā as one commonality.
Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev explains karmā as a memory on various levels – which accumulates over time, either genetically or through past experiences. In this way, the concept of memory exists in the entire body at a cellular level that allows various bodily functions to operate without conscious effort. The very physical aspects of the body, skin, taste and facial features are memory within the genetics of a being. This memory exists at all levels of creation. It exists in a seed, in soil, in nature and everything.
“An eye which is loaded with memory, an eye which is corrupted with memory, cannot see anything the way it is. It will only see things as it’s convenient because the software is working from inside. It will not allow to see anything the way it is. This is what traditionally we are referring to as karmā. It is there in your body, it is there in your energies, it is there in the way chemical reactions happen, it is there in your brain, it is there in your mind, it is there in everything, in the way every physical energies that you carry.”
“What being loaded with memory means is, it’s a cocoon of the past, which is holding you. It will not allow you to move into the present. You allow yourself to do this because it’s safe. It’s safety, but in safety there is imprisonment”
Before we step into the concept of karmā identified for a human being, let us explore karmā as a concept, its consequence and the role of memory. Say, we pick up a stone from the ground and throw it straight up above our head. Now, imagine we lose our memory immediately. Does this mean the stone is gone from reality? Our intellect might have forgotten about this act but something still remembers it. Who?
- The memory of our hand muscles and our body remembers, and expresses it in the form of an unsettling feeling. This feeling is sometimes referred to as intuition or ominous sense.
- The ground and any insect life that resided underneath the stone knows an object was removed.
- The air knows that an object with certain mass and velocity is pushing it and so adjusts itself.
- The universe remembers the speed of the Earth’s rotation and adds that speed to the stone.
- The concept of gravity knows that an object with certain escape velocity is moving against its force and so counters it. It also knows at what velocity to bring the stone back.
- The sound generated by the friction between the stone and the air spreads in the vicinity of that environment.
- The birds in that vicinity would have noticed the stone and might scatter.
If we feel we are the only sentient beings on this planet, and a planet is a senseless object at our disposal, such a notion is a very low and ignorant perspective. The environment and the forces of nature might not seem to have awareness similar to us, but their awareness is at a different level. We live in an autonomous self-executing universe that is in momentum irrespective of our existence. It has existed before us and it will exist after us.
Now that the action is performed, let us come to the consequence. What is our karmā:phala? Despite our memory loss, the environment around us remembers it, but will it discriminate because we forgot our actions? It is we who have created the ripple, so will the gravity discriminate on who threw the stone? We can argue, curse, cry, question, reason, and revolt for getting hurt, but our karmā created this ripple through an automated mechanism of this creation.
Karmā Phala (fruit/consequence of karmā)
This karmā:phala is endured by a Jīva in the form of Puńya and Pápam, and the notion of good and bad will be addressed in this topic. The endurance of Puńya or Pápa by a Jīva in a given lifespan is the Prarabdha. That which is brought upon oneself by actions in past lives that triggered the current existence is known as Prarābdha Karmā. While enduring the Karmā:phala of previous lives, a being performs various actions (kriya) in the current life, with choices made under the influence of the past Karmā:phala. Because of this, a Jīva again accumulates certain karmā in the current life, which is called the Kriyamana Karmā (kriyamana:karmā). Some of this may be worked off immediately, and the remaining – that is yet to be worked off either in this life or in future lives – is called Agami Karmā. The karmā being carried over by the Jīva to various future lives to experience its phala (fruit) results in a loop. The sum total of karmā accumulated by a Jīva from its previous lives to date is called Sañcita Karmā (Sanchita meaning accumulated total). It is because of this karmā that a Jīva keeps taking birth in order to shed it, but with current actions keeps accumulating more. So how does one break the cycle of karmā? This can be explored in the articles of Puńya & Pápam and Kama.
Now, how can we evade (correct) this karmā? How can anyone evade the karmā that is already in motion heading towards oneself?
How to Overcome Karmā?
- Rather than saying “overcome”, the best word is “face”. And the way to facing it is by Sādhanā (practice) towards Upāsanā (practice to move closer to Iśvara in position) with śrāddha (dedication). With this, anything can be achieved in due time (kālá). Śāstra and Yoga have given us various tools and mechanisms (like kriya and diksha) with which we can build endurance. With this, both Sañcita and Kriyamana Karma can be faced, but Prarābdha can only be faced and endured with Iśvara Pranipata (surrendering) and Yoga Abhyasa (repeated practice of Yogic kriyas).
