The law of Karma is a fundamental spiritual law in eastern spiritual teachings. Most people would have heard of the term Karma. Karma basically stands for action, and also the fruits of action. In other words, it stands for both cause and effect. The basic idea of karma is that of personal responsibility for one’s actions – that we are creators of our life. Whatever is currently manifesting in our life has been created by us, with or without awareness, by our past actions. Thus the law of karma basically says that man is the product of his past. Righteous actions bring favorable results, and unrighteous actions bring unfavorable results. Karma can be done with our mind – manifesting as emotions, with our intellect manifesting as thoughts and through our body manifesting as actions/words.
Karma is often misunderstood to only mean the law of destiny. When something unfavorable happens, people say with “It’s only karma”, meaning we are powerless to do anything about it. Some others condemn the law as being overly pessimistic, as it seems to say that many things are predestined thanks to our past, of which we have no control over. It is true that man’s present is the consequence of the past, and in this sense, the present has been destined by past actions. However karma goes beyond destiny. Although there is a price to pay for past actions, man also has been blessed with the capacity to choose his actions. The past actions creates in him a tendency by which he will act. However by being aware of those tendencies, he can consciously choose how to act in the present, and thereby begin to change his karma. Thus the future is a continuation of the past, unless modified by the present, with self-effort.
Although we enjoy freedom to choose our actions, our present actions are mixed with the tendencies that are created by our past. Greater the tendencies, harder it is to change our actions. This is why people find self-improvement difficult. Knowing what to do and being able to do it are two different things, as change involves fighting our tendencies that we ourselves created by our past actions. Thus looking back at the past, man is the product of it. Looking into the future, man is the creator of it. Looking into the present moment, he is both a product as well as a creator. In unawareness, he becomes more of a victim, and in awareness, he becomes more of a creator.
One may wonder how all our actions are kept track of and bear the fruits of pleasure and pain. Is there some God that keeps track of all this? It can seem very mystical at first. In reality, it is very much scientifically explained. Each time a person does an action with a sense of doer-ship (ego), impressions are created in his mind. Every impression is a karma. Stronger the impression, more likely it is to manifest. All habits are nothing but karmas. Whether it is a good or habit, the person keeps doing it without having to put too much effort. All addictions are nothing but very strong mental impressions, and thus part of the person’s karma. A person who has an addiction has a pattern of behavior that he is very likely to repeat, that is not easy to change.
Karma is classified into the following three types:
1) Sanchita karma:
This is the total of our karmas. The set of arrows that an archer carries on his quiver is an example of sanchita karma. This is the sum total of karmic possibilities that are currently unmanifest. Since this is unmanifest, we have the option to burn these karmas by right action. All spiritual practices such as meditation, being in devotion/prayer, doing self-less service burns sanchita karma. In the above example of the archer, it is making sure the archer drops the arrows on the ground so he no longer has the possibility of firing them.
2) Prarabdha Karma:
Karma that is currently bearing fruit is called prarabdha karma. In the example of the archer, the arrow that the archer has already shot is his prarabdha karma. The archer has already done the action, and he has to face the consequences of them, good or bad. Practically speaking, the life that we are experiencing in the present moment is our prarabdha. This includes the type of body we have, the environment around us, the type of people we are with etc. Prarabdha karma is thus that portion of our karma that may be called destiny.
A common question people ask is “Why do bad things happen to good people”? Prarabdha karma is the answer. A person may be good today, but he is paying a karmic debt for his past actions. Another question that lead to doubt/reject the law is “How come some people who perform bad deeds seem to have a good time:?” Again the answer is prarabdha karma. The person who is doing the bad deeds is currently experiencing the fruits of past deeds, which was good. Eventually he will have to pay the price for the actions done today as well. The effect of karma spans multiple life-times, and thus the law seems to be not working only because we are limiting our observation to a very short time period.
3) Agami Karma:
This is future karma – actions that we are likely to do in future. In the example of the archer, this is the arrow which the archer is about to shoot. Mental impressions that are very strong form agami karma. If a person drinks alcohol regularly, this is his agami karma. It is very likely that he would drink today, given that he has acquired that strong tendency by regularly drinking.
The three practical takeaways are:
- Prarabdha karma, in other words destiny, makes man a victim of his past. There is nothing a person can do about consequences from his past – he has to endure them. If he endures them without reacting to them, then he does not accumuate further karma.
- At the same time, the law of karma encourages that man can change his future by present actions. With self-effort, man can burn off his sanchita and agami karma, while still enduring his pradabdha karma. With consistent effort, man become more of a master of his own destiny, and less a victim of the past.
- Finally, lest man not be discouraged by the lack of results from his effort in the short term, the law of karma explains that the lack of results could be due to an opposing force – his own prarabdha karma, which determines the level of effort required to bring about positive change in his life.