Karma in Sanskrit means “action.” The law of karma is thus the law of action. Beyond the Newtonian law of action and reaction governing the physical world, the law of action and reaction also affects the experience of embodied souls. Karma should be understood as one of the laws of nature, acting on the metaphysical plane.
The law of karma is an educational system built into nature, designed to help the embodied soul improve its moral, or dharmic, behavior. Every action you perform has a moral quality to it. Was it the right action? Was it within your dharma to be doing it? If so, did you do it with attention, with care? Did you do your best? If so, then you generated an appropriately positive result. If not, then you get an appropriately negative result. The law of karma puts a mirror in front of you. You get what you give. Or as the Bible says, you reap what you sow.
The reactions produced from our actions come in the form of objects, facts, and situations in life. Everything in your life now – your DNA to your social status, bank account, job situation, neighborhood, planet, health, and everything you own – is the result of your past activities. At every moment, the entire configuration of external reality in your life is a karmic reaction.
The only exception is divine intervention. The more you develop your spirituality, and especially your devotion to God, the more your karma may be adjusted by God to suit your spiritual elevation. It’s like getting a presidential or royal pardon. You were tried and found guilty, but the ruling power of the country pardons your crime. Or to give an even better example, if you become a star pupil, then the school may take special interest in your education and adjust your syllabus to help you develop your full capabilities.
Note that the law of karma has nothing to do with devotion to God. One fascinating fact found in the Bhagavad-gita is that atheism does not generate any bad karma. There is zero karmic reaction in not loving God. Let’s say I have a pot of gold coins. You come to my place and I say, “Please take as many as you want.” If you take the gold, you become richer. If you don’t, there is no crime. No one can punish you for not taking it, and there is no moral wrong. Devotion to God is like this. If you take to it, you’ll benefit. If you don’t, you won’t get punished. But you will have missed a golden opportunity.
Krishna explains in the Bhagavad-gita that karma is complex. Attempts to simplify it by saying, for example, that if you hit someone in the head, you’ll be hit in the head, are just simplifications to help you understand the concept. The system is mind-bogglingly complex, since everything that happens is caused by karma. Everyone deserves exactly everything being done to them. There is perfect justice. In this sense, the law of karma is compared to a perfect cosmic justice system. But like any good justice system, the main objective is education, not revenge or punishment.
Sadly, many people have turned away from God due to not understanding the simple concepts of karma and reincarnation. They blame God for the suffering they see around them. Yet these same people have no difficulty understanding that a wrongdoing must be addressed with a combination of just punishment and education to avoid future wrongdoings. And suffering is precisely that – a combination of just punishment and education to teach the soul to avoid future wrongdoings.
Does this mean we should become callous and lack empathy for other’s suffering? Of course not. It’s part of our universal dharma to practice compassion and do our part to help diminish suffering around us.
The best way to help diminish suffering is to teach people not to create it in the first place, by emphasizing the benefits of a dharmic life and by teaching them to practice mindfulness. Practically speaking, these two – dharma and mindfulness – are the main focus of the teachings of Buddha.
All suffering is thus within the scope of education – an instrument for creating change. Suffering exists to help you improve the moral quality of your actions and to prod you to investigate your existence. And it works. An enormous number of people have arrived at a deeper understanding of life and spirituality as a result of suffering. But you shouldn’t wait for suffering. Delve deep into the mysteries of life and God while the going is good.
Something done in one life may bring effects only hundreds of lives later. Every act creates what is called a karmic seed. Once you understand where you went wrong, however, you need no longer suffer the karma generated by that kind of wrong. The seed is burnt. Comparing karma to an education system, if you prove you have learned the subject matter, you no longer need to take the course. We have an unfathomable number of karmic seeds stored away. Sacred texts tell us that we are like trees. In this life we will generate the seeds to many future lives, just as a tree generates seeds for many future trees.
On this planet, only humans accrue karma. Our free will and sophisticated intelligence give us power. With power comes responsibility. With responsibility comes accountability. Human life is so important and rare and comes with so much power, that in one human life you can generate karma seeds for thousands of lives. Animals, plants, and other beings live out karma accumulated in past human or human-like lives.
Human life is also the only opportunity on this planet to extinguish your karma. As long as the soul remains in the material world, going from one body to another, it will experience the effects of the law of karma. But if you take the lead in your own education, if you take to the path of self-improvement and self-realization, you can, in one human life, achieve the final goal of all karmic education. You can graduate and leave school. To quote the Bhagavad-gita, by cultivating knowledge (jnana) you can reduce your karma to ashes.
The law of karma is another example of how this metaphysical knowledge of the yoga tradition helps you to better understand the experience of life and to live better. A rational explanation for all suffering brings relief to any thoughtful person. And seeing every event in your life as justly deserved and an opportunity for growth gives you great power to overcome obstacles and abandon lamentation. The law of karma ultimately confers upon you 100 percent control over your life. You are the sole architect of your destiny. No one other living being in the universe has power over you. No one can do anything to you that you yourself have not brought upon yourself. Others are just external agents of your own deeds. You have the power to choose what kind of life you want to live.
You can watch my video on the topic here.
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