- Being conscious of the actions we perform can give us the opportunity to face it.
- Awareness about our body and its senses (at various depths) can help us understand the signs.
- Our conscious awareness of the environment can give us the signs to predict. Isn’t human intelligence making predictions upon researching various patterns in the environment? Don’t various animals and insects sense the environment at a much higher level than us? Don’t frogs and other creatures know about the rain before our senses can gauge? Similarly, expanding our awareness beyond our psychological drama can enable us to perceive at higher levels. This is why Yoga.
This perfect union of mind and body with our surroundings is the true meaning of YOGA.
Newton was conscious about the apple that fell down, while many took it for granted. Various beings who crossed beyond their identity and evolved their consciousness are called Yogis, Maharśis, Munis, etc.
Once a student asked Śrī Adishankaracharya about past karmā, a dialog recorded in the grand composition called Viveka Chudamani, translated by Swami Prabhavananada and Christopher Isherwood:
“Student: But what about the actions done before the dawn of knowledge? Knowledge cannot cancel their effects. An arrow shot at a mark cannot be turned aside. Suppose you mistake a cow for a tiger and shoot at it. The arrow will not stop when you discover that the cow is not a tiger. It will strike the cow.”
Śrī Śankara replied: Yes, you are right. Past actions are very powerful if they have already begun to produce their effects. They must exhaust their power through actual experience, even in the case of an illuminated soul (Ātman). The fire of knowledge destroys the whole accumulation of present and future karmās and of past karmās which have not yet begun to produce effects. However, none of these karmās can really affect those who have realized their identity with Brahmān.
(Swami Prabhavananda. Isherwood, Christopher. 1947)
Hence, from the above, it can be comprehended that one can encounter the results of karmā that was already set in momentum in the past. Such karmā should exhaust its momentum irrespective of current actions or intentions. Maharśi Vaśiṣṭha states in his profound Yoga to Śrī Rama that a being’s mental conditions can be interpreted as pure (free from blemish and prejudice) and impure (blemishes). The impure ones are like seeds, meaning they have the ability to grow into another tree of life (rebirth) to continue the loop of samsara. Such an impure mindset of a being is due to Avidya (absence of Vidya or Knowledge) which leads to identity and ego. However, when one lets go of these impurities or clears one’s thoughts of such blemishes, then such beings are only affected by past karmā that was set in momentum and not by present intentions or motivations. (Swami Venkatesananda. 1993)
In the chapter of Yoga of Self Effort, Maharśi Vaśiṣṭha says to Śrī Rama:
“Self-effort is of two categories: that of past births and that of this birth. The latter effectively contracts the former. Fate is none other than self-effort of a part incarnation. There is constant conflict between the two in this incarnation; and that which is more powerful triumphs. If you see that the present self-effort is sometimes thwarted by fate (or divine will), you should understand that the present self-effort is weak. A weak and dull-witted man sees the hand of providence when he is confronted by a strong and powerful adversary and succumbs to him. Faith or divine dispensation is merely a convention which has come to be regarded as truth by being repeatedly declared to be true. If this god or fate is truly the ordainer of everything in this world, of what meaning is any action”
(Swami Venkatesananda. 1993)
Maharśi Vaśiṣṭha further explains in his Yoga to Śrī Rama that past karmā or actions bear memory that shines or can get triggered anytime. These past tendencies are of two types, those which support and lead to liberation, and those which hinder one’s progress towards liberation. One who is not impelled by unconscious tendencies and latent desires, rather operates through self-effort, is free to strengthen only those tendencies which support and nurture one’s efforts to liberation. Those negative tendencies are not to be undermined either, as they have to be consciously recognized and slowly but carefully discarded. Maharśi Vaśiṣṭha further says to Śrī Rama:
“Hence, the non-enquiring fool is really a storehouse of sorrow. It is the absence of enquiry that gives rise to actions that are harmful to oneself and to others, and to numerous psychosomatic illnesses.”
