For those of us who wish to bring a deeper spiritual element into our lives, at some point we will come across the idea of ‘karma’, and of course its relative importance will not be lost on us, and we will wish to grasp a better understanding of it. After all, if we are serious about following a spiritual path, then we will want to understand that path and all of its nuances.
So if we wish to gain some insight into the concept of karma, and we start by searching for its definition on ‘Google’, among many precepts, we come across the following:
‘Karma (/ˈkɑːrmə/, from Sanskrit: कर्म, IPA; Pali: kamma) is a concept of action, work or deed, and its effect or consequences. In Indian religions, the term more specifically refers to a principle of cause and effect, often descriptively called the principle of karma, wherein intent and actions of an individual (cause) influence the future of that individual (effect): Good intent and good deeds contribute to good karma and happier rebirths, while bad intent and bad deeds contribute to bad karma and bad rebirths. As per some scripture, there is no link of rebirths with karma.
Difficulty in arriving at a definition of karma arises because of the diversity of views among the schools of Hinduism; some, for example, consider karma and rebirth linked and simultaneously essential, some consider karma but not rebirth to be essential, and a few discuss and conclude karma and rebirth to be flawed fiction. Buddhism and Jainism have their own karma precepts. Thus, karma has not one, but multiple definitions and different meanings. It is a concept whose meaning, importance, and scope varies between the various traditions that originated in India, and various schools in each of these traditions. Wendy O’Flaherty claims that, furthermore, there is an ongoing debate regarding whether karma is a theory, a model, a paradigm, a metaphor, or a metaphysical stance.
From this we begin to see the difficulty in coming to an understanding of just exactly what the term ‘karma’ encompasses. In many modern cultures, karma has become a sort of party joke: ‘… that will get you bad karma, or … must be good karma coming their way … etc.’ The discussion usually ends in everyone having a good laugh. There are other cultures where the concept of karma and rebirth are so deeply engrained in the psyche, that it has influenced their present behaviours to the point where it is almost casually dismissed : ‘… I don’t need to worry about that, I’ll sort it out next life time …’. Still there are those who view karma as the ‘jailer’, the ‘over-lord’, who punishes or rewards according to our actions, and must be overcome; its power over us must be nullified, otherwise we cannot be truly free.
In all of this, karma is generally seen as something that is active from outside of our control, and loss of control is a confronting reality. It is a cost that we are mostly reluctant to pay, as we don’t seem to have any bargaining power over the price. For who of us is prepared to consciously accept full responsibility for our actions, especially if they are linked to the idea that the causes were committed in a previous lifetime – causes that for most of us, we can’t remember committing? Hence our reactions are mostly confined to either laughing at it, undervaluing it, totally ignoring it, or trying to escape its inevitability.
When we take a closer look at the above definitions however, we see a striking similarity: karma is mostly talked about from the perspective of its outer manifestation, the effects we experience, and how we should react to them. Rarely do we come across someone who talks about what karma actually is, not just what it does. The question of its higher purpose, its meaning, its origin, rarely seems to enter into the general discussion. Yet such a knowledge could totally change our understanding of karma and the way we perceive our relationship with it.
So how closely can we come to truly understanding karma, if we only approach it from one perspective – from how it manifests itself in our lives? Even then, can we attribute our interpretations of what we experience as either good or bad, as being definitive of the deeper purpose and intent of karma? Surely, we must accept that much of our understanding is speculative, certainly lacking, even incorrect, if we do not know the causes, or consider the underlying purpose.
Of course, there are those who approach this question from the perspective of ‘knowing’ our personal past, what we did and did not do in our previous life times, believing this will bring us to the point of not only understanding, but also giving us ‘control’ over any future karmic burdens. The knowledge of science is founded upon a similar method, where the general belief is that by delving ever deeper into the detail, one will approach the essence of a thing, and therefore come to a complete understanding of it. But has this been the experience of science; has this method brought it any closer to wisdom? From this, can we therefore confidently say that if we study ourselves, all of our previous lifetimes in the minutest detail, this will bring us the wisdom of understanding the purpose and meaning of our lives? Or do we need to look for a different approach?
The answer to this conundrum can better be found if we begin by approaching this question from the perspective of the metaphysical, the spiritual, and seek a starting point in the universal teachings that have accompanied humanity throughout the ages. For without this basis, we limit our knowledge only to the outward actions of karma, and as with all things, we must consider both the inner and the outer aspects to gain that full perspective.
No matter what religious, spiritual or belief system we adhere to, there are some common threads that unite all of them. They all place a superior being, a godhead, an unknowable Creator as the source and beginning of all of life. Although we generally come into divergent views on how this godhead manifests, still the common thread of perfection, omniscience and absoluteness remain. Love with a capital ‘L’ is most often used to encompass the expression of this perfection as it pulses throughout creation. So if we try to penetrate to an understanding of the radiative essence of the Divine, then maybe we can also approach how it manifests.
