What is Karma?

Karma — it is a greatly misunderstood concept in the West. The basic principle is easy enough to grasp — every action, thought, word and deed, has a consequence, which we must deal with and are unable to avoid. If we don’t work it out in this life, we will, unavoidably, work it out in another. And thus we have saṃsāra, the endless cycle of death and rebirth.

The idea of karma itself, however, is often misused and misquoted in Western society. How many times have you heard someone say “I have really good parking karma,” or “My karma is out of whack today.” Karma really shouldn’t be taken so lightly as that. My guru, Paramahaṃsa Yogānanda, said “Karma, Karma, I’m so tired of hearing people talk of Karma.” He meant that he was tired of hearing people in the West talk about karma without any real understanding of what it was or what role it played in their lives.

Karma is a mystery and not easy to understand… Children, our actions will return to each one of us, whether one is a non-believer or a believer.

Karma is the collective sum of everything that has ever happened to us, everything that is currently happening to us, and everything that will happen to us in the future. All of our past actions, in this life and in previous lives, directly shape our current situation in this life. Every thought we think, every word we say, every ant we step on, weaves another thread into the impossibly complex fabric of karma that makes up the universe we live in. Karma determines what sort of people we are drawn to, whether we are very outgoing or introverted, whether we enjoy Chinese food or prefer Mexican. It even determines what parents we’re born to. When a child is conceived, the karmic pattern of the two parents attracts a compatible atman, based on the individual karma of the soul that is reincarnating. Karma makes us all directly responsible for everything we do, good or bad, helpful or hurtful.

There are three main types of karma that we are all subject to:

  1. saṃcita — literally “piled together” or “heaped up”. This is the sum of our accumulated past karmas that are waiting to be resolved. These are reflected in a person’s character tendencies.
  2. prārabdha — “begun” or “undertaken”. This is the karma that is responsible for our current incarnation. It is the fruit of past actions that we are currently experiencing.
  3. vartamāna — “the present”. Also called kriyamāṇa (“being done”), this is the karma that we are creating now, which will have to be resolved in the future.

Ādi Śaṃkarācārya, in his Vivekacūḍāmaṇi, explained karma with the analogy of the archer. The arrow in flight is prārabdha karma. The nocked arrow ready to be fired is vartamāna karma. Once the archer releases an arrow, there is nothing he can do to alter its course. He can only wait and see where it lands. This is our prārabdha karma. It is all our arrows that are still in flight. And whenever an arrow lands, if we react to it, we fire another arrow. And so on, and so forth. Countless arrows in flight, and constantly landing, and with each landing more arrows are fired. And this is our life (or lives, as it turns out), endlessly acting and reacting and reacting and reacting, ad infinitum. So how do we escape?

Yoga Sādhanā

Only by diligent practice of yoga sādhanā as prescribed by our sadguru can free us from the endless circle of saṃsāra. By faithful yoga practice (and this means a true and complete yoga, not just the physical postures taught so prevelantly in the West) under the guidance of a realized master, we can develop vairāgya (distaste for the things of this material world), and eventually cultivate the detached state of udāsa. Udāsa is complete detachment, freedom from both attraction and repulsion. An udāsin surrenders completely to whatever happens without reacting, neither out of desire nor out of revulsion. Udāsa means you watch all the arrows land without firing any new ones. You watch your prārabdha karma dispassionately, with detachment. When we can do this perfectly, we attain the state of cittavṛttinirodha, which is called Yoga.

Citta is the sum of all our awareness of this creation, our consciousness, and is comprised of buddhi (objective knowledge) and manas (subjective knowledge). Buddhi is everything as it actually is. Manas is everything as we think it is, our opinions of objects and events. These together are citta. Vṛtti means activities or changes. Nirodha means cessation or obstruction. Cittavṛttinirodha is the cessation of activities of consciousness. This is Yoga, union. Union of the mind with the higher ego (ahaṃkāra), union of the higher ego with ātman (the higher Self, the soul), and union of ātman with parabrahman, the Supreme Spirit. Strive for it unceasingly, and you cannot fail in attaining it. After all, that is why we are all here, right?