(Swami Venkatesananda. 1993)
Now, to definitively answer the question, can past Karmā (karmā:phala) be canceled or removed? The answer is NO. The action of the past will bear its result, which is the cosmic equation balancing itself. Can we dodge it? The answer is again NO, but we can better prepare to face it and adjust ourselves to it. Can we predict it? Yes, we can – based on our Sādhanā (practice) towards enhancing our lives to a higher and wider state of awareness, which is what Yoga is all about. Then what about Upāyas and Parihārams? Well, they are kriya (actions) designed to help us better understand and realize the reality and its effects. They will help us better prepare and equip ourselves with needed upgrades to our lifestyles because realizing it and accepting it is the first step.
To define Karmā, let us look into various concepts that intertwine with Karmā.
Samsara(m): This is a never-ending loop of lives performing karmā with desires, resulting in the Jīva hopping through multiple lives to expunge the karmā:phala.
Ashram(am): The Four stages and four disciplines – with their respective Ḍharmas – of a human. They are Brahmā:charya(m), Gruhastu, Vanaprastu and finally Sanyasam.
Brahmācharya(m): A stage in youth wherein one takes resort under a Guru to learn about Ḍharma and Iśvara and the life ahead, and collect alms for the Guru. Brahmā:charya(m) can also be a practice or discipline to follow celibacy at any age in one’s life. Even if one belongs to Gruhastu ashram(am), one can still maintain celibacy and follow the discipline of Brahmā:charya(m).
Gruhastu: The discipline of a married stage of life wherein all its respective karmā is followed.
Vanaprastu: A stage where household responsibilities are handed over to the next generation in order to take up the discipline of withdrawing oneself from worldly desires.
Sanyasam: A discipline to renounce worldly desires and pleasures, and live on alms, in order to focus one’s buddhi towards the unification and the realization of Iśvara.
Dushkarmā: Actions that are performed contrary to one’s Ḍharma are called dush:karmā. Going against Dharma is called a:Ḍharma.
Satkarmā: The actions that are performed in line with Ḍharma are called sat:karmā. This sat:karmā not only benefits the doer (Karta) but encompasses the cumulative wellbeing of the environment (Prakṛti).
As we have seen earlier, Karmā is an automatic system; hence, there is no escape from it. It is not just the action (Kriya) that is the deciding factor, just thought itself has consequences. Just because Karmā is denoted in common usage as action, it doesn’t mean karmā is just action and reaction. Action, by itself, is not the defining factor. The topic Puńya & Pápa will elaborate on this concept. Karmā, by itself, has no real root or destiny; its only purpose is to extend the opportunity for the being’s continuity of existence, so that one can exit the loop of Samsara. Hence, actions/karmā are to be performed as Yajñá and not for the desired outcome. Śrī Ramana Maharshi said in Upadesa Saram Verse 1:
“karmā tat jadam”
(Upadesa Saram. S.I, 2013)
Alan Watt, a British-American philosopher, said that even exalted beings like gods or angels are:
“…..in the chains of Karmā – that is action that requires the need for more action to complete it, and goes on requiring the need for more action. They’re still, according to popular ideas, going ’round the wheel from life after life after life after life, because they still have the thirst for existence, or to put it in a Hindu way: in them the self is still playing the game of not being itself “
(Alan Watt. 2015)
Now, one of the most important questions – is Kama (desire) corrupting us? The answer is no, provided kama (desire) is assimilated with Ḍharma. As long as the Kama is entwined in the wheel of Ḍharma, such a Kama will not corrupt us. For example, the Kama or a desire towards reaching and understanding Iśvara is a virtuous desire, and so helps uplift us. When one realizes that one can explore Iśvara’s essence, learn a good stotram, read a good book, perform a pooja (puja or nitya karmā) with devotion, and so on, then such a desire towards Iśvara will help us towards reaching higher plains of consciousness. Hence, the basis for any action shouldn’t be mere desire, it should be Ḍharma. (Srichaganti. K.D.S, n.d., p.1-19)
This can be seen in a sloka from Srimad Bhagavad Gita, a part of Śrī Mahabaratam, Chapter 2 (karmā yoga), sloka 9, wherein Gitacharya (Śrī Kṛṣṇa) explains to Arjuna how to perform karmā:
यज्ञार्थात्कर्मणोऽन्यत्र लोकोऽयं कर्मबन्धनः।
तदर्थं कर्म कौन्तेय मुक्तसंगः समाचर।।
(Gita Supersite. n.d.)
