The simplicity and complexity of Karma
As the young calf is able to recognise its mother from among a thousand cows, so does karma find the person destined to experience it. As the flowers and fruits of a tree, unurged by visible influences, never miss their proper season, so does karma done previously bring about its fruits in proper time.- Mahabharath
Acts of kindness offered to others tend to attract acts of kindness to ourselves; malicious acts tend to do the opposite, and we feel pain. Of course,our experience in this world often shows us the opposite: good people suffer and bad people go unpunished. But all actions have corresponding reactions, and all reactions are fulfilled in time. The principle of karma is simple, but the details of how it operates are complex.
The intricacies of karma are very hard to understand. Therefore one should know properly what is karma(action), what is vikarma(forbidden action) and what is akarma(inaction). – Bhagavad Gita 4.17
Once we act, we’re bound to the karmic reactions of our choices, just as once we board a plane to Chicago, we can’t change our destination midway. But once we’re on board, as well as when we reach our destination, we can make new choices that will allow us to sow the seeds of a more beneficial future. To a significant extent, we are the makers of our own destinies.
We may not be able to trace the specific reason for our suffering, but we can ascertain that at some time we have acted in a way that sowed the seed that grew into our present condition. We might have committed that action in this life or another; it doesn’t really matter. What matters is recognising our symptoms, taking the proper treatment now, and being careful to avoid reinfection in the future.
Some years ago, I contracted malaria. I couldn’t trace when the infected mosquito had bitten me, and I therefore had no way to know where I was at the time or even where I was bitten. Neither could I discern which mosquito bit me. But my symptoms were clear; I had been bitten by a malaria carrying mosquito and now had to take the proper treatment. I also realised I should be more careful in the future; for instance, when I am now in infested areas, I try to sleep under a mosquito net.
The irreversibility and reversibility of Karma
Under the supervision of the Supreme Lord and according to the result of one’s karma, one’s soul is made to enter into the womb of a mother through the particle of semen to assume a particular type of body. – Srimad Bhagavatam 3.31.1
Just as a tailor fashions a glove to fit the shape of a hand, nature,in conformity with the law of karma, provides the soul with a body that perfectly fits the desires stored in mind and the non-manifest karma from previous lives.
Still, in our exploration of the self, the crucial point to realise is that karma never touches the atma, or soul. It is the body and mind that experience good and bad karmic reactions. Karma is a material law that functions in the material sphere. It does not affect the eternal self.
If before one’s next death whatever bad karma one has performed in this life with mind, words and body are not counteracted through proper praayaschitta, or atonement, according to the description of the dharma-shaastras, one will certainly enter hellish planets after death. As an expert physician diagnoses and treats a disease according to its gravity, it’s recommended that one should undergo praayaschitta according to the severity of one’s karma. – Srimad Bhagavatam 6.1.7-8
If the diseased person eats the pure, uncontaminated food prescribed by a physician, that person cannot be re-infected. Similarly, if one follows the regulative principles of knowledge(jnana marga), one can avoid karmic bondage – Srimad Bhagavatam 6.1.11-12
As a blazing ﬁre turns ﬁrewood to ashes, O Arjuna, so does the ﬁre of knowledge burn to ashes all karmic reactions. – Bhagavad Gita 4.37
The Karma cycle, and how to get out of it
According to the law of karma, there is a progression that leads to and perpetuates suffering:
1. The root cause of suffering is ignorance of our true nature as a loving servant of the Supreme Being
2. From ignorance of the self , we seek pleasure outside our true nature and develop the seed of selfish desires (bijam)
3. Selfish desires impel one to engage in immoral activity
4. Immoral activity produces two types of reactions: manifest(prarabdha karma) and unmanifest(apraradha karma). Manifest reactions are those we are suffering now, and unmanifest reactions are those that lie in wait.These will eventually result in physical or emotional suffering.
It’s crucial to understand that by engaging in immoral activities, we strengthen the inner selfish desire and exacerbate the inclination(kutam) to engage in those same suffering-producing activities again and again.
Our thinking shapes our behavior, and our behavior in turn shapes our thinking, so the more we think we are getting away with selfish behavior, the more we will repeat it . Selfish thoughts beget selfish actions, which beget more selfish thoughts. It’s not hard for this cycle to turn into addiction. Every cigarette I smoke will increase my smoking habit, and the more my body craves nicotine, the more I’ll obsess about smoking. If you look at it, you’ll see that many actions you perform follow this thinking-acting-thinking cycle, or the cycle of habituation.
