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What is Karma? – Foundation, Elements & Misconceptions, Part 1

What is Karma? – Foundation, Elements & Misconceptions, Part 1

In spite of its central role in many spiritual traditions, karma remains a concept that is surrounded by misunderstanding, even among dedicated students of Eastern thought. For that reason, we’re going to take a more detailed look at this important topic, including what karma is, how it functions, some of the most common misconceptions, and how a better grasp of karma can dramatically foster our growth on the spiritual path.

Beginning with the Fundamentals

Starting at the beginning, karma literally means “action,” and the word is often used in Yoga philosophy in precisely this way. For example, you may recall that karma yoga is the branch of Yoga in which action – in the form of selfless service – is used to improve compassion, reduce ego, and increase our self-awareness.

The more common usage of karma – and the one on which we will be focusing today – refers to the link between our behaviors and their consequences, and it comes from the same root, for the simple reason that our actions, of course, always lead to reaction. Rooted though it is in action and reaction, this use of karma has some important nuances we must understand if we are to truly grasp both what karma is and how it functions.

Correcting the Myth: Karma is Not Just About Action

While karma is indeed linked to action, we can begin our understanding of the deeper layers of karma by recalling the fact that even thoughts and intentions can be seen as types of action. In other words, our thoughts and feelings themselves are internal actions which generate karma, regardless of whether they lead to external behavior.

In this sense, karma is clearly much bigger than what we do. For example, selfish thoughts impact us – creating both internal and external results – even if we don’t get a chance to act on them. And, on the other side of the equation, if we inadvertently cause harm but without any ill intent, the Yogic view is that we do not necessarily add to our karmic debt (unless other factors are involved, such as willful ignorance or haste, which are themselves grounds for what can be referred to as negative karma).

In this sense, rather than thinking of karma residing in action, the grounds of karma might be better captured by the word “volition.” While actions can amplify matters, the Yogic view is that the intention behind our actions has the greatest karmic impact. And so, again, if an act does harm but is done with good will, we do not generate bad karma, while if we engage in good acts but with unhealthy motivation (such as vanity or greed), we not only do not generate good karma but in fact the very opposite. To better grasp exactly why this is, we need to understand the mechanism through which karma acts.

Correcting the Myth: Karma is Not “Outside” of Us

The mechanism of karma is also frequently misunderstood – specifically the false belief that karma is an external phenomenon. Many think of karma as something that “happens” to us – that, if we do something wrong, a divine power or force of the universe will punish us for our behavior, and, if we do something virtuous, that same entity will reward us.

The Yogic and Buddhist view is in fact very much the opposite: karma is not something outside of us but actually a fundamental part of our own being – or, to put it slightly differently, you could say that karma is part of how our psychological state and the world interconnect. In this sense, karma is not something that happens to us, but rather something we generate as a natural and inherent part of our thoughts and feelings.

To give an example, consider violence. We all know that the mere thought of malice creates pain for us, even if we never act on it. In the Yogic view, this pain is a natural result of the fact that, when we have violent thoughts, we are subjecting ourselves to a false view of the world. We are thinking of another person as an enemy – someone foreign to us, who deserves punishment or who must be harmed in order to protect ourselves. In the Yogic perspective, this is a profound error, and it is this very thought that causes pain, no matter how we act or what events might follow.

In the Yogic view, no one is foreign to us, no one can hurt us, and no one deserves our anger or wrath; we are all fundamentally one, and any feelings of enmity are based on a vast misapprehension. When we remember this, we know peace and joy. The moment we forget and fall into error, we begin to create suffering for ourselves, in the form of tension, fear, dis-ease, etc. – pain that we experience, regardless of how we act on those thoughts.

This is such a fundamental part of both karma and Yoga as a whole that it bears fleshing out. Again, when we fall into this mistaken view, we immediately begin to create pain for ourselves. In the very act of thinking of someone as an enemy and of violence as our only recourse, we put ourselves, mentally, into a very unpleasant world, no matter our choice of action or its outcome. Instead of seeing the oneness of life, we mistakenly convince ourselves that life is cruel and that it is necessary to adopt a selfish philosophy to survive. This sort of worldview brings us pain, no matter what else may come. And, if we don’t see this and allow it to correct our assumptions, that pain will intensify – again, not due to an external source, but our own mistaken beliefs.

The same can be seen for any other unhealthy choice, from dishonesty to theft to sexual impropriety to greed. Inherent in each of these is an outlook on life that is divided and divisive – an outlook that causes us pain, no matter how we choose to act. This is crucial: even if we don’t display our anger or fear, when we hold it inside we rob ourselves of our peace and joy. This is why karma has more to do with volition than action and more to do with us than the outer world – it is not what we do or how the world responds but the assumptions behind our behavior that create either harmony or pain.

Correcting the Myth: Karma Does Not Excuse Apathy/Negligence

This leads us to another common misconception about karma, which is that, since it is connected with action, the simplest way to avoid karma is through inaction. Even brief consideration of the mechanism of karma just described, however, shows the clear error of such thinking.

Since the consequences of karma come directly from our thoughts rather than our behavior, simply choosing to remain inert does not free us from karma. If our inaction is motivated by positive thoughts and feelings – for example, non-violence inspired by universal love – then we will not experience pain. On the other hand, if our inaction is driven by hesitation or laziness or fear, even when we choose not to act, the very beliefs and assumptions that lead to our inaction will create friction and tension, just as they do when they inspire “negative” behavior.

In short, exactly as with action based on negative thoughts, inaction that is rooted in unhealthy thinking contains its own “karmic weight.” In fact, you could say that inaction is even more of a karmic burden, because it is usually grounded in negative thoughts and feelings, such as fear, laziness, self-doubt, and mistrust, and because it is often harder to see the impact of our passivity than it is the impact of poorly chosen deeds. Once we understand this, we are no longer at risk of thinking of inaction as a means for avoiding the repercussions of karma.