Meaning, Karmā binds its karta (person performing karmā) as long as it is performed for a desired outcome. In the earlier stages of sadhana (practice) a good desire, as mentioned above, is a better start. However, to break free from the cycle of Karmā or Samsara, one has to evolve to perform karmā as a yagna (sacrificial fire), free from attachments and desires of its results, because actions performed due to desire are lesser in nature than that of buddhi and Yoga. Gitacharya further explains that actions should be performed as Yoga, with mind unblemished by pleasure or desire. One has to submit and seek refuge in one’s yoga of buddhi (knowledge and wisdom leading to the realization of Atman). Slokas for these can be found in Srimad Bagavad Gita, Chapter 2 of Sankhya Yoga, sloka 48 & 49.
योगस्थः कुरु कर्माणि सङ्गं त्यक्त्वा धनञ्जय।
सिद्ध्यसिद्ध्योः समो भूत्वा समत्वं योग उच्यते।।
दूरेण ह्यवरं कर्म बुद्धियोगाद्धनञ्जय।
बुद्धौ शरणमन्विच्छ कृपणाः फलहेतवः।।
(Gita Supersite. n.d.)
In the profound composition of Advita Siddhanta by Śrī Adishankaracharya titled Manishapanchakam, sloka 3 says:
shashvannashvarameva vishvam akhilam nishcitya vAcA guroH
nityam brahma nirantaram vimRishatA nirvyAjashantAtmanA |
bhUtam bhAvi ca duShkRitam pradahatA samvinmaye pAvake
prArabdhAya samarpitam svavapurityeShA manIShA mama ||
Śrī Śankara says that, in the light of a Guru, when one reaches certainty about creation and its entities being under constant dissolution- and so, with clarity, focuses oneself upon the inner self (indirectly the Brahmān) – the puńya and pápa are burned in Gyanagni (fire of enlightenment), wherein one’s physical body is offered to shed the Prarabdha Karmā that is sealed within the current existence, then such an existence is a witness to the self, or has realized that true self. (Manishapanchakam. n.d)
Śāstra provides another example – wherein a farmer, to reach harvest, must first wait for the rain, plow to sow seeds, and maintain it with care, protect it from many factors. After harvest, the farmer takes the seeds but leaves the stalks/plant behind. Similarly, Karmā is like the plant, which we have to keep performing with good nature. Through Karmā, we evolve and receive its seed of enlightenment, at which point the rest of the plant (of Karmā) is let go. Performing Karmā after enlightenment is not focused anymore, hence a gyani (jnani) can no more be pointed out for his/her implementation of karmā, nor is it associated with any ashram and discipline.
REFERENCE ENTRY (APA Style citing)
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Upadesa Saram Verse 1. (Oct, 2013). Self-Inquiry. Retrieved from https://suryanarayanarajumd.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/upadesa-saram-verse-1/
Gita Supersite. (n.d.). Developed and Maintained by IIT Kanpur. Retrieved from https://www.gitasupersite.iitk.ac.in
Alan Watt (Orator). (Oct 21, 2015). Alan Watts – The Essence of Hinduism [Audio]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fm9_8M3eQPY&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR3J9NFcGLpL_R3pSRvQ4piKqnugYQ2x8685GBkN8-ClHvTjr493VuVpooI
Swami Prabhavananda. Isherwood, Christopher. (1947). Śankara’s Crest-Jewel of Discrimination. California: Vedānta Press
Swami Venkatesananda. (1993). Vaśiṣṭha’s Yoga. New York, Albany: State University of New York Press
Sadhguru (Orator). (Aug 18th, 2014). What is Karmā? How do you Break the karmic Trap – Sadhguru [Audio]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/zO8QzMWZbN4
Rami Sivan. (June 5th, 2019). According to Hindu beliefs, why are people punished for their bad behavior in their next life and not the same life? Retrieved from https://qr.ae/TiYar1
Manishapanchakam. (n.d). [PDF file:Manishapanchakam.pdf]. Retrieved from https://sanskritdocuments.org/sites/snsastri/Manishapanchakam.pdf