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What is Karma?

The simplest explanation for karma is an action whose effect is experienced as a future consequence.

Our lives are often touched by inexplicable events. Especially when we undergo physical or mental suffering, we may complain and view it as some kind of unfair disciplinary lesson from forces we don't understand. Similarly, there are many unexpected good situations that occur spontaneously in our lives without any apparent cause.

These all relate to the science of what is karma or the universal law of cause and effect.

What is Karma ? Cause and Effect


One of the very first and most important teachings of Hinduism directly related to what is karma is that the mind alone is the performer of action, not the physical body.

Whatever we physically do is originally inspired by a thought. Because of this there are only two kinds of action:

  1. Mental actions
  2. Mental actions combined with physical actions

In either situation, the mind is the governor, and the physical body is the loyal servant following the inspiration of the mind.

Every life form is active because of the presence of the soul. When the perishable body dies, the soul continues on its journey and enters a new life form.

In Hinduism, 8.4 million different life forms have been described, and there seems to be almost endless variety in nature, yet from the point of view of what is karma, there are only two types of life forms a soul enters:

  1. Bhog yoni
  2. Karma yoni
Yoni means 'birth'. A 'bhog' yoni refers to such a birth where a soul can only undergo the consequences of actions he has performed in a previous (human) birth. Every living being continuously performs actions, but they are not actions that yield future consequences. This law applies to every life form except a human form. A human form is a 'karma yoni'. This is considered a very special opportunity for a soul because of two qualities the human body possesses:
  1. The ability to discriminate
  2. The ability to perform consequence-yielding actions

With the help of these two qualities, we have the intelligence and freedom to choose what to do, and the comfort of knowing that action will yield a future effect or result. This whole process of analyzing, thinking, determining and acting produces the future consequences of what is action.

Reincarnation and the Kinds of Karma

Actions are of three kinds:

  1. Sanchita -- what is karma that is stored yet to be fructified
  2. Prarabdha -- what is karma whose effects you receive in this birth in the form of destiny
  3. Kriyamana -- what is karma you perform every moment with free will

how karma works Imagine in an archery competition that an archer's quiver is full of an unlimited supply of arrows. It is up to him how frequently he takes an arrow from his quiver and how and when he releases it against the target. This is his ability to perform actions with free will. But once the arrows have struck the target, their impact creates an effect. He is scored immediately according to the nature of the impact. This is equivalent to future consequences or what we refer to as 'destiny', 'luck' or 'fate'.

One religious writer has stated: "In life, there are no rewards, there are no punishments, there are only consequences." Is this true? No. Consequences AND free will are simultaneously active. We are always free to perform new actions, but never free from the consequence of that choice.

stored karmas The mind is a subtle energy that is closely associated with your soul energy. It acts as an enormous suitcase. It has an unlimited capacity to store information about your karmic history from time immemorial. This is referred to also as the sukchma sharir or subtle body.

In a social sense, we know if we break a law, we may convicted of that crime and have to suffer a punishment. But oftentimes criminals are not caught.

But no one can escape the law of cause and effect because it is overseen by the spiritual government. There is an aspect of supreme God called paramatma, which resides with every soul as a ever-present divine witness. He doesn't interfere with our choice of action, He merely observes our choices.

This power of God ensures that every single action we perform is being noted and also calculates how, when, and where we will receive a future consequence for those actions.

A human birth is limited to a certain number of years. All our new actions from one birth aren't fructified during the course of any given lifetime, but it is the law that we must undergo their effect.

Therefore excess, unfructified consequences force the soul to enter a new birth so that these effects could be 'discharged'. When the soul leaves the body, it leaves with the subtle body, so the full record of your karmic information from uncountable lifetimes is preserved from birth to birth.

Karmic consequences that we refer to as destiny include: the time of our birth and death, poverty or prosperity, fame or anonymity, and other helpful or detrimental physical events that may experience in the course of your lifetime.

The Path of Karma

There are four terms to understand in Hinduism that are related to what is karma:

  1. Karma -- or good action
  2. Vikarma -- or bad action
  3. Akarma or Karma Yoga-- non-action or devotional action
  4. Karma Sanyas -- non-action or devotional renunciation

What is Karma

Karma is considered a good or virtuous action, and it specfically refers to the observance and performance of actions or rituals (such as Vedic yagya) prescribed in the Vedas and other scriptures, and also includes religious rules, regulations and guidelines for one's stage and order in life. This does not include devotion to God (bhakti).

This aspect of what is karma is also considered apar dharma. Dharma is of two types:

  • Apar (or lower) dharma -- what is karma that includes practices, knowledge and teachings that produce physical and mental happiness (mayic or material happiness);
  • Par (or higher) dharma -- what is karma that includes practices, knowledge and teachings that produce the happiness of the soul (divine and authentic happiness)

If these rules of what is karma or dharma are observed, then one receives a positive future outcome of material happiness. The greatest expression of happiness from a material point of view is attaining swarga or the celestial abodes.

It is important to note that this does not correspond to the Judeo-Christian concept of heaven as a permanent dwelling place of God. Swarg is a subtle region of comprised of several abodes predominated by the mayic guna of sattva.

If a soul enters this region, the stay is temporary, but imbued with great pleasure. After some time he again receives a human form on this earth plane.

What is Vikarma

Vikarma is a bad, wrong or sinful action that is the result of not following the rules and regulations of the scriptures, being willful, undisciplined and disrespectful towards not only God and religious matters, but also towards Saints.

