What Is Karma?

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Karma definition

Karma is a concept in Indian religion and philosophies that describes how current and past actions determine the state of one’s future existence. It’s a view of causality, meaning good actions lead to good consequences and wrong or immoral actions lead to bad ones.

Karma Deep dive

Karma is the idea that every action has a consequence, probably bringing to mind the phrase ‘what goes around comes around‘.

Our individual karma is based on our thoughts, words, choices, and deeds. As you sow, so shall you reap. It is the sum of a person’s actions, in this existence and in previous ones.

As such, if you act in a true, moral way in accordance with your dharma, the outcome will be positive for you. However, if you act in unethical and dishonest ways, such as lying, being violent, stealing, or using your words to offend others, the results will be negative.

Although it can, the effect of karma may not impact you immediately or even catch up with you in this lifetime; you could end up reaping the consequences in another life, too. Therefore, karma goes alongside the twin belief of reincarnation.

a woman planting seeds in the soil

Karma in Hinduism

We consistently perform karmas, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally; therefore, there is a belief in Hinduism that everything happens as a secondary cause.

In other words, nothing is an accident. Everything happens because of the karma we are continuously both creating and acquiring. They are two ways to create it:

  • Nishkãm karma

A central tenet of Karma Yoga, this karma is related to selfless action – to do things out of a desire to fulfill one’s duties instead of hoping to receive something in return.

  • Sakãm karma

The opposite of nishkãm, sakãm is to act from a place of personal interest. This could be, for example, with the hope of receiving good karma, feeling good about yourself, or for financial gain.

Hindus believe in an infinite soul (Atman) that is reincarnated from birth to birth (samsara). Through spiritual practice, they seek liberation (moksha) so that the soul can join with God.

In short, samsara is the cycle of birth and rebirth, which is governed by karma, and moksha is the liberation from it.

a painting of a woman going through the cycle of rebirth and death

In the Vedas, there are three types of karma described:

1. Kriyamãn karma

Or kriyamana karma. This is the karma that we are continuously creating in the present moment, every moment, sometimes with instant results. It can affect our future life as well as other incarnations.

It can be altered with the correct attitude and actions.

2. Sanchit karma

Or sanchita karma. The pool of all karma or the accumulation of karma involving the total of a person’s karma from one or many past lives.

3. Prãrabdha karma

Part of the collection of past karmas (sanchita karma) that have an impact on this current lifetime. For example, it may affect our capabilities, interests, or health. It cannot be changed because it was created in an earlier life.

the cycle of karma and rebirth and death depicted in a colourful drawing

Karma in Buddhism

Though Buddhists also believe in the concept of karma, they do not believe in the everlasting soul (Atman). They believe that everything is impermanent and as such, nothing can be constant (different from what Hindus believe about the atman).

Instead, they believe in anatta, which is the idea that humans have no soul or self. The doctrine of the ‘non-self’.

The Buddha’s concept of karma is fluid and dynamic, and there is not so much of a linear, cause-and-effect relationship between actions and one’s karma.

Immoral behavior could lead to unfavorable consequences, but they also consider the nature of the person that commits the act as well as the circumstances in which the deed is done. Though, the inevitability of karmic consequences plays a big role in Buddh|”\;’; ist teachings.

All beings have kamma [karma] as their own, their inheritance, their congenital cause, their kinsman, their refuge. It is kamma that differentiates beings into low and high states.

The Buddha (Majjhima Nikāya 135)
a statue of the buddha being enveloped by tree roots

There are two stages of karma according to Buddhist thought:

  • Cetana kamma

The first stage is volition. This stage is thought alone but karma is incomplete as the act has not been carried out yet.

  • Cetayitra kamma

The second stage. Having willed the act, the act is carried out. The karma is complete.

Further to this, according to Majjhima commentary, there are four types of karma:

1. Upapilaka-kamma

Oppressive karma. This brings misfortune and causes ailments and problems in one’s life.

2. Upacchedaka-kamma

Destructive karma. Prematurely ends one’s life or leads to complete change (which could be good or bad depending on the karma).

