The Truth About Karma

Hinduism Essay Subject Image

by Jayaram V

What karma means

Karma literally means what you do with your organs of actions (karmendriyas) such as your hands, feet, etc. However, actions are performed not only by your organs of action but also by your organs of perception (jnanendriyas), your mind, ego and intellect. In other words, your thoughts, intentions, emotions, attitudes, desires and attachments are also considered part of your karma. What this means is that whether you are asleep or awake, whether you are active or inactive, you accumulate karma and bind yourself to the cycle of births and deaths.

Types of karma

Your karma is also of different types, which are listed below. They make the resolution of your karma even more difficult. Primarily there are two types of karma.

1. Karma accumulated in the past

2. Karma accumulating now

Then, depending upon how it is spent or resolved, you can recognize some more

1. Your past karma which is completely resolved and accounted for

2. Your past karma which is bearing fruit now

3. Your past karma which will bear fruit in future in the current life

4. Your past karma which will bear fruit in the future lives

5. Your present karma which will bear fruit in future in the current life

6. Your present karma which will bear fruit in the future lives

7. Your present karma which is bearing fruit immediately right now

Depending upon the source, you can identify a few more

1. Karma arising from your actions

2. Karma arising from your inaction

3. Karma arising from the actions of others for which you are the cause

4. Karma arising from the random events or acts of God

5. Karma arising from the collective actions of groups, communities and nations of which you are a part.

Finally, depending upon the fruit it bears you can identify primarily four types of karma.

1. Good karma arising from virtuous actions

2. Bad karma arising from sinful actions

3. Mixed karma arising from both good and bad inherent in your actions

4. Neutral karma arising from selfless actions when you offer them to God

Karma in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism

Karma is central to these three traditions. The idea of karma is rooted in the Vedas. The early Upanishads such as the Brihadaranyaka and Chandogya Upanishads refer to the concept of karma and suggest that those who perform sacrifices and live virtuously go to ancestral heaven or achieve liberation in contrast to those who indulge in sinful actions, and neglect their duties. They go to the subterranean worlds from where they return and take birth as insects. In the Vedic tradition, karma originally meant all sacrificial actions. Later the scope of the meaning was extended to include all types of human actions that produced fruit. The Bhagavad-Gita identifies desire as the root cause of karma. In the true tradition of the Upanishads, it superimposes the concept of sacrifice upon the concept of karma and provides a practical solution to resolve the problem of karma. Desire ridden actions, both good and bad, bear karmic fruit. If actions are performed without desires and selfishness, they do not cause karma. If they are performed as an offering to God (as a sacrifice) it is even better. Hinduism also believes that you can neutralize karma with the grace of God, or your guru.

Buddhism does not believe in soul or God in the traditional sense. It believes in the transience of all forms of life. Even gods are mortals, although their life span may extend to thousands of years or eons. In the end everyone has to decay and disintegrate, and everyone without any exception is subject to karma. Thus, unlike in Hinduism, Buddhism believes that the problem of karma cannot be resolved fully unless one attains liberation. Thus, whether you perform actions with desires or without desires, you cannot reverse the inexorable wheel of existence which moves forward relentlessly. You will escape from it only when you cease to exist as an individual and enter a state of emptiness or nothingness. Hinduism, Buddhism do not believe in grace alike. You may accumulate good karma by worshipping the Buddhas, the gods or the Boddhisattvas. Because of that merit you may attain higher states of consciousness (jhanas) in your meditation and succeed in neutralizing your past karmas. Whatever you may do, on their own, the gods will not neutralize them. However, like Hinduism, Buddhism recognizes desires as the root cause of karma and suggests right living on the Eightfold Path to resolve it. In both traditions, self-purification, practices such as virtuous conduct, self-control, concentration, meditation and self-absorption play a key role. Both traditions also hold that your karma is stored in your own consciousness as latent impressions and dominant desires and attitudes, which are carried forward to your next life.

Fundamentally, Jainism holds similar views about karma as Hinduism and Buddhism. However in Jainism karma is not a mere record of your actions. It is rather an ethereal substance, which accumulates around your soul or Self as you engage in desire-ridden actions. It is something like dirt, or a troublesome impurity that clogs your system and prevents you from being free. You can get rid of this impurity only through intense self-purification by performing severe austerities without any compromise.

Thus, these three traditions hold you accountable for your actions and make you the central cause of your life and destiny. Where gods, God or jinas play a role in neutralizing your past karma, again it is your actions and your initiative which prompts them to come to your help.

Truths and misconceptions about karma

The following are a few misconceptions about karma

Karma is not fate. Fate means what has been predetermined for you by forces other than yourself. Karma means what you have done intentionally and what consequences such actions produced. According to karma theory, you create your own fate. Gods or God would not create it. They merely decide your fate based upon your past actions. Whatever Acts of God or chance events that are part of your destiny are also produced by the collective karma you accumulate along with others.

Gods and karma: In Hinduism gods are not subject to karma because they are selfless beings who live and do their duties for the sake of upholding the creation. They participate in God's eternal duties (sanatana dharma) selflessly. Therefore, even if they indulge in emotional actions, they do not incur sin. So is the case with human beings who act like gods and live selflessly. In Buddhism, gods are subject to karma. Hence, the Buddha suggested that one should not strive to take birth in heavens but try to achieve liberation.

Karma is not mere actions. Karma means actions having consequences performed out of desires or intentions. Such desires and intentions may be good or bad, and both will lead to karma. Since it is virtually impossible to avoid negative karma by performing only good actions or by avoiding actions themselves, you must resolve it only by overcoming desires.

Karma is not about to do good or bad. Both types of actions lead to bondage. That is the theme. Good actions ensure you a place in heaven. Bad actions lead to one's spiritual downfall into lowest hells. What is important is you have to transcend both good and bad actions by transcending desires themselves. For that you have to control your desires and passions and practice detachment, dispassion, detachment and sameness.

Your karma is not recorded in heaven or hell. A memory print of your past is hidden deep within your own consciousness. It contains memories of all your past lives. You cannot access it normally, but you may at times tap into it in deep meditative states. This memory print, often described as latent impressions (samskaras) remains in your consciousness, until you burn them all through intense self-purification. This memory print is your password or your ID-card for entry into higher or lower worlds.

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