Meaning of Karma - by Swami Sivananda

Karma is a s a n s k r i t term that s i g n i f i e s action or deed. Any physical or m e n t a l action is k a r ma .

Thinking is m e n t a l k a r m a . Karma is the sum total of our acts, both in the present life and in the preceding births.
Karma means not only action, but also the result of an action. The consequence of an action is really not a separate thing. It is a part of the action and cannot be divided from it. The law of karma means the law of causation. Wherever there is a cause, there an effect must be produced. A seed is a cause for the tree, which is the effect. The tree produces seeds and becomes the cause for the seeds. The cause is found in the effect and the effect is found in the cause. The effect is similar to the cause. This is the universal chain of cause and effect which has no end.
No link in the chain is unnecessary. This world runs on this fundamental and vital law.
This law is inexorable and immutable. This grand law operates everywhere in the physical and mental planes. No phenomenon can escape from the operation of this mighty law and all other laws of nature are subordinate to this fundamental law. No event can occur without having a positive, definite cause at the back of it. The breaking out of a war, the rise of a comet, the occurrence of an earthquake or a volcanic eruption, the outbreak of an epidemic, thunder, lightning, floods, diseases of the body, fortune, misfortune, all have their definite causes behind them.
The grand law of causation includes the law of action and reaction, the law of compensation and the law of retribution. All these laws come under one general, all-embracing heading, namely, the doctrine of karma.
If there is an action, there must be a reaction. The reaction will be of equal force and of similar nature. Every thought, desire, imagination and sentiment causes reaction. Virtue brings its own reward; vice brings its own
punishment. This is the working of the law of reaction. God neither punishes the wicked nor rewards the virtuous. It is their own karmas that bring reward and punishment.
It is the law of action and reaction that brings the fruits. No one is blamed.

T h e l a w o p e r a t e s everywhere with unceasing precision and scientific accuracy.

The law of action and reaction operates both in the physical and mental planes.

(article by Swami Sivananda, taken from Bliss Divine)

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  • As per infallible laws of karma ... we reaped fruits of karma performed! Nothing in cosmic system happened of its own! If we suffered in present life... all owes its existence to bad karma performed by us in past or previous lives!
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  • Karma (kerr-ma, krrma, or kurrma): but not as kar-mah.
    Synon: kamma (Pali), las (Tib.) Shreshtha Karma, [see p. 31 Kriya Yoga Darshan]
    Sense: ‘Action’ done with psychological intent—being the activity of either a mental or physical kind (i.e., thoughts and desires initiating deeds), which brings about repercussive effects in the present or future.

    Karma is the metaphysical Law of Causation and Retribution — or the philosophy of ‘as you sow, so shall you reap’ as taught by Jesus and by thousands of Eastern masters before and after him. In the Sikh tradition it is the ‘Law of Retribution and Requital.’
    The reality of karma is that whatever way one intentionally thinks or acts, whether positive or negative, one automatically becomes the attractor of the same attitudes or events of a similar nature towards oneself, either swiftly in the present or at a later date. Events of an unpleasant nature which occur immediately after thinking or saying something negative is now popularly known as ‘instant karma’ in the Western world.
    Other karmic effects may linger until another incarnation to come to fruition. The ancient Lawbook of Manu says: ‘An evil act committed in the world does not bear fruit at once, like a cow [and her production of milk]. Sometimes evil acts take a long while to produce their results.’ — Manu, iv. 172.

    Buddhism similarly maintains that: “Once a karmic tendency has been established, it won’t exhaust itself in a million kalpas [aeons]; it won’t go away. At a certain point when conditions come together which require it to emerge, it will ripen; it will mature into experience.”1
    —Kalu Rinpoche

    But neither God nor Guru is your judge.
    You condemn or reprieve yourself by the promptings of your own heart and conscience.

    Sukhasya duhkhasya na kopi dåtå
    paro dadåt⁄ti kubuddhir e‚å
    svayaø k®taø svena phalena yujyate
    çar⁄ra he nistara yat tvayå krtam.

    ‘No one gives joy or sorrow. That others give us these is an erroneous conception. Our own deeds bring to us their fruits, Body of mine, repay what you have done.’2

    Root: From kar—to do. (Or from kri, acc. Vivekananda). Hence, the person to whom karma occurs is known as a karta—‘one who performs action.’

