The concept of karma was adopted from the Indian tradition to western society a few decades ago. We started our cultural relationship with this idea, when the eastern spiritual traditions began to take root in the west. Since then, this term has entered our language influencing our view of life. As it often happens, when ideas from another culture get established in common use, their meaning gets somewhat modified to reflect the new culture’s way of thinking. This human tendency did not skip the concept of karma.
The way we use the word karma may have a few meanings. When one says, “having to endure his lengthy and boring lectures must be my bad karma”, the term here indicates some punitive quality. When one hears, “it is karma that has brought us together”, the idea of karma as destiny is conveyed. The term karma is also used to imply luck or a notion of fatalism. These ideas though, do not express the essential meaning of this important concept.
Karma means ‘action’ in Sanskrit, and the yogis consider all the movements of both the physical and the mental realm as actions. So, karma is the action of thought, speech and deed. Before a house is built it exists as a desire in the mind of the perspective homeowner and later as a creative idea in the mind of the architect. Then the contractor expresses the plan (speech) to the builders who perform the action of building. Finally, thoughts of satisfaction arise in the minds of all upon seeing the finished product. Thoughts initiate physical actions, in the form of speech and deeds, which in turn create further thoughts.
The law of karma is one of the essential natural laws operating in the universe. It may be better understood as the combination of three natural laws that we are familiar with: the law of cause and effect, the law of action and reaction and the cyclical nature of phenomena.
It is common sense that prompts us to think in terms of cause and effect, and indeed this is the way we perceive the world around us. We know from first-hand experience that if we avoid brushing our teeth, we would get cavities. The painful result stems directly from our pervious action (or in this case, lack of it). It is not some external or supernatural force that punishes us for our actions; rather, our choices are the ones responsible for shaping our future. All actions produce effects, which turn into causes for other actions, and so on.
We know from the realm of physics that when we stand on the floor we apply pressure on it. As a result, the floor applies pressure on our feet that is equal to the force exerted on it and in the opposite direction. This is exactly how the law of action and reaction operates. Our thoughts and actions will be met with a reaction similar in nature, and opposite in direction i.e. directed towards us. So a kind action on our part will be reciprocated with kindness either in the near or in the distant future and vice versa. Because of this fact, the yogic teachings inform us that we are the masters of our destiny. To reap a good wholesome crop we need to plant selectively and tend to our fields. Neglect would yield a crop of weeds and the planting of poisonous plants would be counterproductive, to say the least.
As we observe nature we see that all its myriad events are cyclical. Day turns into night; night turns into day; weeks are cycles of days; months are cycles of weeks. The seasons flow into each other endlessly repeating the yearly cycles. The earth rotates around its own axis and around the sun. Nature is not linear; all is continuously changing as cycles within cycles. It would make perfect sense, not to exclude the process of living from this universal law. Life takes form in a body; it matures, decays and eventually the body dies, then it is followed by a birth of another body serving the karmic evolution of the individual. And so the cycle continues.
One of the oldest moral issues troubling the human mind for millennia is the seeming unfairness of the human condition. Often, the innocent seem to suffer, plagued by social inequality, wars and personal misfortune, while unkind negative persons seem to thrive, achieving wealth and power. If we take into consideration that karmic reactions are not restricted to one lifetime, we may understand this issue better.
The yogis inform us that we have all incarnated in different bodies through many successive lifetimes. All the mental impressions created by our previous thoughts and actions are stored in the individual subconscious mind and in its universal equivalent. Therefore, our current circumstances are but reactions to the web of previous actions and interactions. Due to our ignorance of our True Nature, we have all performed in the past actions motivated by selfishness and inconsideration. As we gain more experience, compassion and wisdom in subsequent rebirths, we gradually evolve beyond the limitations of self-centered thinking and behavior. Once we are ready to learn from the events of our lives and willingly evolve and mature, we make better choices, which will shape a better future.
The implications of the law of karma contain the greatest hope for our evolution. There is no such thing as luck; we are in charge of our responses, character and destiny. The way we encounter our current karmic predicament will shape our future. If we embrace the experiences that current karma provides, whether pleasant or unpleasant, remembering that they are not a punishment but an evolutionary opportunity, we will mature. If we utilize our ‘good fortune’ to help others and welcome our experiences as teachers, we will reap a grand view of life and eventually the profound realization of our True Self. Nature provides us with a karmic school, which is managed with great compassion; we cannot fail its tests. It will always provide us with another chance to learn, grow and succeed in our spiritual journey.
By Ziv Porat