On the positive side, this means that we can focus on the types of thoughts and acts that bring us ‘good’ karma and avoid the thoughts and acts that bring us ‘bad’ karma. If I make a habit of being kind, compassionate, and loving toward others,I’ll reinforce those thoughts and behaviors until they become second nature. Similarly if I cut down on my smoking, eventually the storm of withdrawal will pass and my smoking habit will gradually disappear. Of course, some habits are harder to establish or break than others, but it’s universally true that we are creatures of habit and habit can be changed. This means that unmanifest negative karmic consequences can be mitigated or reversed through sincere reformative effort and positive experiences enhanced by good thoughts and actions.
The apraarabdha karma, kuta, bija and praarabdha karma can be destroyed through Bhakti to Vishnu. – Padma Purana
Only a rare person who has adopted complete, unalloyed Bhakti Yoga to Sri Krishna can uproot the weeds of karma with no possibility that they will revive. Such a person can do this simply by discharging bhakti, just as the sun can immediately dissipate fog by its rays. – Srimad Bhagavatam 6.1.15
Everybody – from the heavenly king Indra down to the insect Indragopa – is bound by the laws of karma. But one who is wholeheartedly engaged in Bhakti Yoga to Govinda is an exception. – Brahma Samhita 5.54
Bhakti yoga is a practice that takes us beyond karma and frees us from both manifest reactions and those lying in seed. Bhakti is based on living true to oneself, in harmony with nature and her source, and reconnects us to the current of grace, allowing the endless cycle of karmic action and reaction to, in time, finally come to an end. Words and deeds offered in devotional service produce no karma at all, but nourish the seed of pure love.
Through Bhakti, we gradually perceive God’s love all around us and we embrace our life’s circumstances as opportunities for progress on the journey within. With this vision apparent curses change in to living blessings. Coming to these realisations is a gradual process. In the beginning stages, we receive a dose of grace- enough to open the heart and awaken us to loving devotion. As we begin to practice in earnest, the soul’s inner nature will burn through all our misidentifications and , like fire, burn off all the habits and mentalities that hinder our progress. To the degree that we are attached to these things, we may feel some pain. But as our devotion burns brighter, the complicated, intricate conditionings, the karmic shells we’ve spent lifetimes developing, are eventually burned away completely and the soul shines forth.
The more the soul shines through, the more we will see through the eyes of grace. With a grateful heart, we will take whatever life gives us and use it to serve our Beloved. If life takes something away, we will see the hand of our Beloved. As the bhakti saint Bhakthivinode wrote, “All the troubles encountered in my Beloved’s service shall be the cause of great happiness, for in his devotional service joy and sorrow are equally great riches, for both destroy the misery of ignorance.” The idea that bad things happen to good people is true only on the surface. Underneath we will find the benevolent arms of grace waiting to embrace us and welcome us home.
How to view Karma in a positive light
The law of karma acts like a fever. Karmic reactions purge what is unhealthy in the world, just as a fever in the body burns up harmful bacteria.If you want to understand the law of karma, you have to look beneath the surface of how the world operates.
Karma is not just a mechanical law; it’s responsive and dynamic- nature’s way of restoring health. What feels like punishment is actually for our ultimate benefit. This natural law is essentially an expression of Mother Nature’s love and will ultimately heal us if we respond well to it.
Don’t measure the law of karma with eyes that see only the immediate, viewing only what affects the body and mind, no matter how ruthless or unjust things may appear on the surface. We have to take broader view, we are eternal souls in need of healing in order to regain our spiritual health.
The philosophy of karma is not meant to induce depression or an unhealthy guilt;it is provided to help us grow emotionally and spiritually in whatever our situation is by taking responsibility for our choices and then gaining wisdom from whatever ensues
Think of karma as an aspect of the universe that realigns itself in response to how we live in the universe. That is, for every action, there will be corresponding reaction. Because life is a long continuum of action and reactions, our results include both joy and suffering. Both can bring wisdom if we open ourselves up to our responsibility for our actions and we desire that wisdom. Making wise choices in our personal behavior, especially in how we treat others, is often a good place to start when thinking of how to apply this concept of karma to better ourselves.
(Parts of the article are extracts from Radhanath Swami’s The Journey Within)