    In some schools of yoga philosophy the actions we initiate are not considered as true karma, but rather as akarma — or ‘non-karma.’ If they are considered simply as ‘action’ then everything we do is karma. But our daily activities, choice of work, thoughts and deeds are seen as the results or reflections of karma being worked out through our mental or physical activities, rather than the original karma itself.
    According to Kriya Yoga terminology, all our daily actions are akarma. For followers of this school of thought, the true karma or ‘original action’ is held to be the unificatory interaction of breath and soul in the pituitary gland, situated between both hemispheres of the brain.
    However, other yogic philosophies maintain that akarma is ‘the absence of bondage resulting from actions done without attachment.’ Vikarma — is the condition of being spiritually elevat
    ed beyond the action of karma.
    There are considered to be three basic forms of karma: a) Sanchita (also written sanchit) Karma — or stored karma — the reservoir of good or bad thoughts or actions created in past lifetimes—accruing from our first appearance on earth—and awaiting fruition in the present or future lifetimes. b) Prarabdha karma—fated or destined karma which has to be worked out in this present lifetime. The parents to which one was born and the life situation in which one now finds oneself is prarabdha karma working itself out. We have no control over the present events which come to us—as we have called them to ourselves through past actions and thoughts—and we have to deal with them as best we can, whether they are good or evil. c) Kriyaman or Agami karma—the seeds of future karma which are even now being sown in the present, according to the way we react to the prarabdha karma working itself out through our daily lives. Within limits, we are free to behave exactly as we please in any situation, but we must realise that we are sowing seeds for good or ill at every moment. The results of some of the seeds we sow now will be reaped before we leave the present body and the residue will be transferred to the sanchita storehouse for the next time round.

    a) From the Buddhist perspective: “ Kamma… literally means action or doing. Any kind of intentional action whether mental, verbal or physical is regarded as kamma. It covers all that is included in the phrase “thought, word and deed.” Generally speaking, all good and bad actions constitute kamma. In its ultimate sense kamma means all moral and immoral volition. Involuntary, unintentional or unconscious actions, though technically deeds, do not constitute kamma, because volition, the most important factor in determining kamma, is absent…
    “Kamma does not necessarily mean past actions. It embraces both past and present deeds. Hence, in one sense, we are the result of what we were; we will be the result of what we are. In another sense, it should be added, we are not totally the result of what we were; we will not absolutely be the result of what we are.The present is no doubt the offspring of the past and is the parent of the future, but the present is not always a true index of either the past or the future, so complex is the working of kamma. For instance, a criminal today may be a saint tomorrow; a god-person yesterday may be a vicious one today.”3
    —Narada Mahathera

    b) “Having once perceived the world of Buddha-nature, we are indifferent to death, since we know we will be reborn through affinity with a father and a mother. We are reborn when our karmic relation impels us to be reborn. We die when our karmic relations decree that we die. And we are killed when our karmic relations lead us to be killed. We are the manifestations of our karmic relations at any given moment, and upon their modification we change accordingly. What we call life is no more than a procession of transformations.”

    “Now, we must also consider the relationship of the individual to collective karma. Even as each of us has an independent existence, at the same time we relate deeply to one another…suppose I neglect my health and become sick…collective karma would begin to operate if I became seriously ill, perhaps needing an operation, so that my family and friends become concerned about me. My family’s finances would be affected too. To be a passenger in a plane or car that crashes—this is also collective karma. But that one passenger dies, another is only injured, and still another escapes unharmed ---this is individual karma…
    “Now let me explain fixed and variable karma. Our fixed karma is the result of previous actions crystallised at the time of birth and unchangeable until death. For example, to be born as a man or a woman is fixed karma, a condition we cannot alter. To be born white or black or Japanese or Chinese is likewise unchangeable.” 4

    c) “My own teachers used to say, “No matter how painful a particular event of your life and how seemingly inscrutable and remote its cause, if you put your palms together in gratitude for the opportunity it offers to repay a karmic debt, your pain will be lightened and your karmic burden lessened. Furthermore there will be no residue of resentment or bitterness.” 5
    — Philip Kapleau
    d) It is considered that after achieving the state of Self-Realisation, karma is no longer operative. The classic text Tripura Rahasya states: “The karma of the one who is active after Self-Realisation is rendered ineffective by his wisdom.”
    What then can be said of the fits and seizures of the great saint Ramakrishna Paramahansa? Or of Ramana Maharshi of Arunachala who became Self-Realised at the age of 16 and the appearance of the cancerous sarcoma which affected his arm when in his seventies ? Could this, notwithstanding, have been the residue of prarabdha karma working itself out through the body? Such an eventuality may perhaps be understood as the prarabdha of the body only, when the spirit of the Master is eternal and ‘he’ no is longer residing in the body as such, but in Universal Consciousness.