It is broadly accepted that the Creator of all Life, radiates His presence throughout Her creation, and that this radiation, this Spirit, this Love, not only reflects the essence of the Creator in how life manifests in its form, but also contains purpose that gives meaning to the form. In other words, it is complete. It brings the possibility for life, and it guides that life with purpose and intent. Love therefore is the direct expression of what the Creator Wills for what She has created, and becomes for us the universal law, the prime mover, that gives our life purpose and therefore meaning.
But we must ‘extract’ this meaning from within this ‘law’, if we are to comprehend its personal impact on our lives through the action of karma. As with the Creator Himself, She has given life the ‘freedom of choice’, and herein lies the essence of how and why we experience the workings of karma as we do. On the one hand the Love of the Creator radiates throughout Her creation, giving the nourishment and possibility for life to raise itself up to the Godhead. In other words, the Love, the purpose and meaning of God’s Will, contains within itself the totality and completeness for all of life to be raised to a higher, ever more spiritual level. In the Bible this is referred to as moving ‘from power to power, and from glory to glory’.
But … because life has also been given the freedom of choice, the freedom to consciously attune itself to, and live in harmony with this purpose, if its choice is contrary to this, if our behaviour deviates from the essence of ‘love’ and moves into selfishness, then Love will respond to gently ‘correct’, to re-balance, to ‘guide’ us through personal experience. And this corrective action, this expression of cause and effect, we know and experience as karma. Karma is therefore not about punishing the bad or rewarding the good, but about guiding us towards a deeper understanding of our purpose, through the life experiences of consequence and responsibility.
As human beings we generally do not think about our lives in terms of having a higher purpose; we do not make our daily decisions based on this fact. Instead we tend to wander through life aimlessly, reacting rather than instigating our actions based on fulfilling a higher, spiritual purpose. The needs, wants and desires of the ‘self’ predominate in all of our decisions, and any purpose we do assign to ourselves is generally focused on achieving these personal goals. But our ignorance of a higher purpose is exactly why we experience karma as we do.
To approach an understanding of what the higher purpose of our lives actually is, we must firstly acknowledge a level of difficulty. Not because the answer is too abstract, or too metaphysical, and thus beyond our comprehension, but because its comprehension is linked to the life experiences of the individual, of the ‘self’. If we are told that the underlying purpose of our lives is to ‘return to God’, then the mind can accept this in a superficial way, but the consciousness, the voice of the soul, requires a maturity of life experience in order to respond positively to this knowledge.
For it is one thing for the mind to accept: ‘yes my ultimate goal is to return to God’, but it is a completely different one to be moved by our inner soul state so that it becomes the driving force of our daily actions. And here we come face to face with the law of karma. If our daily actions are not aimed at fulfilling our higher purpose, then any consequent action will call forth the ‘corrective’ or balancing action of karma to guide us towards understanding and fulfilling that purpose. This is the driving force of karma – to fulfill the purpose intended for us by God. And it does this by bringing us face to face with the experiences of consequence and responsibility, and thus the maturity of insight, the maturity of self-awareness.
But of course, we are now confronted with another dilemma: why does this expression of Love, if it is perfect, appear to be judgemental and ‘reward’ good behaviour, and ‘punish’ bad behaviour? And how are we to understand how Love, how karma, interprets good and bad: what are the parameters so that we can avoid crossing the line from good into bad, and thereby avoid onerous difficulties and instead build positive ones?
This is where we now have to include not only the theoretical, but also the practical, in order to reach a more comprehensive understanding. We know that our reality is that we are born of this nature, and hence are subject to the laws of this nature, and thus caught within the wheel of opposites. We are constantly swayed between these two poles – life and death, good and evil, black and white, positive and negative – and therefore karma must also work within the laws of our natural being, and hence we experience it in terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. These are the only expressions within us that can be consciously understood – they are our ‘yardstick’, our barometer, our measuring tape.
Even so, we know that the love that we experience is but a shadow of the true Love of God. However, for us it is the first tentative step on the correct path towards fulfilling our true purpose, so when we immerse our actions in what we understand as love, we experience the consequences as supportive, nourishing, and harmonious. Actions that are contrary to this purpose; actions that are selfish, harmful, damaging etc, especially to others; actions that lack any element of love, will elicit a consequence upon ourselves equal to what we have given. What we sow, so shall we reap.
