The Power of Karma
We are no stranger to the term ‘karma’ as it is a word often used in mainstream society to explain why we have found ourselves on the receiving end of poor luck or misfortune. The term is thrown around flippantly and is rarely recognised for being the deeply profound and spiritual principle that it truly is. Often karma is perceived as ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’ in a sense and removes much of the personal autonomy that is attached to the cards life deals to us.
So, what does karma actually mean?
Karma refers to any sort of action, work or deed. Just as gravity is a law of the tangible world, karma functions as a law of the spiritual world. It is a spiritual philosophy of cause and effect whereby the actions and intentions of individuals directly impact their futures. Simply put, actions and intentions that incite positivity or ‘do good’ for others acquires good karma. Conversely, actions and intentions that incite negativity or cause intentional harm for others acquires bad karma. In many religions, the acquisition of good and bad karma is believed to contribute to the quality of life we live in future reincarnations. With this in mind, we bear far greater responsibility for the consequences of our actions, with our accountability lying directly with whichever creator our belief system worships.
This understanding of karma views us as more than just physical beings whose souls disappear when our bodies die. Rather it views us as souls bound to and guided by a divine, higher creator. As these souls, we bear accountability for the actions of our freewill and live in a constant process of balancing our karmic debts. For most, religions and cultures, karma is not only carried forth throughout the entirety of an individual’s life, but also carried further by influencing the future lifetimes of our reincarnations. Ultimately, our purpose is to pay off the karmic debts we have accrued throughout life and reach divinity and enlightenment.
Does the understanding of karma differ between religions?
All major religions possess some form of doctrine that warn its believers against the harmful actions of human freewill. In almost all holy texts, you will see some form of reference to lust, deceit and mistreatment - vices universal to all of mankind regardless of creed or culture. It is not surprising therefore, that these actions serve to destroy the connection we have with our higher-selves and our creator. Even in Christianity, a religion whereby the concept of Karma does not exist, there is reference to the cause and effect of human actions. The Bible says; “for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”
Karma was first alluded to in ancient Hindu texts dating as far back as 1500BC. It was described as a force of retribution and justice prescribed by the creator of the universe, Dharma, and formed the overarching ethical worldview of Hinduism. The most universal understanding of karma that exists in today’s society parallels this traditional Hindu interpretation most closely. This interpretation, as already described, reveres the cause and effect of human intentions and actions; when we think good, say good and do good, we are granted positivity and luck in response. The same process exists in reverse also, imploring Hindus to stray from harmful deeds that may conjure negative repercussions. Again, these repercussions - good or bad - are believed to manifest in both current and future lives. With this being said, one particularly unique belief held by Hindus is that a person’s bad karma may result in the future reincarnation of a non-human entity. The prospect of returning to earth as an animal, a creature far removed from the divinity of the creator, is enough incentive for many Hindus to ensure their actions only ever reap positive
In addition, the Hindu conception of karma emphasises the importance of collectivism in society. This perpetuates the performance of actions that are intended to benefit not just the individual believer themselves, but wider society as a whole. Due to this, rituals such as pilgrimages, group worship and acts of charity are held in very high regard by Hindus and accumulates an abundance of good karma.
For Buddhists, a strong distinction is made between the cause and effect of karma. In western society, it is not uncommon for people to refer to misfortunes as karma itself, claiming that a colleague’s recent job loss is ‘their karma’, as an example. However, in Buddhism, it is strongly asserted that karma is the process of living truthfully and sacredly, not the resulting consequences of this process.
Moreover, the Buddhist interpretation of karma emphasises autonomy and proactivity in accumulating good karma. Rather than the concept seeming abstract and predetermined, rendering us powerless to the fate of the universe, Buddhists believe that all humans bear the freewill necessary to perform positive actions regardless of social background, natural biology or past lives. In sum, blaming one’s harmful doings on external forces will not cut it for Buddhists, as they regard humans as highly spiritual, divine creatures of a superior intellectual degree.
Drawing from this, Buddhists mark a clear distinction between karma and the concept of ‘moral justice’. While karma is a process of cause and effect resulting in the acquisition of personal karmic debt, moral justice is distinctively different. Moral justice is suggestive of serving a supreme higher power with the incentive to please them rather than to live graciously and do good for others. For Buddhists, this mind-set lacks authenticity and reveals selfishness on the part of humans. We should not be striving to gain good karma simply to better our own current and future circumstances, but instead to improve the overall quality of society.
In Sikhism, humans are believed to be subject to the three qualities of ‘Maya’, or in other words, the obstacles and challenges in life that lead us to deviate from our creator. The first of these three qualities is referred to as ‘Rajas’ and represents lust and passion. The second is ‘Tamas’ and represents ignorance. The final quality is ‘Satav’ and is indicative of all that is good and pure in this life. These three qualities are eternally bound and connect our souls to the universe, making us accountable for our actions and the way we treat others. While the Sikh interpretation of karma is not wildly divergent from the others that have been discussed, this particular methodology is unique and highlights the power that divine forces have upon ourselves.
Alongside the three qualities of Maya, Sikhs use the analogy of a field when describing karma. The field is symbolic of current life, on which ‘seeds’ of karma from past lives are sown. As these seeds grow, the deeds performed by us in previous lives grow and ultimately must be harvested. We are either left to enjoy the fruitfulness from the harvest or we are burdened by the result of bad ‘seeds’ sown into our fields. The knowledge of this encourages Sikhs to remember their responsibility to obtain good karma in this life as there are serious ramifications in future reincarnations if we neglect to do so.
In Jainism, karma plays a far more central role to the religion and its interpretation adopts a uniquely mechanistic angle. For Jains, karma is perceived as tangible matter that exists everywhere in the universe. These invisible particles of karma are then attracted to a Jain’s soul according to the ways in which they have conducted themselves in life. A clear soul, free of this obstructive matter is deemed ideal, as these karma particles are attracted by negative words and ill intentions. Therefore, our words, actions and intentions are to be thought of as a magnet to the soul meaning we must be extremely mindful of our personal conduct. These particles attach to our souls when we wish for revenge on others. They attach when we lie and deceive. They attach when we purposefully cause harm. In sum, acts of negativity will lead to an obstruction in our souls and lead us further from divinity.
This process is cyclical in nature, as the build-up of bad karma on the soul steers us towards further negative actions. This particular interpretation of karma, therefore, is especially suggestive of the dangers involved in negative doings; it can lead us down a slippery slope and cause us to uncontrollably spiral into cycles of endless bad karma.
While many different interpretations of karma exist throughout various religions and cultures, each bearing unique analogies and lessons, they are all united through the concept of cause and effect. When we behave in ways that cause harm or hold negative intentions, the universe is all-knowing of this and responds accordingly. We may experience unfortunate consequences in our current lives, or we may be damned in our future reincarnations. Either way, the overarching message is that we have to be fully accountable for our actions.
Ultimately, karma is not about seeking justice, finding revenge or earning rewards for one’s good behaviour. Rather, it is about reaping the fruits of the seeds we have sown in life, good and bad.
“When a bird is alive, it eats ants. When the bird has died, ants eat it. One tree can be made into a million matchsticks but only one matchstick is needed to burn a million trees. Circumstances can change at any time so don’t devalue or hurt anyone in this life. You may be powerful today but time is more powerful than you!” - Unknown