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What is Karma?
June 30, 2009
New Visitors: It is recommended you read from the beginning of the archive, as previous
lessons are prerequisite to this one. The first lesson is, "Why
The word Karma has
become a cliché in our society, sometimes put in humorous terms relating to
the foibles and mishaps that occur in everyday life:
"I tripped and fell down. It must be my karma."
"I did that foolish thing, and I'll do it again. It's not my fault. It's my
On the serious side, the concept of karma may be affixed to tragedies as
heart-rending as the loss of a loved one, or a natural disaster that takes
hundreds or thousands of lives. How can one word explain such inexplicable
events? It can't really. Yet, there is something in the word karma that
rings deep in the psyche of all of us. It has to do with our sense of
destiny, fate, or what seems beyond our knowing. When we can find no other
reason, we may seek a hidden logic.
But, while karma may have something to do with destiny and fate, it is also
beyond beliefs we may harbor that cross over into the realm of superstition.
If karma is superstition, it is only because people have needed to see it in
that light in attempts to explain the unexplainable.
On the other hand, karma is the working principle of cause and effect
operating in life that can be of great practical utility on our spiritual
path, if we view it in that context. When we do, karma can be elevated to
the level of practice. When that occurs, we call it Karma Yoga, which means divine
union through action.
Karma means action
and its consequences.
"As you sow, so shall you reap."
Yet, so often, we use the term with resignation, only in relation to the
consequences: "This thing that is happening is our karma," etc.
is both cause and effect,
so it stands to reason that the effects can be altered in some way by
influencing underlying causes. There is something we can do about the
consequences aspect of our karma, and, for that matter, about the karma of
the world. Therefore, nothing is necessarily predestined or a product of
fate. We can act to bring about more positive consequences for ourselves,
and for everyone. This is the promise of karma yoga.
How can we do that? The power lies in each of us, and in the choices we
We are all familiar with the basic mechanics of desire, action and the
If we want to become a doctor, we go to school for a long time, and, in the
end, we become a doctor. Desire, action, consequences.
What we may not have considered in the beginning is the multitude of
ramifications associated with the path we have chosen. It is not possible to
know everything beforehand. But we do the best we can in following a course
that we feel is in line with our desire. If it is our unwavering passion to
become a doctor, then, whatever obstacles we may encounter on our journey,
we will find ways to overcome them. Such is the power of having a clear
vision, a chosen ideal. If there is such a thing as destiny, our vision and
persistence will define it. Destiny is in our deepest longing.
In this kind of scenario, the workings of karma seem pretty clear. We choose
a course and work steadily toward our goal. But are the workings of karma
really so clear?
It has been said that the consequences of karma are unfathomable. If we
throw a stone in a pond, can we know the full effects it will have? Can we
trace the effect of every ripple going out, and the effect of every ripple
coming back from the opposite bank? Perhaps we can if we develop a
mathematical model that is sufficiently sophisticated.
It has been said that the flapping of a butterfly's wings will influence the
most distant star. Can we predict the results of that?
Astrologers spend their careers doing something like that, attempting to
determine the influence of the gravitational forces of the planets and stars
in our lives. Is it possible? The best astrologers might be right a little
more than half the time, so there is something to it. But is this enough to
say that we can know the consequences of karma in the cosmic sense?
Likewise, it is said that the influences in our lives that may defy logical
explanation are the result of actions we have undertaken in past lives, the
result of our numerous incarnations in bodily form - our karmic tendencies
sown in a distant past we no longer remember. Is this a good argument for
reincarnation? It does offer a rationale for the inexplicable events we may
experience in life, and the apparent gifts and handicaps that innocent
children may arrive with at birth. But can we really know for sure? Should
we be spending our precious time looking back into the murky realms of past
lives to understand reasons for what is happening in our lives today? If we
work at it long enough, we may find some clarity. But, for the most part, it
will be unfathomable, like gazing at star charts, or pondering the effects
of stones thrown in ponds, or the whisperings of butterfly wings traveling
across the universe.
Our destiny may be hidden in the stars, but the rest will be up to us
through the choices we make each day to forward our spiritual progress
through practices. We can watch for the lingering effects of ancient events,
taking the role of spectator, or we can act in ways that directly influence
all outcomes in the here and now, taking the role of participant. In these
lessons, we take an active role in moving through the karmic maze,
transcending and transforming its manifestations to serve our chosen ideal
through bhakti and our daily yoga practices.
In doing so, we will be cultivating abiding inner silence, ecstatic
conductivity and stillness in action, leading to the natural ability to
transform karmic consequences at their source.
The guru is in you.
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Note: For detailed
discussion on the role of karma on our spiritual path, see the
Bhakti and Karma Yoga book,
and AYP Plus.