So why should we not just ‘love’, in order to experience only good karma and thereby nullify bad karma? Because the ‘lessons’ of karma, that is the law of consequence, includes the ‘freedom of choice’, and hence the lesson of responsibility. Karma does not force, manipulate or dominate, but places us before our own state of being, before the consequences of our good or bad actions, and at the same time, also confronts us with the circular movement, the pendulum that continues to swing between these two poles. Karma is not trying to teach us the necessity of forcing the pendulum to one extreme, in other words to stay on the side of goodness for instance, but that this pendulum must and will continue to swing. In our natural state, it cannot be held to one side, no matter how good a person we become. ‘There is none good, not one!’
So we need to understand the potential confusion that can arise here. On the one hand we see that karma ‘rewards’ our actions of love, thereby encouraging us to move in a certain ‘direction’, a direction that is more in harmony with fulfilling our true purpose, while on the other, we see that it is also teaching us the limitations of what we experience as love, and thereby opening our understanding to the possibility of a higher expression of Love. So we must come to see that the path towards ‘Love’, both requires us to love, but also to understand the limitations of the emotion we call love. If we are stranded on an island, we must use whatever driftwood we have at hand to build a raft to escape, but this driftwood will never become the ship that sails us to the safe harbour. The driftwood may keep us afloat, but it will always be at the mercy of the currents.
The actions of karma gradually bring us to the point of understanding our imperfection, our transience, our mortality; it is trying to bring us an awareness of the closed wheel in which we exist. Why? So that we begin to long to escape this limitation and seek for the perfect, for the absolute, for a union with God – so that we begin to long to fulfil our true purpose. Through the hammer blows of hard experience, karma is breaking open our hearts, and thus bringing us to realise that this wheel of good and bad is in essence, our prison, and efforts to try to stop it turning are futile. But in the freedom we have been given, we must respond to this longing and consciously choose such a path. We must not only use the drift wood, our natural love, to build us a raft to begin our journey, but we must make the conscious choice to escape our desert island.
Thus, we need to understand that we cannot escape karma, because of its nature, but we can begin to flow with it towards its ultimate goal. And herein lies the Mercy, the Love, that our fundamental ignorance has, for the most part, hidden from us. If we change our direction in life, if we consciously accept the higher spiritual goal to which we are called, and our daily actions become attuned to attaining this spiritual life, then karma does not go away, but rather becomes the Blessing, the Grace, the manifestation of Love within us, that then supports and guides us towards fulfilling this true, higher purpose. If our life is attuned to what God has intended, then karma no longer needs to correct or balance, but becomes the wave, the current that carries us towards the harbour of our destination.
The law of karma that we have generally come to see as that of blind justice, as the impartial, yet personal judge and executioner, we can now begin to see as to its true, inner purpose. Imagine if the human race were to be left alone, without its actions and behaviours subject to this ‘corrective’ action, to this balancing influence! Who would teach us the consequences of our choices in life, the consequences of good and bad actions? Could we rely on the insatiable desires of the ‘self’, the ignorance and delusion of the mind, or the speculative, stumbling actions that result therefrom, to steer our lives towards a higher purpose?
For the most part we are blindly stumbling over the consequences of our actions, stubbing our toes and grazing our shins, focused only on the pain this brings us, but never opening our eyes to see where we are actually heading. So while some of us laugh at the clumsy injuries of others, there are those who believe caution, which is seen as good, as the solution to avoiding future injury. Still others believe that if we take note of all of the rocks and pot holes on our road, if we study our past journey in detail, we can then traverse and navigate this highway without any future harm. And we argue amongst ourselves over what this road looks like, and which direction is the best one to follow with the least number of obstacles, and we make rules and laws to attempt to minimise our bumps and bruises.
All the while, karma is the unseen hand, the invisible guardian and carer, that guides us towards our ultimate destination. Sadly, like a child, we mostly fail to understand the true lessons karma is trying to teach us, and we ignore, resist, or show no interest in learning. But as our life experiences lift our souls towards a deeper maturity, as the eyes of the heart begin to open, we see for the first time the vista, the landscape in which we stand. And so, armed with this new knowledge, this insight into our own present state of being, we are able to determine which direction we need to go, what path we must begin to follow. Our true purpose shines like a beckoning new dawn upon the horizon of our longing. Thus karma is not just the benevolent teacher, but the Voice of Love, patiently guiding us towards insight and understanding.
So the workings of karma that we experience in their corrective, balancing effects, can take on a much deeper meaning for us, and we can stop trying to either avoid or control it, and begin to allow it to guide us towards that deeper understanding. Karma is not our enemy but our friend, and when we begin to understand those spiritual words that talk of treating your enemies as you would your friends, we also enter into a fundamental spiritual necessity that will bring us to a closer unity with what we seek – to not only understand, but to live in harmony with, and give expression to, the true purpose of our lives.