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How Karma Works

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The ‘mystery’ of life for most of us is how, amid the infinite multitudes of being, each individual is born with its own unique characteristics and destiny. Is it true, we wonder, that some are blessed, or cursed, from the start; or do we indeed shape and design our own life-style in compliance with the balancing law of cause and effect?

Thinking back to the beginnings of time when the heavens and earths were ‘created’ and there was simultaneously life and motion, we realize how motion, as action-reaction, from then onwards stirred through all beings and propelled them forwards in evolutionary courses. Instinctively, the kingdoms of nature respond to this pattern, just as we do. From our moment of birth we initiate cause — a cry or a smile; and result — attention or love; and thereafter continuing, we fashion ourselves emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually by the causes – our thoughts and our acts – we set into motion. And during this process we are guided by conscience, our voice of experience that ever seeks justice and harmonious balance in our relations with others.

So infallible and intricate are the workings of this one supreme law of cause-effect, that it has puzzled and fascinated scientists and philosophers for ages; yet some ascribe its action to chance, or to an all-knowing, all-powerful God to whom unquestioningly they give obeisance.

“. . . thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe,” Moses commanded the Israelites (Exodus 21:23-5). And upon this they established their system of justice, not always recognizing here a suggestive explanation of nature’s inescapable consequences. Fortunately Paul spoke more directly:

For every man shall bear his own burden . . . Be not deceived; God is not mocked! for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to the flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting, And let us not be weary in well-doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not, As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, . . . Galatians 6:5, 7-10

This metaphor of the sower is appealing and scientific. Certainly the law of action and reaction can be shown to operate in the physical world, as the Austrian botanist, Gregor Mendel, verified in his experiments with peas. In one, where he crossed dwarf with tall peas, he confirmed, in effect, Paul’s statement by demonstrating that while invariably all first generation plants produce tall peas, “in due season,” that is, in the second and succeeding generations, the dwarfs, or recessive and latent strains, reproduce themselves in mathematical precision. Applying this to the human level, he was able to lay down his remarkable thesis regarding the genetic inheritance of dominant characteristic units.

Charles Darwin in his way also verified this law of action-reaction: his theory of natural selection, even in its modified form, explains how causes — the hardy and adaptive ability of certain species of plants and animals — result in individual survival, and in the perpetuation of particular species. And earlier, Sir Isaac Newton expressed this same principle as the Third Law of Motion: that to every action there is equal and opposite reaction.

To these ideas our new biology adds further dimension, demonstrating, in color-coded units similar to a child’s plastic construction set, how the chemical DNA genetic code that is preserved within the nuclear heart of the cells of the body not only stores and faithfully reproduces the acquired variations of its, and therefore of our, three-billion-year evolutionary history, but how it also uses the dominant and recessive characteristics that we acquired by our past sowing to build us into the unique individuals that we are now.

These scientists, however, deal with physical conditions. To discover the psychological, mental, and spiritual causes that shape us, and how such subtle characteristics are transmitted from life to future life, we must turn to the scientific and religious literature of the East, where in cave and temple vaults ancient scrolls have been preserved which elucidate the mysterious workings of the law they call karma (literally action).

Most schools of Indian thought regard karma as the inexorable moral and scientific basis of life. The Buddhists, for example, believe that it is by karma that the whole world moves. By karma each individual is what he is: everything that he thinks, feels and does; everything that distinguishes him from others, is the result of forces, or causes, that he and he alone has set in motion. Thus, they recognize each living being as an architect who determines his or her own “merits and demerits,” suffering and success; who determines the family, race and religion he or she shall return to, and also the ‘heaven’ and ‘hell.’

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.

If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him. — Dhammapada, 1:1-2

Therefore, if we would improve the fabric and the course of our life, we must, they explain, change our thoughts, that is, our will-intelligence-consciousness. For has not our karma — our bodily action, vocal action and mental action — originated in and been established into patterns of behavior by volition (cetana)? Once our will is directed toward spiritual goals the four principal kinds of karma, which generally take eons to dissipate, will quickly dissolve: (1) the action which brings results in this life; (2) the action which produces results in the next or future lives; (3) that which brings results from time to time; and (4) actions of the past that produce present conditions.

