What is Karma?

Karma is a commonly used word, yet it is misunderstood most of the time. Many look at Karma as bondage and fate. But the word Karma in Sanskrit indicates just action.

An action could be latent, as a feeling within. The action could be happening now. And there are possibilities of an action happening in the future as a consequence of what is happening now. These are the three forms of Karma.

When a desire to create arises from within you, then that desire or feeling is Karma. It is Sukshma Karma (action at the subtle level). The moment a desire arises in your mind, let us say to build a new building, then the work or the action has already happened. For example, when the architect has made the blueprint of the house, then the construction of the house has already happened in one sense.

Then there is Sthula Karma (action at the material level), such as bringing the bricks, stones and mortar, and constructing the house with them. So, the subtle desires or feelings that arise beyond the realm of the five elements are called Karma, and the action that takes place in the realm of the five principal elements is also called Karma. Further to this, whatever impressions (as a result of the action) get imprinted upon the mind become Karma that one must go through.

The present action you are doing is creating an impression in your mind. The impression may attract or cause similar actions in the future.

Why do bad things happen to good people?

Sanchita is the Karma which we have brought with us. Prarabdha is the karma which is yielding fruits right now and Agami is the Karma we may incur in the future. Our Sanchita Karma can be burnt, or removed. Spiritual practices, prayer, service, loving people around us and nature, meditation and so on aid in erasing the Karma that we have acquired.

Sometimes people ask, why bad things happen to good people. You are good today but you don’t know what you did yesterday.

– Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

Prarabdha Karma which is already yielding results will have to be experienced. You’re on the car that is underway. When you are on the freeway and have missed an exit, you have to go to the next exit on the freeway. But you can change the lanes! You can go in the fast lane or slow lane. There is freedom, yet there is no freedom in another sense.

Aagami Karma is what we might make in the future. If you violate some laws of nature today, then in future you have to experience the consequences. You know if you do something now, you are going to experience something in future. Knowingly or unknowingly that Karma, that future Karma we do, we have to experience the consequences of it.

Sometimes people ask, why bad things happen to good people. You are good today but you don’t know what you did yesterday. As you sow, so shall you reap. But every Karma has a limited span of results.

How to burn Karma

Mainly five things come to us in our life from the Sanchita Karma, from the Karma you have acquired from previous lives. Birth, the place of birth, and the parents you are born to are from past Karma. Your education and line of education, degree of education, and how much you acquire knowledge. And then the wealth, the source of wealth. Finally your longevity and mode of death. These five things come from Sanchita Karma, the karma we have acquired.
Now, how rich we become, how much we can grow in our awareness, our marriage, children, and our social work — all this is Prarabdha Karma. Aagami Karma is the consequence of what you did to achieve all these. So you have a certain degree of freedom to act now and acquire more Karma. But you have a fate, a certain destiny that you are provided with that you cannot change.

Which actions don’t incur Karma?

Further, there are two categories of Karma: Karma due to the impressions embedded in the mind and Karma that takes place through the five elements – Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether. There is another type of action that just happens out of one’s nature, where you don’t even call it an action. It happens spontaneously, like an involuntary action. A child suddenly falls and you spontaneously go and pick up the child because it is in your nature – it is built in you to help somebody when they are in trouble.

Karma is not closed. It is an open possibility.

– Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

In that state, your action is akin to God’s action – there is spontaneity there. An action done spontaneously does not form any Karma because it is coming out of your nature. That’s why when a tiger or a lion preys, it doesn’t get any Karma. If a cat kills a rat, it doesn’t get Karma because it is in its nature. Everything is Karma, and everyone has to do some or the other Karma.

While the above are all individual Karma, there is also family Karma, societal Karma as well as Karma of a time, an era. When a plane accident happens, people with the same Karma will be on the same plane. If some are not in that, they will escape, and walk out of the plane though the plane has burned down. It is almost impossible to pin down which Karma brings what effect at the deep level.

But Karma is not closed. It is an open possibility.