    e) “In the case of one who possesses discriminative knowledge of Purusa and Prakriti, the germs of afflictions are burnt up. Therefore, although suitable environment and situation are present, [for awakening karma-creating desires] they do not come into operation. A wise man whose afflictions have been burnt up is said to have birth in Purusa, Brahman. It is psychological birth.” 6
    —Sri Ramamurti S. Mishra

    Thus the seeds of mental karma can no longer be said to sprout when individual ‘mind’ itself—which is co-extant with the notion-of-ego— no longer exists to the liberated or enlightened being.

    f) “Karma is the Ultimate Law of the Universe, the source, origin and fount of all other laws which exist throughout Nature. It is the unerring law, which adjusts effect to cause on the physical, mental and spiritual planes of being. As no cause remains without its due effect from greatest to least, from a cosmic disturbance down to the movement of your hand, and as like produces like, Karma is that unseen and unknown law which adjusts wisely, intelligently and equitably each effect to its cause, tracing the latter back to its producer.” 7

    g) “Karma is an undeviating and unerring tendency in the Universe to restore equilibrium, and it operates incessantly.” 8

    h) “‘Karma’ expresses, not that which a man inherits from his ancestors, but that which he inherits from himself in some previous state of existence.” 9

    i) “So long as merit and demerit is the motive power of action there is the danger of that heartless snobbery of thought which, seeing suffering, remarks that it must be the sufferer’s Karma to suffer, and anyhow, what is it to do with me? Such thought will bear its own result, a further hardening of the heart which, blinded with its dear delusion continues to feel separate from its fellow men and, like the Levite, passes by on the other side. Only the light of compassion, an understanding love for all that lives, can see that Karma as Law a loving Law; that if it is just it is also utterly merciful.” 10

    Other: In Tibetan, karma also means ‘star,’ being related to astrological factors, with the meaning ‘it’s in your stars.’

    a) Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions — Ed. Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1980).
    b) Many Mansions & Many Mansions Part II—Gina Cerminara (Penguin Group, USA,1988).
    ISBN 0451168178 & 9780451168177. An excellent introduction through the Edgar Cayce oracle.
    c) Jewel Ornament of Liberation—Gampopa. A more exhaustive exposition from the Tibetan Buddhist viewpoint.
    d) The Writings of Kalu Rinpoche —(KKC Publications) offers a ‘reasonably complete though concise treatment of this theme of karma,’ (so says His Eminence).
    e)The Mind and Its Functions—Geshe Rabten. Trans. S.Batchelor (Mt. Pelerin, Tharpa Choeling, 1978). P.69 (on the relationship between karma and intent).
    f) The Tibetan Tradition of Mental Development —Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey (LTWA, Dharmasala,1974)


    1The Gem Ornament—His Eminence Kalu Rinpoche (Snow Lion Pub. N.Y. 1987). ISBN: 0-937938-59-9
    2 Garu∂a Purå~a
    3 ‘The Buddhist Doctrine of Kamma and Rebirth’—Narada Mahathera, from Light of the Dhamma Vol. III, (June 1955 and January 1956.)
    4 Eight Bases of Belief in Buddhism—Roshi Yasutani.
    5 The Wheel of Death—Philip Kapleau (George Allen & Unwin, 1972)
    6 The Textbook of Yoga Psychology—Ramamurti S. Mishra commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras p.173. (Julian Press Inc, N.Y., 1963).
    7 The Secret Doctrine—H.P. Blavatsky (Theosophical University press, Pasadena, USA).
    8 Aphorisms on Karma—William Quan Judge (The Path magazine, March 1983)
    9 Buddhism in Translations—Henry Clarke Warren (Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, India).
    10 Karma and Rebirth—T. Christmas Humphreys (John Murray, London, 1943).
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