The immediate consequence of such actions is material suffering, or the greatest expression of suffering from a material point of view is attaining narak, or the abodes of hell.

It is important to note that this does not correspond to the Judeo-Christian concept of hell as a permanent dwelling place of unending suffering. Narak is a subtle region of several abodes predominated by the mayic guna of tamas. If a soul enters this region, the stay is temporary, but imbued with suffering. After some time he again receives a human form on this earth plane.

Which of the Two is Worse?

From the point of view of obvious unhappiness, naturally vikarma is considered a highly undesirable approach. But from a karmic point of view, both good actions (karma) and bad actions (vikarma) bind the soul in maya. Ultimately their consequence is the same in this regard: consequences that must be undergone.

From the performance of extremely good actions one could enter swarg. From the performance of extremely bad actions one must enter narak. From a mixed performance of both (which is closer to everyone's situation) one attains birth on this earth.

bonds of maya For example, a stay in the celestial abodes is like being bound by gold shackles - it is highly enjoyable, but still a part of Maya.

A birth on earth is like being bound by shackles of steel.

If a soul enters the abodes of hell, this is like being bound by shackles of iron.

A rebirth on this earth is considered best because at least we have the right to perform karmas here -- something not possible in either swarg or narak. Simply because of this, both swarg and narak and the actions that must be done to attain them are considered completely undesireable.

What is Karma Yoga or Akarma

Akarma or karma yoga is single-minded devotion to God while engaged in daily personal and family activities. This teaching was given to Arjuna in the Gita by Krishna as,

"Keeping your mind continuously attached to Me, do you your duty."
This means while physically performing the actions of life, remembering God every moment. As a consequence of this devotion (which is also par or higher dharma) you will attain God realization, freedom from maya and absolute supreme divine bliss. Plus, you won't be subject to the consequences of your actions - because consequences follow your mental attachment. If the mind is attached to God, even though engaged in the world, the result is not karmic, but divine.

The path of karma yoga has been highly praised for these reasons.

What is Karma Sanyas

Karma sanyas is also single-minded devotion to God, but the difference is the renunciation of religious, social, and family responsibilities.

Another way to think of this is that a fully renounced karma yogi (one who follows karma yoga) is a karma sanyasi (renunciate). According to the consequence of his devotion, he fulfills his aim of God realization, and because he doesn't perform any karmas, he is also freed of these consequences. The practice of karma sanyas has also been highly praised.

Karma Yoga vs. Karma Sanyas:
Which is Best?

When both a karma yogi and karma sanyasi receive God realization, why go through all the trouble of performing the 'karma' of karma yoga?

Krishna answered a similar question made by Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita,

"The path of a karma yogi is superior to that of a karma sanyasi."

He further elaborated,

"In the world, the actions of great people are imitated...Arjuna, even I still perform good actions although I am completely self-contented. If I were not to do this, those who imitate Me would stop performing good action, and as a result fall into great danger."

"Therefore for the welfare of the world, I perform good action so that those who imitate Me will be benefitted. This is why I consider the karma yogi to be best, and why I advise you to be a karma yogi and perform your duty."

But the question arises that if someone who merely imitates a karma yogi could attain God realization, they why couldn't an imitator of a karma sanyasi accomplish the same thing? What is the harm in doing this?

The danger is that we can only imitate external behavior, not a person's internal devotional feeling. A karma yogi imitator will at the very least become a karmi, a performer of good actions. An imitator of a karma sanyasi will only avoid his duties and become negligent. Combine this with no devotion to God and his imitation becomes a wrong action or vikarma.

At the very least, a karmi will develop some discipline. If by chance he receives the opportunity to associate with a true Saint, that Saint can then instruct him to offer those good actions to God and absorb his mind in devotion.

If a vikarmi meets a Saint, his undisciplined approach and resistence to scriptural teachings will make it very hard for him to do devotion.

Thus one's spiritual aim can be fufilled through what is karma yoga, plus a karma yogi sets a good example for other who imitate him.

What is Karma Cleansing?

karma cleansing Can you wash away the consequences of past actions? The karmic effects of your good and bad actions are stored in your own mind energy.

These are not kept in a general etheric library, open only to certain qualified individuals who may check out your record, and erase your karma for the right price back here on the earth plane.

If eradicating our record were this easy, then what is the point of the law of karma? How could the spiritual government be said to be truly impartial towards all living beings? How would there be perfect justice?

Bad karma from past lives is the root cause in this lifetime of sickness, hardship and lack of success in business, career, relationships, and so on. It is also the cause of diseases that defy all healing efforts without reason. These consequences are caused by our own wrong actions of the past.

No one, not even a divine Saint, can pay off the karmic debt, misdeeds or bad destiny of another human being.

Furthermore, even if this were possible, it's impossible to remain "karma-free". The human mind is active every single second - and every moment we are generating new karmas.

Besides this, even if you erase all your karmic effects, you haven't transformed your tendency to perform bad actions. Without changing this, you end up in the same rut over and over again.

There is one and only one solution to eliminating karma forever and there is no charge for that -- we have to perform devotion or spiritual action (karma yoga). This can't be done for us by others; we have to do this ourselves.

For example in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishn tells his disciple Arjun,

"I will erase all the consequences of any action ever performed by you in uncountable births, and liberate you from the cycle of birth and death."

What is required to receive that? Krishn said,

"Love me wholeheartedly."

In other words, be a karma yogi.

This means our karmic debt can definitely be eradicated, but only through divine grace, and that grace is received on the base of our love, dedication, faith and devotion to God.

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