Understanding this and the teachings concerning the intricate interwebbings of the karma of the individual, family, races, and kingdoms, the Buddhist layman endeavors to follow the Noble Eightfold Path which leads step by step out of this action-reaction cycle of suffering and illusion: right understanding, right mindedness, right speech, right action, right living, right effort, right attentiveness, and right concentration. And the Buddhist mendicant confidently pursues the Path, knowing that poverty, illness, handicap and ignorance are nature’s method of restoring equilibrium; and that they are to him opportunity both to help those who suffer, and indirectly, to test and develop his own self-control and compassion.

Another ancient Indian order, the Jains, embrace much the same teachings, adding with emphasis that no god, no sacrifice or act of repentance can stay the force of reaction set into motion by our thoughts, our will and our acts. It matters not whether these acts are mental or physical, past or present, intentional or unintentional. Believing that we alone determine our shape, complexion, behavior and every event in our daily life, the clear-minded Jains explain how this works: whenever a jva — a conscious being, be it a god, human being, animal or plant, or dweller in the regions below — longs for and attaches itself to things of this world, such as food, clothes, people and places; whenever it gives vent to passion, such as anger, fear, greed, hatred or love; or whenever it clings to ignorance and false ideas, that jiva in so doing opens the doors of its heart to an influx of “karmic atomic matter” — karma-prayoga pudgala. This more subtle matter thereupon mixes and interacts with the ethereal substance of and surrounding the jiva and produces aggregates of molecular particles that either immediately color, cloud and weigh down the jiva, or accumulate as seeds and lie dormant, to ripen when conditions are appropriate for their expression.

Now, as each influx has its own particular origin, coloration (of six kinds), density, taste, fragrance, tangibility, intensity and duration, it follows that acts of self-control and compassion bring in a flood of beneficent karmic material that, depending on its nature, colors the jiva a luminous white, red or gold, and brings by attraction to the circumstances of its life, conditions that are harmonious and pleasant. On the other hand, reckless, selfish, cruel or sensual acts attract an invasion of heavy, dark and disruptive material that draws the soul downward to worlds of illusion, and brings confusion and painful conditions into the life.

Jain literature discusses in detail 148 varieties of karma which can affect and pervade a jiva as does “heat a red-hot iron ball.” These various kinds of karma fall into eight general headings: (a) Namakarma, “name-karma,” affects the ‘mask’ or personality — the heredity, sex, health, and details of the outward appearance — and the individuality or character, qualities of the inner being. (b) Ayushka-karma, “life-karma,” like a tether, limits the length of a person’s life and the amount of vitality he will expend. (c) Antaraya-karma, “hindrance-karma,” produces obstacles that frustrate one’s efforts to improve his life. (d) Gotra-karma, “family-karma,” determines social position — the family, occupation, marriage, religion, place of residence, and even the kind of food one will eat. (e) Vedaniya-karma, “karma to be known,” attracts to the doer experiences of pleasure and pain which, they say, are bitter-sweet to the soul, like tasting honey from the blade of a sword. (f) Mohaniya-karma, “delusion-karma,” causes emotional and psychological confusion; while (g) Jnana-avaraniya, “knowledge-concealing,” and (h) Darsana-avaraniya, “insight-concealing,” veil the mental and spiritual perceptions with ignorance and prejudices so that one is unable to recognize truth when he sees it, but turns away like a traveler who, seeking the king, is repulsed by the doorkeeper.

Considering this, it is obvious that the more active a person is, the more he enjoys and identifies with the objects, environment and knowledge of this world we perceive through the senses, the more he attracts to himself karmic tendencies. These aggregates, the Jains explain, actually form themselves into a ‘body’ — the karmana sarira (the linga- or sukshma-sarira of Samkhya philosophy). And as this body, unlike the physical, does not disintegrate at death but adheres to the jiva, it is the part of the individual that carries his dominant and recessive karmic attributes from one birth to another. This is the Jain way of suggesting the ancient teaching that we inherit our real character from ourselves, not from our parents, although we do ‘inherit’ or select from the family we are karmically drawn to, the qualities necessary at this time for our soul’s experience.

We create and predestine ourselves, physically, mentally and spiritually, by the ‘food’ we take into our body, our mind, and into our soul. These philosophical thoughts help explain how we act, interact and react upon one another. This is especially true when the “eye for an eye” revenge-action syndrome is perpetuated. However, as we are continually making new, and exhausting or ‘consuming’ old karmic substance, we can at any moment refuse to retaliate in kind and thereby stop the back-and-forth flow of degrading karmic interaction. In turning in the direction of justice and love, we not only fracture old courses of action, but draw to ourselves a finer, brighter and more buoyant karmic matter.

