The literal meaning of the word Karma in Sanskrit is “work,” “action,” or “deed”, in the sense of an action carried out externally in the world, as opposed to the Sanskrit word Kriya, which implies “an action carried out intrinsically”. Good intention or action creates good karma, while bad intention or action creates bad karma. The premise is that every action has implications, whether in this lifetime or in the next incarnation. Additionally, not only actions influence the reality of their doer, but also his/her intention, approach and desire. In that sense, the concept of karma differs from the principle of pure causality found in the natural sciences. The concept of karma is therefore used as the ethical basis in various schools of Eastern philosophy.
As a man himself sows, so he himself reaps; no man inherits the good or evil act of another man. The fruit is of the same quality as the action.
— Mahabharata, xii.291.22
The connection between karma and causality is a central motif in various schools of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. According to those, both the individual’s actions as well as his intentions affect the course of his life. Actions carried out with intention (or an outcome in mind) result in an accumulation of karma, as opposed to actions carried out without such intention, which leave karma intact. Good karma has a positive effect on the life of the doer and leads to happiness, while bad karma negatively influences the doer and leads to unhappiness. The effect of karma is not limited to the individual’s current life and may also influence his next incarnation.
There are two types of impressions through which karma is applied in our reality:
- Phala – karma has an immediate impact. It is the result of an action that is expressed immediately, or sometime during the life of the doer, whether overtly or covertly.
- Samskara – karma has a hidden influence. It is expressed internally in the life of the doer, influencing his behavior and his degree of happiness (in the current life and in certain schools even in future incarnations). Samskara is often the focus of discussion in Eastern philosophy. Karma sows tendencies (vasna) in the individual’s life, which affect their behavior as well as their vision of themselves and the world, thus dictating their experience of life.
- Reincarnation – the principle of rebirth (samsara) appears in various schools of Eastern religions. All forms of life undergo a process of reincarnation – that is, a series of births and deaths, whereby each birth can manifest in a different life form than the one that preceded it (for example, what was a pig in a previous life can be born again as a human being). The karmic accumulation – which the creature accumulates during its lifetime – continues with it even after death – in the next incarnation and determines the shape and nature of life to which it will be born. This process of death and rebirth continues indefinitely and the only way to stop it is by consciously reaching a release (Moksha).
Chapter two of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali conveys that negative thoughts have infinite consequences. Thoughts create karma that the individual carries with him onto future incarnations:
|34||vitarkah himsadayah krita karita anumoditah lobha krodha moha purvakah mridu madhya adhimatrah dukha ajnana ananta phala iti pratipaksha bhavanam||Uncertain knowledge giving rise to violence, whether done directly or indirectly or condoned, is caused by greed, anger or delusion in mild, moderate or intense degree. It results in endless pain and ignorance. Through introspection comes the end of pain and ignorance.|
The end of chapter 1 of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali describes the process of clearing the samaskara, to reach the utmost Samadhi – Samadhi without a nucleus:
|47||nirvichara vaisharadye adhyatma prasadah||From proficiency in nirvicara samapatti
comes purity. Sattva or luminosity flows undisturbed, kindling the spiritual light of self.
|48||ritambhara tatra prajna||When consciousness dwells in wisdom, a truth-bearing state of direct spiritual perception dawns.|
|49||shruta anumana prajnabhyam anya-vishaya vishesha-arthatvat||Thus truth-bearing knowledge and wisdom is distinct from and beyond the knowledge gleaned from books, testimony or inference.|
|50||tajjah samskarah anya samskara paribandhi||A new life begins with this truth-bearing light. Previous impressions are left behind, and new ones are prevented.|
|51||tasya api nirodhe sarva nirodhat nirbijah samadhih||When that new light of wisdom is also relinquished, seedless Samadhi dawns.
Chapter four describes the action of the Yogi, who acts without leaving karmic residue or traces and is therefore transparent:
|7||karma ashukla akrisnam yoginah trividham itaresam||A Yogi’s actions are neither white nor black. The actions of others are of three kinds, white, black or grey.|
The lotus blossom symbolizes karma in many religions, as the lotus contains its seed while blooming. The seed traditionally symbolizes the cause, while the blossom symbolizes the result. In addition, the lotus grows in murky water, while its flower floats above the surface of the water; it is a metaphor that one can transcend difficult circumstances without being influenced by them.