3. Janaka-kamma

Generative karma. The karma that creates the mode of rebirth. This is most prevalent at the moment of death and conditions our next existence.

4. Upatthambhaka-kamma

Supportive karma. Brings success and good fortune, health, wealth, and happiness.

the Buddhist wheel of life
The Buddhist Wheel Of Life

12 laws of karma

Many believe that there are 12 laws of karma that are constantly at play and, if the energy we put out into the world will eventually find its way back to us, it’s probably helpful to know what the stakes are!

1. The Law of Cause and Effect

Also known as The Great Law – whatever we put out into the universe will surely find its way back to us.

You might want to think of it like Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion: every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

2. The Law of Creation

Life does not just happen by itself, it requires us to be active participants!

3. The Law of Humility

That which you refuse to accept will continue. If you want to change something, you must first accept it. Similarly, if you receive bad karma, you must first accept that you were the cause of it.

a woman wearing white with her hands on her chest

4. The Law of Growth

Real change starts from within. When we commit to changing ourselves, our lives will start to reflect this.

If you want to make the world a more loving place, start with loving yourself first.

5. The Law of Responsibility

You are responsible for your own experiences as they are an accumulation of your karma.

We must start by accepting this responsibility and having an awareness that no one else can be held accountable for our problems.

6. The Law of Connection

All stages of our lives, the past, present, and future, weave together to create an interconnected tapestry of our existence.

As well as this, the law of connection creates a golden thread between both ourselves and the collective, creating a network of interdependent souls. Therefore, our individual karma also affects the collective.

a interconnected graphic of light

7. The Law of Focus

Do not try to split the mind by focusing on two things at once. The best ideas and experiences come from a focused mind and spirit, not a cluttered one!

8. The Law of Giving & Hospitality

Like Karma Yoga, this law is about selfless action to honor, appreciate, and help others, a guru, a community, or the world around you.

9. The Law of Here & Now

Embrace the present – it’s all we have! Release the past with love, and allow the future to unfold in front of you step-by-step.

10. The Law of Change

Ever found yourself in a Groundhog day situation, stuck in a cycle of unfortunate events because you repeat the same actions and expect different results? This is the law of change in action!

Our past will continue to repeat itself unless we make appropriate changes. Don’t let your conditioned behavior fool you, change is always readily available.

a row of leaves of different ages

11. The Law of Patience & Reward

You can’t Amazon Prime your spiritual evolution!

Valuable change requires persistent and committed action – this is the best recipe for reward, along with a handful (or bucketful) of patience.

12. The Law of Inspiration and Importance

Everyone has their own purpose, or dharma, in this life and thus we all have a valuable part to play in the divine play of consciousness. Even though sometimes it might not feel like it, your gifts and contribution to the world matter and will have an impact in some way.

Don’t underestimate your role!  

a droplet of water falling in water

Karma in your life

Trying to avoid bad karma might feel a bit like walking through a laser maze with a blindfold on – pretty much impossible. It cannot be avoided, but don’t panic.

The real skill is in being totally present with everything and everyone around you, even whilst living amidst all of your karma. All we can do is try to maintain presence, or to quote Ram Dass, cultivate a ‘loving awareness’. Meditation can help with this skill too.

I think another teaching of Ram Dass is particularly pertinent here too; everything is perfect.

To elaborate, though we cannot avoid our bad karma, we can simply accept it as perfect. Life does not happen to you, it happens for you. 

Make the conscious decision to consider every experience and situation, good or bad, as having been sent here to show you something. All karma is simply an opportunity for growth, a lesson to be learned.

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To go deep and expand your yogic knowledge, access our free Yoga Terms Encyclopedia, where we host a profound wealth of ancient and timeless yogic wisdom in an accessible modern format.

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Liz is a Qigong and Yoga teacher based in Gloucestershire with a love for all things movement, nature & community. She strives to create a trauma-informed space in which everyone is empowered to be their authentic selves. www.elizabethburns.co.uk

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