Sooner or later this moment of decision comes to us all, comes perhaps during a time of affliction or of high aspiration. Our spirit will stir and awaken in revolt against the monotonous, low-level, repetitive action-reaction-action. Henceforth, if mind and will have been strengthened sufficiently, we can consciously take full charge of our lives. However, a permanent change requires inflexible will, courage and persistence — after all, have we not taken on the monster of all our past actions? Have we not, in effect, determined not only to search out, face and destroy karmic deposits imbedded eons ago, but from now on, to accept influx of only the highest quality material?

To assist in this venture the Jain “householder” is given as a course of physical and mental discipline “three jewels” of wisdom: right faith (insight), right knowledge, right conduct. In ‘purifying’ by faith or devotion, his attitudes, feelings and thoughts, he allows not even the smallest particle of weakness to enter his being, knowing that if it does, it will take root and grow. In studying their doctrines and observing the laws of life firsthand, he gains knowledge, including, no doubt, knowledge of what result follows which cause; what forces are engendered and how their momentum can be directed, transmuted or neutralized beneficially. And in controlling his conduct, avoiding excess, speaking truthfully with kindness, he practices ahimsa — noninjury — and, at the same time, establishes symmetrical patterns of thought and of action.

Then later, as an ascetic who so carefully “sweeps” the path before him lest he inadvertently cause discomfort or pain to another, the Jain adopts a rigid code of conduct designed to close completely the gates of his soul to the inflow of worldly matter. For by now he knows that even the most radiant karmic substance will cling to and enmesh him; by now he is determined to purify the entirety of his being from the slightest hue of the six karmic colors, so that his spirit, restored to its lofty state, will like a “crystal mirror” receive and reflect the splendors of infinite knowledge, power and bliss. Thus nirvana is attained, and he, released from the wheel of birth and death (samsara), may leave this realm of illusion.

This same mystical insight is expressed poetically in the Hindu Upanishads:

Verily, this Soul (Atman) — poets declare — wanders here on earth from body to body, unovercome, as it seems, by the bright or the dark fruits of action. . . . As an enjoyer of righteousness, he covers himself(atmanam) with a veil made of qualities; [but] he remains fixed — yea, he remains fixed! — Maitri Upanishad, 2:7

As a man acts, so does he become. A man of good deeds becomes good, a man of evil deeds becomes evil. A man becomes pure through pure deeds, impure through impure deeds.

As a man’s desire is, so is his destiny. For as his desire is, so is his will; as his will is, so is his deed; and as his deed is, so is his reward, whether good or bad.

A man acts according to the desires to which he clings. After death he goes to the next world, bearing in his mind the subtle impressions of his deeds; and after reaping there the harvest of his deeds, he returns again to this world of action. Thus he who has desire continues subject to rebirth. — Brihadaranyaka-Upanishad, IV, iv, 5-6

But for those seeking freedom from karmic encumbrances the Bhagavad-Gita gives inspiration and guidance. Especially where Krishna recommends to the aspiring Arjuna not inaction, but action — the path of Karma-yoga. However, the quality of action he prescribes is as that of inaction since it brings no stain, no entanglement in worldly matters. When one can perform the duties of life with passions subdued and heart fixed in devotion upon the supreme Spirit; when one can act, aware of the fruits of his actions, yet unconcerned, unattached, unswayed by pleasure or pain, gain or loss, victory or defeat, then to him spiritual knowledge comes naturally in the progress of time. “His mind is undisturbed in adversity; he is happy and contented in prosperity, and he is a stranger to anxiety, fear, and anger. Such a man is called a Muni — a wise man” (II, 55-6).

Thus we find that practically all of the philosophical schools of India have the capacity to turn one’s thoughts to the needs of the soul. Those dealing with karma are especially uplifting, showing that for each individual, this is the best of all possible worlds; this the best time to live. Here is the duty, the challenge, the unique opportunity that we by our karma have made for ourselves.

– Eloise Hart


  • Prabhavananda, Swami, The Spiritual Heritage of India, Vedanta Press, Hollywood, i969.
  • Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli, ed., The Cultural Heritage of India, vol. 1, The Ramakrishna Mission, Institute of Culture, Calcutta, 1958.
  • Zimmer, Heinrich, Philosophies of India, ed. Joseph Campbell (Bollingen Series XXVI), Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1969.

From Sunrise magazine, November 1977. Copyright © 1977 by Theosophical University Press

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